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16 posts categorized "Art&Activism"

August 21, 2017


Vincent's Empathy & Activism


VincentI get choked up when thinking about Vincent van Gogh. A Post-Impressionist artist who painted a huge body of work. Surprisingly, he painted for only 10 years ... his last 10 years of his life. And it is through the act of painting that he finally felt that he had found a way to do something good for humankind. Previous to his painting life, he had been kicked out of the clergy for being overly empathetic to the poor. That he cared too much for them.

Though many of his works are of landscapes and flowers and even scenes of the bourgeoisie, his work also encompasses paintings of poor laborers and families working in the fields.

I get choked up because he didn't have to go out of his way to find subjects like poor field workers with dark skin. It would have been more convenient (and perhaps more lucrative) for him to depict just the convenient. But by taking the time to paint the poor working class, he was making a statement. He was championing humanism ... to make the case to the world with his strokes and pigments that all humans, even the marginalized, have value. We look at his body of work today and think what a genius he was but in his lifetime, he didn't enjoy the applause nor the sales of the viewing audience. I think he sold only one painting during his life.

Ironically, within the Post-Impressionist period, there is a movement called Art Nouveau that emerged in Belgium, where everything was about making everything pretty, in an effort to champion decorative arts. Certainly not a movement that would make room for paintings of poor people working in the fields.

Truthfully, I like seeing it all. The pretty, the troubling, the realistic, the decorative, the abstract. I feel for van Gogh who was so tortured by his unusual degree of empathy that ultimately became debilitating ... and I admire him for painting and being the activist that he was, regardless of the lack of acclaim or sales.

Perhaps the person who recently wrote me and asked that I keep politics out of my art might not realize that when she is looking at a van Gogh, she IS looking at politics. And she IS looking at his activism.

Sometimes it might feel that activism looks and feels a certain way. Loud. Shocking. Bubbling with outrage. What van Gogh teaches me is that at other times, activism feels different ... a kind of feeling that perplexes some because the work isn't super pretty or decorative ... just quietly reflective of a reality that is beyond the convenient yet steeped in the outrage just the same.

(PS: I also think loud and shocking activist art has value. I'll talk about that in another post)

#artandactivismlog

August 20, 2017


Peace = Radical Nuclear Disarmament


Peace

The peace sign is a universally loved symbol. Maybe it's because it seems today to symbolize a zen-like energy ... not too radical, not too activist, not too political ... especially if it's made with dried rose petals ... or adorned with other design elements that don't rock the boat. Like ... peace and good vibes and all you need is love dude ... and let's keep politics out of it, dude.

Interestingly, the symbol was created in 1958 by British artist, Gerald Holtom, as a form of activism to denounce war and nuclear weapons. Specifically, it was to support and unite the Aldermaston March which took place in the UK, which drew thousands of marchers calling for nuclear disarmament. Quite radical. Quite political.

Holtom cleverly used the Naval Flag Semaphore characters to design the peace sign. At sea, flags (one in each hand) are held by a person in different ways to signal different letters. The Letter N is communicated when a person holds the flags so both arms are straight and positioned in equidistance from the body, with the flags pointing downward.

 

Peace3

The letter D is made when one arm is pointed straight up and the other straight down so that we see the person with flags as a straight vertical line.

Peace2

Holtom combined these two letters: N and D to create the peace sign, to signify Nuclear Disarmament.

I'm always surprised when I occasionally get someone who I barely know to write me and say "I love your art. Please don't put politics in it." To which I say:

  • I don't exist to do things to make your life feel more convenient
  • Whether you can see it or not, everything is political ... even seemingly innocuous decorative art is political ...in terms of who makes it/with what supplies it is made/during what time of day it is made ... and who ends up acquiring it.

I believe the language of art is multi-faceted. Those who allow it to communicate activism (like Holtom) do so with great effort to create original content that can trigger contemplation. Activist art frequently makes people uneasy ... but I believe it always leads to increased contemplation, which is wonderful, and powerful. Because I think what precedes peace is justice and what precedes justice is the presentation of details of a topic (whether it's about bombs, race, gender, class, environment, health, education, etc.) that sometimes takes a lifetime to really discuss and understand.

#artandactivismlog

August 19, 2017


Les Fauves


FauvismI love it when a sentiment hurled with the intent to hurt is embraced and used to turn that hurt into power. That's exactly how it happened with the Fauvists ... namely Henri Matisse, Andre Derain, and others whose colorfully loud works in a Paris art show caused a critic to describe their works as being made by "les fauves," which is French for "the wild animals."

Fauvism ushered in Expressionism where artists' rebellion toward Realism sought to turn the conventions of classical art upside down ... with the main purpose being to emancipate artists' feelings from the shackles of convention and allowing such feelings, no matter how animalistic or neurotic or weird, to be expressed.

Wassily Kandinsky is a Russian painter who was in concert with the wild animalistic ways that Fauvists championed color and was very experimental and radical in his ideas about painting ... including the idea that for art to be free from subjectivity, color needed to exist without form. He wanted his abstract use of color to be expressed in the spirit of music ... that is, he wanted his formless colors on canvas to exude what he viewed as complete freedom found in music.

All of this makes me think about this beautiful painting I made. Actually, I made it accidentally. A throw-away plate that I used as a makeshift paint palette. But sometimes, I look at plates like these and think how beautiful they are ... could it ba a plate of abstracted flowers? Abstracted pieces of fruit? Does it matter?

Some would argue that it matters. Some would argue that beauty that happens by accident isn't as valuable as beauty that happens with intent.

