By DONALD KUSPIT August, 2020
What’s a bat ray, a kind of fish, doing flying in the sky above a city in Trevor Guthrie’s Scena Nebbiosa, 2016—it belongs in the ocean--and what’s a bear doing sitting in a canoe on a river—rather than in the forest where it belongs—in Guthrie’s The Fairytale Years Later (Melancholia), 2017? What at first sweeping glance looks like a straightforward description of a familiar place suddenly becomes unfamiliar: the animals are out of place—absurdly out of place, suggesting that the scene is surreal, and the works surrealistic, neo-surrealistic, one might say, for they are not totally absurd, as the usual unintelligible surreal work is, but realistic. Indeed, every detail, from the animals to the scenic space is straightforwardly realistic, uncompromisingly matter-of-fact, the insertion of the animal—a sort of unexpected punctuation mark—in the scene making the pictures surrealistically disturbing.
I suggest that the insertion of the animal in the otherwise banally real scene serves the same purpose as the insertion of the horse in Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare, 1781: to perversely undermine the scene by suggesting it is a dream—a bad, anxiety fraught dream, as nightmares are. Substitute the monstrous crocodile confronting us—viciously snarling at us--in Guthrie’s The Guest Room VI, 2019 for Fuseli’s horse—they’re both in bed, suggesting the sexual import of both works, not to say the violence implicit in sex (a fusion of the sexual and aggressive instincts, according to Freud)—and you have a more relentlessly absurd surrealist work, indeed, a traumatic nightmare. That vicious crocodile is as out of place as the bat ray—a devil in angelic flight--and the bear—a land creature helplessly at sea--suggesting that Guthrie feels out of place, for they are all implicitly self symbols, more particularly, the bad, irrational, uncontrollably instinctive—animal-- part of the self, in contrast to the rational, everyday part, symbolized by the city and bedroom. Contained and social spaces, Guthrie is ill at ease in them, never comfortably at home anywhere, suggesting a certain anti-social penchant. Clearly somewhere along life’s way Guthrie has cracked up, as Crash II, 2017 implies, assuming, as I do, that all the works are implicitly autobiographical. Fraught with melancholy, Guthrie’s childhood was not a fairytale, as the parenthetical word in the title of that work tells us.
Everything is soiled with melancholy in Guthrie’s art, from Michelangelo’s Pieta (Cultural Jihad #3), 2015—what is more melancholy than a mourning mother holding the body of her dead son? (is Guthrie trying to tell us, with ingenious displacement, that his mother crucified him, or at least is responsible for his melancholy?)—to a glorious chandelier, an island of light in a sea of blackness. The telltale sign of this melancholy is the blackness of the charcoal with which all the works of made. Guthrie claims social significance for his work—they seem socially critical, as the work picturing New York skyscrapers labeled Federal Reserve, Bank of England, and ECB, suggests (he seems to be mocking capitalism)—but the buildings are composites of black and white. They are lit up on the inside, as though inhabited, but it is night, and they are uninhabited, empty shells signaling deluded grandeur. And deluded modernism, as their grid façade suggests, indicating that Guthrie is mocking it—mocking pure abstract art--and with that confirming that he is a New Old Master artist, as his acknowledgement of his debt to traditional art indicates.
I suggest that the contradictoriness of the black and white symbolizes emotional conflict. I suggest the social references in Guthrie’s art are disguised self-references, a point made subtly clear in Focus on the Family, 2018. The names, all ghostly white, of the institutions in the family float in front of a grand old fashioned fireplace, a façade behind which there is nothing, like the façade of the big bank skyscrapers, and a hollow shell like the interior of the skyscrapers, filled with ashes from which no phoenix of renewal will rise. Capitalism is a grand bankrupt illusion, and so is the family. Guthrie may use his art as a soapbox on which to preach to the socially unhappy critical few, but it is the disillusionment of his vision that speaks of his unhappiness with himself—and self-criticism.
“I am at a point in life where the nuanced grey tones of life’s mysteries are revealing themselves,” Trevor Guthrie writes.(1) Born in 1964, now 56, it makes emotional sense that life has become gray—neither black nor white, but a mixture of them, suggesting a certain ambivalence about life. “Gray is toneless and immobile,” Kandinsky wrote. “Gray is the disconsolate lack of motion. The deeper this gray becomes, the more the disconsolate element is emphasized, until it becomes suffocating.”(2) To be disconsolate is to be depressed, and to be depressed is to be peculiarly stagnant, and to make a depressingly gray art is to be cynically creative, creative without hope or faith in human beings, creating art that bespeaks disillusionment with human beings, a jaded criticism of human accomplishment, including artistic accomplishment, as Guthrie’s own peculiarly jaded works, their gray monotone levelling all meaning, making what they so realistically render peculiarly meaningless, sometimes to the point of absurdity. He is indeed an artist at sea in his own misery, as his cartoon portrait of himself suggests.
But his self-analysis—self-exploration--keeps him afloat. He has made the artistic best of his depression, cynicism one of its manifestations. As the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk writes, the cynic is a “borderline melancholic,” able to keep his “symptoms of depression under control and retain the ability to work”(3)—work through his depression by projecting them into his work, his art in the case of Guthrie. If, as the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson writes, every stage of life involves a choice between the syntonic and dystonic, and the choice in the seventh and next to last stage of life—Guthrie’s stage of life--is between generativity or syntonic creativity and stagnation or dystonic depression, then one might say that Guthrie has made the creative best of his depression to give us a cynically realistic art.
Cynicism involves realistic appraisal of the life world, finding it full of death, sometimes conspicuously present—self-evident in violence and hatred, as the burning of the American flag, pictured in one of his works, and the attack on the art business (on which he is dependent) implicit in a work picturing the crash of an airplane into the ocean. The airplane has a tail of smoke from a burning banner announcing “Art Basel Miami Beach.” Was his art exhibited at the famous marketing spectacle, or does the work convey his anger, rage, resentment at the fact that it was not? The point of the work, like all Guthrie’s work, is that death, in the form of depression—so-called living death—is always present, always real, as the cynic thinks. It is colorless and expressionless, like gray—shrouds everything in gray, fusing black and white to convey the meaninglessness of life. That point is made succinctly by Myself as a Specimen, 2009, Guthrie’s self-portrait as a gray skull, that is, as death, implicitly a black death, as the charcoal that is the material substance of the work suggests, and with that a bleak, inevitable, irreversible death, for its starkness precludes any hope for immortality, total disbelief in transcendence, even in fantasy: Guthrie’s works are starkly, relentlessly, emotionally realistic. We cannot imagine our own deaths, Freud wrote, but Guthrie’s self-portrait shows that death is always imagining us, confirming his cynicism about life. The work is a masterpiece, existentially and aesthetically. One wonders if Guthrie consoled himself by making it—finds in making art the consolation he seems unable to find in life. WM
(1)Trevor Guthrie, “Artist’s Statement,” Mortality: A Survey of Contemporary Death Art (Washington, D.C.: American University Museum, 2020; exhibition catalogue), 28
(2)Wassily Kandinsky, “On the Spiritual in Art,” Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, eds. Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994), 186
(3)Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 5
Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.view all articles from this author