Saturday, December 20, 2014

Similar but Different – The Art of Wifredo Lam

Where European artists of the 1930’s were fascinated by African culture for the Cuban artist Wifredo Lam it was a lived experience. With a Chinese father and a mother of mixed African and Spanish descent, Lam grew up in rural Cuba where the influence of his God Mother, Matonica Wilson, a locally renowned sorceress and healer was constant reminder of the culture that surrounded him. In his 40’s, Lam reconnected with the roots of his childhood culture by visiting Haiti to observe voodoo ceremonies which mitigated by his love of African poetry were to influence his mature works.

After three years in Havana studying law and drawing the plants at the botanical gardens, at the age of 21, Lam traveled to Spain. For the next 14 years he studied the art of the Europeans and painted the Spanish landscape. His Cuban slave heritage caused him to emphasize with the Spanish laborers and prompted him to side with the Republicans during the Spanish civil war.

After the cessation of hostilities Lam moved to Paris. It was there that he met Pablo Picasso; it was a meeting of like minds. About which Lam said “Everybody felt this influence, for Picasso was the master of our age. Even Picasso was influenced by Picasso! But when I first painted bulls in Spain, I had not seen his bulls. And I had done my own paintings in a synthetic style, in an attempt to simplify forms, before discovering his. Our plastic interpretations simply coincided. I already knew the Spanish temperament, for I had lived it, suffered it, in the country itself. Rather than an influence, we might call it apervasion of the spirit. There was no question of imitation, but Picasso may easily have been in my spirit, for nothing in him was alien or strange to me. On the other hand, I derived all my confidence in what I was doing from his approval.”

Three years later after a short sojourn with the surrealists in Marseilles and Martinique Lam returned to Cuba. The exploitation of his home country affected him deeply. Of which he said “I Decided that my painting would never be the equivalent of that pseudo-Cuban music for nightclubs. I refused to paint cha-cha-cha. I wanted with all my heart to paint the drama of my country, but by thoroughly expressing the Negro spirit, the beauty of the plastic art of the blacks. In this way I could act as a Trojan horse that would spew forth hallucinating figures with the power to surprise, to disturb the dreams of the exploiters.”

A decade later Lam returned to Europe, first to France and then to Italy where he remained to the end of his days in 1982. Throughout this time he kept a keen interest in the events of his homeland submitting works for exhibition there in solidarity with his peoples aspirations.

Whilst the parallels between his work and that of the European modernists are undeniable they come from a different place. Whereas the Europeans have imposed a learned African aesthetic upon their European sensibilities, Lam incorporates a learned European aesthetic within his African heritage. 

Friday, December 19, 2014

From Scathing Satire to Placid Painting – The Art of David Levine

“The greatest caricaturist of the last half of the Twentieth Century

In today’s media driven world where both sides of an argument must be given oxygen the relevant validity of the spin is often best explained through the visual exaggeration of their proponents; a caricature of the spokesperson. Be it Tina Fey’s impersonation of Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live or David Levine’s cartoon of President Lyndon Johnson and his Vietnam scar they define their subject with greater clarity than any argument could express.

For over 40 years David Levine’s caricatures graced the pages of major American publications from the New York Review of Books to The New York Times, from Time magazine to the Rolling Stone, from Esquire magazine to Playboy. Be they politician or judge, playwright or pope, artist or scientist all his subjects had their pretensions pricked by his devastating visual wit. And all were presented without a caption. As he told Vanity Fair’s David Margolick, “If I can’t do it the way Charlie Chaplin did it, words are not going to help.”

Born in Brooklyn into a left leaning politically active family he considered himself a Communist; “a beautiful idea” that the Soviet regime ruined. Convinced that power corrupts his scorn for those in authority was nonpartisan. An attitude that caused art critic Hilton Kramer to write in the New York Times about Levine’s 1968 exhibition of caricatures “They are wickedly intelligent and shamelessly unfair.”

Whilst the commissioned caricatures paid the bills, Levine’s first love was painting, depicting his beloved Coney Island and the portraits of ordinary people. About which, art critic Maureen Mullarkey has written “None of Levine’s hard-edged burlesques prepare you for the sensuous satisfactions of his paintwork: the matte charm of his oil handling and the virtuoso refinement of his watercolors. Caustic humor gives way to unexpected gentleness in the paintings.”

The World He Saw, a mini retrospective of 38 paintings and 12 caricatures by Levine is on view until the 17th of January at New York’s Forum Gallery.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Music of Painting – The Art of Paul Klee

Paul Klee was a talented violinist with, it is said, a fondness for the music of Bach and Mozart. He was also a natural draftsman as his school books and early exhibitions of etchings attest. During his formative years he vacillated between these two art forms but, fortunately for those of us with a passion for the visual arts, music came second. Although he kept food on the table through his musical gigs until his paintings started to sell in his thirties.

