Monday, May 23, 2011

Irony in Modern Photography

Since the mid-20th century, a broad range of experimentation in the form and style of photography has occurred. Experimentation in all types of modernism by artists after World War II (1939–1945) led artists to ignore the traditional distinctions between visual media. Photographers, like other artists, reevaluated the assumptions about photography (as opposed to “fine art” painting) in order to extend the range of possible expression beyond pure documentary photography. The medium was not only integrated into mixed-media events and assemblages, but also became an important record of non-permanent modern art. It also has continued— what from the beginning was deemed vital to early photographers— as a source of documentation of what is going on in the world, be it good or bad.

Light, Sweet, Crude is an ongoing project that Brook Reynolds began in 2007. Educated at the University of Georgia, she lives and works in North Carolina. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, photography of landscape and contemporary artifacts taken without emotional shading have been called New Topographics. This contrasts interestingly with the non-emotional survey photographs taken by nineteenth-century artists cataloguing the western territories. In both instances, the artist was shooting the image with the intention of evoking an emotional response from the viewer.

In the case of artists such as Timothy O’Sullivan (1840–1882) the aim was to inspire awe in viewers of the then little known or explored western territories after the Civil War (1860–1865). Reynolds works from the perspective of a viewer of the diminishing, spoiled eco-system of the U.S. Light, Sweet, Crude addresses America’s obsession with the car and the damage being done to the environment because of it. The series focuses on a number of abandoned gas stations that symbolize not only America’s overwhelming obsession with cars and driving, but the harm petroleum products do to the environment, especially in abandoned gas stations where the buried gas tanks continue to leak into the environment.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 1.2, A Personal Journey: 4.1, A Community Connection: 7.2, A Global Pursuit: 6.2, The Visual Experience: 9.5, Discovering Art History: 17.6

Monday, May 16, 2011

A Texas Original

I absolutely love walking around any city I visit and trying to guess the dates of the buildings I encounter (can’t fight the art historian in me!). The revival of past styles was the hallmark of 19th century architecture in the West. But when have styles not been based on past styles in the West? Ancient Rome emulated Ancient Greece; Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, 18th century, and 19th century architecture harked back to both ancient Greece and Rome; and postmodern architecture harked back to 19th century architecture. Stop the madness!

Although Texas was its own country (1836–1846), it clung to the American fascination with European styles. Obviously, it was because the people who immigrated to Texas were from all the major European migrant groups who had populated the East Coast. Interestingly, many of the Mexican-Americans who are natives of Texas pre-date American immigration into the state. (Immigration was opened to Americans in 1821. By 1836, there were 38,000 settlers).

Nicholas Clayton was born in County Cork, Ireland and immigrated to Cincinnati in 1848. As a young adult he worked as a plasterer in Cincinnati, New Orleans, Louisville, Memphis, and Saint Louis. He was listed in Cincinnati as a marble carver and architectural draftsperson in 1871. In 1872 he established an architecture firm in Galveston after having visited Houston the previous year. He was influenced by all of the revival styles fashionable at the time, including the Queen Anne movement of the 1880s, Richardsonian Romanesque of the 1880s and 1890s, and the Renaissance revival of the 1870s and 1880s. His first known independent work was a church in Austin (1873). However, Clayton was responsible for so many major public, commercial, residential, and religious buildings during his lifetime that some art historians refer to the period between 1880 and 1900 as the “Clayton Era.”

The Stafford bank and opera house was named after its founder Robert Stafford. In its illustrious history it hosted such renowned entertainers as Lillian Russell and Houdini. Clayton designed it in the then-fashionable Italianate style, a rectangular interpretation of Italian Renaissance villas. Key details of the style are pronounced moldings, string course, prominent façade bays with triangular pediment, and running first floor porch/overhang. This type of Italianate façade appeared on commercial buildings in almost every American city.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 1.1, 2.12; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 6.31, 6.32; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 4.20, 4.21; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 3.16, 3.18; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 2.11, 2.12; A Personal Journey: 8.1; The Visual Experience: 11.1

Monday, May 9, 2011

Not Your Typical Mummy

Unknown artist, Ancient Egypt, Roman Period, Mummy Portrait of a Man, ca. 100s CE. Encaustic on wood, 14 1/2" x 8 5/8" x 1 3/8" (36.8 x 22 x 3.5 cm). © Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Mrs. Emily Crane. (AIC-313)

