Herb Tannen is an elusive artist.
That is, his pictures defy interpretation, and their evolution from one to another is so drastic as to dissolve all consistency, and to challenge the viewer to find an objective coherence to this subjectively sprawling body of work. Yet such coherence is by now, in the new millenium, an old-fashioned value, a value appealing most to niche-marketing art dealers trying to show some consistency in an artist's product output from year to year. But it is not a value that must needs appeal to us helter-skelter seekers of new art with which to perplex ourselves. Looking to be perplexed? Look no further: Herb Tannen is here to confound and confuse your self-confidence as an interpretive consumer of contemporary art.
Two nineteenth-century literary men said it best. Walt Whitman: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself." Ralph Waldo Emerson: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Tannen's pictures are all improvisatory. He begins their creation with no plan or picture in mind. Image begets image, like procreators in the Book of Genesis, and they all end up as one big dysfunctional family within the bounds of a single completed composition. Is Tannen's work Tinsel Town Surrealism, venturing out of Hollywood to Sin City for its first museum showing? No, showbiz values seem to have no place at all in his work. The work is sly, portentous, playful, positive, a jumble sale of imagery coming to rest wherever it does like party balloons deposited by leaking too much helium.
The pictures may often seem light and airy, but this is very serious art. Each picture seems a new corner of creation, in which the Earth has not four corners (count 'em, four), but dozens. From one work to another throughout Tannen's oeuvre, the styles just don't add up. The only thing sure is that each new picture will bring something no one, including the artist, can predict. Today this multiplicity strikes this viewer as a great virtue, whereas in an earlier age it might well have been seen as artistic multiple-personality disorder. The diversity of the products of Tannen's creation should be considered the eruption of a constantly self-reconceiving imagination, from a deep well of originality renewed with each new sounding of its depths.
Tannen's pictures belong to a lineage beginning with the post-Cubist, proto-Surrealist work of Marc Chagall, 1910-14. The Cubist collage and the Dada photomontage of the 1910s and '20s occupy the next position in this succession. Next in its intermittent course, one could place Surrealism's programmatic incongruity, initiated in 1924. Some highly relevant work containing superimposed figural imagery by the lesser Surrealist French painter Francis Picabia (1879-1953) comes next, and then the mature work of the major American artist Larry Rivers (b. 1923). The late work of Salvador Dali, his so-called "composite" paintings, occupies the prominent next spot in the batting order. Improbably, newly discovered, obscure work done in Las Vegas in the 1960s by Katherine Gianaclis (1924-99) completes this broken-up line of descent.
Clear is the relationship of this lineage to a manifold type of visual composition being experimented with and extended by a generation of artists who are at the current innovative frontier in the visual arts, and whose work the Las Vegas Art Museum enthusiastically exhibits. Herb Tannen belongs in an organic way to this movement, the work of which can be described in general terms. The movement's first principal quality is an original combination of imagery, from a disparate range of cultural sources, being employed in a single painting. This can mean imagery taken from the tradition of European art history; from the art of other world cultures past and present; and from more popular levels of art and life within the artist's surrounding and remembered cultural environment.
The second prime aspect of such painting derives somewhat from the first; a deliberate variety of styles, both abstract and figural, being employed within the bounds of a single work. The third salient quality is a non-unified picture plane. That is, various images and scenes in a single painting are montaged, so to speak, or overlaid; they are represented together, whether juxtaposed or superimposed one over another. The resulting work of art contains objectified subject matter which in mundane reality could not occupy the same three-dimensional, earthly space or place.
Having said what Tannen's pictures have in common with this movement, one must recognize that his work is quite unique. Neo-symbolistic Surrealism might be as good a descriptive label to assign it as one can find. Why is work of this type both appropriate and important at this particular juncture of cultural history? The following is a halfway thorough answer to this involved question.
Visual art was completely dismantled under two centuries of Romanticism, beginning around the year 1800. The dismantlement of technique and visual detail is not remarked at first, but it begins to be obvious in a painter like Turner, gathers considerable steam with Impressionism, accelerates rapidly through Post- impressionism, and explodes in Cubism and other branches of early Modernism, when abstraction suppresses figuration. Surrealism then attacks representation from another angle (illogic), and this leads methodologically to Abstract Expressionism.
Since World War II, steadily, logically, and inexorably, the last stages of the process of dismantling both technique and content in painting have been carried out. By its simplifying, reductive nature, the further rigorous development to Post-painterly Abstraction and finally to Minimalism, was a progress that removed all content and literally stripped art down, as far as technique is concerned, to its basic building blocks and physical raw materials. Now it is up to artists like Herb Tannen to reconstitute the visual arts with cleared decks upon which to work.
How rich the the possibilities for the reconstitution are is made clear by the wealth of imagery and styles present in Tannen's work included in this exhibition. Archetypal symbols float within fields of color and non-recessive space. There are disparate, profuse aggregates of imagery on the one hand, and on the other, orphically austere, ritualistic, quasi-religious settings, with minimally few, portentous-looking physical properties, either noumenal or ominous in their serenity. Then there is the surprising phenomenon of Tannen's sculpture, nicely represented here. Carved from driftwood, with the same non-prescriptive, innocent aimlessness with which he begins his two-dimensional works, these pieces are fascinating in their unidentifiable forms, their formless, philosophical fragments of physical possibility, their new birth or fractally infinite nature.
In their conception and concretion of beauty hitherto non-existent, Tannen's sculptures leave us with the same gratitude his pictures do. We are happy to be enriched by these objects and mystery-scenes, extending as they do our notion of what it's possible for the world to contain, meanings of depth we would have no access to, without Herb Tannen's particular, profuse, strange gift of creation.