Monday, December 17, 2018

It’s Scarf Weather

Yuh Okano (born 1965, Japan, designer) and Daito Pleats Company (1979 to present, Gumma, Japan, manufacturer), Epidermis (Ocean) scarf, 1994. Polyester, shibori-dyed, heat set, length: 47" (119.4 cm). Image © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 Yuh Okano. (MOMA-D1044)

I’m not sure how warm these scarves would be in winter, but they sure would be fabulous displayed over a black overcoat! The honor accorded Japanese textile art equals that of ceramics, and certainly exceeds that of jewelry. What is awesome is that so much of Japanese textile design involves hand work. Although shibori is often designated as Japanese tie-dye, it is much more complicated process and deserves a category of its own. The whole impetus behind shibori is the creation of a resist-dyed, three-dimensional fabric. It involves twisting, pulling, and pinching fabric before dyeing it. Yuh Okano explores this technique beautifully.

Shibori is an ages-old traditional technique of resist dyeing cloth. Like tie-dye, small sections of textile are bound together with string. The bound section acts as a resist, keeping the cloth under the string from being dyed in the dye bath. Okano has developed her own method of shibori wherein she places a small resin bead into the cloth before tying a section. She then dyes the fabrics in multiple dye baths. Once the dye is set by steam, she removes the resin beads. What results are three-dimensional bubbles, pods, and thorn-like shapes. Lastly, the polyester is heat-set to preserve these shapes.  

Okano traces some of the influence in her textile designs to shibori patterns in kimonos from the Edo Period (1615–1868). In effect, her works are a synthesis of the artificial (polyester) and the traditional (shibori). Synthetic fabrics, such as polyester, are ideal for use of the heat-set method of “freezing” surface qualities in dyed textiles.

Both of these examples from her Epidermis series show how her patterns are also influenced by the natural world. The Ocean works recall not only waves in the ocean, but also the sea life underneath, such as coral and algae. Interestingly, Okano is expressing these elemental ideas in a basically modern, technology-produced fabric (polyester is a synthetic resin).

Yuh Okano and Daito Pleats Company, Epidermis (Ocean) scarf, 1994. Polyester, shibori-dyed, heat set, length: 53" (134.6 cm). Image © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 Yuh Okano. (MOMA-D1043)

Okano was born in Japan and now has studios in both Japan and New York. Her initial studies in textile arts were in Japan, and she then received a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1991. For the remainder of the 1990s, she was an assistant to the famous textile designer Arai Junichi (born 1932). He works in the city a Kiryu, a centuries-old center of fabulous textile arts north of Tokyo. He has invented many extraordinary contemporary textiles using such materials as nylon and aluminum foil. He has even enfolded hand-made paper into his textiles. In 1999, Okano started her own company called Textiles Yuh. She produces scarves and fabrics for other clothing.

Heat-set textiles such as those by Okano remind me of another Japanese textile designer I’ve posted about, Reiko Sudo (born 1953). She was also an associate of Junichi. Like Okano, she uses polyester and the heat-setting process to produce marvelously pleated textiles. 

Sudo Reiko (born 1953, Japan, designer) and NUNO Corporation (1984 to present, Tokyo, manufacturer), Origami Pleats textile, 1997. Heat-set polyester plain weave, 3' by 23' 4" (91.4 x 711.2 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2018 Reiko Sudo. (PMA-7136)

Correlations to Davis programs: A Personal Journey 2E: 3.5; Explorations in Art Grade 3 1E: 6.33; Explorations in Art Grade 3 2E: 6.4; Explorations in Art Grade 4 1E: 5.28; Explorations in Art Grade 4 2E: 5.5; Exploring Visual Design 4E: Chapter 6; The Visual Experience 3E: 10.8, 12.4

Monday, December 10, 2018

A Winter Bench

Dutch artists have been innovators in design since forever. Artists of the De Stijl movement of the early 1900s are standouts in this category. The works of that movement characteristically feature designs reduced to basic geometric shapes and primary colors. Think Mondrian and Rietveld. Speaking of Rietveld, I never really looked at his Red and Blue Chair (1918–1923) as terribly comfortable, but it does make for appealing sculpture. That said, ceramic artist Wouter Dam graduated from the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam. At that school, ceramic sculpture seems to play a major role in the curriculum, not just functional wares. I really like this piece from 1997. It reminds be of snow on a park bench.

