The Easel

16th February 2021

Irving Penn: Photographism @Pace

From quite early, Penn showed that commercial photography could merge into art. Clearly, his early training to be a painter shaped his modernist aesthetic. But what magic did he bring to photography? An ability to balance “allurement with revulsion”? The graphic quality of many of his images? Perhaps the timelessness of his images reflects the lessons he derived from great painting and sculpture – “simplicity, rigor, wit, elegance”.

When the Painting Has Really Begun

Between the fireworks of a newly launched artist and the insights of the veteran is the “amorphous phase” of mid-career. The two artists reviewed have approached it differently. One has changed her style and then, after a decade or so, changed back. Another has been more consistent to her impulsive abstract style. Both approaches have worked because mid-career has brought “a deeper vulnerability [and] in that vulnerability is strength.”

9th February 2021

Gordon Parks: Beautiful photos of an ugly history

There are two sides to Parks’ photography. One was the chronicling of civil rights protests. Those images focus on individuals rather than scenes of conflict and show, in a way that still resonates, what it means to be black and American. His other side showed when Parks “allowed his poet’s eye to roam”. These images show “the ambiguity and complications of reality, genuine people … You just see a lot of beauty in these pictures, always beauty.”

A Close Look at Henri Matisse’s Bather

Forensic. Matisse wanted his paintings to appear spontaneous -and he wanted to use flat planes of colour. That meant working “exhaustingly” to communicate volume, movement, sensation. In Bather (1909) you can see “the drawings are done with force and how he’s layering the paint. Areas alternate between matte and glossy, thickly worked paint to convey an astonishing range of volume and light and hue. This was an opportunity for him to … go for broke.”

Joyce Pensato

Bored with drawing fruit in still life classes, Pensato instead chose cartoon characters. Suddenly, sweet Disney originals, became charcoal-heavy figures with “malevolent” feelings. It proved her artistic liberation. Her characteristic style emerged – portraiture, done in an exaggerated abstract expressionist style that spoke to “the appeal and toxicity of Americana”. Said one critic “Pensato’s work is a jolt of manic energy … a kind that can’t be faked”.

Burning Cole

Temporarily ungated. Cole inspired the landscapists of the Hudson River School. Therein lies a paradox. Those artists, most notably Frederic Church, painted what they saw, allowing nature to “speak for itself”. Cole didn’t. He was anxious that progress would despoil the sacred wilderness and impose a human cost. He conscripted his paintings in support of such ideas. “His compositions were both allegories and real places … science and fiction in equal measure.”