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 12 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.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Lady Painter

“I’m trying to stop time, or frame it. 
Joan Mitchell

If she had not injured her knee in her teens the abstract expressionist painter Joan Mitchell may well have become a major competitive figure skater rather than an artist with a major international reputation.  For unlike most post World War II American women Mitchell had the grit, the determination and the drive to shape her world rather than be shaped by it.

As she told Bomb MagazineOh, my mother was nice to me. I mean her idea would have been your mother’s idea; why try, why go out and compete in Junior Nationals, Senior Pairs. You know what I mean. Why don’t you have a good time, Joanie, why don’t you just skate and have a good time? It seemed very boring to me to do something for a good time because I didn’t know how to have a good time.

After spending a year painting in France on a post graduate James Nelson Raymond Foreign Traveling Fellowship Mitchell returned to New York in 1950 and immersed herself in its avant-garde art scene. She frequented the Cedar Tavern, the hard drinking watering hole favored by the abstract expressionists and became one of the few women members of their Eighth Street Club where she adopted the nick name, “Lady Painter.”

Begrudgingly accepted as an equal Mitchell was included in their group exhibitions and had her first solo New York show two years later. Mitchell frequently returned to France and at the end of the decade moved their permanently although retaining her ties with her homeland.

As she told the ArtNews “I didn’t move to France permanently. I’m here by default. And now I’m too lazy to move. But I have no attachments here, although it is very beautiful.”

As her work developed so too did the clarity of her vision. As she explained in a 1986 Interview with Yves Michaud “Feeling, existing, living, I think it's all the same, except for quality. Existing is survival; it does not mean necessarily feeling. You can say good morning, good evening. Feeling is something more: it's feeling your existence. It's not just survival. Painting is a means of feeling "living." . . . Painting is the only art form except still photography which is without time. Music takes time to listen to and ends, writing takes time and ends, movies end, ideas and even sculpture take time. Painting does not. It never ends, it is the only thing that is both continuous and still. Then I can be very happy. It's a still place. It's like one word, one image....”

Austria’s Kunsthaus Bregenz is currently showing the exhibition Joan Mitchell Retrospective: Her Life and Paintings until the 25th of October.

Monday, July 20, 2015


“Using pencil, draw 1,000 random straight lines 10 inches long each day for 10 days,
 in a 10-by-10-foot square.”

Sol LeWitt

The above instructions enable anyone to create their own version of a wall drawing by the American conceptual artist Sol LeWitt. For LeWitt the appearance of the work is secondary to the idea that underpins it.

With over 1270 wall drawings to his credit that have graced gallery and museum walls around the world, and are continuing to be reproduced even after his death, LeWitt saw himself as the composer of the work rather than the creator of an object.

As he explained in a Smithsonian Institution Oral history interview “I always equate it to a musical performance. Every time you hear the same Bach piano or harpsichord thing it's different even with the same person. Even if Wanda Landowski plays it in March and then in April, it would sound different. If Ralph Kirkpatrick plays it, it will be different. Whoever does it will leave their mark on it. In a way it's good that the draftsman has a part in it, and it's not just the artist doing it. It's a collaboration.

Considered by many to be the father of conceptualism LeWitt’s rebellious spirit was well suited to the times in which he formulated these ideas.

As he told Bomb Magazine’s Saul Ostrow “The ’60s were awash in politics and revolution. Not only in art of course, but feminism, racial equality and opposition to war. I, like almost all of the artists I knew, was involved in all of these movements and was politically left-oriented. One of the ideas was the relation to art as a commodity. I thought by doing drawings on the wall, they would be non-transportable—therefore a commitment by the owner would be implied, and they could not be bought or sold easily.”

It was this rebellious streak that led LeWitt to attend Syracuse University and study art. As he has said “Being an artist is something that was in a way rebellious, in a way individualistic, and, in a way, it was an act of rebellion against…The bourgeois kind of society I was brought up in…I had been reading a great deal. I don't think I was reading anything very deep or profound, but I did get the idea that being an artist was something slightly more special than going to work in a shoe store.”

After a sightseeing trip to Europe and stint in the army LeWitt arrived in New York at the height of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s. It appealed, but whilst the spirit was willing the flesh was weak. As he has explained “I got really interested in Abstract Expressionism. I did it long enough to discover I couldn't do it.”

After experimenting with still life paintings LeWitt progressed to three dimensional works for which he employed assistants who had the craft skills he lacked. In 1968 he created his first wall drawing, a two dimensional rendering of the ideas he was working on with his sculptures, for the Paula Cooper Gallery. The working drawings he made for his three dimensional works he applied to the two dimensional works which he subsequently refined down to written instructions.

For as he has said “the appearance of the work is secondary to the idea of the work, which makes the idea of primary importance. The system is the work of art; the visual work of art is the proof of the system. The visual aspect can’t be understood without understanding the system. It isn’t what it looks like but what it is that is of basic importance.

