Friday, May 29, 2015

On Keeping it Simple

Making art is like running with your eyes shut, 
you must take risks and rely on your instincts.
Julian Opie

Described as “the master of the stick figure” British artist Julian Opie likes to make things as simple and as easy as possible.

As he told dazeddigital.com’s John-Paul Pryor “You know there is a tendency to feel that in order for something to be important that it's got to be difficult, and I tend to go the other way. My instincts are always to do what’s easiest – that’s just a rule that I follow and it means that you often end up making things that some people, and even I myself can feel a little dubious about. When people find out that I use photography as the basis for my portraits you can see that they feel a slight sense of disappointment, but frankly a photograph makes it a hell of a lot easier and we all know that the Dutch painters in the 17th century used the Camera Obscura when they could. So what I found, after a while, was that mimicking the computer look was a lot easier by simply using a computer. So I kind of taught myself vector drawing, and the way that works is via a process of cut and build, cut and build – you put pieces of rope around something, and you can make it thicker or darker, then you fill it with color – it’s a constructive Lego-type system of drawing.”

Universally known as the artist who reduces reality to outlines filled with color Opie appropriates the signage of flat pack furniture instructions for his landscapes whilst his figures look like they have stepped off toilet doors. For as he explained to the Guardian Newspapers Dominic Murphy "People are very suspicious once they know something is art. I wanted to defuse that moment of suspicion so that people are given the chance to enter the work visually before worrying about whether it is art or whether they are supposed to like it."

Working across painting, sculpture and computer art Opie brings the everyday and its inhabitants into the gallery. As he told Today’s Zaman “I can only work on [real] people. I can’t just imagine them. These are people that I know. I can only work with contemporary people, not dead people. It is inevitable that everybody I draw has a contemporary feeling. I also think that it would be strange not to draw the world around you because this is the world I know. I don’t like idealization, such as in the ancient sculptures of gods. I like realistic [depictions]; [they’re] more exciting, more mysterious. 

And as for the use of computers in his work, Opie has said “Art is always technology. Even if you put paint on [your] mouth and blew like they did 20,000 years ago, that’s technology. The trick is to do something good with it. I use both my hand and the computer. I don’t think one is better than the other.”

Opie’s current self-titled exhibition is on show at Zurich’s Galerie Bob van Orsouw until the 31st of July.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Don't Tell Me How to Paint

“He must be an artist. He knows a good painting when he sees it."
Horace Pippin

It took the self-taught African American folk artist Horace Pippin three years to complete his first oil painting. He had returned from the First World War with a steel plate in his right shoulder which left his arm virtually paralysed. Using his good left hand to support his right arm at the wrist Pippen was able to guide it across the canvas.

This first painting The End of War: Starting home was a cathartic work which along with several others Pippen exorcised the horror of the trenches and launched his artistic career. As he wrote “When I was a boy I loved to make pictures, [but war] brought out all the art in me. . . . I can never forget suffering and I will never forget sunsets. So I came home with all of it in my mind and I paint from it today.”

Four years later the artist NC Wyeth saw two of Pippins paintings in a shoe repair shop window. He was so taken by the works that he organised for Pippen to be the first African American artist to be shown in the annual Chester County Art Association's exhibition. A solo exhibition followed and a year later four of Pippen’s works were included in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1938 exhibition "Masters of Popular Painting."

Around this time the founder of the Barnes Foundation, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, became interested in Pippen’s work and became its champion, writing essays about and purchasing the artist’s works which still hang today amongst Barnes’ collection of Cézanne’s, Matisse’s and Renoir’s.

Whilst Pippen’s war paintings were the catalyst for his career it was his scenes of African American domesticity and his works inspired by the social-political historical injustices visited upon his people that cemented his place in annals American art.

Variously described by the critics of the day as a primitive/naïve artist, Pippen was a man who knew his own mind. As on the occasion when Dr. Barnes offered critical painting suggestions Pippen is reported to have replied "Do I tell you how to run your foundation? Don't tell me how to paint."

The exhibition Horace Pippin: The Way I See It is currently on show at Pennsylvania’s Brandywine River Museum of Art until the 19th of July.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Gesture in Painting

“It was the loss of the palette, not of the easel,
that changed the face of what we see as painting.
Frank Stella

Although famed for his quote “What you see is what you see” there is more to the art of painting than what engages the eye according to American abstract painter Frank Stella. As he told Bomb Magazine’s Saul Ostrow, “No art is any good unless you can feel how it’s put together. By and large it’s the eye, the hand and if it’s any good, you feel the body. Most of the best stuff seems to be a complete gesture, the totality of the artist’s body; you can really lean on it.”

