My article in the current print edition of The Expat Travel & Lifestyle Magazine

Monday, February 08, 2016

A Bridge Too Far?

“I really think that the war on terror makes us less safe.”
Laura Poitras

With an Oscar and a shared Pulitzer Prize to her credit, Laura Poitras latest venture is the art installation Astro Noise on show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. An exhibition that explores the issues of mass surveillance, the war on terror, the U.S. drone program, Guantánamo Bay Prison, occupation, and torture.

The idea came to Poitras three years earlier whilst waiting for the now world famous whistle blower Edward Snowden to re-establish contact with her.

As she wrote in her diary at the time “Why the fuck am I making long-form documentaries when other ways of working are so much more energizing? I really want to do the installation project of hanging screens in a warehouse. So that entering it is like a torture chamber.”

But before the installation could be realized Poitras made her Oscar winning long-form documentary Citizenfour and became heavily involved with the publication of Snowden’s revelations of American mass surveillance.

Growing up in a well-heeled suburb of Boston, Poitras attended a private school about which she told Vogue’s Sara Corbett “there was a lot of unstructured time, which allowed me to develop my senses creatively.” 

After leaving school became a sous-chef first in Boston, then later in San Francisco, a quick paced, high stress environment, an excellent training ground for her later film making ventures. Whilst in San Francisco Poitras studied experimental and avant-garde film which eventually replace her interest in cooking and at 32 she graduated from New York’s New School for Public Engagement.

Three years later Poitras embarked on her first long-form documentary Flag Wars which was nominated for an Emmy after being screened on PBS in 2003. The attack on New York’s Twin Towers on 9/11 had a profound effect upon her and the ensuing drumbeat for the Iraq war was a cause for alarm.

As she says “I had a real sense that we were moving in a direction that was really dangerous. That was when I realized I wanted to say something about it.”

There followed a trilogy of films My Country, My Country in 2006, which was nominated for an Oscar, The Oath in 2010 and the aforementioned Oscar winning Citizenfour in 2014.

And now her Whitney installation Astro Noise Poitras has found another way to portray her concerns.
As she says “I’m interested in going back to these themes of the war on terror. What does it mean? How can we understand it on more human terms?”

How well her cinematic vision translated to the confines of the white cube has left the Guardian Newspaper’s art critic Jason Farago underwhelmed.

As he wrote “Yet amid her anxieties, she asks herself a curious question: “Why the fuck am I making long-form documentaries when other ways of working are so much more energizing?” I regret to say Astro Noise answers that question for her: because energizing is an insufficient aim, and she is capable of so much more.

Poitras’ Astro Noise is on show at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art until the 1st of May.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Exposed by Abstraction

“I find inspiration in the doing.”
John DiPaolo

The San Francisco based abstract expressionist artist John DiPaolo is never too sure what his efforts at the easel will eventually produce. For his work is a struggle to find the balance between his inner and outer worlds, the resolution of the effects of intention and chance, the relationship between the personal and the universal.

 “I begin with an idea, usually about space,” Dipaolo told Cottages & Gardens’ Robyn Wise. “But as the painting unfolds, something enters in and changes the direction. This continues until the anchors I originally embedded have disappeared, and I’m doing something I never expected to do. It amazes me every time.” 

Born in New York, DiPaolo moved to America’s West Coast in his mid-twenties to study at San Francisco Art Institute followed by a stint at the San Francisco State University to get his MFA. And whilst there his style changed from a pop art inspired realism to embrace the tenants of the earlier Abstract Expressionist movement.

Working with a richly layered applications of paint on canvas DiPaolo dances with his works in a convoluted conversation in which the artist’s control is mediated by the work itself.

As he has explained even when you think you know what you want, it tells you what it wants. The work takes over.” 

And that can take time, as he told the Wall Street International Magazine “Sometimes even the ones I love in the very beginning end up getting covered over, but with something that is even better. So I say to myself, ‘You’ve got to surrender. All you are is some in-between force that’s making this thing happen.’ It’s not about doing it so forcibly. It’s about getting the organic-ness of the material and of my experience with that to come out.”

Although DiPaolo has been making his paintings for many years it hasn’t got any easier.

