Monday, July 26, 2010

Beautiful Blue

When one thinks “ancient Egyptian art,” pyramids and mummies usually pop into one’s mind. Not mine (as you might know). Several years ago I went to the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design when they held an exhibition on ancient Egyptian faience objects. It is one of the most ancient of ancient Egyptian materials to make works of art, and really, in my mind, the most beautiful coloristically. I routinely seek out faience objects when I visit museums with sizeable Egyptian holdings, as I did recently at the MFA in Boston (lots of amulets!). Now if only I could find a tube of oil paint in the primary color of faience, which is a brilliant blue-green!

Although faience is often categorized as “ceramics,” it is not made of clay. It is made of silica, from sand composed of crushed quartz, and small amounts of lime. Faience would be better associated with glass, as silica and lime are used in making glass. Egypt is rich in silica in the form of desert sand. The silica forms the bulk of the body. Water is added to ground silica/sand, with lime and quartz grains added as it dried to prevent it from crumbling. Like ceramics, the final step in the process was firing and glazing. The body of the object was covered with a soda-lime/silica glaze with copper added for the distinctive blue-green color.

In ancient Egypt, the production of faience developed during the pre-dynastic period, roughly from 4000 to 3200 BCE. The earliest known objects made of faience were beads for necklaces and belts. During the Early Dynastic period (2920-2650 BCE), the size of faience pieces increased to include numerous objects used in religious ceremonies and burials, as well as tile decoration on temples and tomb precinct buildings. The most commonly seen objects in museums are beads, amulets, rings, pendants, and small ushabti (receptacles for the deceased’s spirit).

Chalices such as this were common tomb objects in Egypt. Aside from the usual reference to providing for the deceased’s needs in the next world, faience was a particularly relevant material for tomb objects. The word for it – tjehnet – is related to those for the properties of “gleaming,” “shining,” and “dazzling.” This not only refers to the faience’s physical properties, but also the equating of the rising sun with rebirth after death. The lotus flower, too, was a symbol of rebirth, because the lotus flower opened every morning to the rising sun.

This chalice appears in the set Window in Time: Ancient Egypt.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Visions of the Future

I consider any work of art that stands apart from what the mainstream “art world” is cranking out to be worthy of attention every now and then (well, not just “now and then,” dang it, all the time). This goes especially for architecture. I think we, in western culture, are so accustomed to the glass box high rises in our cities that we don’t really notice little gems of architecture that are truly individual. Every period in the history of art has had standouts in this vein. I’m sure that this little medical-dental office is not going to be listed in major art history surveys, but I find it to be a fascinating statement about what was going on in architecture in the 1970s.

During the 1970s, modernist architecture began to veer away from the severe, sterile International Style (I call it glass box architecture) that had dominated western skylines since the 1950s. Mies van der Rohe and Skidmore, Owings and Merrill are prime examples of this style. While the idea of form following the function of a building persisted in the 1970s, many architects approached it in innovative new styles that reflected evolving influences: ecology, utopian architectural communities (such as Paolo Soleri), and, eventually, historical architectural styles (which led to Postmodernism).

Having grown up in the 1970s, I can remember not just a preoccupation with modernism, but an actual interest in envisioning what “the future” would look like in architecture. Granted, this led to some bizarre, impractical designs, but, the architecture of the early to mid-1970s is fascinating when one tries to figure out what the architect was thinking. Such is the case with this little “medical-dental building” in Allentown. Is it the product of an ecology-minded architect who was attempting to make the building seem to roll out of/into its surroundings? Or was it his vision of a “21st century” building?

I find several features of this building absolutely charming, including the asymmetry and the round entrances. The interior design must have been challenging with the curving outer walls, but the overall design is quite pleasing, almost organic the way the building seems to hug the ground. It puts me in mind of contemporary architect Renzo Piano, some of whose buildings also seem to rise out of the surrounding environment:

Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, Switzerland

Beyeler Foundation, Basel, Switzerland

If I had grown up in Allentown at the time and had doctor appointments in this building, I would have thought that it was totally awesome, like being in Star Wars or something.

