The Easel

11th August 2020

Nicole Eisenman: Walking Together

Although she made her name in painting, Eisenman’s work has shifted significantly toward sculpture. Like her paintings, her sculptures are mostly figurative – “apocalyptic misfits”, some in abject poses, more that are lumbering forward toward who knows where. Their size and worked surfaces emphasise physicality, expressing Eisenman’s view that painting’s impact is “from the neck up and sculpture … from the neck down.”

Artist Cao Fei on Why We’re “Drifting in the Virtual World Without an Exit”

Cao’s first solo show in a British public museum highlights the diversity of her output. Partly it reflects her curiosity, partly it comes from how rapidly the world is changing. Digitization has transformed jobs and fueled urbanization. People wonder what reality is, and where they belong. Says Cao “villages have transferred into skyscrapers. [We are in] an era full of crises. Panic and chaos may become our new normal”.

George IV: Art and Spectacle an exhibition at the Queens Gallery, Buckingham Palace

King George IV gets awful press – “a bad husband, a bad father, a bad subject, a bad monarch”. Limited redemption comes from his “great, discerning” patronage of the arts. Whether in painting (Gainsborough, Stubbs), architecture (Soane), music or literature (Jane Austen), he facilitated “an astonishingly fecund moment in English cultural history … the last English monarch to leave London more handsome than he found it”.

Activist curators are sharpening the debate on restitution

A topic that refuses to go away. The British Museum holds 900 (!) of the acclaimed bronze sculptures from Benin (now Nigeria). New scholarship casts further doubt on whether they were purchased legally. ‘Legal purchase’ has been the usual defense for holding onto colonial acquisitions. A fallback idea is the “world” museum, one place where everything is together, a concept characterised as “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine.”

Cinga Samson’s Haunting Portraits Honor His South African Community

Samson resists expectations to focus his art on race and poverty. Wary of being “marginalized under the politics”, he wants his portraits to tell stories about “the beautiful black man” in his Cape Town community. He portrays local people in slightly surreal images, equal parts mystical and celebratory. No doubt encouraged by his skyrocketing profile, Samson declares “There’s no better time to be a black person in our history.”

Art in lockdown review

Current gallery shows in London are “the scapings from the back of the oven”. In contrast, online displays have leapt ahead. As ever, some are better than others. Among the national museums, New York’s Met is tops, London’s National Portrait Gallery “disastrous”. Some commercial galleries have surprised with “genuinely interesting” online offerings that are a “valuable resource”. The writer’s podcast on the topic is here.

Hello? The Art of the Phonecall

A pretty essay on the phonecall as a neglected subject of performance art. Notwithstanding video calls and mobiles, the humble landline phone still feels “so vital”. But why? Is it the paradox of feeling so near to a distant person? The possibility that the voice at the other end is not who they say they are? Or simply “a nostalgic evocation of the fumbling, desire-filled chats I used to have on brick phones”.

4th August 2020

Zanele Muholi: Art and activism

Post-apartheid South Africa has significant violence against the black LGBTQ community. Muholi confronts this reality with portrait photography that is widely acclaimed for its beauty and impact. What gives the work its distinction is its duality – simultaneously “mourning and celebrating” black lives. “Most confrontations begin with our faces. And to face the camera is … to make yourself both vulnerable and powerful at once.”

Resilience: Philip Guston in 1971

Guston’s famous switch from abstraction to figuration in 1970, as told by his daughter. After 20 years, abstract expressionism was still commercially successful but he felt it was accompanied by “overwhelming apathy”. His 1970 exhibition greatly divided opinion, one critic describing the cartoonish figures as “Ku Klux Komix”. That critic later recanted, admitting that Guston had given memorable form to unhappy America’s “sense of alienation, post traumatic emptiness”.

The eerie experience of visiting a socially distanced art gallery

Impatient for art galleries to re-open, this writer shares his misgivings when he finally gets to visit. Instead of enjoying their “alluring emptiness” he is filled with doubt. “Everyone is masked, and we avoid each other like repelling magnets. We can’t see each other’s smiles under the face coverings, which creates an air of imagined stand-offishness”. Was this visit a mistake? Rather than supportive, has he been “foolish and selfish”? (He did enjoy the art.)

We can see the true face of Van Eyck Lamb of God after latest restoration

Some may think this piece too technical. For others, it provides a great example of how science aids art history. Van Eyck’s famous Ghent Altarpiece became unexpectedly controversial last year when, at the center of the work, restoration uncovered a human-looking lamb. In fact, three versions of the lamb were found, using advanced X-ray analysis together with “deep neural-network algorithms”. Now art historians are pondering – what was Van Eyck thinking?

How Cancel Culture Made Us Forget the Art of Interpretation

Is ‘cancel culture’ a means of achieving social justice or just mob intimidation? ‘Cancelling’ can be framed as a form of censorship, based on a notion of the self “in need of permanent protection.” It deprives us of different perspectives, including art that demonstrates “the absurdity of the status quo”. Fair criticisms. The push back, of course, is that cancellation is sometimes the only tool available for needed social change.

Are sculpture parks having a moment in the sun?

An appreciation of sculpture parks. Greater diversity of materials has encouraged greater ambition in sculpture. Moving outdoors was logical. Artists relish the challenge of the interplay of light, materials and location. Civic authorities and museums have discovered the popularity of sculpture parks as “outdoor living rooms”. Just the thing when art needs “to be decentralized and dispersed”.  More images are here.

South Africa Is Fast Becoming The African Continent’s Art And Design Capital

Cape Town’s Zeitz Museum, when it opened in 2017, was Africa’s largest contemporary art space. Three years on, has there been the hoped-for growth in opportunities for art in Africa? Art fairs and galleries are reportedly healthy, the market is becoming “more professional” and African art is more visible internationally. Whether Cape Town is the continent’s “art hub” perhaps stretches what otherwise seems well-placed optimism.