Spain’s Botín Foundation is currently showing the exhibition Sol LeWitt. 17 Wall Drawings. 1970-2015 until the 10th of January next year.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Duality Comes in Several Forms

“I do want people to feel something” 
Rachel Howard

In the world of contemporary art the gods are ephemeral with the deity’s omnipotence being measured by the prices they can command at auction. And it is a world that the British artist Rachel Howard has experienced first-hand.

After graduating from London's Goldsmiths College in 1992 Howard became an assistant to the soon to be demi-god Damien Hirst who had graduated a couple of years earlier. As his first assistant in 1993 Howard painted the spots of the now famous series which in June of 2013 London’s Independent newspaper reported to be at “1,365 and counting.”

Howard’s spots are said to be amongst the best in the series. As Hirst told the Independent “The best spot painting you can have by me is one painted by Rachel." It is an opinion with which the outspoken public intellectual Germaine Greer concurs.

Six years later Howard had her first solo exhibition in 1999 at London’s A22 Gallery with paintings made with house paint which she allows to separate enabling her to use the pigment and the varnish separately within the same work.

Although abstract in their presentation Howard’s works are conceptually underpinned by her relationship with religion. Her best received works to date, the Sin paintings from the early years of this century, the Suicide paintings first exhibited in 2007 to her first commission "Repetition is Truth - Via Dolorosa" harken back to her teenage years spent at a Quaker school for their inspiration.

Now a confirmed atheist, although reported to sing hymns in the bath, Howard’s Quaker education raised questions such as “If god made me, then who made God?” which informed those works, although her current work has moved on to examine the emotional content of a more secular nature.

As she told The Guardian Newspaper’s Mark Brown “The work is supposed to be – very unfashionably – emotional. I don’t care. All this work is about me really, it is about what goes on in my head and making sense of everything.”

Howard has also moved on from using house paint to the artist’s traditional medium; oil paint.

As she told Studio International “With this new body of work [it’s] now an exploration of oil paint and the gentle shift that occurs [from] abstraction to figuration and back again, a sway, a shimmy, and a dance between the two.”

A not un-similar duality has also effected Howard’s recognition as an artist. Like in 2008 when she sold a painting for $65,000 at an auction in New York. A couple of months later another painting she had made sold for $1.3 million. The difference between the two was the second work had her 1993 employer’s signature attached.

Since then Howard has had several solo exhibitions in England and Europe with the latest being Rachel Howard at Sea which is currently on show at Hastings’ Jerwood Gallery until the 4th of October.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Cost of Success

“The question is, always, can painting be continually stretched further into the future?”
Nigel Milsom

For the Australian painter Nigel Milsom, who over the last three years has won over a quarter of a million dollars in painting awards, $30,000 for the Sulman Prize in 2012, a $150,000 in 2013 for the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize and most recently a $100,000 for this year’s Archibald Prize, it is the question that confronts him each time he stands in front of his easel.

As he told the Sydney Morning Herald’s Andrew Taylor "I think painting becomes more difficult as you get older and the longer you do it. It does for me…But at the same time you have to find a way to do it. That's a challenging thing that keeps me going. It keeps you feeling like your art is floating and you never grow old or grow up. You feel like a kid all the time. And that's a good thing but also stressful because it creates a lot of anxiety. That never changes."

 In 2002 Milsom graduated from the University of New South Wales with a MFA and then proceed on a voyage of self-discovery in his chosen profession; learning to see for himself and develop consistency and persistence. As he explained to Artand’s Ingrid Periz “Art schools don’t teach you to be curious about painting and don’t instill in you the will to make things.”

Milsom turned to drugs to handle his compulsion to paint and its associated anxiety. As the Business Insider reported from a police transcript “I was just taking ice, smoking ice. And then when I wanted to stop and [do] some work, or slow down, I’d smoke the heroin. Then I’d smoke the ice again, and I’d do some work, and then I’d smoke the heroin.”

Whilst this regime seemingly helped with is painting it also led Milsom to commit reckless acts of misadventure like robbing a seven eleven in the inner Sydney suburb of Glebe. With the money from his Sulman Prize win still in his bank account, Milsom and his drug dealer, armed with a tomahawk, a toy gun and knife, bashed the store clerk and made off with cash, cigarettes and phone cards. For his efforts Milsom was sentenced to six and half years behind bars.

Milsom’s incarceration was a time out that he later considered a life saver. As he has said “I think it was a process of slowing down and definitely you have a lot of time to reflect when you're locked in a cell. I guess with my mental health and physical health it gradually all repaired itself. But the repair job, if you want to call it that, was forced on me in a way I wasn't really aware of at the time, but it probably saved my life."
Whilst in jail Milsom made headlines for being awarded the Moran Prize whilst incarcerated with his award being accepted by his girlfriend on his behalf. His lawyer, Charles Waterstreet, who was the subject for Milsom’s Archibald win, managed to get his sentence reduced so that the artist was out on parole and able to accept this current award in person.

