Saturday, March 31, 2007

Sweet Silliness

The exhibition of "My Sweet Lord," Cosimo Cavallaro's sculpture of an anatomically correct Jesus made out of 200 pounds of chocolate has been cancelled. What a rollicking start to Holy Week!

This latest episode in the American culture war over who gets to "own" Christ is perhaps the silliest and saddest yet. This isn't Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, which offended because of its title and composition. This isn't Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary, the painting using elephant dung that drove Rudy Giuliani to distraction. This is about the humanity and sexuality of Jesus and how some Fundamentalist groups are trying to deny it, as they try to deny all human sexuality.

Cavallaro's work could have stood out as a humorous comment on the lost message of Easter, replacing the hollow chocolate bunnies children receive in baskets with the solid chocolate Christ. When I first saw this, that's the message that I took away. Unfortunately, all some people saw was the nudity.

Bill Donahue, head of the conservative Catholic League, calls "My Sweet Lord" "one of the worst assaults on Christian sensibilities ever." Donahue should buy a tie with the words "Outraged Catholic" written on it to help save time for TV news graphics departments. He is professionally outraged. Personally, my Christian sensibilities are assaulted far more greatly by war, famine, and the plight of children worldwide, but Donahue seems to find a naked chocolate Jesus to be just the absolute last straw. The fact that he has such easy access to the public airwaves befuddles me.

The CNN story I linked to at the beginning of this post perpetuates the idea that Christ on the cross is traditionally represented with a loincloth. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Leo Steinberg's work has proven that Renaissance art often portrayed Jesus fully nude and fully anatomically correct. In fact, attention was drawn to his sexuality as proof of the fullness of his humanity and the completeness of the incarnation, the concept that Christ was both human and divine. Unfortunately, as Steinberg says, this portrayal has fallen into "modern oblivion," except for the few attempts such as "My Sweet Lord."

One of the only other portrayals of a naked Jesus on the cross that I can recall in mainstream culture was the crucifixion scenes in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, in which Willem Defoe plays a naked Jesus on the cross, which would have been historically correct. Just ask yourself why the Romans would execute someone in the most horrible, undignified way and then place a loincloth on the victim to preserve his modesty and you'll realize how inaccurate such portrayals are. The loincloth was put there by modern uncomfortableness with sexuality, not by historical fact or even the basic theological reasoning behind the incarnation.

If anyone should be offended by "My Sweet Lord," it should be George Harrison (R.I.P.). And I doubt he would have minded.
UPDATE: Other bloggers weigh in on this here, here, and here. The first link discusses some coded language by Bill Donahue that equates to death threats for the artists, which really doesn't seem like what Jesus would do.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Images of Christ: Introduction

Next week is Holy Week for Christians, the week before Easter Sunday. I’ll be posting each day, Monday through Friday, a different image related to Holy Week and musing on it. These images are not necessarily my favorites in that genre (no Michelangelo, for example), but they’re ones I’ve chosen to examine different aspects of Christian iconography and how that imagery impacts our world and reflects our culture, in the past as well as today. As I’ve warned before, I’m of the Irish Catholic persuasion, but I’ll also try to show how there are elements beyond Christianity in these works that touch upon basic humanity, specifically peace, love, and understanding. And what’s so funny about that?

The Beautiful Game

Baseball season begins this weekend. I know that soccer (er, football) lays claim to the title of "the beautiful game," but to me, baseball will always be the most beautiful of games for all the same reasons why it's OK for men to cry while watching Field of Dreams ("Hey, Dad? You want to have a catch?" always chokes me up).

Baseball is also the most beautiful of games to me because it provides the most beautiful images of sports. Above is a watercolor by Thomas Eakins of Philadelphia Athletics players practicing in their pre-1900 uniforms. The painting just oozes Americana to me.

Other sports just fail to enthrall me in terms of visuals, as much as I enjoy watching them, especially football (er, American football). In football and hockey, the players are so loaded down with equipment that they're almost indistinguishable from one another. In basketball, the problem is the reverse: the players are all about individuality, with too many moments of achievement cheapened by ego, i.e., the "posterizing" by slam dunk over a hapless opponent.

Above is a vintage photo of Ty Cobb sliding into third sometime in the 1920s. As big an egomaniac as Cobb was, I don't see the fielder here as hapless. Cobb has obviously won this small battle, but the third baseman here doesn't seem any less for it. There's always the sense in still photos of baseball action that the outcome could be different, that it is truly a unique moment being captured. Conversely, you always knew that Michael Jordan was going to dunk over some nameless big man, mainly because he was Michael Jordan. Even Michael Jordan wasn't Michael Jordan on a baseball field.

