The Easel

4th May 2021

Easel Essay: Arthur Jafa’s swing

Jafa was a fringe figure in the art world when, in 2016, he made the video Love is the Message, The message is Death. Its reputation steadily grew. Last year, it was streamed simultaneously by 13 international museums. Wow! Morgan Meis considers why a seven minute video has made Jafa a major art world figure.

“We’ve been taught how swinging works in music for more than a hundred years. One way to look at Love is the message is to see it as an attempt to … make visual images swing. Swing takes it for granted that how you get from A to B matters just as much as that you get from A to B. [Jafa’s] curation and editing of a bunch of short video clips expresses a deeper aesthetic … that is completely particular and completely universal at the same time.”

The cardboard cannabis lab: Thomas Demand’s beautifully deceptive realities

Demand’s work sneaks up on you. His large scale photographs, seemingly of “real life”, actually show meticulously constructed models of the real thing. Why models? Because they are so pervasive – “computer-generated images, video games … the weather forecast, pension plans. [Models are] a completely overlooked cultural technique.” So, what is reality, disorderly real life or the tidy models we use to make decisions?

The art world knew him as Eli. How Broad was friend and foe to museums

Broad gave generously of his time and money and was instrumental in making Los Angeles a major art destination. Yet his obituaries expose the ambiguities of philanthropy. Large scale philanthropy can create enduring public benefits but, from Broad, it came with a propensity to meddle. Is that any worse than the situation of public museums, blessed with deep collections but hamstrung and exhausted by limited public funding?

Antwaun Sargent’s Guide on How to Really Look at Art

The great critic Robert Hughes said that art requires the “long look”. Sargent’s advice is a variant on that theme. Start with a “pure experience” of the work. “Move away from five second judgements”. Read the wall text to understand the curator, try to put the work in its cultural context. But mostly, just look … and then look some more.

Obscura No More

A potted history of photography. For its first century, photography stuttered along in aesthetic terms until Warhol and Rauschenberg blurred the line between art and photography. Since then the tsunami of mass media imagery has arrived, allowing photography to shed its “separate-but-not-quite-equal status”. No one now thinks that its images need be literal. It is accepted as “a medium not just for making pictures but also for making meaning.”

27th April 2021

The light fantastic

Turrell reveals previously unknown details of his 45-year project, Roden Crater, situated in a dormant volcano in the Arizona desert. It will comprise a series of tunnels and chambers each of which will “capture celestial light”. It won’t be your standard museum – “Guests will be encouraged to wake before dawn and walk to a small pool, and swim through an underwater passage to a larger pool … [where they can] watch the desert sun rise over a watery horizon.”

Archie Brennan At Dovecot Studios Edinburgh. – Shockingly Overdue!

Archie Brennan achieved local prominence as a body builder but global prominence as “the most significant tapestry weaver of the 20th century”. Believing that tapestry had become “imitative” he set out to re-establish its “long-established graphic pictorial role”. Taking inspiration from mass media his woven images were important early examples of Pop art. Said he, “the artist who is a weaver is still an artist”.  Images of some key works are here.

Getty Villa reopens with ancient treasures from the Louvre

The Getty gives three solid reasons for paying attention to the art of Mesopotamia. That civilization invented the city, monarchy and writing, so its art speaks to many modern concerns. Obviously sophisticated craftsmanship testifies to ancient desires to decorate and to commemorate. Soon enough poetry emerged, and public art … and of course, the desire of rulers to portray themselves as wise and powerful. How contemporary!

How One Photographer Covered the Unfolding of the Pandemic

A prominent US photographer and his editor discuss their coverage of the pandemic. The images showcase the narrative power of photography while the discussion reveals decisions about the ethics and aesthetics of portraying illness and death. “I didn’t really know what to prepare for, emotionally or visually. I always asked [doctors] What is important for the public to see? … [But] what if that were my father or my mother?”

Chaos magic

When does an art trend become a “school”? In the 1930’s, a group of American painters adopted “magic realism”, an exact representational style. Was this just surrealism by a different name? Its supporters say no – these artists were not interested in the subconscious mind but rather the “strangeness of the human condition”, in particular “a profound sensation of aloneness”. Whether this differentiates magic realism from surrealism is probably a matter of taste.

Ancient Chinese Jade, to Soothe the Soul and Restore Perspective

Appreciation for an exhibition of ancient jade at a specialist New York gallery. Jade, a hard stone, requires laborious (expensive) carving. This, plus its exceptional colouration, made it the pinnacle of Chinese decorative arts and “the foremost of imperial gems”. Some pieces were intended as burial items. Others, notably carved bi discs, were symbols of the cosmos and displayed on altars. Overall, “they pack a punch”.