Sunday, January 25, 2015

Pondering Art in a Si Fi Future

"The development of full artificial intelligence
 could spell the end of the human race.”
Stephen Hawkins

On Thursday the 23rd of January the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists announced that they had moved their iconic Doomsday Clock to three minutes to Midnight. Citing the modernization of nuclear arsenals and unchecked climate change this is the closest the clock has been to midnight since the height of the Cold War in 1984.

Should these apocalyptic scenarios come together silicon may replace carbon as the dominate life form assuming of course that silicon could survive the ravages of a nuclear winter and/or an overheated world. In this hypothetical situation the question that arises is how would art be appreciated, as a graphical representation or would the language/code of its production dominate?

Indirectly, the work of minimalist British artist, David Riley nods towards these imaginings. Whilst his real world exhibitions present his work in a conventional manner that can be hung upon a wall his internet exhibitions whilst having a graphical representation on a monitor depend upon their underlying codes for that reality.

Traveling the internet under the pseudonym of Revad, Riley uses social media pages for his internet exhibitions. His word circle numbers tumbler exhibition can be seen here and his colourscape exhibition on instagram can be seen here.

When he talks about his work Riley refers to himself as a black box and his work as outputs. As he explains on his website “when I chose the black box metaphor I was thinking like an engineer. In science and engineering, a black box is a device, system or object which can be viewed solely in terms of its input, output and transfer characteristics; and without any knowledge of its internal working. Using this well understood concept, I think I am (in) the black box. That is, I receive stimuli to make work; I apply my interest, experience and passion to making the work; I produce output and share the output I find satisfying.”

Prior to becoming an artist, Riley was a senior systems engineer for a telecommunications company who played with photography. It was this photographic interest that caused him to take up art. As he explained via email “The digital camera was the catalyst. I had dabbled in photography for many years, but hated the wait for film processing and printing. The digital camera streamlined the process and gave me instant access to the material. I then realized I could do much more than take photographs. Having made this personal breakthrough, I started to explore other materials.”

Amongst those other materials of interest was language or as he prefers to call it code and its graphical representation. And should the unthinkable happen and silicon does indeed triumph over carbon, Riley’s work, be it graphic or code, may well become the equivalent of Lascaux in that new epoch.

Should you like to see more of Riley’s work click on the banner ad at the top of this page.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Painting as Performance

"That fucking Picasso,
He's done everything."
Jackson Pollock

A not unfounded compliant for the young American painter Jackson Pollock to shout into the night air about the colossus of 20th Century art as he staggered home, drunk again. To which he would add "I'll show them someday," which he ultimately did do. For Picasso had covered and excelled at many forms of artistic expression, even inventing his own. But the Spanish master left one area untouched – action painting.

In the early years after the Second World War, Pollock was living in New York and making a name for himself in the New York art scene. He was also undergoing Jungian psychotherapy for alcoholism and depression, a treatment predicated on self discovery. In 1946, along with his wife Lee Krasner, Pollock moved from the city to a homestead in a rural hamlet near East Hampton. On the property was a barn that Pollock converted into a studio which saw him produce the majority of his formidable works.

Pollock would circumnavigate a canvas he had affixed to the floor upon which he would fling, drip and squirt paint. The traditional easel and brushes of his trade were left aside as he went on these journeys of self discovery. About which Pollock wrote “When I am in my painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing. It is only after a sort of 'get acquainted' period that I see what I have been about. I have no fear of making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. 

It was a performance, often with more than one act, which left a permanent record. As photographer Hans Namuth explained “A dripping wet canvas covered the entire floor … There was complete silence … Pollock looked at the painting. Then, unexpectedly, he picked up can and paint brush and started to move around the canvas. It was as if he suddenly realized the painting was not finished. His movements, slow at first, gradually became faster and more dance like as he flung black, white, and rust colored paint onto the canvas. He completely forgot that Lee and I were there; he did not seem to hear the click of the camera shutter … My photography session lasted as long as he kept painting, perhaps half an hour. In all that time, Pollock did not stop. How could one keep up this level of activity? Finally, he said 'This is it.'

