Thursday, April 02, 2015

To The Figure Be True

“The artist is the sower who at the harvest time is over the horizon
 – on his way to sow new ground”
Leon Underwood

In his 1934 treatise Art for Heaven’s Sake: Notes on Philosophy of Art To-Day the British artist Leon Underwood argued that ‘primitive’ works avoid abstraction and instead concentrate on subject matter that enables a direct communication with their audience, an argument that derived its merit from his having seen the work first hand.

For Underwood traveled widely in his 20’s and early 30’s visiting the ancient cave paintings at Altamira, Spain, along with Iceland and a trip to Mexico where the art of the Aztecs and Mayans coupled with his growing collection of African art became major influences for his own work.

After breaking with the traditionally orientated Royal College of Art where he was employed as a drawing instructor Underwood opened his own school that concentrated on experimental life drawing and printmaking. The former of which became the mainstay of the school he opened in New York’s Greenwich Village a few years later whilst his own drawings and engravings illustrated the pages of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker magazines amongst others.

Concurrent with his printmaking Underwood also extended his work into sculpture with wood and stone carving. In the 1930’s Underwood shifted ground again and moved his sculpture into bronze works whilst his engravings moved from wood to linocuts with themes influenced by music and dance. These were in turn later replaced by reinterpretations of themes from Greek and Roman classical sculpture.

But unlike his contemporaries who, whilst also embracing ‘primitive’ art, did so as part of their adoption of 20th Century abstraction, Underwood maintained the figurative aspect of the originals in his devotion to the human figure in general and his drawing from life in particular.

The retrospective exhibition Leon Underwood: Figure and Rhythm is currently on show at Chichester’s Pallant House Gallery until 14th of June.

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Wednesday, April 01, 2015

The Irony of Fame

“My work is always about me.”
Tracy Emin

The Telegraph newspaper’s art critic Richard Dorment said in his review of Tracy Emin’s 2011 exhibition Love is What You Want, “the curators have grouped most of Emin’s neon signs together on the long wall of a darkened gallery, their garish lettering made to look like shop signs on the sleazy side of town. The installation is so effective that it is easy to forget that, seen on its own, a pink neon heart surrounding Emin’s handwritten message in blue neon saying “Love Is What You Want” has no artistic merit at all.

With a body of work that encompasses nearly all aspects of the visual arts from painting to the neon’s, from prints to found object installations, from drawing to photography, from sculpture to film, Emin has shared her life, warts and all, in the best British tabloid tradition. From her abortions to her alcoholism, from her inability to find love to her sexual abuse as a teenager, all has been writ large in her work and the media.

Emin came to the public’s notice in 1977 when she appeared on a television art arts program discussing the Turner Prize drunk. She slurred her words, swore and walked out stating "Are they really real people in England watching this programme now, they really watching, really watching it?... They're 25 minutes behind us, think about that... I'm leaving now, I wanna be with my friends, I wanna be with my mum. I'm gonna phone her, and she's going to be embarrassed about this conversation, this is live and I don't care. I don't give a fuck about it."

Emin’s notoriety was confirmed two years later when her installation My Bed was shortlisted for the Turner Prize. A recreation of her bed from a time when she was feeling suicidal, the yellow stained sheets is decorated with condoms, empty cigarette packets and a pair of knickers with menstrual stains. The British press had a field day over its apparent triviality and the possible un-hygienic aspects of the installation.

These were followed by series of sexually provocative works all of which displayed aspects of herself as the subject matter. About which she has said “Being an artist isn't just about making nice things, or people patting you on the back; it's some kind of communication, a message.

Now in her 50’s with three honorary doctorates to her name, a CBE and as Professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy Emin is becoming part of the establishment against which she railed as a YBAs (Young British Artists).

As the Telegraphs Chris Harvey reports, “She balks at any questions that include the words Young British Artists, though. “It was 20 years ago. It’s like talking to someone who was in a band and then had a really good solo career. And then you ask them what it was like being in the band. I’m not looking to regroup and do a tour with the band. I’m not interested. I like my own little solo gigs.”

Meanwhile Emin’s 1999 installation My Bed is currently on show at Tate Britian until June next year.