Baseball also holds a special place in my art heart because of baseball cards, which were the earliest form of art I knew and loved along with comic books. The Baseball Card Blog is the place to go for truly obsessive love of baseball cards, but I'd like to point out two that I remember fondly.

Topps Baseball Cards in the early 1970s had a subset of star players shown "In Action." Above is Johnny Bench racing back for a foul pop, his mask already torn from his face. Bench's determined scowl always reminds me of his days on "The Baseball Bunch," an old TV show that even kids knew was so bad it was good. When I was old enough to know about such things, I would wonder if Bench had to do it as some kind of community service punishment, especially in those scenes with the San Diego Chicken. My favorite episode was when Mike Schmidt came to visit to teach the kids how to be an elitist, indifferent jerk just like him (oh, and how to field a bunt barehanded as well, which was as applicable to my life as the jerk lesson).

Roberto Clemente (shown above) is one of my favorite sports figures ever. The biography of him by David Maraniss is a must read for any baseball fan. I love this picture because of the expression on Clemente's face. In the aftermath of his tragic death, I always imagined Clemente having the same expression upon entering the afterlife: "What? I'm dead? You're kidding, right? Awwww, man. Well, at least I got to 3,000 hits."
UPDATE: Welcome to all visitors from The Bibliothecary! Thanks for the link, Ed!

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Serious Superheroes

Also in the current issue of Tate, Etc. is an essay by John Carlin on "The Real Comic Book Heroes." Carlin links the history of comics, aka, sequential art, from William Hogarth, William Blake, and Goya all the way up to modern comic artists such as superhero artist Jack Kirby as well as social commentary artists such as Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman. (Another essay in the same issue calls Hogarth "The Grandfather of Satire.")

I've always loved the work of Hogarth since a "Dryden, Swift, and Pope" class I took as an undergraduate in which the professor used Hogarth's images to illuminate the texts, especially the earthier ones of Jonathan Swift. When my wife and I traveled to London a few years ago, I got to see some Hogarths up close in the National Gallery, hung in sequence as they were originally meant to be seen.

Art Spiegelman has always struck me as an underrated artist. To me, he is the Goya of our age, documenting not only the 20th century horrors of the Holocaust in Maus (pictured above), but also the 21st century tragedy and aftermath of 9/11 in In the Shadow of No Towers. Artists such as Spiegelman are the true superheroes of our age in their ability to turn tragedy into art and to use even cartoonish pictures of mice and cats to make us look more closely at our past, our present, and our future.

Still Things to Believe In

The Tate Museum's magazine, Tate Etc., features a poem each month inspired by a work in their collection. This month's poem is by Tishani Doshi and is inspired by Alberto Giacometti's Walking Woman (pictured above). Here's a taste:
Ode to the Walking Woman
after Alberto Giacometti

Sit –
you must be tired
of walking,
of losing yourself
this way:
a bronzed rib
of exhaustion
thinned out
against the dark.
Sit –
there are still things
to believe in;
like civilizations
and birthing
and love.
And there's nothing like good poetry (and good art) to make you believe that there's still things to believe in.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Fighting White-Male-Ameri-Euro-Centrism

The Tate Museum in London, England, admits it has a underwhelming number of women artists in its collection, something that pretty much every art museum in the world could own up to as well. A critic in the Guardian helpfully provides a "memo" to get a Georgia O'Keeffe already, but the problem surrounding the representation of women in art is not necessarily content as much as it is the mindset of the art world.

As the Guerrilla Girls, everyone's favorite ape-masked, feminist art activists (pictured above), will tell you, not only are women artists underrepresented but the female form is grossly overrepresented in most museum collections, often in violent depictions by male artists. Women have toiled under a muse complex (and the accompanying madonna-whore psychodrama) for centuries, and it's reflected in the content of art museums and art history.

The Anonymous Female Artist (aka, Militant Art Bitch) tells a story of a Los Angeles artist fed up with the current fetish for work by artists under 30 as well as the expectation of "eccentric, bizarre, stupid, fluffy crap from artists, especially women artists." That artist fulfilled a fantasy by hiring an under 30 actor to act the part of the artist behind her work. There's an element of ageism in that story as well as sexism, but it's all part of the greater problem that the Tate story has brought to the forefront.

