Sunday, August 02, 2015

Photographer as Poet

“Photography is a space where I can be alone in my thoughts, observe and record.
Justine Varga

For the minimalist Australian photographer Justine Varga the darkroom is a refuge that allows her to “explore other concerns to do with the photographic medium, philosophy and art in general that are not wholly reliant on geographic location.

Varga’s interest in photography began while she was in high school. As she told the Try Hard Magazine “Photography was part of my year eight art class. I connected with it immediately and before too long I was given free run of the darkrooms. I would be in there most lunchtimes, really whenever I could. I didn’t particularly enjoy school so it was a refuge for me.”

Now armed with a Bachelor of Fine Art’s degree with a photography major from Sydney’s National Art School, Varga indulges her interest in poetry using analogue photography as her medium.

As she explained to Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2012 “Poetry has the ability to get to the core of things and at the same time is difficult to pin even when it is stripped down, for me it is felt. Like most art forms it becomes very much about your own experience your relationship to the work, it is personal whether you read it or create it. And when I think about this, this is largely why I want to be an artist and why I want to engage with art, to read poetry.

As the Art Collector Magazine noted about Varga’s work “In our global environment of image saturation and infinite reproduction, her work is a welcome shift in the genre of photography. As is the focus not on self, through portraiture or the tiring documentation of the social activities of so many millions, but through symbolic gestures and actions that speak about individual existence in a private space.”

About her photographic process Varga has said “I enjoy exploring analogue processes, of late it has drawn me to concentrate on the film surface – this surface for me is one fundamental point of difference between the two [analogue and digital photography] and I have begun to exploit its materiality within works… The photographic medium is linked inextricably to time - the very nature of exposure or capture is dependent on it. Time in this regard has particularly played out in my camera-less works, such as Desklamp (see above). Exposed for the better part of a year this work can be read as a moving image – time stretched out and collapsed again into a single frame. This idea of time also extends to the speed of images. As images in today’s current climate become ever more immediate and overwhelming in number – in other words as they accelerate – I feel the need to empty out and create slow images.

Examples of Varga’s can currently be seen at Melbourne’s Centre for Contemporary Photography until the 6th of September and Sydney’s MOP Gallery until the 16th of August.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Street Performance Painting - Is It Art?

 "Reach into your pocket, grab some money, fold it up and put it in the hat."
A street performers payment pitch

The Canadian painter Levine Flexhaug was a street performer, a busker, a strolling player who frequented National parks, resorts, department stores and bars, anywhere a crowd with some time to spare could be found.

The successful street performers formulea is tried and true. Attract a crowd, present a 20 to 30 minute performance, pass round the hat or in Flexhaug's case sell the painting. And from the end of the great depression to swinging 60's Flexhaug made his living touring his act through western Canada.

Unmoved by the changing fashions Flexhaug painted the same scene with minor variations over and over again entracing his audience with the magical transformation of a blank canvas into a mythical eden. An ideal idle away from the trials and tribulations of the everyday.

Now, some 40 years after his death, Flexhaug's paintings have become collectables costing far more than their $10 street price. And 450 of his paintings have been curated into the  touring exhibition A Sublime Vernacular: The Landscape Paintings of Levine Flexhaug by the Art Gallery of Grande Prairie.

About which the exhibition's curators, Nancy Tousley and Peter White, have written "As engaging as they are aesthetically, Flexhaug's paintings also offer a point of entry for consideration of significant critical questions ranging from issues of taste, originality versus repetition in art, the appeal of landscape and its iconography – particularly in the Canadian context – to whether art can have integrity as art even if it is unapologetically commercial."

A Sublime Vernacular is currently on show at Saskatchewan's MacKenzie Art Gallery until the 9th of August.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Down the Rabbit Hole - An Exhibition Review

Authors note: Whilst I write about artists and their work I refrain from from expressing a personal opinion (a critique if you will) about work that I have not seen in person. Consequently I write about an artist's life and experiences that have informed their work preferably, whenever possible, using their own words. I do include third party critiques of their work that confirm a limited opinion of the work gleaned from the internet. For I am keenly aware that what appears on the internet can be very different from its appearance in the real world.

