Arts Magazine: Blue-Collar Gothic

From Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program

An exhibition by Minnesota artists focuses on relationships, Blue-Collar Gothic: New Works from the Edge by Shannon Morrissey and Jay Wittenberg

From heaven or hell, O Beauty, come you hence?
Out from your gaze, infernal, and divine,
Pour blended evil and beneficence,
And therefore men have likened you to wine.
Charles Baudelaire

Romanticism is an art of contradiction, of irony and of self as the laboratory of truth. The latest exhibition of the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP), "Blue-Collar Gothic," is Romantic, not just because its images all reflect the curious dichotomy that Baudelaire's poem illustrates-that beauty and love can be contradictory phenomena.

The thematic center of Shannon Morrissey and Jay Wittenberg's exhibition, and of all their artistic work, is relationships. Morrissey seems to focus on loss-that is, on that special type of aloneness that follows the end of a stressful and failed relationship, on self-empowerment and on healing. Wittenberg's approach to relationships is concerned with spiritual balance between male and female, but his work also evokes a sense of isolation and loss.

Both artists have a passion for automobiles and share a preference for the vintage "muscle cars" produced in the 1960s. Wittenberg paints his self-portrait in front of the long horizontal grill of his 1969 Dodge Charger. His style is reductive, with minimal color and an emphasis on drawing. Using expressionist gestures reminiscent of works in charcoal by Max Beckmann, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Wittenberg contrasts the mechanical precision of the automobile with the intensity of his own self-portrait.

Some of Morrissey's self-portraits blend auto parts with human-body parts. For example, in a multicolored woodcut titled Invasive she depicts herself nude with a crankshaft in her stomach; this device recalls Frida Kahlo's pictures that depict objects inside her subject's stomach or uterus. Morrissey's ironic placement of an engine part inside her body states emphatically that this is a postmodern work, that it is art about art. Though Morrissey's expressionist instincts are sincere, she is firmly rooted in the present intellectually. For her this image of "internal power" represents the energy to shape her own destiny, although it appears, at the same time, to be vulnerable and fragile.

An interest in ethnicity also is evident in each artist's work. By incorporating his Sicilian grandfather, Mr. Esperanza, in his paintings, Wittenberg acknowledges his Italian identity. Morrissey's Irish heritage explains her intense interest in Catholic images and rituals; she is ambivalent about the church but loves its rich treasure-house of symbols and its beauty. Her use of religious imagery reveals the extent to which Catholicism has influenced her life.

Wittenberg creates a tension in his work that is theatrical, that compels the viewer to question just what is going on with the artist's "cast of characters." Why, for instance, is Grandpa carrying that ancient pistol? And why are embraces and kisses somehow both sad and not sad at the same time? Wittenberg's figures have a distant, masklike quality; the viewer senses each image is a scene from a larger narrative and wonders what that drama is.

The answers to the questions Wittenberg's art-and, indeed, all art-raises can be found by examining the issue of purpose. We must approach all artistic work with the assumption that the artist made the object to look the way it does on purpose. In Morrissey and Wittenberg's expressionistic art, the harshness and distortions are full of purpose. Both these artists were in art school in the 1980s, when neo-expressionism was the dominant international style, and both were keenly interested in such representative artists as Francesco Clemente and Robert Longo. During that period younger artists were encouraged to investigate strategies for making art that previously had not been used, when minimalism and conceptualism dominated world art.

Morrissey and Wittenberg's art is rife with ironic contradictions. It seems simultaneously to be both too personal too impersonal. Morrissey's stunning woodcuts incorporate mechanical elements that contradict a traditional approach to the medium: she uses the prints as a means to an end instead of as an aesthetic end in themselves. She prints her woodcuts directly onto the canvas of her paintings, or constructions, or glues the prints onto the canvas to create collages. Because both these techniques run counter to traditional printmaking practices, they seem almost defiant. Wittenberg wants to create works that illuminate relationships, but his pictures, they seem almost defiant. Wittenberg wants to create works that illuminate relationships, but his pictures convey an alienation and despair that is at odds with his intent. He uses techniques and devices to evoke moods and feelings that are troubling and unsettling. For example, his pictures of his grandfather are disturbing not just because Grandpa has an old pistol but because he is a frightening person whom a child might be unable to forget.

Postmodernism presents artist with both new opportunities and new perils. Its aesthetic permissiveness simultaneously opens some doors while closing others. For young Romantic artists like Shannon Morrissey and Jay Wittenberg, the search for an artistic voice in this postmodern era is as critical as what is found. Morrissey's experimental art is more difficult, in formal terms, than Wittenberg's, which is more unsettling in its effects than its form. Morrissey jolts the viewer with excess-for example, by combining her Chevy Impala, a nude self-portrait and a dashboard plastic Jesus all in one piece-while Wittenberg favors a less-is-more approach to create a dreamlike mood.

Both artists live in East St. Paul near Lake Phalen, a community whose artistic isolation is reflected in their self-referential and, therefore, inherently Romantic art. Over and over again they make art about themselves; even their automobiles function as surrogate selves. This self-absorption, a hallmark of Romanticism, is also a legacy of 1980s art. Their Romantic tendencies are an unconventional counterpoint to Morrissey and Wittenberg's workaday jobs: both earn their living by roofing and hanging drywall. The title of their exhibition, "Blue-Collar Gothic," plays on the irony of this unlikely blend of Romanticism and prosaic reality.

Frank Gaard is an artist and writer living in Minneapolis.

This exhibition "Blue-Collar Gothic" is on view August 6 through September 26, 1993 in the Minnesota Gallery.

Citation: Frank Gaard, "An exhibition by Minnesota artists focuses on relationships, Blue-Collar Gothic: New Works from the Edge by Shannon Morrissey and Jay Wittenberg." Arts 16, no. 8 (August 1993): 6-7.