§1 There are only a few times in life when an artist and a critic can share any genuine rapport for a number of reasons. These range from the demands of professionalism, to disciplinary expectations, to everyday notions about what passes for the correct tone in regard to public forms of address. This lack of intimacy in art criticism is something that Susan Sontag, Lucy Lippard and Mira Shor lamented for decades, but today, it is perhaps worse, not only because artists are pushed harder to produce more but also because critics are asked to write less, and often, this leads to writing less of anything of real quality. Thus, the kind of critical reception that used to surround big shows and even bigger artistic risks has long waned in favor of small talk about art.
§2 This is mirrored in the idea of art criticism becoming a kind of cultural chit-chat, or what Heidegger would have called 'idle chatter', about the status of art practice.1 Even the word 'practice' in this context hints at the idea that no proposition is final, definitive or ever really resolved. This is, of course, not just to say that we live in the pluralist era, and that this epoch is circumscribed by a cultural logic that stands in direct opposition to the age of manifesto's and grand standing declaratives. Afterall, everyone already knows the posture of reservation and recalcitrant conclusions is the ethos of our times. I only bother to mention it here because the dialectic tension between committed criticism and the enduring commitment to making art that still carries the 'practice' of painting forward might actually be complimented by a more comprehensive approach to the analysis of the art object. Furthermore, an age such as ours may profit a great deal by engaging with a type of criticism that is more personal than it is polemic, propositional or simply pedestrian. With these thoughts in mind I will attempt to undertake a dedicated reading of Rachel Bess's work that isn't absent the personal dimension if for no other reason than her paintings are more than deserving of significant attention in both the realm of critical reception and culturally 'relevant' art production.
§3 But, how can we navigate this kind of impasse between artist and critic in the process of reception, commentary and critique without falling into a defacto position of sentimentality, engaging with the rhetoric of feeling, or merely creating another descriptive catalog of impressions about the work? A starting point might be to broaden the scope of reflection from the personal, to the interpersonal, to thinking about the culture at large, and finally, even to the scope of general human experience in considering the types of meaning production that surround an art object. This fourfold approach to the scale of art criticism is necessary in some sense, because just like life, having an art practice also entails enduring a few dramatic shifts that tend to happen not just to every artist as their career develops, but also to every person as their life unfolds. In life, these points of radical intimacy revolve around birth, the irruption of a mid-life crisis and the cessation of life in what is arguably the penultimate moment of existence, i.e., our very last waking breadth. Thinking in these broader terms of universal human experience is often what escaped the proposed solution of creating a more emotive, affective and impassioned criticism in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, and yet, this type of reading of Bess's work might prove to be more rewarding to both the work and the general public than say, any other 'critical' approach.
§4 So, let us begin with that which is most universal to human experience and work our way down to the specifics about the artworld and the work itself, starting with the passage of birth, mid-life crisis or re-birth, and the idea of death as a kind of passing 'birth' into the great beyond. Here we have the three moments of corporeal metamorphosis, or the three great transformations that leave lasting effects on the human condition the world over and which have left an indelible mark on art production in the last few centuries too. But let us speak here first about life, leaving art to the side for a moment. We can say these are the three great (re)births in personal perception because, in having shared a room where a new person is born into the world, one is present for the full drama of existence compressed into the duration of a single day, or sometimes, a surprising longer or a dramatically shorter period of time. But in either case, during the months that follow, when two individuals are transformed from being a couple into that unique tri-part configuration known as mother, father and child, there is a natural period of re-evaluating the direction that one's life has taken so far. This is most commonly followed by embracing the new roles that accompany being a parent and the responsibilities of sheparding a new life into the world with security, love, attention and promise. And something about this passage touches the very deepest part of each of us in a way that is irreducible to words. But whatever this something is, it emerges out of the profound knowledge of a new person having passed into existence who simply wasn't there before, and this first passage into the world marks an undeniable moment of true intimacy which is not simply a material occurrence, but a matter of spiritual consequence, creation and even creativity, however one wants to interpret those words.
§5 This is also true for anyone who has had the chance to be present for the passing of another person, which engenders the same depth of feeling, only these feelings happen to be at the other end of the spectrum of emotional experience. In other words, death opens up a space of reflection and far reaching introspection about where life can lead, and what each of us wants to do with the time we have left. Death is, for lack of a better word, a kind of punctuation that presents us with a direct confrontation, not just with our own mortality, but also with a certain existential listlessness that can compound into a full blown crisis of mourning, loss, and a period of personal wandering if one is taken off guard by the sudden passing of a loved one, or the weight of unspoken words, unresolved issues and a lack of positive closure.
§6 And yet, if we feel that death was the culmination of a life well lived, then it can also be a celebration of gratitude and grace. And this too, is a beautiful thing to come face to face with because it redeems the loss of a life lived less ordinary by leaving those behind with an added touch of inspiration, genuine solace and the notion of existence as a kind of sacred sacrament between the body, the spirit and the cosmos. But the important point to make here is that much like birth, we find ourselves fully present at the time of someone's passing, and the intimacy of such an experience calls us to inhabit our bodies as a loved one leaves theirs behind. In that crossing, this world touches something of the next too, even if only as exhalation, exaltation and release. Of course, it is worth noting that great art has something of this quality about it as well because we can stand absolutely breathless and still before images both beautiful and sublime, transfixed with a stunned sense of awe that is something like the experience of a little death.
§7 By contrast, the mid-life crisis represent the crossroads between these two types of encounters, where one is more or less stuck at an impasse of sorts, having gotten over the point of 'growing up' without having yet crossed into being 'over the hill'. In other words, the mid-life crisis that happens to so many of us is really about the difference between who we are, and who we really want to be. Another way of saying the same thing is that any mid-life crisis is constituted by a substantial gap between these two conceptions of our self image. In other words, the middle passage of existence is undoubtedly a crisis of individuation, of becoming who one feels they truly are, and of finding our authentic voice in the world. The comparison with artistic development here is obvious, and doesn't need much in the way of elucidation. The journey of any artist is often a quest that must first 'birth' a unique technical vocabulary, and then a strong personal voice, and finally, the consummation of the two as the labor of creating an opus that might have a life in this world beyond the death of the artist, which is often the secret goal that every artist aims for.
§8 But if one dives deep enough into the trials that accompany these kinds of passages in life, one finds that there is a hint of what we feel is our true character as a kind of inexplicable knowledge of the self before this life, or even of the feeling that we were born to be ourselves through what the ancients called askesis, or the development of techniques for creating a self.2 Of course, cultures long past also realized that the royal road to self-realization takes more than a twist or two following the idea of a plan for life, a plan we know not what, or even where the sense of it came from, but a plan which feels like a 'calling' nonetheless. And yes, art is a calling too.