Last night I had the opportunity to attend the opening of BLACKMAN + BROMLEY - Down the Rabbit Hole.

Charles Blackman is one of the undisputed masters of Australian art. Working in the middle to later years of the last century he rightly shares a name recognition comparable to his contemporaries Sydney Nolan and Arthur Boyd.

Down the Rabbit Hole is presented as a homage to Blackman and as such consists of an original Blackman painting along with 38 recent drawings and 14 reproductions of earler paintings, 11 acrylic works by David Bromley and sculptures, prints, embroideries, cut outs and a studio book  all by the recently formed Blackman Studio. As such it is a mixture that ranges from the sublime to saccharin.

The lone original Blackman painting, Moon Lovers, is a joy to behold. Painted circa 1958, when Blackman was at the height of his game, it is a work that could almost be a poster child for the Blackman oeuvre. As my companion remarked "looked at from the left it is dark and mysterious, from the right the light of the moon prevails." And in the bottom right corner is a voyeuristic star in a bucket of its own light.

Facing this master work is a suite of recent drawings. In 1994 Blackman suffered a stroke and these drawings from 2006 to 2012 reflect its debilitating effects. No longer able to paint these preparatory like pen and ink and mixed media on paper sketches allude to works that will not see the light of day.

The reproductions of selected Blackman paintings whilst being archival pigment prints on artist paper are by necessity framed under glass. Apart from the inherent distraction of refelctions one cannot help but surmise that they will end their days in second hand stores being purchased by art students for the frames.

The Blackman Studio came into being in April of this year. Set up by the children from Blackman's second marriage, daughter Bertie and son Felix, the studio works in close co-operation with Blackman Foundation to "celebrate and produce new artifact collections that reframe, respect and propagate the extraordinary legacy of Charles Blackman."

Amongst the merchandise on offer, it is the sculptures that come closest to the Blackman vision. With Alice in a Boat which by defying its author's anonymity, or pehaps because of it, enables the bronze to capture the spirit of the originals.

David Bromley along with his wife Yuge are "creative advisors" to the Blackman Studio and as such a selection of Bromley paintings made especially for the exhibition are included. The majority combine images from Bromley's oeuvre with selections from Blackman's all painted in Bromely's sympathetic caricature style.

And then there are the four works in the Homage to Blackman - Red Heart series. Here black silhouettes of cute urchins cavort across red love hearts in saccharin cliches; an antithesis to the magical haunting surrealism of Charles Blackman.

Promoted as "Charles Blackman’s art reinterpreted for the evolving modern day art and interiors landscape," Down the Rabbit Hole continues at Claremont's Gullotti Galleries until the 21st of August.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Cost of Success II

"I don't want to be logical."
Charles Blackman

At the age of 87, Charles Blackman is one of Australia’s most famous living artists and whilst no longer painting he does a life drawing session once a fortnight at the house of his long term friend and fellow artist Judy Cassab.

"He doesn't talk much. We draw, we have a coffee. It's just great to see him work." Cassab told Melbourne’s Age Newspaper in 2006.

For the last 20 years Blackman has been suffering from Korsakoff's syndrome, a form of dementia caused by chronic alcoholism. Blackman suffered a stroke in 1994 caused by his drinking and since then has required full time care which has been funded by auctioning off what little of his earlier work has remained in his possession along with the sale of prints and current drawings.

With three failed marriages to his credit significant bodies of his work left his hands in divorce settlements with many now hanging in prestigious national institutions. For success came early in Blackman’s career.

He was in his 20s when critical acclaim and recognition came his way with his Schoolgirl paintings and the famed 43 paintings in his Alice in Wonderland series. With his first wife, Barbara, as his muse Blackman encountered the Lewis Carroll masterpiece as a talking book purchased for his blind spouse. As he has said about hearing the tale "I hadn't read it, so I didn't see any illustrations of it, I came to it cold."