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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Color, Science & Music

"My work deals predominantly with physics."
Mildred Thompson

Six years before her death the African American artist Mildred Thompson told the Times Union/Jacksonville.com "I don't really consider anyplace home, I am truly a citizen of the world.”

From 1958 to 1986, except for a couple of years in New York and three years shared between Florida and Washington DC, Thompson lived and worked in Europe, predominately in Germany and Paris. The discrimination against her race and gender was her motivating force, especially that encountered during her two years in New York. 

As she says in her papers held by the Emory UniversityI sometimes feel that my relationship with this country [America] is like that of an old lover–‘on again, off again’… never ever being able to completely break with, hoping with each renewal that perhaps, this time, ‘we are going to make it–this time it will work.’”

After failing to obtain a Fulbright Scholarship at the end of her formal American training as a painter Thompson self funded her attendance at Hamburg’s Art Academy where she received a Reemtsma Stipendium at the end of her first year of study. 

After three years Thompson returned to New York and whilst both the Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Museum brought her work the New York galleries were uninterested. She has said that one gallery owner told her “that it would be better if I had a white friend to take my work around, someone to pass as Mildred Thompson.”

Disillusioned she returned to Europe and came under the sway of the German Expressionists in general and Wassily Kandinsky in particular. Thompson’s study of physics along with her interest in music from jazz to Bach became major influences in her work. As she told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal’s Amber Irlbeck, The subject matter is taken from physics -- radiation and magnetic fields. Planets make sounds. It's random noise if you listen to it in that way, but if you listen to it in different way, there are beautiful sounds -- cosmic winds like lullabies being sung."  

A painter, printmaker, sculptor and musician, Thompson eventually settled in Atlanta in her 50’s where she, apart from exhibiting regularly both in America and Germany, taught art and art history at several colleges including the Atlanta College of Art. Thompson was also an associate editor for influential periodical Art Papers and a singer/guitarist for the Wedo Blues band.

The New York Times said in a 2005 review of her work "Ms. Thompson's paintings are made of brilliant color patches, which are almost pointillist in her 1990 canvas ''Magnetic Fields'' and less tightly woven in ''Atmospherics'' (2002). Her rhythmic marks lead the eye on a merry dance around the composition and suggest the manifestation of unseen forces for which she has found visual equivalents."

The exhibition Creating Matter: The Prints of Mildred Thompson is currently on show at Emory University’s Michael C Carlos Museum until the 17th May.

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Monday, March 30, 2015

Blurring the Boundaries

“The piece of work is my body, my body is the piece of work.”
Helena Almeida

The conceptional Portuguese artist Helena Almeida considers the differences between photography and painting to be superficial as she explores the elements of space and line which are central to both. And although her works are documented by the photographic medium she considers them to be paintings. As she has said “I consider myself a painter. I studied painting and my works, as far as I’m concerned, are paintings. It’s my way of painting.”

Likewise, Almeida’s position about her works being self portraits is strained. She is the subject of her works but insists they are not self portraits but rather a study of the relationship between the artist and the image. As she states “We look at the body and see that it ends abruptly at the feet and hands... why do I end there and begin here? Why am I tied to this form, why am I isolated in this way?”

From dressing herself as a canvas and going for a walk or climbing through the slash in a stretched canvas to painting herself out of her photographs, these private performances have been documented by her husband over the last 40 years. Thus producing a body of work that begs the question are the photographs a documentation of the performance or are they object de arte?

To which Almeida responds “The image of my body is not an image. I’m not producing a spectacle. I’m making a painting.”

The Exhibition Helena Almeida: Inhabited drawings / Desenhos habitados is currently on show at London’s Richard Saltoun Gallery until the 22nd of May.

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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Observation Takes Many Forms

“Eclectic in his choice of mediums, he tried everything,
discovering his ‘Lackskin’ technique accidentally”
Art on Paper (2009)

The chore every painter faces at the end of their working day is the cleaning of their brushes. Using soap and cold water they return the tools of their trade back to a near pristine state reading them for the next session of work. And it must be cold water. The use of warm or hot water will caused the brush’s metal ferrule to expand allowing the bristles to fall out, a disaster for the artist who has spent the last month convincing themselves that the newly acquired $100 sable bush is not an indulgence.