§9 But, if one doesn't like this Platonic version of the human journey portrayed as the process of remembering who we truly are by test, trial and transcendence, then we're just as apt to say that the mid-life crisis is the crossing of the idea of death with the figure of our birth. This is because the feeling of the first half of life having passed us by without so much as noticing that the organism has its years of growth, which are quickly superseded by a prolonged period of degeneration, decay, and dissemblance, is itself, a fact of life that provides us with an unexpected shock that awakens us toward our highest potentials and the hope that 'peak experiences' in this life are not so much a thing of the past, but that they may have changed their coloring. Once again, it is the late works of Rubens, Goya and so many other artists that remind us that old age has no purchase on achievement in the visual arts but that it can bring with it a ripening and depth of insight that a younger version of ourselves could never have truly understood.
§10 And yet, it is for this reason that in making the middle passage of life many of us are beset by the feeling that we are perhaps not yet completely ourselves, because we notice how we are also not the attending presuppositions that were laid on us by culture, sex, gender, our parents and whatever other 'normative' structures that being born in this time and place required for us to become successful citizens out in the world. The passage beyond these expectations rehearses the death yet to come, which is itself, a kind of release from the commitments associated with all the values attributed to earthy life. Whether one calls the mid-life crisis a period of re-evaluation, the trans-valuation of values, or an extended period of self-realization, one thing is for sure, and this is that it has its parallels in the drive toward developing a career and a growing vision in the arts, which are two ideas that are not always easy to bring together in today's marketplace.
§11 And this is because, in so many ways, the mid-life crisis is a kind of suture between birth and death which ventures to touch on an extra-worldly conception of the self, especially if we take the word self to match the Jungian definition of the union of youthful egoic consciousness with the elderly dissolution into non-egoic transcendence; or of the collective impulse to fit in with society's social mores and the drama of the individual who couldn't care less; or the objective unfolding of life processes as participation in the land of super-ego injunctions and the subjective understanding that the id or the unconscious will constantly work against the over-arching superstructures of society until the true self, or a kind of higher perception emerges vis-a-via a synthesis between the psychological drives and the possibility of creating an integrated personality. Or, at least, this is the picture painted by the intersection of Freudian and Jungian psychology as a process of overcoming the neurotic impulses that prevent integrated individuation, a balancing of the drives or what Jung in particular called the transcendent function.3 And for anyone who thinks these same phases don't have a corollary in the life of artistic production, it is safe to say that most biographies on just about any artist would attest that this is very much the case, and that the sublimation of life to creative impulses is the centerpiece to understanding what it means to live a life in the arts.
§12 As such, there is a connection between the three most intimate passages of life and the three impasses of artistic production, and one should be absolutely honest in saying that all three of these moments are no easy trial for anyone. They are the heritage of our common humanity in each and every age. They are what touches us in common conversation, what separates youth from old age, and what makes the distinctive crisis of being middle aged into a psychological space that is best summed up as being between two worlds of the self, the first of which is represented by a little s, and the second with capital S.4 Artistic production is not just a quest to create a masterpiece, it is a journey to create an artistic Self, i.e., it is an act of Self creation. Jung characterized these demands of the psyche as being involved in the alchemy of joining the unconscious and the conscious mind in order to find the undiscovered Self that lies just beneath the surface of persona.5 For Jung, the transcendent figure that speaks to each of us in our dreams, that hints at what we can be through archetypal figures, symbolism and the art of the ages, can erupt with such a sudden violence that it even takes the person who is caught up in a moment of inner transformation wholly off guard, not unlike sudden developments and new departures in an artist's body of work
PART ONE: The Three Impasses of Life and the Three Impasses of Artistic Production.
§14 Thus, the three moments of intimacy mentioned above, which are moments that are as much a part of the life of our species as the metamorphosis of so many other members of the animal kingdom, represents the last vestiges of speaking about the universality of experience that accompanies the passage to adulthood, old age and everything in-between. And, without a doubt, these transitions are mirrored in artistic production in any number of ways. The most obvious being that these same three crisis take three different forms in art production, and they create three different types of relations to writing art criticism for public consumption.
§15 The first of these crisis points is when an artist has just come out of graduate school and lands their first big show. There is an intimacy with the art critic at that particular moment that is very close to that of birth inasmuch as the artist may have labored a decade or two just to become an 'emerging artist'. At this point, it is up to the critic to introduce their work to the artworld, much like a good host at a party, or even an attentive midwife during labor pains. Afterall, laying a big criticism on an individual at this point is like yelling at a baby for not being well potty trained. In other words, it's fairly absurd, unhealthy and generally without any merit whatsoever.
§16 Luckily, every person who knows what goes into graduate shows also knows that they are a messy affair, and that these exhibitions usually have to be cleaned up a bit first before being handed over to the general public for their viewing pleasure. In this process the umbilical cord cut has to be cut from the well meaning advice of the graduate faculty; the artist statement which is like a first cry into the world on behalf of the work always needs a little additional attention and extra focus; and learning to simply 'be an artist' without institutional support is a bit like learning how to take one's first steps all over again. Artists manage to get going with a good grant proposal or a residency appointment, fall down a few times by being denied admission to a juried event or group show, and yet, if they persevere long enough they will eventually develop a thick skin and the moxy to ride out the ups and downs of being an artist for the long haul.
§17 All of this is necessary for a new period of incubation and gestation to occur, one which is about building autonomy and vision within the confines of one's own art practice, or really, one's less than desirable first studio on the other side of the gentrification tracks. The first time an artist moves from learning to walk to firmly standing on their own ground is associated with developing a new body of work after graduate school. It is a new vista of sorts, or a new plateau depending on how things go, that is produced in the absence of all the other institutional inter-locators.
§18 And, this too, is a moment of beauty and something not to be missed, because few artists ever get this far, or manage to sustain the next fifty or sixty years of production for that matter. Of course, I'm not going to bother to mention that an artist like Bess took these steps on her own after earning her undergraduate degree and that she never bothered to look back. Sure, her feet wobbled at moments like every other artist, but the gravity of the situation was something Bess quickly overcame, as is attested to by her long years of dedication to a vision that is uniquely her own.
§19 That being said, up until the point of standing one's ground and occupying a little territory in the fine art world, the birthing process of a fine art career is largely a family affair, whether or not it happens as a graduate student or an undergrad. First, there is the relationship between the artist and a period of early schooling. This is followed by the constant back and forth that occurs between the artist and advisors at varied institutions of higher education, be they intensive residencies, studio visits, etc. Finally, this is superseded by an even more intense dialog between the artist and the greater community of their contemporaries, the public and even the reactions to the work that are levied on them by critics. As such, the work of being a good critic at the birth of a 'new born' artist is really to fulfill the function of serving as a family friend, hoping above all else to encourage the best in work as well as hoping for a lifetime of healthy production, new projects and growing complexity that they get the joy of viewing and commenting on as much as anyone else.