Considered one of the greatest colorists of the 20th Century where his theories about music and color combine in improvisations which he likened to the melody of the work, it was not always the case. He struggled with color until he was 35 and visited Tunisia. About which he wrote “Color has taken possession of me; no longer do I have to chase after it, I know that it has hold of me forever. That is the significance of this blessed moment. Color and I are one. I am a painter.

Blessed with an ironic sense of humor, often noticeable in his titles, Klee was man of his times and as such has been associated with Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism and Abstraction. His work, whilst influenced, stands independently apart.

It is reported that Klee practiced the violin before painting and once in the studio would work on several canvases simultaneously. And like a composer he notated his drawings and paintings with a number and date cataloging their sequence in time.

As the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote about Klee’s workin 1921, "Even if you hadn’t told me he plays the violin, I would have guessed that on many occasions his drawings were transcriptions of music." A thought picked up by the Guardian Newspaper's art critic Adrian Searle in 2013, "One day he might be arranging a composition of fish and flowers and clocks, the next little colored rectangles that come and go with a wonderful musicality, and never quite settle down."

The first Russian retrospective exhibition of his work Paul Klee: Not a day without a line is on show at Moscow’s Pushkin Sate Museum of Fine Arts until the 1st of March. Whilst in Bern, Switzerland the Zentrum Paul Klee is showing the exhibition Paul Klee: Special class – not for sale until the 1st of February.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

“Why must art be static?” - Alexander Calder’s Kinetic Sculptures

“Just as one can compose colors, or forms, so one can compose motions.”
Alexander Calder

In 1922 off the coast of Guatemala whilst sailing between New York and San Francisco Alexander Calder experienced a simultaneous sun rise and moon set. About the experience he has saidI saw the beginning of a fiery red sunrise on one side and the moon looking like a silver coin on the other. Of the whole trip this impressed me most of all; it left me with a lasting sensation of the solar system.” 

It was a pivotal moment in the 24 year olds life, perhaps his personal Road to Damascus, for he finally abandoned his career as a mechanical engineer to follow in the footsteps of his parents. His mother was a professional portrait painter and his father was a sculptor like his father before him.

The following year Calder began classes at New York’s Art Student League. He supported himself as an illustrator for the National Police Gazette during this time. One of his assignments for the Gazette was to produce illustrations of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

In 1926 Calder traveled to Paris and enrolled at Académie de la Grande Chaumière. He also started his ongoing sculptural performance work Cirque Calder; articulated wire and found object sculptures of circus performers whom Calder would manipulate to perform for friends, associates and eventually the general public. He adapted these skills into larger wire sculpture works; a drawing in space, which he exhibited with some success on both sides of the Atlantic.

A 1930 visit to Piet Mondrian's studio had a lasting impression. About this visit Calder said “This one visit gave me a shock that started things. Though I had heard the word "modern" before, I did not consciously know or feel the term "abstract. So now, at thirty-two, I wanted to paint and work in the abstract. And for two weeks or so, I painted very modest abstractions. At the end of this, I reverted to plastic work which was still abstract.” 

A year later he exhibits his first “Mobile”, a name suggested by Marcel Duchamp upon his visit to Calder’s studio to see these mechanized abstract sculptures. Over the ensuing years Calder’s kinetic sculptures have become the signature works for which he is best known.

A selection of these works along with his “stabiles”, Calder’s often monumental simple forms executed in sheet metal, can currently be seen at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum. Organized by the Los Angeles Community Museum of Art, Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic is on show at the Peabody until the 4th of January.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Serenity of Hope – The Art of Jean Paul Lemieux

 “The Physical world around me interests me only because it allows me to picture my inner self.”

Greek myth has it that when Pandora opened her box all the troubles that beset the world flew out except for hope; the optimistic state of mind based on the expectation of positive outcomeIt is said to be the underlying attribute of the somber and austere paintings of Canadian artist Jean Paul Lemieux’s almost minimalist rendered landscapes with their often solitary figures that endears them to their audience. And even when he painted groups of people they seem to be apart lost in their own reverie.

Credited with the revitalization of Canadian landscape painting, the softly spoken, gentle artist creates the quiet beauty of being human. In 1967 he said of his work “I have on theories. In my landscapes and my characters I try to express the solitude we all have to live with, and each painting, the inner world of my memories.”

Describing his working methods, his daughter, Anne Sophie, wrote “He liked to work alone, steeped in a silence that allowed him to hear his inner voice and to construct with brush and paint his inner world. This silence passed into his painting.” 

Working during the latter half of the 20th Century when abstraction had engulfed expressionism Lemieux expression was one sympathetic to the relationship of an often harsh environment with the people who inhabit it. Like the European expeditions into a new world where the hope of a successful journey was the prerequisite of survival.