As he says in the press release for his current exhibition “I’ve been doing this for 40 years and it’s still a confront every time you’ve got to start putting paint on. You’re exposed. There it is. You can’t say, ‘Oh, I didn’t mean that.’ 

Dipaolo’s current exhibition is on show at San Francisco’s Dolby Chadwick Gallery until the 27th of February.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Getting Lost in the Past

“I think I’m homing in on some interesting ideas.”
Damian Stamer

The American painter Damian Stamer, who had his first New York exhibition whilst still studying for his MFA at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is inspired by the landscapes of his youth. The memory of which he recreates with his abstracted figurative works.

Stamer regularly returns to the North Carolina countryside to photograph the remaining remnants of the past which he reworks in his New York Studio.

As he told The Nashville Arts Magazine’s Daniel Tidwell These are the same old barns, relatively unchanged, that my bus passed every day to and from school over twenty years ago.”

It is the challenge of turning his trips down memory lane into paintings that speak to an audience endowed mostly with an urban aesthetic through paint and canvas that enthralls.

About which he says “the difficulty of accessing information and emotions of years past, translated visually through faded colors and erasure. These works also hint at black-and-white photography, perhaps our most common window to the past, with white borders and dappled aging… There comes a time when these biographical and identity-laden concerns fall away, like the rockets of a space shuttle after launch. Chance and intuition take over. Painting becomes a dance outside the realm of language and concept.

It is a dance that sees Stamer constantly looking for new steps that will drive his work forward.

As he says “My most exciting times in the studio come when I discover how to make a new mark or surface effect. I’m like a scientist, always tinkering and experimenting with unique ways to push my medium. When I find a new way to use paint that I’ve never seen before, I feel like I am adding to a conversation that began thousands of years ago.”

A point he underscored to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Newsletter, Endeavors “I’m always looking for new tools and ways to spread paint. I’ve used masking tape, squeegees, heavy-duty paper towels, solvents, and even a frying pan to splatter paint.”

And whilst technique is important, it is when he ignores it getting lost in the work that Stamer achieves his most satisfying paintings.

As he says “I think I make my best work when I’m not really thinking at all. It may sound odd, but I think it’s like an athlete being in the zone.”

Stamer’s current exhibition A little past Lake Michie is on show at Philadelphia’s Bridgette Mayer Gallery until the 27th of February.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

The Anarchist Seduced by Science

The golden age has not passed; it lies in the future.
Paul Signac

The scientific application of optical theory that enables television would have intrigued and vindicated the radical 19th Century French painter Paul Signac’s championing of Pointillism. Devised by the post-impressionist artist Georges Seurat, small dots of pure color are placed side by side on the painter’s canvas allowing the eye to optically mix the color.

Signac was 21 when came across Seurat’s work to which he had an instant affinity and the two became lifelong friends.

The son of an affluent middle class family, Signac had given up studying architecture to pursue the life of a painter, inspired by the work of the impressionists. As a 16-year-old Signac had been chased out of the 1880 5th Impressionist exhibition by Paul Gaugin whilst copying an Edgar Degas painting with the reportedly stinging rebuke ‘One does not copy here Sir! 

The discovery of Seurat’s work led him to state the separated elements will be reconstituted into brilliantly colored lights.

 And two years after the discovery Signac was exhibiting his own landscapes that had confidently moved on from the loose impressionist style to that of the more formal and scientific pointillism.
About which the art critic and fellow anarchist Félix Fénéon said The colors provoke each other to mad chromatic flights – they exult, shout! And the Seine flows on, and in its waters flow the sky and the vegetation along the riverside.”

Being in the vanguard of artistic expression suited Signac well, for not only did his art but also his politics challenged the traditional and throughout his life he was an impassioned advocate of both. Whilst introducing Seurat’s theories to others including Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Matisse and Camille Pissarro he also improvised upon Pointillism. Signac’s later works evolved from the dots of Pointillism into the mosaic like tiles of Divisionism.

For as he has reportedly said “The anarchist painter is not the one who will create anarchist pictures, but the one who will fight with all his individuality against official conventions.

