Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Are There Ephemeral Arts Anymore ?

When I first started making art, I heard artists speak about the importance of art preservation. It seemed important to know about such as things as archival paper and museum-quality framing. It was as if all artists must prepare work to withstand the forces of time.

Yet, for years there have been artists (and cultures) who considered destruction or deterioration part of the art as a significant to the experience. These artists do not regard their creations as static permanent objects.

Tibetan Buddhists use the Mandala sand paintings to teach impermanence. Australian Aborigines paint leaves and tree bark with mythological figures of the Dreamtime. Navajo medicine men make sand paintings as a portal between the sick person and healing spirits. There are face and body paintings made for war, attraction or celebration.

Nowadays, most of us have received emails of astonishingly beautiful and ephemeral art made with sand, ice, chalk or henna. That record prompts a question: In this time of recording in photographs and video, is art truly ephemeral?

Monday, May 21, 2012

Van Gogh, Gauguin and Sunflowers

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) came to know each other in Paris. They had a lot in common. Both men had come to art later in life after unsuccessful work careers. They also shared love of color, Impressionism (Archive: June,2010) and Japanese designs (Archive: Oct., 2009). Beyond those areas of commonality, they were very different in temperament and technique. These were expressed in their paintings and style.

Van Gogh was a visual painter. His paintings were quick, messy and based directly on what he saw. He often painted two paintings in a day. On the other hand, Gauguin preferred to sketch, deliberate and then paint from his memory of the scene.

Both painters were trying to find a unique style to fill the space after the Impressionists. Van Gogh had long held the dream of creating a collaborative art colony. To that end, he rented a house in Arles, France,
and invited Gauguin to join him.

In anticipation of Gauguin joining him, Van Gogh had painted sunflowers for his friend's bedroom. Sunflowers were long established as an emblem of friendship and divine love as they turned their "faces" to follow the sun.

The closeness of shared space proved to exaggerate their differences. Van Gogh tried to use Gauguin's methods of memory painting (left: "Memory of the Garden at Etten" by Van Gogh), but realized that is wasn't working for him. Gauguin was having the same experiences trying to paint ala Van Gogh.

Finally, on December 23rd, 1888, there was a major blow up. It was during that time that Van Gogh suffered a breakdown. He was hospitalized and repeatedly asked for Gauguin. Gauguin had already left Arles feeling that the sight of him might cause distress to Van Gogh. Van Gogh continued to deteriorate until his death in 1890.

Yet, the story of the 9 weeks these two artists painted, collaborated and discussed art constitute one of the most important partnerships in art. Yet Gauguin seemed disinclined to regard the time as well spent.

You see, Gauguin was an arrogant man. Typical of his character, he wrote about Van Gogh and the 9 weeks in Arles in a condescending manner. However, his true feelings for Van Gogh were revealed in his art. Less than two years before Gauguin's death, he created a homage to Van Gogh in a series of sunflower paintings.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Sargent: The Painter Who Did It ALL

When I first visited the museum's exhibit of John Singer Sargent's (1856-1925) works, I anticipated the works would be excellent Edwardian-era portraits of the pretty (and rich) people. What really happened bowled me over so completely I had to come back for a second tour of the exhibit. I couldn't get enough of Sargent's body of work.

Sargent had mastery of all the paint media of his time - oil, watercolor, pencil and charcoal. He was also the master of any subject - people, architecture, animals, seascapes and landscapes. His best known art showed only a little of what he accomplished in his life: 900 oil paintings and over 2000 water colors, a countless number of charcoals and many murals.

Art was such a compulsion for him that while he was visiting and camping in America he painted finished water color paintings of the camp and surroundings!

Here are a few of his watercolor paintings:(click images to enlarge)

Sargent's reputation as a formal portraitist doesn't consider works such as these:

Sargent grew tired of the time it took to complete a formal oil portrait and chose to work in charcoal.

