Author: Ethan Pinch

Ethan Pinch is an artist from Northern England and co-founder of the The New House art collective.
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Three side-by-side self-portraits by Jean Siméon Chardin

On Chardin: Greatness in Mediocrity

There’s hardly enough love and understanding for Chardin. It’s not a look that screams ‘genius’ or ‘radicality’. Such might be held against him—his lack of glamour. His ill-preparedness for survival.

Yet Chardin hasn’t been without his share of admirers. The encyclopaedist, Denis Diderot, wrote prolifically on his work. Manet, Braque and Matisse all cite Chardin as a major influence. And Cezanne, in his own typical way, praised him in a letter as an ‘artful devil’.

In life, Chardin was a time-tenured salon academician and businessman, with a permanent residence at the Louvre and a state pension. But he was also, for all his sophistication and studio-training, a functional illiterate who rarely left the city of Paris. There’s little evidence to suggest that he was any kind of intellectual or possessed a coherent aesthetic programme. It would simply appear that he painted what he thought would sell, and what could best showcase his talents. […]

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A scene from Denis Villeneuve's "Dune Part 2".

The **** Must Flow: “Dune Part 2” and the Cult of Frank Herbert

Nothing screams dilettante more than Dune. A mere mention of Frank Herbert’s amateurism is enough to kill any conversation stone dead and infuriate the faithful. What follows is the usual pleading, the usual literary red-herrings about style, intention, politics and, last of all, art. Despite their protestations, people who like Dune don’t actually give a damn about art and what’s more, they resent those of us who do. So let’s repay them the favour.

If you don’t like Frank Herbert then you’re an elitist snob or some sort of fruit (by implication). That’s the thing now: egalitarian tastelessness. Why should you care about Dune? Because other people do—apparently, and often with a kind of religious zealotry reserved for the likes of Ayn Rand. Hell, even at her most table-thumping, Rand is a better prose stylist than Herbert the Hump.

I don’t care to get into the nitty-gritty of Dune and its lore. L. Ron Hubbard at least had a kind of Penthouse hilarity to his fiction. Comparatively, Dune suffers by dint of its own self-serious pretention. Ridiculous non-characters. Condescendingly naked historical allegory. Bullshit fake-orientalism. Someone obviously read Joseph Campbell and snorted a lot of coke. […]

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A stylized set of portraits of R.B. Kitaj, who is being re-appraised by English painter Ethan Pinch.

Critical Mass: The Case Against R.B. Kitaj

To revisit the work of American artist R.B. Kitaj is to revisit the scene of a ritual murder. He is, after all, a painter noteworthy for being ‘assassinated’ by his critics—a grievous mantle which, though Kitaj has been dead for over fifteen years, has thankfully found no indisputable successor. What stands today as a classic fable of yellow press journalism is the account of a London Tate retrospective so viciously panned that it is now held to be the catalyst for Kitaj’s eventual suicide along with the tragically premature death of his wife, Sandra, from a stroke.

Kitaj had been, for most of his career, a sort of enfant terrible—so it follows that he should have been accustomed to some negative criticism, or at least journalistic vulgarity. Yet the ’94 Tate retrospective, an event intended to finally confirm his critical legacy, instead gave rise to one of the most vicious pile-ons in the history of broadsheet criticism. A ‘cyclone of abuse ‘. A ‘lynch mob‘.

But what’s the real substance behind all this tabloid melodrama? Could it just be another case of critical caprice? Of obstinance and snobbery? Or was it, as Kitaj loudly alleged, a case of antisemitic blood libel: of gentiles bashing and scapegoating an expatriate Jewish artist for the crime of merely existing? […]

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A stylized shot of a man's naked back in a dimly lit room in Emerald Fennell's "Saltburn".

Petty Bourgeois: Why “Saltburn” Stings

Another film gains notoriety on social media—albeit among people who don’t watch films. There are some notorious scenes (better not watch that with your mum in the room!). The word of mouth creates imaginative hyperbole. Next thing you know, it’s the film of the season. Variety and BuzzFeed start up the click factory. YouTube essays. Think-pieces. Heavy-breathing equivocation.

Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn is the latest in a long line of chic millennial horror films—the word ‘horror’ here meaning: ‘something to titillate middle class consumers’. Over a decade of darlings from A24 have laid the ground for New Hollywood. And what’s more, these are filmmakers with a social conscience: a social critique, even. Narratives of classism, bourgeois excess and social injustice have become the default subtext of the genre, its cause celebre. Triangle of Sadness and The Menu number among the recent additions to social media’s ‘Eat the Rich’ hashtag.