And so it was with the first of the Black Paintings that were to make the Stella name. He was in his early 20’s and recently resident in New York, attracted by the cream of the abstract expressionists in the late 1950’s whose style had him in their thrall.

As he told the London’s Telegraph Newspaper’s Alastair SookeI was working on a particular painting, (called Delta), and I remember I got mad at it. So I painted over it, and went to bed. When I looked at it the next day, it didn't look that bad. All I'd done was simplify it by painting out the bands all black. But something was happening. It had a kind of presence. That was the beginning.”

A year later Stella had a series of these “large, aggressive canvases covered with stripes of black enamel paint that formed repetitive, rippling patterns.” Of which four were included the Museum of Modern Art’s 1959 exhibition Important Sixteen Americans.

Over the ensuing decades Stella’s stripes gave way to complex geometric designs, shaped canvases and works on aluminium to sculptures of architectural size. Along the way he has maintained that early gained recognition with exhibitions in prestigious galleries and museums and prices to match.

But it is the gesture within the painting that intrigues and goes a long way in determining its value as art for Stella. As the New York Times reported his saying during his Harvard University’s Charles Eliot Norton lecturer The life of what one drops the brush into counts for more than the size of what one paints on. The load of paint carried, more than the dimensions of the area to be covered, determines the scale of the gesture.”

An exhibition of his work Frank Stella – Paintings & Drawings is currently on show at The Kunstmuseum Basel until the 30th of August.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Writing in the Abstract

“I have learned from the past and shaped my own artistic practice.”
Mohammad Bozorgi

The Iranian calligraphy artist Mohammad Bozorgi’s ambition is to create his own language. As he states on his website “My desire is to create a new language, one that is based in traditional Persian and Arabic forms but communicates through abstraction.”

About which he elaborates, saying ‘Writing for me is the beauty and grandeur of a noble sense which without doubt refers to my cultural emotions and my intellectual and mental structure of calligraphy and religious faith. Although the public observers of today’s calligraphy do not believe in the historic purity of it; however my attempt whether successful or not is to reach to a certain source of purity.”

Bozorgi started studying traditional calligraphy in his early teens at summer courses in the subject and over the ensuing 15 years he studied 18 classical calligraphy forms of which he mastered 10 and in 2009 was awarded Momtaz (Outstanding/excellent) Degrees from the Calligraphy Association of Iran. Along the way Bozorgi picked up a BA in Biomedical Engineering and a MBA Degree from the Industrial Management Institute of Tehran.

He eventually broke ranks with the traditionalists for being, well, traditionalists, as he says “I stopped my collaboration and training with the Society because I found they were too restrictive and did not allow any innovation to the calligraphic forms with which they were working.”

As he explained to the Project Gallery Cap-Ferrat “After all these classical practices, I started to work with canvases, colours and other materials, I studied graphic and was really keen to try new things, just like now. I have no fear to deform the letters, similar to a child playing with kid’s clay! Unlike many other calligraphers, I prefer to suffuse my canvas from letters, as Jackson Pollock did by colours. I am living with words and letters, they are dynamic in my works and frames cannot restrict their motion.”

Today Bozorgi combines the aesthetics of contemporary painting with the abstraction inherent in the textual base of Islamic art.

As the publicity for his current exhibition states “Combining the illusionistic, multidimensional perspective of Op art with the intricate symmetry and pictorial invention of Islamic manuscripts, Bozorgi creates compositions that appear to palpitate as Arabic and Persian texts are freed from linear orientation. Morphing into fluid forms that float, swarm, or rotate across the canvas, the semiotic meaning of the artist’s calligraphy changes as it seems to go beyond its original realm of spirituality with allusions to material subjects and realities, bringing the sacred domain of devotion closer to perceptual experience.”

Bozorgi’s current exhibition Transcendental Strokes is on show at Ayyam’s Dubai Gallery until the 30th of July.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Contrasts Abound

“My pictures have no voice over.
Justin Mortimer

Justin Mortimer was 21 and still a student at London’s Slade School of Art when he won the National Gallery's BP Portrait Award with a painting of the Nobel Prize winning writer Harold Pinter. As Mortimer reminisced to Artlyist’s Paul Black some 22 years later “I was very young when I won that prize; much more a craftsman than intuitive artist. Painting anything realistically was very hard for me so a likeness was an achievement in itself. Content was a matter of fluke. Now being twice as old as I was then, I'm less bothered with technique and far more interested in the story and psychological possibilities of the picture.

