Sunday, February 19, 2017

Yikes! Another deadline approaches

A few months ago I agreed to participate in a group project to honour Montrealer Leonard Cohen. The chosen theme is the lyric from his song Anthem:

"Ring the bells that still can ring 
Forget your perfect offering 
There is a crack in everything 
That's how the light gets in. "

While no deadline was set, it was agreed that we would have photos of our works ready by March in order to search for suitable venues for a group show. I was reminded of this a couple of days ago. Nothing like a deadline to focus the mind. So...

... I had another look at a little group of collages I made last year, as part of an on-line class with Jane Davies. I actually made six in this set, each measuring 6 x 6.

Jazz Fest 2016

I think this kind of composition will be a starting point for my contribution to the project. Perhaps if I work larger, at least 20 x 20, say, and begin with a dark background....

The project will be my focus for the next while and I may not be posting here until I have something to show you. Stay tuned....

Meanwhile, if you'd like to read a thoughtful analysis of Anthem's lyrics, please have a look at this. Having just re-read George Orwell's 1984, I found it illuminating. 

Notably, the Musée d'Art Contemporain in Montreal will stage a multi-disciplinary show this fall, inspired by the work of Leonard Cohen. Leonard Cohen: Une brèche en toute chose / A Crack in Everything will be part of Montreal's 375th anniversary celebration.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Love, Love, Love: a series

It's Valentine's Day as I write this, and I am reminded of a series I made some eight years ago.

Love, Love, Love #2
The text in the upper left corner is a quote from Helen Keller:
"The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched.
They must be felt within the heart."

I named the series after a classic song by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, released in 1967, titled Love (Makes Me Do Foolish Things). Scroll to the end for a link to the song itself.

This series was an opportunity to play with paint on fabric, collaged tissue paper, image transfer, beads, buttons, ribbon, metallic paper, sheer organza and stitch. I made several full-sized, framed pieces in the series, and also perhaps forty 4" x 6" postcards, which I framed. A few of them are shown below. I found the small format a good way to experiment with composition and technique.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Met Opens Its Photo Archives

Last week, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened its bank of over 375,000 high-res images to the public.  All images of public-domain artworks in the Museum's collection are now available for free and unrestricted use. You can read the press release here.

Quilt, Split Bars Pattern, Amish maker, c. 1930

Along with the images are detailed texts explaining the provenance of the piece and its significance. For the quilt above, the accompanying text reads, in part,

"In the 1971 Whitney Museum exhibition "Abstract Design in American Quilts," boldly graphic quilts like these were compared to American modern abstract paintings. This exhibition set off a rush of Amish quilt collecting; the Museum acquired its first Amish quilts in 1973. In the early days of collecting, the outside world knew little about the traditions of the Amish communities. For this reason, and because most elaborately quilted mainstream American quilts were made in the nineteenth century, there was a tendency to date many of the Amish quilts to the latter part of the nineteenth century. As scholarship progressed, however, it became clear that the vast majority of the Amish quilts seen today in collections and publications were made in the first four decades of the twentieth century. The Amish came to the practice of quilt-making about fifty years after the height of its popularity in the outside world, and employed both quilting motifs and some patterns well after the peak of their use among other quilt makers."

While you're on the Met's website, you can check out other on-line features, like the full six seasons of The Artist Project.
"The Artist Project asks artists to reflect on what art is and what inspires them from across 5,000 years of art. Their unique and passionate ways of seeing and experiencing art reveal the power of a museum and encourage all visitors to look in a personal way."
For example, I clicked on Vik Muniz, a favourite artist, and watched a short clip showing him exploring the  Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art. Muniz explained that the Center is more like a storage facility. He likes its "transgressive" quality: no single item is spotlighted as being worth his time. No curator filters what the viewer can or should see.

Another section of the website, 82nd and 5th,

"asks 100 curators to talk about 100 works of art that changed the way they see the world. One curator, one work of art, two minutes at a time. This series demonstrates that the voice of authority, up close, is inspirational."
This feature is available as an iPad app, in English and ten other languages.

These initiatives, part of the Met's educational mission, are a great find!

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Looking at Art

The plan for today's text'art meeting is a visit to the Celebration show at Galérie Beaux-Arts des Amériques, 5432 St.-Laurent in Montreal. This show features thirty paintings, all measuring 20" x 20", prompted by the gallery's tenth anniversary. My entry made it into the show, chosen by three jurors from almost sixty entries.