My problem with Saltburn is that it feels tired. Its message lacks force. Its means lack originality. In short, it’s a film that lacks even as it throws everything and the kitchen sink towards a resolution. […]

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The album cover for Burial's "Boy Sent From Above", featuring a black X with a white album label.

Angelmaker: Reviewing Burial’s “Boy Sent From Above” (2024)

I’m not sure to what extent the readers of Automachination are familiar with the work of Burial. All things considered, there’s probably a dearth of people on this website with an interest in the UK garage music scene, much less its most esoteric (and aggrandized) figurehead.

Burial is, like Banksy, a kind of pseudo-anonymous mystery artist. When he was nominated for a Mercury prize during the 2000s, popular tabloid The Sun began a national campaign to reveal his name and identity. Unsurprisingly, the artist was unmasked, not as a celebrity pseudonym, but a fairly normal, and recalcitrant young man from Croydon, South London.

Burial’s music is a hybrid of late twentieth century club styles that share a markedly British provenance: specifically jungle, dubstep, acid, drum & bass and UK garage (UKG). He came of age during London’s heyday of urban pirate radio and this perhaps explains the unmistakable overlay of DIY nostalgia in his production style – a kind of bittersweet sentimentality that permeates every part of his work. Listening to a Burial track often makes one wistful, or forlorn. […]

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A stylized set of portraits of painter Lee Krasner, in standard color, blue, then green, in front of a painting.

Lee Krasner: A Critical Portrait

For this article I’m going to be looking at a number of paintings by the Abstract Expressionist Lee Krasner in an attempt to give an overview and critical portrait of her career. With that said, the difficulty in re-describing Krasner’s development as an artist arises from a personal resistance to many of the tropes popularized by contemporary feminist criticism. Is it possible, after all, to write an article about Krasner that doesn’t devolve into some sort of homily about gender and patriarchy?

Now let’s be serious – we’ve all seen the Ed Harris biopic. Jackson Pollock pulling a James Dean and wrapping his muscle car around a tree. Krasner alternating between muse, mother-figure and martyr in equal measure. Peggy Guggenheim lugging her Pomeranian up several flights of stairs. If you’re into mid century modernism then this sort of trivia should be second nature. (On a sidenote: why did they choose to represent de Kooning as a grinning idiot?) […]

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Gerhard Richter – Self Portrait, 1996

On Gerhard Richter: Art’s Sacred Kuh (Sacred Cow)

Gerhard Richter has been an art superstar since the sixties, with a resumé and bank account to prove it. He gets good press. Huge retrospectives. Critics and dealers comfortably refer to him in the same breath as old-timey masters like Vermeer or Titian and no one gets upset or annoyed with this. But why? Why do people go crazy for Richter’s coldly scientific paintings? You could say they were radical, although you’d have a hard job of explaining why. However, since no one is likely to challenge you, the problem won’t arise.

It’s hard to make painting seem radical because really it’s not. Yet people keep making paintings, selling and exhibiting. We might say painting is dead because it seems, in a Hegelian sense, incapable of maintaining its historical themes and social importance. But still, painting hangs around – in an undead state – like a vampire or zombie. […]

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Henri Matisse on horseback in Morocco, where he would paint the classic Les Marocains (The Moroccans) in 1916.

Black Sunshine: Matisse in Morocco (Les Marocains, 1916)

Matisse had a miserable time in Morocco. In fact there was rarely a moment in Matisse’s life where he wasn’t miserable. During a 1941 interview he talked about seeing everything (in) “black”; his chronic insomnia, his depression and fear of failure. Common stock when it comes to creative types, but generally not the sort of things most people would associate with Matisse or his paintings. Tellingly, he would later prohibit publication of this interview citing editorial disagreements. It seems that he preferred to be seen as cute and cuddly rather than dark and brooding.

For Matisse, life was a series of disappointing (and occasionally spooky) vacations. Reading his biography puts one in mind of the horror writer MR James, for whom Matisse would make the ideal protagonist—stentorian, standoffish, and constantly menaced by the notion of ‘presence’. What a letdown Tangiers must have been: nothing at all like the hipster fantasy of French literature. He arrived in the city halfway through a month-long rainstorm. Most of the time, he told the poet Gertrude Stein, he stayed in his room. […]