The Easel

26th May 2020

Don McCullin on the stories behind his most personally significant pictures

McCullin grew up in grinding poverty, in working class London. That experience influenced his subjects of choice – wars and social injustice – in an acclaimed career in photography. “Photography is like climbing Everest without oxygen and the weight you’re carrying is a moral, mental weight … [You think] God, I’m having such an exciting, wonderful life,’ but if you think it’s free of charge, it’s not. It’s loaded with penalty.”

The Provocations of Kent Monkman

Kent Monkman, a Cree Nation / Canadian citizen, has had two of his paintings hung in New York’s Met. Good, one might think – recognition of an artist and of the terrible treatment of indigenous peoples. Some think otherwise, worrying that mainstream artworld success compromises art advocacy of indigenous causes. Frets this writer, can indigenous art avoid being “overwhelmed by the historical context”?

The Ricotta Eaters by Vincenzo Campi

One of art criticism’s many forms is the forensic scrutiny of a single work. This essay is a nice example. “Campi’s peasants … guzzle their ricotta with open mouths and happily signal their base origins with their teeth. The old boy second from the right is … darker than the rest. That makes him the poorest. And if you look at the big lump of ricotta in front … it forms the shape of a skull. The mad ricotta eating has brought death to the table.”

Susan Rothenberg’s Rugged Paintings Made Her One of Today’s Most Fearless Artists

For her first show in 1975 Rothenberg produced figurative works … of horses. It caused a sensation in abstraction–obsessed New York and launched her career. But why horses? They didn’t come from an art theory idea, just her intuition. A reviewer of Rothenberg’s just-finished show comments that her horses are like cave art, “fundamentally ambiguous”. Ascribing meaning is the viewer’s task and as Rothenberg noted, “they getcha or they don’t.”

Why the Association of Art Museum Directors’s move on deaccessioning matters so much

Should museums sell (deaccession) artworks to fund operations? Some see this as a museum neglecting its duty of care toward its collection. Now an American museum body has dropped its long-standing opposition to the practice because many museums are in financial crisis. No-one seems ready to lay down arms on this debate; the writers pointedly suggesting that museum professionals “put down their cups of Kool-Aid”.

19th May 2020

Nicolaes Maes: Dutch Master of the Golden Age

Maes had Rembrandt for a teacher and Vermeer as a contemporary. How could he not be overshadowed? Still, he had accomplishments. Maes innovated in genre painting, deftly inserting a narrative into images of middle-class domesticity. And then he moved on, to (more lucrative) portraits. Not Vermeer, who saw untapped potential in what Maes had been doing. The rest, as they say, is history.

Sarah Sze: The Importance of Impossible Ideas

A bit cerebral, but interesting too. Sze calls herself a sculptor but uses multiple media in her vast, elaborate installations. In many of them she juxtaposes physical objects and digital images to explore how images impact our perceptions of the physical world. “What the digital does in many ways … is it creates a kind of longing. That is very much how the web operates: around a

Winning Hand

New York Interior (1921) is Hopper par excellence – calm, focused on the commonplace. What makes it a favourite of the writer? “It’s a painting that … takes great bother to extend the tradition of Velazquez and Vermeer – oil painting as a portal to serenity and stillness, to inner life. It has something to do, I think, with the absent needle and thread and with an idea of repair. And it has to do, I feel sure, with people … unseen… unknown.”

Midcentury artist Lenore Tawney offered a radical vision of what weaving could be

In weaving, the grid of warp and weft threads literally holds everything together. Quotidian items like placemats show how this structure can limit the final form. Lenore Tawney had grander ambitions. Technical ingenuity, artistic innovation and her “singular devotion” led to “woven forms” that redefined the limits of weaving. Some “looser, more expressive” works resemble abstract paintings; others “trespass into the realm of sculpture”.

The greats outdoors: How Thomas Cole shaped the American landscape

1830’s America was slowly evolving into a distinct society. Cole, founder of the Hudson River School, is now seen as the first identifiably American landscapist. His masterpiece, The Oxbow, expresses a young nation’s optimism. It’s panoramic valley and sunlit plains, unmarked by “old” European civilisations, shows “an American Arcadia, all neatly tended fields, careful husbandry, peace and prosperity”.

The Burning Purity of Zarina Hashmi

Zarina’s family was ravaged by the partition of India and Pakistan. That anguished process gave her oeuvre its focus – a contemplation of home and “in-betweenness”. Memory, she wrote “is the only lasting possession we have”. Her austere monochromatic aesthetic resembles minimalist abstraction, but is “resolutely rooted in the Indo-Persian tradition … step wells, niches and arches”. Images are here.

Luchita Hurtado’s Persistent Perspective

This show, acclaimed in London, has been cut short in Los Angeles. It gives the reviewer space to considering Hurtado’s own arduous story. She was in her 50’s before identifying as an artist and yet more decades before any acknowledgement from the art establishment. Has being female cursed her art career? “[Its been] an obstacle but also a source of insight and even artistic liberation … seclusion allowed Hurtado to create art unencumbered.”