Wouter Dam (born 1957, the Netherlands), “Ceramic Form, 1997. Ceramic, 7” x 14" x 9" (17.8 x 35.6 x 22.9 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2018 Wouter Dam. (PMA-7904)

Dam’s ceramic sculptures are an interesting combination of an ode to utility and a clear love of free-form designs. Interestingly, his early works, while sculptural, maintained utility. This is something that he abandoned in his later mature work. The artist has stated that he tries to give his works a vague sense of a real vessel in order to allow the viewer to imagine which utilitarian form the work insinuates. There is, however, an asymmetry to his works that defies traditional vessel forms. Dam begins his undulating, elegant forms by throwing on the wheel, which is not at all obvious in the work above. He subsequently cuts, folds, and twists to achieve his dramatic forms.

When these two pieces were created, Dam achieved a matte finish by rubbing dry pigment into the surface of each form before firing. He now sprays on stains to achieve the same effects. Dam prefers a matte finish to his pieces so that the subtle curves and shapes of his forms are easy to discern.

Dam asserts that the influences on his pieces are wide-ranging. His works reference Neolithic and Iron Age ceramics, the human body, wooden boats, and crashing waves. The vessel form derivation is a little clearer, as is the idea of crashing waves, in the piece from 2001 below. For works like this, Dam again started on the wheel, throwing a variety of cylinder, vase, and bowl shapes. He then cuts and joins the pieces together to form these almost ribbon-like shapes. The undulating curves and velvety surfaces of these pieces beg to be touched!

The son of an architect from Utrecht, Dam was encouraged from a young age to appreciate the arts. He started studying at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in 1975, exploring pioneering shapes and volumes that have continued to the present day. 

Wouter Dam, “Ceramic Form,” 2001. Stoneware, 12" x 22 7/16" (30.5 x 45.7 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2018 Wouter Dam. (PMA-8761)

Correlations to Davis programs: Experience Clay 2E: 3, 5; Beginning Sculpture: 2

Monday, December 3, 2018

Christmas Came Early

Antoni Gaudí (1852–1926, Spain), Casa Batlló, Barcelona, 1905–1906. Photograph: Helen Ronan. © 2018 Davis Art Images. (8S-29953)

Christmas in 2018 came early, namely, this past summer. I always feel as if I’m getting Christmas presents when we receive new images of art from museums, or receive new photography of artwork already in our database. Well, this year, the presents came in the form of new photography of Antoni Gaudí’s architecture in Barcelona, thanks to one of our editors who went there on vacation. She’s an art historian, so obviously she knows what she should shoot!

Casa Batlló by Gaudí does not get as much “press” as some of his other projects, but it is equally gorgeous and equally indicative of his amazing design prowess. Gaudí was a visionary pioneer of architectural forms that contain elements present in Art Nouveau, the Arts and Crafts Movement, and numerous historical revival styles popular at the time. Educated in the revival styles, he was most drawn to Gothic Revival and a host of experimental architects such as Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (1814–1879). Also, one cannot ignore the ages-old influence of Islamic architecture after their domination of the Iberian Peninsula. This clearly comes through in Gaudí’s love of ceramic tile decoration, seen above in the façade of Casa Batlló.

Josep Batlló i Casanovas (died 1934) was a wealthy textile industrialist. He bought an existing townhouse in the Beaux-Arts Classicism revival style. He offered for Gaudí to tear it down completely and create a new masterpiece from scratch, as Gaudí did with Casa Milà. Gaudí instead gutted it and created this masterpiece. Although it is tempting to attribute Gaudí’s organic forms to Art Nouveau, his organic vision was a personal combination of all his many historical interests. I think it easily fits into a Gothic-influenced style.

Antoni Gaudí, Casa Batlló, Barcelona, interior of second floor (Piano Nobile or “Noble Floor”) main suite. Photo: Helen Ronan. © 2018 Davis Art Images. (8S-29954)

Is Frank Gehry (born 1929) the only architect who designs without any straight walls? Years before American architectural pioneer Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959), Gaudí conceived of domestic architecture in which rooms flowed seamlessly from one to another to produce architecture that emulated a sculptural mass. Throughout his career, he followed a unique vision in which he designed buildings imitative of living organisms, where interior and exterior are joined in a natural environment. 

