The Easel

30th May 2017

Easel Essay: 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.”

Considering Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s Borderless Bodies

Yiadom-Boakye is seemingly a rising star. For some years articles about her have referred to a “growing reputation”. Her work focuses on portraits of imagined characters, not in any particular context and appearing somehow ambiguous. “[H]er paintings are loud, ungovernable things — portrayed are people who defy linear narratives, wildly alive and stubbornly unoccupied by the constraints of identity.”

Be a Somebody: ‘My Perfect Body’ at the Warhol Museum Examined the Artist’s Preoccupation with the Physical

Warhol had self-image issues, the product of skin problems, baldness and being gay. This greatly influenced his art, according to the curator of a recent show: “His connection to Pop art starts with the body. On the surface, it would seem that Andy Warhol’s artistic project was concerned primarily with beauty and celebrity …yet there is conspicuous lack of beauty in Warhol’s work.”

Beneath the paintings of ravishing Raphael

Raphael was one of the great Renaissance painters but as a draftsman he was peerless. Drawing allowed him to experiment and express emotion in a way that painting did not. “[T]he men strain under the palpable weight of the dead body … the Virgin is caught in the act of fainting, while the Magdalene lurches compulsively to touch Christ’s face. Blood streams from his wounds. It is bold, it is startling and it is risky”.

New Marciano foundation proves the potential and the pitfalls of a vanity art museum

If you build a new museum, put in your art collection and open it to the public, it must hurt to see it called a “vanity” project. But is it unfair? The Marciano Art Foundation has just opened in Los Angeles. The collection of contemporary works is “iffy” according to this writer and would benefit from some “deeply informed professional guidance.” Unkind critics also note that the Marcianos’ civic generosity entitles them to tax breaks.

On a Grecian Urn

Around 500BCE an anonymous Athenian artisan – “Berlin Painter” – realized that clay pots could carry realistic painting. With this insight, plus ravishing painting skills, he/she helped create “emotionally expressive graphic art” and is thus regarded as one of the great artists of the ancient world. Sadly artisans in Athenian society were accorded a lowly status – we are not talking Jeff Koons.

Francis Picabia. Zürich and New York

The key works for which Picabia is acclaimed occurred in one decade. But a broader focus across his whole career produces a withering assessment. “The retrospective demonstrated how, depending on his target and on the contingencies of the historical moment, Picabia’s abiding negativity oscillated between the nihilist’s glee in puncturing false optimism and the reactionary’s complicit snigger in the face of horror.”

23rd May 2017

Philadelphia Museum of Art Features Watercolors by Homer and Sargent

Nineteenth century artists regarded watercolour as a medium appropriate for illustrators, and women. But then along came Winslow Homer and John Singer Sergent. They made watercolour “the American medium” and according to one critic “pried a gate open in the national imagination”. That, it seems, was not the only gate opened – one also opened up for women artists. More images are here.

What the Minotaur can tell us about Picasso

Picasso had good reason to revere bulls – his Spanish heritage, his identification with Goya.  So the remains of Knossos, discovered in Crete around 1900, gave Picasso his alter-ego, the half man, half bull Minotaur. “It is a figure that speaks to almost everything he did, both in and out of the studio. His Minotaurs appear in scenes both of rape and of tender eroticism, as monsters and as victims and as heroes.”

A class apart: a new show explores the radical approach of the Bechers and their students

Gursky, Ruff, Struth, Hofer – famous names in photography who all studied under Bernd Becher. Becher and his wife together pioneered an objective style of photography that blurred “the gap between documentation and Minimal Art.” Their students have applied this aesthetic in diverse ways and “completely [overturned] the function, aesthetic, and position of photography as an artistic medium.” More images are here.

How Jean-Michel Basquiat Became The Ultimate American Artist

Writing in 1988 Robert Hughes described Jean-Michel Basquiat as “a small untrained talent caught in the buzz saw of art world promotion”. Last week a Basquiat sold for $110m – the highest price ever for an American artist. Different people read different things into this – revival of the art market, vindication of artists of colour and more. One writer observed “Basquiat’s got fans like Bob Marley’s got fans.”

Huge, diverse and yet monotonous, the Venice Biennale is very like the EU

Perhaps the Venice Biennale has become too big to coherently address a single theme. Even so, critics seem in no mood to be forgiving. Says one “This exhibition fails to say anything new with impressive consistency. What a shame that’s the only impressive thing about it.” The above writer concurs: “The whole affair is so huge, so diverse and yet — in many ways — so monotonous.”

Canaletto and the Art of Venice

Canaletto did “view paintings” of Venice for wealthy tourists doing the Grand Tour. “[H]e remains acutely conscious of the need for a good ‘set’. Crammed into the right-hand side of the painting, the church towers over its surroundings, its facade a riot of columns and warm brown stone. Images do not do this justice: it’s a tour-de-force of architectural painting.” An interview with the curator is here.

Photography Is …

London is trying to break into the photography exhibition business. Now in its third year, Photo London is taking on more established Europe-based fairs, apparently with some success. The linked piece covers the fair itself, while a list of top exhibits – or perhaps it’s a list of top names – is here.