Tag Archives: Art

I’m a Creep

I was talking with my daughter the other day about something I enjoyed that was a little creepy, and we laughed about that creepiness. I’ve always thought of myself as someone who doesn’t really DO creepy—I detest horror and zombies and vampires and gore. I loathe scaring people. I hate practical jokes and nasty surprises and causing people fear.

But then it dawned on me that I love The Twilight Zone, which I think of more as a source of slightly chilling campiness than creepiness. When I received a box set of every Twilight Zone episode as a Christmas gift a few years ago, I actually burst into tears, I found it such a touching and generous gesture.

I thought a little further about what constitutes creepiness and I realized that I love cemeteries, which I see as beautiful memorials to lost love. I seek them out in my travels and I have hundreds of photographs of headstones. Indeed, on the walls of my home hang several small casts of particularly lovely elements from New England’s grave markers.

Hmm.

I followed this train of thought a bit further down the track, and I had to admit to myself that I get a kick out of hiding weird disembodied hands and arms from antique baby dolls in my houseplants. I see them not as frightening but as absurd and laughable when they’re stuck randomly in nonsensical places. I also love them because I collect hand-related art—it reminds me of creativity and connecting with people and holding out one’s hand to others. To me, those creepy little hands are actually a mental shorthand for being willing to lead people toward something funnier, less expected, better. I don’t assemble them into horrific tableaux; I use them to accessorize my home and inspire me to stay close to those I love, to beauty, to my muses. My creepy baby hands also keep me from taking myself too seriously. They remind me to stay goofy, which I think is vital to staying human.

Then came the epiphany: Creepy people never think of themselves as creepy.

Uh-oh.

It turns out that I’m a creep. I’m a weirdo. But I’ll bet I’m the perkiest little creep you know.

Edward Hopper—Dark, Detached, Delicious

American painter Edward Hopper was born on this day in 1882. The spare, cool, detached way he depicts his subjects contrasts powerfully with his use of dramatic darkness, intense light and shadow and vivid colors. Hopper’s works are carefully composed to create interest and visual movement even though the subjects themselves are usually completely still.

Hopper painted many architecturally interesting exteriors, landscapes and interior scenes, and even his compositions involving human figures emphasize an architectural sense of balance, order and solidity. The compositions and settings are as much the subject of his paintings as the people portrayed in them are.

Most of Hopper’s masterwork, “Nighthawks,” was painted just after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when the U.S. was plunged into fear that there would be air attacks on the U.S. mainland. Americans began sewing blackout curtains for their windows as the people of Britain had been doing for years in efforts to make it harder for potential attackers to target their homes from the air. But while the country prepared for enemy attacks, Hopper continued to work into the evenings with his studio curtains wide open. Appropriately, “Nighthawks” featured four people awake late at night in an empty landscape, together yet somehow separated from each other in a bright but foreboding cafe.

In nature, nighthawks are nocturnal predators of the nightjar family. They, like the nighthawks of the painting, spend the night awake—restless, watching, waiting.

The contrast between still, calm, composed subjects and vibrant color surrounded by intense darkness makes his works visually exciting, but also inspires feelings of melancholy and alienation. Hopper has inspired many other visual artists, including filmmakers like Sam Mendes, Ridley Scott and the Coen Brothers. Mendes’s bleak and brilliant film “The Road to Perdition” in particular reads as a perfect visual homage to the painter, with each scene composed, colored and lit like a Hopper painting.

Stendhal Syndrome

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Caravaggio’s “The Conversion of St. Paul on the Road to Damascus,” painted for the Cerasi Chapel of the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, 1601

When Stendhal, the 19th century French author, visited Florence in 1817 he became so overwhelmed by the city’s glorious art that, overcome by a surfeit of visual splendor, he had a temporary psychological breakdown. He’s not the only one to react to extreme beauty in this way. Art lovers have found being in the presence of tremendous beauty so moving and emotionally taxing that they’ve suffered confusion, tachycardia, dizziness and hallucinations in art museums frequently enough for psychiatrists to give a name to this cluster of responses: Stendhal Syndrome.

Tourists occasionally experience breakdowns while overcome by the beauty of Botticelli‘s paintings in the Galleria degli Uffizi or at the foot of Michelangelo’s David at the Galleria dell’Accademia. Some are sent to Florence’s Santa Maria Nuova Hospital‘s psychiatric ward for evaluation. The syndrome was named in 1979 after an Italian psychiatrist observed more than 100 cases among tourists in Florence. Apparently American tourists are not known to suffer the syndrome as Europeans do; some say that perhaps this is because as a culture, we don’t experience the same immersion and attachment to masterworks of art as Europeans. As a rule, Europeans believe we derive neither the ecstatic joy in being surrounded by profoundly beautiful and important masterworks, nor the psychological trauma of being overwhelmed by it. When they find an American who is deeply touched by their heritage and art, most Europeans are surprised and delighted. I have found that many will go out of their way to help a visitor enjoy immersion in their glory.

Most U.S. tourists visiting Europe simply lack the frame of reference and familiarity with European art and history that Europeans have, and without such a frame of reference there is less build up of anticipation or depth of understanding, and these are the underpinnings of emotional reaction. Faced with the exhaustion of travel, the unforgiving pace and the breadth of new experiences that most packaged tours provide to Americans overseas, the majority of my compatriots can be forgiven for being too numbed and overwhelmed by the fatigue and novelty of European tourism for great meaning to sink in. It’s not that emotional reactions to beauty and meaning are lacking in our makeup, but that most of us have simply not been exposed to either the depth or breadth of art historical experience and understanding that many Europeans enjoy. This is, of course, partly because of our physical distance from the majority of masterpieces of Western art, and also because of the relative novelty of our national history and treasures.