Antoni Gaudí, Casa Batlló, Barcelona, interior, central light-well/court. Photo: Helen Ronan. © 2018 Davis Art Images. (8S-29956)

Gaudí was inspired by the nearby marine environment of the Mediterranean in his decoration of the façade and interior. From the windows on the second-floor suite to the tiles of the light well, navy blue and ochre—the colors of the Mediterranean and its rocks—dominate the color scheme. Not only do walls undulate in imitation of waves, but the tile decoration is imitative of fish scales. The windows in the second-floor main suite imitate water bubbles. 

Antoni Gaudí, Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, interior, 1883 to present. Photo: Helen Ronan. © 2018 Davis Art Images. (8S-29970)

Gaudí’s biggest project, which was only about twenty percent finished when he died in 1926, was the Basilica of the Holy Family (Sagrada Familia) in Barcelona. The church was conceived of as a sister church to the 1500s Basilica of the Holy House (Santa Casa) in Loreto, Italy, a shrine to the Virgin Mary. Sagrada Familia was commissioned by members of the Association of Devotees of Saint Joseph. It is a glorious combination of Art Nouveau and the Gothic style that Gaudí so cherished. It was only recently opened to the public (2010), and construction is ongoing. My favorite part of the nave construction is the scalloped floral shapes that act as vaults. It’s sort of like Gothic coffers! And boy did Gaudí appreciate the importance of Gothic fenestration! 

Antoni Gaudí, Güell Park, Barcelona, 1900–1914. Photo: Helen Ronan. © 2018 Davis Art Images. (8S-29974)

Helen’s stunning shots from Guell Park round out this showcase of Gaudí’s combination Gothic/Islamic/Art Nouveau style. A lot of the tile in Gaudí’s work reminds me of Spanish Renaissance majolica work (tin-glazed earthenware). If you look closely at the tile decoration of Gaudí’s buildings, however, you will see that is composed of broken (on purpose and accidental) ceramics. This type of mosaic tile work is called trencadis. The color choices settle in so nicely with the surrounding stone and plantings of the park.

Monday, November 26, 2018

November Birthday of a Brilliant Artist

Neda Al-Hilali (born 1938, US, born Czechoslovakia), Atlantis, 1976. Cast paper, 14' x 8' 9” (427 x 249 cm). Image courtesy of the artist. © 2018 Neda Al-Hilali. (8S-19419)

I have come to the point where I no longer like to designate artists to any particular medium. This is due to the fact that so many artists do not confine their interests to a single medium. All the same, there are some artists who are pioneers in certain media, which I feel I must mention when discussing their work. Neda Al-Hilali, a sculptor and installation artist as well as a painter, is definitely an artist you should you know about when the subject of the fiber arts renaissance of the 1970s comes up.

The first recognition of fiber arts as a fine art form in the West came with the Arts and Crafts movement that developed in the 1860s in England and spread throughout Europe and the US. The next revolution in fiber arts came with the Bauhaus in Germany (1919–1933) under the leadership of Anni Albers (1899–1994). The Feminist Art Movement of the 1960s and 1970s reinvigorated fiber arts under such renowned artists as Claire Zeisler (1903–1991), Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930–2017), and Miriam Schapiro (1923–2015). In the 2000s, fiber arts are more vibrant than ever.

Al-Hilali participated in the landmark “fiber” show Deliberate Entanglements in 1971 at UCLA Galleries. For her, it was the culmination of years experimenting with textiles that led to room-sized fiber installations, such as Nar in the Deliberate Entanglements show. Like many of the artists working in textiles and textile techniques at the time, Al-Hilali did not want her work to be confined to wall hangings and other stereotypes of fiber art. Early on in her studying textile arts at UCLA (1961–1965), she searched for ways to make traditional textile arts into three-dimensional art forms. The fact that fiber pieces are such obvious references to textiles led her to explore the three-dimensional possibilities of paper.