I herewith resolve to try to be less White-Male-Ameri-Euro-centric on this blog, knowing that I will fail by most standards of feminism, simply from the range of my own reading. I have the great Georgia O'Keeffe biography Full Bloom by Hunter Drohojowska-Philip sitting on my shelf, waiting to be read. I'll try to remember the lessons of Whitney Chadwick's excellent single-volume history of women and art, Women, Art, and Society, which opened my eyes years back. Unfortunately, the reality is that my finite brain can only hold so much, so any failure to document the great work done by women artists is simply the result of my narrow, yet hopefully widening, horizons.
UPDATE: John Perreault in his Artopia blog calls for a Women's Art Strike to fight the injustice!

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

In a Silent Way, Part 2

To follow up on my earlier post on Martin Ramirez, the outsider artist who spent the last 32 years of his life in mental institutions, I just wanted to point out Sanford Schwartz's review of the exhibit catalog accompanying the Ramirez exhibit at the American Folk Art Museum currently in the April 12, 2007 issue of The New York Review of Books.


The New York Times has a story on the top artists by total sales in 2006. Picasso rings in as the top total seller, at a whopping $339.2 million, topping the charts for the 10th straight year. The top selling individual painting was Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (shown above), which set a new record at $135 million. The top ten sellers for 2006 are:

Picasso's Rembrandt

Simon Schama, perhaps my all-time favorite art history writer, discusses the influence of Rembrandt on Picasso in an article titled "Rembrandt's Ghost" in the March 26, 2007 issue of The New Yorker.

(I must confess a weakness for anything Schama writes. Citizens, his one-volume history of the French Revolution, grabbed me for its integration of Jacques-Louis David's work with the politics of the time. I haven't read his new The Power of Art, but I plan to and look forward to the series on PBS.)

Schama displays the same commanding breadth of knowledge about Rembrandt that filled his wonderful Rembrandt's Eyes, but here places Rembrandt in the context of his influence on later artists. No painter "has been so compulsively co-opted as heroic alter ego as Rembrandt" by other painters, including Picasso, who stole freely from Rembrandt's vocabulary of the self-portrait to create his own self-portraits. Schama does not actually say "stole," but I do, placing faith in T.S. Eliot's aphorism that "immature poets immitate, mature poets steal" holds true for painting, too. The money quote from Schama on Rembrandt's influence on modern art is here:

The transference of that vitality effect from the geometric reproduction of illusory space according to the rules of Renaissance rules of perspective to the vibrating paint surface itself was the beginning of modernism.

Schama's phrase "vibrating paint surface" really struck me. Rembrandt's paintings are a great example of iconic works that have made a greater impression on me in person than in reproduction. (Conversely, one of the more anticlimactic art experiences I have had was seeing the Mona Lisa in person, but perhaps nothing could live up to that level of hype.) Schama sees this "transference" as part of the same "chain" that Picasso and Matisse saw connecting them to the old masters such as Rembrandt, Velazquez, and Goya. Unfortunately, it is in such concepts as "chains" of influence that Schama and most modern writing on art part ways.

Schama compains about "the default mode of modern writing about art" and its ability to "despise any notion of singularity as so much overheated genius-fetishism" in an attempt to reach a "coolly empirical view, wary of perpetuating platitudes." Coming from a literature background, I understand (or think I understand) many of the principles of modern critical philosophy and its deconstructive approach to art. I threw around the Foucault as good as anyone in graduate school, but there was still a part of me that wished that "old school" perpetuating of platitudes still had a place in the critical world, mainly because I felt that some of those platitudes were still more or less true. The chill of the modern critical approach is more light than heat, whereas the "old school" platitudes may have been more heat than light, but I believe that some compromise can reach the best of both worlds.

I think that something is lost when Rembrandt is deconstructed to a white male living in the 17th century who also painted here and there. That's an unfair simplification, of course, but no less unfair than dismissals of Rembrandt's stature in the cannon (or dismissals of any such idea of a cannon).

Monday, March 26, 2007

In a Silent Way

Ed Pettit of the Bibliothecary Blog tipped me off to a CBS Sunday Morning piece on "outsider" artist Martin Ramirez, a retrospective of whom is currently running at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. Ramirez's untitled drawing of a train is above.
Ramirez spent the last 32 years of his life in mental institutions before dying in 1963. Refusing to speak, Ramirez would draw and create collages amidst the chaos around him. His work has a childlike simplicity that belies the creative design behind the composition. It is a fascinating glimpse into a mind expressing itself purely through visual means when verbal means are not an option. Sadly, many of his works may have been destroyed by his family out of fear of infection from the tuberculosis ward Ramirez occupied.

