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Monday, October 28, 2013

William Kentridge's The Nose


Based on a Gogol short story, Shostakovich’s 1928 opera The Nose, tells the tale of a Russian official named Kovalyov whose nose leaves his face one night while he’s sleeping. The next day, he finds it transformed into a human-sized nose that not only has a higher bureaucratic rank than he, but refuses to speak to him. The balance of the action involves Kovalyov’s attempt, and final success, at getting his nose back.

Absurd in the extreme, The Nose can be interpreted as a castration allegory speaking to the impotence ordinary people experienced under the totalitarian systems of Tsar (Gogol) and Stalin (Shostakovich).

Shostakovich’s score draws from Russian folk music, vaudeville and military marches, which he intersperses with complex atonal passages. Not exactly the type of music you’d have on your iPod Shuffle. Coupled with the bizarre story, the work provides a challenge I’m not quite sure I could take if it were not for William Kentridge.  

Kentridge’s production, which debuted in 2010, relies on an enormous screen onto which his wonderfully inventive drawings and animations are projected. These projections are the star of the show, both when they share the stage and during the four or five intervals when they have it all to themselves.

Collage-like, Kentridge’s projections use text from newspapers and encyclopedias as back drops onto which he projects another layer of images made up of material and film footage from Soviet archives paired with various images of the nose he has wrought, including a film fragment of Anna Pavlova dancing with the nose superimposed on her body. Kentridge’s approach is low-tech, using torn paper, drawing and stop action animation.

Objects and beings which seem solid at first, break apart and coalesce underscoring the theme of Kovalyov’s nose’s separation from his body. As is the case with his animations, Kentridge picks one color as a foil for all the black and white. This time it’s Suprematist red used to form Malevich crosses, circles andlines. He also uses great blocks of Cyrrilic lettering to dramatic visual effect.

There are ramps that cut across the backdrop along which the singers traverse, and box-like structures signifying rooms that can be moved across the stage. These are nonsensical spaces where a bed is way too small, a wardrobe is a withdrawing room and a picture on the wall, a ladder up to a hatch in the ceiling.

The costumes are a mix between ‘20s chic and middle European oddness, with what appeared to be a couple of lavender leisure suits thrown in with the Sonia Delaunay coats. I loved the randomness of it all and the fact that five, from a cast of about 60, inexplicably wore masks—wonderfully primitive masks, I might add.

The troop of soldiers was kitted out in nifty Soviet-style gray uniforms with hats that had red on the top, so that when they turned just so, they echoed the Malevich circles from the backdrop. The actual nose itself, a magnificent proboscis inspired by Kentridge’s own prodigious schnoz, appears only a few times, newsprint covered and with a red Malevich cross plastered onto it. A sprightly figure, the nose dances around sporting jaunty spats.

What with the music, the story and the crowd, at times it seemed that everything would deteriorate into pure chaos, but it didn’t. All this zaniness also didn’t seem self-indulgent or embarrassing, perhaps because everything was on such a high order and there was also this overall quality of handcrafted imperfection that rang with authenticity and truth.

As a South African who grew up under the shadow of apartheid, Kentridge is ideally suited to undertake “The Nose.” For Kentridge, it is through the type of brutal comedy evident in both Gogol’s story and Shostakovich’s music that we can get closer to the actual logic of the world, and he posits that apartheid, evil though it was, had an absurd logic to it. In addition to this societal form of absurdity, as an artist, Kentridge takes the absurd very seriously. Like Gogol and Shostakovich before him he sees the freedom inherent in it: because there are no rules, all bets are off and anything is possible. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Janet Bruce: Presently Observed: Recent Work in Wax and Pigment


Presently Observed: Recent Work in Wax and Pigment, heralds Janet Bruce's foray into the world of encaustic and printmaking. A painter of great sensitivity and strength, Bruce has embraced a more physical approach, effectively rolling up her sleeves—tracing, transferring, pouring, layering, scraping and inscribing—pushing her work in new directions and neatly catapulting it to a whole new level of potency.

It was at two printmaking workshops in Upstate New York: the Women’s Studio Workshop in Rosendale and R & F pigments, where Bruce learned how to make trace and photo-litho monotypes and how to combine them with encaustic techniques of layering, inscribing, transfers and collage. Trace monotypes are reverse drawings using an inked plate, which can be printed as a positive or a negative (the ghost). Photo litho monotypes use Xerox images as the plate for oil based printmaking. An ancient medium, used by the Egyptians, encaustic, which is made from beeswax, can be translucent and lush in color. Says Bruce:

"I'm drawn to encaustic because of its rich hues and immediacy. Unlike oil painting, there is not a long drying time so it is easier to build up layers and drawing. Also, the possibilities for combining media are limitless. Often there are surprises along the way that open up new ideas for creativity."

In her oil paintings, Bruce composes her surfaces with layers of different colored paint. One of the great pleasures of her work is spotting the various coats of under painting peeking through subsequent applications. These flickers of color add visual and spatial dimension. Bruce also uses wonderfully expressive marks and scumbling to keep things interesting. Jagged lines, rendered in oil stick, temper the sweetness of the palette and the delicate, almost feminine quality of the veils of pigment. Yet, despite all the surface details, paint is thinly applied and the oil paintings have a sleek smoothness about them. With the addition of wax, collage and found objects, Bruce has introduced texture and three-dimensionality in her recent work.

