The Easel

9th November 2021

Inside Glenn Ligon’s Groundbreaking Solo Show at Hauser & Wirth

Ligon enjoys “Olympian” status among contemporary American artists. Stenciled text paintings have, for decades, been his calling card. They carry overt political content – the erasure of African Americans in their society. But they are more, cleverly illustrating the slipperiness of language and the “tug-of-war between pure abstraction and dusty figuration”. A new show features more ambiguous text works. Don’t ask Ligon for an explanation, though – his job, he says, is just to ask “good questions”.

Ettore Sottsass: The Magical Object

When Sottsass graduated in architecture after WW2, building projects were scarce. He instead chose design, producing sculpture, ceramics, jewellery (“miniature architecture”) and notably, furniture. While functionality was important, so too was an object’s emotional impact. Designs he produced with Memphis Group were described as a “shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price”. Still, he is widely credited with introducing the “poetics of artmaking” into design. Images are here.

Leon Kossoff’s Art of Darkness and Light

An appreciation. Kossoff lived his adult life in the same part of North London. In contrast to the great English tradition of painting rural landscapes, his fascination lay with what was outside his suburban front door. London’s grimy vistas and overcast skies were his main subject and he captured them with a “slow turbulence” of paint. Kossoff painted many such works, likened by one critic to a man “making a map of locations where he can begin to search for himself”.

Late Constable, Royal Academy, London, review: sentimental or experimental? Both, actually

Some regard Constable as a “chocolate box artist”, conventional and well mannered. Undoubtedly, he helped advance the status of landscape painting. His fidelity to nature has its admirers, even if our times perhaps inclines toward the wilder imagination of his contemporary, JMW Turner. In late career, Constable’s style became looser, especially his oil sketches. They impress this critic: “For those of us brought up on a diet of Modernism these works are very appealing.”

Eileen Gray’s Human-Centered Design

The modernist credo in architecture is ‘form follows function’. In Le Corbusier’s hands, this meant houses with precise geometries, inside and out. Such architecture, according to Gray, had “no soul”. A house, she said, is a “living organism” and should prioritise the experience provided by its interior spaces. Her recently restored house in the south of France, E-1027, is “a marvel of personal customization”, a masterpiece that “transformed” architecture.

‘I went from having to borrow money to making $4m in a day’: how NFTs are shaking up the art world

After some ritualistic gnashing of teeth about speculators, and Paris Hilton, this piece asks a few good questions. Are NFT’s a more democratic form of art? (A bit). Have galleries and auction houses found a way to cash in? (Of course). Are prices the “dominant” focus, rather than ideas? (That sounds familiar). And, most importantly “is there a meaningful difference between an artwork and an asset?” The writer says, hopefully, “not always”. A more candid answer might be – usually not.

How AI is hijacking art history

Three cheers for art historians. Headlines are regularly captured by artificial intelligence researchers claiming to have discovered or reconstituted “new” works of art. This is just “soft diplomacy” for AI. Art historians use art to understand how people once looked at the world. Algorithmic analysis may assist but cannot replace their nuanced historical analysis. Much will be lost if art history becomes mere “toys in the sandboxes of scientists with no training in the humanities”.

2nd November 2021

Easel Essay Paula Rego: Yes, With A Growl

Rego’s paintings tell stories. There are stories of family dramas, real or imagined, stories about the Portuguese dictator Salazar, and about Rego’s flawed husband. This is an artist with a confessed fondness for the easy-to-follow narratives one finds in comics. So, asks Contributing Editor Morgan Meis, what accounts for the pervasive sense of oddness and unease in her work?

“Her stories are coded in layers of symbol and metaphor. [Dog Woman] is about mucking around in the dirt like a dog. And to some degree, liking it. That’s to say, there is a lot of power in this dog woman. Paula Rego once said, “To be bestial is good.” And yet, potential degradation lurks here too. Because to be a person, to be a woman, is not to be a dog. Is it? Or is it?”

Appetite and decay: the animal instincts in Bacon’s paintings

Kafka wrote about a man who becomes an insect. Bacon was interested in similar territory, “the gap between the clothed human and the snarling figure hidden within the clothes”. Sometimes his man-creatures are on all fours, animality coupled with “a sort of suffering dignity … Their wildness includes a sense that they are in possession not merely of instinct but dark knowledge. Their quest is not only for food or blood but something unnameable and unobtainable.”

Everything you thought you knew about ‘feminine design’ is wrong

Objects created by women designers have, to be polite, been “under-documented”. They feature in a new book, which shows an incredible diversity of materials and uses. A common theme across these objects is the home, historically an “overlooked space”. Skeptical of a feminine aesthetic, the author instead suggests there is a feminine design methodology, which is “sustainable, rooted in cultural traditions”. And the focus of today’s female designers? “Climate change”. More images are here.

The Triumph of Rubens

When we think Rubens, we think sensual, fleshy bodies. Yet he was also a scholar and diplomat. An “all-encompassing interest” in the art of antiquity links what otherwise might seem divergent. He admired ancient sculptures and their buff bodies. Alluding to their mythologies in his own art made him seem learned, accomplished. But his exuberant re-working of those ideas makes his work truly his own, “part of his narrative, part of the expression that he’s bringing to these ideas.’

Harmonic demons

A “spectacular” Goya show reminds that every generation finds something contemporary in his work, especially the works he did away from the royal court. His etchings, the “Horrors of War”, for example, portray death and brutality in a frank way that anticipated modern war photography. Viewing his modern-ish still lifes is like getting “an electric shock”. And his dream images, observed the poet Beaudelaire back in 1857, convey “something credible and harmonious about his monsters”.

The restitution of African works puts the Senate and the art market on the wind

France announced in 2017 that it would restitute cultural objects looted in Africa. As promised, some 26 objects are returning to Benin this month. Other countries are following suite. Still, controversy continues. One artist in Benin points out that African museums have been plagued by theft, fire and a shortage of qualitied staff. Further, a French supporter of restitution admits that African artworks in French museums are “excellent ambassadors of the culture of their countries”.