While the U.S. has many European masterworks in museums, one must make an effort to visit them. We are not surrounded with them as most urban Europeans are. Turn a corner in any major European metropolis and you may find that treasure troves of art and architecture await you. In Italy especially, the sheer volume of exquisite historically and artistically important works is staggering. In Rome or Florence, it seems as if nearly any random block offers a world-class repository of culture to rival anything Americans could muster. One city after another (not to mention little villages and gorgeous hill towns) boasts ancient treasures, Roman monuments, priceless works of every kind. So it is no wonder that people steeped in stories and photos of such masterworks who enjoy and remember their history should be overwhelmed when immersed in the glories of Europe’s cultural centers.

I have never had a nervous breakdown in a museum (or anywhere else, for that matter), but I have several times been moved to tears and wonderment before a work of art which I have studied and loved from afar. Here is my favorite example.

When I was 21, my mother and I spent several hectic weeks traveling through the art centers of Italy together in honor of my having completed college. For both my senior theses (I wrote one for my history major and my art history minor) I wrote on art historical subjects. One essay was on 15th century Florentine architecture; the other compared the impact of different sources of patronage (e.g., Italian popes, Spanish monarchs, Flemish churches, Dutch merchants) on the styles and subject matter found in works painted or sculpted by major 17th century Italian, Spanish, Dutch and Flemish artists.

I took night school classes in Italian, since Mills College didn’t offer that language, to enrich my art historical studies. When I went to Italy with my mother two months after graduation, all my art historical research and Italian language studies were still fresh in my head, and I was aching to see all the pieces whose photographic representations I’d spent four years swooning over. I had been to Italy on multi-country package tours of Europe in my teens, but this time we were focusing on one country alone and spending days on end in magical cities where we had enough time to seek out the tinier churches that tours usually missed. We were women on a mission.

My mother was as crazy for 16th and 17th century art and architecture as I, and as determined to cram as many masterpieces into our free days as I was. On one swelteringly humid July day in Rome, she and I visited so many churches we lost count. We crisscrossed the city on swollen legs and blistered feet, determined to get one more painting in, view one more astonishing Bernini sculpture, admire another set of volutes or one more baldachin or another monument or reliquary or crumbling edifice. At last, dehydrated and aching, we dragged ourselves into Santa Maria del Popolo in search of a painting neither of us wanted to leave Rome without seeing: Caravaggio’s Conversion of St. Paul on the Road to Damascus.

We hobbled all around the church looking for the chapel we sought, so overwhelmed by pain and fatigue that we had to poke each other to make sure we admired and appreciated the other masterworks all around us. Then we walked around a corner and into the Cerasi Chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo only to find St. Paul lying on the road to Damascus before us. The painting was darkened by time, covered in dust and obscured around the edges by layers of cobwebs. With one of the greatest paintings anyone will ever paint before us, enormous, filthy and exquisite, we simultaneously burst into tears and hugged each other in relief and delight. This painting alone was worth every blister, every step, every night of study, every set of endless marble steps we had climbed throughout the city for six long, hot days.

Finding my way to this painting distilled all I love about art into one perfect moment, just as Caravaggio distilled all that was important about Paul’s conversion into one perfect image. For Caravaggio, the moments of most pathos and meaning come when holy figures are brought down to their most elemental humanity and humility. He humbles Christ, the Virgin Mary (whom he painted as bare- and dirty-footed and swollen in death) and St. Paul in his paintings to bring their essential humanity closer to us, so we see that as we are now, so once were they. Unlike someone like Rubens, who elevates powerful human beings to lofty heights, Caravaggio brings holy personages down to the human level so we can empathize with them and love them in a more completely human and heartfelt way.

As painted by Caravaggio, Saul becomes Paul while lying in the dirty, dark road, nearly trampled by his oblivious horse. He is literally knocked off his high horse and blinded so he can be humbled enough that his soul might be exalted in times to come. My experience in making my way to the piece was similar on a small but meaningful scale; my little pilgrimage exhausted and humbled me so that in the midst of all the glories around me after days of being bombarded by the endless masterworks of Rome, I could still be touched profoundly by one old, dusty and perfect painting.

Other works of art have moved me to tears, but I think no first moment with any work of art can surpass the joy I felt in the perfection and purity of that moment with that work of art. Unlike Stendahl in the Uffizi Gallery, I did not need to fall to the floor with arms outstretched in my ecstatic moment. Paul did that for me in his eternal ecstatic moment on the wall of a dark Roman chapel.

[This article originally appeared on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

Black Power and Beauty in the Portraits of Kehinde Wiley

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“Willem van Heythuysen” by Kehinde Wiley.  The pose and the title are based on a 17th century portrait by Dutch painter Frans Hals. Photo from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

As you enter “A New Republic,” the exhibition of paintings, stained glass windows, sculptures and triptychs by Kehinde Wiley currently at the Seattle Art Museum, you are met by the direct and confident gaze of an African American man astride a rearing horse. The man wears a camouflage jacket and trousers, Timberland boots and a bandanna tied around his head; a heavy gold velvet cloak encircles his shoulders and billows dramatically in the air. Though he and his horse stand on a rocky crag, their backdrop is not of nature but of a red and gold wallpaper design such as one might find in a Victorian drawing room. Draw closer to the monumental portrait and you’ll see hundreds of seemingly randomly placed undulating sperm cells delicately filling the interstices between the golden arabesques of the backdrop. More swirling sperm fill the egg-shaped corner medallions on the huge and ornate gold frame in which the painting hangs, obviously and humorously reminding us that this painting is all about manliness and the power of the male gaze.

Here is a celebration of the masculine life force. Those who know something of the history of Western art will smile, since the pose, the horse, even the words engraved on the rock upon which the rearing horse stands all come directly from one of the most famous equestrian portraits ever painted: this is a direct homage to Bonaparte Crossing the Alps, Jacques-Louis David’s 1801 equestrian portrait of Napoleon at the height of his power.