§20 But for all this natural optimism, there have still been numerous stillborn careers, the kind of which became commonplace in the late 90s and early 2000s as highly recruited figures at graduate programs were deemed the next generation of 'art stars' only to fall dramatically short of expectation. Without naming names, many of these artists were already 'invested' in, in what can only be called a wholly speculative manner, and many more carried an institutional cache way beyond what their works were actually delivering in the marketplace. Few would admit at the time that this was largely a reflection and justification for the rising cost of graduate school, but in most cases, it was indeed just that. In such uncomfortable situations, a critic may have to deliver an unfortunate prognosis to some of the parent institutions in the art world from time to time because they may not be the first ones to notice deep developmental deficiencies due to certain biases, fraternal leanings and even internal politics. This happens in much the same way that a parent is apt to overlook a noticeable discrepancy in the learning curve of their own child, which often persists until it simply becomes impossible not to notice that something is amiss.
§21 And yet, in order to stymie the collective cognitive dissonance that surrounds such careers, critics have had to deliver up bad news about this or that 'breakthrough art star' because there are no other professionals to make a proper diagnosis of what really isn't working about the work. Luckily, most of the press about over-hyped shows beyond the recent phenomenon of things like 'zombie formalism', the money being concentrated around over-inflated auction house prices and blue-chip careers of declining relevance has long since outpaced the fascination with youthful art stars since 2008. Bess was blessed in a way to have missed all of this cosmopolitan nonsense by being here in the desert, and was probably better off for it because she has all of the accoutrements of an art star now, having earned her place amongst the best of the best in her field the hard way, which is to say, by labor, consistency and incremental growth.
§22 This is of course, one of the real benefits of living a stones throw away from the influence of the art market, its seismic shifts and hyperbolic cycles of radical over-inflation and periodic bottoming out. Such trends never really have a palpable influence beyond the boarder of cosmopolitan centers. And this is perhaps most easily evidenced in those artists like Bess whose work exists in the hinterlands of the mainstream artworld, but could easily sit center stage because it carries an air of genuine investiture that no one doubts. Even Bess's Youtube demonstration video's are a kind of revealing look at her process that have a matter of fact honesty about them which is meant to encourage the local community of representational painters with regard to understanding the value of technique and dedicated craftsmanship. But this look behind the scenes is a guarded secret in major metropolitan areas because it is part of the mystique of the work and the image of the artist as a figure set apart from society. And this dialectic of availability and exclusivity is one of the major tensions between big city congress and smaller art communities like ours here in Phoenix, where Bess's work has achieved a sense of balance by going between both registers.
PART TWO: Making Art Between Provincial Urbanism and Cosmopolitan Competition.
§24 And so, it goes without saying that the forked intersection that is indicative of the mid-life/mid-career crisis is the personal passage of development that holds the most relevance for the discussion underway here. It is the moment of having attained a series of mid-career accomplishments that erase any doubt about having acquired those public markers of praise and acknowledgment that bring with them a sense of well earned respect. And, having made this first crossing successfully, one can be left wondering, what's next for both the work and the artist? What remains in the way of achievement beyond what most artists settle for, which is often a process of continued variation in related themes and minor innovations in technique that are absent the exponential jumps in growth that gave the work its unique impact to begin with. So from this point of view, what mountain is left to be climbed, or what new territory is left to be discovered for a painter of both measured recognition and precipitous talent?
§25 While few critics would dare to say it in a populace review for appearing out of step with the times, the greater possibilities of expression in any figurative oeuvre include the emergence of a grand manner, the production of a total work of art, and the reduction of technique to a kind of indication or fluid execution that never feels absent of the proper amount of finish. In other words, as the artist moves toward a greater economy of means, which can tackle the widest number of themes, the best art critics will register it as a period of genuine maturation where any other sense of 'development' would merely be regressive. This is because this singular goal was no more absent for Rubens than Richter, nor more missing from Ingres than Delaunay, and no more overlooked by Bouguereau than Van Gogh. It is, for lack of a better word, the very height of accomplishment for a representational painter, recognized the world over as the quality of mastery in working method as opposed to the praise of technical reproduction. And, when this goal is abandoned in favor of adopting a house style, as so many figurative artists are apt to do today, it is also the beginning of the end of public interest in the work, however unrecognized this fact may be by auction houses and Artforum.
§26 However hard it is to admit, having an economy of means by way of grand themes is still the pinnacle for today’s figurative artists, or what painters still call 'artists' artists', like Jerome Witkin, Scott Hess and Jose Lopez Garcia. And so, in this situation, it is the job of the critic to be absolutely honest about where the work stands in the greater history of art and the contemporary art scene as a regional, national and global system of 'valuation'. This is due to the fact that the artist may have attained all the awards and accomplishments that can be garnered in their local scene, or has received a fair degree of national attention and even international recognition. And, while I'm not saying that Bess has accomplished the last of these, she has swept past the first of these markers with ease and grace, and she is verging on the second of these passages in recognition --- those of mid-career accomplishments --- where the last markers of wider recognition await her as a final goal. She is, afterall, still a young artist even for a mid-career artist, and as such, a crisis of individuation or 'voice' may set in at this point in her career regardless of external factors like a degree of success in the marketplace, institutional awards and the admiration of her fellow artists.
§27 Much like any person in a mid-life crisis, the artist themselves may be wondering about having gotten all they set out to achieve earlier in their life, and what moving forward even means at this point in their career. Or worse yet, they may be wondering if they missed their opportunity to be somewhere else, to achieve more, to be challenged to find their voice in the social compression of a cosmopolitan pressure cooker. A most noteworthy example in this regard is the Los Angeles figurative painter Aaron Smith, who became celebrated for his realist work and subtle narrative devices as an emerging artist, but who quite suddenly at mid-career, ditched his reserved pallet for lush fauvist colors and started painting chromatically opulent portraits of historical figures who hold a special place in his heart. Against enormous odds, not to mention the near total abandonment of the collector based than had valorized his early work, Smith opted out of producing mysterious narratives as well as the naturalist chiaroscuro his technique had traded on up until that point, ultimately making a big 'turn' away from traditional realism into a more expansive and expressionistic mode of figuration.
