American Graffiti.

Some people call it ugly. Some people call it art. I call it urban enhancement.

In Depth.

Illuminated manuscripts, especially Medieval works that were written by hand, are always noted for their illustrations and especially the marginalia, those little pictures and abstract designs that form a border around the main text. In a class on medieval literature one of my professors pointed out that the marginalia often illustrate or even supplement the writing, even when the pictures are completely abstract, like the interwoven Celtic designs that appear in some texts. A line that disappears behind a line of a different color, for instance, suggests the movement of the story as well as a transition: just because one line disappears out of sight doesn’t mean it’s out of mind. Parallel or interwoven lines, on the other hand, may suggest similar stories, such as that of Tristan and Isolde which mirrors and foreshadows the tragedy of Launcelot, Guinevere, and King Arthur in Mallory’s Morte D’Arthur.
Or at least that’s what a lot of modern scholars believe. Since the original illustrators of works like Mallory’s or the Book Of Kells are long gone–or if they’re still around they’re really, really, really old–no one’s able to ask them, and most of the artists who did the work of copying and illuminating manuscripts are anonymous. In the case of works like Beowulf or Sir Gawain & The Green Knight, for that matter, even the authors are anonymous. But there are cases where the correlation between the border designs and the stories seems pretty closely tied.
Anyway I thought about all that when I found this particular work which is really interesting because of its contrast between abstraction and depth, placing different parts in front of each other, and those striking red triangles at either end suggest looking to both the past and future. It doesn’t represent anything recognizable and yet still seems to tell a story–at least that’s what I believe. I assume and hope the artist is still around–this is a pretty recent work, but I have no idea who the artist is or anything about them–whether they’re young or really, really, really old.

I Hate Myself For Lovin’ You.

Source: YouTube, Badya by Palm Hills Developments commercial.

I have a love-hate relationship with advertising. I hate feeling like I’m being pressured to buy something I don’t really need but then I’ll see a commercial that is so incredibly brilliant I love it and I feel pressured then to buy something I don’t even want and I really hate that. I also think everybody’s gotta make a living and if an artist can’t make it selling their own art then a job in advertising can provide them with both a paycheck and an outlet. There was a time when a lot of artists thought of selling out as a bad thing, and some still do, but there’s a long history of artists being supported by patrons, and advertising reaches the masses. That’s better than a commissioned painting that would be locked away in some duke’s castle or a minuet that, at the time it was composed, would only be heard by a handful of people in a drawing room. Neither Mozart nor his masters imagined the Victrola, let alone MP3s, but that’s another story.

Some ad campaigns even evolve beyond just selling and become part of our culture and I love when that happens. Those who paid the piper may have called the tune but they can’t stop the tune from taking on a life of its own.

And sometimes art itself gets turned into advertising and scholars and critics may wring their hands over that, but I think it’s groovy that art can be pulled out of its ivory tower, even if it’s being used to sell us Ivory soap.

All this swirled around in my head when I was sitting in a Greek restaurant watching a soap opera in Farsi—it goes without saying that the convergence of cultures is a whole other rabbit hole—and a commercial for Discover Badya came on. Badya is a planned community—a little too planned for my tastes, and I hated that the commercial kind of made me want to live there, but I also loved its clever nods to various artists.

Source: YouTube, Badya by Palm Hills Developments commercial.

Source: YouTube, Badya by Palm Hills Developments commercial.

I especially like the appearance by Frida Kahlo whose self-portraits are as strong and uncompromising as the artist herself. Some may call this Fridolatry, but, again, there’s nothing wrong with mass appeal. If it inspires just a few to find out who Kahlo was and study her art more deeply that’s a good thing. Art isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a walled garden that’s only available to the rarefied few.

And now here’s something not intended to sell you anything.

Stuck To It.

Something that usually only gets a passing mention in art history is that advances in art and technology are pretty closely linked. One of the most obvious examples is how the invention of the camera led to Impressionism although the invention of the field easel which made it easier for artists to work outside instead of in a studio also helped. It’s something I’ve always had in mind since I heard an art historian mention in passing that a lot of new inventions are first adopted by avant garde artists and then the work of avant garde artists is adopted by advertising. Although we can thank Pop Art, and especially Andy Warhol, for turning advertising into art and he made a mint doing it, causing counterfeiters around the world to slap their foreheads and say, “We were making copies of the wrong thing!” but that’s another story.