Continue through the exhibition and you’re met by other grand equestrian portraits. One painted shortly after the death of Michael Jackson features the late King of Pop wearing armor and portrayed as if he were King Philip II of Spain in a nod to a 17th century Baroque painting by Peter Paul Rubens. However, most of the portraits here depict not recognizable faces but everyday people found by the painter during one of his “street-casting” sessions. Wiley approaches strangers in public and asks them whether they’re willing to be photographed, usually in their own clothing, so that they might later be painted in the pose of an old master portrait of their choosing. While their likenesses may hang in major museums around the world and garner huge prices from avid collectors of Wiley’s work, the models usually remain anonymous, since Wiley prefers to title his portraits not after the sitters but after the people depicted in the portraits to which he pays homage.

Evoking well-known Western masterworks of the past with modern-day young men who display all the signifiers of 21st century African American masculine style is fresh and arresting, as is this fact: although they borrow the poses of major dead white European males, Wiley’s versions of the portraits usually depict black men between the ages of 18 and 35.

Wiley, himself a black, gay, American man, says that he chooses men in part for their sexual attractiveness to him, though he does not ask their sexual orientations. But in gazing upon them, he is knowingly sexually objectifying them, which has traditionally been seen as a way to take power away from the person who is being objectified. However, Wiley does this with the sitters’ assent and participation, so his sitters have the ultimate power over whether they are depicted in new works of art by a prominent internationally known artist, and in what pose they will be remembered. Wiley’s subjects exude power and self-awareness, but  are left unnamed and undescribed. He chooses them not for their personalities, influence or station in life. It is enough that they are black, beautiful and capable of presenting themselves in a composed, dignified and quietly confident manner.

Kehinde Wiley at his Williamsburg, Brooklyn, studio with his painting “Jose Alberto de la Cruz Diaz and Luis Nunez” (2013). Credit Chad Batka for The New York Times

Kehinde Wiley at his Williamsburg, Brooklyn, studio with his painting “Jose Alberto de la Cruz Diaz and Luis Nunez” (2013). Photo by Chad Batka for The New York Times

Wiley’s creations in all their varied media serve to focus his gaze on attractive, confident young men who wield evident power with total comfort. Their poses are usually not so much arrogant as entitled: they address viewers directly without fear or anger. They often display the sartorial signs of success, including name-brand shoes and clothes. Even when they find themselves in dandified poses, Wiley catches them looking unsurprised to be presenting themselves as worthy of their evident power.

Over time Wiley has added more women to his work, and some of his most recent portraits feature elegant women in formal designer gowns instead of in their street clothes. Their hair is elaborately coiffed and they look like fashion models, but again, there is a sense of self-awareness and power in their expressions. These proud black men and women command attention without effort; they are vivid and dynamic symbols of black strength and power who assert the importance of their place in history and in the modern world.

In an interview with National Public Radio’s Audie Cornish, Wiley said of his decision to incorporate obvious product placement in his works, “Branding says a lot about luxury, and about exclusion, and about the choices that manufacturers make, but I think that what society does with it after it’s produced is something else. And the African-American community has always been expert at taking things and repurposing them toward their own ends. This code-switching that exists between luxury and urban is something that was invented in the streets of America, not Sixth Avenue.”

Most of Wiley’s portraits on canvas are based on photographs that he takes and then adjusts with computer applications to heighten their contrast and make their colors more vivid. But though he takes great care with the paintings of his subjects, he assembles groups of assistants in his studios around in the U.S., China and elsewhere to undertake the background painting in his portraits, much as the great 15th to 17th century painters of the Renaissance and Baroque period had their assistants fill in the areas behind the human subjects.

The backgrounds in his large portraits on canvas are not usually naturalistic landscape or elegant rooms—they are flat, decorative, repeating floral motifs such as one might find on wallpaper by Victorian designer William Morris or by 18th century designer William Kilburn. These floral backdrops hang behind the subjects of Wiley’s paintings, but sometimes elements of them—tendrils or branches or floral sprays—curve around in front of the subjects, surrounding the carefully rendered, three-dimensional human beings with flat fantasy gardens come to life. These delicate, elegant backgrounds contrast with the often dramatically manly subjects of the paintings, heightening the objectification of the body and pointing out the physical beauty in African Americans who have often been made to feel “other,” less than, ugly and unwanted by white Western arbiters of taste, style or value.

In 2006, Wiley found a crumpled police mug shot on the ground near his studio in Harlem. He used this symbol of a young man’s having been stripped of his freedom and power to inspire a beautiful portrait. The anonymous young man is portrayed with great dignity and honesty. Of the painting, NPR’s Audie Cornish said “It’s also the antithesis of the work people may recognize. … If anything, your work, for a lot of people, has been a rebuke of the mug shot when it comes to black men.” Wiley replied that his usual choice to portray black men in positions of power is indeed “a rebuke of the mug shot, it’s an ability to say ‘I will be seen the way I choose to be seen.’ All of the models are going through our history books and deciding, out of all the great portraits of the past, which ones do they feel most comfortable, which ones resonate with them. And so I go through the studios with individuals who go through art history books and choose how they want to perform themselves.”

The mug shot portrait is unusual for Wiley in that, while it shows an evidently self-possessed man displaying dignity and internal strength, it was created without the subject’s knowledge or consent. This back-story makes the viewer consider the question of the subject’s power or powerlessness, and whether Wiley has bestowed an aura of power on the man in the mug shot portrait while denying him the power to determine how and whether to present his face to the world in general. The questions of who has power, where it comes from and whether it is deserved hang over every piece in this exhibition, just as these questions unfortunately hang over the heads of all African Americans who feel that their presence and worth are constantly scrutinized and challenged as they go about their daily lives.

While many of Wiley’s works celebrate temporal authority, this new exhibition also places young black men in the context of spiritual and religious iconography, often posing as if they were martys and saints. One room is filled with elegant gilded triptychs, portraits painted on upright wooden panels with hinged closable doors on either side of the portrait, similar to the way that saints were depicted in shrines in Catholic chapels during the Middle Ages. These paintings don’t have vibrant stylized floral backdrops like the huge portraits on canvas do, but are intimate works of art with either Renaissance-style landscapes or Medieval-style gilding shimmering behind the beautifully, naturalistically painted portraits of black men in modern-day dress and hair styles. The T-shirts and tattoos and dreadlocks make it clear that the men featured in the triptychs are very much modern-day men in timeless settings.

