Monday, September 18, 2017

The Iconoclast (?)

Zhan Wang (born 1962, China), Urban Landscape Buffalo, 2005–2010. Stainless steel pots, pans and kitchen utensils, 67 ½" x 197" x 393 5/8" (171.5 x 500.4 x 999.8 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York. © 2017 Zhan Wang. (AK-2840)

It would probably take me forever to be able to say that I had “seen it all” in the world of art. You know the old expression, “just when you thought you’d seen it all,” seems sort of hollow to an art-hungry art historian. Zhan Wang’s installation just knocked my socks off. It’s so amazing and awesome, and yet it’s not the dominant type of his body of work (or “oeuvre”).

I’m not quite sure that I have ever witnessed an installation that incorporated solely kitchenware to get the subject across. But, what I am sure of is that Zhan’s interpretation of Buffalo, NY (and Fort Erie across the Niagara River) is brilliant! I deluded myself into believing I had pegged Niagara Square in the close-up below, but I’m not staking my art historian badge on it. The installation is so wonderfully complex, and the urban forms that Zhan has emulated in a variety of utensils—I especially like the expressway formed by end-to-end ladles—are absolutely fascinating.

In studying centuries-old traditions of Chinese landscape painting, you learn that one of the keys to a successful landscapeestablished during the Song Dynasty (960–1279/1280)—is that the painting invites the viewer to take a stroll in the land depicted. Well, that certainly happens for me when I look at this installation by Zhan. I want to take a stroll in these shiny streets!

The contrast of old and new, natural and man-made forms is one of the driving forces behind the sculpture of Zhan Wang. Born in Beijing, he learned landscape brush painting at an early age from his grandfather and an uncle, who taught him sketching. He studied sculpture at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts, where he became part of the 85 New Wave movement (1985–1989). This movement was a reaction against social realism espoused by the Communists, and incorporated a wide variety of Western-inspired contemporary art, ranging from traditional imagery of rural Chinese life to groups that espoused Zen-Dada conceptualism. It inspired the development of 79 independent avant-garde artist groups all over China.

Some of Zhan’s most recognizable works are his castings in stainless steel, updating the idea of eroded “scholar’s rocks,” often seen in Chinese painting. This series is entitled Artificial Rock, and like Zhan’s Buffalo installation, Zhan confounds the viewer by translating a traditional subject into a material that is completely opposite reality. Just as scholars believe scholar’s rocks contain the vital energy called qi, there is a definite vitality in Zhan’s pristine arrangement of pots and pans as an American city. I believe the crinkly form in the background of Buffalo is one of Zhan’s Scholar’s Rocks.

Many of the galleries representing Zhan call him an “iconoclast.” Most people would interpret that as someone who objects to images of sacred characters. But I think it also deals with conceptualism, where Zhan as an artist overturns traditionally held beliefs about art forms and subject matter.

Zhan Wang (born 1962, China), Urban Landscape Buffalo, 2005–2010. Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2017 Zhan Wang. (AK-2842)

Correlations to Davis Programs: A Community Connection: 9.5; A Personal Journey: 9.6; A Global Pursuit: 9.5; Beginning Sculpture: 7: Discovering Art History: 17.5 

Saturday, September 9, 2017

An Art Ode to Labor Day Week, part 5

Labor Day Week continues with the work of Eldzier Cortor.

Eldzier Cortor (1916–2015, US), Coming Home from Work, 1938 / 1943. Black ink on paper with pink fibers, 20 7/16" x 17 11/16" (52 x 45 cm). Art Institute of Chicago. © 2017 Estate of Eldzier Cortor / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (AIC-285corars)

I’m pretty certain that all of us have felt like this guy looks at one time or another after a long, hard day at work. What I’d like to show with this artist—through his image of a hard-working African American man—is a facet of Eldzier Cortor’s art of which many people are not aware. Cortor is mostly represented in books about African American artists for his depictions of elongated, beautiful African American women, often in drab surroundings. However, a larger portion of his oeuvre of paintings and prints was a document of everyday life among African Americans. I’m pretty fond of his work because he developed as an artist in Chicago, my hometown.

Although the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s has gotten far more attention as the premier African American artistic and cultural movement of the 1900s, Chicago, too, had a dynamic aesthetic movement that included an influential renaissance in art, dance, and, especially, jazz music. By 1960 (considered the last year of the second wave of the Great Migration), the African American population in the city had increased from almost 300,000 to 813,000.

Already in the 1930s African American artists such as Margaret Burroughs (1917–2010) and Charles White (1918–1979) had helped form a vibrant community of exhibiting African American artists, quite of few of them educated at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Many of these artists established community groups of Chicago’s great South Side: The Art Craft Guild (1932), which taught lessons from the SAIC, and the South Side Community Arts Center, which had the support of the Federal Arts Project during the Depression (1929–1940).