Aside from the joy of discovering a new artist such as Ramirez, I am also struck by the different interpretation of art and madness his story presents. Van Gogh is certainly the most celebrated case of artistic madness, but his letters provide a beautiful verbal accompaniment to the visual testament of his pain. But for Ramirez, his drawings and collages are all we have from him. They quite simply must speak for themselves.

Revolution of the Spirit

I highly recommend the podcast lecture on "Diego Rivera and the Mexican Mural and Print Revolution" at the PMA site (from January 7, 2007). (Diego Rivera's mural in Mexico's National Palace is shown above.)
Jane Golden, the Director of the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, begins the lecture with a heartfelt intoduction and sets the tone for the lecture thematically and emotionally. Ms. Golden's affection for the main speaker, Guadalupe Rivera Marín, Ph.D., Founder and Board Chair of the Diego Rivera Foundation, and the daughter of Diego Rivera, is clear. Even clearer is Ms. Golden's belief in the power of murals and public art to act as an agent for social change, a power at the heart of Diego Rivera's painting.

Dr. Rivera then discusses at length her father's work, particularly his desire to depict not only the drama of life but also its beauty. She describes her father's vision of an artist as a revolutionary figure not just of revolutions of politics or arms but more importantly of revoltions of the spirit.

One of the best laugh lines comes when Dr. Rivera speaks of her father's affiliation for strong women, which was perhaps the reason why he loved so many of them (including Frida Kahlo).

Dr. Rivera's self-admitted nervousness and difficulties with English and some sound level problems, perhaps caused when she gestured away from a unidirectional microphone, make it a little difficult to listen to, but this podcast certainly rewards the patience of the listener.

Unfortunately, with this podcast and the previous Thomas Chimes-related podcast, I have now exhausted the lectures available from the PMA site. If you are a member of the PMA and are interested in these podcasts, I encourage you to join the online community at the PMA site and ask for more lectures, perhaps including lectures from previous exhibits in years past. If you are a member of another museum in another city, I encourage you to make a similar approach to your local museum. The education and entertainment value of these lectures is too great to let them wallow away in storage in our digital age.

Painter Descending from a Cross

There's a passage in James Arthur's poem "The Death of the Painter" in the March 26, 2007 issue of The New Yorker that elegantly captures the exquisite pain of the visual artist:

When he painted, it was descent
and descent and descent from the cross,
and when he died

the sepulchre was simple.
His late-life love
wept from another room.

I'm not sure if they timed this for the Easter season or not, but the imagery is timeless.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Stained Glass Photography

Please consider voting for Stained Glass Photography as "The Lens of the Year" on Neil Ralley does great work photographing and helping preserve the beautiful art form of stained glass in churches. My wife and I discovered Stained Glass Photography when we were searching for religious artwork to place in our son's nursery. We saw the beautiful rose-type window made by Tiffany pictured above on Neil's site. Those are angels holding banners with the Beatitudes written on them. The writing was so obscure from the ground that the members of the church had forgotten what was on the banners until Neil had taken his photos. Many of the stained glass masterpieces on Neil's site would be forgotten if not for his good work.

On Painting Badly

A quick quote on the virtues of originality (via Dave):

"It does not matter how badly you paint so long as you don't paint badly like other people."
--George Moore, English Philosopher (1873-1958)

Does it still count if you paint so badly (and I do paint badly) that it's not even remotely recognizable as an imitation? Is that then a case of being so bad it's good?

Chimes Exhibit Lecture Podcast

I just listened this morning to a podcast of the PMA's Muriel and Philip Berman Curator of Modern Art, Michael Taylor, discussing the influence of French Symbolist writer Alfred Jarry on twentieth-century artists such as Thomas Chimes (currently exhibited at the PMA), Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, George Rouault, Ellsworth Kelly, and others. (Taylor claims to have linked 300 artists to Jarry.) One of Thomas Chimes portraits of Jarry is above.

Taylor sees Jarry's tyrannical character Ubu as a landmark figure in modernist art and a precursor of the totalitarianism and dehumanizing mechanization of the 20th century. When Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin rose to power, Taylor claims that artists used the Ubu character as a symbol of the brutish wrongs of the age. Taylor's ability to link both art history and social history makes for a fascinating exploration of the implications of art on society and vice versa.

