What are we advertising here?
The painting is by Rene Santos. It's not for sale. Its presence signifies time passed and lost lives that are in danger of being overlooked, but shouldn't be in this or any other reconsideration of art in the 1980s.
That's a very 80s kind of impulse--the urge to salvage details that are invariably omitted from history. Details concerning so-called minor figures, everyday routines that are, it is said, of no consequence, although people cherish them nonetheless; the concrete yet fugitive details of time and space that shape art and life and, at the same time, contribute to their meaning and value.
Rene Santos, a Puerto Rico-born, New York-based artist and exuberant polymath who died of AIDS in 1996, left behind a small but formidable body of painting drawing and photography. In this canvas from 1980, he lovingly rendered a black-and-white film still from a Hollywood movie that only someone with Rene's highly evolved camp sensibility would have known, and then obscured part of that image in a blizzard of sorbet-colored encaustic brushwork.
This, too, is very 80s. Film stills acquired unprecedented prominence in art at the end of the 1970s when Rene and other artists turned to the cinematic fragment for its intensely ambiguous narrative charge. Also very 80s--very early 80s--was the deployment of different styles, each freighted by convention to convey fixed cultural meanings that become unfixed when coexisting in this way within a single work.
The curator Bill Olander--also a vital presence in art during the 1980s until his death from AIDS in 1989--was an enthusiastic early supporter of Rene's work, who noted Rene's refusal to stick to one medium or style (including, for that matter, the "style" of deploying multiple styles within individual works). He considered this approach to making art, which Rene described in terms of subjective "dispersal" or stylistic "promiscuity," as a form of "erasure"--a rejection, that is, of the conventional understanding of style as emblematic of the artist's autonomous, stable, "centered" sense of self. Bill argued that such erasure was not only not a sign of painting's bankruptcy but was its "liberation."
This was an important argument to make at a time when some critics were pronouncing painting dead while others were just as foolishly rhapsodizing over neo-expressionism as proof of painting's renewed vitality. Bill observed that with style "under erasure," viewers could be receptive to the experience of painting without becoming "captive to its mythology--which is to say, to its ideological baggage. Typical of the theoretically informed critical writing of the early 80s, which inspires such resentment among influential critics today, Bill's analysis was derived from his familiarity with the writings of the philosopher Jacques Derrida. As Rene's painting and Bill's response to it demonstrate, people took art rather seriously during the 1980s, which is not to say that they were all dour, left-wing killjoys or enemies of aesthetic pleasure. Far from it.
Bill's analysis of Rene's work appeared in a catalogue accompanying an exhibition, The Art of Memory, The Loss of History, which he organized for the New Museum of Contemporary Art in 1985. This beautiful exhibition attempted to bridge a gap between increasingly divergent attitudes towards art and subjectivity-one, more overtly political, the other more poetic; one, more social in its understanding of authorship, the other more individualistic.
In her artist's statement for the catalogue, Louise Lawler summed up one "period' position. "I feel that artists' work is part of a cumulative enterprise. It is 'made possible'--presented/acknowledged by the prevailing culture. It is both victim (product) and perpetrator (producer)." Rene's statement--entirely borrowed from Marcel Proust's monumental novel--appears to describe a more conservative position. Proust's protagonist, Marcel, recalls his grandmother's desire to decorate his bedroom with "photographs of ancient buildings, or of beautiful places." But she found the aesthetic value of such photographs compromised by their 'vulgarity and utility." Marcel then remembers her plan to minimize this "commercial banality" through an act of "subterfuge," in which she introduced "several 'thicknesses' of art." In essence, she turned away from photography to purchase engravings of paintings of such sights by renowned artists. By appropriating Proust's words to stand in for his own, Rene was likewise engaging in subterfuge and aesthetic thickening. Through this act of appropriation, he identified with Proust's traditional aesthetic values without, however, rejecting the social view of the creative act, which held sway, at least for a time, among some artists and critics during the 1980s.
Rene Santos: Man and Woman in Bed, 1980; oil paint and encaustic on canvas; 34 x 62"