Eldzier Cortor, born in Virginia, was a painter and printmaker who studied painting and drawing at the School of the Art Institute. He joined the easel painting section of the Federal Arts Project in 1938, and spent five years painting social realist murals and scenes of Chicago’s South Side neighborhoods. In 1946, he was awarded a scholarship to study art and culture on the islands off of South Carolina and Georgia. There, the strength and nobility of the women he met there inspired his famous series of African American women in interiors.

Cortor was the first African American artist to use the beauty of African American women as a primary theme. He first received recognition when his painting Southern Gate (1942–1943)now at the Smithsonian American Art Museumwas featured in Life magazine in 1946. Another fellowship in 1949 enabled him to study art further in Cuba, Haiti, and Jamaica. His stay in Jamaica inspired a series of non-objective and abstract prints that reflected political violence in Haiti.

Correlations with Davis Programs: A Personal Journey: 2.3; Exploring Visual Design: 12; Discovering Art History 4E: 15.4

Friday, September 8, 2017

An Art Ode to Labor Day Week, part 4

Labor Day Week continues with rural life in late-1800s England.

Peter Henry Emerson (1856–1936, Britain), Women Working Reeds, from the series Pictures of East Anglian Life, 1888. Photogravure on paper, 8 ½" x 11 5/16" (21.7 x 28.7 cm). Image © 2017 Davis Art Images. (8S-20612)

We should take a “time out” in the corner if we ever complain about what we have to wear to work, whether it’s a uniform, suit, or office casual. Can you imagine working outside doing physical labor in a corset, petticoats, full skirt, apron, and hat???? These women are engaged in “osier peeling,” stripping off the outside of hollow, jointed tall grass called reeds. The resulting stripped reeds would then be made into baskets, hats, etc. Reeds in Britain must continue to have a lot of uses because they are still harvested every year in Norfolk from December through April. I assume, though, that a lot of the work is automated by now.

Toward the end of the 1880s in England, banal, posed genre subjects flooded the market. Instead of direct imagery, traditionally considered the strength of the medium, these photographs were little more than “cut and paste” handwork. Photographers would take as many as five negatives of staged tableaus, arrange them on one plate, and print them together as one. Composite printing could produce ghostly secondary images that were meant to represent memories, ghosts, or visions to the higher contrast primary scene.

Some photographers, such as Peter H. Emerson, reacted against reducing photography to the sentimental and artificial. Emerson introduced the theory of Naturalism. He believed that the photographer should photograph natural settings, not posed studio shots. He also believed in having the central subject in sharp focus and the surrounding background slightly out of focus, for he believed that that was the way the human eye sees.

Emerson studied medicine and science in college. He bought his first camera in 1882 and studied the medium with the typical thoroughness of a scientist. He first exhibited his photographs, winning many prizes, in 1885. He was an avid lecturer and writer on his aesthetic theory of Naturalism. Like many of the art photographers, he believed that photography could be an art in its own right.

In 1888, he began to document the rural life of East Anglia. Many indigenous customs and traditions were fast disappearing, and Emerson saw in them an inherent nobility, much like Realist painters. The gravure print process was a perfect medium for capturing the misty atmosphere of that region of England. This photograph is a quintessential example of his theories.

Emerson explained his theories in the book Naturalistic Photography published in 1889. His ideas about using natural settings and unposed subjects as art photography influenced Pictorialism in the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century, when art photography had its last peak of popularity. 

Check back tomorrow for a bonus Saturday post to wrap up the Labor Day Week series.

Correlations to Davis programs: Focus on Photography 1E: 2, 3; Focus on Photography 2E: 4

Thursday, September 7, 2017

An Art Ode to Labor Day Week, part 3

Labor Day Week continues with this album leaf depicting blacksmiths at work in Korea.

Kim Deuk-sin (1754–1822, Korea), Blacksmiths, leaf from an album of genre scenes. Ink and colors on paper. Gan-song Art Museum, Seoul, South Korea. Image © 2017 Davis Art Images. (8S-26191)

I often marvel at how hard producers of the TV show M*A*S*H tried to faithfully depict everyday life in Korea. Of course, looking at this scene from the turn of the 1800s is an unfair comparison to 1950s Korea, but it does make me want to go home and watch some M*A*S*H shows! When one sees depictions of such mundane activities in Chinese and Japanese art of the same period, they are often done with “humor.” In other words, those scenes have an element of mockery to them, particularly works by artists such as Hokusai (1760–1849). Kim Deuk-sin actually gives his scenes a sense of dignity, rather than send-up.

Throughout the centuries, Chinese art influenced Korean artists, particularly painting and ceramics. While landscape painting developed with a strong Chinese style in the Song Dynasty mode, indigenous styles appeared in figurative work, particularly genre scenes. The Joseon Dynasty is considered to be the period when Korean painting reached its maturity.