Taylor's lecture was delivered live at the PMA on March 9, 2007. The podcast is available free from the PMA site. (A lecture on Diego Rivera and the Mexican Mural and Print Revolution is also available.) With the ubiquity of iPods today, I just wish that more and more museums would make content like this available free online. Hearing this lecture has made me want to read Jarry's work (I confess that I've read none) and examine these artists he's influenced more closely. Museums should realize that a little taste like this can bring hungry patrons to their door very easily.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Moving Pictures

The discussion on the art blog circuit of what artworks should be made into movies has gone viral. Inspired by dicussions on Tyler Green's and Edward Winkleman's blogs, here are my five movies from paintings, complete with directors and cast. Interested parties should contact my agent. I'm not greedy. Just looking for what my agent calls "Bruce Willis money."

1. Grant Wood, American Gothic. When a dowdy farmer's daughter's makeover goes extreme, the new beau in her life makes Dad reach for his pitchfork. Kate Hudson stars in this comedic, romantic romp, with Alan Arkin as the Farmer and Matthew McConaughey as the Traveling Salesman.

2. Andrew Wyeth, Christina's World. Ingmar Bergmann's latest examination of the human condition follows the journey of a crippled woman as she crawls up a hill to her home. The story of four generations of her family is told in flashbacks along the way. Running time, 5 hours.

3. Roy Lichtenstein, Wham! A corrupt president and nefarious vice president steal an election and then manipulate a national tragedy to wage an immoral war for Mideast oil. An improbable tale that could never happen in America directed by James Cameron. Soundtrack by George Michael.

4. Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory. When a priceless Dali painting featuring a swarm of ants turns out to have an infestation of deadly African fire ants while traveling to an exhibit, Samuel L. Jackson is the angriest passenger of all on this more cultured sequel to Snakes on a Plane. William Shattner costars as the pilot.

5. Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. A dead body comes back to life during a medical lecture in a 17th century Dutch hospital and has a insatiable appetite for brains. George Romero directs.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Pollock's Cathedral

Indulging my Lenten musings again, I've been mulling over the idea of modern art and sacred spaces, such as the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, and Matisse's work in the Chapelle du Rosaire in St. Paul de Vence, France (*). But what stuck in my mind was a modern art sacred space that never existed--Jackson Pollock's cathedral. (Pollock's painting Cathedral appears above.)

Peter Lu, a Harvard physicist, recently made a connection between the patterns of Islamic mosques and the advanced forms of math behind them. Islamic art is iconoclastic (i.e., instead of the human figure, it uses intricate designs, many of which mimic nature). Below is an image from the Darbi-i Imam shrine in Iran that Lu claims shows a "quasicrystalline design."

When I read about Lu's work, something clicked in the back of my head about Pollock's work and advanced mathematics, specifically fractals. Taylor, Micolich, and Jonas wrote on Pollock's "Fractal Expressionism" to show how many of the patterns in his signature drip paintings mimic many of the fractal patterns in nature. When asked if he painted from nature, Pollock famously responded, "I am nature!" (Ed Harris snarls this line especially well in the movie.)

The intersection of Islamic abstraction in the name of iconoclasm and Pollock's abstraction in the name of (natural) expression freed from the figure makes me wonder what kind of sacred space could have been created using Pollock's work, perhaps as a series of stained glass windows.

Anyone who has seen Hans Namuth's footage of Pollock at work, painting on a plate of glass suspended on sawhorses as Namuth shot from underneath, can easily imagine the effect of being "inside" one of Pollock's works, feeling the rhythm and structure and yet the freedom of expression simultaneously. (Those interested in the Namuth film should read Pepe Karmel's chapter "Pollock at Work: The Films and Photographs of Hans Namuth" in Jackson Pollock by Kirk Varnedoe with Pepe Karmel.)

[(*) Anyone who would like to read more on Matisse's chapel and one author's infatuation with Matisse's work, should check out Blue Arabesque: A Search for the Sublime by Patricia Hampel.]

UPDATE: Many thanks to Iconia: Wherever Faith Meets Art for the kind words and link to my site.

Funny Pages

In the Spring 2007 issue of Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide (also linked in my blogroll at right), Patricia Mainardi writes an article titled "The Invention of Comics." She credits Rodolphe Topffer with creating the first true comic strips in 1827 (but not publishing them until 1837). The first comic strip "The Loves of Mr. Vieux Bois" is shown above. She also discusses the early comic strips of Gustave Dore, better known for his illustrations of the Bible and Dante's Divine Comedy.