In the stained glass room, tall and vibrant windows as boldly colored and intricately decorated as original 19th century Gothic Revival windows feature men in Converse shoes or Timberland boots, quilted vests and hoodies, African cloth shorts or cuffed jeans standing on plinths like statues, their halos shining above their heads. In these religiously inspired pieces, the subjects still exude great power, but their symbolic association with those who were too good for this world, who were martyred for their purity and courage, shows another aspect of greatness; the power that these men display takes a different, quieter form than his other work.

After the dramatic room-filling portraits on canvas, the intimate triptychs and the solemn, saintly stained glass windows, his oversize bronze busts of black men and women are impressive in that they show further diversity and skill, but they don’t mesmerize the way his other more colorful two-dimensional works do. However, the sculptures do show a charmingly cheeky side to his wit. In one exhibit, three nearly identical black female heads are arranged in a setting reminiscent of ancient Greek and Roman artworks depicting the mythological Three Graces. The three are joined together by enormously long and undulating locks of braided hair. In another, a solemn, dignified man wearing a dashiki, his chin up and head back, looks for all the world like a noble statesman posing for an official portrait from the front, but a bronze hairpick sticks surprisingly out of his natural afro in the back. The importance of black hair as a cultural signifier and symbol of connectedness and continuity within the black experience is underscored by the use of hair as an important decorative and unifying element in a number of Wiley’s paintings and sculptures.

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“Shantavia Beale II,” a painting by Kehinde Wiley, 2012. Photo from the Brooklyn Museum

Art critics are divided on whether to celebrate or deride Wiley for his techniques, his subject matter and his style. Some find the quality of the background painting that he hands off to assistants to be subpar; my experience of his paintings is that they appear to be composed and finished with care, and that they give an impression of greater precision than most large artworks do upon close examination. Other critics deride his reuse of tried-and-true, immediately recognizable poses from masterworks, finding it derivative.

I see Wiley’s reworking of clichéd art-historical tropes into fresh new hip-hop-infused celebrations of modern style as a bracing twist on tired themes. While some writers praise his prolific, vivid output across different media, others complain that he outsources the painting of the backgrounds to other artists (just as was the custom of the great European artists of the Renaissance and Baroque eras) and doesn’t give enough credit to the artists who inspired him. Some detractors find his choice to reuse classical poses unoriginal; they neglect to mention that the history of art has always involved the borrowing, reworking and downright copying of old masters by the new, and that it is this very obvious borrowing from the white Western artworks of the past that helps us to set these works in context and face the racially charged questions they evoke.

In the 16th century Michelangelo copied the sculptures of ancient Greece and Rome; in the 19th century Manet copied the pose of 16th century painter Titian; in the 1960s, Warhol made slavish copies of Campbell’s Soup cans and Brillo boxes and ushered in a whole new art movement. Pop art is today among the most valued and collected genres of art despite being derived from the most banal, repetitive and disposable elements in modern culture. If Warhol is a genius for having his (often unpaid) underlings endlessly reprint silkscreened images of popular entertainment icons based on photos that he didn’t take, color them unevenly in unnatural colors and then turn them over to him to sign, how can Wiley, whose works have layers of meaning and historical signifiers that Warhol’s works often lacked, be dismissed for following in the footsteps of earlier masters?

It is certainly possible for someone to find Wiley’s work lacking for purely aesthetic and technical reasons. However, it does seem that critics are often in a hurry to try to take him down a peg and to speak ill of him more directly and dismissively than they do other less-talented artists who also take inspiration from historical sources, like John Currin, or from artists who elevate pop culture (and even kitsch) to new heights (like Jeff Koons), but who happen to be white. It seems to me that Wiley’s composure and the confident ease with which he expresses himself in interviews might strike some as signs of unearned or unwelcome entitlement. The sense of pride and power with which he imbues his portraits can be found in his demeanor, but I see it not as arrogance or as a threat but as a strong sense of self. I wonder how much the discomfort some feel about his works stems from an unease over the idea of an African American having the power to make artistic choices and elevate those who look like him.

Criticism of Wiley, his work style and his aesthetic reminds me of white criticism of Beyoncé’s latest songs and videos; they’re unapologetically created from a black perspective with a black audience in mind. If we white folk appreciate it and want to buy it too, great, but it’s not specifically for us, and it isn’t the job of black artists to comfort or pander to whites.

Critics seem often to be looking for reasons to denigrate Wiley—his backgrounds are too thinly drawn, they say, or his use of decorative motifs undercuts the seriousness of his work. He cares too much about making things pretty and not enough about making them real, some cry. These complaints feel manufactured to me, and they deny the visceral power, the thrill, the vibrant, vibrating beauty that leaps off his canvases and suffuses the galleries in which his works hang or stand with a glowing, thrumming life force. Trying to reduce works of such emotion and energy to dry theoretical constructs strikes me as ridiculous, like trying to freeze-dry sunshine or to express color using only grey-scale photographs.

Like Warhol and Koons and Rubens before him, Kehinde Wiley is a successful businessman with many people working under him in order to allow him to manufacture expensive luxury goods at a fast clip. But Wiley’s works have a unique power to them, and they are fresh and unusual individual creative works; they are African American cultural signifiers like no others in the art world today. Wiley is clearly obsessed with creation and beauty, and regardless of whether he has assistants to help him, he is personally constantly visualizing and manifesting new visual magic all the time. While the subjects of his portraits look at ease with themselves, Wiley himself is happy to go to uncomfortable places with his art, and to challenge himself by traveling the world, learning about and painting brown-skinned people in Africa, Asia and Europe as well as here in the U.S.