Shortly later Blackman was awarded a Helena Rubenstein scholarship which enabled him to follow his friends to London. Melbourne had lost is appeal, as he recalled later "Everybody's poor, there was six o'clock closing, it was hard to go to the pictures because it was too expensive. I came to the conclusion that's not what I want out of life." 

As his eldest son Auguste has said about the six London years "There was never a chance for life to be boring. Everyone would congregate at our house because Charles and Barbara were the most fun."

Although Blackman’s friend, the world famous entertainer, Barry Humphries saw a different side to the artist. He observed a very restless and solitary figure. He could be terribly sarcastic and very biting and unkind to people who couldn't strike back. His cruelty was especially notorious when he'd had a few drinks."

After 27 years of marriage, which included a year in Paris, Barbara divorced him saying "Dr. Charles Jekyll turned into Mr. Charlie Hyde."

Blackman’s two subsequent marriages also ended badly. And throughout, as Auguste recalled, "Everyone drank. It was almost like a competition. These were the most creative people in the country and they needed that anesthetic. To be able to stop and laugh you needed to have the wine."

Like his painting, dinking is now a thing of the past. Although Blackman’s paintings are still revered. As the art critic Bernard Smith wrote "It is no simple matter to define the peculiar feel of his strange presences. They are like dreams that break off only half-remembered: the deep questioning of eyes in shy faces, the pleasure of simple things, like a bunch of flowers, in a world fed on the sensational and horrific."

And as Blackman told ABC televisionPainting, to me, is not all an autobiographical thing. It's things you observe around you, or you are interested in what other people do with their lives. It's a simple straightforward activity.

Blackman’s latest exhibition in association with Australian artist David Bromley and the newly formed Blackman Studio Down the Rabbit Hole is on show at Western Australia’s Gullotti Galleries until the 21st of August.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Using the Past to Discover the Future

“My paintings are battles”
Georg Baselitz

The controversial German artist, Georg Baselitz was seven when the Second World War ended and for the next 16 years he lived in East Germany, the virtual satellite state of Communist Russia. He became interested in painting at high school and at 18 enrolled at East Berlin’s College of Fine and Applied Arts. After two semesters he was expelled for "sociopolitical immaturity."

As he explained to the Guardian NewspaperI was told if I worked in industry for a year I could return to art school as I would by then have the right mindset. But I knew that would destroy me and so I chose to go to the west."

A year later in West Berlin, Baselitz experienced a touring exhibition of contemporary American painting. "Until then I had lived first under the Nazis, and then in the GDR. Modern art just did not occur so I knew almost nothing. Not about German expressionism, dadaism, surrealism or even cubism. And suddenly here was abstract expressionism...The exhibition was a great shock not just because of the art, but also because while we knew that the British, the French and the Russians had something like culture, we didn't expect it from the Americans. For us the Americans were just show-offs who had absolutely nothing to offer intellectually. But now they had not only won the war, they also had the culture…I had to make a decision what to do with this new information. I knew that we had lost the war, and that we were lost. And I now also realized that I was not welcome in this culture because I was not a modern person. What I wanted to do was something that totally contradicted internationalism: I wanted to examine what it was to be a German now.”

Baselitz adopted an outsiders position identifying with the art of mentally ill, the Nazis degenerate art, adding the figure to into abstract expressionism along with motifs culled from German folklore and ultimately depicting his subjects upside down; a style that appeared both figurative and abstract. Along the way Baselitz courted controversy that ranged from the obscene (The Big Night Down the Drain) via the politically incorrect (A Model for a sculpture) to the just the pain provocative (Women don't paint very well).

As he has said “I felt very privileged to have the artist's power to contradict. You feel like you are the founder of a new religion, even if your congregation is only your wife and kids."

To which he has added “Many of my advisers, especially my wife, say that I am too bold. But what am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to make statements that are politic? Am I supposed to be friendly? That's just not who I am."

Baselitz’s latest exhibition is a White Cube at Glyndebourne, Special Project and is on show until the 30th of August.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

An Impression of America

In general it can be said that a nation's art is greatest
when it most reflects the character of its people.”
Edward Hopper

One of, if not the most revered of American painters Edward Hopper, whilst influenced by the French impressionists, depicted an unfaltering personal view of 20th Century America.