It's funny how America has always tried to take too much credit for the comic medium (as Mainardi points out). I don't think there can be an argument that the superhero genre was started in America by Shuster and Siegel when they created Superman, but the general framework of the comics, if not most of the language of the medium, was already in place.

It's interesting to see how far the comic medium has come from these first efforts to the more stylized, artistic graphic novels of today. One of my comic favorite artists is Neal Adams, whose Batman illustrations in the 1970s always made me wish I could draw like him. The idea of comics as "serious" art may draw some laughs, but I for one can honestly say that it was the first true introduction for me to any concept of artistic style and composition. And the good guys always won, too.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Albert Pinkham Ryder Turns 160

One of my favorite painters, Albert Pinkham Ryder, celebrates his 160th birthday today. Born in 1847, Ryder was largely unknown to the public of his time but was influential among contemporaries and future modernists. The mixture of Romanticism plus Expressionism and Symbolism in his works always draws me in. Above is Ryder's Boat in Moonlight.

I'll never forget the first time I saw a Ryder painting in person. It was displayed laying flat down on a table because Ryder was so untrained in painting techniques that he painted on top of still wet paint, creating layers of never dried paint beneath the finished work. Over time, as the painting was displayed on a wall, the top layer of paint cracked and began to slide down on the river of pasty paint beneath. The odd, unintended effect of the painting actually moving by itself has always stuck in my mind.

I also have to grin when I think of Ryder's cameo in Caleb Carr's novel, The Alienist.

The Second Coming

Peter Schjeldahl cuts to the heart of the crisis of contemporary art in his review (not online) of the Robert Ryman exhibit at PaceWildenstein and the Comic Abstraction show at the MOMA in the March 19, 2007 issue of The New Yorker.

What I love about Schjeldahl is his ability to take specific exhibits and make resounding observations about the general art scene. Talking about Ryman, he says

Ryman is a favorite of certain academic critics who, loyal to intellectual adventures of avant-garde art in the fifties and sixties, ignore most contemporary art and seem to mark time until a new development, or Second Coming, merits their engagement.

Schjeldahl justly points the finger at critics for some of the failure of contemporary art to have any impact on mainstream culture. Pollock had Clement Greenberg and De Kooning had Harold Rosenberg (and long before that, J.M.W. Turner had John Ruskin), but what critic today finds an artist and champions him to the public. Does this disengagement simply reflect the larger disengagement of our passionless, mindlessly mercantile society? In the 1950s, the U.S. government actually took an interest in promoting artists, albeit usually to show some superiority over the Russians. Could you imagine today's government doing something similar? Where is the critic willing to risk and engage?

But Schjeldahl also places blame on contemporary artists, judging Comic Abstraction to be

...a mite thin and forced... along with almost everything else of recent vintage in an art world where frenetic production has outrun any substantial supply line of ideas... What's lost... is a sense of risk at the frontiers of convention.

Paraphrasing Picasso, Schjeldahl sees contemporary artists as simply "mix[ing] and match[ing] stock elements, with ever less drama and with intensity dwindling away." The public's lack of enthusiasm (including, often, my own) for contemporary art is a product of poor critical championship joined with very little to champion.

But who will be the "messiah" of this Second Coming? And who will play the critical prophet to pave the way?

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Adventures in Entropy

In tandem with the Thomas Chimes' exhibit at the PMA, "Adventures in 'Pataphysics," the Locks Gallery (on 6th Street in Old City Philadelphia, Between Walnut and Locust Streets) is currently showing more recent work called "The Entropy Paintings." (The photo above of Chimes and one of his portraits of Alfred Jarry is from a Philadelphia Inquirer review of the PMA show.)

I haven't seen the larger exhibit at the PMA, but the smaller exhibit at the Locks Gallery has whetted my appetite. The paintings at the Locks are almost all 3 by 3 inch works, some grouped together in sets of two, three, and four. The works are almost entirely white, with only enough grey or off white to provide enough contrast to provide an image, however ghostly.

Looking at Chimes' entropy paintings is like trying to decipher a language you've seen before but never fully understand. He dots his works with mathematical symbols and similar-looking marks that make you want to break the code. Even the written words on several works are readable, but with great difficulty. Chimes clearly wants to pull you in and make you look closer, but at the same time doesn't want to make it easy to read him. In fact, just as you begin to read him, you realize even more that it's impossible. The recurring images in the works, such as the profile of Alfred Jarry, French absurdist author who "created" 'pataphysics and Chimes' inspiration, almost mock you with their simplicity in the middle of chaos, or, rather, entropy.