Whilst Time Magazine famously called Pollock “Jack the Dripper,” his contemporary Willem de Kooning said "Every so often a painter has to destroy painting. Cézanne did it. Picasso did it with Cubism. Then Pollock did it. He busted our idea of a picture all to hell. Then there could be new paintings again."

A current exhibition of his work Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots is on show at Tate Liverpool until the 18th of October. After its British showing, the exhibition will move to the Dallas Museum of Art where it will be on show from the 15th of November to the 20th of March next year. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Memories, Real or Imagined

“When a subject is no longer clearly outlined,
spaces for imagination and memory open up.”
Philippe Cognée

Since its invention in the middle of the 19th Century the photograph has become a competitor to and a collaborator with painting. For in essence they are the two sides of the same coin: the visual expression of an idea and other places of interest. And whilst the relatively new kid on the block has yet to reach the gravitas of its older sister in the eyes of some, increasingly artists have incorporated both into their work.

One such artist is Frenchman Philippe Cognée who uses photographs, video stills, and found images from the internet in general and the satellite images from Google’s street views in particular as the basis for his paintings. He renders these views using charcoal, graphite and encaustic (paint mixed with Bee’s wax) which he then heats and crushes with a domestic iron. The result, as the charcoal explodes, the line breaks up and the paint melts is a semi abstract depiction of the scene.

Utilizing subject matter that covers the whole gamut of traditional painting genres from still life’s to landscapes, both urban and rural, from portraiture to copy’s of old maters Cognée explores the role of painting in the 21st Century. 

The transitory nature of the digital world, best encapsulated in the 24 hour news cycle or the five to ten minute life of the average twitter message, is investigated in Cognée’s work through his vague renderings that demand the viewer’s input from their memories, real or imagined. The right or wrong of accuracy is abandoned for the momentary now that each member of the audience, prejudices intact, brings to the encounter.

Cognée’s current exhibition Territoires is on show at Brussels’ Galerie Daniel Templon until the 21st of February.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Of Birds And The East Village

In 1995 three researchers from Keio University, Shigeru Watanabe, Junko Sakamoto and Masumi Wakita won the Ig Nobel Prize for Psychology for teaching pigeons to discriminate between impressionist and cubist paintings using the works of Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso. Interestingly, when the paintings were shown to the birds upside down they could only identify the cubist works.

The Dutch/American artist Anton van Dalen is a pigeon fancier. Each day, weather permitting, he goes to the roof of the building he has called home for the last 47 years and releases his birds from their loft to fly in the sky over Manhattan’s East Village. What was once a common sight has become increasingly rare as this Manhattan enclave has suffered from the advance of gentrification. 

The change wrought over the last four decades to his beloved East Village along with his fascination with animal intelligence of both the winged kind as well as the human kind has long informed his work. Presented in a graphic reportage style it betrays the influence of the New Yorker’s cartoonist and illustrator Saul Steinberg for whom van Dalen was his main assistant for 30 years.

From the seedy streets with their drug-shooting galleries to the upscale bars, fast food restaurants, and well-heeled women van Dalen’s work is infused with the pessimism of the realist but soften with a dry wit as he explores his character’s ability to survive in an environment of restricted behavior. Over time van Dalen’s palette has shift from the monochromatic style of his earlier works to what he calls “the colors of our time,” a mimicking of the light from flat screens, cell phones and computers.

An exhibition of van Dalen’s latest works will open at New York’s PPOW Gallery on the 13 of February and be on show until the 14th of March.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

An Art of Many Parts

“This is what I have tried to do in my collages: 
To bring the African American experience into art 
and give it a universal dimension.”
Romare Bearden

African American artist Romare Bearden was a man of many parts. He was a social worker, a student of philosophy, a jazz musician and composer, a writer, and an artist. In the latter years of his life he was awarded honorary doctorates by seven American universities in the fields of Fine Art and Literature.