As he wrote in the catalogue essay, Notes on Painting, for his 1933 Museum of Modern Art exhibition “My aim in painting has always been the most exact transcription possible of my most intimate impressions of nature.

Be they scenes from Cape Cod, the streets of New York, his interior monologues or seascapes, Hopper remained true to his vision in the face of the changing tastes of the turbulent New York art scene.

As he wrote in 1953 for the Reality Magazine “Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world. No amount of skillful invention can replace the essential element of imagination. One of the weaknesses of much abstract painting is the attempt to substitute the inventions of the intellect for a pristine imaginative conception. The inner life of a human being is a vast and varied realm and does not concern itself alone with stimulating arrangements of color, form, and design. The term "life" as used in art is something not to be held in contempt, for it implies all of existence, and the province of art is to react to it and not to shun it.

Over the course of three trips to Paris between 1906 and 1910 Hopper came under the spell of impressionists in general and Paul Cezanne, Claude Monet and Edouard Manet in particular. An influence that re-enforced of his dislike of illustration which had predicated the start of his artistic career by his parents’ insistence that he study commercial art to ensure a reliable income.

It was not until the 1920s that Hopper was able to dispense with the financial need his illustrative works fulfilled.  The shy, introspective artist’s meeting of the vivacious and outgoing fellow artist Josephine Nivison, who he married in 1924, changed his life. She subordinated her career and took over the management of his and became his primary model. She inspired Hopper to add watercolors to his predominately oil painting based oeuvre and his sell out exhibition of them in the year of their marriage made illustration a thing of the past.

Under her management Hopper’s career blossomed with exhibitions and purchases by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Museum.
Over the next 40 years Hopper would go on to become a major influence in American art and whilst changing tastes diminished his critical acclaim he never lost favor with the American public with several of his works like Nighthawks, New York Movie and House by the Railroad becoming  instantly recognizable cultural icons.

Whilst his realistic depictions of both urban and rural American life resonate his interest in light and its effects are a dominate feature within his work. As he is reported to have said five years before his death in 1962 “I think I’m still an impressionist.”

Pittsburg’s Carnegie Museum of Art is currently showing 17 of his works in the CMOA Collects Edward Hopper exhibition until the 26th of October.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Dark Side of Art

Revolutions are always very violent.
There’s always blood,
and the winners always write the history.

Yan Pei-Ming

Afflicted with the speech impediment of a stutter the Franco-Chinese artist Yan Pei-Ming avoided the company of his childhood peers and found his self-expression through painting and drawing. Growing up in Mao Zedong’s inspired Cultural Revolution his skill was recognized and utilized during his adolescent schooldays.

As he told the South China Morning Post Those who could draw well would be chosen to draw propaganda pictures for the school. I was one of them. I drew people like Mao Zedong and Red Guards, which was a piece of cake. It was just a matter of copying and I usually did it well.

This skill did little to advance his dream of attending art school. As he explained “When I was 18, I tried to get into the Shanghai Art and Design Academy but was rejected because of my stutter.

Although rejected Pei-Ming desire was such that he traveled half way round the world to France to pursue his dream. As he tells the story “I had an uncle living in Paris. So I joined him there in 1980 to start anew. I had wanted to go to the National School of Fine Arts in Paris but I got rejected again. I didn't know what to do. Fortunately, my uncle, who was very nice to me, found me a job in Dijon. It was to wash dishes in a Chinese restaurant run by a Taiwanese family... I washed dishes in the restaurant in the evening and went to a French language school during the day. I was pleased to be able to earn a living and study at the same time. When my French got better, a year later, I was able to get out of the kitchen and became a waiter. I also started going to the art school of Dijon, where I spent five of the best years of my life. Our teachers did not teach us how to draw, but they guided us to think about why we wanted to make a painting and what we tried to express.

