The Easel

20th October 2020

Essay: Abnormal / Normal: the art of Cao Fei

Does contemporary Chinese art express a sensibility that is uniquely Chinese? Morgan Meis uses this perspective to look at the art of Cao Fei, the acclaimed multimedia artist. Some critics think her beguiling work draws on a Western aesthetic. No, says Morgan, its not that simple. She is expressing what it means to live amidst constant change.

“Cao Fei came to be Cao Fei in the bewildering landscape of a massive city of manufacturing and trade that was completely reinventing itself. She is aesthetically fascinated with the creation of a new normal. She is interested in the new normal as a matter of fact, not as a diagnosis or proclamation. Who would have predicted that [new mega-factories] would look and feel exactly like this?”

The Real Richard Avedon

Avedon craved art world respect but faced an array of prejudices – photography was a “bastard medium”; studio images were “less serious” than street photography. Eventually, his “visually radical” portrait photography conquered all. “His signature portrait style, the formality of a straight-on figure against a white backdrop, sober expression is … not only a document, but a monument of that individual”.

In memoriam: Enzo Mari (1932-2020)

Mari was nothing if not unconventional. He skipped secondary school in favour of street peddling, before later studying fine arts. An avowed communist, he wanted his designs to be affordable but also interesting for workers to make. Chairs, household products and DIY furniture all brought him acclaim, and a reputation as an uncompromising critic of poor design. Said one peer – “He’s a genius. Grumpiest man on the planet”. Images are here.

In love with the Louvre

The Louvre has had a charmed existence. Competent early administrators; spared the wrath of various rebellious mobs; the beneficiary when French armies “looted with terrific taste”; and the Mona Lisa. Visitors enjoy “enormity and intimacy, unequalled by any other gallery”. The collection is old, which serves to illustrate “how constant taste is’. And the Louvre is nothing if not constant: “The continuity the Louvre represents is the continuity of the French state.”

Recollected works – ‘Howard Hodgkin: Memories’, reviewed

How might one paint fleeting sensations and memories? With great deliberation, in the case of Hodgkin. By mid-career, when many of these works were made, he was resourceful at deploying painterly tricks – characteristic marks, deft handling of paint, “sensuous” brushstrokes, “flamboyant” colours. When all these came together Hodgkin was able to reveal his true preoccupation, the “evasiveness of reality”.

Corita Kent’s Politics of Printmaking

Becoming a nun didn’t deflect Kent from her interest in art. She was teaching printmaking when, in 1962, she saw a show of Warhol’s soup can images. It impacted her art which became a distinctive mix of text, colour and images, deployed to promote her political views. Being an activist ‘pop artist nun’ didn’t win many fans in her church but public acclaim was more emphatic and re-emerges sporadically, most recently in fashion.  A good backgrounder is here.

As immersive art goes, nothing competes with Berghain

Located in a disused Soviet era power station, Berghain is a legendary Berlin techno club and a “temple of hedonism”. With normal operations suspended, it is supporting Berlin artists with a large exhibition of art made during the lockdown. Despite some big-name artists, the art is “swamped by the venue’s charismatic immensity. Inevitably, a tension [emerges] between subcultural vitality and corporate ambition”.

13th October 2020

How Peter Carl Fabergé continues to inspire the Fabergé brand even 100 years after his death

When Peter Fabergé took over the family business in 1882, he raised its artistry and craftsmanship to astonishing levels. His Imperial Eggs reflect the elegance of St. Petersburg’s Belle Époque society and almost flaunt their mastery of guilloché, a fiendishly difficult enamelling technique. Just as spectacularly, they demonstrate Fabergé’s own inventiveness and exquisite taste. Little wonder he enjoyed that most precious thing – the Tsar’s carte blanche.

The National Gallery offers a powerful but partial view of transgression

In the sixth century, Pope Gregory helpfully listed seven deadly sins. Are they still deadly? Sinfulness these days carries mild connotations – a second helping of chocolate cake. Most religious concepts of sin which permeate European art history no longer resonate. A London show reveals a single exception: the one such concept that resonates as much as ever is the scapegoat.

Robert Kobayashi at Susan Inglett Gallery

Kobayashi was a charming figure in New York’s art world. After trying painting, he began using strips of tin and nails to make portraits, still lifes and sculptures. The results were somewhat akin to pointillist paintings. Kobayashi avoided gallery representation and attention from critics was therefore sporadic. He put his whimsical works in a shopfront of his studio building; the neighbours complained if new pieces were slow to appear.

The art of the kimono

For something quintessentially Japanese, the kimono has a surprisingly eclectic history. Indian cotton was the sought-after kimono fabric in the early 17th century. Later came French brocade. When Japan fully opened to trade in 1853, a fascination with Western tastes saw male demand for the garment collapse. Still, the kimono remains distinctive. Rather than accentuating body curves, it is “all surface”, perfect for flaunting expensive fabric and designs.

Nazi art on show: Is Germany ready to look again?

Should we separate art from the deeds/misdeeds of the artist? What about art the Nazi’s commissioned from favoured artists? It’s a dilemma facing German museums, some of whom have extensive holdings of Nazi sponsored art. There is no clear public consensus on the matter, something that might be progressed by exhibiting the works. Procrastination looks tempting: the “younger generation … [has] a more neutral approach to the topic”.

How Caravaggio destroyed (and saved) painting

In praise of the emotional expressiveness of the Baroque and one of its stars, Caravaggio. Commissioned in 1600 to produce three paintings for a Rome church, he “shattered Renaissance wholeness, clarity and abstruse optical effects … [with] a new, unideal naturalism. The Baroque feels vital now in the way it refuses to accept … rule-bound theoretical art and instead probes deeper into the core of lived experience.”

A brief history of colour photography

Afficionados of colour photography will want more. For others, this piece usefully surveys who did what. Once Kodak developed Kodachrome film, pioneers in colour photography emerged. Some names are unfamiliar – Haas, Leiter, Christenberry. Eggleston looms large, widely seen as the person whose colour saturated images define the field. Missing is Vivian Maier whose reputation is skyrocketing, despite only recently being discovered (The Easel, Sept. 8).