The first thing that you’ll be sure to notice upon picking up Joshua Abelow’s Painter’s Journal for the first time is that it’s impossible to put down. The overall effect of the book is something equal parts irresistible and nauseating. And probably best compared to eating a bag of potato chips. Each part is shaped a little differently, but each is equally crunchy, salty and tastes exactly the same as the next. Once you start you really can’t stop until the whole bag has been exhausted in a single sitting. But then—of course—you might not feel so great. I read it over a period of no more than three hours, part of which was aloud to friends on the beach—who alternately groaned and then clamored for more—then offered to take turns reading so we could finish the book.
The book—a slim, elegant little number published by rising star art book publisher Peradam and Abelow’s gallery James Fuentes—was released at Frieze New York in May. It’s made up of journals that Abelow kept when he first moved to New York in his early 20s. I suspect that they were either scrupulously edited or else written with the remarkable foresight that they would be eventually published. The cover consists of an Abelow painting—“Self-Portrait”—a dancing stick figure sporting an enormous boner—serving to prepare a prospective reader for the content. Within is a chronicle of banality artfully rendered: pizzas are ordered, beer is consumed, friends are hung out with, names are dropped, studios and apartments are moved into and out of, Hamptons are visited, an almost dizzying stream of beautiful women are seduced, affairs are commenced, ended, and restarted.
Both Painter’s Journal’s irresistibility and its nausea stem from the same root: Abelow manages always to keep it pretty light. There are moments of self-pity and some episodes of concerted moping, but don’t go in expecting the excruciating self-criticisms of a tortured genius. Abelow’s black moods are quickly cured by the sight of tits. Don’t expect confessions of dire and torrid love affairs either. Abelow’s frequent liaisons are without much passion, and he evinces a pretty instrumental attitude towards women overall, some mild pining notwithstanding. He doesn’t experience heartbreaks that can’t be easily remedied by the arms of another one of the rotating cast of young women. His descriptions of sex are fortunately unsentimental but also pretty tame: they are not erotic or even remotely obscene for that matter. His attitude towards sex is selfish, and most of all childish: he describes what must be receiving a blowjob at one point as the girl “playing kissy face with [his] dingdong.” This could be forgiven considering Abelow’s age when these journals were supposedly written, if it weren’t for the self-consciousness that permeates every passage of the book.
Abelow seems at particular pains to stamp out every trace of anything that would hint at imagination, sensitivity, or intellectual cultivation on his part. In a rare entry where he reflects on his practice as an artist he jumps from commonplace to commonplace so rapidly that it’s impossible not to suspect parody of the kind of nattering he must have overheard in art school and at parties. Abelow declares “I want to create my own visual language,” which is probably the least remarkable thing a painter could say about himself. Then he quickly jumps through criticisms of the curriculum of RISD, a celebration of the Modern Masters, a declaration of reverence for art history and a familiar, self-righteous condemnation of the shallow goals of his peers: “Young artists have the wrong idea seeking approval ... Success as an artist, in my mind anyway, has nothing to do with the short-term goal of making money or exhibiting at a gallery.” (It goes without saying that these noble sentiments did not have to be much tested—Abelow has been well noticed.) This isolated attempt to formulate something like a thought is quickly punctuated by a return to sensuous idiocy: “I think I’m rambling. I need to watch pornography.”
Abelow falls into the familiar trap of people who try so assiduously to avoid all hints of pretension, they end up coming across as the most unbearably pretentious and affected people. Of course, no one with any aesthetic sensitivity is immune to the lures of stupidity, of the deflating, deadpan wit that a stupid comment can provide in the right moment, of the quick and facile stylishness and even elegance that stupidity can sometimes lend to a canny practitioner of the art. Pretending to be dumb is really one of the oldest tricks in the book. But in this case it is surely art—or artifice really—and not nature. Abelow at one point bemoans that he is not a “wordsmith” and confesses that he envies Brown students’ ability to think in full sentences. As often seems to be the case, he is being falsely modest: he can write and possesses an accomplished style. It’s that all-too-recognizable, careful—almost fussy—style of dumbness, emotional detachment, and unremitting flatness of affect. It’s a style that has plenty of adherents in the grand old men of 20th century American literature, and many, many more in the young men who have been raised on Hemingway, Mailer, Kerouac, and Henry Miller. Abelow is actually quite a bit better than an average emulator—he’s really got it down.
As an account of an artist’s self-creation, it has to be admitted there is something fascinating about the process at work in the Journal. The reader watches as Abelow is polishing, smoothing out, flattening, and dumbing down, turning himself into a type that can be replicated, reproduced, and marketed. If the goal of an artist is to make—in Abelow’s (and many others’) words—a “coherent universe” he has achieved it. There’s a real resonance between Abelow’s painting and the entries in the Journal—the journal was first distributed in a smaller run at Abelow’s 2011 solo show in Toronto entitled Dumb & Easy. Each entry, like each painting, is trying its best to be dumb, but how easy is it really? Both pursuits—despite efforts to seem effortless—cannot shake their precious, studied and gemlike impression.
Abelow would like us to believe he is a dope who just wants to “fuck and paint” as he puts it at one point in Painter’s Journal, but he is crafting an identity and image. Rather than being a testament to Abelow’s cloddiness, it’s really a testament to his shrewdness and ambition. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that. Forging a persona and promoting oneself is undeniably part of being an artist, and it’s a truism at this point that it can be art in its own right. Painter’s Journal shows that it can certainly be entertainment. But if it’s not fashionable to ask for authenticity, then at least one can be pardoned for wanting more compelling fakes.
JOHN GANZ is an artist and writer living in Brooklyn.