Pyrenees is a large painting with, as the title suggests, a landscape feel. There appears to be a horizon line with great yellow sun above, but much of the painting is abstract. Bruce is inspired by nature, but her interpretations, focusing on the sentiments inherent in it, are non-literal, or as the brilliant German artist, Gerhard Richter, would say, incomprehensible:

“Painting is the making of an analogy for something non-visual and incomprehensible–giving it form and bringing it within reach. And that is why good paintings are incomprehensible. Creating the incomprehensible has absolutely nothing to do with turning out any old bunkum, because bunkum is always comprehensible.”

With its roiling blotches of color and liberal use of oil stick, Pyrenees seems charged with violent energies—of weather, of emotion, or both. For an instant, it teeters on the edge of total chaos, but Bruce maintains control. The effect is thrilling and a little disconcerting—in a good way—feeling slightly anxious at first, one becomes filled with admiration because the composition, with flying colors, succeeds.

Similar to Pyrenees, Approach is smaller and more purely abstract. A patchwork of inspired color combinations, the painting is overlaid with wildly zinging lines. There’s a lot going on in this dynamic work, but you don’t question Bruce’s choices, which are exactly right.

Another large painting, Mother, appears at first to be a quieter work on account of its cool palette of blues and beige with orange highlights. But the brushwork is complex, gestural and also subtle. Bruce says she was thinking of Louise Bourgeois’s Maman, a giant bronze sculpture of a spider, when she was working on this piece. As she explains:

“This painting was started in 2004. In the intervening years I had revisited a particular shape that showed up again and again, in various drawings—a shape based on a Yoshitoshi print of a bereft lunatic women reading and re-reading a scroll-like letter to her dead lover, a letter he presumably never saw that is also a letter from him. Initially, here, the shape, simplified into this oval with tendrils looked kind of camelia-like, or maybe something else….The leggy lines seemed spidery. I remembered "Maman,” which I knew from the Cafritz Garden at the National Gallery where my daughter and I went ice-skating once, memorably, (and I would guess she thought then, that I was more like the Bourgeois Maman, as I tried to keep her upright on the slippery blades….) Yet, this oval seemed less treacherous than that colossal Bourgeois bronze. Anyway, to my eye, now, it reads either as a cozily blanketed baby, or else like a protective thing—a hooded cape. To me, both are maternal images, but there is also a calm about this piece, which gave me pause before; somewhat reminiscent of a deep bath in the maternal. So to get to the point, when I came upon this realization—it was that moment of awakening you get in creative work...I figured that there was nothing more for me to do but allow this "Mother" to remain in this state of finish and wonder.”

Much smaller, but still packing a punch, the Forest series of three paintings marries a hefty schmear of metallic copper encaustic slathered across a simply gorgeous tapestry of pigment. It’s an audacious pairing of strength and softness.

In Bubbles and Clouds, encaustic is applied liberally over a trace monotype. The heavy wax impasto is almost sculptural, creating a pitted, blistered and iced surface of intermittent translucency through which we can discern the lines and pigment of the monotype beneath. It’s a visually arresting and marvelously tactile piece with a presence that belies its small size.

Bruce has created a series of small works that prove she is adept operating in a broad range of media and sizes. With these, she tries just about anything, using such found objects as a dried cabbage leaf, a mock orange and two bits of twisted wire to create compositions that are both curious and striking. They could have ended up looking like a mish-mash, but in the sure-footed Bruce’s hands, these pieces have real artistic authority.

Presently Observed: Recent Work in Wax and Pigment, comprises engaging works that challenge and which seem to suggest all bets are off and anything can happen in Bruce’s paintings. While they take nature as their starting point, they quickly veer off into a profound exploration of pure painting and technique. For Gerhard Richter (and for me) this is a good thing:

"Thus paintings are all the better, the more beautiful, intelligent, crazy and extreme and more clearly perceptible and the less they are decipherable metaphors for this incomprehensible reality."


Monday, October 21, 2013

Full Measure of the Man


Awhile back while walking through the Fralin Museum at the University of Virginia, I was stopped in my tracks by an arresting portrait of a handsome black man. It turned out to be Lloyd Patterson a Bronx-born theater designer who traveled to the Soviet Union in 1932 with a group of African American artists and intellectuals including Langston Hughes. The purpose was to make Black and White, a film about racism in the United States.

The film was never made, but while in the USSR, Patterson fell in love Vera Aralova, a theater artist, and stayed on. Patterson and Aralova had three children including James Lloydovich Patterson who at the age of four appeared in director Grigori Aleksandrov’s 1936 film Circus, which somewhat paralleled his life as he played the dark skinned child of an interracial couple. The younger Patterson also achieved recognition for his poetry in later years.



During the Second World War, Patterson’s family was evacuated from Moscow while he remained behind working at a radio station. He died from wounds sustained during the bombardment of 1942.