His first forays into art were as a cartoonist for satirical student publications on the campuses where he was studying for a degree in Education. After graduation, whilst studying at New York’s Arts Students league his political cartoons were published in African/American newspapers.

He enjoyed early success with his painting but as abstract expressionism took hold this dwindled and a disillusioned Bearden decamped to Paris to study art history and philosophy at the Sorbonne. Whilst there he met and became friends with Pablo Picasso, Fernand Leger and Constantin Brancusi.

His return to America saw him concentrate more on his music that his art although he experimented with abstraction. It was in the early 1960's that Bearden truly found his artistic voice.

Inspired by Picasso’s earlier work with collage and Matisse’s later cut outs, Bearden found the perfect way to express his ideas. Through the use of collage he was able to articulate the Negro experience from both the rural south and the urban north that he had lived. As he said ''I believe that it was because I had something unique to say about the life that I knew best. I took an art form that was different. What I had to say took a little different form than most of the paintings around; I used the collage. Especially in some of the earlier collages that I did, I chose some of the photographic materials for a certain reason. I wanted to give an immediacy, like a documentary movie.''

Bearden’s use of collage underscored his belief that when things are taken out of their usual context, reworked and reconfigured in a new context they develop new meanings. “When some things are taken out of the usual context and put in the new, they are given an entirely new character." He once explained.

Bearden today is regarded as America’s master of collage, a discipline that, like his life, is made of many parts. “The artist has to be something like the whale,” he once said “swimming with his mouth wide open, absorbing everything until he has what he needs.” 

The High Museum of Art in Atlanta currently has A Painter's Profile: The High Celebrates Romare Bearden on show until the 31st of May. And New York’s Columbia University Wallach Art Gallery is showing Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey until 14th of March.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A Rubik Cube in Chinese Art

“If you are curious, you’ll find the puzzles around you.
If you are determined, you will solve them.”
Erno Rubik

In the 2006 film The Pursuit of Happyness Will Smith’s character Chris Gardner secures an interview for the job that will change his life by solving a Rubik’s Cube for the potential employer’s recruiter during a shared taxi ride. In 1974 the “cube”, the solving of which is often equated with intelligence, was invented by a Hungarian Professor of architecture, Erno Rubik, primarily to explain to his students spatial relationships. Six years later it was on its way to becoming the most popular toy in history.

About his cube, Rubik told CNN “probably the most characteristic part of the cube is the contradiction between simplicity and complexity. I think probably that's part of the key to the success of the cube -- you are able to have a connection with this order and chaos.”

It is a situation that is not dissimilar to what is happening in Chinese art according to Arne Glimcher, the number three art dealer in Forbes Magazine’s top ten. As he told the Phaidon Press website in 2012 “The Cultural Revolution destroyed the entire history of China for a generation. So you’re dealing with the oldest country in the world and the newest country in the world and that schism between who they were and who they are and that is happening in China.”

Enter to this milieu Chinese conceptional artist Zhao Yao. Using painting rather than installation to express his ideas, Zhao is no longer concerned with making something that is simply interesting in itself.” As he says about his paintings They are informed by observations of what others are looking at, and how they are looking.”

As Zhao explained to Time Out, Beijing “These pictures are imaginative. At the same time they are ready-made, taken from a series used to train kids to think logically; things like color patterns and exercises to teach them to move shapes around and form a new design. By integrating these lessons with the mass-produced cloth, these appear as abstract works of art.

To which he added “‘I like it more when the audience doesn’t trust the artist’s perspective, when the artist doesn’t trust himself and when the audience doesn’t even trust itself.” With a final proviso “Don’t trust me; don’t trust anything.