It was whilst engaged in a variation of this ritual that the Swiss artist André Thomkins discovered his ‘Lackskin’ printing technique. A mono-print, that uses a water bath rather than a solid plate on which to create the transferable image.

It was whilst he was painting the crib for his newly arrived second son that he placed his brush in water and saw the paint detach itself from the brush and spread out over the liquids surface. Intrigued, he captured the design on paper and the ‘Lackskin’ technique was born.

As he explains “A drop, or string of thick gloss paint trickles onto the water, spreads and covers the surface. Forms that result can be constantly changed by interplay between artificial and natural forces. When you blow on the paint it drifts in the desired direction and dissolves into grey scales of photographic fineness that suggest a plastic presence. With drops or strings of paint then thrown or drawn onto the emerging painting you can change the landscape.”

The Swiss artist spent most of his life in Germany where he produced a body of work that along with his ‘Lackskins’ included painting, drawing and sculpture mostly in the dada and surrealist mode. Whilst Thomkins experiment within all his areas of endeavor it was his ‘Lackskins’ that captured the interest of the public and the critics alike. As Artforum said of their 2009 London exhibition “It’s as if one is experiencing a sequence of natural phenomena only to realize that some wizard is secretly controlling everything.”

The exhibition André Thomkins: Works 1946 – 1985 is currently on show at Zurich’s Hauser & Wirth Gallery until the 30th of May.


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Saturday, March 28, 2015

Experiments with Time & Light

“To make art is to experience a process.
Jiang Pengyi

The two major preoccupations for the Chinese photographic artist Jiang Pengyi are time and light with his current work concentrating on his experiments involving these two parameters within the confines of photographic medium. “As each and every second of the production process and millimeters in distance produces varying results, I am painting with light through photography,” he states in his current exhibition’s publicity.

What the end results of Pengyi’s experimental explorations will be is and open question even for the artist himself. As he told Time Out ShanghaiSuch moments are not created by me, and I don’t even know what they’ll look like in the very beginning when taking these pictures.

Pengyi came to prominence with works questioning the rapid urban development of China’s cities. From constructed miniature replicas of Chinese cities in abandoned buildings which he photographed to depictions of urban scenes where skyscrapers dominate like alien intruders Pengyi explored the result of the herding instinct. As he told City Weekend “While it looks like my works are all related to the city, I’m not actually that concerned about urban development. My works are reflection of what my heart says. I want to express how given a space, a desolate environment, if you put a city and district there, it will attract millions of people to this tight space.

Since then Pengyi has explored the nature of the photographic process. From capturing on photographic paper the emissions from fluorescent liquid wax to the traces left by Fireflies, from the effects of water freezing to an examination of the effects fluorescent paper has on photographer paper he has left the political behind in favor of the aesthetic.

As he has said, I want my feelings to guide me to do something, to calmly and peacefully create a work of art that’s not triggered or impacted by politics and money. When I make something, it’s an experience. I wish to make the process personal, slow.

Pengyi’s latest exhibition Intimacy is currently on show at Singapore’s ShanghART Gallery until the 17th of May.

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Friday, March 27, 2015

Abstracting Haiku

“I think we’re at this point now where we can play with paintings’ language.
Jason Stopa

Haiku in English is an adaptation of the formal Japanese poetic style of the same name whose major defining characteristic is the juxtaposition of two ideas, often contradictory, within its 17 syllables.  

The blogger Maria Calandra wrote about Jason Stopa on her blog Pencil in the Studio, stating “After spending more time with them, Stopa's paintings' unique relationship to language reveals itself, recalling Haiku poetry in particular. They have a similar directness of description, even in their abstraction that almost hovers above their subject matter.”

A child of the 1980’s and 90’s Stopa’s early years were spent in New Jersey. As he told the phinery blogMy mom is Black and my dad is White.  When they got married and had us kids in the late 70s/early 80s it was pretty controversial.  They both had rough roots and we were poor growing up.  I remember our block had a crack house and prostitutes on the corner.  The good ole days, lol.  But there were also these moments of hand clapping games, watching my sisters play double dutch and playing basketball till I overheated.  It wasn’t all bad.