§28 In this sense, his most recent shows were the declaration of a whole new project, one which emerged to the near exclusion of more than a decade of working in another style, and with a completely different set of conceptual concerns as well. Smith even went so far as to remove all of the old work from his own website, making himself into something of an 'emerging' artist once again in the mind of the public, who may or may not be aware of this previous period of his artistic development. Of course, I am not saying that we are looking at a turn-about like this in the work of Bess, but rather, a much more enigmatic crossing of sorts, a deepening of certain concerns, and the thematization of the mid-life transformation that accompanies having an artistic career, and perhaps even reflects the personal life of the artist herself in one way or another.
§29 But before moving deeper into explaining such claims, there is one more crisis in an artistic career to consider, because it ultimately conditions the nature of the mid-life crisis in the arts, and that is thinking about the retrospective reviews that will inevitably come down the line one day. By comparison with the criticisms that are offered early on in an artist's career these kinds of assessments are intimate for a different reason altogether, which is that the critic is writing not just about someone's work, but about someone's entire life, and this isn't anything to be taken lightly. Here, the job of the critic consists more or less of three distinct operations: contextualization, commentary, and providing an adequate summary of achievements, departures, and maybe a few missteps along the way.
§30 The aim of any decent art critic in this last situation is that of being a good caretaker and not necessarily an undertaker. In other words, the critic is not supposed to doll up an artist's corpus to make it look like a living thing again, or bury it under a mountain of fresh criticisms, but to judge the creative life of the artist in all of its varied activity with an even hand. Less any critic miss the value or the efforts of having labored for an entire lifetime, usually against incredible odds, is well, disingenuous to say the least. And to not give a lifetime of work due consideration, as many shoot from the hip critics are apt to do, is to miss the real work of writing about art, which is a kind of personal responsibility not just to the life of the artist, but to the greater community of artists influenced by their work, and to the enterprise of art making in general.
§31 Afterall, the work has a life of its own, and it is not unlike a child in that it has to be attended to not just for the first eighteen years of life, but for the whole working life of the artist. And in a way, however much one adores their children, and may view the figure of the artist as being a bit self involved at times, anyone who lives their life around artists really knows they are constantly brought back to the problems of the work in much the same way that a parent is involved in the life of a child... in other words, they are concerned about the work always. And any misplaced criticism thereof is really evidence of someone who has missed the nature of the commitments an artist has to keep in order to ensure that the work is always moving forward as well as getting exhibited.
§32 And to be entirely fair, this provokes a perpetual crisis of sorts, one which is only interrupted by moments of rare intensity, waves of doubt, moments of defeat, and days of perfect triumph that make it all worth it. These are the valences of real intimacy in art production, drawn between art and word, artist and critic, object and interpretation, in the dance of reception that happens between the birth, life and the death of what we often call, with too much levity, a career in the arts. That said, this little running commentary on the personal and proximal relations in art practice isn't without its purpose in relation to the work of Bess. It's just the entre into the greater work of criticism from the most obvious point of view possible, which is that Bess is not an emerging artist and she's also not encroaching on her first retrospective at a major museum. She is a mid-career artist and her works carries with it the attending needs that accompany every mid-life reassessment.
§33 And that is a point and a period of honest regard between the time of life and the time of production in art, which few but the closest friends would feel free to comment on. This is because so much has been given, and still, there remains so much more time in the working life of the artist, that the give and take between artist and critic at such a crossing can only be spoken of as so many terms of endearment if there is to be any opening for the reader, the possibility of a genuine dialog, and/or the context of authentic reproach, which is to say, the possibility of engaging in a type of criticism that borders on being a personal letter, a passed note, or the kind of talk that happens at the end of a quiet evening among friends.
§34 And, that is very much what is being attempted here, in digital print, for the benefit of the greater discourse around figurative art and its continued relevance in the Valley. So, what is said here must be taken as a kind of public eavesdropping about so many insider concerns, friendly jests and frank statements about art and life. As such, it is meant to elicit a kind of pleasure in the overheard quality that can happen in the most gossipy of exchanges but which gives something of the real character of the situation, be it critical, clinical or simply curt. In other words, it is meant to have something of the feeling of an exchange of opinions and determinations about the work that may at times, involve a knowing nod and wink between the lines in trying to speak about the place of Bess's most recent show within the strictures of the greater world of fine art.
PART THREE: Figuring the Place of Rachel Bess Beyond the Southwest.
§36 And yet, even with this long list of accomplishments Bess has recently gone through a period of great change and personal upheaval, which is part of the larger human drama we are all a part of. Of course, Bess has spoken about these life changes publically, so I'm not speaking out of turn here. But the real reason I bring it up is that it informs the reception of her new work at Lisa Sette whether or not one wants to think about the imagery Bess has cultivated over the course of this most recent period of artistic production as an allegory for her own life experiences, or simply as tales that tell us something about the trials we all face in thinking about love and loss, connectedness and separation, sharing and withdraw.
§37 In other words, her self titled show is one of the few times that the convergence of life and art share the greatest measure of intimacy, and it is with this in mind, that encountering the works of Bess requires both a fair degree of sensitivity, a sharp eye and even a requisite bit of background information about the trajectory of her interests thus far. This is because, at this point in her career, she has cultivated a rather refined sensibility and a series of thematic commitments that might be lost on the everyday art patron who simply loves her work for its sheer virtuosity. But it is here, as much as any other point of comparison really, that we can use the issue of technique to start to think about the place Bess occupies in a much larger discourse amongst her contemporaries, both close and far, living and dead. Or, we can start by taking a look at the use of those allegoric figures that occupy not only her compositions, but also, the compositions of other artists engaged with similar themes.
§38 Bess's work, which is permeated by ideas from religion to the occult, from history to personal narrative, and from mythology to contemporary life, occupies a space in the discourse of figurative art that sits between two very problematic places. The first is that the kind of aesthetic choices that Bess makes are often ignored by critical art magazines but picked up on by more alternative forms of art press because of how her work consists of a rich and rewarding rendering technique. One can say, with a great deal of assurance, that Bess's painting practice is embraced by everyday people who happen to appreciate a degree of craft in execution, just as it is adored by 'Goth' and 'Emo' kids who like its dark and moody undertones.
§39 This kind of fanfare stands in sharp contrast to the fact that her paintings are enjoyed by other figurative painters for continuing a certain tradition in art that is often at odds with today's most noteworthy tastemakers and gatekeepers. That is to say, her works are given a great deal of praise by those who can distinguish her art practice from the endeavors of your run of the mill illustration or commercial artist, which, while they may prove to be very proficient technically, may still lack any greater voice or vision in the development of themes, their engagement with art history and the dialogues that surround contemporary figurative painting. In other words, Bess's work sits at the nexus not only of a different world of taste and desire, but her paintings hold a magnetic interest for certain sub-culture currents in both the larger space of art production and a dedicated class of educated connoisseurs and figurative painters in fine art world too, which is no small accomplishment.