Al-Hilali experimented with knitting with paper, as well as manipulating paper into constructible pieces by running it through a printing press. Because the printing press she was using was only three feet (91.4 cm) long, she began to plait together sections of manipulated paper such as is seen in Atlantis. This piece explores the pressing of the paper until it becomes glossy, to which Al-Hilali added paint. In Atlantis, Al-Hilali explored a variety of textures and a range of painted designs, all unified within a “knitted” grid of individual paper sections.

Al-Hilali was born in November 1938 in Czechoslovakia during World War II (1939–1945). Clothing privations meant that she learned from her mother how to take old materials or garments and create something new. She also learned how to knit. While living in Baghdad, she was fascinated with the numerous types of embroidered textiles she saw in the market, and gradually decided that pursuing textile arts was her passion. This came to fruition when she moved to California in 1961 and began studying weaving at UCLA. From there, she went on to teach at Scripps College in Claremont, California, where she continued to pursue her passion for textile art, combining it with installation and painting.

Atlantis is composed of hundreds of fragments from pressed out paper that is shaped and painted. Al-Hilali referred to the individual pieces creating the surface texture as “tongues.” Her exploration of paper culminated in a giant installation called The Beach Occurrence of Tongues (1975), the first installation that relied on paper as the primary medium. Atlantis certainly depicts the idea behind the Tongues works. 

Neda Al-Hilali, Atlantis, detail, 1976. Cast paper, 14' x 8' 9” (427 x 249 cm). Image courtesy of the artist. © 2018 Neda Al-Hilali. (8S-19419)

Monday, November 19, 2018

A Meal and a Plate for It

John James Audubon (1785–1851, US) and Robert Havell, Jr (engraver, 1793–1878), Wild Turkey, Male, plate 1, Volume I of The Birds of America, 1835. Hand-colored engraving and aquatint, sheet: 40" x 27” (101.6 x 68.6 cm). © 2018 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1334)

This week, I’m going to recognize Thanksgiving with works of art, rather than odes to a holiday that has evolved from “giving thanks for blessings” to gluttony and narcissism (gee, narcissism in this day and age?).

What could be more fitting this week—for humans, not the bird—than to show my preferred and the most elegant image of the American turkey? According to Audubon’s own notes, the wild turkey was his favorite bird to illustrate. It was the largest species in his publication The Birds of America. He also noted that he agreed with Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) that the turkey should have been chosen as the national bird of the US.

Audubon’s Birds of America was a landmark artistic endeavor in ornithology (the study of birds). Precursors of such studies date back to the Renaissance. Immediate precursors were The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, published before the Revolution by the British scientist Mark Catesby (1682–1749), and Alexander Wilson’s (1766-1813, Scotland) American Ornithology. Wilson’s publication is quoted quite often in Birds of America. Wilson’s notes in turn often referred to specimens in the first American science museum founded by the brilliant early American artist and scientist Charles Willson Peale (1738–1815).

Audubon, born in Haiti and raised in France, immigrated to the US in 1803. From 1819 on, his passion was the study of the native animals of the US. He always produced life-sized watercolors. His usual format showed one example of the bird in profile, set in a background he thoroughly researched. Early in his studies, he devised a way of posing the dead bird (which he often participated in shooting) upright within a wire grid.

The Havell engravings were produced on double elephant folio paper, the largest paper available for printing at the time. The copper plate engravings were based on either the watercolor studies or oil paintings Audubon produced of the birds. Audubon supervised the printing and coloring the works in Havell’s London workshop. Audubon probably never envisioned the storerooms of Walmart and supermarkets overloaded with frozen turkeys this time of year! 

Turkey, Dish, from Iznik, 1500–1525. Quartz-clay-glaze frit, height: 15 ¾" (40 cm). © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-1377)

I chose a beautiful plate on which to serve the turkey from a brilliant school of ceramics. And, no, the blue-and-white ceramic is not purposely chosen from “Turkey” because of the holiday, I just wanted to make sure a small turkey would fit on it.

Iznik in Turkey has been a center for ceramic (and glass) production since ancient times. It was an ancient Roman center (called Nicaea then) during the Empire (ca. 27 BCE–476 CE). The city is also thought to have produced ceramic tile decoration for buildings during the Byzantine Empire (ca. 330s–1453 CE). It was during the Seljuk period (1037–1326) that the distinctive “Chini” type of ceramics were developed for architectural decoration. This evolved into many distinctive wares during the Ottoman Empire (1326–1923), when the Iznik ceramics were at their peak of popularity.