Lemieux’s works are one of the highlights of the Eyes on Quebec exhibition at Ontario’s McMichael Canadian Art Collection which is on show until the 1st of February.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Impressionist’s Champion

“Durand-Ruel was a missionary, fortunately for us, painting was his religion.”
Pierre-Auguste Renoir 

The French art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel is credited as the champion of the Impressionist art movement whose dogged determination saw artists like Degas, Monet, Renoir, Sisley and Pissarro amongst others become the household names they are today. He is also credited with creating the gallery protocols of financially supporting artists, holding solo exhibitions, retrospective exhibitions for living artists, proactive press promotion, free entry to galleries and a network of international gallery spaces, practices that are still used by successful galleries today.

In the latter decades of the 19th Century Durand-Ruel provided monthly stipends to his artists so they could continue working and organized exhibitions of their work in the face of a hostile public and the public ridicule of the art establishment.

 About his benefactor, Claude Monet said “Without Durand, all of us Impressionists would have starved. We owe him everything. He was stubborn, persistent. He risked bankruptcy many times to support us. The critics dragged us through the mud, but it was much worse for him! They wrote, ‘These artists are mad, but the dealer who buys them is more mad than they are’.”  

Durand-Ruel’s introduction of the Impressionist’s work to the New York art market saw a turnaround in their fortunes. About this he quipped "The American public does not laugh. It buys!"

Paul Durand-Ruel also collected his artist’s works. By 1922 he had purchased more than a thousand works by Monet, approximately 1,500 by Renoir, more than 400 by Degas and as many by Sisley, about 800 of Pissarros works, close to 200 by Manet and almost 400 works by Mary Cassatt.

Just before his death at the age of 89 he declared “At last the Impressionist masters triumphed just as the generation of 1830 had. My madness had been wisdom. To think that, had I passed away at sixty, I would have died debt-ridden and bankrupt, surrounded by a wealth of underrated treasures…”

The exhibition Paul Durand-Ruel, The gamble of the Impressionists is currently on show at Paris’ Musee du Luxembourg until the 8th of February. This will be followed by exhibitions at London’s National Gallery in March and at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in June next year.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Butterfly Flutterby Christmas Exhibition

In what seems to be developing into a Christmas tradition, Connecticut’s Lyman Allyn Art Museum is once again presenting a whimsical family friendly exhibition for the holiday season. Last year it was Camomile Hixon’s Unicorns, the year before was James Gurney’s dinosaurs, this year it’s butterflies.

East Lyme artist Brian Keith Stephens has installed over 100 Mylar, floor to ceiling scrolls decorated with the silk screen renderings of a multitude of butterflies in Day-Glo colors. Displayed in a controlled Black light, the lighting that makes lint on a dark t-shirt stand out, environment the exhibition is a fantasy of light and color.  The reverse of the scrolls have been left blank, allowing the reflective properties of the Mylar to mirror the adjacent scrolls along with the visitors in this “Butterfly Forrest” of an exhibition. 
A regular visitor to butterfly houses and gardens, "Catch the Butterflies" reflects Stephens’ fascination with these beloved multi hued creatures. "Standing in an enclosure full of butterflies has an electrifying energy because your sense of space and depth condenses as the creatures flutter closer to you," Stephens said. "This is precisely the feeling I wanted to conjure with my butterfly forest."

Reflecting on this particular installation he stated "I wanted people to meander in different directions, I wanted to dissolve the walls and the space so you can get lost a little bit like in a carnival funhouse."

This is not Stephens’ first depiction of these creatures that Chinese folklore associates with a girls maturation into adulthood. In 2012 his “Butterfly Kisses” exhibition was shown at the Diane Birdsall Gallery in Old Lyme, Connecticut. This exhibition likewise approached the subject using hanging scrolls but without the controlled lighting afforded by the Lyman Allyn Art Museum. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

But is it Art? - Peter Lik’s Photography

According to the Guardian Newspaper’s art critic, Jonathon Jones, Peter Lik’s “Phantom,” which recently became the world’s most expensive photograph in a private sale for $6.5 million, cannot be art because it is a photograph. Jones is on the public record stating categorically “Photography is not an art. It is a technology.”

Others disagree including the newspaper’s photography critic Sean O’Hagen who provides a laundry list of artist photographers from Edward Steichen to Diane Arbus to support his case. Conspicuous by his absence from this list is Peter Lik.

Perhaps it is because Lik is still alive? Pick your Impressionist or Post Impressionist artist who was ignored until they had shuffled off this mortal coil.  Perhaps, with 14 galleries worldwide, Lik’s entrepreneurial flair is the problem. Consider Rembrandt and his studio full of assistances or Andy Warhol’s Factory for the realization that artistic achievement and business acumen are not mutually exclusive. Or perhaps it is his videos channeling the crocodile hunting Steve Irwin laden with enough superlatives to make a celebrity chef proud that irk.  