§40 Even with this being the case, where exactly does Bess's work fit in the contemporary discourse of fine art if we are to be exacting about taking the measure of her accomplishments thus far. If we were to place Bess's aesthetic commitments at this moment, than we could say with confidence that her aesthetic choices sit somewhere between a New York painter like Steve Assael and a West Coast counterpart like Sean Cheetham. The first is known for his interest in a darker pallet, 'dom' and 'sub' subject matter, and for cultivating a contemporary take on picturing modern people as figures of so many sublimated desires. And even for being about raw intimacy, forbidden pleasures and feral attractions there is always a sense that the figures in Assael's works are twice removed from the world that he inhabits. This is the case not only because of how his compositions create a certain distance between the artist and his chosen subjects, but also because of an inner distance between the subjects depicted and their obvious lack of conformity with societal norms. Whether this shows itself in offset glances, forced compositional devices or a general feeling of psychological discord, it is hard not to miss the feeling that Assael's oeuvre is not one that celebrates the fusion of inner and outer worlds, or even psychological wholeness for that matter. His are figures of isolation, self-immolation and even intimidation who offer the viewer a challenge rather than an invitation to look.
§41 Moving from Assael's place of prominence as a New York wunderkind to Cheetham's blossoming career in California entails a decided shift away from subway kids and the kink scene to counter-culture identities and the tattooed crowd. Engaging in a kind of proto-futuristic romanticism, Cheetham's misfit figures eschew a feeling of personal isolation and are absent any sense of direction. As such, it is easy to say that the real intimacy of Cheetham's work relies on depicting the melancholia of a lost generation by focusing on people who are displaced from the American dream of upward mobility. One might even go so far as to liken his compositional scenarios to scenes from any Zack Braff film which leaves us thinking that Cheetham's entire body of work is the portrait not just of a single sitter, but of a disenfranchised socio-economic class that inhabits a precarious world of disillusionment, dis-identification, and inward turning machinations that we are never really privy too. In other words, Cheetham's figures are allowed to hide their inner motivations as much as Assael's subjects stand exposed before us. So what then is it that defines Bess's work in relation to these contemporary painters on opposite coasts and where is Bess's place amongst her international competition in the realm of representation painting?
PART FOUR: Rachel Bess Re-accessed.
§43 But even with this being the case, no one need pull any punches when talking about Bess's work or create a sense of false modesty around the issues of time, technique or even the privileges of regionalism. And yes, there are privileges that go with being outliers rather than insiders, and vice versa, if we are being entirely honest. Rather, what we should say, is that in light of wanting the best amongst us in the Southwest to achieve the most they can in this particular town, as well as having the chance to raise the profile of their career beyond the Phoenix area, is that if Bess is after the mantel of awards and accolades Assael has accrued, she is, from this point forward, going to need to keep an eye on artists working out of town in order to asses the competition for the diversity of their interests, how they are building a catalog of work and how they move between formal and conceptual commitments in different bodies of work. Undoubtedly, Assael is one such figure that Bess certainly needs to keep to an eye on, and a close eye at that.
§44 Cheetham too, fits this category. But, in contrast to Assael, Cheetham lives in the world of the figures one finds in his paintings, and this rare connection with the subjects he paints is not only there way that is undeniable, but it is a rare accomplishment in a metropolitan area. When one compares his work to say, a more academic painter like Jeremy Lipking or a nostalgic kitsch artist like Steve Houston, one finds that Cheetham knows more about the soul of his subjects than those who use paint as a purely descriptive medium for projected fantasies or the cultivation of affect and atmospheric edges for their own sake. For Cheetham, his subjects are more than just models. They are friends and lovers, teachers and students, fellow travelers on the journey of life, and by in large, they are from the same social click.
§45 As such, Cheetham's figures aren't excuses to paint but paintings that are an excurses into the psychic space of Cheetham's own world. This is something he shares with Bess, the big difference being that Cheetham wants a kind of fidelity to what he paints that is closer to realism and Bess leans toward the allegorical impulse or even a properly magical sense of realism. Yet, what they share in common is that their respective life-worlds are on display too. Of course, I am not saying that Assael hasn't painted a few former students, friends and colleagues, or that he doesn't work in an allegorical mode from time to time. And, I'm not saying that Cheetham hasn't painted a few models simply because they made for compelling sitters or that there are no allegorical components to his work either. What I am saying is that Cheetham is painting people who come from a similar place in life, a place that is very much his home and not just his subject matter. So, this begs the question, is Cheetham anywhere near the status of where Assael is at this juncture in his career?
§46 The obvious answer is no, he is much closer to where Bess is at, and thus, it's a much fairer comparison to mention Cheetham and Bess in the same breadth. That said, is Cheetham's paint handling, the scale of his works, and the diversity of his interests well in front or behind that of Bess then? Well, on the first of these accounts, and probably the second too, one could say yes, Cheetham is a bit more sophisticated technically and compositionally. Cheetham paints light airy hair where Bess gets a little clumpy, and the scale and size of his 'easel paintings' is far greater in range than Bess's more reduced 'studies'. Cheetham also has a greater sense for capturing exquisite detail in the halftones and a qualitatively better handle on picturing minor inflections in color, saturation and gradation. But on this last matter, the matter of thematic complexity, of inner continuity and of having a strong voice, not only as a figurative painter but as a conceptual thinker, Bess arguably pulls out in front of both Assael and Cheetham, who are probably her two closest contenders working in the same general mood, style, and genre of figuration. But why is this, or how can such a claim be qualified?
§47 First, when one walks in the door of Lisa Sette, a glancing look at the work gives you its themes as an air in the room. Here I don't just mean the overarching presence of her mostly forward facing figures, or how the look of her characters places them slightly adjacent to our contemporary sense of time and place. And I don't just mean the psychological presence of her sitters and subjects, or the orchestration of how the works are laid out and what they add up to as an 'atmosphere'. And I don't mean the effect of the fastidious care that Bess gives to each and every piece, even though this too, creates an inner life to the work in a way that allows it to breath in the space of the gallery, ultimately allowing Bess's very best pieces to feel alive from within. I would argue, that all of this, which is garnered by any patron as the free gift of admission is not really what is most stunning about Bess's works. To be clear, these are admittedly the qualities that impress themselves upon the viewer first, and everyone who visits the show at Lisa Sette knows that just goes without saying.