Today Mortimer’s art invites the viewer to question the relationships between the figurative and the abstract, the subject matter and the content and the coexistence of beauty and horror. As he told Guernica’s Reed Cooley “I’m in the sort of classic liberal trap; I’m an essentially left wing person, making very bourgeois objects. But I do want my paintings to engage on a very human level. It has by default become this luxury object, but what makes me want to make art in my studio in a dingy part of East London is that story I want to tell about our fears, our anxieties, how afraid we all are, how we’re all going to die. Are we going to go mad? Am I going to lose my job? Is my body going to fail? Will my loved ones not be around for me?

Often “working many weeks on a single piece,” Mortimer builds his works appropriating images found on the internet and in books that range from flower arranging manuals to techniques of orthopedic surgery with the latter being influenced by his childhood.

As he has said “I was in the hospital myself a lot as a child; I used to wear a caliper, I was x-rayed all the time, and I saw lots of sick children. I have memories of being in medical machinery; it’s very frightening to a young kid: they move around and make strange noises; doctors manipulate you. I suppose as an adult [that’s translated to] thinking about exploitation and vulnerability. And then I’m from a military family—my father was a helicopter pilot in the Navy when I was a child —so I was surrounded by military hardware… my dad went off to sea throughout my childhood. There was always a sense of ‘would he come home’—that childhood fear. Fear became a subject—a personal fear and also a fear I have for mankind.”

How well founded that fear maybe, Mortimer leaves to his audience’s determination. He just set up a scene for their interpretation, as he says “My more successful work has always been when it looks as if something has or is about to happen.

Mortimer’s current exhibition Kult is on show at London’s Parafin Gallery until the 27th of June.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Of Sugar & Spice

“I believe deep down in their hearts, everybody wants to be a prince or princess.
Anna Berezovskaya

The Russian artist Anna Berezovskaya paints wonderlands that allow people to relive the magical and mysterious joys of childhood, a welcome respite from the usual harsh realities that confront us. As she explained to the Hong Kong MagazineWhen I was little, my parents were always busy working so I was left home alone all the time. Being an imaginative kid I loved reading fairy tales and then started creating my own. When I became a painter, those fantasies naturally reflected in my paintings.

Berezovskaya comes from the small town of Jakhroma some 60 kms north of Moscow and from the age of 17 has had to make her own way in the world. As she has said “My parents sent me to art school when I was nine, but they never wanted me to pursue a painting career. I had to be self-supported when I turned 17 though, so I had no choice but to produce paintings and sell as many as I could.

In the ensuing eight years Berezovskaya has become something of a darling in art world commanding prices in the five and six figure range for her work. Work’s that present a fairy tale fantasy. As she told Singapore’s City Nomads “I do not portray real life; instead I portray my own life, my own world. I offer an alternate world and try to get people to believe in it. And my paintings are meant to be timeless.”

But like all good fairytales there is a darker underside, a moral, perhaps, lurking under the surface. As she told the Singapore Art Gallery Guide about her latest exhibition “I still draw on stories that I love from my childhood but in terms of development I realize I have developed and grown and my ideas are becoming more interesting, sharper, more developed. With my new series Edge of the World I wanted to invest the works with a sense of what people value, what is worth doing. I have done this using the style and techniques I have always used, but perhaps with a stronger sense of symbolism and a greater awareness of my own artistic style.”

And then there is the apocryphal story she tells of a painting’s sale. “Once they exhibited a painting of mine of a fat woman staring at a lot of delicious food locked in a cage. A woman came to me and told me she would buy that painting to hang on the wall of her daughter’s bedroom to urge her to go to diet! I had never thought my painting could serve such a practical purpose.

Berezovskaya’s current exhibition Edge of the World is on show a Singapore’s Redsea Gallery until the 14th of June. 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Drawing Out the Message

I scavenge images from journalistic photography.
Faiza Butt

From domestic tranquilities need of impressing the in-laws to the experience of being a Muslim in a post 9/11 world, the work of the Pakistani born, London based artist Faiza Butt’s is unashamedly political. As she told Art RadarI do believe artists are social commentators. Hardship tends to sharpen their senses. They log and document truth and side towards fairness. They are trained to look in-between the hard projections of right and wrong. I do have that sense of responsibility! My work must provoke the unsaid, the truth, and make my audience think and question. Coming from a turbulent country such as Pakistan, it is only natural for me to be politically opinionated in my work.