Three years in the making Milsom came to regard the criminal lawyer as somewhat of a mythical creature. As he told the Sydney Morning Herald after winning the award "He's played a big role in my life in the last three years. I felt I got to know him to the point I was thinking about him when I wasn't even with him. When you're placing so much hope in someone and his ability to somehow steer you through a course you have no control over, he becomes mythical."

Milsom’s portrait of Waterstreet is currently on show at the Art Gallery of New South Wales until the 27th of September.

Friday, July 17, 2015

About Art and Activism

I have always thought that new and different 
is a product of creativity and not the objective.
Art is communication.

Elizabeth Catlett

For the African American sculptor, printmaker, educator and social activist, Elizabeth Catlett has used her art to promote the aspirations of those she called ‘my people’; African Americans and Mexican working-class women.

As the New York Times’ Karen Rosenberg reported her as saying “I have always wanted my art to service my people — to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential.”

Raised by a widowed mother and ex-slave grandparents in Washington DC, Catlett experiences underscored her sense of injustice. From being arrested as a teenager for protesting against lynching on the steps of the American Supreme Court to being refused admission to Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute of Technology because of her color.

She subsequently obtained a BFA from Howard University and her MFA from the University of Iowa. Upon graduation she started her career as an arts educator and whilst teaching at Dillard University in New Orleans in the early 1940’s she managed to sneak a group of art history students into a Picasso exhibition at the white only Delgado Museum.

As she told the Sculpture Magazine “With this exhibition I had an opportunity to talk to these students about what art is…I went up with them and they’re looking at a rooster, and they’re saying, ‘That’s not a rooster’; I said, ‘Well, that’s not the way a rooster looks, that’s the way Picasso feels about a rooster. In the first place, we all know it’s not a rooster, it’s a painting’... I thought it was horrible that these kids had never been to an art museum, and that’s one of my purposes. I want to get black people into museums.

In 1946 Catlett moved to Mexico on a Rosenwald Fund Fellowship and in 1962 became a Mexican citizen. A decision predicated by being declared an undesirable alien" by the US State Department due to her arrest protesting with the 1958 Mexican rail worker’s strike and her association with communists.

In Mexico, Catlett worked with the Taller de Grafica Popular, an influential and political group of printmakers and taught at the National School of Fine Arts in Mexico City. Working within the disciplines of printmaking and sculpture Catlett produced realistic and highly stylized two and three dimensional figurative works that ranged from the tender to the confrontational.

About her different approaches for each discipline Catlett says “Printmaking had to do with the moment. I thought of sculpture as something more durable and timeless, and I felt that it had to be more general in the idea that I was trying to express. Something with emotion, and the relation between form and emotion… Form was what interested me more. With printmaking, I was trying to get a message across more, something to think about.

The exhibition Charlotte Collects Elizabeth Catlett: A Centennial Celebration is on show at North Carolina’s Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts+Culture until the 31st of December.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

From the Internet to Canvas

“I love using Photoshop as a sketch book.”
Ian Francis

The socially conscious British artist Ian Frances uses the internet as the primary source for the images he uses in his multimedia paintings that celebrate and critique our media-inundated world.

In 2001 Francis graduated from the University of the West of England with an honors degree in illustration and although being an avid figurative drawer in his childhood he found illustration was not a particularly good fit.

As he says in a talk given to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Big Ideas program “I felt some bond to illustration and had a vague idea of me doing this because that was my degree, but I am an absolutely terrible illustrator…I hate working to other peoples briefs… I just want to do what I want to do and my work just doesn’t really suit reproduction.”

The devastation of the World Trade Center and the resultant Iraq war found Francis searching the internet for information about was actually happening and along the way he started looking at superficial images from teen dramas.

As he explained “I was kinda fascinated by the play between the two. I found it interesting, especially using the internet, by how quickly you can shift between stuff that is very serious and horrific and between stuff that’s really trivial or absurd or banal. I was just interested in the way the two related.”

By juxtaposing the two Francis creates work that he says "is about pornography and news reports from warzones rather than sex and death."

Using Photoshop Francis creates the ‘roughs’ for his paintings using parts of the images he has found on the internet that suit his purposes. “I search websites in general pretty much every day, I usually save, like, getting on for a 100 pictures a week or so,” he says.

Whilst being derived from the internet Francis’ paintings avoid depictions of their source. As he says “My work isn't about computers or the world wide web specifically, which is why you won't see those elements in my paintings – it's more about the feelings people express through them.”

His current exhibition Ian Francis: The Chosen Form of Your Destroyer is on show at London's Lazarides Rathbone gallery until the 1st of August.