The exhibition Signac: Une Vie au Fil de L’eau is currently on show at Switzerland’s Fondation de l’Hermitage until the 22nd of May.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Landscapes of the Mind

“I am letting the energy control me.
Dale Frank

The Australian Dale Frank is arguably the most literate of his country’s artists whose work’s titles have grown from narrative inspired names for his abstract paintings into short stories in their own right.

Like his 2005 painting (see above) I was sent off to find an 18th century diamond brooch, dressed in a donkey jacket and cement-dusted workman’s boots. He understood the past, whereas today’s brilliant butterflies who dine out talk only about the new and know only about the future of their art portfolio’s pricing structure. Their lead shoes are very much in need in the light gravity-less atmosphere.

It is from a series of experimental works that Frank began in the 1990’s using varnish, pigment and gravity along with additives like lighter fluid and turpentine to create his best known works.
About which the art critic Ashley Crawford has said “Despite the ultra-literal titles, these works were anything but; they were actually a carefully orchestrated maelstrom of colorful, viscous varnish – violent and cathartic, and often very beautiful.”

At the age of 16 Frank was awarded the Red Cross Art Prize and three years later he succumbed to the antipodean cultural cringe and headed off to Europe and the United States to successfully pursue an artistic career. After a decade fliting about overseas Frank developed an aversion to flying and returned to Australia to permanently settle in rural Queensland.

His oeuvre was wide ranging including performance, drawing, painting, photography and interactive installations before settling on his ‘Varnish’ paintings. Paintings that are inspired by the Australian landscape seen through a 21st Century urban filter that turns them into landscapes of the mind.

As he told Melbourne’s Age Newspaper in 2003 "If people broadened their perceptions of what landscape is, and the history of Australian landscape painting, they would be able to embrace what is, on the surface, non-representational art as landscape instantaneously. To the average person, landscape is non-representational, it is an abstract concept… Viewing the landscape from the freeway is a product of the need to get from A to B. The work over the last two years is non-representational, is abstract, is landscape. The titles in this show refer to specific locations, incidences and journeys in the vicinity and environment in which I live… The colors are not the 'wide brown land'. The colors are the extreme desperation and boredom of passing down the Warrego Highway, passing the Red Elephant Fruit Barn, passing Schultz's Highway Meat Tavern, the Plainlands Welcome Hotel - the landscape that Australians are familiar with. Not the suburban or city landscape, and also not the country landscape. It's none of the actual definitions of a genre."

Frank’s current exhibition Sabco Peroxide is on show at Sydney’s Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery until the 13th of February.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Political Pop Prints

I am engaged with my work at all the varied stages of making from the spark of an idea to the opening of the gallery door.
Leslie Friedman

Last year the Philadelphia based artist Leslie Friedman exhibited her work Art Basel Miami for the first time. But it was not at a $50,000 booth in the main hall but at a satellite venue; the soon to be demolished, derelict Ocean Terrace Hotel with the more modest cost to play of $250.

Along with 40 artists and collectives from around the world, Friedman converted one of the rooms into an installation of prints wheat-pasted to the walls which will remain in situ until the wrecking crew moves in.

As she told News Works’ Peter Crimmins "I do a lot of site-specific work, and I hate deinstalling them. The idea I could do something and not have to take it down was just too delicious to ignore… I hear about artist-run spaces, and to actually meet these people and be working together to turn this hotel into something that looks like art, not decay, was really magical."

Away from the mega million-dollar signature world Friedman pursues her pop art aesthetic of bright colors, repetition, text and recognizable images of celebrities to conduct an exploration of print, pattern, and multiples through large scale installations.

As she says in her Artist’s StatementAs a student of both art and political science, I am intrigued by the power of a visual vocabulary to set the stage for political dialogue.  I see my role as a visual director employing both fine art and industrial methods.  Screen-printing offers a seamlessness that allows imagery to be peeled away from its original sources and built into something else altogether.  What is thus constructed is a fantasy world that combines identifiable elements from the everyday with my own over imagination, often resulting in a funny perversion of a “what if” game.”

About which The Talbot Spy’s art critic, Mary McCoy, wrote in 2014 “Friedman is less concerned with the aesthetics of art than with the ways we communicate and build our belief systems. Her in-your-face look at consumer culture’s passion for overstimulation and vacuous pleasure is fairly predictable, but it offers a cursory nod to the fact that in a world of titillating underwear ads, graphic news videos and online pornography, art long ago lost its power to shock.