Anyway I’ve noticed an interesting thing: decals as graffiti. Most graffiti is painted–well, technically graffiti was scratched into a surface since the term comes from the Italian graffiato, meaning “scratched”, but the term has take on new layers of meaning. As far as I know no one has ever really studied how the development of spray paint led to graffiti as an urban art form which is another case of a technological innovation being adopted by artists. The decals, I think, are becoming prevalent because decal makers have gotten cheap and easy to use and it’s not hard to see the appeal: an artist can produce dozens of identical tags that can be stuck anywhere. Most are small but add a nice detail to lampposts that used to hold photocopied fliers for local bands, but I guess those bands are now mostly using social media platforms to promote themselves, another evolution that’s all part of the state of the art.

Beach Reading.

When I was ten my friend John lent me a book called The Tattooed Potato & Other Clues. John’s a very smart guy—he’s now an attorney in Atlanta—and I think he liked the book because one of the major players, an eccentric portrait painter named Garson, has a side hustle helping the police solve bizarre crimes. I liked it because the main character is a young art student named Dickory Dock who works as Garson’s assistant and plays Watson to his Sherlock and there was a lot of stuff about art in it. The book is written by Ellen Raskin who also wrote the Newbery Award-winning novel The Westing Game. She only wrote a few novels but they’re all funny and cleverly combine the real and surreal with a style similar to Lemony Snicket. They’re full of odd characters and I think I would have enjoyed The Westing Game a lot more if I hadn’t had to do a book report on it for school, but that’s another story. A memorable detail of The Tattooed Potato is that one of Dock’s art professors rages against the terrible aesthetics of street signs, saying,

Why should I expect anyone to appreciate good design today, what with the eye so consistently bombarded by bad examples, atrocious examples of incompetent graphic art, everywhere, at home, in the streets—those awful signs in the streets.

That tickled me because when I was very young I thought there was something weird, even a bit creepy, about street signs, but I also get why they’re designed the way they are. They’re made for quick and easy comprehension without a lot of extra detail. They could still use little touches to reflect the local culture, though, hence the example above of the surfer crossing sign, spotted on Dauphin Island, Alabama.
And on a weird tangent Lucy Liu, who plays Watson on the TV series Elementary, is also an accomplished artist. It’s a case of art sort of imitating art or life or something. It’s difficult to untangle, but not really a mystery.

Fire!

Source: Artsy

Have you ever wondered why Harpo Marx never talked? There’s a story a friend told me, although I’ve never heard it anywhere else, that when the Marx Brothers were just getting their start in show business their first manager took their money and lost it at the racetrack. Harpo said, “I hope you go down in flames!” The next day the manager’s house burned and the other brothers decided it would be for the best if Harpo kept his mouth shut.

Years later when Groucho, Chico, and Harpo got together one last time to make A Night In Casablanca the studio wanted the silent partner to yell one word so they could put “Harpo speaks!” in the ad copy, but Harpo refused and they dropped the scene where he was supposed to yell “Fire!”

That’s what I thought about when I read that the opening of an exhibit by the South Korean artist Lee Bul at London’s Hayward Gallery was delayed because the art burst into flames.

The work called Majestic Splendour consists of fish—real fish—covered with sequins and plastic beads and because the smell of rotting fish made visitors sick at previous exhibitions the gallery added potassium permanganate to the fish.

Potassium permanganate, which, by the way, you can buy at hardware stores, is sometimes used to hide odors. I didn’t know this when I was a kid and added it to glycerin which, by the way, you can buy at hardware stores, and it would burst into flames which, by the way, is really cool to watch and you should do it with your kids, but that’s another story.

Apparently potassium permanganate can also burst into flames when added to rotting fish.

I know this is the sort of thing that prompts a lot of cheap jokes about modern art but making art and putting out there to the public, trying to make a statement, is a risky thing. It takes guts and sometimes those guts burst into flames and I’m not sure where I’m going with that, but I like Lee Bul’s work. One of her others, a silver zeppelin called Willing To Be Vulnerable is oddly eerie, suspended over a silver floor that blurrily reflects it.