Between the 1500s and 1600s, ceramic arts flourished under the Ottomans, and Iznik thrived as the main center of supply for ceramic tiles for decorating buildings. Chinese porcelain had been known in Islamic lands since the 1400s. Many Iznik artist adapted Chinese decorative styles as competition, particularly the blue-and-white wares that were perfected during the Chinese Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).

As the Ottoman Empire increasingly looked toward political and economic expansion in the late 1600s, the interest in protecting the trade in Iznik ceramics declined. So, too, did production of the wares perfected during the 1400s and 1500s. Because the glaze and clay formulas were passed down from father to son, and with lack of imperial support, the Iznik secrets died out during the 1600s. This problem was compounded by the rise in sophisticated European ceramics and imitations of Iznik, as well as Japanese and Chinese, wares. This plate from the early 1500s represents the zenith of the Iznik blue-and-white wares.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Awesomeness in Two Media

Natalija Goncharova (1881–1962, Russia), Landscape 47, 1912. Oil on canvas,  21 ½" x 18 3/8" (54.6 x 46.7 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-P2279goars)

Throughout the history of art, artists have worn many hats. In that, I mean artists have not always stuck to one medium. This is true globally. In Western art, during the first twenty-five years of the 1900s, Russian artists were pioneers in modernism, producing the first totally nonobjective art. This coincided with the evolution of Cubism with Picasso and Braque, De Stijl with Mondrian and Doesburg, and German Expressionism. Russian modernist artists hoped that the Revolution of 1917 would usher in an appreciation for a revolution in the arts. Unfortunately, this was quickly quashed. The Communist revolution needed art to be realistic enough to convey the party line. So, many Russian artists moved to other parts of Europe so that they could explore their individual forms of modernism.

Natalija Goncharova,
along with Vasili Kandinsky (1866–1944), was one of the founding members of the German Expressionist group Blaue Reiter (1911). In 1912, she helped organize the avant-garde art group Osliny Khvost (Donkey’s Tail) in Moscow with her future husband, Mikhail Larionov (1881–1964). Although at the time she was influenced by Futurism—the offshoot of Cubism that emphasized movement and industrial energy—her work ultimately embodied a variety of abstract influences that eventually played out in her costume and fashion designs.

Goncharova was born in central Russia and attended high school in Moscow. She studied at the College of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, deciding to become a painter. She met Larionov, a key pioneer of Rayonism, in 1900, and at the same time was influenced by Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. The link between Impressionism and Rayonism is interesting—Impressionism stressed the color of physical objects in light and reflected light, while Rayonism emphasized the visualization of light rays (color) bouncing off of and reflecting the forms of physical objects, rather than the objects themselves. Landscape 47 is firmly in her Rayonist period. 

Natalija Goncharova and Mybor Boutique (1922–1936, Paris, Marie Borde Cutolli maker), Woman’s evening dress, ca. 1926. Silk with silk appliqué, metallic thread and wool yarn embroidery. Height center back: 40 ½" (102.9 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (PMA-9253goars)

Goncharova had her first and largest one-person show in 1913. She displayed works inspired by Russian icons and also works in a Cubo-Futurist and Rayonist style. She began designing costumes and stage sets for Sergei Diaghilev’s (1872–1929) avant-garde and internationally (Europe) acclaimed Ballets Russes (Russian Ballets).

With the advent of the disastrous (especially for Russia) World War I (1914–1918), Goncharova and Larionov first immigrated to Geneva (1915), and ultimately settled permanently in Paris in 1917. Paris at the time was one of the European centers of modern art experiment. She produced remarkable costumes inspired by her Russian heritage, influenced by the paintings of contemporary avant-garde art movements such as Cubism and Rayonism.