His current exhibition Zhao Yao: Painting of Thought is on show at Hong Kong’s Pace Gallery from the 15 of January to the 26th of February.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Easy Come, Easy Go

“Money, money, money
Always sunny
In the rich man's world” 

Whether as the quantifier for time or as the commodity that keeps the earth spinning, money has a major effect on our quality of life. This is particularly true in the visual arts where an artist’s success/importance is increasingly measured by the number of marks, yen or dollars they can command for their work, especially at public auctions. It is equally true that a lack of money is one of the modern world’s great motivators.

Such was the case for the German/American engineer Otis Kaye. He was financially wiped out when the Great Depression of 1929 crashed over him. Kaye’s response to this calamity was to take up painting and the subject he most often chose to paint was money. The precision inherent in his early calling was such that his depictions of dollars and cents are so accurate and realistic that even today viewers of his work are often tempted to try and pocket them from his canvas.

Little is known about the man mainly because he never exhibited his work. To have done so would have brought the wrath of the US government down upon his head. For in 1909 it became illegal to paint US currency. Consequently Kaye gave his paintings to friends and relatives and whilst he did depict other subjects he is believed to have sold only two paintings during his life time.

Best known for his technical virtuosity, Kaye’s compositions are as intriguing as they are inventive and he was not adverse to the visual pun, although his humor is often black and barely conceals the anger he felt towards the hand fate had dealt him.

Last Saturday Connecticut’s New Britain Museum of American Art opened an exhibition of his work, Otis Kaye: Money, Mystery, and Mastery which will remain on show until the 10 of May.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Realism and Optimism: It's the Real Beal

“It’s very much a matter of fact realism, sort of warts and all”
Les Reker

Three days after the horrific experience of seeing airplanes flying into the north and south towers of the World Trade Center a life affirming mural The Return of Spring was unveiled at the Times Square subway station. It is a modern day depiction of the Greek myth of Persephone whose return to earth from Hades each year heralds the end of winter; a metaphorical victory of life over death. The 7 by 20 foot (2.1 by 6 meter) glass mosaic work was created by the American social realist artist Jack Beal.

After three years at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Beal entered a world where abstract expressionism was all the rage. It was a style that Beal was neither comfortable with nor exceptional at and after flirting with figurative art he settled into the social realist genre. It was a courageous move, for as the New York Times art critic, Hilton Kramer wrote “Given the generally low esteem — a disfavor bordering at times on contempt — that the Social Realist impulse has suffered in recent decades, this is not a position likely to be a cause of envy.”

The Columbus Museum’s curator, Les Reker has said Beal, ”borrowed the bold lines and the sharp colors of abstract expressionism and slathered them into the figures and objects of traditional realism.”

Ever the optimist, Beal painted his still life’s, landscapes and figurative studies from an everyday point of view. As he said in a 1979 interview “I think that what we have to try to do is to make beautiful paintings about life as we live it.”

Author Eric Shanes in a monograph about Beal wrote, his “pushing of representational forms to their interface with abstraction has been responsible for the creation of the most striking and unusual images of the period.”

The exhibition Jack Beal: Hard Edge Paintings, 1968 -1972 is currently on show at New York’s George Adams Gallery until the 28th of February.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

An Expression of faith

“I’m looking for things I’ve never seen before”
Robert Mapplethorpe

Freedom of Speech is a basic human right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which has been central to numerous debates, often in the vanguard, about the social conditions under which we conduct our affairs.

Twenty five years ago Robert Mapplethorpe’s exhibition The Perfect Moment created a cultural convulsion that saw the first American museum to be charged with obscenity, another museum’s director resign, a serve backlash directed at the American government’s arts funding agency the National Endowment for the Arts and a tripling in the prices for Mapplethorpe’s photographic prints. Of the over 150 photographs in the exhibition 7 were considered offensive, 5 explicit homoerotic S&M images and 2 images of naked juveniles.