Koreans suffered greatly during the second half of the Joseon Dynasty (ca. 1590 onwards), first from Japanese invasion, then at the hands of the Chinese armies that came to Korea’s aid, only to stay to pillage. By the 1700s, peace with China and Tokugawa Japanese isolation brought somewhat better conditions. Korea’s greater degree of independence is reflected in the subtle elements of indigenous stylistic variations seen in paintings of this time. Painting was divided into two "schools": 1) landscape painting in the Chinese style and official portraiture; and 2) scenes of everyday Korean life.

Kim Deuk-sin and his brother Kim Sok-sin were leading genre painters of the late Joseon period. The brothers were sons of a court painter Kim Eungri. They became members of the royal guild of painters. That notwithstanding, they were pioneers and advocates of the "true view painting" style. The style, known as pungsokhwa, is represented in far more of Kim’s works, particularly albums, than official portraiture.

Correlations to Davis programs: A Personal Journey: 2.3, 2.4; The Visual Experience: 13.6

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

An Art Ode to Labor Day Week, part 2

My Labor Day Week series continues with this ukiyo-e woodcut.

Okumura Masanobu (1686–1764, Japan), A Roofer’s Precariousness. Woodcut print on paper, 10 3/4" x 14 5/8" (27.3 x 37.1 cm). © 2017 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1135)

I guess this roofer should have kept his mind on his work, rather than turning to ogle the young woman innocently baring her leg while doing her laundry. Even doing the laundry, she is depicted in the height of fashionable kimono and the latest coiffure, one of the key elements of ukiyo-e. This print is charming in so many ways, especially the little hint at traditional Japanese landscape with the tree in the upper left. I’m never quite sure what the roofer is actually working on, since he seems to be straddling a garden wall. But the dizzying perspective of the architectural elements creates a solid background for the main plot.

The Tokugawa shogunate (1603–1868) maintained strict control over every aspect of society, making amusing prints like this a welcome diversion to the hard-working middle class. The earliest ukiyo-e images are usually dated around the 1670s with paintings of beauties from the Yoshiwara. Monochromatic prints endured through the first two decades of the 1700s, when color started to be hand-applied. Multiple-block printing did not develop until the 1740s, when two-color prints appeared, called benzuri-e. Masanobu was also around for the development of multiple-block (as many as twelve colors) in the 1760s.

Ukiyo-e—pictures of the floating world—referred to the transience of the earthly pleasures of Japanese cities and their many entertainments. Ukiyo-e prints arose out of this milieu as a chronicle of the latest fashions, most popular actors, and famous beauties. They also documented humorous scenes of everyday life (genre).

Little is known about Okumura Masanobu's training or upbringing, until he appeared on the print scene around 1701. Early in his career he reworked a series of prints designed by Torii Kiyonobu (1664–1729). His elegant, lithe women established a fashion in prints that endured through the 1700s. By 1720, he was sufficiently successful to open his own publishing house, a rarity at the time. It gave him greater creative—and monetary—control.

Be sure to check out Part 3 of my Labor Day series tomorrow.  

Correlations to Davis programs: A Personal Journey: 2.4; Experience Printmaking: 4; The Visual Experience: 3.5, 9.12, 13.5

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

An Art Ode to Labor Day Week, part 1

I know that Labor Day is past, but we can keep it going throughout this week with a few works of art that represent the working class. The subject of labor has been a trend in art going all the way back to prehistoric cave paintings and rock carvings showing people tending to animals and hunting. I know going to a 9 to 5 job in contemporary life is not the same as hunting-and-gathering, but basically, we’re all doing it for the same reason—to survive.

Indonesia, Majapahit Kingdom, Woman with Attendant in a Garden, architectural relief fragment, 1300s. Chalk stone, 18" x 17 ¼" x 5" (45.7 x 43.8 x 12.7 cm). © 2017 Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. (AK-1241)

I always get a bit of the sads when I see fragments of a once flourishing kingdom. The Majapahit empire flourished between about 1293 and about 1500/1513 in eastern Java. Wherever there’s a kingdom there are going to be rich people who have servants. Servants are performing about the most thankless labor imaginable—although I know from personal experience that waiting tables and working in a gas station aren’t much fun either! The deeply-carved reliefs of the Majapahit are as elegantly detailed as those in reliefs on the stupa at Borobudur in central Java, though slightly more stylized, especially the garden foliage. I can just hear this seated woman ordering her servant to do something!

It is generally believed that the earliest inhabitants of the Indonesian archipelago were of Indian or Burmese origin. Later migrants, known as Malays, came from Southern China and Indochina around 3000 BCE. Since the early period, the Javanese established trade with India and China. Prior to the arrival of Buddhism and Hinduism to Java, the native inhabitants practiced a form of animism.