Whatever, but even Lik’s critics admit that the large pints, up to 60 inches (1.5 meters) in size, of his work look better in real life than they do on the internet. A fact confirmed by his 2013 American Aperture Award for best Landscape/Seascape/Nature photograph. As Lik said in a recent press release “The purpose of all my photos is to capture the power of nature and convey it in a way that inspires someone to feel passionate and connect to the image.”

With regard to the larger photographer as artist debate perhaps the last word should be by photographer Philip Jones Griffiths “Am I a news photographer? A press photographer? A photojournalist? An Artist? I deplore the latter moniker because the word is so misused. For me, art is the melding of form and content, and as that is what I strive to do, then perhaps ‘artist’ is correct.”

Friday, December 12, 2014

Happy Birthday Edvard Munch – 151 Candles Today

Best known for his painting The Scream, which like Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa has become a visual metaphor for the time of its creation, the Norwegian bachelor whose life was fueled by alcohol, Edvard Munch produced a great many more works of art than the 4 versions of this most famous of his works. Upon his death, a month after his 80th birthday, the executors to his estate found a collection of 1,008 paintings, 4,443 drawings and 15,391 prints locked away in his house. Munch considered his art works to be his children from which he could not bear to be parted.

A sickly child, Munch missed much of his formal education being bedridden where he would pass the time drawing. Brought up by his puritanical father, Munch’s mother died when he was five, he along with his siblings were often regaled by their father with ghost-stories and the tales of Edgar Allan Poe. At the age of 17 Munch decided to become a painter much to the dismay of his father who considered it to not only be an unholy trade" but was aghast at its associated bohemian lifestyle.

A two year scholarship to study in Paris brought the post impressionist painters Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and their use of color to express emotion into his orbit. A subsequent move to Berlin saw him frequent the company of writers, artists and critics including the Swedish dramatist August Strindberg whose portrait he painted in 1892.

It was here that Munch started his ambitious cycle of paintings Frieze of Life—A Poem about Life, Love and Death of which the 1893 version of The Scream was but one of the 22 paintings completed. The series also included such works as Death in the Sickroom, Anxiety, Ashes, Madonna and Women in Three Stages (from innocence to old age) to mention but a few. After almost a decade of work the full suite of the paintings was shown at 1902 Secessionist exhibition in Berlin. About these works Munch said "My art is really a voluntary confession and an attempt to explain to myself my relationship with life—it is, therefore, actually a sort of egoism, but I am constantly hoping that through this I can help others achieve clarity."

Munch is credited as the first Norwegian artist to produce a symbolist painting and was a major influence on the expressionist movement that flourished during the 20th Century. He is credited with stating "It's not the chair that should be painted, but what a person has felt at the sight of it."

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Search for an Ideal – The Art of Moussa Tine

At the age of 61 Senegalese artist Moussa Tine is having his first London exhibition, a long journey from the streets of Dakar.

At the age of 17 with a desire to attend art school in his heart, Tine arrived in the Senegal capital and found work, through a cousin, as a conductor on a “car rapide” minibus. During quite times Tine decorated the vehicle with scenes from the life of Amadu Bamba, the Senegal founder of the Muslim inspired Mouride Brotherhood.

Such was his skill other bus owners request he paint their vehicles and Tine was able to give up being a conductor to open his own shop. He also expanded his subject matter to include his own designs along with depictions of the owner’s regional affiliations.

In 1974 he achieved his dream and was accepted as a student at the Institut National Superieur des Arts. With his afternoons free from classes, Tine was able to support himself through his bus decoration business, an activity he continued for a further 20 years.

At the end of his studies Tine along with a group of fellow artists created The Arts Village, a complex of 45 studios on the outskirts of Dakar. They had occupied several abandoned Army barracks. For six years they worked, held exhibitions and concerts until their eviction by the police. In 1998 the Senegal president, Abdou Diof, declared himself the Official Protector of the Arts and Literature at an exhibition opening. The artists immediately petitioned him to reopen The Arts Village which was granted, but at an old encampment for Chinese works. The Village was a success and continues to flourish today.

Likewise Tine’s reputation as an artist flourished with exhibitions in Europe and the Americas. About his work Tine has said “In Africa, the grouping of individuals is very important… People praying together create a certain atmosphere of forgiveness which in turn allows an individual to reach a state of bliss more easily. The group facilitates this process. This is why there is always a presence of masses of Mourides in my works… And groupings of people produce rhythm, but an innocence has been discovered as well. I am always trying to interrupt the grouping of people, a grouping that will lead to the ideal.”

Moussa Tine’s exhibition is on show at visual arts agency specializing in the promotion of African, and more specifically West-African art, Tafeta until the 16th of December.