Friday, 12 March 2010

JOHN CUNEO: AIMING FOR AN INVISIBLE TARGET

Compare Saul Steinberg's observation on the obstacles to creation...



...with John Cuneo's treatment of the same theme:



Cuneo's hapless artist suffers from very different constraints. You'll rarely find a theme-- or a line-- in Cuneo's offbeat world as straight as Steinberg's leash.

Cuneo's artist is bedeviled by his diminutive artistic size, by the huge, languid planet of muliebrity between him and his art, by that rump distracting him from his artistic mission, by that wobbly little easel perched on top of his subject... here is a valiant artist clearly outmatched by his subject matter, whose vast limbs drape beyond his field of vision. Like much of Cuneo's work, this picture is laced with subtle visual touches; without the impassive face on the woman, this picture wouldn't be nearly as smart. The woman is utterly indifferent to the artist's presence, both artistically and amatorily.

I find Cuneo to be one of the most psychologically insightful illustrators working today, and his observations about the artistic process and about life in general make me laugh out loud. Check out Cuneo's drawing for the Society of Illustrators:



I've never seen a more hilarious or pointed rendition of what artists secretly hope to achieve by their work, contrasted with the actual response of their audience.

Ever since the days of Robert Blechman, it is not uncommon for illustrators to draw with stray, wispy lines, blobby colors and lopsided, distorted figures. On this blog, I have criticized artists who try to mimic children's drawings in superficial ways, or who are willfully sloppy but fail to achieve the raw, disturbing potential of that kind of art. I find that sometimes artists who adopt a childlike approach are merely milking the contradiction between a naive drawing style and a mature subject matter.

But Cuneo's pictures use this approach to achieve piercing, authentic results. For me, they are achingly genuine and psychologically astute, not to mention rich and funny and weird. But that leaves the question, if Cuneo is able to hit the target better than most of his peers, exactly what target is he hitting? This week I would like to explore what makes such drawing successful (or not).

Picasso put it arrogantly (of course), but accurately:
In the old days, pictures went forward toward completion by stages.... A picture used to be the sum of additions. In my case, a picture is the sum of destructions.
When art was subject to the formal rules of a powerful Academy, artists used agreed-upon techniques to progress toward agreed-upon goals. Viewers were able to ask, "Is that hand drawn correctly? Is that flower accurate? Does the artist know how to mix color? Does that pose seem stiff and awkward?" Later, when Picasso and his successors obliterated such standards, abstraction and conceptual art operated under their own criteria for success.

Today the criteria for a successful picture seem pretty clear at either extreme on the spectrum, but artists working in Cuneo's genre seem to occupy a kind of purgatory in between. Their work is representational, but deliberately "off" or "wrong." If an artist aspires to ungainly and awkward pictures, how do you distinguish between "good" awkward and "bad" awkward? What makes this type of distortion effective in some cases and ineffective in others? In other words, what the hell is the target?

Look at Cuneo's choices in the following drawing. You can tell from his treatment of the man's hands or the swivel of his hips that Cuneo knows how to draw in the traditional sense. Yet, look at the weird way he distorts the girl's arms and legs, or how her head is too small for her own body, let alone in comparison to the man's oversized cranium.



When you know how to draw, you have to unlearn what you know to draw this way. You have to conquer muscle memory and uproot hardened patterns of perception. When you start making wrong lines, your muscles rebel. Alarms in the synapses between your hand and eye start to shriek: "Stop! Too far! Out of proportion! Go back!"



The artist has to resist the urge, described by Picasso, to complete the picture by going back and fixing the apparent flaws. The eye and the hand battle with the brain for control, and it is a contest that must be fought inch by inch.

Despite the deliberate crudeness of Cuneo's lines, they come together for some highly sophisticated results. The expressions on the people in many of Cuneo's pictures-- wan, jaded, dissolute, indulgent-- aren't the basic expressions you'd typically learn in art school.


Note the glee of the drunk urinating on a street person.


More subtle touches-- the surgeon who throws his hands in the air like a magician proud of his newest miracle. This hilarious picture, which seems to be drawn so casually, was the product of intense labor.

Here is a detail from Cuneo's treatment of Adam and Eve. I find this picture of Eve quite beautiful and erotic.


If you want to see the full drawing you'll have to hunt it down in Cuneo's book, nEuROTIC. If I posted the full version here, some reader would turn me in to the blogger police.

Cuneo's drawings are tiny-- never more than a few inches tall.


I love the way Cuneo uses just a few gentle skritches around the perimeter of a circle to suggest this face



Once we've jettisoned the relatively objective criteria that accompanied representational art, it's difficult to articulate a coherent standard for when "awkward" and "wrong" will turn out to be "honest" and "beautiful." How much distortion is enough? With each picture Cuneo has to decide where to pitch his tent on the road between all and nothing at all. The quality of his pictures are proof that the target, even if invisible, is not an illusion.