Since graduating with a MFA from New York’s Pratt institute in 2010 Stopa has show his work in numerous group exhibitions and opened his fourth solo exhibition at the Hionas Gallery a couple of days ago. He also writes regularly for Art in America, The Brooklyn Rail and Whitewall Magazine as well as curating exhibitions. He is currently curating a group show for BOSI Contemporary on the Lower East Side, about which he says “Paramount to this exhibit is the artist’s capacity to employ simplicity of form and color to create images that are visually powerful.

But Stopa’s primary preoccupation is his painting. As he told Studio Critical, “As a painter, you always want to set up parameters that don't allow you to get bored.  One of the things I'm interested in is contradiction.  It seemed like the first half of the 20th century was about keeping metaphysics in painting - nothingness, mystery, sublime, existentialism etc.  Then the second half came along and threw it out.  I'm interested in creating an ambiguous space in a painting - shallow depth, physicality of texture and a touch and go sense of reality. This allows me to play, which is really what I want to do the most.”

Stopa’s current exhibition Double Trouble is on show at New York’s Hionas Gallery until the 25th of April.

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Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Cheerful Pessimist as Artist

“The quality of human effort is really intimidating.
Piotr Uklański

The Polish born, New York based artist Piotr Uklański has two shows running at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fatal Attraction: Piotr Uklański Photographs is a retrospective of his photography and Fatal Attraction: Piotr Uklański Selects from the Met Collection is his selection of works from the museum’s archive. For his “selects” exhibition he chose as a theme the juxtapositioning of life and death, or as he prefers to call it Eros and Thanatos. And on the gallery wall Uklański has written in Polish “Life is a terminal disease transmitted via sexual intercourse.”

As he told Artspace’s Karen Rosenberg, “Often, these thematic shows have quotes. I wanted to echo that. I like that quote a lot. I didn’t see it on the street but it’s in the Polish cultural discourse—it’s very famous—and it does come off the street. Everybody knows it. It’s a bit of a cliché, but I found it very fitting.”

Uklański grew up Warsaw and although born 23 years after the Second World War its shadow loomed large over his childhood. As he told Studio InternationalAs a child, I walked to school past buildings with walls still filled with holes from bullets and mortars. They had not been patched since they were privately owned and people didn’t have the money. When you’re seven, you’re used to it; you think its normal… I grew up with it, but it is more of a storytelling experience. It was removed but also present, but present as a legacy.

After obtaining his BFA in painting from Warsaw’s Academy of Fine Arts  Uklański secured a MFA in photography from New York’s Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. To these two disciplines he has added sculpture, film making, installation and performance to his repertoire. Whilst Uklański’s flashing disco floor at the Passerby bar introduced him to New York audiences it is his photography that has made the more lasting impression in the wider world.

In particular his 1998 work Untitled (The Nazis) depicting Hollywood actors dressed in WWII German Uniforms which attracted protests at its London opening and physical damage two years later at its Warsaw showing. About which Uklański has said “Everybody knows Nazis in Germany. I had a drink with a German artist who said if he had made this work they would have killed him but because I am Polish, I could. My point is more this. In that context, because Germans have such a long history of analyzing the Second World War, the reaction to my series was very measured, very civil. But in Poland, it wasn’t. So it depends on context and the debate of the moment, and both bring very different reactions. At the Jewish Museum in New York, it was also judged differently. Its context and what the viewer brings to the work that causes the scandal, the strong reaction, more than the work itself.

And what does Uklański bring to his work? He freely admits its “cheerful pessimism.”

Uklański’s two exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art are currently on show with Fatal Attraction: Piotr Uklański Selects from the Met Collection running through to the 14th of June and Fatal Attraction: Piotr Uklański Photographs on the walls until the 16th of August.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Moving on from Impressionism

“Drawing is feeling. Color is an act of reason.
Pierre Bonnard

In compliance with his father’s wishes the French artist Pierre Bonnard studied law at university and in 1889 became a lawyer. It was to be a short lived career move for in the same year Bonnard won a competition to design a poster for a French champagne company. With the proceeds from the competition Bonnard abandoned the law and set up a studio in Montmartre with several friends including the formidable post impressionist artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec who he introduced to commercial poster production.  