In his NPR interview, Wiley told Audie Cornish, “My love affair with painting is bittersweet. I love the history of art — you asked me about that moment that I first looked at the stuff and when I first fell in love with it. It was only later that I understood that a lot of destruction and domination had to occur in order for all of this grand reality to exist. So what happens next? What happens is the artist grows up and tries to fashion a world that’s imperfect. Tries to say yes to the parts that he loves, and to say yes to the parts that he wants to see in the world, such as black and brown bodies — like my own — in the same vocabulary as that tradition that I had learned so many years before. It’s an uncomfortable fit, but I don’t think that it’s something that I’m shying away from at all. In fact, I think what we’re arriving at is the meat of my project, which is that discomfort is where the work shines best. These inconvenient bedfellows that you’re seeing all over this museum are my life’s work.”

Kehinde Wiley says yes to history, yes to his desires and yes to his vision of the world. His affirmative energy and his willingness to sit with and address uncomfortable questions of gender, orientation and power makes for an electrifying exhibition that invites us to enter into Wiley’s vision and live in A New Republic of his creation.

Jervis McEntee and the Hudson River School

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Jervis McEntee’s “Autumn Landscape,” 1867

“I start with no new vows or resolutions but with a fervent hope that I may be diligent, truthful and able to resist temptation in whatever form and to have the courage and the will to live up to my ideal of a true life.” — Painter Jervis McEntee’s diary entry from January 1, 1883

 

Jervis McEntee was a member of the Hudson River School of American painters, a mid-19th century art movement known for romantic, poetic landscape paintings. McEntee’s works frequently feature autumnal subject matter and an earth-toned palette, which lends his work a melancholic air. “Some people call my landscapes gloomy and disagreeable,” McEntee wrote in his journal. “They say that I paint the sorrowful side of Nature, that I am attracted by the shadows more than by the sunshine. But this is a mistake. I would not reproduce a late November scene if it saddened me or seemed sad to me. In that season of the year Nature is not sad to me, but quiet, pensive, restful. She is not dying, but resting.”

 

While McEntee never had the success of some of the better-known members of the group, such as Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt, he was a close friend and traveling companion to major Hudson River School artists. Though best known for his quiet and solitary paintings, McEntee socialized regularly with other artists. He and his wife Gertrude, a singer, welcomed many painters, writers and performers into their home. Together they encouraged the arts in America much as French salonnières of the 17th and 18th century had done.

 

Upon McEntee’s death, his mentor Frederic Church wrote to the painter’s sister, saying, “You have lost a brother and I a lifelong friend—a man pure, upright and as modest as he was gifted.” McEntee kept detailed diaries describing his interactions with artists, his travels, exhibitions and prices of paintings sold at them and his chronic economic woes. While I find his paintings evocative and moving, he is today best appreciated for his diaries, which are kept in the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art. They give rich and fascinating insights into the lives of 19th-century American artists.
 

Bless All Dogs

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My daughter, Lily Rodseth, is a graphic designer who creates infographics, typefaces, typographic art, bookcovers (this one won the Bookbuilders of Boston Student Competition at the  New England Book Show) and beautiful art prints. Her latest design, “Bless All Dogs,”  is now available for sale in her online shop on Society6.com. There you can order art prints, T-shirts, mugs, tote bags, pillows, phone cases, even shower curtains featuring her charming canine design and have them shipped directly to you by Society6. Click here, or look up Lily’s handle, Glossy Starship, on Society6.com to see her new design in all its darling. dog-filled detail.

Sunday on the Pot with George

Sunday on the Pot with George

[Originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog .]

We’ve all seen ghastly paintings and prints at garage sales and thrift shops—sad clowns, unflattering portraits, homely florals and trite landscapes—and wondered not only why someone could have considered hanging them in the first place, but also who in the world could have wasted time making such things?

Most bad art is regrettable but forgettable, something we look past rather than at. But some masterpieces of bad art are so remarkably awful, so tasteless, awkward or outlandish that they deserve to be displayed in all their horrific glory. Pieces that bad deserve to hang in a museum of bad art. Happily, there is such a place, just outside of Boston.

The Museum of Bad Art is an actual physical place and is also a wonderful virtual space with its own highly entertaining website. Established in a Boston basement in 1993, MOBA moved to Dedham, Massachusetts, and has expanded and grown into one of the most entertaining sites on the Web. Their collection runs the gamut from shockingly bad portraits to awkward landscapes to disturbing animal pictures. MOBA’s website states, “The pieces in the MOBA collection range from the work of talented artists that have gone awry to works of exuberant, although crude, execution by artists barely in control of the brush. What they all have in common is a special quality that sets them apart in one way or another from the merely incompetent.”

Oh, they’re special all right. An early acquisition and one of two masterworks in the collection is “Lucy in the Field with Flowers,” a vivid and stirring portrait of an elderly woman whose head looks uncomfortably like Norman Mailer’s. Lucy prances through a field of flowers, her legs arrayed as if seated but her body clearly in motion. Her breasts sway in opposite directions under her bright blue dress, which appears to be floating off to one side for no apparent reason.

The Athlete” features a discus thrower described by MOBA’s curatorial staff as “A startling work, and one of the largest crayon on canvas pieces that most people can ever hope to see. The bulging leg muscles, the black shoes, the white socks, the pink toga, all help to make this one of the most popular pieces in the MOBA collection.” I’m also quite fond of “Peter the Kitty,” a painting found in a Salvation Army store, which is, I agree, “Stirring in its portayal of feline angst. Is Peter hungry or contemplating his place in a hungry world? The artist has evoked both hopelessness and glee with his irrational use of negative space.”

Of all the pieces in the collection, my favorite has always been a pointillist tour-de-force done in homage to the genius of George Seurat, whose “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” was the inspiration for the beautiful Stephen Sondheim musical “Sunday in the Park with George.” MOBA’s “Sunday on the Pot with George” features an rotund older gentleman wearing naught but Y-front underwear sitting on top of what is either a chair swathed in thick blue folds of fabric, or perhaps a melting blue toilet. George’s sagging flesh drips slowly toward his nonexistent feet in cascading red and peach colored blobs of paint, the canvas sizzling and jittering before our eyes. The painting has a lively, psychotic quality. I love it so that I’ve enjoyed it in book, calendar and notecard form—items from the MOBA online store make excellent holiday gifts!

