On one of my earliest trips to Chelsea — long before I started writing this blog — I accidentally stumbled upon Interart Gallery on Tenth Avenue between 23rd and 24th Streets. I really liked the artist who was opening that night. Since then I’ve had to walk past Interart a number of times and every time I’ve gazed wistfully through its closed door at what was showing. But somehow I just hadn’t gone by during an opening. That was until this Thursday, when I happened to find that the gallery was, in fact, having an opening; and, even more amazing, it was for Michael Cheval, the same painter I’d seen on my first visit.
Should I like Michael Cheval? Probably not. Do I like Michael Cheval? Hell yes I do. Michael is the painter I wish I was. No: Michael is twice the painter I wish I was. If I could be half of Michael Cheval, I’d take it home and tell everyone I won the gameshow. Is he really that good? No. He’s not. Technically he’s superb — technically he’s incredible, almost as good as Dali at his peak. He’s not quite as flawlessly smooth, not quite the total master of his media. But he’s better than almost everyone else who’s ever picked up a brush. Still, his paintings lack a certain something, the same way Dali’s do. They’re brilliant, they’re beautiful, they’re stunning — and they’re embalmed. Chilly. A little stiff. Not in terms of composition or rendering — oh no, those would be technical weaknesses, and this work has almost none of those. No — in terms of pure emotion. Van Gogh was sloppy, a mess, his canvases are little and crowded and sometimes even sort of muddy. But they radiate emotion, they’re practically vibrating with feeling. Everything that made Van Gogh who he was is encased in every single brushstroke of his paintings. Not so Dali and not so Cheval: Their brushstrokes have been drained of passion. Michael is an instrument of exquisite subtlety and grandeur, but he’s playing an elementary melody. He’s a Father Willis Organ playing Chopsticks.
I have no idea how to resolve this problem. It sometimes seems that the painters with the most rigorous technique are also the most emotionally distant. Look at Goya: It’s pretty clear that he wasn’t cut out to be a court painter. His portraits are pretty unpleasant. But when he got hold of a powerful idea, he painted the hell out of it. Van Gogh, too, got better the farther away from classical painting he moved. Now consider Lucian Freud. His paintings are devastatingly full of emotional power. But have you gotten up close to one? If you do, you’ll see he makes Derain look like Bouguereau.
Speaking of Bouguereau, I love his paintings to some degree; when I look at them, or Rossetti’s work, or Cot’s The Storm, I’m uplifted the way I might be from looking at a cathedral: I think it’s amazing that humans are capable of such feats, especially since most of the time they barely manage to be hairless monkeys. Every time I’m in Florida I make a pilgrimage to the Salvador Dali Museum to sit in front of some great paintings. But these paintings don’t reach down inside me and grab anything. They’re amazing, but, like cathedrals, they don’t move me.
And, ultimately, I want more out of art.
So I don’t know what to tell a painter like Michael Cheval. His paintings are beautiful and they’re clearly what he wants to paint but, in the end, I’m a sucker for liking them. They don’t tell me anything I don’t already know. I’d be thrilled to own one and if I were still in college I’d plaster my dorm room with his posters. Is it wrong of me to ask for more? To ask for more even while I love them?