Source: Artnet News

I like the fish too. Suspended in mylar bags and decorated with beads they speak to me of the environment, the contrast between the rapidly rotting fish and the staying power of plastic. They’re also beautiful to me, and I never really noticed before how much a fish’s eye looks like a bead. Even the fire seems like a statement: heat can turn fish into food and plastic into toxic fumes.

So be careful about making cheap jokes about avant garde art because you just might go up in flames and, by the way, did you know Harpo Marx was a painter and an art collector?

Message Received.

When I first started studying art I was taught that paintings have specific meanings. Often this “meaning”, whatever it was, would be the artist’s intent, or at least what critics or historians thought the artist’s intent was. This whole idea of “meaning” was treated as though it was something specific and objectively knowable and fixed, and it doesn’t take much thought to realize that’s pretty goofy. What a work of art “means” is in the eye of the beholder even if, when talking about art, it’s generally convenient to have some idea most of us can agree on. Or not. I’m not really sure what specific meaning I’m trying to get across here and if you think, hey, he’s making kind of a meta-comment on the nature of meaning and how flexible it is I’m just going to say, yeah, let’s all agree that I really am that smart.

Anyway that brings me to this:

I’m just amazed by how this artist has turned a postal delivery label into a work of art, into something that sends out their message. Every artist, whether they think about it or not, works within certain limitations: limitations of time, materials, space. For graffiti this is usually true in spades. Artists who tag buildings or spots on the street have to work fast, although they often have large spaces to work with. Here the work is confined to a small space, so small you might miss it, but it’s so vivid and so well done. That’s probably in part because the artist wasn’t as limited by time—whoever made this didn’t have to worry about getting busted by the cops.

Here’s another one that may be by the same artist.

I liked these so much I was tempted to pull them off and take them home with me but then I realized that whatever the message is it was meant for everyone. If I removed these pieces I’d change and limit the meaning, and I don’t think that was the artist’s intent.

Big Love.

There’s a generally held idea that art that’s overly sentimental, that plays a little too loudly on the heartstrings, is bad art. I think this is a relatively new idea that traces its origins back to 18th century neoclassicism which admired ancient works of art and architecture for their subtlety and lack of color, not realizing that back when they were made those works were brightly painted, but that’s another story. Anyway, yeah, I agree, anything that overdoes the weepiness or, worse, cynically tries to reduce us to a sobbing puddle as an excuse to pry a few extra dollars out of us is bad art. Not feeling, or pretending not to feel, though, can be just as bad. Ray Romano has a joke about how when he goes to buy an anniversary card for his wife he looks for one that says what he would say if he were drunk. It’s funny but also sad that too many of us, especially men, feel uncomfortable with expressing powerful emotions.

That brings me to this:

It’s appropriate that this was done as a mural, that it’s big because the emotions it evokes are so large and so powerful. And yet at the same time it hits that perfect balance. The color palette is subdued and the narrative force, while strong, isn’t over the top.

It’s dramatic without being melodramatic, and while effective at a distance becomes even more so up close where the subtler details reveal themselves.

If my analysis seems somewhat cold and unfeeling, I can say, in my defense, that I feel it’s important for critical purposes to maintain a certain distance, to not be so overcome by emotion that I lose sight of what makes a work like this good. However I’d be perfectly comfortable expressing just how this mural makes me feel if I were drunk.

 

Go Figure.

One of the oldest themes in art is the human figure, or at least one common subset of variations of it. Most works of art history that follow the standard Hegelian model of a linear progression start with a work like the Venus of Willendorf and trace its evolution up through Picasso’s Le Demoiselles D’Avignon and maybe even later. There are many reasons for art’s interest in the human figure including the fact that all art is inherently self-reflective. That is, whatever an artist creates is in essence a self-portrait. Whatever the intended message is the work itself tells us who the artist is.

I’m being deliberately high-falutin’ here to heighten the hilarious impact of this:

What does this tell us about the artist? I’m not sure, although it does make me think about the tension between high and low art, and the tension between art that’s designed to hide the ugly realities of our bodies and art that exposes, even elevates and celebrates, those ugly realities. Consider Jonathan Swift’s poem The Lady’s Dressing Room and the line, “Such gaudy tulips raised from dung.” Then consider Frida Kahlo’s painting Henry Ford Hospital that deliberately, brutally expresses her feelings about a miscarriage with both the reality and symbols.