Much as I love the images, the oh-so-serious “interpretations” of the pieces are equally enjoyable. Here’s the caption from a pastel and acrylic piece titled “Inspiration“: “The organ master stares, transfixed by twin mysterious visions: the Neanderthal saint in the setting sun and the Gothic monk proceeding out from the cathedral’s sanctum, each framed by a halo of organ pipes, reminiscent of #2 pencils.”

MOBA truly lives up to its tag line: “Art too bad to be ignored.”

But Is It Art?

Koons

“Michael Jackson and Bubbles,” a life-sized porcelain sculpture by Jeff Koons, 1988.

I take art seriously, and often have very strong opinions about it. There are artists whose technical skill, taste or vision doesn’t match mine but whose work I can still respect and admire in some capacity. And there are a few whom I find so weak, irritating or vapid that I’ll admit to expressing some scorn for them in private. But while their work may not feel like it merits being described as art according to my internal art-o-meter, I am willing to be liberal in my acceptance of the use of the term “art.”

Multiple times, upon learning that I am an artist, I have had people tell me with big smiles and bright eyes that their favorite artist is Thomas Kinkade, and each time I bite my tongue and agree that his works are, um, quite cheerful. We can agree on that. Kinkade, the self-proclaimed “Painter of Light,” was hugely successful until shortly before his death in 2012. He was less an artist than a kitsch commercial illustrator with impressive marketing skills. He did not provide what I look for in an artistic experience, but he moved others, so when his admirers tell me how much they love his work, I do my best to show them respect. I may dislike the soft-focus, Kleenex-box-art style and subject matter of his work, but he touched people with his paintings, and their emotional reactions are real and important to them. Kinkade’s work prompts pleasing visceral reactions in people that bring them joy and comfort. So, much as his work turns my stomach, even it is art.

Essayist Joan Didion wrote, “A Kinkade painting was typically rendered in slightly surreal pastels. It typically featured a cottage or a house of such insistent coziness as to seem actually sinister, suggestive of a trap designed to attract Hansel and Gretel. Every window was lit, to lurid effect, as if the interior of the structure might be on fire.” I must admit to laughing and nodding in agreement when I read those words.

The glowing houses, churches and street lamps in Thomas Kinkade’s paintings are extraordinarily popular because they evoke an instant and comforting emotional reaction in so many people. His imitations of light were meant to bring to mind thoughts and feelings of an idealized old-time American home life: clean, cozy, quaint, old fashioned, oozing charm and warmth. As a nation our taste often runs to the sweet, the peppy, the saccharine, and we admire and appreciate those who serve up our stereotypes in the most sanitized and friendly way. A man who sells reproductions of his paintings in the hundreds of thousands, many touched up with selected highlights by worker bees so that they look more like actual paintings than the cheap copies they are (so they can be sold for hundreds or thousands of dollars each instead of the ten dollars they might be worth), Kinkade understood his market and grew rich by never underestimating the public’s desire for clichéd and emotionally manipulative imagery. According to Wikipedia, he was estimated to have made $53 million from his art works from 1997 to May 2005 alone. Yet in the last few years of his life, the manufacturing arm of his empire went into bankruptcy and he experienced a backlash from formerly devoted franchise owners who said he had misled them and knowingly ruined their finances.

Thomas Kinkade’s subject matter, style, technique and execution give me the willies, but his work is art, albeit bad art. Some disagree with me, saying that merely evoking a cheerful reaction with one’s creations doesn’t make one an artist. Art may be meant to provoke thought and emotion, to make us ask questions, to challenge, confuse, reward or transform us. And decidedly bad art like Thomas Kinkade’s does indeed challenge, provoke and confuse me—usually in ways I find unpleasant. But not every work needs to accomplish every artistic goal. Art can exist merely to delight, to embellish, to decorate, to provoke laughter or to express whatever thought, feeling or impression the artist wishes to convey. Bad art is still art.

Art can elevate or soothe, excite or inspire. Many works which I revile are still, in my estimation, important art because they successfully innovate, surprise or make me think. Beauty speaks to the soul, and each of us finds beauty in different forms. We seek out things that please our eyes and our hearts. Art does transform, but it can do that through humor or subtlety, elegance, spareness or outrageous joie de vivre. Art can also be kitsch, and sometimes that’s great fun. Takashi Murakami‘s pop-art pieces are terribly popular, and though my favorites among them look a lot like the vinyl flower power stickers found all over beat-up VW beetles circa 1970, they’re fresh and freeing. They’re genuine art.

Art asks questions of its viewers. Sometimes it’s crude and confrontational, other times sly and amusing. It provokes anger, excitement, disgust, even tears. Other times it invites laughter or thoughtfulness, or merely prods us to stand still and feel. It is not a bad thing to feel comfort or simple pleasure. Schmaltzy art may not be high art, but art it remains. Obvious, twee and soulless prints feel like caricatures of landscapes to me, but they bring joy to millions. I look down on an artist’s decisions to use technical ability in the service of creating sub-par paintings with trite subjects with no aspirations to be anything more than derivative dreck. But whether I like it or not, it is still art.

Thomas Kinkade achieved something that many artists of integrity cannot: he managed to evoke strong feelings in many of the people who view and enjoy his work. Just because those of us with art history degrees may look down on untrained eyes as having inferior taste doesn’t mean that the feelings of those without our training aren’t real or legitimate. We may denigrate Disney’s homogenized, dumbed down, often sexist animated fairy tales for blandly pandering to the lowest common denominator, but the fact remains that the technical quality of their creations is usually superlative, and their understanding of the needs and desires of their market segment has been remarkably keen for nearly nine decades. They evoke genuine strong emotion with imagery so powerful that indelible icons come to mind when we think of Disney.

