Month: October 2009

Can Its Description Make it Art?

oilOilEdward Burtynsky

Looking at a photograph of thousands of tires doesn’t really compel me to think hard and stare long at the composition, the light, the perspective. Until I read the title. “OIL”. Now it grabs me emotionally because it makes a political/social/environmental statement. Interesting how context (sometimes positioned by words) can change our appreciation of something.


Distortion, Glorious Distortion

modiglianiElongation, distorted hands, feet, necks. This is the single-most characteristic that I look for and admire in works. If it’s stretched, pressed, enlarged, or diminished beyond its normal state, I love it. And for this, I cannot get enough of Modigliani.

Those necks! Those eyes!

Less obvious is the use of elongation in Caravaggio’s The Supper at Emmaus. The elongated right hand of the disciple sitting at the table draws the viewer in to the painting.


And distortion can portray a sense of the grotesque, the humor, the abstraction of a figure or scene. I especially like the abstraction in Eastern European art, particularly Russian art, like Kandinsky, which inspired some of those in the surrealist movement.


To The French, Art Trumps Economy


On my way out of the French embassy in DC a few weeks ago (I took part in an annual embassy tour), I picked up “France magazine No. 90″ from a gorgeous ($$$) breakfront in the marbled lobby. Just one of many marketing tools in Washington, one would think that a magazine such as this would focus on a country’s economic entrees. But no this one. The French embassy’s magazine focuses on “the best of culture, travel, and art de vivre.”

But now that I think about this, how better to push your economy by playing the hand that you are dealt… and France has been blessed with great art and great beauty over the centuries (rather than technical or commercial innovation). This is, after all, how everyone views France, so I agree, French embassy, show it off to the nth degree!

The magazine’s feature articles include:

  • Arles Goes Gehry
  • The Art of Christian Boltanski
  • Artisanal Beer

Fabulous. The graphics-infused magazine is a tromp through high-end stores in Paris, all aflurry with radical new designs in furniture. And exposes on small towns in France feature, guess what? The art. This tiny town has X-number of theaters, X-number of galleries, X-number of artists-in-residence. And the article on artisanal beers — who would think art would come into play with beer? — is complete with an Art Nouveau poster of a drinking hall by Alphonse Mucha, created in 1897. The article on the tiny town of Arles makes the case that it could become the next Bilbao as Frank Gehry is “sketching its future.”

French embassy, I’m sold! I’m on the first plane to Arles. Or pretty much to ANY tiny town in France, for that matter, as I would surely be surrounded by art.

“Mona Lisa” aka “La Giconda” aka “A Certain Florentine Lady”


Slate has a fabulous article out “Mona Linda? Nah. How About Mona Lisa?” that discusses the origins of an artwork’s name. Who decides what to call an old painting?

The article reveals that until the 17th century, artists rarely chose names for their works, choosing instead general, non-specific names like “Profile of a Young Woman”.

It’s a wonder how these pieces were referenced and recognized with 100% veracity, especially when there were so many drawings or sketches made prior to the actual oil, that were also sold across the market?

What was most fascinating to me, however, is that Dutchman Johannes Vermeer, one of the most celebrated artists of all time (and who has recently had a resurgence with a few of his works traveling in the US, as well as the bestseller by Tracy Chevalier a few years ago “The Girl With the Pearl Earring”) also blazed another trail by being one of the first artists to bestow a conceptual title on one of his works:

Vermeer painted a self-portrait called The Art of Painting. He never sold the piece, keeping it in his home until his death in 1675. Historians believe Vermeer himself named the work because his widow identified it by the moniker very shortly after his death.

Also how many names can the “Mona Lisa”  have? Perhaps squabbling art historians all wanted to lay a claim to history with a new name.

16th-century art historian Giorgio Vasari, considered by many to be the first art historian, is  the man who identified the sitter for Leonardo’s most famous painting as Florentine aristocrat Lisa del Giocondo. This hypothesis gave rise to the popular name Mona Lisa in England and the United States. Many French and Italian critics, however, refer to the work as La Joconde or La Gioconda, respectively, referring to the sitter’s family name. (Interestingly, these phrases translate loosely into English as “the one who smiles.”) Prior to Vasari, the painting had been called A Certain Florentine Lady or A Courtesan in a Gauze Veil.

The Tradition of Conceptual Art


The evolution of how art is produced (the conception and construction) usually tells of a stark difference between the paleolithic age and today. Art in the paleolithic age was perhaps relegated to those with free time on their hands, which was hard to come by, given the hard lifestyle of hunting and gathering. And given this time crunch, there wasn’t much time to play with ideas, to think about new or inventive ways to conceive and produce art. This is perhaps the polar opposite of today’s art. I would agree with this New York Times article that “What is important today is not technical skill, but skill in playing inventively with ideas.”