So, what do you think? Did you already know about Sargent's vast talent?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Maurice Sendak: Nightmares Vanquisher

Having recently seen an interview of Maurice Sendak on TV, it was hard to imagine such a clever and vital man had died. Yes, I know he was 83 and he looked his age, but he didn't SEEM to be old at all. His death is headline news today. The headlines identify him as the author/illustrator of "Where the Wild Things Are." Yet, there was so much more to the man.

Maurice Sendak (1928-2012) was born in Brooklyn, NY, to Jewish immigrants. He was a sick as a child and spent a lot of his time reading books. Later in his childhood, he came to love illustrating after seeing Disney's "Fantasia." By age 20, he was a window dresser at F.A.O.Schwarz and taking night classes at New York Art Students' League.

Four years after completing his studies, he received his first recognition as an illustrator with the publication of Ruth Krauss' book, "A Hole to Dig." Although he wasn't trying to write typical children's books, his reputation was as a children's story teller - if scary situations can be considered fit for children. Naturally, there were those who took exception to this notion.

Sendak had a different idea about the world of children. He had grown up in a home where daily life was punctuated by much sorrow and grief. His parents were successful in rescuing his mother's family from Poland during the Holocaust, but by the time they were able to rescue his father's family, there was no one left to rescue - all were dead. As Sendak said, “I grew up in a house that was in a constant state of mourning.” In that sense, his books were autobiographical. He understood how it feels to be frightened and how someone so young lack the skills to vanquish their fears. His aim in all his books was to pose the question, "...how do children survive?"

Today's New York Times' headline referred to Sendak as the "Author of Splendid Nightmares." The best description I've read about the aims of Sendak's writings is a quote from Morven Crumlish in The Guardian:"...these are no cautionary tales – there is no gruesome moral shoving a reluctantly impressionable reader towards conforming to the neat, the quiet and the un-troublesome. Instead, they wake up happily in their beds, supper is still warm, there is milk in the morning."

RIP, Maurice. You turned your own childhood fears and sorrows into nightmares that can be vanquished - even by small children.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Ai Weiwei: Art and Provocations

Today, the media is full of news about a blind Chinese poet-dissident who has escaped to the U. S. Embassy. It took my mind back to last year when another artist - Ai Weiwei - was "detained" because he dared to criticize the government.

Ai Weiwei (1957-) is a well-known artist in the West. "Artist' is such a general term for someone who also sculpts, does installation art, photographs, curates, creates architecture, and is a film maker.  However, it was Weiwei as a political dissident and critic that he ran into trouble with the Chinese government.

It could be said that Weiwei came by his overt criticism of the political system naturally. His father, a poet, and his mother were denounced in 1958 and sent to a labor camp. Weiwei was one year old when his parents were sent away. It would be 16 years before he saw his parents again.

Safe to say that Weiwei grew up knowing that anti-government activities were dangerous. His art education in the U.S. from 1981 to 1993 might have provided exposure to open government criticism. Whatever the circumstances that formed Weiwei, he became a dissident in China.

His open political opinions and his fame as an artist brings embarrassment to the politico.
In 2009, he was beaten by police. In 2010, he was placed under house arrest. Later the same year, his studio was bulldozed. He was arrested in 2011 on tax evasion and is out on bail... and the list of harassment goes on.

In spite of diabetes and hypertension, he continues to be a thorn in the government's side. As he stated in his interview with TIME magazine, he's more interested in individuals being treated fairly than the form of government.

Weiwei could leave China. He's had many exhibits throughout Europe and the U.S. He's so well known that he could seek asylum in the West and probably be granted it. Instead, he continues to poke the eye of those in power. As an artist-as-provocateur, Weiwei joins a long list of dissident artists who railed against unfair systems that suppress the population and who paid dearly for it. (Below are examples of some of his works. Click images to enlarge.)

Weiwei, architectural consultant "Bird's Nest" stadium for the Olympics in Beijing.
"Fountain of Light," 2007 (at his studio)
"Cube Light," 2008
"Sunflower Seeds," 2010 at the huge Turbine Hall, London, England. 100 million porcelain seeds as a play on "Made in China" and the commercialization of the ancient porcelain centers of China.