§48 By contrast, I would defend the thesis that what makes Bess's work the jewel of the Valley is your second and third turn around the room, and maybe even your fourth or fifth stroll by these works about greater and lesser lessons of love. Of course, anyone making an afternoon visit to the show wants to be drawn in by the minutiae in Bess's best pictures, where the subtle sensualism of her craft caresses your sensibilities while the arcane allusions in her work are sure to pique your interests. And, on this account, and much more, they deliver in spades. Pleasure, presentation and presentment are the most welcoming elements of Bess's pictorial vocabulary. But the question remains, just what is it that these pictures are purported to be delivering to the viewer?
PART FIVE: Regression, Progression and Concessions in Interpreting the Most Sacred of Themes.
§51 This quick assessment gives us an idea of where Bess's works fit not just within the discourse of her contemporaries here in the states, but where her paintings are in dialog with images and ideas from art history, the history of technique and even different pictorial temperaments. And yet, for all of this, such an evaluation still says little about this particular exhibition or the place of her work in global dialogues about art. But, in order to achieve this last sense of measure, which will really take up the remainder of this review, I have to make a very particular case about the work of Rachel Bess, and it is the following: while I could make a series of what would otherwise be considered to be strained comparisons with those figurative artists who are trafficking the greatest amount of attention in the fine art world today, namely, the Jenny Seville’s, John Currin's, Lisa Yuskavage's, Luc Tuyman's and Glen Brown's of the world, this would be the wrong genre of painters with which to make a case about Bess's art practice. Seville is known for her feminist positions, Currin for his critique of proto-bourgeoisie nihilism, Yuskavage for her engagement with porn and cartoon-like anthropomorphic distortions, Tuymans for his embrace of the 'everyday' and Brown for his re-appropriation of art historical motifs and subjects from any age, but with a twist of postmodern hyper-self-reflexivity.
§52 And yet, anyone who is familiar with the return of figuration in contemporary art practice also knows that this isn't the same kind of working program that Bess courts, but that doesn't mean she isn't a highly conceptual painter, only that her work issues from a different set of commitments, and dare I say, sentiments. What differentiates her art practice from those painters listed above is that they play with appearances and Bess is interested in how appearances can reveal deep inner conflicts. Unfortunately, the greatest painter working today who uses figures as allegories for the expression of inner states is probably Odd Nerdrum, and Nerdrum has gone onto promote his own series of art world polemics in the valorization of kitsch through the production and distribution of so many manifestos and scattered writings. Furthermore, Nerdrum has been sucked into defending his production against what is valorized month in and month out on the cover of Artforum, and perhaps this has really been a waste of time for the Norwegian painter whose career doesn't seem to have profited from such diatribes, however artfully they are constructed.6
§53 And so, to really get a sense of Bess's work one must take another route in thinking about her imagery altogether. The all too obvious choice here is to make arguments on behalf of a heavy sense of pathos, a brooding cast of characters, a mythic set of allusions or any other number of quick reads of the work. But without jumping into that rather relaxed mode of reception, I'd ask the viewers of Bess's most recent show to take a deeper look into the work because it seems to function quite well as a twenty-first century allegory about love and alchemy, or perhaps, the alchemical effects of love on the human condition.
§54 It is simply too nonchalant of an attitude to stroll through the space of the gallery and not take notice of the types of figures Bess is in dialogue with as well as the themes that serve as the cornerstone upon which everything else is built in her show. But, with our modern celebration of the cult of the self, of genius and of the ironic approach many figurative painters take to the human condition, it is easy to miss how alchemy has been a theme of art practice since almost time immemorial, and that it is nearly lost on the fine art world today as a topic of any purchase except in more spiritually oriented circles. This fact aside, the alchemical process has gone under many different names, such as the elixir of life, the sacred marriage, the holy grail, the fountain of youth, the turning of water into wine, the middle path, etc., etc. And a reader unfamiliar with these traditions will quickly note that the terms listed above seem like opposing notions or material things from contradictory systems of belief, when in fact, their esoteric meaning is very much the same, or at least, it is intimately related across traditions if one is thinking about what these terms are meant to signify.
§55 This is because they are all allegories about the union of two different types of love, the union of the male and female principles in oneself, the union of bodies, the union of desires, the union of spiritual aspirations, etc., which is necessary for any truly un-alienated relationship to grow between persons, lovers, and even the relation of the self with the Self. Through the fusion of the inner principalities of the psyche, which are often called the soul and the outer guards of the persona, a dynamic alchemical process with another partner or adept becomes possible, but only if they have achieved a similar degree of inner union, or what the ancients referred to as a degree of initiation into the mysteries of life, love and the universe as a process of progress in the journey from lesser to greater modes of Self understanding, i.e., a pilgrimage of conscious evolution. Another way of saying the same thing is that alchemy is the magical trait that exists between those person's who are equally yoked, who have garnered the same amount of life experiences and who have worked not just to progress through life but also to process its hidden meanings as well.
§56 These mysteries, but most especially that of love, and of the kind of enduring love that is first complete in oneself, but which finds a means to rise higher still in the presence of another with similar aspirations is not something that garners much attention in our current culture of tabloids, social media, and sensationalism, and perhaps least of all, in the fine art world. True love doesn't trend in the news unless it has already been transmuted into being a disastrous affair. In other words, of the classical phases of alchemy as a psychological process, it is only the 'separation' or the 'alchemical divorce' that gets a bump in ratings in a materialist culture. The other significant phases, such as (1) the identification of the self as the primary substance of transformation, i.e., the discovery of the prima material, (2) the identification of the bad habits that remain hidden from oneself by the darker aspects of one's own psyche or the shadow self, (3) the union of opposites known as the conscious and the unconscious mind, (4) the mystical participation with both sides of the self as the sacred marriage of the male and female aspects that were originally hidden by cultural bias, or which are simply posited as a principle of duality and division in the universe, (5) the solution of their coming together in a harmony against the division of consciousness and the possibility for achieving peace in one's inner self or soul, (6) the congealing of those initiates who have overcome the prejudices of the world to make a new kind of humanity possible in themselves and their immediate community, (7) the mastery of sublimation which makes attainment into a constant state of transcendence and abiding presence, and (8), the further solidification, or solificatio, which represents the transformation of the prima materia into the ultima materia, or the completion of individuation and rebirth, are not very popular topics in a consumerist culture hooked on romantic comedies and the gross reduction of love to desire.7 And yet, these are exactly the themes we see around us in the room in Bess's works, even if they are presented in a rather cryptic language that has to be deciphered one piece at a time.
