The Easel

18th February 2020

Easel Essay: A Cook’s tour of the 2019 Turner Prize(s)

The four shortlist nominees for the 2019 Turner Prize requested that the prize be shared equally “in the name of commonality”. “Excited” by this request, London’s Tate complied. More than a few critics are furious. For some it’s the political nature of the art involved. For others, it’s the political correctness of sharing the prize, one describing it “a virtue signal for the snowflake era”.

Amidst the furor, Morgan Meis has managed to remain calm. “To be honest, the debate bores me. I have no problem with the 2019 Turner artists sharing the award. But the unintended consequence of this decision has been that no one talks much about the art.” His short review puts that to rights.

On View at the Getty, 17 Ancient Gems That Are Mini Masterpieces

Last year the Getty acquired 17 engraved gems – intaglios. Now on display, these small objects are “some of the greatest and most famous of all classical gems”. Products of royal workshops of the Greek and Roman empires, their survival is itself miraculous. Some are individually famous with dazzling provenances that go back centuries. “Not simply … fab antique bling [but] tiny Rosetta stones, providing a way to “read” the past”.

21st century paintings is essential viewing at Whitechapel Gallery

The ‘painting is dead’ mantra is seemingly used to help market this show. It’s an unneeded distraction from what is “an ambitious attempt to define the zeitgeist”. Political commentary is frequent, sometimes deft and other times “smug”. The influence of Peter Doig is widely seen. This writer is impressed, calling it a “gripping” show, notwithstanding some grouching about artists left out. (If you cannot get through the FT paywall, an alternative review is here)

Christian Boltanski

Even though Boltanski’s family dodged the Holocaust, death is central to his art. It bothers him that people die without recognition. He often works with the ephemera of life – recordings of heartbeats, obituary photos, lost property. Much of his art tries to “create legends and mythology … It’s not about the object it’s about being aware of its existence.”

“Painting Edo” — Lessons About Art and the Good Society

The Edo rulers didn’t just unify Japan. Their suspicion of external influence brought a greater focus on the country’s own art. A profusion of art styles emerged, some traditional, others (such as Hokusai and his followers) more highly decorative. European art was a muted influence. By 1868 when Edo rule collapsed, there was a modern Japan and, with it, recognizably modern Japanese art. An interesting video (3 min) is here.

Why “Flipping” Art Is so Controversial

A slender argument against flipping? Flipping, the practice of buying and quickly selling art, allegedly destabilises the market for an artist’s work. Whether true or not, this is not the full picture. Price instability often reflects a poorly informed market – due in part to the art market’s chronically opaque practices. Further, the promotion of art as an “asset” has attracted more investors. And what investors do is buy and sell.

An Arch and a Gulf: When Public Art Falls Short of Social Reality

We all support the idea of public art, right? Well, when it works. There are undoubted successes – Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial, Kapoor’s “bean” in Chicago – but plenty of failures too. Public art is an “instrument” for the public good, but what exactly is that and how do we measure it? Aesthetics? Foot traffic? A “renewed sense of place”? If the ingredients for success are so elusive, why fund only from the public purse?

11th February 2020

Desert Empires: Wonders to Behold

The southern edge of the Sahara, the Sahel, is politically turbulent. It was not always thus. For thousands of years it was a prosperous trading area, a centre of learning and the location of multiple empires. Its art was much more diverse than the tribal art many today associate with Africa. This show affirms “the integrity and complexity, past and present, of something called the Sahel … there is no “typical,” no one style, no one “Africa.”

At the ICA, rescuing an art star from the auction frenzy

Spotting a hot new artist is easy – reviews overuse the word ‘amazing’ and fascinate about auction prices. Self is one such artist, having gone from student to ‘somebody’ in about five years. Her work features ‘aspirational representations’ of Black females. Says she “For individuals who have been made to feel marginalized … images, and aesthetics become landmarks for self-identification and self-esteem.” And the auctions? “Tasteless”.

How Radical Was the Italian Design of the 20th Century?

Informative writing without being elegant. Italy’s post-war “economic miracle” created a social backlash. One expression of disaffection was Radical Design, a movement focused on new ideas about how people could live. Outlandish and unwieldy furniture is its key legacy. Amidst a welter of styles, the common theme was to prioritise an object’s ability to communicate an idea above its functionality.

British Baroque — Power and Illusion review: The magnificent emergence of a new political era

After the austerity of Cromwell, Britain opted to restore the monarchy. Welcome the extravagant Baroque! From there opinions diverge. Some critics are not bothered by paintings awash with satin and silk and “outrageous pomp”. Others definitely are bothered: “the art of power, dominance and shagging your cousins. Pompous, over-the-top, ridiculous. Call it royalty, call it parliament, it’s all power, and it’s all ugly.”

What Do We Want History to Do to Us?

More on Kara Walker’s monumental fountain, currently in London. What do we want from public art? “To memorialise”. Yes, but memorialise whom, whose history and which memories? “Public art claiming to represent our collective memory is just as often a work of historical erasure and political manipulation. Monuments are complacent; they put a seal upon the past, they release us from dread.”

The Eternal Glow of Tiffany’s Sacred Glass

As America’s nineteenth century cities grew, churches proliferated. The skyrocketing demand for stained glass windows benefitted, among others, Tiffany. Ecclesiastical windows, infused with American optimism, were the perfect vehicle for his talents – “opalescent coloured glass, glass with embedded inclusions, cut facets, beveling, pressed designs, and scrolling effects, as well as folded glass”.