Walking around the Locks Gallery at lunchtime, all alone, with the clicking of a keyboard in the office nearby the only other sound, I felt like a character in a Thomas Pynchon novel, surrounded by symbols at once familiar and foreign, compelled to understand until coming to the understanding that faith in such communication is futile. Once you come to that conclusion, you can allow yourself to enjoy the "pleasures of the text" as literary critics love to say, but here the pleasures of Thomas Chimes' world of meaning in meaninglessness.

The Crazy World of the Turner Prize

In the March 19, 2007 issue of The New Yorker, there is an article (not available online) by Sarah Thornton on the Turner Prize, an annual award to an artist under 50 based in Britain who has had an outstanding show in the previous year. The prize is named for J.M.W. Turner, Britain's greatest artist of the 19th century (and I have the wall calendar to prove it).
I only wish art prizes in the United States were as enthusiastically followed. There is betting on the outcome, with the odds varying as the nominees vie for public attention. There's even a television show called "The Turner Prize Challenge," where contestants compete to see who can best explain the artwork of the nominees to the public. Could you imagine a show like this in the United States?

On one hand, I find all artistic competitions to be troublesome, just as I find any "who's the best?" polls to be not very valuable (but that doesn't keep me from following them). The article describes the Turner Prize competition as "a cross between the Academy Awards and 'American Idol'", which should raise some flags right there. But, on the other hand, anything that gets people excited about art, especially contemporary art, can't be all bad.

The winner was Tomma Abts. Her painting Ert appears above.

{BTW--I chose the link to J.M.W. Turner above specifically because it called him "Painter of Light." Take THAT, Thomas Kincade! Of course, I read recently that 1 in 10 homes in America has something by Kincade on their wall, so he's laughing all the way to the bank.}

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Lenten Musings: The Sexuality of Christ and Modern Antihumanism

{N.B.--This post was edited and expanded after its initial posting for greater clarity of expression and thought.}
Being of the Irish Catholic persuasion, during this time of Lent I've been doing my annual bit of religious reading as my Lenten duty, a positive exploration of faith a lot more constructive than giving up donuts. As part of my reading list, I've been going through Michelle Goldberg's Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. But what does this have to do with art, you ask?

Goldberg recounts her travels inside the Fundamentalist side of the American religious/culture war. A heavy emphasis is put on their infatuation with human sexuality to the point of an anti-humanistic approach. One preacher longs for a return to the pre-Renaissance days of Calvinism and a greater sense of the sinfulness of humanity. All of that brought back to mind Leo Steinberg's The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion.

Steinberg demonstrates both theologically and visually (almost comically so, with more pictures of people pointing at Jesus' genitals than you thought possible) that the Christ of the Renaissance was a fully functional, sexually potent (but sexually pure) human being. To be any less sexual would be to be less than fully human and, hence, "cheat" the incarnation. The University of Chicago Press link above gives a much better synopsis of the book than I can. Of course, nothing can replace actually reading the book, which is, indeed, excellent.

What this confluence in my mind really is driving me to say is that current antihumanism is truly anti-Christian, i.e., driving into "modern oblivion" what the Renaissance (and their Greek inspiration) understood so long ago. Renaissance art fully expressed what the incarnation fully meant. Every attempt since then to squash that, from the fig leaves later popes placed on Michelangelo's Last Judgment to government-subsidized abstinence-only programs, denies who we are as much as it denies who Jesus was.

And from a totally non-religious perspective (Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion has made me more conscious of that perspective), this antihumanism is not only irreligious, but also self destructive to society as a whole and the slice of that whole that is art and culture. I believe that all art is some response to humanism, either an embrace of its triumphs or an exploration of its failures. One of those failures is certainly a total denial of it by Fundamentalist Dominionists (i.e., fundamentalists who need to silence all disent from their views, to hold dominion over the intellectual field).

Aside from my religious beliefs are my humanist beliefs. The two are linked, at least in my mind, but not necessarily in those of others. That's perfectly acceptable. I'm no dominionist. But I challenge anyone who truly loves art and the place it holds in the human mind and heart (and, perhaps, soul) to embrace this antisexual, antihumanist position and still embrace the majesty of all art.

{Disclaimer: All apologies for any overt preachiness above. I'm a very liberal Irish Catholic, as you may have guessed. My Jesus is the Jesus of the Beatitudes and Jesus Christ Superstar. The Jesus who would come over to help move your furniture on a Saturday morning. As I said at the beginning, I'm trying to keep the tangents to a minimum (really), but sometimes the tangents are what really get the juices flowing.}

Possible Pulitzer for LA Times Art Critic

Christopher Knight, art critic for the Los Angeles Times, may be a contender for a Pulitzer Prize.