Let’s come back to the work at hand because there’s a lot going on here. And by “here” of course I mean my head where it’s like I’m on a fun ride going “Whee! Farts! Whee! Meta-textual analysis!” Anyway context is also very important here.

The placement of the work so centrally on a former fast food place, I think elevates it, although you’re probably thinking, “Such low criticism from a critic who sounds pretty high.”

 

Avatar.

Furries are people who have anthropomorphic animal avatars. They draw or commission pictures of their avatars and many dress up as their avatars. Even in the weird wide universe of geekdom they’re sometimes mocked or regarded with suspicion which I don’t understand. I’m not going to stand in the way of anyone’s fursuit of happiness. There was even a really happy story back in March 2016 of Syrian refugees placed at a hotel that was also hosting a furry convention, bringing together two groups that are often subject to unreasonable prejudice.

Anyway I was listening to an interview with Lisa Hanawalt on the Bullseye podcast and was surprised to hear her describe herself as a “furry”. Hanawalt designed the anthropomorphic animal creatures for Bojack Horseman and also wrote a book called The Hot Dog Taste Test which I really, really, really recommend. It’s a collection of illustrated essays more or less connected to food and it’s smart and funny and while the picture of Hanawalt with her family watching Blade II dubbed in Spanish is fantastic, but that’s another story. What surprised me about her describing herself as a furry is in the book she draws herself pretty realistically, never as an animal, but then her drawings of herself and others are still, in the traditional sense of the word, avatars. They are representative, not necessarily idealized but not exactly warts and all either.

And that got me thinking about how we all have a version of ourselves in our imaginations that may or may not match up with how others see us. If we’re uncomfortable with ourselves it’s not necessarily about who we really are but because we don’t like that image of ourselves. Similarly if we’re unhappy with the world around us it’s because it doesn’t match what we want it to be. If we are happy with ourselves and the world around us it’s, hopefully, because how we imagine ourselves and the world matches the way we think it should be.

So what’s your avatar?

The Portrait.

It’s pretty frustrating that Netflix has just announced a whole new cast of The Crown but is holding off on when the new season will be available—for now they’re just saying 2019—but it made me look back at my favorite episode so far—episode 1, season 9, the one called “Assassins”. I’ve read a little bit about art history—just a few dozen books or so, and taken some classes, but I’d never heard of Graham Sutherland, the artist who painted Churchill’s portrait, a portrait Churchill hated, and which was ultimately destroyed. When Churchill called it “a remarkable example of modern art” he meant that as an insult and the audience laughed.

The episode—spoiler alert—shows Mrs. Churchill burning the portrait herself in broad daylight, with Winston himself as a witness, which is what she claimed happened. It wasn’t until 2015 that it was finally revealed that the portrait, which was supposed to hang in Westminster Abbey, was kept in a cellar for years. Then, in the middle of the night, Mrs. Churchill’s secretary Grace Hamblin and her brother took the painting to the brother’s house and burned it there.

So the story as told in The Crown episode is sort of true and sort of not true. That’s interesting because, as Graham Sutherland himself said in 1944,

I feel that an artist’s business is to find an equivalent to the things which give him is idea, an equivalent which derives its life from being a ‘work of art’ rather than a ‘work of nature’…A metamorphosis has to take place.

Here’s a good example of that: Sutherland’s 1975 work Cathedral Of Rocks:

Source: Pinterest

And here’s a photo of the rocks which inspired that painting:

Source: Graham Sutherland : life, work and ideas by Rosalind Thuillier (The Lutterworth Press, 2015)

At the time Sutherland painted Churchill’s portrait he was highly respected in Britain but his reputation diminished, not so much over the portrait but because of his decision to live part of the year in the south of France, although he became highly respected—and well paid—in Italy, where they know a thing or two about painting. British critics raised their opinion of him a little when he started painting regularly in Wales, drawing inspiration from the landscape and painting pictures like the one above and his 1978 Thicket With Self Portrait. It’s good to see him get some attention again because his paintings are remarkable examples of modern art—and I mean that as a compliment.

Source: Elephant & Castle

 

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