Though his life was short and his accomplishments few, the portrait suggests Patterson was quite a man. He would have to be to take such a brave step. Leaving behind his home to strike out for a place (and such an alien place!) where he would be treated like the proud person the painting depicts.

Edmund de Waal's Atemwende



Atemwende (“breathturn”), Edmund de Waal's show at the Gagosian gallery, which takes its title from Paul Celan’s 1967 collection of poetry, is "the moment when words transcend literal meaning."

The author of The Hare with the Amber Eyes, de Waal has established himself as a gifted writer. I only realized he was a visual artist after coming across a reference to his artwork while reading the book and then Googling him. Aside from being impressed with his work, I was also struck by, though markedly different, how similar it was to the family collection of netsuke that forms the basis of his extraordinary family memoir.

For the Gagosian show, de Waal has produced a series of vitrines in which porcelain vessels in various groupings are placed. Painted white or black, the vitrines are either narrow rectangles, squares or large bookshelf-like pieces. The vessels are cylindrical, mostly the size of a shell cartridge, though some are wider and shorter. Their surfaces ranges from lustrous to matte and colors from white to pale celadon, to pale wheat to a gunmetal black. They are mostly smooth, but some are pitted. Having worked for Eva Zeisel back in the '80s, I know a thing or two about porcelain and I had to admire the quality of de Waal's—its thinness, its color and its lovely glazes.

My favorite pieces featured a deep rectangular vitrine with two "rows" of randomly arranged cylinders, one set up behind a translucent material that blurred them so that they appeared like shadows. There were also actual shadows, so in fact three different versions of the cylinders were visible. They made me ponder notions of presence and absence.

I also was drawn to some of the squares, especially the black ones, which had beautiful, subtly metallic backdrops against which the vessels were placed.

de Waal's work is austerely beautiful, as calming to look at as it must have been to make. All these individual hand thrown pieces...one imagines de Waal toiling in this endlessly repetitive fashion and reaching a kind of Nirvana in the process.

Though manmade, there is something organic about the vessels; they seem to have much more in common with bones, seashells and eggshells than vases and tea sets. And while the vitrines made me think of Donald Judd, de Waal's rough, handmade quality was very different from Judd's sleek hermeticism. de Waal embraces craft and his work represents a wonderfully recondite marriage between it and high art.






Thursday, October 3, 2013

Imran Quershi


I think one of my favorite spots in New York is the roof garden at the Met. It's a glorious island surrounded by green with a nearly 360 view of the city rising above Central Park. It also has been the site of some pretty spectacular contemporary installations, such as the Starn Brothers’ Big Bambu and Tomás Saraceno's Cloud City. 

Recently, I set my alarm and got to the museum when it opened and hurrying back to the elevator was whisked up to the roof before the masses had made it through the intervening galleries. I was rewarded by having the place to myself save for a couple of guards and baristas at the coffee bar. It was a glorious morning. The city sparkled all around. 

The beautiful and classic vista of New York, my hometown, is reassuring and timeless, which is perhaps why Imran Qureshi's (born 1972), painted commission (his first large-scale installation in the United States) resonates so powerfully.

Thus far, 9/11 and the Boston Marathon aside, we have been spared the almost quotidian carnage happening in other parts of the world: Iraq, Israel, London, and Quershi's native Pakistan. The splatters and blotches in dried blood red powerfully evoke the ghastly aftermath of a suicide bomb. It's a powerful memento mori that hits you like a brick. And yet...within the awful splatters we discern delicate leaves emerging, beautifully rendered with chalk-like white highlights in the delicate style of the miniaturists who worked for the Mughal court (1526–1857). They're life and hope, civility and lyricism blooming from within the vestiges of violence. In Quershi's words: "Yes, these forms stem from the effects of violence. They are mingled with the color of blood, but, at the same time, this is where a dialogue with life, with new beginnings and fresh hope starts."

If only people could only cleave to these fragile fronds rather than the murderous hatred that rips us apart. 



Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Son et Lumière


What’s not to like about James Turrell’s installation in the atrium of the Guggenheim? His reimaging of Frank Lloyd Wright’s soaring circular spiral into gauzy ellipses of changing light is just plain beautiful. It’s otherworldly with the stacked diminishing ovoid shapes seeming to lead to some kind of portal. 

When I arrived, just after the museum opened, it was a tremulous, glowing white and I couldn’t help but think of accounts of near death experiences. Later, as I was leaving, it had turned to lavender and then a trippy hot pink with the Ganzfeld effect in high gear. Blissed out visitors lay on mats on the floor or draped themselves on benches around the space—an installation all on its own—it’s always great watching New Yorkers wrested from their protective carapaces.

The rest of the show I found rather lacking, certainly not up to the high standards set by Suprasensorial Experiments in Light, Color, and Space.  Curated by Alma Ruiz, it originated at L.A. MOCA; I caught it at the Hirshhorn. That show featured work by Latin American artists (Carlos Cruz-Diez, Lucio Fontana, Julio Le Parc, Hélio Oiticica and Jesús Rafael Soto) who were working with light in innovative ways a decade before the Light and Space movement emerged in this country. That said, if I lived in New York, I would return a couple of times, at least, to see the atrium awash in different colors.

