Prismatic Luminescence

Herb Caen, whose column in the SF Chronicle made him “Mr. San Francisco” for decades, liked to poke fun at what he called the “prismatic luminescence” school of wine writing. There not being a whole lot one can say about wine, writers who are being paid (and paid by the word) have to come up with incredibly far-fetched ways of saying the same four or five things over and over. Metaphors are stretched until they twang.

I recalled Caen’s handy term this morning while dipping into a piece in today’s Chronicle (on their website, actually) about some artworks from the 1950s. Here’s writer Kenneth Baker’s provocative style at its most florid: “Michael Goldberg’s small, power-packed “The Last Apartment” (1959), Emilio Vedova’s “Del Nostro Tempo” (1950) and Ernest Briggs’ untitled canvas from 1952 all suggest ambitions to leave an imprint through the artist’s own unconscious volitions, in which viewers may feel themselves mirrored.”

My first response to “ambitions to leave an imprint through the artist’s own unconscious volitions” was, “Whaaat?????” After pondering it for a while, I think maybe I get it. What Baker is saying, when we liposuction out the pomposity, seems to be, “These artists are just throwing paint on the canvas without trying to consciously control what the result looks like, and you’re supposed to be impressed by their madcap antics as you reflect that that’s how you’re living your life too.”

Baker explains the focus of the show he’s reviewing this way: “One idea finds form in a certain visual porosity, calligraphic in certain works, that sucks the imagination in. The other, in an edge-to-edge plenitude that attempts to turn confrontation into contemplation.” I think this means, “Some of the works have areas where not much is going on; others are crowded from edge to edge. Some of the crowded ones make me nervous.”

He goes on: “As an example of the former, consider Richard Diebenkorn’s untitled 1954 ink drawing: abstract to all appearances, yet strongly suggestive of a hidden code or a private system of notation. Somehow it lures the eye into an unriddling process that eventually leads to inspecting every inch of the page.” I think this means, “I didn’t understand it, but I spent a long time looking at it.”

I’m not sure what this means: “A handsome recent painting by Sean Scully, “Barcelona Black Bar, 4.07″ (2007), embodies the sense of an artwork achieving meaning by presenting viewers with the right sort of resistance.” My best guess would be, “Scully doesn’t seem to care whether you like his painting, and that’s what I like about it.”

Kenneth, baby — I hope they’re paying you well. Sweating over this prose as I’m sure you did, you deserve every penny.

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