The Easel

1st October 2019

A new vision of nature

This newsletter introduces a new series of essays. In addition to the existing quarterly essays, The Easel will now also carry an occasional series of shorter essays, grouped around the theme ‘Here’s why I love it’. The first of these is about teamLab, a Japanese group of “ultra technologists”.

teamLab’s multimedia art is generated by complex, non-repeating algorithms. This is novel but is it the point of greatest interest? Russell Kelty, a classically trained curator at the energetic Art Gallery of South Australia, thinks not. For him, their work is distinctive in how it mirrors traditional Japanese culture. “Instead of simply staring at a fixed view provided by a painting on a wall, Japanese art has a history of immersing the audience in works of art, whether it be the auspicious shared moment of  unrolling a scroll or sleeping next to a folding screen which were conceived to be moveable wind barriers. Ever Blossoming … speaks a language that all of us can understand … lives increasingly mediated by screens”.

Vija Celmins’s surface matters

Celmins keeps a low profile and produces relatively few paintings. Yet her works “awe critics” and sell for huge prices. They focus on household objects, the sea, starry skies – the images rendered in minute detail and muted colour. Their reticence gives them “a timeless, impersonal, and rather cold beauty”. Or, as one writer says, they have “whispered power”.  More images are here.

A New Exhibit Of ‘Maximalism’ Shows How Artists Trounced Modernism And Made Art Inclusive In The 70s

The pattern and decoration movement had its heyday in the 1970’s. Its frontal attack on minimalism raised difficult issues for art theory. Dry though that debate can be, these issues are important. Is decoration bad art – or perhaps not art at all? What are the boundaries of art and who gets to decide what is in or out? The current flurry of museum shows on this subject suggests resolution is not imminent.

Under the bridge with Mark Leckey

Can one be nostalgic for a motorway flyover? Leckey is. Growing up in northern England’s bleak industrial landscape, he has been shaped by its streets and working class youth culture. Using online found footage he has created films like Fiorucci, an “opus” that has “hypnotic, often arresting images of everyday stuff … a celebration of British urban subculture”. An excellent background piece is here.

With a brass band blaring, artist Kehinde Wiley goes off to war with Confederate statues

Proposals to remove Richmond’s Confederacy-era statues caused a huge controversy.  Virginia’s Museum of Fine Art has a nice response – a “massive” statue of an African American man. Temporarily in New York’s Times Square, the figure wears dreadlocks and street wear and strikes a faux-heroic pose atop a horse. In December it will be installed in Richmond, a “profoundly subversive response to the city’s Civil War dilemma.”

Body Of Work, Michelangelo: Mind Of The Master

If man is God’s most perfect creation, how should the figure be drawn? Michelangelo wanted to show it as even more perfect than real life. This required him to study anatomy – like his older rival da Vinci. More important, though, was the choice of pose: “the torsion of the human body in motion … expressed the inner life of the subject, the emotion of the moment, time stopped in an instant of revelation.”

Reconsidering Ceramics Iconoclast Peter Voulkos at Burning in Water

A visit to Black Mountain College was Voulkos’ first exposure to New York abstraction. What an impact! He set about redefining ceramics, discarding many of its established practices. In particular, what some regarded as flaws he saw as “spontaneous creative accidents.” Voulkos wasn’t thinking pots anymore but rather expressionist sculpture. He was re-inventing American post-war ceramics.  A video (1 min) is here.

24th September 2019

Albrecht Dürer: The painter with ‘a magic touch’

The Albertina has a “once in a lifetime” exhibition of Dürer works. Perhaps history’s finest ever draftsman, he was also astute in using ravishing detail to serve a larger narrative. Dürer’s “miracle” portrait of a hare is without background, transforming it into “something mystical … a fiery figment of the imagination”. Concludes one writer “the Renaissance does not belong entirely to the Italians”. A video (3 min) is here.

Damien Hirst Butterfly Genocide

Hirst has the critics riled up – again. New works riff on the religious mandala, using not paints but butterfly wings. Thousands of them. One critic is delighted though more are not. Says one of the  naysayers – “it’s not shocking, it’s not clever and it’s not good.” Staying calm, the above writer suggests a connection to Hirst’s earlier work: “the butterfly, while visually seductive, always carries the inference of death.”

Mona Hatoum interview: ‘If everything is predictable, then it’s not interesting’

Hatoum was studying in London when stranded by war in her native Lebanon. Her work is not a literal replaying of her experience of displacement. Nonetheless, a theme that pervades many works is precariousness. “I’m really interested in modern ruins … even those structures that are supposed to be solid, to contain you, they can collapse.” Last week, Hatoum was announced as a Praemium Imperiale winner.

What’s at Stake for the Art World in Embracing Pace Gallery’s Colossal New Space

Critics seem un-nerved by Pace’s new eight story gallery in New York, complete with five concurrent exhibitions. Pace wants its galleries to be spaces where people want to congregate, “like church.” So what’s it like? “[I]t feels oddly akin to visiting an upscale department store … floors often have designated specialities or sections … the only certainty I saw was the unfathomable scale of coming change.”

Sir Antony Gormley’s art explores an interior realm

Gormley’s trademark work is the expressionless metal body form. Often based on molds of his own body, these figures appear in all sorts of situations, most famously his Angel of the North atop a hill in northern England. One view of a large survey show is that it is “too unfocused, and ultimately too polite”. The more positive view is that Gormley’s work is a sustained exploration of the body as a place “of memory, emotion and imagination”.

Museums Say They Are Paying More Attention to Female Artists. They Are Not.

Dismal reading. Art world declarations about redressing the gender imbalance are nowhere near being put into practice. Over the last decade just 11% of acquisitions by major American institutions were works by female artists. Further, only 14% of exhibitions were given to female artists. One curator is blunt – ““The art world is simply not [what] it imagines itself to be and you can’t solve a problem you can’t own.”

How six female artists in post-revolutionary Mexico broke down the borders between fine art and design

Mexico’s influence on modern art goes beyond Kahlo and Rivera. Clara Porset was a well-connected designer whose US training was heavily influenced by Bauhaus ideas. Returning to Mexico, she fused those ideas with Mexico’s pre-Colombian geometric aesthetic. Famous names like Anni Albers, Ruth Asawa and others followed her lead. Mexico, says the curator, “has never been an isolated place”.