Along with Maurice Denis and Édouard Vuillard these young artists supported themselves producing stage settings and costumes for the Théâtre d’Art, the Théâtre Libre and for the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre.

Seven years after his competition win Bonnard had his first solo exhibition at the gallery run by the impressionist collector and dealer Paul Durand-Ruel. Often referred to as a late impressionist and whilst being friends with both Monet and Renoir, Bonnard’s works differ in both intention and execution.

Bonnard was a studio painter working from memory using sketches and to a lesser extent photography as memory aides. His compositional points of view were often dramatic forcing the audience into the role of voyeur. But color was his predominant concern, as he has stated “It is still color; it is not yet light.

It is said that when Bonnard had mixed a color he particularly liked he would touch up other ‘finished’ paintings in his studio. And reportedly, he once had his friend Édouard Vuillard distract a museum security guard while he touched up a painting on display he had painted several years earlier.

In his critique of a 1947 retrospective exhibition of Bonnard’s work, the art critic Christian Zervos said "In Bonnard's work, Impressionism becomes insipid and falls into decline." To which the artist Henri Matisse responded "Yes! I maintain that Bonnard is a great artist for our time and, naturally, for posterity."

And as history would seem to have it the artist’s opinion is far more astute than that of the critic.

A current retrospective of his work Pierre Bonnard: Painting Arcadia is on show at Paris’ Musée d'Orsay until the 19th of July.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Sexual Activist & Her Photography

“I believe sex should be free, but it doesn't mean you can't accessorise.”
Samantha Roddick

In 2013 The European Union banned the sale of sale of cosmetic products and ingredients that have been tested on animals. It was a campaign started by the owner of the world wide chain of cosmetic stores The Body Shop, Anita Roddick in 1996. Whilst she didn’t live to see the culmination of her activism her daughter Samantha Roddick did. About the EU’s decision the younger Roddick told London’s Telegraph newspaper  “Everyone knows my mother as the 'queen of green’ and the doyenne of responsible business, but I believe she’s still underestimated as a pioneer who took political campaigning by business beyond the particular concerns of that business and mobilized her customers to fight for change on a bigger scale.”

The younger Roddick is an apple that didn’t fall far from that tree. Dropping out of school at 16 Roddick spent some time as an apprentice to the Russian Orthodox painter Mara Amats before her activist genes kicked in. For the next six years Roddick traveled the world espousing causes concerned with the deforestation of the Amazon and the rights of indigenous people. Along the way she also taught art in a Vancouver school and created the youth magazine Cockroach.

In the mid 1990’s, after reading the book A History of Whores Roddick embraced sexual politics and in the first year of the new century she opened Coco Der Mer, taking retail erotica from the back streets to the high street of London, New York and Los Angeles. Adopting the business principles of her mother Roddick’s sexual emporium had an ethical ethos that underpinned its operation. As she explained to the Guardian newspaper’s Hannah Pool “There is only one rule within sex, and that rule is simple: consent. Without it, you're talking about emotional torture and physical brutality.

In 2011 Roddick sold Coco Der Mer to the British sex toy retailer Lovehoney allowing her more time to concentrate on her activism. The latest incarnation of which is the photographic exhibition Hidden Within.

After the death of the Italian architect Carlo Mollino a treasure trove of over a thousand erotic Polaroid’s were found amongst his effects. Depicting female models in seductive and submissive poses they had been accessorized and directed to suit Mollino’s particular taste. As Roddick told How to Spend It’s, Nicole Swengley ““Mollino’s images are very sensual, but he objectified the women by controlling their poses… The poses are flattering to every body type, but also very unnatural, as if he was sculpting their bodies. And I feel this echoes our own society’s obsession with female perfectionism.”

Roddick recreated 12 of Mollino’s photographs and combined them with the religious iconography she learned during her apprenticeship with Mara Amats. As she explained “I wanted to get inside Mollino’s psychology because I feel his visual expression holds a mirror to our own cultural attitudes to sex.”

Hidden Within is on show at London’s Michael Hoppen Gallery until the 1st of May.

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