Friedman’s current exhibition Vivianus is on show at the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts until the 26th of June.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Living the Dream

“I do not paint to resolve my feelings, but simply to express them.
Song Yige

Song Yige is a Chinese painter who imposes a nostalgia for childhood upon an eclectic range of subjects drawn from the everyday.

As Song told the art critic and writer Iona WhittakerMy metaphor for the choice of subjects I make is that of a department store. When I choose a subject for my work, it comes from my eyes and instinct. I am simply drawn to certain things, just as you are in a shop. I usually favor architectural environments as settings for my work because it is more suitable to represent a locked-up, closed, lonely feeling. I have painted a few natural scenes, but not many. It is not that appropriate to what I’m trying to show. I often paint old, worn, everyday objects because I feel that these things have a story and a history. I like that; I rarely paint new things.”

And whilst mostly depicting the well-worn a certain childish wonder adds an extra dimension to Song’s works.

About which she says “I like to present my memories from childhood, so some images from that time feature classrooms or the streets I frequented back then. When I was a kid, I thought these places very big, wide and open. But later, I moved out of the city. When I returned I had grown up – I drove my own car. I discovered I could not even drive down those same streets, for everything was too small. I want to represent in my paintings the childhood feeling of things being much bigger and more empty. To some extent, my work is autobiographical.

Becoming an artist is the realization of the reclusive Song’s childhood dream. With her parents often absent Song pursued her interest in drawing with a dogged determination.

As she told Sotheby’s Eye on Asia BlogAll children love sweets, but I’d give up sweets for watercolor brushes and drawing papers.”

After graduating from Shenyang’s Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts the 27-year-old Song moved to Beijing to continue the pursuit of her dream about which she says “Sometimes creating art is a delight, sometimes it’s tough. Being able to successfully manage an artwork to completion is such a joy.”

Now eight years later, on the occasion of her first European exhibition, Song told Luxury London’s Katy Parker “I have worked to develop a style of painting that is distinctly my own with a strong visual identity. I am very interested in classical ideals of representational painting, as well as evoking Western figurative artists – though this influence is subtle.”

Song’s self-titled exhibition is currently on show at London’s Marlborough Fine Art until the 27th of February.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Forming Experiences

"What you see determines how you see it.
Mernet Larsen

For the American painter Mernet Larsen the content of her paintings is paramount in the depictions of the everyday scenes she commits to her canvases. From shopping at the mall to working out at the gym, from attending committee meetings to reading in bed, Larsen’s geometric figures placed within her unique perspectives are origami like analogies of the remembered activity.

 As she told the Huffington Post’s Priscilla Frank “You're always observing things from the outside. And I wanted you to be in a situation, where you were more involved in it. So, what I use are these perspectival ploys -- diverse perspective, parallel perspective… You're always sort of moving around inside the painting; you can never quite figure out where you're standing, so you kind of absorb it.”

Larsen obtained her Bachelor and Masters in Fine Art in the 1960’s when abstraction was the rooster in the art’s barnyard. But she was more interested in expressing her life experiences.

About which she has said "I was kind of discouraged about art because, at that point in time, art was very much abstract expressionism, period. Very academic, very intellectual… "I remembered having the thought that I didn't want to express myself through my art. My life was fairly mundane at that point; I was living at home. So I didn't want to express my life, I wanted to give meaning to my life. It had to be a constructed thing. Also, I wanted to make it from my experiences. I didn't want to do something abstract, and I didn't want to deal with intellectual issues.

And it is these experiences and how they are perceived that inform Larsen’s work.

As she says “The content determines the form. The way I saw cows, for example, was really different from how I saw a sofa in my living room at home. So I started concentrating on one item at a time and thinking -- how will this make me work? I did my sisters jumping in the living room, dancing to the music. I did aquariums, I did the insides of cars. Everything that I did and focused on gave me a different way of working. I had to accommodate my way of working to those things.“

About which she has elaborated, saying “People often look at the works and say, "Oh, these look like computer generated images." But if you look at them, they have no system like that. There's no adherence to anatomy. The structures give you enough clues to think they're conventional figures, but when you look at them, they're not. They're just structures. They're structures that work in an analogous way to people and situations you recognize, but they get at some more essential quality and they also defamiliarize with conventions. You are able to see them in a fresh way, hopefully."