Up at The Cloisters, Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet (2001) provides a nice aural counterpoint. A sound installation that comprises 40 high-fidelity speakers on stands positioned around the perimeter of the Cloisters’s Fuentidueña Chapel. Composed by Thomas Tallis possibly on the occasion of the 40th birthday of either Queen Elizabeth l or Mary Queen of Scots, the motet, Spem in alium numquam habui (c. 1573?), which translates as "In No Other Is My Hope," is one of Tallis's most famous compositions.

Standing at the center of the speakers, one is met with a wall of sound as the full effect of the polyphonic music is felt. Cardiff has referred to the piece as aural sculpture and one can feel exactly what she means. The words seem to fall away and one hears blocks of sound. Putting an ear up close to the speakers, one hears the individual voices—bass, baritone, alto, tenor, and child soprano—one part per speaker. It’s so clear it feels like the person is right there inside. The Fuentidueña Chapel, which features the late twelfth-century apse from the church of San Martín at Fuentidueña, near Segovia, provides the perfect setting and acoustics for the 14-minute piece that plays on a continuous loop.

Not to be outdone, MoMA has its own sound show: Soundings: A Contemporary Score. To me it was too pedantic, missing the magic that an artist like Cardiff is somehow able to capture. It reminded me of More Than Sound, an exhibit I saw last year at Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm that focused on how music is being used and created within contemporary art through the work of nine artists. Interestingly, in both shows, though sound/music is the focus, a good deal of attention is directed at how the objects making the sound look (not a concern of Cardiff who is a pure aural artist). And here (at MoMA), as there (Bonniers Konsthall), I'm afraid that the very best part was the Op-Arty acoustical tiles on the wall.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Paper


Back in June at the “Paper” show at the Saatchi Gallery in London, I discovered several knockout artists. Chief among these was Anne Kevans. Her series of portraits of 20th century dictators as children (Hitler, Idi Amin, Bokassa etc…the whole rogues gallery) entitled Boys, hit all the right notes. 

Painted with a light touch in muddy greens and ochres, Kevans’s elegant little watercolors are appealing in and of themselves: she exercises admirable restraint both in her style and the information she imparts. The added helping of creep-out we experince recognizing in these scared little faces, the familiar features we have come to abhor, takes them over the top. While there is subtlety in Devans's approach: using a minimalist style to represent these monsters when they were children (maybe not so innocent, judging from the expression on some of their faces, but at least non-threatening), the sheer quantity of baby dictators (taking up three gallery walls) is staggering.

Anne Toebee’s bird’s eye views of rooms are odd and inventive. In these bizarro floor plans, things don’t obey the same laws of perspective with counters, chairs and appliances oriented every which way.

I love the way Toebee combines rather dry draftsmanship with painterly areas. She clearly appreciates vintage interiors and patterns. In fact, the mini brick linoleum she depicts in The Doctor’s Wife is what caught my eye in the first place being the very pattern my grandmother had in her kitchen in Maine.

Named for the daily newspapers they’re made from, Jodie Carey’s sepia colored arrangements of flowers look like dried flowers you would find under a bell jar on a mantle. There’s something Victorian and something slightly funereal about them. There’s a pleasing marriage between the humbleness of the material and the elaborateness of the execution.

Eric Manigaud’s drawings of photographs taken at the Nazi-run State Care and Medical Facility in Weilmünster, Germany where Jewish patients (mental and other) were forcibly sterilized or starved are incredibly powerful. Beautifully executed, these large-scale drawings of human suffering command attention. Portrait Clinique # 10, which shows a distraught girl, her face distorted by the rough grip of a nurse is particularly arresting. Manigaud’s drawings of bombed Cologne grab our de-sensitized attention in a way that the photograph from which they come never could. Here as well as in the hospital series, by doing the drawings and making them so large, Manigaud’s succeeded in imbuing the images with the power to shock anew.


Monday, August 12, 2013

Brion-Vega Tomb


I had pictured Carlo Scarpa’s Brion-Vega Tomb off by itself on a hill. It’s actually on a flat expanse surrounded by cornfields. Over the angled concrete wall, one can see a typical Italian view of the rosy roofline and spire of the adjoining village. Most amazing, is that the tomb, which I would say takes up about a half-acre sits smack up against the cluttered cemetery of San Vito d'Altivole.

The tomb itself is austere, tranquil and un-morbid despite the fact that there are two sarcophaguses under a curved concrete awning and several other headstones. One doesn’t really notice these though.

After passing through the gate one comes to the chapel “floating” in its reflecting pool. The structures have a vaguely Asian, vaguely Art Deco, vaguely Mayan quality. Ridged protrusions, serrations and gaps that create a dynamic interplay between negative space and positive space, light and shadow. 

In addition to the chapel pool, there is a lovely chute of descending water reminiscent of the one in the garden of the Fondazione Querini Stampalia in Venice and a lily pad-covered rectangle of water at one end.

The famous red and blue intersecting circles are as beautiful and dramatic as they appear in photographs, providing two different effects depending on which side you are on.