After looking at this building, ask your students to design a building that they think reflects the purposes of a medical center.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Art History Heroes

Alma W. Thomas (1891-1978, US), Breeze Rustling through Fall Flowers, 1968. Acrylic on canvas, 58" x 50" (147.3 x 127 cm). Photo © Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Art © Estate of Alma Thomas. (PC-556)
We all have heroes of one sort or another, be it a sports figure, politician (as if), or favorite teacher. My heroes are artists whom I have learned to appreciate over the years (go figure, as an art historian). My greatest joy is the fact that on a weekly basis (sometimes daily) I come to learn about the work and life of various artists of whom I had never heard before. Well, let me tell you, Alma Woodsey Thomas has to be right up there with Claude Monet and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner in my list of artists I absolutely admire, not only for the beauty of their work, but for the story of their life. Obviously I think there’s nothing more important than art education, and Thomas was an art teacher all her life. Like Monet, Thomas explored abstract themes late in life, based on her observations of nature. Needless to say, I think you have to see one of her works in person to appreciate the true complexity of the build up of color. 

Thomas was the first graduate of Howard University’s newly formed art department in 1924. She taught art to children for thirty-five years, the whole time producing realistic paintings, which she exhibited in shows for black artists. Her works were respected but not acclaimed.

In the 1950s she studied painting at American University and became interested in color and abstract art. At the time Abstract Expressionism held sway in the art world with its emphasis on pure color and dynamic brushwork, as well as fields of unmodulated pure color. Thomas’s interest in color led her to choose Color Field painting, rather than works that represented her African American heritage. 

Thomas was offered a one-person show at Howard University in 1966 when she was seventy-four years old. Instead of exhibiting her color field paintings with large, flat areas of color, she decided to exhibit paintings that were in a totally new style. She was fascinated by the leaves outside of her window and the way that sunlight coming through them created endless varieties of pattern and color. Her style of mosaic-like color fields was born, including works such as Breeze Rustling through Fall Flowers. Having started showing in her seventies, Thomas became one of the most exhibited African American artists.

Red Rose Cantata is another work in the Davis archive you should check out. 

Alma W. Thomas, Red Rose Cantata, 1973. Oil on canvas, 69" x 50" (175.3 x 127 cm). National gallery of Art, Washington, DC. © Estate of Alma Thomas.

Who are your art history heroes?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

21st Century Calligraphy

Since my post on the first of June, I seem to be on a tear about updating tradition. Did you ever get the feeling when you’re working on your own art that there is nothing that hasn’t been done? I often get that way about my painting, but I keep plugging along, hoping that future viewers will glean something from my painting that speaks to the period in which I produced it. In my research about the contemporary art scene in China, Japan, and Korea, I’ve learned that traditional forms of art, i.e. scroll painting, calligraphy, and ceramics, still account for a large part of gallery offerings. A lot of western-influenced contemporary art is exhibited more in the West. This includes art that is totally modernist in technique, but relies on traditional subject matter.

The written language has been perceived as an art form since ancient times: Egyptian hieroglyphics, cuneiform, medieval manuscript illumination, Sanskrit, and Asian calligraphy, to name a few. Arabic calligraphy has achieved particular heights of artistic beauty, in part because of the emphasis in the Qu’ran on the importance of the written word. Perhaps in no other cultures, however, do we see calligraphy elevated to the status of primary subject matter as we do in the cultures of Japan, China, and Korea, where entire screens are covered in giant characters. In these works, the emphasis on the movement of the brush stroke is as important as what the characters say.

Son is a contemporary South Korean artist with one foot in contemporary abstraction, and one foot in the tradition of Korean and Chinese literature and calligraphy. He transforms centuries-old poems into lively visual presentations, incorporating humorous and often abstract figures in his works. Many times, as in this work, the figures are based on calligraphy brushstrokes that have been much enlarged to create an abstract sense. While his abstract forms are completely modern, he makes sure that his calligraphy is not too far from traditional content. While he feels that calligraphy should be lively and expressive, avoiding the grid-like rows of Chinese calligraphy, he never enlivens it to the point where it denigrates the tradition of poetry and calligraphy.

Son has been exhibiting his calligraphic works since his debut exhibition in 1992. He often selects traditional Korean poems written in Chinese characters. The poem in this work is written by Shin Hum (pen name: Sang Chon, 1566-1628); it conveys the poet's appreciation and understanding of life. The calligraphy-based forms among the calligraphy recall the blown-up details of drawings that became the mature work of American Franz Kline (1910-1962).

Here are more examples of calligraphy as subject matter.