Hinduism was introduced from India through trade during the first 100 years CE. Hindu kingdoms were established in Kalimantan, Sumatra, and Java between the 400s and the 1200s, some of which had also absorbed Buddhist influences. Javanese architecture began under Hindu influence, with a surge of Buddhism from about 750 to 850 (as evidenced by the monumental Stupa in Borobudur), and a second flourishing of Hindu architecture that lasted from the late 800s until the 1300s with the coming of Islam.

The Majahapit Empire (Kingdom) was an Indianized culture in eastern Java, Indonesia. The legendary “founder” of the kingdom was a prince Vijaya who was aided by Mongol troops from Yuan China to overthrow another ruler. The capital was established in Trowulan, which nowadays yields treasures of the Majapahit. The period of greatest power of the Majahapit kingdom was during the reigns of Queen Tribhuwana (1336–1350) and King Rajasangara (1350–1389). According to an old Javanese epic poem Nagarakretagama (ca. 1365), the Majapahit extended their control over Bali, Sumatra, Borneo, and New Guinea.

Some scholars assert that the kingdom only consisted of eastern Java and Bali, but records from Ming China delegations relate the wealth of the Majapahit kingdom, and it is thought to have had influence with Cambodia and Thailand, as well. The kingdom collapsed starting in the mid-1400s when the number of Islamic states began to increase along the northern coast.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 3: 3.16; The Visual Experience: 13.3; Discovering Art History 4E: 4.5

Monday, August 28, 2017

American Artists Appreciation Month V

August is “American Artist Appreciation Month” continues. We’ll end the celebration with two unusual interpretations of chairs.

Wendy Maruyama (born 1952), Post-Nuclear Primitive Chair, 1986. Cherry wood, 48" x 15" x 17" (121.9 x 38.1 x 43.2 cm). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. © 2017 Wendy Maruyama. (MFAB-533)

You may not remember the horrific nuclear arms build-up of the 1980s under Reagan, but it really sent the fear of nuclear war through our culture. It spawned such movies as “The Day After” (1983) about nuclear holocaust. I would imagine the terror of the period is what inspired Post-Nuclear Primitive Chair, a piece in which Wendy Maruyama imagines society rebuilding itself from the ruins of war.

Maruyama, born in Colorado, is a third-generation Japanese American whose parents and grandparents faced the brutality of Japanese internment camps during World War II (1939–1945). She is equally affected by that experience as she is by being an American exploring her Japanese heritage. She is reverent of Japan’s “craft” history, although appalled at the materialistic, patriarchal society. Her multi-faceted art work reflects her social activism, which includes advocacy against the senseless killing of wild animals.

Maruyama studied woodworking at San Diego State University (BA 1975), Virginia Commonwealth University, and Boston University (MFA 1976–1978). She was one of the first two women and the first deaf student to complete an MFA in furniture making at the Rochester Institute of Technology’s School for American Crafts (1980). Her furniture design was influential in the early period of Postmodern “art furniture” of the 1980s, when she challenged the male-dominated field of not only furniture making, but also woodworking in general. Maruyama’s furniture used humor, social commentary, and sculptural forms to challenge traditional notions of furniture design.

James Castle (1899–1977), Large Chair. Soot and spit, corrugated cardboard faced with off-white printed paper, gray cardboard faced with yellow paper, torn, cut, folded and wrapped; punched, stitched and tied with thin black and blue ribbons and white cotton string, 30 ¾" x 12" x 1 1/8" (78.1 x 30.5 x 2.9 cm). Image © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-2766)

I’ve posted about James Castle in the past, and have registered my discomfort with the designation of “Outsider Art.” I’ve now come to embrace the term “visionary art” for artists like Castle. In Castle’s case, his deafness and lack of formal means of communication (like signing) led him to live most of his life in a visual world of his own making.

According to his family, he began drawing and making things out of found scraps of paper and cardboard at an early age. He apparently checked the family trash containers on a daily basis to find materials for his works. He made tools out of broken fountain-pen nibs, apricots, and sticks, and early on discovered he could make ink by spitting into the scrapings of soot from the stove.

Castle created numerous constructions of such common place things as chairs and other household objects, young girls in colored dresses, and animals. The ingenuity and careful attention to structure he paid to these constructions make them truly worthy of being compared to anything produced by the Dada artists or Surrealists who had worked simultaneously in Europe.

In my earlier post, I said I hesitated to compare his work to that of other artists, but I’ve changed my mind. This construction chair reminds me of the work of Margaret Wharton (a Chicago artist). I wonder if she ever saw Castle’s chairs?

Margaret Wharton (1943–2014), Eliyahu, 1975. Disassembled chair, 61 3/8" x 46 1/16" (156 x 117 cm). Private Collection, Chicago. © 2017 Estate of Margaret Wharton. (8S-19319)