As usual, Scarpa’s steps are wonderful. There is a simply nifty geometric set near the beginning of the tomb and at the end, a gracious stairway accesses the rest of the cemetery.

I noted the tomb looked a little shabby in places with mold creeping up a wall and there was an interesting concrete gate that didn’t work. While Scarpa’s work can stand up to a little decrepitude, I worry that the tomb is not being taken care of.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Castelvecchio


Yesterday I spent several hours in Castelvecchio, the Scaliger Family's 14th century fortress that is one of the architectural landmarks of Verona. It is an extraordinary structure: enormous, brick and stone with a vast interior courtyard, towers, massive sundials and its most notable feature: imposing crennellations that are both severe and fanciful with their monolithic looking Y-shaped volutes. This distinctive design is also continued on the city walls that are visible at various points throughout Verona and at Sirmione's fortress (also a Scaliger construction) on the shores of Lake Garda.

The purpose of my visit was to see the Carlo Scarpa renovations that were executed between 1959 and 1973 and, in particular, his amazing concrete staircase composed of triangular risers. Scarpa also designed all the exhibition props: inventive bronze mounts for paintings, floating bases for statuary and light fixtures.  

In addition to what may be the coolest staircase ever designed, there are at least four additional ones, not counting the wonderful slabs of steps outside. Looking at the famous one, I was struck by the dramatic play of light and shadow, which once I noticed seemed everywhere, a potent leitmotif that was reinforced by the play of intersecting planes in Scarpa's additions. 

Though a couple of the staircases are similar, each is unique, ranging from the COR-TEN steel curved bans to the polished lace-like stone steps edged in cork. I love the fact that Scarpa is not locked into one uniform approach, but expands and stretches his range again and again. 
The other thing I loved are Scarpa's surfaces. The occasional gleam of polished walls, the rough concrete indented with the grain of its wooden molds. The measured use of color: a rust panel here, Necco wafer gray concrete above pink brick there, or the unexpected dash of an indigo ceiling.

Scarpa's contemporary-meets-ancient approach is exactly right in this austere complex, bringing an elegant sleekness to what could have been an unmitigatingly grim, or at least boringly martial environment.    

Castelvecchio has a superb collection of medieval and quattrocento art as well as incredible wall decorations that emulate elaborate tilework and fabric that date to the building's origin. But I was so dazzled by the Scarpa, I barely looked at them. Next time!

Friday, July 5, 2013

Urban Renewal


Arnold Circus in London’s East End is a charming residential area consisting of handsome brick apartment buildings surrounding a raised green on which sits a bandstand. Though all is serene here now, the circus and buildings occupy the site of Friars Mount, London’s most infamous 19th century slum. Indeed, the mound that forms the center of the circus is composed of the rubble from the demolished slum and the, now very much in demand, apartment complex was arguably Britain’s first council estate.

Back in its slum heyday, around 5,700 souls lived here in a rat’s nest of dwellings, unpaved streets and alleyways. Sanitary conditions were horrendous with little or no sewage oversight, and running water available for just 10–12 minutes each day. On Sundays, there was no water. To add to the misery, noxious ponds formed in the cavities left behind when earth was removed for brick making. Although there were shoemakers and tailors here, there was also “boiling tripe, melting tallow, or preparing cat’s meat and slaughter houses, dustheaps, and ‘lakes of putrefying night soil.’” In addition to these “reputable” trades the area was crime-riddled, thick with street gangs, thieves and prostitutes.

The transformation of Friars Mount can be attributed to the Reverend Osborne Jay. Jay took over the local Holy Trinity parish in 1886 when one child in four died before his or her first birthday and the entire death rate was four times that of London. Jay worked tirelessly to improve conditions, raising the amazing sum of  £25,000 to build a new church, social club, gym and lodging house, and in 1890 he convinced the London County Council to replace the slum with flats.

The horrified court of Victorian public opinion was won over when writer Arthur Morrison published A Child of the Jago (1896) a fictionalized work that laid bare the shame of Friars Mount. Indeed, when no less than the Prince of Wales opened the new development in 1900, he cited Morrison’s book: “Few indeed will forget this site who had read Mr. Morrison’s A Child of the Jago.”

Sadly, when the estate was completed, it wasn’t the Friars Mount residents who moved in; it was too expensive for them. They were pushed further out into the surrounding area producing overcrowding and more slums.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Contemporary Portraiture


Portraits fascinate me. How people choose to present themselves and how the artists depict them provides endlessly rich fodder. Goya is the famous example, wielding his brush with delicious malice to expose the Spanish royal family's snooty imbecility. They were so dazzled by the richness of their jewels and clothing, they failed to see how very unattractive he had made them.
This particular form of blindness seems common in the portrait world. There are so many dreadful ones out there where the artist is just plain inept.

Here in London, I have been deluged by portraits of Tudors, Papuan New Guineans, American Indians and distinguished Britons whose deeds have secured them wall space at the National Portrait Gallery. It's a great place to check in with see the latest crop.