Between 1922 and 1926, Goncharova created designs for the fashion boutique Maison Mybor, designing unique clothes inspired by the international avant-garde. In her fashion designs, she bucked what was considered traditional, incorporating an intimate intertwining of images, including music notation, letters, fragments of words, and textual messages. This dress contains references to musical instrument forms, but also reflects the influence of her Rayonist paintings.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Beauty Over Chaos

Marsden Hartley (1877–1943, US), Winter Chaos, Blizzard, 1909. Oil on canvas, 33 15/16" x 34" (86.2 x 86.4 cm). Image © 2018 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-276)

I’m purposely avoiding any art that has to do with elections because of this week’s voting. I’m so disappointed with the political climate in this country, I want to show a beautiful work of art to take your mind off of the ridiculous state this country is in. Marsden Hartley is an awesome painter and a pioneer American modernist at a time when it was not fashionable. I will point out that the title of this gorgeous Hartley piece contains the word “chaos.”

In the early 1900s, American avant-garde art was largely influenced by European modernism, primarily movements in France (Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism), Germany (Dark Impressionism, Symbolism, Expressionism), and Italy (Futurism). American artists who had been abroad established original contributions to these styles and, in many cases, they made these styles uniquely American.

Marsden Hartley—as I’ve blogged before—was one of those artists who just exploded with originality after traveling to Europe. Although he spent time in Europe between 1909 and 1912, he had studied in New York between 1899 and 1905. This was the period when he became acquainted with European modernism, particularly all of the offshoots of Neo-Impressionism. Neo-Impressionism had spread from France into Switzerland, Italy, and, to a lesser extent, Germany.

In 1908, Hartley moved to a remote farm in Stoneham Valley, Maine. He stayed through a severe winter until March of 1909 and produced a large number of paintings in the Neo-Impressionist style. He had seen works by the Neo-Impressionists (such as Paul Sérusier, Pierre Bonnard, and Édouard Vuillard) at Alfred Stieglitz’s Gallery 291 in New York. He had also seen works by the Italian Swiss artist Giovanni Segantini (1858–1899)a Neo-Impressionist who painted scintillating alpine landscapes in a pseudo-Divisionist stylein the German magazine Jugend. Segantini’s method of building form in short, thin swipes of pure color is now called the “stitch” method.

Winter Chaos, Blizzard was part of Hartley’s first one-person shows, held at Gallery 291 in 1909. The success of that show enabled him to go to Europe for six years. Although his stitches are larger than those of Segantini, they serve the same purpose to build form. The brushwork of stitches is so tight and space is so condensed that there is very little sense of depth. The emphasis is on the two-dimensional surface rather than as illusionistic landscape. Works from this period came the closest to total abstraction of any of Hartley’s work, including his symbol paintings from Germany. 

Marsden Hartley, Winter Chaos, Blizzard, brushwork detail, 1909. Oil on canvas, 33 15/16" x 34" (86.2 x 86.4 cm). Image © 2018 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-276)

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Compassion in Art, part 2

My Compassion in Art series continues with a look at the subject in photography.

Consuelo Kanaga (1894–1978, US), Untitled, 1930s. Gelatin silver print on paper, 4 1/8" x 3 ½" (10.5 x 8.9 cm). Image © 2018 Brooklyn Museum of Art. (BMA-1446)

Like Dorothea Lange (1895–1965), Berenice Abbott (1898–1991), and Margaret Bourke-White (1904–1971), Consuelo Kanaga was an important documentary photographer in the middle of the 20th century. Unlike her contemporaries, despite a successful career of sixty years, Kanaga received little public acclaim or critical success in her lifetime. Her political and social ideologies guided her art. At a time when most social commentary in photography involved images meant to shock the viewer into action, Kanaga's images seduced the viewer with careful composition, intuitive cropping, and reframing.

Kanaga moved from San Francisco to New York in the 1920s. When first in New York, Kanaga became interested in documenting urban poverty and deprivation. At the same time that she was producing pleasing portraits of middle-class people to support herself, she was also creating sympathetic portraits of the inner-city poor.

The Great Depression (1929–1940) provided Kanaga with ample subject matter in terms of people left with nothing and nowhere to go. Her intent in her documentary photographs was to give the public something to think about to prevent poverty, not to shock or shame them. By choosing a close-up on the man on the bench, her point could hardly be considered subtly accomplished.

