The Easel

28th May 2019

Manga at the British Museum review — much in common with Michelangelo

With manga, Japan elevated “the modern graphic art of storytelling”. Manga is now widely influential in Western culture. Pictures dominate text and “the range of pictorial invention on display … is staggering.” Not all the stories are about superheroes: “Manga has become ubiquitous in Japanese daily life precisely because daily life is so often its subject.” A beginners guide is here.

The Puzzle of Beauty

Defining beauty is an old debate. Is it the property of an object or an expression of individual subjective judgement? Kant argued that beauty was a subjective judgement that had “universal validity”. Contemporary ideas include the notion of a “mutual realisation that unfolds between us and the object of our attention. Beautiful things … have the effect of ‘radically decentering’ us.”

Critique of Inequality Is Aimed in All Directions at the 2019 Whitney Biennial

The Whitney Biennial aims high – to profile “relevant and important” American art. As you might expect, it can’t satisfy everyone. Increased diversity of artists represented gets applause. From there, complaints. For one “There’s a lot to like … but there’s not a lot to love.” Another laments an absence of “the irresponsible joy of aesthetic experience”. Images are here.

Luchita Hurtado: I Live I Die I Will Be Reborn @ the Serpentine Sackler Gallery

Hurtado is 98, an active artist, and having her first show at a public museum. Remarkable. Her art has traversed abstraction, surrealism and stylized figuration, frequently portraying her own body.  And, for good measure, a detour through text paintings. “Fabulous … utterly compelling and persuasive” says the reviewer. A conversation between artist and curator is here.

Adrian Ghenie at Venice’s Palazzo Cini declares painting as a vital force

Since Ghenie appeared at the 2015 Venice Biennale, his prices have gone wild. This writer goes all in – “the world’s most exciting painter under the age of 50”. Others are less impressed – “incoherent compositions … assembled gimmicks that don’t add up.”  Aware of the hype, the artist declares “there has to be energy and control”, sounding a bit like a personal trainer at the gym.

The Contrarian Modernism of Fairfield Porter

With his family wealth, Porter could afford to be contrary. New York was agog with boisterous abstraction but, having seen a Bonnard show in Chicago, Porter chose figuration. Landscapes and interiors best showcased his colourist abilities. One interior, a “low key visual symphony” seems to celebrate paint itself; maybe he was “a covert abstractionist after all”.

Framing Time: Guy Tillim’s African Street Photography

African photography is getting more attention, most recently in Paris. Tillim, perhaps Africa’s foremost contemporary photographer, has worked mostly in the post-apartheid era. Weary of images of war or famine that remove “a human drama from its context”, he now focuses on cityscapes. His images convey a sense of “peace … dynamism, yet uncertainty”. Images are here.

21st May 2019

Stop Hating Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons sculptures irk many, perhaps because their “badness is a foregone conclusion”.  This writer pushes back on such views. “He has changed sculpture… reviving it with different materials … brought color into sculpture with a new fierceness and complexity. The beauty of even his best works elicits a visceral, embarrassing object lust. Liking them can feel creepy.”

How I. M. Pei Shaped the Modern City

The obituaries might have one think Pei’s success was inevitable. Not so – modernism was not always an easy sell. His great skill was to find an accommodation between elegant design and local context. Of his Louvre entrance – “there’s more than one way to show deference to history. Instead of competing with the surrounding buildings, the diaphanous pyramid accentuated their age and beauty.”

OK, Cupid?

Vermeer made six “letter” paintings, each showing a girl reading or writing at a desk. Without an explicit narrative, they all have a contemplative, “innate tranquility”. Restoration has now uncovered a prominent Cupid image in one, providing a narrative – “a commentary on an amorous relationship.” Is the painting diminished now it has lost its alluring silence? A video (2 min) is here.

Venice Biennale: Tidy Narratives Come Unstuck

The Biennale is big – very big. Most of the art is in the national pavilions, of which there are 90 or so. For the first time exactly half the artists represented are women. Lithuania won the gong for best pavillion with its tableaux of actors lying on a re-created beach, singing songs. Ghana, a first time participant, is a standout. Common themes are climate change and the plight of refugees.

A Cyborg Couture

It seems we are having a cyborg moment, in fashion and art. The cyborg idea goes back at least to the Dadaists but is newly relevant because of AI and machine learning. Some women artists see in it a potent metaphor for outmoded ideas about submissive femininity. “The cyborg and its utopian fluidity and possibilities posit the most suitable regalia for rising above the [current] dystopia.”

Our Full Attention

Winning the Deutsche Börse prize confirms Susan Meiselas as a great documentary photographer. She is well aware that her images of war raise ethical issues. Are they a “monument to the victims of war” or exploiting those victims’ suffering? This writer opts for the positive: “to look is to familiarise oneself with an ‘other’, that to familiarise is to empathise.”

Surfboards, Skateboards, and the Question of Art

An interesting issue, even if the prose is not exactly lively. Aesthetic practices outside conventional art – graffiti, body art, sand sculptures and more – are still a part of Art. “Any artifact whatsoever can enter the art world”. Regardless of the merits or otherwise of such “wild art”, we should be aware that it is “already a part of our thinking, and how much better off we are for it.”