When critics, gallerists, curators or artists get their knickers in a knot over the need to promote traditional – generally figurative – art as an antidote to the rising tide of decadent, superficial, sensationalist hucksterism, they are relegating themselves to crackpot status. The issue isn't so much the viability of figurative work, as the mainstream art world easily embraces a handful of token figure painters like Elizabeth Peyton or John Curran every few years. Nor is it merely the fact that they are swimming against the tide of Modernism with its utopian sense of inevitability and its flagship aesthetic of reductive minimalism. What truly isolates them is the siege mentality with which they declare their dedication to representational craftsmanship, a passionate testifying that is out of place in the convivial social whirl of the art marketplace. Sixty-something New York based art critic Donald Kuspit, never a cheerleader for Postmodern avant-gardisms, forged what may be the masterpiece of contrary art appreciation with his 2004 book The End of Art. Beginning the notorious incident a couple of years ago where an installation by U.K. art star Damien Hirst – consisting of half-full coffee cups, beer bottles, ashtrays and assorted painting detritus – was thrown out by the gallery janitor, Kuspit embarks on a challenging and iconoclastic revision of the history of modern art. Taking full advantage of his twin doctorates in art history and philosophy (as well as his Freudian psychoanalytical training), Kuspit repaints Marcel Duchamp – widely considered the most influential artist of the 20th century and a central or seminal figure of Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Pop Art and Conceptualism – as a sexually retarded, nihilistic, hyperintellectual despoiler of art's potential to positively transform our relationship to the world. Abstract Expressionism and color-field-painting Grand Poo-Bah Barnett Newman is written off for his equal but opposite disengagement from the sensual world.

David Ligare, Still Life With Squash and Apples (2004)

Edouard Manet, Robert Rauschenberg, Allen Kaprow, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Jeff Koons, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, William Wegman, Mike Kelley, Tony Oursler, Paul McCarthy, Rirkrit Tiravanija – each is weighed and found to be wanting imagination, meaning, engagement with the Unconscious, and aesthetic value. What's left? A handful of artists including Lucien Freud, Odd Nerdrum, Eric Fischl and Ruth Weisberg, whom Kuspit collectively dubs “The New Old Masters” for their commitment to traditional craft and humanist content. The book stirred up considerable controversy and predictable cries of “reactionary” and “hater.” It's difficult to imagine a position more alienated from the mainstream canon of contemporary art theory. Kuspit can hardly be described as an art-world outsider, though. A contributing editor to Artforum and several other major art magazines, professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook, and the author of a score of books as well as the official Encyclopedia Britannica entry on art criticism, Kuspit is more of an insider than most Duchamp scholars will ever be. In Columbia University's National Arts Journalism Program's 2002 survey of visual-arts critics, he ranked as the 33rd most influential art theorist in all of history. Still, when the opportunity came for Kuspit to curate an exhibition demonstrating the kind of work he believes offers “the possibility of making a new aesthetic harmony out of the tragedy of life, without falsifying it,” that opportunity was nowhere in or around Manhattan, but in the unlikely community of Hermosa Beach in a clean, well-funded space called Gallery C. AN ART DECO MOVIE PALACE renovated into a 6,500-square-foot exhibition space by the chic German architecture firm Graft, Gallery C has been open for about a year and a half, hosting solid shows of SoCal art like “Drunken Masters” (James Hayward, Roger Herman, Peter Lodato and Hubert Schmalix) and “L.A. Woman” (Lisa Adams, Kim McCarty, Meg Cranston, Jill Giegerich). The brainchild of Jason Moskowitz and Michael Napoliello Jr., co-founders of PR company U.S. Marketing and Promotions, Gallery C is an impressive if somewhat arbitrary attempt to make Hermosa a satellite hot spot to L.A.'s thriving art scene. It's a sign of their success that they can attract a voice as prestigious as Kuspit's, but just as surely an indication of the peripheral status imposed on ideas that don't conform to consensus wisdom. It would appear to be Gallery C's mandate to show only contemporary California art that has determined the range of Kuspit's “California New Old Masters” (which opens Thursday night, January 27). Ruth Weisberg, early-'90s grassroots “figurative group” organizer and current USC fine-arts dean, is the only NOM mentioned in The End of Art who is included here. Which is not to say that the “CNOM” artists don't equal or surpass the examples cited in Kuspit's book. The late Jim Doolin's luminous landscapes – most memorable in their depiction of the L.A. freeway system, here is represented by a less typical but equally hypnotic desert scene – epitomize the marriage of meticulously rendered pictorialism and self-aware Postmodern anxiety that Kuspit seems to be championing. Scott Hess, Sandow Birk and Masami Teraoka have established idiosyncratic careers in the mainstream scene with their respective spins on various art-historical narrative traditions. Thirty-year-old Kenny Harris produces slightly-less-than-masterful but nevertheless lovely Diebenkornian interiors, while Mark Trujillo successfully updates the peculiar collective isolation of cinema-going captured in Edward Hopper's 1939 New York Movie. Some of the most effective paintings (NOMs don't make videos) are those verging on abstraction, like Roni Stretch's Shroud of Turin – effect minimalism or Chester Arnold's pointillist crowd scene Mass Appeal. All in all, “California New Old Masters” is a strong, though incomplete, cross section of contemporary figurative work in L.A. and environs. As such, it is virtually indistinguishable from similar shows regularly mounted by local curators such as Gordon Fuglie of Loyola Marymount's Laband Gallery, Art in America's Michael Duncan and galleries like Hunsaker-Schlesinger at Bergamot Station. And while it's advantageous to receive the imprimatur of a critic as influential and impassioned as Donald Kuspit, he quite frankly fails – both in his prose and his selection of illustrative artworks – at communicating exactly what the problem is and how some figurative works (but not others) are supposed to fix it. I don't get how Manet's paintings are bad because they somehow embody “indifference to the human spirit,” or how one can fail to take aesthetic pleasure in Duchamp's Large Glass or perceive the dreamlike archetypal depth charge of his Étants Donnés (or at least admit the possibility that others may have this experience), regardless of the artist's stated intentions. I don't see how CNOM Ron Pastucha's Lady Liberty Abducted by the Centaur Mobil, along with several other historical pastiches in the show, doesn't constitute the “heavy-handed” Postmodern “defamatory banalization of great traditional art” against which Kuspit rails. And I don't buy the underlying fear and divisiveness that energize his arguments. Kuspit's main idea seems to be that life sucks, and that by blurring the difference between life and art, Duchamp and his progeny made art suck too. I won't argue that existence isn't suffering, but it has been my impression from my own study of art history, my experience as an artist (I myself am a Master of the Fine Arts) and my contact with other artists that the blurring of life and art has allowed artists to bring the transformative power of creative consciousness to bear on the mundane world, and make it so it doesn't suck so bad. This holds true even if you're working with Renaissance perspective, rabbit-skin glue and mythopoeic allegories. It's just the critics who don't seem to get it. CALIFORNIA NEW OLD MASTERS | Galley C, 1225 Hermosa Ave., Hermosa Beach | Through March 26

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