The Easel

30th May 2023

Liu Xiaodong with Barry Schwabsky

Liu’s neo-realist paintings are large scale, unidealized, renditions of people and places. He chooses a town about which he knows little and, after getting to know the place, chooses subjects pretty much at random. This “casual” approach yields portraits that are impartial yet also empathetic. Liu claims he doesn’t “wish to investigate and tell some truth about a place”. Except, perhaps he does anyhow – in the face of modernization, these are portraits of “local ways of life”.

Are We Asking Too Much of Public Art?

A statue of a female has been installed atop a New York courthouse. A blessed relief to the ubiquitous patriarchal statuary, right? No, say some advocates for womens’ rights because it insufficiently “interrogates the concept of justice”. So how do we judge a piece of public art? “Public art often reflects our values, but also demonstrates the limits of our civic imagination. Our culture is too bound to the idea of the static, unchanging hero. What if we made no public monuments to people?”

Morocco’s Iconic New Wave: The Casablanca Art School

North African art can boast its own modernist heritage. Six years after Morocco’s independence in 1956, an art school opened in Casablanca. It aimed to build post-colonial artistic traditions spanning both art and design. While not immune to Western influences, the school developed a signature style – highly coloured abstract works incorporating Berber and Islamic designs. These tangibly expressed the founder’s dictum, “tradition is the future”.

Rosemarie Trockel’s Disquieting Puzzles

Two things are true. Trockel is one of Germany’s most important conceptual artists. Secondly, to look at her works is to “enter the ranks of the bewildered”. Her sculptures, collages, ceramics and knitted works “delight in paradox” and offer “subtle social critiques”. However, they are difficult to decipher and so various that there is no apparently dominant aesthetic trajectory. “Little consistency = little comprehension = sparse grounds for evaluation. What’s a critic to do?”

Tate Britain’s Rehang: A Zombie Social Art History

Social and economic factors help our understanding of older art, although most agree that art is about more than just social history. But where to strike the balance? A re-hang of Tate Britain’s collection sparks an acrimonious debate on that issue. One critic calls the result a “hectoring history lesson”. The above writer is equally annoyed.  The rehang “[insists] on turning art into a cipher for social history, into illustrations for a contemporary version of what Britain might have been about”.

23rd May 2023

Centennial Celebration: Ellsworth Kelly’s Infinite Ideas

It was in postwar Paris that Kelly developed his style – simplified natural shapes painted in brilliant colours. At first, New York wasn’t swept away. After his first solo show he “felt embarrassed, I had to apologise for using bright colours”. Gradually though, these contemplative works – “pure” exercises in colour, line and shape – conquered all.  His works were not about nature, he said, but rather “fragmented perceptions of things … to get at the rapture of seeing”.

Supreme Court sides against Andy Warhol Foundation in copyright infringement case

When is it fair to copy the work of another artist? In a much-anticipated decision, the US Supreme Court has ruled that the Warhol Foundation infringed copyright in their use of a Prince photograph. Some think the decision may limit the “fair use” exemptions to licensing requirements, thus restricting artists’ freedom. A dissenting Justice objected “it will stifle creativity of every sort. Creative progress unfolds through use and re-use. The Court has turned its back on how creativity works”.

Gwen John Connecting With London And Paris

A retrospective is forcing revisions to the standard Johns biography. Pigeonholed as Rodin’s lover and sister to the flamboyant Augustus John, she was clearly much more. She chose art and a socially active life in Paris over motherhood’. There, she found recognition and patronage. Interiors, perhaps with a solitary female figure, were a favourite subject, showing her mastery of mood, balance and transient light. She is now considered a more significant artist than brother Augustus.

An introduction to 19th-century China

China’s epic history, spanning millennia, arguably surpasses all others. A London show of the last century of dynastic rule tells the story of a ruling elite brought undone by internal weakness, disaffected subjects and predatory foreigners. What remains are exquisite objects, “staggering” images and quotidian household effects that describe the wide span of life under the Manchu dynasty. A review of the show is here; other background essays are here.

The Curious Case of the Transcendental Painting Group

Transcendental Painting Group briefly appeared in early 20th century US. Have they been wrongly ignored? Possibly. It seems they offended influential art critics with their “kooky” ideas. However, their work has a quality of “internal coherence” that is shared by all good art. They show that “art can be deep without being aloof … this is a “gold mine of very good—and very novel—paintings.”