Watching Disney’s simplified versions of stories and illustrations supplant the more elegant, subtle or powerful imagery found in its stories’ source materials can be upsetting. Disney’s Winnie the Pooh animation is nowhere near as gorgeous as Ernest Shepard’s original illustrations for A. A. Milne‘s books are, for example. But Disney’s work is still art. It may not be high art, it may not always be good art, but it is valid art, as are Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” Robert Mapplethorpe’s S&M nudes, Picasso’s “Guernica” and Jeff Koons’s ridiculous, goofy and disturbing sculpture of Michael Jackson and his chimp Bubbles. Even Koons’s images of himself having sex with his real-life porn star ex-wife Cicciolina are works of art, if not art I’d want to own. Others’ artistic expressions don’t have to match our tastes to be valid. The art world is complex and ridiculous, but it also has endless room in it for an exciting panoply of expression—just like the rest of the world around us.

Impressions on Impressionism

Scrapers

[Revised from an article originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

When Americans think of art museums and so-called great art, Impressionism usually comes to mind. Impressionist artists and their work are among the most popular in traveling exhibitions and Impressionist paintings are frequently reproduced on coffee cups, calendars, posters, stationery and other gift shop items. The art section of any bookstore is likely to be well stocked with books on Impressionists; in fact, you’ll probably find more of them represented than you will artists of any other style or period. If you have children in public schools, any art education they’re likely to receive probably includes repeated lessons about and images by Monet, Van Gogh and Renoir, with some nods to Picasso, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci (who should always be referred to as “Leonardo” and not as “da Vinci,” by the way, despite what Dan Brown tells you—”da Vinci” isn’t a last name, but means “from the city of Vinci”).

Is this because Impressionists are better or more important artists than those who came before or after them? Probably not. Were they revolutionary? Yes, some of them were, some of the time. They emphasized a fresh way of seeing and of expressing what they saw, although artists had used loose brush strokes and tried to capture evanescent moments, the shimmer of gold, a quick impression of a lace collar or a glinting eye hundreds of years beforehand with fully as much wit and originality, to my mind. The influence of 17th century artists like Vermeer, Frans Hals, Rembrandt and Velazquez on the Impressionists is well-known. In fact, I find those original, inspiring 17th century works more beautiful, more exciting and more inspiring on the whole. The huge popular appeal of the Impressionists is largely because they’re more accessible; the pale colors are pretty, the shapes are indistinct and inoffensive, the subject matter is usually G-rated, universally acceptable and pleasing. Dark portraits of unattractive people, who were the subjects of some of the greatest works of the old masters, don’t have the same popular appeal as fields of poppies or women with umbrellas standing in sunny Provençal lavender fields. They look nice on cards to Grandma or on the dentist’s waiting room walls or on your office calendar. Pastels are pretty. Waterlilies are nice. We all like flowers.

Of course Renoir and Monet and their pastel-fancying contemporaries did see the world with fresh eyes and provided us with a new way of seeing and of expressing what we see. They are great artists, many of their works do challenge and please, and their works are worth knowing. But there’s so much more beauty in the world to challenge the eye and delight the heart, I wish people would look beyond the easy and obvious more often and think outside the Impressionistic box.

Some Impressionists move me greatly and delight my eye, of course. George Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece, “Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte” (“A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte”), inspired Stephen Sondheim‘s Broadway musical Sunday in the Park with George for a reason: it is bold and arresting, beautiful and unusual, and the placement of thousands of dots of paint next to other complimentary or contrasting colors in order to create a freshness, depth and a magical reaction in the eye is delightful and original.

Edouard Manet‘s portraits of demimondaines in paintings like “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe” (“The luncheon on the grass“) or “Olympia” are worldly and confrontational, darker and starker than the sweet mother-and-daughter paintings of Mary Cassatt or the rotund, soft-focus, spun-sugar nudes of Renoir, who sometimes look to me as if they were dipped in frosting and rolled in candy sprinkles. Manet handles the paint roughly and uses flatter patches of light and dark to evoke dramatic lighting and moods, and his characters face viewers unapologetically and draw us into their world with some force.

Van Gogh is justly famous for his sunflowers and irises and his starry night, and I do love them, but his more disturbing portraits of working people and of himself really prove him to be a master. His work reproduces badly because his impasto technique of applying paint so thickly to the canvas as to make it almost a bas relief is so vivid and three-dimensional, it simply can’t be adequately represented in a two-dimensional approximation. Also, we’ve become so jaded by the endless reproductions of his work, it’s hard to see them as fresh and original and world-changing the way they were when he painted them.

Among Impressionists one of my favorites is Gustave Caillebotte (roughly pronounced KY-uh-BOT). His compositions are bold but pleasing, and his mastery of perspective and prodigious technical skills are extraordinary. His angles are dramatic and add such movement and excitement to a painting, and the people within aren’t frantic even though they are active, on the go, moving toward or away from us at a steady clip and with a sense of purpose. “Jour de pluie” (“Rainy Day”) has people walking directly towards us and being cut off at the knees, they’ve come so close.

The way they’re cropped makes them seem that much nearer to us, and we see just the elbow of someone retreating, so he’s right on the edge of the picture plane, pulling us with him into the thick of the action. Then there are the smaller figures cutting across the middle and the one carriage wheel moving off to the left, so while our eyes are drawn to the couple approaching us, there’s just enough cross-traffic to keep our eyes moving through the layers of activity toward the back.

Finally, there’s that marvelous flatiron-shaped building on the left jutting toward us, and the perfectly receding wet cobblestones on the left and the modern sidewalk on the right bisected by yet another diagonal. All those diagonals and perfectly executed examples of perspective are at just the right angles to imply movement without cluttering the composition so much that we’d be left exhausted and distracted by too many competing areas of activity. There are enough places for the eye to rest before moving on to keep us from getting tired out by too much clutter, and those resting points give us enough time to satisfy our curiosity before we move on.