So much so that this opinionated streak influenced the development of Butt’s style of painting whilst a student at London’s Slade School of Fine Art. As she has said “In the mid-nineties, the echoes from the New York art scene were still ringing strong at the art school, with its leaders like Jackson Pollock projected like rock stars who lived fast and died young! I observed that students were still very engaged in the discussion around the physicality of oil painting as a medium. I have always questioned the hierarchy of Western art history projected as the [only] art history of the world and the need to reinterpret the arts of the East…I chose to work on paper as a reaction to the physicality of canvas and oil paint. I consider my works elaborate drawings. I observed that drawing had a place in the hierarchical order of the painting tradition, but was considered “preparatory” and not complete. I decided to create obsessive, embellished drawings that rival paintings in their ambition.

From growing up surrounded by Pakistani Truck Art and the hand painted cinema billboards of Lahore to integrating herself into an English, Christian family, from her reaction to the female nude in Western art to the territorial nurture/nature aspect of childhood, all inform Butt’s portrayal of a divided world with inspiration more often than not coming from the mass media.

As she has explained “Photographs that are meant to influence the masses amaze me. I must add that the creative force that affects people instantly is not art but advertising. My initial ideas come from sources that exist outside the core of fine art. It connects with my early inspiration coming from the visual material that surrounded me in Lahore. Once I find a photograph that I feel can be extended into a meaningful image, I start to spin the web of supporting images around it, digesting the original image along the way and giving birth to a new narrative.

A narrative that explores the pressing global issues of the day behind a façade of enticingly colored images of the everyday pregnant with alternative meanings, As she told her sister, Nadia, in an interview in Pakistan’s Friday Times “I want to throw punches, to deliver a message without having to read up on the background and yet my work must also contribute to the history of painting.”

A survey exhibition of her work Faiza Butt: Paracosm is on show at Nottingham’s New Art Exchange until the 28th of June.

Friday, May 22, 2015

News as Art

“My collages are social landscapes, theaters of form and gestures of symbolism.”
Peter Jacobs

Every day the American artist Peter Jacobs sits down at his kitchen table with a cup of coffee and the New York Times, but instead of a piece of toast to complete this morning ritual, Jacobs opening trifecta is completed with a X-Acto knife and a glue stick. Over the next two hours, Jacobs will slice and dice The Grey Lady to create a colorful collage that re-contextualizes the day’s news into a personalized image that reflects the edition’s mix of truth and advertising.

As Jacobs’ wrote in the Strathmore Artist Papers “I abstract small truths and intuitively build visual rhythms that imbue surreal narratives that say a lot about who I am and the world we live in.”

Jacobs’ created the first of these particular collages on the 31st of March 2005 and has made one every day since with no foreseeable end date in sight. As he writes “The Collage Journal has become integrated in my daily life as a meditation, contemplation and re-evaluation of culture and identity.”
His interest in collage predates his commencement of the Journal by some 20 plus years to when he was studying for his BFA in photography at Purchase College and wanted a more hands on experience. As he has written “I loved to walk aimlessly in the city and record my responses and perceptions. This art of seeing and capturing I embraced, but the processing and printing became a labor and I wanted to have greater hands-on engagement in the process of my art. Having studied color theory and figure ground, collage was natural visual language for me. My work was constructivist at heart and remains so to this day.”

Although Jacobs has produced and exhibited other collage works the constant discipline of the Journal has seen it evolve from commenting on elements of the news to a "more painterly and formal" presentation. As he told the Montclair Times “You don't realize you're looking at newspaper clippings."

A subject Jacobs expands upon in the publicity for his current Huntington Art Museum exhibition, equating his work to “a puzzle (in which) I try to create a different ending to each time.  When I start each collage, I have no idea where I’m going to end up. . . That, to me, means I’m never compromising.”

To which he added No one knows what the future will bring, but I will continue to bring a new work into each day as long as the New York Times delivers newspapers.” 

His current exhibition Peter Jacobs: The Collage Journal -- The First Decade is on show at New Jersey’s Huntington Art Museum until the 6th of September.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Enter At Your Own Risk

"You take fact and then you build fiction around it."
Tyler Shields

The Cliché is the recipient of a lot of bad press and deservedly so, for as your English teacher was fond of saying it “is generally considered a mark of inexperience or a lack of originality.” A statement that is equally as true for the visual arts in general and photography in particular.

