The Easel

11th September 2019

Lions, Lifelines, Speedos: The New Paintings of Peter Doig

Critics tackle the strangeness of Doig’s paintings in different ways. Some think his residency in Trinidad helps explain things. Others muse about his Scottish / Canadian upbringing. Even if his motifs resist explanation, Doig’s use of them is well recognized. “Everything seems ordinary and completely weird at once. It’s a portrait of the quietly inexplicable drama within each human life.”

Sebastião Salgado: Gold

Salgado’s images of a gold mine in the Amazon were instantly famous. The mine had been photographed before, so why were his images special? His then editor thinks the absence of colour helped to highlight an “ideal” version of the male body. Mostly, though, he ascribes it to Salgado’s patience in seeking out images that spoke to his chosen narrative- “the idea of labour, its dignity and its degradation.”

Claim to Fame

Sam McKinniss copies. He takes images from the internet, “emblematic images of pop culture”, and recreates them as paintings. Most revealing are images of the famous – “celebrities are fictional, whatever else they are”. His art “[invests] pieces of the cultural commons with their due grandeur. For me, the best of McKinniss’s paintings express exuberance and dread in equal measure.”

How Kenyan-Born Artist Wangechi Mutu Is Taking Over the Met

The façade of New York’s Met has four niches intended for sculptures. Empty for over a century they are about to be filled with part African, part futuristic female figures, cast in bronze. This is a signal gesture for an august institution attempting to connect with “the new and the global”. With a forgivable touch of exaggeration, the writer declares “an institution founded on … a Eurocentric view of culture is being turned on its head.”

Why has figurative painting become fashionable again?

A nice piece except where the writer tries a bit hard. The argument runs that, coming out of WW2 the figure was “a wreck” but it found new impetus in the desire to “bear witness to … identity’. Well, figurative painting was under siege for decades, both before and after WW2. What has changed, besides curatorial fashions, is a new appreciation of the narrative capabilities of figuration. Want to tell a story about identity? Paint someone.

The buried Nazism of expressionist Emil Nolde

Let the record be clear. Nolde’s anti-Semitic views are well known. His defenders hasten to add that the Nazi’s deemed his art “degenerate”. Perhaps he wasn’t really a Nazi. New research, supported by the Nolde Foundation, reveals his long, full throated support for Nazism. Hitler’s dislike of his work led to its inclusion in the notorious Degenerates exhibition. Himmler, a supporter, had the works removed after one day.

3rd September 2019

Richard Serra Is Carrying the Weight of the World

A critic has suggested that Serra’s minimalist sculptures work primarily via anxiety – the worry of being crushed. If it’s not his “lighter” plate steel works causing the anxiety, it’s his immense forged steel blocks. Serra himself doesn’t seem to connect with this reaction – “deal with the work in and of itself and its inherent properties”, he suggests. True to his word, he notes “this is my heaviest show ever”.

Making the case for late Manet

Art history says there are several Manet’s. The painter of the prostitute Olympia had razor sharp social awareness, whereas the older Manet was “weak and flashy”. Recent scholarship, reflected in an “unusual” Chicago show, disputes this story. Manet was expressing in his late works the same social awareness he showed, decades earlier, with Olympia – an admiration of women with “self-possession”, modern women with agency.

Does Art Restoration Risk Erasing the Past?

Why are art conservators so, well, conservative? Conservation science can offer damaged works new life. Therein lies a profound dilemma. What voice should we give an artwork – one that is blemished but faithful to its moment in history or one that is more attractive but less authentic? Observes one curator (referring to Notre Dame cathedral) “You cannot keep everything … [its] just the course of history”.

Thabiso Sekgala Changed the Way the World Saw South Africa

Sekgala, working after apartheid had been abolished, was interested in its lingering impact on “identity”. Most acclaimed are his images of young people who, like himself, had been displaced by the homelands policy.  “Fences, roadsides and derelict buildings are recurrent motifs … [people] searching for a sense of belonging and protection in a torn landscape, establishing a sense of hope for a future not yet built.”

Roy DeCarava in New York: A Jazz Photographer in Subject and Technique

The African American Gordon Parks was famous for his documentary photography. Roy DeCarava was different, adopting an artistic approach. His spontaneous images of 1950’s Harlem are distinguished by a “painterly aesthetic” and a sympathetic eye for his subjects, “[casting] loose the norms of preparation, clarity, and stark black-and-white contrasts”. Images are here.

The State of Criticism

Art criticism is embattled. In the kerfuffle over the “timid” Whitney Biennial, art critics themselves faced criticism for being too white and insufficiently expert. Perhaps so. Critics also face other challenges, many having “insecure freelance jobs”. As traditional media declines, the unanswered issue continues to be “how to support the work of cultural writers in a sustainable way”.