It’s pretty nearly perfect compositionally. Consider the languid, calm faces of the couple approaching us; they’re engaged and active but not frantic, and that keeps the attitude of the piece right, too; too much animation in their faces would feel like overkill in such a busy painting.

Another favorite painting of mine is Caillebotte’s “Les Raboteurs de Parquet” (“The Floor Scrapers”). The angles of the diagonal lines vary from left to right to accommodate the shift in our perspective because we’re standing in front of and above the planers on the right. Again, the perspective feels perfect and makes us feel we’re right in the room, part of the action, so close we can hear the wood curls being shaved up from the floor.

I love the shininess of the unplaned wood planks versus the dull pallor of the planed areas, and the fact that the planers are shirtless, their skin buttery and similar in tone to the newly planed wood. The only curves in the room are the curves of their heads and arms and arching backs, the curve of the liquor bottle and glass on the right, which promise relief from their tiring work, and the swirling arabesques of the wrought iron on the balcony shown through the glass door. The men, the bottle and the iron work look so much more sensuous and sinuous than they would otherwise because of the severe contrasting lines of the floor and the molding on the back wall.

This picture makes tiring manual labor and tedious craftsmanship look sexy. The fact that the men are shirtless also makes us think it must be a hot day, and that lets us imagine the smell of the wood shavings and sweat. The exciting combination of perfect composition and the implication of controlled but constant motion and intensity of focus of each man elevates a painting of three hot, tired workmen toiling on their knees to strip a floor, the most seemingly mundane of acts, into something extraordinary.

Again, each setting and each character within the setting is perfectly composed. Not only is the relationship between elements harmonious and pleasing, but the faces of all the people in each setting are calm, unaware of the gaze of outsiders (i.e., we, the viewers) who have burst into their presence. We’re just a short distance from them yet they remain distant from us emotionally, which lets us feel safer and less confronted by their proximity, so we can peer at them more directly without feeling challenged by them, like voyeurs. That a painter can create such realism and intimacy with imaginary characters by applying some oily pigments to a stretched piece of fabric is astonishing. To me, that is great art.

 

Horror Vacui: The Fear of Empty Space

Horror vacui - Mosque Tiles

[Revised from the original article published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

I once heard the late jazz pianist and singer Shirley Horn say that her mentor, trumpet legend Miles Davis, always liked the way she used space in her singing and playing. I liked that description so well, since Shirley Horn was a master of slow, careful, pared down musical expression. There was never an extraneous note in her playing, and she could never be accused of playing anything too quickly. Sometimes there are such long rests between her lyrics that I worry, Shirley, may, never, get, to, the, end, of, the, phrase. But I have to admit that her singing and playing were very elegant, and the lack of adornment does focus the ear and the mind on the sound and the meaning. (And her version of Kermit the Frog’s anthem, “(It’s Not Easy Being) Green” is exquisite.)

I admire minimalism in architecture and fashion, too, but I’d be bored out of my mind living in minimalist clothing and surroundings all the time. My visits to W Hotels and to Ian Schrager’s Paramount and Hudson hotels in New York left me thinking how fun it was to be in such stark, angular spaces for a little while, and how chic and clean the lines are, how pure and streamlined the sensibility was—and how I could never live like that at home.

In autumn and winter I wear a lot of black, and I feel very good in it. I love to travel in black so that strangers can’t tell that I’m a tourist, or where I come from, or what I sat in on the subway. I love the classic, crisp, elegant anonymity of it. But my lavender shoes and my bright pink coat and the crazy, oversized floral patterns on some of my favorite skirts are just as necessary to my wardrobe, and to the vision I have of myself and how I must sometimes present myself to the world.

I think a lot of us fill up the spaces in our lives carelessly to make ourselves and those around us less afraid. We feel we have to talk through an entire visit with a friend, have the TV on in the background, fill every shelf, and try every dish at the buffet. My mom, who found the study of art and art history thrilling, as I do, laughed with me when she realized that the Latin term “horror vacui,” which describes the fear of empty space which makes some artists decorate every inch of a surface, applied to her and to her life as well. She feared too much quiet or extended contemplation in much the same way that she feared a bare wall. She found it too easy to project her fears of inadequacy, loss and emptiness into those spaces, both literal and metaphorical. A lack of adornment meant a lack of value to her; less was less and more was always more. I’m often guilty of this sort of thinking, too. I collect too many things and crave too many distractions, accumulate to fill up voids in my life and avoid winnowing my collections so I can focus on novelty and expansion, on all the things I might do with them in the future, all the possibilities open to me because I have such a collection of stuff. Winnowing would mean admitting that there are limits to my life and its possibilities, that I may never need that unused German language workbook, might not create a work of art incorporating vintage mah jongg tiles and dominoes after all, probably won’t review my Chinese history notes from 1983 again, and don’t need a dozen Depression glass candlestick holders after all, even if they are 70 years old and very cool.

I think there’s an optimism to accumulation and void-filling, a belief that I’ll use this, I’ll enjoy that, my life will be better if I expand and decorate and dress it up with one more thing. I really will be fluent in French someday! It’s not too late to learn to become a goldsmith! Those broken plates could make an amazing mosaic top for a bedside table! I’d always be sad if I got rid of that Singer sewing machine from 1924! But of course, this sort of self-confidence through accumulation bases value on the ephemeral and external rather than on the lasting and innate. Emphasizing that expansive optimism is how our culture justifies binge spending, over-extended credit (both personal and governmental) and constant expansion. It’s a sign of fear and a lack of discipline, I believe; evidence of a fear of growing older, of growing bored or boring, of appearing outdated to others, of having to make do or invest more energy or time in something or someone, of facing what we really are, have, need, or are capable of. Stuff dulls the senses and brings comfort. I love it, but I think it’s time to stare down that horror vacui a little bit, and see what riches I’m missing in my life by focusing too much on the riches that cost me money.