New York

James Juszczyk

Rosa Esman Gallery

I know an ex-art critic who’s now an artist. As a writer, he used to wail and thrash at artists’ pompous rhetoric—especially when they wrote or spoke of their “concerns.” I think that was the worst: artists explaining their “intentions” is the slipperiest of commodities. Perhaps trafficking in it should be restricted to professionals. (Art critics do, of course, a good under-the-counter trade in intentions. When purposes become dogma rather than immanent argument, critics also read like pompous, ridiculous . . . artists.) My ex-critic, as an artist, is now obliged to write of his intentions. And his “concerns.” He now realizes how difficult it is not to sound prescriptive, authoritarian, mystifyingly self-important. Of course, he realizes that this is a problem. While most artists do not.

Irrelevant you say? After all, shouldn’t I be writing about the art itself? I will get to James Juszczyk’s painting in a while. I bring up “concerns” first because the first thing I encountered at his show was not painting but a sort of manifesto—a short, unsigned one. The lists on the handout are brief enough for me to quote whole. One vertical list opposes another on the page—as if in battle. The lefthand set is what one assumes are the key words of Juszczyk’s “esthetic,” the other list those which he would (apparently) not wish to have mentioned in the same breath with his paintings. The “positive” terms: “subtle, refinement, sensual, visual, presence, individual, mystery, sensibility, demonstration, inward”; the “negative” terms: “minimal, novelty, conceptual, formal, object, political, entertainment, factuality, explanation, outward.” Read properly, “subtle” opposes “minimal,” etc., down the lists, in a one-to-one correspondence.

This bit of self-promotion seems to say little more than “These are my terms and they will be used to discuss my paintings.” Am I obliged to use “subtlety” and “presence” in regard to the paintings? Shall I write of their demonstration of a visual presence of subtle refinement; how they exhibit an inward, mysteriously individual sensibility? I haven’t described how they look yet, but you can consult the reproduction close by. Has my description in the “proper” terms said anything at all about the paintings? I think not. Juszczyk’s words are rhetorical, protective, vaguely neurotic in the fear that the right things might not be said.

What’s wrong? Simply that the two lists of words are not exclusive of one another. Things can be sensual and conceptual. Hasn’t Juszczyk heard the commonplace that the personal is political and the political personal? What he must mean is that the paintings could be always mistaken for “minimal” instead of “refined.” Would he have to insist on this subtle difference if the possibility of using the wrong words was not already present in his paintings? I could have discussed the painting completely in terms of the second “negative” list without much trouble.

Because the paintings look like this: canvases divided into regular grids filled with “mysterious,” that is to say, arbitrary, sets of color; sometimes the grid is defined by color boundary alone, sometimes by an accent of colored pencil line. That’s it. Now everyone has seen a lot of paintings like this. All the more reason for Juszczyk to insist on their “correctly” particular qualities. And if he hadn’t written anything there would be very little for me to write about, right? I certainly don’t find this repetitious, ubiquitous taste for colored grids very inward or individual, and it has never been very entertaining, although maybe it was once “political.” Why would Juszczyk think it is? The mystery to me is reductive abstraction’s overwhelming lure for artists after all this time.

Jeff Perone