The Easel

24th November 2020

The Metropolitan Museum at a Hundred and Fifty

After a lengthy shutdown, the Met’s 150th anniversary show has re-opened. One reviewer states the obvious – it is the world’s best encyclopaedic museum. The linked piece is a more personal reaction. “Starchy conservatism” has weakened some areas but accommodated superb collections elsewhere, like decorative arts. The result is a “levelling effect … a relative deflation of major art, as a consequence of [paintings] having been made to compete.”

Dana Schutz: Shadow of a Cloud Moving Slowly

Schutz was embroiled in a fierce 2017 controversy over her painting of the black victim of racial violence. That experience seems not to have hindered her art. New paintings portray grotesque “uglies” in lurid colour, some engaged in frenzied action. These are works that provide information but seem to want the viewer to “finish the painting”. To summarise this complex work, the reviewer clutches at a phrase – “grotesque realism”.

Toulouse-Lautrec and the Masters of Montmartre

Posters perfectly suited an urbanizing Paris with its cabaret entertainments and new department stores. Bonnard and Toulouse-Lautrec were but two artists to see an opportunity for cash and public exposure. However, the explosive growth of posters was due to more than a few exceptional artists. They were seen as democratic, an expression of street culture, art of “the best kind, mixed in with life, art without any bluffing or boasting”.

The Secret of the Unicorn Tapestries

Woven around 1500, the Unicorn Tapestries are one of the world’s greatest artworks. Seven tapestries in all, each at least 12 feet square and woven in wool, silk and metal thread, they display medieval mythology in sumptuous detail. Uncertainty about meaning only adds to their appeal. Perhaps the celebration of a marriage, or training aids for French courtiers? “It is alluring and elusive like the unicorn itself”. A Met video (30 min) is here.

A New Book Traces the Global Origins of Abstract Art

In the 1950’s, abstraction was seen not just as another art movement, but art’s most perfect expression. That view is now discredited. So, how do we make sense of abstract art? A new book argues that it is based on our experience of the real world – bodies, landscapes, the cosmos. If we are truthful, we should admit there is no such thing as pure form: “abstraction is a form of representation.”

17th November 2020

The Case for Embracing Uncertainty in Art

The American artist Ed Ruscha memorably said that good art makes us go “Huh? Wow”, while bad art makes us say “Wow, Huh?” Uncertainty, in other words, is an inherent part of looking at art. There is no definitive truth about an artwork, because “truth” varies from individual to individual. Great art “rewards different interpretations as the world changes around it”.

Theaster Gates Blends Art and Activism in a Powerful New Show at Gagosian

Gates has been called “the poster boy for socially engaged art.” Many reviews of his solo show thus hesitate about where to look – his art works or his dazzling social activism. His paintings, made with humble building materials, seem craft-like. Comments Gates, “who divides the highbrow from the commonplace”? An exhibition that “celebrates the handmade, the tactile, and the community is a welcome breath of fresh air.” A video on Gates’ art is here.

Rashid Johnson: Waves

The complexity of Johnson’s collages and mosaics has led some to accuse him of being “opaque”. His new show has a pandemic vibe with its “smeary, staring faces”, painted in “anxious red”. Are these the faces of people looking for an escape? Or are they our screen-obsessed selves “as we binge-watch our way through a global pandemic? … if there is any greater, deeper meaning in the work, I find myself too distracted by all the superficial, extraneous detail to see it.”

Antony Gormley: why sculpture is far superior to painting

What came first, sculpture or language? Gormley, a sculptor, suggests sculpture, because “touch and recognition” are central to human nature. Gormley then mounts a bigger claim – sculpture, “a form of physical thinking … is the pre-eminent art. Sculpture asks the world to stand aside and give it a place, whereas painting … [is] weak; it needs a stretcher, a wall, a building — it needs shelter.” A video is here.

How a Mary Wollstonecraft statue became a feminist battleground

“Epic” levels of derision are being heaped on a new London statue of the feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft. “The visual charisma of a doorknob” is a polite example. One critic questions why, if the idea was to create an “everywoman” image, the figure has “shredded abs”. At least part of the problem is that there is no agreement about what we want public art to do. Says a beleaguered organiser “The shit we’ve had is off the scale.”