Here's a quick link to some of his recent writing. Please take the time to read someone who writes about art much more artfully than I can ever hope to. Even when there's no hope of attending an exhibit all the way across the country, it's always educational and entertaining to read a professional's view.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

William Glackens Turns 137

Happy Birthday to William Glackens, member of the Ashcan School and The Eight group of painters and graduate of the PAFA. (His painting Mahone Bay is above.) If you click through to the link on Glackens, it'll take you to the "Art 4 2 day" site that lists birthdays and deaths on this date. Read all the way to the end and you'll see a brief note that Glackens served as the agent and scout for Dr. Albert Barnes of the Barnes Foundation.

I've always been irked by the lack of recognition Glackens has received in the formation of the Barnes Foundation. Glackens was the real discoverer of Renoir for America, not Barnes. Glackens studied the works of Manet, Renoir, Degas, and other French Impressionists when they were actually cutting edge artists. Barnes provided the money to amass the collection, but the real visionary of the Barnes Foundation is William Glackens, at least in my mind. The Barnes Foundation in Lower Merion includes a room of Glackens' work, but too many people rush through to see all the Renoir and Matisse, unfortunately.

Perhaps one day William Glackens will be remembered as one of the pioneers of American Impressionism, but not soon enough for me.

Whose Art Is it Anyway?

There was an interesting article in yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer surveying the recent issue of sales of public art. The near sale of Thomas Eakins' The Gross Clinic to the Walmart heiress roused the Philadelphia community's sense of cultural heritage, only to suffer the gut punch of the very quiet sale of Eakins' The Cello Player by the PAFA. What had become a rescue mission sadly turned into a hostage swap.

I was one of the many who made the pilgrimage to Jefferson University Hospital to see The Gross Clinic when the outcome was still in question. I'd seen it many times before, but it was like seeing an old friend on his deathbed (complete with the institutional hospital decor). I'm glad that the PAFA and the PMA will be ping-ponging The Gross Clinic back and forth for the time being, but the secret joy of being able to see it in its natural habitat (sometimes behind bars, like a zoo, when the guards wouldn't open the gallery up) can never be replaced.

I realize that art and cultural funding is a low priority in the United States right now, akin to worrying about the aluminum siding on a burning house, so federal funding is a longshot. I just wish that there was some remaining sense of noblisse oblige in today's moneyed elite that would allow them to save our cultural heritage rather than pillage it.

This entire episode reminds me of the soap opera that was Steve "I poked a hole in my Picasso" Wynn's attempt to buy Maxfield Parrish's The Dream Garden out of the Curtis Center in Center City Philadelphia (probably to install in a men's room of the Bellagio). Fortunately, the lords of Philadelphia city politics intervened and saved it from Vegas (and the less-advertised possibility of severe damage in transit). The Dream Garden holds a special place in my heart after having worked in the Curtis Center for many, many years. It was a welcome sight on dreary Monday mornings. My wife and I actually had our formal wedding photos taken in front of the mosaic, so it's an irreplaceable part of my family's history, something to show to the kids years from now (and, hopefully, for them to show to their kids someday).

I'm sure that The Dream Garden and other special pieces of Philadelphia art and history have inspired countless similar stories linking them to this place so powerfully than no amount of money could (or should) pull them away.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

Gauguin went to Tahiti, but Philadelphia's just fine for me.

Welcome to my mind cracked open as I wander down the physical and metaphorical halls of art. Please feel free to join me as I muse upon the visual arts as part of the neverending voyage of self-discovery. Didn't Gauguin say (or more accurately, ask) it all when he titled his painting, "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?" Aside from my beautiful wife and adorable son, art is my salvation and my greatest distraction, as well as being one of the most illuminating mirrors of the self.

I'm envisioning this blog as a repository of the little insights I come across as a passionate art history amateur as I attend exhibits small and grand as well as those gleaned from my worming through art books, blogs, and websites.

I promise to keep the tangents to a minimum, but art is never created in a vacuum. To touch upon the most dangerous tangent, I'll try to inflict as little of my politics on you as possible, but it's hard nowadays when, if you're not angry, you just ain't paying attention. I'll stop there.

Please feel free to comment at will. Shared knowledge and shared passions are what make the world go 'round.