Photo taken on a quiet day, before the official opening

On a weekday morning, the space should allow for us to look closely at the works.

Here is a guideline that I found on the blog of Margaret Cooter, an English artist acquaintance of mine who posts almost daily about her everyday life, her work, her walks around London, as well as the London gallery and museum scene.  Occasionally she throws in a little poetry.

The next time you visit an art show, you too may find this guideline helpful. I hope it produces a lively discussion at today's outing.

Fingers crossed that today's weather forecast doesn't mean another cancelled excursion!

Sunday, February 5, 2017

"The Painted Word", by Tom Wolfe

The Connoisseur, Norman Rockwell, 1962

"If you have ever stared uncomprehendingly at an abstract painting that admired critics have said you ought to dig, take heart. Tom on your side. [The Painted Word] may enrage you. It may confirm your darkest suspicions about Modern Art. In any case, it will amuse you."  - The New York Sunday News
"The Painted Word may well be Tom Wolfe's most successful piece of social criticism to date.   - The New York Times
"The Painted Word is a masterpiece. No one in the art world... could fail to recognize its essential truth. I read it four times, each of them with mounting envy for Wolfe's eye, ear, and surgical skill."  -The Washington Post
One of my favourite books of all time is Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) so when this book was recommended to me, it was hard to resist. Published in 1975, it was written just a year after I graduated in Fine Arts. Forty-two years ago. (sigh) It speaks to the state of art at that time, and helps me better understand some of the confusion and conflicts I experienced as a young art graduate.

The focus of The Painted Word is the New York art scene, familiar territory for the author, but his analysis holds for the entire network of North American / European art hubs. Wolfe begins by explaining how the art of the early 1900's was a reaction to "literary art". Think of the iconic paintings of the 19th century, for example, so many of which allow the viewer to read them as a story.

The Raft of the Medusa, Géricault, 1819

The Hay Wain, Constable, 1821

The Stone Breakers, Gustave Courbet, 1849
(Realist School)

Luncheon of the Boating Party, Renoir, 1881

With the beginning of the Modern movement, around 1900, Wolfe explains,
"Literary became a code word for all that seemed hopelessly retrograde about realistic art.... The idea was that half the power of a realistic painting comes not from the artist but from the sentiments the viewer hauls along to it, like so much mental baggage."
What was the opposite of literary painting?
"Why, l'art pour l'art, form for the sake of form, colour for the sake of colour. In Europe before 1914, artists invented Modern styles with fanatic energy – Fauvism, Futurism, Cubism, Expressionism, Orphism, Suprematism, Vorticism – but everybody shared the same premise: henceforth, one doesn't paint 'about anything, my dear aunt,' to borrow a line from a famous Punch cartoon. One just paints. Art should no longer be a mirror held up to man or nature. A painting should compel the viewer to see it for what it is: a certain arrangement of colours and forms on a canvas."
Allow for a decade or two for the culturati to adopt and champion abstraction. Watch how their tastes evolve in an endless search to distinguish themselves from the bourgeoisie. Factor in a decade or so of strongly leftist politics, which resulted in the 1930's era of Social Realism in art, and make allowances for two world wars. Add in the influence of art theorists like Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg and observe the dance between them, the bohemian artists and le monde.

Lavender Mist, Jackson Pollack, 1950

What do you get? Abstract Expressionism. Whereas with the realistic art of earlier eras, it was a case of "seeing is believing", the new experience is one of "believing is seeing". Viewers of art could only hope to understand abstract expressionism by having it explained to them by art theory, the theory of "the integral plane", of "flatness". And few were buying it. Writes Wolfe,
"First you do everything possible to make sure your world is antibourgeois, that it defies bourgeois tastes, that it mystifies the mob, the public, that it outdistances the insensible middle-class multitudes by light years of subtlety and intellect – and then, having succeeded admirably, you ask with a sense of See-what-I-mean? outrage: look, they don't even buy our products!"
So what direction could the art scene possibly take after Abstract Expressionism? Pop Art was the next Big Thing, rejuvenating the New York art scene. The flatness that was so sought after in abstract expressionism came naturally to the flags of Jasper Johns, the comic strips of Roy Lichtenstein, and the silkscreen posters of Andy Warhol. The art theorists agreed that these were not literary, that they were symbols; not representations, but "sign systems".