That is until it is placed in the hands of American photographer Tyler Shields whose repurposing of the well worn infuses them with new meanings that more often than not up ends the predictable meme originally expressed.

Like his Girl Running From Plane (see above) from his new photographic series Historical Fiction, an image that breathes new life into the poster child of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 movie North by Northwest. About which Shields’ says “With ‘Historical Fiction,’ I have tried to create a narrative of history frozen in time, as if each image were part of a book where the first and last 100 pages have been torn out, and the story is for you to decipher.  What happened before and what happened after is only up to the imagination of the viewer, and it's that viewer that can envision themselves in many of these moments.”

The 33 year old Shields is a fast rising photographic star in his own right on America’s west coast who took his first photograph in 2003; it was what he took away from a failed romance. As he told Elle Magazine “I was a music video director at the time, and I had this girlfriend who basically cheated on me with a guy who was a photographer. He took pictures of cats and shit, you know what I mean? He just called himself a photographer. I took all of her stuff and boxed it up. And the last things there were two pairs of shoes and a hanger in an empty closet. So, I borrowed my roommate's camera, took one picture and said, "Oh, when you develop the film, it's the last picture on the roll. Just give me that." He gave it to me, and people went crazy for it. Magic, the fashion trade show company, ended up buying it and using it for their ad campaign. That's how I was able to buy my first camera.”

His notoriety received a boost in 2011 when a selection of his images was attacked for making light of domestic abuse. An accusation Shields rejected telling The Huffington Post "In no way were we promoting domestic violence. We wanted to do a bruised-up Barbie [doll] shoot and that's exactly what we did!"

Provocative and sometimes controversial Shields work is always close to the edge of approval, disapproval, real and unreal (although he insists they are real - no Photoshop) and biting social commentary is never far away.

For as Shield's insists “I'm an artist. I'm not a politician. I'll tell you exactly what I think, and I'll do exactly what I want to do. And I'm the most honest f-cking person you'll ever meet, because I put it out there for the whole world to see." 

Shields’ current exhibition Historical Fiction is on show at Santa Monica’s Andrew Weiss Gallery until the 30th of June. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

About Making the Best Art Possible

“Art is not holy and is not above other production.”
Samia Halaby

The Palestinian born New York based abstract artist Samia Halaby is very much the pragmatist. As she told the New York Magazine’s Erica Schwiegershausen “I don’t have patience with the postmodern philosophers because I’m a person who wants to deal with concrete things. I believe what I see is real, and I want to paint about it.”

Halaby also rejects the concept that art is self expression, as she says “The stuff comes out of me, but it’s not about me. Our brain is a storehouse of all of the things we’ve seen, and as we process them, we discern the general principles that govern them. Abstraction, being about general principles, can remind you of many sets of things that share the same principles. Abstract paintings are not about specific objects.”

At the age of 12 Halaby along with her family were forced to leave their home in Jaffa during the fighting there as part of the creation of the state of Israel. After three years in Beirut the family moved to the Midwestern United States. After graduated from Indiana University with a Masters in Fine Art Halaby embarked on her career as an artist by becoming a teacher. As she says in her biography “Teaching was then the only way to earn money if your college degree was in the arts.”

After 18 years in exile Halaby was able to return to the Arab world for the first time which had a marked influence upon her work that had mostly been influence by the mid 20th Century European and American abstract movements. As she has said “I went back in 1966 and I visited the Dome of the Rock, which is one of the most amazing architectural monuments in the world. It’s a mosque, and it influenced my work enormously. I saw large, very simple marble inlays of geometric art. The inlays were at least twelve to fourteen feet tall, and some were just a few squares arranged with a black outline. Medieval Arabic art is very much based on symmetry: There’s a repeating pattern with chosen parts represented in a rectangle. So I came back and decided to let the rectangle of the painting determine what I do.”

Halaby has also been active in issues regarding the land of her birth. As she says “I’m very much an activist for Palestine, and I’m a leftist — the two seem to go together. The experience of being evicted from Palestine and losing everything was a very painful one...There’s a deep pain in every Palestinian about it, I think.”

But she doesn’t see herself as a Palestinian artist per se. “As I see it, Palestine need not be in my painting and should not be in my painting. If Arab art and Palestine is in some paintings, that’s because it’s part of my past and will come through as part of my experiences in the real world. But if I’m a painter, I should be a painter trying to do paintings that are the most advanced possible,” she has remarked.

Halaby’s current exhibition Painting from the Sixties and Seventies is on show at Ayyam’s London Gallery until the 18th of July.