Without a tradition, the contemporary artist is bound to succumb to the pressures of economics and accept the necessity of choosing between the corporation and the academy. No matter which camp you ask, the rationale is the same: “The revolution was a lie”—as the hit song says. Neither option is a gamble because the outcome never varies: careerism seeps in, and the art rots. Yet some artists refuse to make that choice in the first place. When a person declines to go along with the herd for long enough, what started out as an attitude turns into a stance that others can find hard to excuse.
Working to conserve an artistic tradition may not ameliorate the misery of existence, but the effort itself shows that there is a continuity of human beings, an unbroken curve that reaches across spatiotemporal boundaries, by—and here’s the difference—affirming that we attract and repel each other through different means than the daily ones with which we are all just trying to get by (i.e., trying to fuck and kill each other).
Art is the antagonist of the human condition because it represents a continuity of the human spirit. Punk is not a look, nor is it a kind of art—it’s an ethos, and as such, it’s perennial. Which is simply another way of saying punk is a tradition. Young punks, including afropunks, are legion. But middle-aged punks are few, and their contempt for our ultramodern global groupthink can’t help coming across as a rebuke of these narrow-minded and tedious times. Ultimately, what’s unforgivable about punk is its rationality, a trait that’s often smeared as the opposite, by the spokespeople of the neurotic new world order.
In 2001, in a supreme manifestation of punk integrity, Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischmann—who co-founded Suede (as the reader of a certain demographic will recall) and who also worked on M.I.A.’s first album—rejected the Britpop brand by breaking up her group and producing a TV series on architecture called Dreamscapes, and a radio feature on female musicians called 21st Century Girl; then she relocated from London to Boulder, Colorado, where she attended Naropa University; and finally she moved to the Northern California coast, where she is currently establishing herself as a painter.
Frischmann’s paintings repurpose the materials of official beauty and offer the viewer a glimpse into a sensibility that resides on the threshold of the cosmos, where—to misquote Wallace Stevens—the figures in the street become cosmic figures. How punk is that?!
To make her paintings, the artist photoshops a found digital image, has the file made into a sublimation print on a thin aluminum panel, then applies spraypaint, and finally—she explains—attacks the plate with oil paint and a rag, until an image emerges, leaving the extrasensory impression that something has passed through her and now appears to the eye. The media this artist uses are clearly the essence of her interest in “making an object that is of its time,” as she puts it in an interview in Architect’s Journal—and accordingly she has chosen a neon palette for its nowness.
Frischmann’s stated objective in turn informs every part of her way of working. With the characteristics of an architectural interior accent, the 40” by 40” panels seem to float off the gallery wall, and their chromatic sheen suggests the intermittent double-mirror effect of plate glass and building interiors when they’re viewed while passing at high speed, or—for that matter—while high.
Frischmann declares that these exultant effects of light and space have their source in a moment of illumination experienced during childhood: “There’s an early memory I have,” she says in a GalleryLog video, “of standing in the playground when I was probably six or seven, and it was a rare sunny day, and I remember looking up at the sky, and sort of screwing up my eyes and seeing those rainbow colors you get on your eyelashes—you know the little prisms you get in the sunshine—and that, I think, is one of my most important early memories, and I think I’m actually chasing that in all my work since that point.”
The gleam, flicker, and soft radiance of the lambency of the title of her most recent series of paintings is thus for this artist a condition of the spirit, a state of grace, which we might best associate not with innocence per se, but with purity.
There’s a lot to be said about the resemblances between these paintings and older Abstract and Pop paintings, in terms of technique—optical appearance, that is—and several names come to mind, including Robert Motherwell. But philosophical kinships among artists, if you can find any, are more important. I think the crucial figure in this regard is William Blake. Blake’s preoccupation with the American Revolution, his proficiency in multiple arts (printmaking, watercolor, poetry, and music), his opposition to the dominant systems of a repressive society, his spiritualist cosmology, and his proto-feminism all seem to accord with Frischmann’s way of looking at the world.
She named an early solo exhibition The Battle of Faith and Doubt, and even if you don’t think those terms are a binary, still her reference to the dark night of the soul, as a metaphor for artistic creation, is reminiscent of lines by the poet from Soho and Lambeth—which sounds a lot like Lambent, come to think of it. In any case, Justine Frischmann’s response to the consensus reality of today possesses a lightness, a grace, and a contrariness that, taken together, amount to ethereality.
By Erik Noonan