I’m a big fan/geek when it comes to portraiture. This may stem from the fact that I can’t paint a portrait of someone without it looking like a bad cartoon, but I digress. Additionally, I’ve always been fascinated by the art of ancient Egypt. I’m not so fascinated by the aspects of Egyptian art related specifically to the pantheon of deities, but to the aspects of Egyptian art that give hints about everyday life in ancient Egypt. I had a professor in grad school who said—and I agree with her—that art is always significant in that it relays some idea about the estate of human kind at the time it was created. If one applies this to any art movement, it immediately becomes clear what she meant: the artist was reflecting what was going on at the time she/he was creating the work of art. I don’t think there’s anyone who would disagree with the idea that an artist cannot create in an art historical or historical vacuum.
In the fourth century BCE Alexander the Great (died 323 BCE, Macedonian/Greek) conquered Egypt. Subsequently, Greeks intermarried with Egyptians to form Greek ruling dynasties. In the first century BCE, the Romans occupied Egypt. The Greek idealized representation of the body was augmented by the Roman emphasis on extreme realism. While no Greek painting per se has survived from antiquity (outside of vase painting), the mummy portraits of Egypt may be a descendant from that tradition, enhanced by Roman obsession with realism as a way of honoring the deceased’s uniqueness.

Although under Greek and Roman domination from the fourth century BCE, the Egyptians maintained their religion and their funerary practices, including mummification and all the inherent rites. Because it was more expensive to commission elaborately carved, painted, and inlayed coffin lids, Egyptians during the Greek-Roman era opted for painted portraits of the deceased that were affixed over the head of the deceased in the coffin lid. The funerary portraits that have come down to us are mostly from wealthy families of Greek and Roman ancestry that had married into Egyptian families.

Roman artists used encaustic (wax) pigments because they were extremely durable. The man in this coffin portrait was most likely Greek in origin. The golden laurel wreath crown was a Greek symbol of victory, in this case victory over death. The large, vigilant eyes are typical of late Roman portraiture. How this is a contrast to the generalized, highly decorated head pieces of Egyptian mummies from only 800 years earlier! 

Unknown artist, Ancient Egypt, Late Kingdom, Dynasty XXV, Coffin of Horankh, ca. 700 BCE. Gessoed and painted wood, with obsidian, calcite, and bronze inlay. © Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas. (DMA-59A).

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 2.8; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 2.8; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 2.7; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.1; A Personal Journey: 3.2, 6.1; A Global Pursuit: 2.1; The Visual Experience: 15.3; Discovering Art History: 5.3

Monday, May 2, 2011

European Abstract Expressionism?

What we generally read in art history texts is that during World War II (1939-1945) many European modernist artists fled to the US and ended up in New York. At the same time, many American artists with modernist tendencies felt that American art (then dominated by Social Realism) should express a new direction in modernism, divorced from the sterile geometric (De Stijl, Constructivism, Cubism) and non-subjective tendencies in European avant-garde art. What emerged was a synthesis of process and emotion. Bingo: Abstract Expressionism. Most art history texts also indicate that with the advent of Abstract Expressionism, the shift of focus on developments in modern art was to New York instead of Paris. Well, surprise, modernism in Europe didn’t just roll over because of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. It was alive and well, reacting to the same impulses within the New York School.

The New York artists built on the European idea of personally invested abstraction, while avoiding the idea of rational composition. After the war European artists were also eager to move beyond the between war period (1918–1939) where preconceptions of control dominated avant-garde art. One of the veins of abstraction of the post-war period in Europe earned many stylistic terms, including Art Informel in France in 1950, meaning “formless art.” This was followed by such terms as Tâchisme (meaning blotted or stained) in the 1950s, referring specifically to French gestural painting. In essence, Art Informel / Tâchisme were the European manifestations of what spawned Abstract Expressionism in the US.

Jean-Paul Riopelle, born and educated in Montréal, moved to Paris in 1947. He became a follower of Georges Mathieu (born 1921), who has been described as the leader of Art Informel. Mathieu’s technique consisted of impulsive, gestural painting, often from squeezing paint directly from the tube. Between 1955 and 1979 Riopelle was the companion of American Abstract Expressionist Joan Mitchell (1926–1992), some of whose work his resembles. His main technique was to squeeze paint from the tube and shape it with a palette knife, often with directional lines of force. Like the American Abstract Expressionists, his work was intuitive and spontaneous, all the while documenting a process of creation.

I think this work compares very interestingly to Mitchell’s, but also Grace Hartigan’s early work. Learn more about this painting and the artist in my post about Hartigan.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 5.33; A Personal Journey: 5.2; A Community Connection: 6.2, 8.1; A Global Pursuit: 2.2, 4.2