Contemporary portraiture presents particular challenges. How to present the subject in a way that represents them and yet looks fresh? There are plenty of examples at the NPG, of which the infamous painting of Kate is not one. This particular travesty is proudly displayed and is even more hideous in person--a treacley, airbrushed rendering that succeeds in making a very pretty, and from all accounts, gracious young woman, plain and even rather sour.

But on entering the Gallery initially one is greeted not by it, but by Alex Katz's orange billboard: "Anna Wintour." Whoever decided Katz should do her portrait is quite simply, brilliant. Such a flat rendition that offers nothing up to the viewer of this famous, bitchy sphinx is an example of perfect symmetry.

Opposite Kate is opera singer, Sir Willard Wentworth-White by Ishbel Myerscrough. The painting has a luscious quality with Wentworth-White positioned slightly off center against a hot pink background regarding the viewer with a commanding gaze.

Next to this is the hyperrealist portrait of Olympian, Dame Kelly Holmes by Craig Wylie, which at first I thought was a large format photograph. My assumption was not only based on its realism, but also on the un-posed, snapshot-like quality—a moment frozen in time. I would much prefer to see a portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge by Wylie: It would be fresh and immediate, in keeping with who she is.

Jason Brooks's portrait of Sir Paul Nurse along with the Wylie is another  successful, utterly contemporary portraits. Both these works are in-your-face large and unaffected, with poses that are either immediate or relaxed, the dress is casual, the face natural. These two works also have that added frisson of looking like something (photograph, drawing) they're not.

But style aside, part of the fun of the NPG is you get to see people you’re familiar with. John Fowles, for instance, who is every bit as soulful and melancholy as you would expect. Thomas Watson paints him looking off in the distance, adding a white orchid and glass vessel to balance his psychological and visual weight.

Justin Mortimer's 1992 painting of Harold Pinter is another intense painting. Mortimer places Pinter low on the horizon before a sea of books with a scarlet background that takes up most of the picture. Pinter has an almost bewildered, even stricken expression, pondering himself or the human condition is anyone’s guess.

Paula Rego's Alice Neel-like portrait of Germaine Greer depicts her with complete absence of vanity, inelegantly sitting, legs splayed on a sofa wearing a dress and sneakers, one of which has a split sole. Her head is cocked and she is looking off to the right as if listening intently to what someone is saying. A symbolic attitude for such a vocal personage.

A similar lack of vanity is present in the portrait of Maggie Smith by James Lloyd. Smith regards the viewer with an exacting gaze, her head resting on her right forefinger. Her face is absent of make up and no attempt has been made to soften the effects of age. It says a lot about an actress who is willing to allow such an unvarnished version of herself to be presented to the world. 

Composer, Thomas Adès's body forms a languid "S" shape in Phil Hale's full length portrait. He's wearing a white suit and his lanky frame is draped on a brown leather chair against a mahogany background. His posture, the affected and awkward position of his right hand and his sad-eyed face say a lot about who he is. Though unquestionably a contemporary piece, there's a 1930s quality that reminded me of Paul Cadmus.

Camilla Batmanghidjh the Iranian born British philanthropist is depicted in Orientalist splendor by Dean Marsh who wanted to emulate Ingres. There is a definite affinity with those well-fed members of the haute bourgeoisie like Madame Moitessier just next door at the National Gallery. To enhance its exotic effect, Marsh opted for a tondo shape.

Johnson Beharry is immortalized here in a portrait by Emma Wesley. Originally from Grenada, Beharry is the first living person to receive the Victoria Cross (the highest military medal for valor in the British army) in over 30 years, having saved the lives of 30 men while under fire in Iraq on two separate occasions. During the second incident he sustained serious head injuries. Though he is depicted in uniform, the portrait is small, modest. This may reflect his character and/or the current attitude toward war, and the conflict in Iraq in particular. No triumphant display here, just a quiet study of a man. Rebarry's unwavering, intense gaze denotes inner mettle.

Though it was in an adjoining gallery and wasn't part of the contemporary portrait show, I loved the self-portrait of poet and painter, Isaac Rosenberg and was so moved by his story. A pacifist, he enlisted in WWI out of poverty. He wrote what is considered his best poetry in the trenches and died there at the age of 27 in 1918.

There is a series of three intense, tight little drawings by Michael Landy, including a self-portrait. The heads are disembodied and seem to float amid white expanses of paper. Landy is an artist new to me, his "Saints Alive" at the National Portrait Gallery (where he is currently Artist in Residence) was inventive and imaginative.

In Andrew Tiff's wonderful charcoal of Eric Sykes, he renders the face and neck with fleshy perfection. These highly representational areas emerged from a shirt collar kept refreshingly sketchy.

Maggi Hambling captures comedian, Stephen Fry, adroitly in her charcoal, which could almost be called a caricature, displaying Fry's particular physical qualities as well as his character without getting bogged down with details.

Stuart Pearson-White's careful pencil portrait of pear-faced, Timothy Spall presents a nattily dressed man holding a beer can while regarding the viewer with a gimlet eye. The clothing and prop possibly reference Spall’s current success as an actor and his modest roots.

Frank Auerbach's pencil self-portrait is an intense, gestural piece of slashing marks and erasures. It's the most abstract of the works here and yet  conveys with great effect the sitter's personality.