Adopting a palette restricted to black, white and red to distinguish himself from the great painters of the past, Pei-Ming produced epic sized portraits. As he recalled “One man I portrayed was old Mao. I always see him as a great statesman and a great man of letters. Before I left China, I used to paint him often, so painting him in France was a continuation of what I had been doing. But there was another reason why I chose Mao. At the time, no one in France knew Yan Pei-Ming but everyone knew Mao Zedong. So painting Mao was a sort of strategy to promote myself as a painter.

It was a strategy that paid off with Pei-Ming becoming the first living artist since Picasso to be given an exhibition at the Louvre along with two solo exhibitions in New York and Biennale exhibitions in Venice, Seville and Istanbul.

A self-confessed pessimist the darker side of life is never far away from Pei-Ming’s work. As he told the Huffington Post A lot of emotional states appear in my work: my anxiety, my pain, my uncertainty. It is important for death to be present as well -- and, of course, energy and life. I don't need to sugarcoat or make things fancy. Paintings aren't for cuddling.”

Pei-Ming’s current exhibition Aggressive Beauty is on show at Salzburg’s Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac until the 26th of August.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

For the Love of Color

“It’s my nature, I just like to challenge myself and try new things.”
Elizabeth Osborne

In a 2009 interview with the Washington DC based arts writer Jonathon L Fischer, the Philadelphia painter Elizabeth Osborne stated “Some artists will stay with one theme, like Morandi. You always think of Morandi because he stuck with those little bottles, which were magnificent, for his whole life. I tend to move from one subject to another and then go back again and re-visit.”

Although her current works have no discernable subject, they are explorations of light. Now in her seventh decade Osborne has embraced abstraction using color to re-create the light of remember landscapes. As she has said “If a painting doesn’t have light, somehow it dies.”

A student at the conservative Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the 1950s, Osborne became a member of the institutions faculty in the mid-1960s after a Fulbright scholarship year spent in Paris. A position she held for the best part of 50 years.

It was an academy student who introduced Osborne to the importance of color in the early 1970s, previously she had been using a subdued palette for her mainly figurative work.

And as she told WRTI public radio “All of a sudden I fell in love with color and it just started to emerge in my work and I think color and light are really [the] driving forces in how I see things and make me want to go and put it down on canvas.”

The discovery of color coincided with a broadening of her subject matter to include still life and landscapes. Likewise her stylistic approach to her work gradually moved from the realistic to the abstract.
As the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Edward Sozanski wrote in his review of Osborne’s 2009 exhibition The Color of Light “As the paintings become more abstracted, her palette becomes correspondingly more electric, reaching a climactic intensity in the landscapes and seascapes from the mid-1990s into this decade… Osborne's art is subliminally autobiographical and meditative, particularly about the art-making life and the studio environment that makes it possible.”

About which she told The Pennsylvania Gazette “I think the artist is always very much aware of their own space and their inner thoughts and how they relate to the world. Because they spend so much time alone—they’re so solitary, most artists —and you can get a little skewed that way. Teaching is a kind of relief [though] sometimes it’s frustrating to have to stop working.”

Her current exhibition Veils of Color:Juxtapositions and Recent Work by Elizabeth Osborne is on show at Pennsylvania’s James A. Michener Art Museum until the 15th of November.

Friday, July 24, 2015

About Drugs and Art

“Can art treat social ills, or is it just a placebo?"
Beverly Fishman

The conceptual American artist Beverly Fishman’s artistic journey had its beginning by observing her younger sister’s hair color; she was a brunet while Fishman was a redhead. Considering the common parental bond Fishman began investigating how to represent that minute shift in a cell that could create such a difference.

As she explained in a lecture at Portland’s BECon 2013 “I was interested in how we could take the cellular level and speak so much about the condition of mankind.”

A child of America’s golden age of mass production Fishman began by looking at the relationship between the multiple and the individual. As she said “I was looking to bridge technology and the handmade. Where did technology end and the handmade begin? I was looking to fuse that, fuse the mechanical and the handmade and also think about something to be a multiple, an exact multiple but through making, ah, it always being individual and that has continued my practice for over 20 years.”