What had been a major success at New York’s Whitney Museum was considered beyond the pale for showing at the Cincinnati’s Contemporary Art Center. Whilst Cincinnati is not New York, it took the Cincinnati jury just 2 hours of discussion to decide there was no case to answer.

A lifelong catholic, Mapplethorpe’s rigorously formalized portraits and figure studies, floral still life’s and photographs of gay eroticism were an expression of his faith. As his lover, the academic and cultural writer Jack Fritscher says in his essay What Happened When: Censorship, Gay History, & Mapplethorpe, “Though Mapplethorpe was for a long-time non-practicing, he was a life-long Catholic as was his intimate peer, Andy Warhol. Both were very much influenced by western culture's Catholic-identified sculpture and painting. Mapplethorpe died a Catholic, and his photographs which he designed, he said, as "little altars" fall distinctly in matter and form within Catholic traditions of incarnation (his faces), transubstantiation (his flowers), martyrdom (his figures), mysticism (his fetishes), and ritual (his formalism).”

In 2011 the Sean Kelly Gallery hosted a posthumous exhibition of Mapplethorpe’s work, 50 Americans. Fifty people, one from each American state, were invited to select a single artwork from over 2,000 images in Mapplethorpe’s oeuvre.

About this exhibition Vanity Fair contributing editor, Ingrid Sischy said “I was fascinated by how few of the graphically sexual images were ultimately chosen. It speaks to the beauty of Robert’s other images; it shows this is not a one-note-Johnny photographer, and that his camera certainly traveled in a number of subjects. Many of these other images, like his flowers or images of Patti Smith, or his classical nudes or his portraits of black and white men together, actually have an undercurrent of the sexual component that made him famous.” Whilst photographer, Bruce Weber saidIsn’t it a wonderful miracle that photography can express what was in Robert Mapplethorpe’s head, and be accepted today as an American point of view.”

A selection of Mapplethorpe’s photographs is current on show at New York’s Robert Miller Gallery until the 21st of February.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Visions of Empire

"Mistah Kurtz—he dead."
Joseph Conrad – The Heart of Darkness

The announcement of the demise of this particular European imperialist demigod in Conrad’s 1899 novella could also be considered a prescient announcement of the upheavals that would engulf the world as people struggled out from under the yoke of European colonialism be they African, Arab or Asian.

It is an influence that informs the work of American artist, Kehinde Wiley to a degree, for he is equally interested in the craft of painting and how that effects a viewer’s perception. As he told Bad at Sports in 2010, “Certainly it’s a question about colonialism, empire, race, and all of that. But let’s bring it back a couple steps. Let’s talk about the artist’s desire to go beyond the pictorial or the representational and the desire to create the abstract—the idea that painting can go beyond what is seen. 
Growing up in South Central Los Angeles his mother was insistent the he attend art school. About which Wiley has said “I was fortunate because my mother was very much focused on getting me, my twin brother, and other siblings out of the hood. On weekends I would go to art classes at a conservatory. After school, we were on lockdown. It was something I hated, obviously, but in the end it was a lifesaver.

Described as a “brilliant renaissance technician with hip-hop subject matter,” Wiley came to the attention of the art world in his mid 20’s with a series of paintings depicting people from his New York neighborhood. They are dressed in the uniform of the streets in poses they selected from classic European portraiture which Wiley place on a decorative background. As he told the Interview website, “When Ice-T came by, he wanted to be this really great painting of Napoleon by Ingres.”

In his latest series of works, The World Stage, Wiley has broadened his outlook to include people from a wider diaspora than New York.  About which he says, “Many of the reasons why I choose certain sites have to do with a level of curiosity, but it also has to do with their broader, global, political importance- strategically for America, and the world community at large. One of the reasons I chose Brazil, Nigeria, India and China is that these are all the points of anxiety and curiosity and production that are going on in the world that are changing the way we see empire.

The Brooklyn Museum has scheduled to show Wiley’s exhibition A New Republic from the 20th of February to the 24th of May.