§57 Of course, we can understand the distance of the contemporary fine art world from these themes in much the same way the world of psychology distanced itself from the works of Jung. Jung too, took up the themes of alchemy, individuation and the transmutation of soul into higher substances through love, and he was almost single handedly responsible for re-introducing these notions into the western world after they fell into disrepute in the modern era. Like Bess, Jung did not think that the alchemical corpus referred to transforming base materials into gold, but rather, that they described an inner process of transformation that lead to the completion of the soul through the integration of our shadow self, or the more hidden side of our psyche, with the face we present to the outer world. And for Jung, this confrontation was not only wanting in modern culture but was absolutely necessary for civilization to survive.8 This is because Jung thought that the chaos of the unsublimated self, and the instinctual drives behind it, are the powers that are regularly conscripted for war by governments, that they are unremittingly connected to violence in the streets, and that they even have a direct baring on every kind of acting-out that is expressed across the surface of the planet.
§60 But what does this jewel, which plays such a prominent role in many of the pictures in this exhibition, have to do with the history of love as an alchemical process? A great number ancient cultures believed in an inner diamond of sorts, often called an inner daemon that constituted the unbreakable part of oneself. The soul was even given representation as a jewel of sorts, or as a crystal, that stood in for the work of subjectivation, or the process of distillation, condensation and the fermentation of one's true Self. Bess has given this kind of alchemical symbolism a unique twist by picking a form that is closer to new age rose quartz, and deep cut of it in particular, which is our period's equivalent to the symbolism of cultures long past.
PART SIX: The Catalyst of Alchemy as Nothing Other than the Time(s) of Life.
§62 Afterall, time is also a motif that is implicated in the "Burden of Never Forgetting", where a figure holds flowers and jewels over her heart as a kind of talisman of protection against the persistence of remembrance. In fact, the more one really looks at these paintings one finds that time is everywhere on display in this new body of works, and not just in the timeless darkness that Bess's figures sink into, and not just in the decaying forms that appear in "Spoils", and in "Prone and Supine version of Rotting Apple", but that the idea of time shows itself most decidedly in those images that are about the inner subjective feeling of duration that spreads out before us in the face of loss, the death of the false self, the dying away of past relationships, and the symbolic import of facing our own finitude as a necessary passage in psychological transformation and maturation. As such, many if not all of the pictures in her most recent show are about a type of time that cannot be pictured because all of the paintings listed above point to the subjective idea of time, whose depths reach further than infinity but also remain close to our breast whenever we have the feeling of carrying a heavy-heart. In other words, they show how time weighs on us, and often, how time is best represented by so many macabre figures, not to mention the more obvious allusions in Bess's work to death.
§64 But of course, if all of these pictures hint at an impossible relation between time and loss, or even losing time, than a painting like "Gem Smugglers on the Run" points to stealing time because in many ways, time is money. But this stealing away into the night, of grabbing treasures for oneself while being on the lamb is also accompanied by the fear of getting caught 'red-handed', this hidden idea and perhaps the hidden gems that sit inside the baskets of fruit, tie this painting to all the other images in the show by way of a rather suggestive narrative. Being the only painting of two figures in the entire exhibition, it functions like something of an axis upon which the rest of the images turn because the idea of time reclaimed even at cost or as a crime is the over-arching theme of the other half of the paintings in the show. In pictures like "Spring Conquers the Ice King", which is an obvious allusion to the thawing of repressed emotions, the central figure is complimented by a background composed of newly drawn designs which are symbolic representations that stand-in for a renewed interest in playing a new hand of cards in life... which is yet, another kind of risky game. Following along the same lines, "Seeding the Treasure of Fantasy", or the image called "Antidote", both point to the idea of re-animating the vital life force in each of us through an elixir of sorts, a love potion, or the promise of the fountain of youth inasmuch as love always makes us feel young and desired again. Emotional connection is always the "Antidote" to feeling invigorated and renewed, just as magical potions often stand in for the return to full health and the joy of living out our fantasies, least we find ourselves swindled by false hopes and false promises. Regardless, every "Antidote" is first and foremost the promise of more time, and that is what ties alchemy to the idea of temporality throughout the ages.
CONCLUSION: Art as an Alchemical Element in Facing the Dark Night of the Desert Soul.
§68 But all of the above aside, what I like the most about Bess's most recent show is that, in a way, it talks more to your inner daemon than your outer 'character'. In fact, I don't think Bess is even really a figurative painter in the traditional sense of the term. Her paintings reveal a person that is part mystic, part Goth queen, who happens to paint her inner psychological realities in a way that draws on different insights from the surrealists to the magical realists and beyond. Furthermore, Bess's paintings put a contemporary twist on allegory and symbolism, not to mention having a depth of character that is rare in figurative painting, and not just in this age, but in any historical period.
§69 That is why when Bess writes that the show is about "the notion of a bestowal of secret information, passed down through unknowing generations" it is not to compare her work to the ideas of alchemy held by the ancients, but that this knowledge changes itself with every new generation, and that is why it remains an esoteric secret handed from adept to adept in a manner not unlike how the secret knowledge of painting is passed from one master craftsperson to another. Bess's own contribution to this line is the mark of her contemporaniety, and her right to the spoils of such claims are hers alone, earned both by personal conquest and committed contest with all the other currents that are vying for attention in figurative painting today.
§70 Afterall, you won't find these qualities very often in the work of her contemporaries and that is why I don't have to comment on that last image of the "Oracle" in the show. This women with the knowing look, presenting a death's head from the southwest adorned with one small diamond card and a second jewel where the third eye of insight would sit on the forehead, already holds a secret all her own, and that secret is that it is the only figure that isn't Bess in disguise. Rather, it's the projection of the critic as a fortune-teller, who in this case, doesn't have to be an oracle to be able to tell you that Rachel Bess is not just going to do well wherever her work goes, and that her work is one of the gems that will endure in any collection. This has already been, in a sense, foretold by the labors of the artist herself, the evidence of which is on display in every work at Lisa Sette. Few would doubt the claim that the strength of Bess's images already have the power to overcome death inasmuch as they will be cherished beyond the life of the artist by whomever is in their charge.
§71 And yet, the question of course, that every artist asks themselves having climbed to the pinnacle of achievements in a town that isn't exactly the center of the fine art world, is whether or not it is in the cards that their work will gain a wider audience without having to make one's presence felt in a more cosmopolitan art center, and the seasons of life lived therein. This of course, is where the review began, and quite fittingly, it is where it will end, because one is not talking just about the work, or career choices or even a single show of work, but about what it means to have lived a life in the arts.
§72 All we can say for sure is that Arizona is lucky for Bess having walked the road less traveled, and for making our city a richer destination for art travelers by giving them a picture of the transcendent function of figuration in a milieu that is often less than receptive to the hard won insights that come from painting eternal archetypes. But, for my vote, I hope that the transcendent function of Bess's work translates into transcending her regional fame because it offers a much needed counterbalance to the discourse engendered by figurative painters who cash in on creating images absent any inner life. For we all owe Bess the honor of being acknowledged not just for being a superb alchemist in paint, but also as an allegorist of the soul, and especially, the soul of the life of art here in the desert.
