The Easel

16th January 2018

A Disastrous Damien Hirst Show in Venice

As the hubbub about the Venice Biennale dies down a critic revisits the Damien Hirst show. “[U]ndoubtedly one of the worst exhibitions of contemporary art staged in the past decade … ultimately snooze-inducing”. Hirst is presumably unfazed by this.  “[T]he collector class really, really loves it” and, for many works, have snapped up “the “coral” edition, the “treasure” edition, and the “copy edition.” [Editor: in December it was reported that Hirst sold over $330m of his works from this Venice show]

The Outside-In Art of Grayson Perry

“Popularity,” says Perry “is a serious business.” Via his art and associated media activity, he has become a popular – and astute – social commentator on contemporary Britain. So why does he irk some critics? Is it art world anxiety that popularity denotes a lack of seriousness? Or is it that Perry, a potter, wants to show that “craft is also “art,” and that it belongs to us all.”  More images are here.

These Four Painters Won’t Be Ignored Any Longer

London’s Lisson Gallery made its name by championing unfashionable modern artists. Fifty years later, it is still at it. A new show gathers four such overlooked artists, eliciting the writer’s wholehearted approval. “One gets tired of seeing the same combinations repeatedly. It is like eating in a parody of a Chinese restaurant from the 1950s, where there is only one item in column A and one in column B.”

Colour is Meaning

Acclaimed photographer William Eggleston has a “vernacular” style and “mundane” subject matter – not the hallmarks of great photography. Why then is he so special? A big part of the answer, says Morgan Meis, is the way Eggleston uses colour to communicate meaning. “It’s the dress. The green dress pulls the picture from the realm of cliché into something much harder to define. A natural green, tattered dress is what we might expect of a ‘documentary style’ photograph … Instead, Eggleston captured the dress of someone going to a party. It is the green of someone showing off. This study in green is therefore a study of a color at war with itself. Green is the color of nature here. But it is also the color of anti-nature. Green is a rural color. But it’s also the color of artifice, a link to the urbanity that hovers, unexpectedly, just outside the frame of this photograph.”

This painting might be sexually disturbing. But that’s no reason to take it out of a museum

Balthus had a thing about adolescent girls. Amid the furor about sexual abuse and #MeToo, should New York’s Met comply with a petition and take down an apparently lascivious work? Definitely not, according to this writer. Art is full of sexual imagery. “The danger in the wings is a new Puritanism … The challenge now is to define codes of behavior without throwing out the maps that got us to the place we are now.”

Gordon Parks: Collected Works Study Edition

Parks was one of America’s most celebrated photographers of the last century. Starting out as a self-employed society photographer in Chicago he then joined the Farm Security Administration where his images of social injustice carried a distinguishing lyrical aesthetic. A decades-long career at Life magazine showcased a vastly broad talent that included writing and, after Life, film directing. Multiple images are here.

Alice Neel, Collector of Souls

Despite being enmeshed in New York’s art world Neel’s style was immune to its famous art movements. Right from her earliest work she viewed herself as a realist painter, one without an agenda. Her emotionally insightful portraits, including those of pregnant women, now underpin a lofty reputation.  She observed “if I hadn’t been an artist, I could have been a psychiatrist.” A video (5 min) is here and images here

26th December 2017

Why Would Anyone Pay $450 Million for the ‘Salvator Mundi’? Because They’re Not Buying the Painting

Before reading the story, watch this video clip of the auction (7 min). It really is something! One expert hailed the sale as vindication of the Old Masters market. True, but surely it’s a bigger deal than that. “It’s like taking your dog out for its regular morning walk only for it to be snatched off the street by a pterodactyl. This was not just an acquisition. This was arguably the greatest socioeconomic flex the arts have ever seen”.

Matisse in the Studio review: Inside Matisse’s mind

Matisse, like Picasso and others, found inspiration from his studio – his world within a world. “[My] state of soul”, he said, “is created by the objects that surround me”. However he did not simply reproduce the interior of his studio on the Cote d’Azur. “He was a great ruthless violator of normal appearances. [This show gives] a really good lesson in what makes a Matisse a Matisse.” More images are here

“How to See the World Properly”: An Interview About Jasper Johns

A companion piece to Morgan Meis’ recent Gallery Essay.

The Royal Academy of Arts landmark survey of Jasper Johns work, “Something Resembling Truth”, was co-curated by Roberta Bernstein, a personal friend of Johns.  Johns has said about his work “I have no ideas about what the paintings imply about the world. I don’t think that’s a painter’s business.” Morgan recently interviewed Roberta about this famously elusive artist.

“He is a complex man and his art is challenging. The understanding of a painting as a real object occupying space was so vividly conveyed [by Painting with Two Balls (1960)] and made me think about art in a new way. [Johns] is, I think, struggling with (and also fascinated by) the impossibility of fixing meaning or meanings. He’s more interested in how the mind … constructs meaning.”

The Many Faces of John Berger

The art critic and writer, John Berger, died on January 2. Many standard obituaries don’t clearly explain his stellar reputation. The linked piece, a review of Berger’s last book, does better. “Berger doesn’t view art history as something that happened, rather as something that continues to happen. [He] decides to firmly root himself in the present and focus on why a particular artwork …appeals to us today”.

Andrew Wyeth and the artist’s fragile reputation

It is curious that a retrospective to mark the centenary of Andrew Wyeth’s birth is not travelling to a big east coast US city, despite its likely popularity. Clearly disagreements about Wyeth continue. This writer offers a truce. “I believe he fits into a larger tradition of modernist creativity that goes beyond the medium of painting. His influence … has been most important in poetry, literature and film making.”

Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave review – the mastery simply amazes

The writer seems awe-struck by this London show. Hokusai felt his art developed as he aged – he was over 70 when he produced “The Great Wave”. His technical mastery and a focus on everyday life helped make his art globally influential – Degas and Monet both owned his prints. “[The] technical mastery of the woodblock print, so intractable, simply amazes.  Nothing visible or invisible is beyond his art’s reach.”

Image: Metropolitan Museum

GALLERY ESSAY: Is The Painting Counting?

When Jasper Johns was starting out abstract expressionism reigned supreme, asking ‘big’ questions like ‘what does painting do’. Johns had different interests, painting mundane objects like flags. Such paintings, argues Morgan Meis, are elusive. “.. if I paint the number ‘2’ on a canvas, have I brought that number into existence? Is the painting now a ‘2’? Or is it a painting of a ‘2’?

Art does not uncover what is hidden, or resolve itself into clear, declarative statements – this means this, that means that. Rather, in art, meaning is a glimpse of reality, like something seen through a periscope. Periscope (Hart Crane), is not a puzzle to be solved. It is, in the end, a simple painting composed of simple images. Yet those images are resonant with metaphors of the sea, of depths, of longing, loss, secrets and the mystery of meaning.”

A major retrospective of the American artist Jasper Johns, “Something Resembling Truth” has just opened at the Royal Academy of Arts. This essay is reproduced with the permission of the Royal Academy and Morgan Meis.