On the mezzanine the portraits continue with a dynamic series of Cubist riffs on T.S. Eliot by Patrick Heron. Most of these were studies for the eventual portrait, but all had presence.

Here too is Lucien Freud’s self-portrait composed of “chunks” of paint that reminded me of Picasso’s bronze head of Fernande and a wonderfully sympathetic portrait of financier, Jacob Rothschild. I love how his eyes are downcast, the way the figure occupies the picture plane and the subtlety of the palette. And the flesh! From the shiny forehead to the wrinkles, pock marks and bulges, it is a tour de force.

Ruskin Spear’s painting of Francis Bacon featured a “Baconized” head Not sure whether this was Spear’s idea or Bacon’s.

The Situation Group by Sylvia Sleigh a portrait of a group of British artist influenced by American Abstract Expressionism who took their name from a 1960 exhibition of their work entitled Situation. It’s both an interesting period piece and composition. It has a collage quality as if she painted the different figures and then applied them to the canvas.

An austere, unsmiling Queen Elizabeth II is seen against a bleak gray background in her portrait by Pietro Annigoni who said of his rendering, “I didn’t want to paint her as a film star, I wanted to paint her as a monarch, alone in the problems of responsibility.”

I wandered into the BP portrait competition show and discovered John Devane’s The Uncertain Time, a portrait of his three children Lucy, Laura and Louis. I love how the children are asserting their independence and personality as evidenced in their clothing and posture.

Pieter by Susanne du Toit is a portrait of her eldest son, Pieter. Stripped down to essentials she creates a painting that is visually satisfying and psychologically potent using expression of face, hands and body to convey the sitter’s personality. Her line and palette are pretty nifty too.

Zuzana in London by Hynek Martinec is another hyperrealist painting. I’m trying to decide if I really should like this work or whether it’s kind of a trick. Maybe it is a trend that down the road will look hackneyed and facile. But right now, I think his and Wylie’s work is pretty cool.

But who knows how many of these (subjects and artists) will survive the test of time? The great portraits of the past by Bronzino, Rembrandt, Holbein, Velasquez, where the sitter’s character has been captured and one can see an actual person under the elaborate dress, provide a powerful human connection that transcends the intervening centuries. These artists are the best of the best and we do, first and foremost, admire their skill. But there is always curiosity about the sitters. What was life like for them? At least they have an audience. In my travels through thrift shops and antique malls, I often see discarded portraits and always feel a pang for these people whose likeness, in the end, no one wanted.


Sunday, June 30, 2013

Earth Elegy



Sebastião Salgado's Genesis presents a world: land, animals, peoples, as they have looked for eons, untouched by the effects of modern industrialization. These are both extraordinarily beautiful images in terms of composition, tonality and subject and incredibly powerful ones as well. We know the back story: the melting ice caps, the slaughtered elephants, the rape of the land occurring on all the continents on earth and our hearts bleed.

I don't know why Salgado's images affected me so much more than say, a Natural Geographic spread, but I'm thinking it's the black and white medium, the size, although they're not all large format and the sheer number on display. But whether they're the tribesmen of Papua New Guinea (who demonstrate with their leaves, feathers, mud and attitude that fashion and style are basic human qualities), or the tender image of mother and baby gorilla whose soulful eyes seem so very not that different from our own, the leopard regarding the viewer warily from across a watering hole, the terrified charging elephant, the jaw dropping scenery of Brazil, Canada, Alaska or the Nenet people of Siberia who have thrown their lot in with the reindeer migrating seasonally across vast expanses of ice, we know each and every one of them is threatened.


Thursday, May 23, 2013

Dazzle Coloration


I have never been interested in wearing camouflage. I can’t get beyond the idea of its martial implications. That said, I remember reading somewhere that Harris tweeds from Scotland were often woven with the idea of camouflaging the wearer out stalking game. I have a particularly vivid Harris tweed coat I picked up years ago in a second hand store—bright yellow and orange with dashes of red and gray. I realized during a spring visit to Ireland where the hills were ablaze with blooming gorse how well the coat would blend in to such a setting.

The subject of a small but fascinating show at the National Sporting Library and Museum in Middleburg, Virginia naturalist painter, Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849-1921), devoted a great deal of energy to camouflage, a subject he came to by studying animal's use of protective coloration to hide from predators. Along with his son, Gerald, Thayer produced a major book entitled Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom: An Exposition of the Laws of Disguise Through Color and Pattern; Being a Summary of Abbott H. Thayer’s Disclosures in 1909.

The show begins with some paintings of ducks on the water that are really beautiful. You can see how Thayer was playing around with the ducks, semi-disguising them. They have an almost fractured quality as if they’ve been broken up in to color sections to echo the leaves, reflections and lily pads around them. These are rich, immensely satisfying works in terms of color, light and application of paint. There’s also a stunning painting of a path through a stand of trees: a study of light and shadow described with dramatic brushstrokes. Thayer began his love affair with nature painting, and particularly birds, from a young age. There were several watercolors on view done when he was a child—a particularly lovely one of different colored eggs.