Larsen’s current exhibition Things People Do is on show at New York’s James Cohan Lower East Side gallery until the 21st of February.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Letting the Figurative Out

“For these pictures to look so simple takes a surprisingly long time
Aaron Kasmin

The British artist Aaron Kasmin considers abstract and figurative painting to be intrinsically compatible with each other.

As he told Wall Street International in 2013 “Although my work is known for being abstract I have also made figurative still life drawings, though until now I have kept them private. But really the chasm between abstraction and figuration is not so huge, because one is dealing with the same concepts - composition, scale, size and color. It is just the finished pictures that are radically different."

Kasmin is comfortable with these different appearances because his underlying desire is produce work that provides an aesthetic journey for the viewer.

About which he says in his gallery biography “What I am trying to convey in my work is the pleasure and beauty of looking. I compose small images which play with scale, balance, space, colour and harmony. I enjoy the idiosyncrasies of the freely drawn line. The mood and character of each work is determined by the imperfections of the human eye recreating and interpreting exactly what is in front of it.”

An interpretation that has seen the Chelsea School of Art trained artist, now in his early fifties, allow his still life drawings of everyday day objects out of the closet.

As he told the Elephant Magazine’s Emily Steer “I have had quite a few shows recently of still life drawings. I love working with chalk pencils because you can mix the colors with a high degree of sophistication. The effect of these pencils seems to evoke a beautiful vintage quality.

A quality that Kasmin has enhanced through his choice of subject matter in his latest series of works.

About which he has said “The work I am showing is all inspired by my collection of American feature matchbooks which had their heyday from the 1930s to the 1950s. I have been collecting these matchbooks for a number of years and have managed to integrate them in to my work. The subject matter is incredibly diverse, ranging from advertising laundry services, bakers, kitchen outfitters, paint shops and restaurants to nightclubs… I love the way these small ephemeral objects portray American life and the perceived glamour of its time. Smoking and drinking were represented as cool and sophisticated–these match books remind me of the novels of Raymond Chandler and of films starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. They could easily be found in Some Like It Hot! I just wanted to celebrate these little master works and bring them to a wider, new audience.”

Kasmin’s current exhibition Lucky Strike is on show at London’s Sims Reed Gallery until the 5th of February. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Unable to Ignore the Political

“People call me a Syrian artist, but I prefer to be considered as an artist.
Tammam Azzam

In 2011 the Syrian born mixed media artist Tammam Azzam was forced to abandon his home in Damascus and relocate to Dubai by the civil war that embroiled the country.

As he told Toute La Culture’s Melissa Chemam “After seven months into the Syrian revolution, my wife and I felt it had become impossible to continue living there. Most artists were struggling and I have a young daughter that I could not put to school. The gallery that I work with moved to Dubai and they asked me to come with them. I decided to move, after consulting my wife.”

It was in Dubai that the University of Damascus trained painter embraced digital media as his main form of artistic expression.

About which Azzam says “I [had] become familiar with graphic programming, especially since 2002, but the first time I used it as an art media was in Dubai. I had left my studio behind me and I felt like so much was missing. In another city I had to start another story. At first, there were so many difficulties just to find a home for my family and a school for Selma, my daughter, and I needed to find work. I concerted my work in graphic design and settled a mini studio at home. That’s how I started working with digital media.

Azzam’s 2013 lightbox work Freedom Graffiti (see below) from his Museum Series, works that superimposed European masterpieces on the destroyed streets of Syria, went viral on social media. “The scene comes from a picture of Douma, a small city near Damascus, one of the cities where the revolution started, and which has been destroyed completely since,” he states.

Rejecting the label of political artist, Azzam identifies with the people overwhelmed by events over which they have no control; the frustrations of the “Everyman”.

As he has said “I’m an artist who came out of this political background. I’m not producing posters against a dictator or a regime, but artworks about people, which is the main purpose for me.

Azzam’s current exhibition The Road, which highlights his return to painting, is on show at Ayyam’s Dubai gallery until the 3rd of March.