Flag, Jasper Johns, 1955
(Pop Art)

In the Car, Roy Lichtenstein, 1963
(Pop Art)

Campbell's Soup Cans, Andy Warhol, 1962
(Pop Art)

The culturati quickly cycled through Op Art, Colour Field, Minimalism, and Conceptualism.
"How religiously we've cut away the fat! In the beginning we got rid of nineteenth-century storybook realism. Then we got rid of representational objects. Then we got rid of the third dimension altogether and got really flat (Abstract Expressionism). Then we got rid of airiness, brushstrokes, most of the paint, and the last viruses of drawing and complicated designs (Hard Edge, Colour Field, Washington School).
"Enough? Hardly, said the Minimalists, who began to come into their own about 1965."
Further reductions ensued. Frames? Canvas? The wall? The gallery or museum? The idea of a permanent work of art? Even a visible work of art?
"So it was that in April of 1970 an artist named Lawrence Weiner typed up a work of art that appeared in Arts Magazine – as a work of art – with no visual experience before or after whatsoever, and to wit:
1. The artist may construct the piece
2. The piece may be fabricated
3. The piece need not be built
Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership."
And here Tom Wolfe sums up the whole business in his inimitable style:
"And there, at last, it was! No more realism, no more representational objects, no more lines, colours, forms, and contours, no more pigments, no more brushstrokes, no more evocations, no more frames, walls, galleries, museums, no more gnawing at the tortured face of the god Flatness, no more audience required, just a "receiver" that may or may not be a person or may or may not be there at all, no more ego projected, just "the artist", in the third person, who may be anyone or no one at all, for nothing is demanded of him, nothing at all, not even existence, for that got lost in the subjunctive mode – and in that moment of absolutely dispassionate abdication, of insouciant withering away, Art made its final flight, climbed higher and higher in an ever-decreasing tighter-turning spiral until, with one last erg of freedom, one last dendritic synapse, it disappeared up its own fundamental aperture... and came out the other side as Art Theory!... Art Theory pure and simple, words on a page, literature undefiled by vision, flat, flatter, Flattest, a vision invisible, even ineffable, as ineffable as the Angels and the Universal Souls." 

Telephone Booths, Richard Estes, 1968

In the book's epilogue, Wolfe discusses the return to realism, including Photo-Realism, which became a hot seller in the 70's as a reaction to all that had preceded it. (The art-buying class must have its meat.) Photo-Realism gives me vertigo.

Orange and Yellow, Mark Rothko, 1956
(Colour Field)

As for me, I'm an old-fashioned sort. Colour and form do it for me. Give me a brushy Rothko or the push-and-pull of a Hans Hofmann any day.

Yellow Burst, Hans Hofmann, 1956
(Abstract Expressionism)

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Chagall: Colour and Music

The Blue Circus

This past weekend was my first visit to the newly-opened exhibition Chagall: Colour and Music at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. It will not be my last.

Close to 400 works of art are included: paintings, sketches, prints, costumes, sculpture, stained glass and tapestry cover almost the entire third floor of the Jean-Noël Desmarais pavilion. The range of media is a testament to Chagall's lifelong commitment to his artistic vision.

The theme of the exhibition is how music informed Chagall's work, and music plays in every alternate room of the display. Growing up in a Jewish community in White Russia (now known as Belarus), where violins were found in every household, Chagall frequently included the image of the violin and the fiddler in his work. Even fans of the artist may not realize that he created the costumes and backdrops for three ballets and one opera, Mozart's The Magic Flute

One of the highlights of the show is an enormous projected photo of the ceiling of the Paris Opera House. Visitors are encouraged to sit in beanbag chairs so they can lean back and experience the high-resolution photo. Explains John Pohl of the Montreal Gazette
"The ceiling was photographed in close-up detail by the Google Institute and is shown as a high-resolution projection, in the form of a spotlight moving across the ceiling. The paintings pay homage to composers whose works were produced at the Paris Opera; as each composer enters the spotlight, excerpts from their repertoire are played."
The Triumph of Music

I was a little disappointed to see so few of the very large Chagall paintings, like the impressive, monumental works at the Chagall Museum in Nice. Another quibble is that some of the explanatory text is printed in red ink on red walls, making it all but illegible.

Chagall: Colour and Music is the biggest Canadian exhibition ever devoted to the work of Marc Chagall (1887-1985). Running until June 11, 2017, it is bound to be a popular success. Its only other staging will be in Los Angeles, later this year.