In the 1990’s Fishman had an “ah ha” moment that caused a radical change in direction for her work. Fishman told a girlfriend she had a headache and her friend brought out of her handbag an arsenal of pills from which to choose. An action that caused Fishman to realize “our identities are what we take! Our Identities are based on what we wear, on what we like, on what we buy, on what we ingest. Our identities are made up of all the sum parts and so for me medication and who we are is as American as apple pie.”

From then until today, through painting and installation Fishman has been critiquing the pharmaceutical industry, both legal and illegal. With an eye tuned into the branding, marketing and usefulness of the products using a variety of mediums ranging from fluorescent paint to glass in both post-Pop art and Minimalist styles.

As she says in her artistic statement “"I do engage directly with the legacies of these movements, but I pursue an aesthetic that combines abstract form with social and political critique."

About which she has elaborated, writing “I treat the museum or gallery space as a living organism by releasing pharmaceuticals into the institution’s interior. The capsule serves both as an icon and as a vehicle for abstraction, through which changing color and pattern combinations unfold. The glass pills, which cannot dissolve, present multiple paradoxes. How are we to ingest their substances? Are they cure or poison? Can art treat social ills, or is it just a placebo?"

Her current exhibition Beverly Fishman: In Sickness and In Health is on show at Norfolk, Virginia’s Chrysler Museum until the 3rd of January next year.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

From Painter to Designer

“The illiterate of the future will be the person ignorant
of the use of the camera as well as the pen.”
Laszlo Moholy-Nagy

An early advocate of the integration of art and technology the Hungarian born artist/designer/teacher Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s prophecy has become the reality of the 21st Century.

A famed teacher at the Bauhaus in the 1920s, who was to later introduce the ideals of Berlin’s influential school to Chicago, Moholy-Nagy abandoned painting in favor of photography and design.
As he has said “The reality of our century is technology: the invention, construction and maintenance of machines. To be a user of machines is to be of the spirit of this century. Machines have replaced the transcendental spiritualism of past eras.”

Moholy-Nagy discovered his ability to draw whilst serving in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I with the postcards he sent to his family. Upon his discharge he completed his law degree and took up painting.

As his daughter and executor of his estate, Hattula, told the Chicago Reader "His works back then were figurative, expressionistic, inspired by Rembrandt and van Gogh. He experimented too, making collages of paper strips of juxtaposed colors. He held the old-world view of the supremacy of painting, even though he was part of the avant-garde…Berlin was the Big Apple of eastern and central Europe in those years, and Moholy-Nagy's time there was decisive for his career. Russian constructivism, with its elimination of the personal, had a huge influence, as did its belief in improving society through art."

It was during his five years at the Bauhaus that Moholy-Nagy expanded his repertoire of art production. As his daughter recounts “"He painted on canvas, aluminum, and new kinds of plastics; continued to work with paper collages; produced prints and sculptures of wood, glass, and metal. He made several short films, one of which recorded the movements and light effects produced by a kinetic sculpture he designed. He discovered the photogram again, which is an image created without a camera. He manipulated light and shadow so ordinary items could be transformed into abstract compositions of luminous ambiguous forms."

The rise of Nazism saw Moholy-Nagy move to England via Holland and in 1936 his paintings were removed from German galleries after being designated as "degenerate art".

In 1937 he was lured to America by a group of Chicago businessmen to recreate a Bauhaus type school to train industrial designers. I was a short term effort and folded after a year. Undaunted Moholy-Nagy resurrected the idea and created the School of Design a year later which after five years became the Institute of Design and was subsequently incorporated into the Illinois Institute of Technology becoming the first United States institution to offer a PhD in design.

Starting out as a painter, Moholy-Nagy wrote at the end of WWI "It is my gift to project my vitality, my building power, through light, colour, form. I can give life as a painter." His subsequent career embraced a much broader view of the painters craft and he is remembered fondly by his daughter as "this open-minded, learned man--a secular humanist who imagined a better world through design."

An exhibition The Paintings of Moholy-Nagy: The Shape of Things to Come is currently on show at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art until the 27th of September.