1 Heidegger not only consider idle talk to be a kind of ungrounded and indifferent form of intelligibility, but that this type of congress threatened the western mind more that any other explicit social problem. For Heidegger, idle talk separated us from genuine understanding, from experiencing the plenitude of Being, and it represented an impasse in progress to the degree that idle chatter was indicative of a kind of aimless that beset both industrial and technological life in equal measure. Looking back on Heidegger's prognosis of the west, and the rise of the society of spectacle, his observations are perhaps even more prophetic than Heidegger could have ever imagined. We are entering the period of the six great extinction on the planet and we are more distracted and entertained than every before. But Heidegger too, saw this effecting art production at an ontological level, as part of what he called the ontic and ontological divide, or the difference between a plain fact of existence and the meaningful structure of how we talk about existence. A great deal of the observations undertaken in this essay are an attempt to bridge the ontic-ontological divide by talking about the meaningful structure of everydayness in which the artwork is situated and what it says about being, being-here, and the concept of time in alchemical change. See, Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (New York: State University of New York Press, 1996), 156-159, as well as Martin Heidegger, "Description of the Situation: Fundamental Attunement" in The Heidegger Reader, ed. Gunter Figal (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2007) 79-103.
2 Askesis is a word that loosely translates as methods for becoming who one is or the work of self-formation. Even more so however, it is an ability to problematize one's self, one's existence and one's relationship to self-development. I use the term here in the sense that the whole of this essay is dedicated to a description of artistic askesis, and the work of the self in becoming oneself, which is perhaps, the greater act that sustain an artistic career in the long run.
3 One cannot really write enough about what the transcendent function means in Jung's oeuvre. It is the union of inner archetypes with the outer world; it is a special function of being able to follow figures into the dream world or the practice of active imagination; it is the alchemical process of escaping transference and counter-transference in order to become psychological wed to both oneself and another; it is the recognition of certain synchronicities in life as a kind of fate and predestination of character types; and it is, above all else, a process of withdraw and self-constitution followed by "achieving a new unity (via the transcendent function), (where) the individuator returns to the collective (society) and adds to it." Of course, here we also find a fair description of the process of becoming an artist in short, which is perhaps why Jung still has a great appeal to artists and creative spiritual seekers the world over. Gary Lachman, Jung the Mystic: The Esoteric Dimensions of Carl Jung's Life and Teachings (New York: Penguin press, 2013) 134.
4 Jung has perhaps the best way of characterizing this conflict in the following manner: "The nearer we approach the middle of life, and the better we have succeeded in entrenching ourselves in our personal standpoints and social positions, the more it appears as if we had discovered the right course and the right ideals and principles of behavior. For this reason we suppose them to be eternally valid, and make a virtue of unchangeably clinging to them. We wholly overlook the essential fact that the achievements which society rewards are won at the cost of a diminution of personality. Many - far to many - aspects of life which should also have been experienced lie in the lumber-room amongst dusty memories... We see that in this phase of life - between thirty-five and forty - a significant change in the human psyche is in preparation." This is what I mean here when I say the difference between the self with a little s and a big S. C.G. Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul (New York: A Harvest Book, 1993) 104.
5 It is worth noting, that in Jung's shortest and most polemic text against collectivism, and probably what is considered to be his best diagnosis of the modern age, that Jung opens the last chapter of The Undiscovered Self with this thought: "What our age thinks of as the 'shadow' and inferior part of the psyche contains more than something merely negative. The very fact that through self-knowledge, that is, by exploring our own souls, we come upon the instincts and their world of imagery should throw some light on the powers slumbering in the psyche, of which we are seldom aware so long as all goes well." Of course, Bess's work can be seen not just as a foray into various dimensions of the shadow self, but even as being the kind of curative solution that Jung saw to the problem of modern art, which he characterizes at the conclusion of the same book as having fallen off into the "dark chaos of subjectivisms" and as a period that has "not yet discovered in this darkness what it is that could hold all men together and give expression to their psychic wholeness." It is exactly this question that I am addressing in Bess's work, and of her efforts to give a degree of pictorial measure to the Jungian picture of the work psychological (re)integration. C.G. Jung, The Undiscovered Self, from the Collected works of C.G. Jung volume 10, Bollington series XX, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990) 58, 59.
6 Of course, this has an added twist of drama to it inasmuch as Nerdrum was recently sentenced to serve one year in prison for tax fraud where he will not be allowed to paint because it is considered to be engaging in commercial activities. More to the point, the wear and tear on the artist and his need to become a polemicist as well as a painter ultimately resulted in being too busy to attend to the tax code, and, in one of the weirdest turns in the history of contemporary figurative painting we now hear news about a seventy year old Nerdrum being in court rather than Art News.
7 Not only are they not popular topics in consumer culture, the alchemical phases of psychological development presented in what is arguably Jung's most misunderstood work, The Psychology of Transference, are also not popular references in psychology today. This is because the elimination of transference between individuals, and particularly those in love, is, from a Jungian perspective, the most fundamental prerequisite for sharing a healthy and even transcendent union. As Jung puts it "The transference phenomenon is without a doubt one of the most important syndromes in the process of individuation: its wealth of meanings goes far beyond mere personal likes and dislikes. By virtue of its collective contents and symbols it transcends the individual personality and extends into the social sphere, reminding us of those higher human relationships which are so painfully absent in our present social order, or disorder." In light of such remarks, which are as prescient today as when they were first written, we find that the images in Bess's work point to the transcendent function of the psyche as means of negotiating with the deeper currents of transference in all of its varied manifestations. C.G. Jung. The Psychology of Transference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954) 161.
8 It is worth noting that Jung saw not only the growth of pathologies, but also the birth of psychoanalysis and expressionism as a 'subjective turn' that represented the inner conflicts of modern man. In many ways, this radical subjectivism has not, subsided from the art of the pluralist era, but there are examples like Bess that are swimming in this ethos of subjectivism without being swallowed into the undertow. This is the reason for my early distinction of Bess's work from those other prominent painters mentioned in §51, who, for lack of a better word, are still fascinated "by the almost pathological manifestations of the unconscious mind." Of course, this still remains a rather controversial claim unless we look at the more objective theories of art presented by Ken Wilber, Hans George Gadamer, Jurgen Habermas and even G.I. Gurjieff. For a further reading of Jung's view of modern civilization and expressionist art see C.G. Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul (New York: A Harvest Book, 1993) 206.