Early on, Thayer established a link between an animal’s ability to blend into its surroundings and military camouflage. Beginning in 1910 he actively promoted his ideas, producing precise, beautifully rendered dioramas and numerous watercolors pertaining to concealment techniques appropriate to naval situations. In the latter case, it was not so much concealment as sleight of hand, since on the high seas it’s impossible to hide a ship. The alternative was to visually confuse the enemy, using what Thayer referred to as “dazzle coloration,” thus obscuring the actual size and shape of the vessel. Because torpedos were slow to hit their target and were aimed to where the ship was headed rather than where it was, this “shape shifting” was an effective strategy.

It’s hard to believe it worked, looking at the ships covered in ostentatious blotches of blue, white and black, but I’ll take his word for it and, in fact, the patterns used on World War II warships have much in common with Thayer’s designs.

But at the onset of World War I, Thayer’s attempts (he even had John Singer Sargent present his camouflage ideas to the British War Office) to get through to the powers that be were largely thwarted. Thayer’s book was reissued in 1918 and still quite possibly had an influence on the development of World War I camouflage. Even so, in addition to his work as a wildlife painter of particular insight and sensitivity, Thayer is nowadays considered the father of camouflage.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Sir Alfred J. Munnings


I had always thought of Sir Alfred J. Munnings (1878-1959) exclusively as the portraitist of the upper class on horseback. His Mrs. Ronald Tree on Blue Ridge (1925) was what stuck in my mind. It’s a real period piece. A chic, but rather staid portrait of Mrs. Tree (Nancy Lancaster, née Langhorne) accompanied by her son on a pony and a lurcher riding through the elegant grounds of Ditchley Park. So I was quite blown away by the exhibition of Munnings’s work at The National Sporting Library and Museum in Middleburg, Virginia.

Certainly there are the equine pictures, but there are also early pastoral scenes of the English countryside whose light and liveliness recalls the work of Winslow Homer. I was struck by Munnings’s deft use of pigment and the extraordinary animation of his brushwork—such confidence and skill.

Among the paintings of riders and horses are two of Florence Munnings, the artist’s first wife. The earlier one, a gorgeous, lushly painted work, shows her riding in the woods, she’s wearing a scarlet redingote and stylish panama. The light is dappled the sun is bright, but there is also shade. The horse lifts its head to the side, alert as if it has heard something in the underbrush. Munnings achieves a real sense of the experience: the movement of rider and horse, the coolness of the wooded setting, the sparkling spring day. The brushwork used to compose the background and the hind leg of the horse is dazzling.

Across from this painting is another portrait of Florence completed the following year (1914). A much more restrained portrait in terms of style, this time Florence is dressed in a formal black riding habit and appears more serious. She’s riding in open country next to a stone wall. Munnings uses touches of color to describe features in the landscape, daubs of yellow signifying the blooming gorse by the wall or glint of sun in the distance. The subdued quality of the painting becomes more pronounced after one reads that Florence killed herself just months after it was completed. Two years before, on her wedding night she had taken cyanide in a first suicide attempt but was revived. Significantly, according to the wall panel, Munnings who was a prolific diarist never once mentioned her in his journals.

Upstairs is a glamorous portrait of Munnings’s second wife, Violet, standing by her horse. It’s a striking composition with the figure in black against the gray horse with dramatic light raking across them. For all it’s stylish allure, it’s also a tender portrait. The horse bends his head in attentive acquiescence to its mistress who might be nickering at him. The close relationship is reflected in the title, My Horse is My Friend: the Artist’s Wife and Isaac (1922). In addition to being an accomplished horsewoman and easy on the eyes, Violet was also astute, observing of her husband: “He was never such a good artist after he married me. He had establishments to keep up, more expenses to meet. It meant painting for money.”

Paul Mellon is also here astride Dublin, a horse that according to Mellon was as strong as a locomotive and: “could have jumped the Eiffel Tower. I think it is Dublin more than anything else who assured my lifelong addiction to hunting.” From 1933, the painting, though no doubt a valued keepsake for Mr. Mellon, is somewhat lackluster bearing up Violet Munnings’s observation.

Other paintings of note in the show are the striking Above the Wood (1915), which recalls not only Homer but also Hopper in its dramatic light (a quality also present in Violet's portrait), and Tagg’s Island (1919). I was surprised to see the latter was completed hard-on-the-heels of World War I. The carefree gaiety depicted suggested it was pre-war. This painting has a strong George Bellows feel. Munnings captures the individual expressions of the bright young things depicted with great flair. The shimmering Near Langham Pool (1930) records an Arcadian spot revered by Munnings. “From 1919 to 1935 I used to paint there, bathe there, row there, walk there, ride there. To know it was three miles away gave me distinct happiness.” The area was destroyed when it was turned into a pumping station. “No pen could describe what happened to that Arcadia…On still summer nights the sound of it pumping millions of gallons from the river to London can be heard miles away."

Seeing these lively paintings was a revelation. I thought of Violet Munnings words. Too bad her husband was weighed down with financial responsibilities and devoted his time to commissions that blunted his talent. In his early works we see real genius. By contrast, his later works are anemic and bland.