For example, Damien Hirst’s “Medicine Cabinet” installations are a twist on an artistic representation of a common, everyday thing. He didn’t sit down with barbed wire and a soldering mask and get to work. His “people” do that. It’s his mind and inventiveness that are the commodities.

Now, it’s true that the majority of artists don’t have minions to go about crafting some visionary’s dreams. But, in some cases, so goes the current state of conceptual art. 

So how long has the idea of conceptual art been around? Can we find it in the paleolithic age? Maybe in a very primitive way the seeds of conceptual art were starting even back then.

Researchers looking at  stone age tools have declared that some  — hand axes, for instance — were not used solely for the act of hunting and gathering; that they were prized as art objects to be admired. For example, hand axes had a high rate of manufacture (above what they’d need to butcher animals), often have no signs of wear, some were too big for use, and some were decorated with “expensive” materials and exquisite workmanship.

Someone had to conceive the idea that it was important for these fancy hand axes to be made and that they would then be admired by perhaps a big group of people, so despite their limited resources, they still chose to create art for themselves. Much of it was probably done for ritualistic purposes, but even so, the concept of reinventing something useful for aesthetics was in play even in the stone age, even for  “primitive” man.

Slow Art = Touchy Feely Art


A recent article by Edward Sozanski, art critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, caught my attention because it firmly dissects new categories of art from old. Digital art from portraiture, etc. In “The Satisfactions of ‘Slow’ Material Art” he first talks about the “old” type of art, or what he calls “material art”:

Material art can be two- or three-dimensional, although … its allure is strongest with media that are worked with the hands or with tools.

And then he correlates “material art” with “slow art”:

[Material arts] are splendid examples of what I like to call “slow art,” not only because they take time to make, but also because they require time to absorb and understand. The longer one looks – and this process can involve years, as it has for me – the more one is able to appreciate both the formal ingenuity and seductiveness of the compositions and the perceptual dualities they generate.

He then refers to ceramicist William Daley’s opening talk at his exhibition of ceramic vessels where he asked people to do something with his pieces that could not be done with newer media.

He invited people to touch and caress his pieces, normally strictly verboten in museums and galleries. What better way to connect with the material than to stroke its surface?

However, I do have a slight rub with this. He is espousing more traditional art forms, however, he breaks traditional norms of the museum by allowing people to touch his pieces which is “normally strictly verboten”. Hmm. We need to find peace between the warring new and old paradigms.

The Embedded Message in Architecture: Or, What Can Architecture Teach Us About Writing?


On the group-hosted writing blog Murderati, Toni McGee Causey has written a MUST READ article “Positive and Negative Spaces” that absolutely knocked my socks off (and, judging by the comments at the end of the blog, much of the blogging world’s too). She refers to a book 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School  recommended by literary agent Janet Reid, and says that 

“the entire book… has as much to do with writing and living as it does architecture. And I hadn’t expected to have a startling revelation about my own life.” 

In her critique, Toni posits that we dwell in positive spaces (think about your house where you dwell and do all of your cooking, living, spend most of your time) and and move through negative spaces (a street intersection that facilitates the quick itinerant movement of people).

And from there, she rocks out the article, comparing and contrasting life in negative and positive space. And wow, it’s an incredibly interesting ride. Here’s one (ok, three) snippets that I’ll leave you with:

When I thought about [positive and negative space] in relation to writing, I had a twofold appreciation for the term. First off, just the physical aspect of the page—the words and paragraphs create positive space and the white space around it is the negative space. If you pick up any manuscript and it’s filled with long, dense paragraph after paragraph, it feels cluttered and heavy, weighted and overwrought, even before you’ve read a single word. A reader brings with her the expectation of balance, and you need white space to achieve that balance. Too much white space, though, feels bereft of weight, of value, of deeper meaning, and so it’s the writer’s job not only to craft the words, but to pay attention to the space those words take up on the page.

Positive spaces are almost always preferred by people for lingering and social interaction. Negative spaces tend to promote movement rather than dwelling in place.

I’ve had people hand me novels in the past for critique and they spend a couple of chapters (or more) “building the world” – telling the reading about the political and economic machinations which have brought this world into being, into the state we find it in at this moment in time. It’s a huge mistake to do this. For one thing, the story hasn’t started yet until the characters are moving through that world and experience conflict within it. For another, the writer isn’t trusting the reader to extrapolate the positive and negative spaces from a select few examples.