The Easel

8th November 2022

Easel Essay: Armour for contemporary living

Readers can be assured that Morgan Meis is about as far from a dedicated fashionista as one can get. Yet, the recent death of the designer Issey Miyake prompted him to write an appreciation. Apart from being a survivor of Hiroshima, what was it that made Miyake so special?

Miyake was “one of the great popular artists of the last hundred years. He wanted to make art that could be worn by everyone. Maybe his greatest accomplishment was to have tackled polyester. Polyester is not high fashion. His ready-to-wear line, Pleats Please, is polyester. The pleats create a sense of elegance and structure to the garments. You can put Pleats Please garments in your luggage and they come out again looking great. He managed to create a kind of soft and gentle armature against the uncertainties of contemporary life and, especially for women, against the constant pressure of bodily perfection.”

A Painting for a World in Collapse

Géricault’s great work, The Raft of the Medusa, was made amidst political turmoil in France, “art made … waist-deep in the mud of politics”. Contemporary artists who make ‘political art’ could learn from the power of this work. Most importantly, Medusa was innovative art and not just about politics. Much political art, in contrast, is “dogged, generic”. The Medusa “is great not for what it’s supposed to be about but for the ways it employs imagination. It starts conversations rather than ends them.”

Alex Katz’s Massive Guggenheim Retrospective Is the Season’s Biggest Disappointment

Some critics have misgivings about Katz. Reviewing his 1986 retrospective, one disapproved of the “prettiness” of his art and claimed that he lacked a sense of the “weight, pathos and energy of the human body”. Decades on, Katz hasn’t shaken off the doubters. Granted, the deadpan, Pop-inspired aesthetic he brought to his early portraits was innovative. Further, some think his paintings of social gatherings are “astute”. For this writer, though, Katz’s art, once “edgy, has calcified and grown stale”.

Steve Keene’s art caters for the many, not the few

Keene trained as an artist but then decided ‘quantity over quality’. For decades he has painted about 10,000 works a year (not a typo) and priced them to be “irresistible”. Small pieces sell for about $5. Bigger pieces are available at 6 for $70. His images are often derived from popular culture, use bright colours and have quirky text. Art, says Keene, is a “system of losing yourself or finding infinity. Or something”. A good backgrounder is here and a recently released book is here.

The Magic of Reality

Trompe lóeil, the illusionistic protruding of objects beyond the picture plane, is often derided as optical trickery. A New York exhibition draws attention to just how often trompe lóeil tropes occur in Picasso and Braque’s cubist work. Why was it important to them? Because trompe lóeil and cubism were, in different ways, playing the same game – using visual deception to make the viewer question perception. As the writer notes, “Perception itself is a kind of magic trick”. An excellent video is here.

What Remains of the NFT Hype

Things have gone rather quiet on the NFT front. Perhaps that is due in part to such works having lost, on average, 92% of their value in the past year. Still, the writer is not pessimistic about NFT’s because “a scene of serious artists” continues to make virtual works. Some use AI to make images, others focus on bringing virtual images “into the analog space” using a 3D printer. Those artists are pleased the hype has cooled – “It will separate the wheat from the chaff”.

Bernd and Hilla Becher’s Misunderstood Oeuvre

After a long-running retrospective of the Bechers work, a postscript. Their hugely influential photography of industrial structures is sometimes criticized for being “aloof, impersonal”. How can it be impersonal when their work is so “immediately identifiable?” Their images reveal not just “an elemental beauty of geometry” but also the “human individuality” of these structures.  “Google “black and white industrial photograph” and nothing even remotely similar appears.”

1st November 2022

Inside Deana Lawson’s first museum survey at MoMA PS1

Since Lawson’s photography entered the MoMA collection a decade ago, the accolades have kept coming. Curators remark on her “singular” vision of Black culture and identity and an ability to “find glamour in the quotidian”. Her images, all carefully staged, have become more “theatrical” over time. Perhaps theatrical means more intricate. One critic notes “they’re images that make you think, lean in, and look. In that way, they’re not easy images.” Images are here.

Pierre Soulages: Beyond black

Soulage’s lofty reputation undoubtedly benefitted from an immensely long career. Throughout, he stuck to a very specific concept of art – abstract works often painted purely in black. He resisted comparisons with the abstract expressionists because his sources of inspiration (primal art, such as cave paintings) were so different to theirs. And Soulages affinity with black? “[Its] an extraordinary colour. [It is not black] that gave meaning to [those paintings] but the reflection of light on dark surfaces”.

Thomas Ruff with Will Fenstermaker

Having trained as a realist photographer, Ruff’s career seems like a journey away from realism and toward manipulated images. His most recent work, using algorithms to produce fractal images dispenses with photography altogether. They have an aura of “objectivity” although they don’t exist in reality. “A fractal set is like a big landscape [and sometimes] you find something that doesn’t look like anything you’ve seen before. That’s where I dive in.”

No common or garden sculptor

By late 1700’s, Baroque sculpture, with its wrought emotions and twisted forms, had been eclipsed by the refinement of neoclassicism. This style looked to the simplicity and calm repose of the ancients and in Canova found its undisputed star. His sculptures boasted “movement and purity of form”, their polished surfaces having the look of “living softness”. Since his death in 1822, his renown has waxed and waned; he now receives “less than his due” compared to contemporaries such as Delacroix.

‘Strange Clay’ review: a mucky, uncanny, visceral survey of ceramic art

Ceramics, apparently, are “exploding” in popularity. Not surprising then to see a major group show that surveys this art form. The variety of work is impressive, “everything from beautiful pitchers and pots to stupid, quasi-conceptual knick-knackery”. What accounts for the resurgence of ceramics? “It is an emotive medium and I think we relate to it”, says the curator. “[There is] tactility … the untidiness of the medium … enabling a conflicted expression of what it means to be human”.

The Vorticist who was nearly painted out of history

In 1915, Britain’s modernist impulse produced vorticism and Saunders was in its vanguard. Using an exuberant colour palette, she combined figurative forms with “hard edge” abstract elements. After a successful first exhibition, her story disappoints. Vorticism disappeared quickly under the social impact of WW1. Whether because of a lack of support or a change of mood, Saunders scarcely exhibited again, sank into obscurity and most of her work was destroyed by a bomb in WW2.

A City in the ocean of time

This essay by US critic Dave Hickey illustrates why his death last year was so widely mourned. “Characterizing [Heizer’s City] as an earthwork seems redundant. It is made of earth and rocks, of course, but it is only an earthwork in the sense that a Raphael is an oil painting. There are echoes of [pyramids and Mayan buildings]. Standing there, we sense a compression of human time. The heyday of Egypt and the Yucatan don’t seem so very long ago at all.”