To which I sort of agree and sort of disagree. Painters who don't have musical training might mistakenly think that all music is a formless expression of beauty but actually music has its own set of rules. Notes exist on a clef, in a key, and if a piece of music sounds free and beautiful it's usually because it has been written within a structure of theory that works.

But then there's abstracted music ... like free jazz and music that comes out in jams without scores or theory ... where musicians just feel it and out come notes ... some rooted in theory and some accidentally and extemporaneously ... and when we hear it ... whether they are rooted in theory or birthed accidentally, if they move us, we dance.

#artandactivismlog

August 13, 2017


Cubism and the Tomato


TomatoCubism is the movement that preceded abstract expressionism ... incubating the grand rebellion against realism ... a rebellion that still exists in contemporary art. Basically, cubists argued that a still life painting of a tomato fell short of showing the entire truth of that tomato and that the way to remedy that was to show all aspects of the fruit all at the same time. And in order to do that, the tomato needed to be shattered/fragmented and then all its parts and pieces painted on the canvas all at the same time. If a tomato were made of delicate glass, the analogy would be more vivid, as the shattered pieces of a glass tomato (rather than a real one with juice and seeds) would better reflect the pointed angles found in cubist work. 

I appreciate the experimental nature of Cubism (and its sister movement, Futurism). I respect and admire experimentalism in general. The criticism I have is in the notion that there are only things to gain and nothing to lose by shattering and distorting a subject. Indeed, there are things to gain. I mean, I really dig it when I can actually see the nude woman walking down a staircase (as in Marcel Duchamp's famous painting: Nude Descending a Staircase) when at first glance it appears to be just a bunch of lines and shatterings.

But that doesn't mean that a representational work that shows only one view of the woman descending a staircase doesn't offer certain truths relevant to that woman.

Rendering an object by shattering it and showing all pieces simultaneously allows artists a new and magical way of looking at the subject. What we lose in the process is perspective, depth, and certain nuances that can only be captured when we take one perspective at a time. Some time in the future in my painting practice I hope I find an opportunity to render a subject in the Cubist style. But I don't think I'll be surprised to learn that by trying to show everything all at the same time, I gain wondrous things, and I lose wondrous things. And ain't that life?

#artandactivismlog

August 10, 2017


Fork, Frida, and Freedom


FridaValuing the element of Chance as championed by Dadaism became adopted by Surrealism ... where artists like Max Ernst, Salvador Dali and Andre Breton were pursuing art that emerged from the unconscious dream-state rather than the conscious state. Dali went as far as wearing a folded fork as a necklace so that when he nodded off to sleep while seated, the fork would poke him awake at the chin, allowing him to quickly capture images from his dream.

One such Dali painting ... of a landscape with melting clocks sure does seem like a dream. Nevertheless, it is a painting that works because he had the technical skills to paint that landscape and melting clocks. Skills that were acquired in a conscious reality.

Though surrealists wanted to induct Frida Kahlo into the fold as they saw her dreamy paintings as surrealist in nature, Kahlo is famous for saying to surrealist leaders that she never painted dreams but that she painted her reality ... of bottomless pain, heartache and agony.

Surrealism was in tandem to Abstract Expressionism which caught fire in the US after WWII when experimental artists from the world moved to the US to pursue freedom of expression, and rebel against the stranglehold that reverence for realism (and end product) had on the art world.

Whereas painters of realism were more about methods that would let the work speak and the artist be silent, abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock wanted to be heard, his process to be heard, and for the process to gain equal or even more important footing than the end result. 

There is this balance in my art practice that makes me relate to the idea of rebelling against strict rules and methods like surrealists and abstract expressionists. Like leave me alone already ... and don't tell me what do do or how to do it. But the other side of that for me is that if in fact in my dream state or my imagination I see melting clocks ... or a boat with a ladder to the moon or something even more unconventional, I need to have the skills to do so ... if I want others see what I see. 

So what is freedom? My ability to do what I want? My ability to learn and practice new skills? I think both are elements of it. Freedom, that is.

#artandactivismlog

 

August 08, 2017


Beauty and Function


UtilityMarcel Duchamp (1887-1968) was an American-French painter who liked mocking high art. He is famous for installing everyday objects like a snow shovel, a urinal and other things into gallery settings to ignite discourse about what is and isn't art. His thought was that if we just look at a snow shovel as an object of utility, we won't recognize its aesthetic qualities. Similarly, Christo Javacheff (1935-   ) is a Bulgarian artist who removes the utilitarian aspect of a thing ... usually by wrapping it in fabric in order for the viewer to see the aesthetics of the thing, without bias that can be related to its function.

Then there are abstract artists like Mark Rothko and Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich and Gerhard Richter who didn't wrap objects or hang urinals in galleries but presented fields of color and other abstracted expressions in an effort to move away from the "baggage" associated with representational paintings and/or realism.  Meh.

It's not that I dislike such works. Especially Rothko. I actually love his works. The thing about abstract work (especially contemporary abstract art) is that I'm dubious about whether the art reflects any real skills or any real message. You know ... like the "sewist" who makes a hot mess with fabrics in the name of "freeform" and "be free there's no mistake in art" ... when actually the person doesn't have basic sewing skills and so it's about avoiding certain stitches rather than reinventing/abstracting them ... it bothers me.

Dada-ists would argue back to me that chance is more important than skill. The point being that if art is to reflect life, not everything in a work should be planned and derived from skill. That chance/accidents happen in life ... and that therefore art ought to make room for it too. Touché.

All of these thoughts were dancing in my head while I was washing the dishes. And looking at my cutting board that is used and washed about 6 times a day in our house. Even without wrapping it like Christo or hanging it in a gallery like Duchamp ... wouldn't you agree that it is both utilitarian AND beautiful?

#artandactivismlog

 

 

 

 

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