The Easel

12th March 2024

Essay: Between machine and eye

Photography has, at times, struggled to be taken seriously as a form of high art. Point-and-click capabilities have democratised the medium – anyone can take a picture, right?  As if to make this image problem worse, the acclaimed Lee Friedlander says he doesn’t have any great ideas. Why then are his images utterly compelling?

Asking “exactly how much [an image] was an accident or not misses the point. Friedlander knows how to look when something interesting is happening. He trusts himself to point the camera and click. Why is he so much better at doing this than most of us? It’s impossible to say. The genius of Friedlander’s photography is to let the camera have its own ideas.”

The meteoric rise of Angelica Kauffman RA

Arriving in London in 1766, Kauffman quickly became famous; ambitious, skilled at using “women’s power” while remaining “brilliantly unthreatening”. Such was her eminence that she was one of just two female founders of the Royal Academy. Admirable, but what about her art? It noticeably gets little coverage in a number of reviews, and one critic explains why. “[Her style] was theatricality … her figures pose with all the subtlety of street signs. [Her art] is frictionlessly fashionable”.

How Peter Blake makes his sculptures Pop

Years before Warhol, Pop had emerged (in name and form) in Britain. Blake was an early figure, notable for his record album sleeves and his sculpture. He “slyly” juxtaposes high and low culture – Beethoven standing next to Elvis, or Hogarth prints next to comics. These works don’t cluster around a single narrative but rather “a proliferation of speculative anecdotes [such as] where are the Disney princesses going?” His work may not be heavily intellectual but is “as delightful as an anecdote can be.”

Resident Aliens: A Brief History of Videogames and Fine Art

Videogame art is emerging! The convergence of art and video is evidenced by the video works of Bill Viola and by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum having held a videogame retrospective. This writer certainly hopes for such a convergence because it will help dilute the rampant exclusivity of the art world. She then backs off that utopian thought. Still, this piece usefully surveys a rich online world, some annoying jargon notwithstanding.

A Hidden History of Europe’s Pre-Modernist Women Artists

Linda Nochlin’s famous 1971 essay queried the absence of great female artists. Since then, art history has re-discovered many of them and, in some cases, greatly elevated their status. Artemisia Gentileschi is but one example. A survey of female artists reveals plenty of “genteel amateurism”, which only speaks to the many women who, feeling thwarted, pursued various “sub-artistic” crafts. This show also reveals that whether an artist chose painting or craft, talent has a way of showing through.

Stranger than fiction: Discover five striking photographs by Jeff Wall

Wall loves a puzzle. Exploiting the documentary-like quality of photography, he creates images of sometimes elaborately staged scenes. His approach repudiates photography’s origins as a recorder of events, instead placing the medium closer to cinematography. The payoff is that his photography gains a freedom that art forms like painting take for granted. Wall can blend memory and imagination as he wishes, creating not a fact but “a resemblance to a feeling about a fact”.

5th March 2024

Lee Ufan and the art of slowness

Japan’s Mono-ha art movement explored the properties of natural and industrial materials. Lee, one of its founders, used those ideas to produce an acclaimed body of minimalist-looking paintings and sculptures. These works need slow viewing – the patina of the steel plates, the grittiness of the stone. His paintings display single or repeated small brushstrokes that peter out into nothingness. They exude tranquillity. This show “brims with abstract feeling but finally says only what a viewer brings to it.” More images are here.

Catherine Opie Goes Into Her Archive to Illustrate Why Harmony Is Fraught

Opie’s images of LA’s gay community are notable because they combine the formalities of portraiture with photographic activism. Besides portraying members of her friendship circle her work includes images of LA city – “because I’ve always thought of the city as a body”.  This is Opie linking the public and the personal: “I’m trying to show all this beauty and all this love but, at the same time, remember that that beauty and that love … hits up hard a lot of the time.”

Thomas Hirschhorn

Hirschorn’s current show is described thus, “a den of mass delusion … long rows of [cardboard] workstations [surrounded by] binge paraphernalia.” One critic, more succinctly, calls it “clusterfuck aesthetics”. This is “social sculpture that gets its energy from the spontaneity of the street”, a mix of “the real and unreal”. Some find it “condescending … wilful, perhaps even undignified. Hirschorn’s art is an irritant [but] that might help us see the world more clearly”. A video of the artist (6 min) is here.

Lee Krasner’s Radical Reinventions

Art history’s gushing praise for Jackson Pollock left Krasner in the shade. That oversight is slowly being corrected, most recently in a show of her early work. Created during the turbulent Long Island years, it is a testament to her creativity. Starting with her grids of glyph-like symbols, she moved on to “brushy geometric abstractions”, then rectangular colour blocks and finally the angular abstractions of her mature style. “What courage it takes to turn heel and continuously become who you are.”

Trouble in Paradise

Gauguin arrived in Polynesia in 1891 and mostly lived there until his death in 1903. This period defines his artistic reputation and generates the opprobrium that now attaches to his name.  A new book confirms Gauguin as an ethically flawed individual. Yet it is also true that his interest in Tahitian spirituality was genuine and the young women around him had agency in daily life and in their relationships with him. Careful scholarship shows him to be “more than merely a sexual predator gorging himself in paradise.”

Introduction to ‘Michelangelo: the last decades’

At 60, Michelangelo might have opted for a genteel retirement. Instead, he headed for Rome and produced a late-career burst of creativity. In addition to a fresco in the Sistene Chapel he completed other religious paintings and, of course major architectural commissions. Such were the demands for his work that he collaborated with painters who executed paintings based on his sketches. Perhaps overwhelmed by papal demands, he scribbled on the back of some plans “I am not an architect”. Nobody listened.