Zoe Strauss (born 1970, US), Gunshot in the Leg on Gurney, Philadelphia, 2007/2011. Inkjet print on paper, 12" x 18" (30.5 x 45.9 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2018 Zoe Strauss. (PMA-7364)

Zoe Strauss is a native of Philadelphia. Previously known for her public art happenings and installations, Strauss took up photography in 2000, when she embarked on a ten-year project called Under I-95. She went all-in, devoting her life to the project, and came out the other side an elected member of the famed Magnum Photos cooperative.

An epic, open-ended narrative in photographs “about the beauty and struggle of everyday life,” Under I-95 hinged on an annual, one-day exhibition of Strauss’s street photography—in the form of color photocopies priced at five dollars each—on the concrete pillars under an elevated section of Interstate 95 in South Philadelphia. Although she has photographed in other cities and countries, Strauss continues to document the everyday people in neighborhoods of Philadelphia.

Strauss’ work is reflective of the sophisticated evolution of the Snapshot Aesthetic style of photography. The style flowered during the 1960s in the hands of such artists as Diane Arbus (1923–1971) and Garry Winogrand (1928–1984). It mimicked the candid, un-posed, spur-of-the-moment pictures taken by amateurs and middle-class families. Interestingly, between the 1960s and the 2000s, the style has been refined to subtly reveal psychological investigation by the photographer.

What more disturbing element for Strauss to document than the out-of-control gun violence in the US? When you wake up every night at 2 am and hear gun fire in the neighborhood, then that is not a good thing. Unfortunately, as Strauss points out in this photograph, Americans seem to take gun violence casually, even when they are the victim themselves.

Read part one, Compassion in Art (Printmaking). 

Monday, October 29, 2018

Compassion in Art, part 1

A couple of mornings ago, a homeless person was in the parking lot of our building yelling his lungs out to get attention at 6:45 am. I feel bad for these folks who have nowhere to land during the day. When one thinks about it, this is an important social issue that has recurred throughout history. In the ancient world, homeless people would bed down in temple precincts. During the Middle Ages in Europe, churches often housed the homeless. There have been artists throughout history who have taken on the subject as a way of reminding people that these issues persist. Today and tomorrow,I will take a look at this subject in in printmaking and photography.

Honoré Daumier (1808–1879, France), “You were hungry? You were hungry? That’s no excuse! I’m hungry practically every day and I don’t go out and steal bread!,” #15 from the series Men of Justice, published in “Le Charivari” illustrated newspaper, October 20, 1845. Lithograph on paper, 10 7/16" x 13 ¾" (26.5 x 35 cm). Private Collection. © 2018 Davis Art Images (8S-29950)

Honoré Daumier produced almost 4000 prints in his lifetime. He also supplemented his income with painting. While he did some portraits and genre scenes, many of his paintings concern the same subjects as his prints—the lives of the poor, struggling underclass of the 1800s.

In 1834, a law passed banning outright satire of the government, so Daumier turned his attention to the lower middle class and their struggles. An ardent draughtsman, Daumier elevated the genre of lithography to masterful heights in his exploitation of the possibilities of fine nuances of shading and visual texture. It was during this period that lithography became a serious rival to wood engraving for publications such as newspapers, books, and magazines.

Daumier had a very dim view of judges and lawyers as part of the entrenched government that kept poorer people down. He was also always eager to point out the vast differences between the poor and the rapidly expanding middle class in France. What better way than to show a clueless, fat judge who equivocates the idea of being hungry? 

John Biggers (1924–2001, US), Mother and Children, 1952. Lithograph on paper, 16 ¾" x 13 3/8" (42.5 x 34 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2018 John Biggers/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (PMA-4087bivg)

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s galvanized black artists to push for a revival of exhibitions and the study of African American art. The revival of the black artistic community led to the formation of groups dedicated to integrating common aesthetic problems with a commitment to civil rights. The group Spiral, founded in New York in 1963, elevated awareness of the dual motivations among black artists: art that was relevantbasically narrativeto the black community, and the search for individual modern expression outside of political concerns, which would include abstraction.

The work of John Biggers represents this dichotomy among African American artists. His subject matter addressed concerns of the black community, conveyed in an expressive, abstract visual language. His style is a realism tempered by an abstract simplification seen in African art. He drew his subject matter from his experiences growing up in the South, many of them from the period after his father's death.

The artist produced many versions of Mother and Children. In these personal subjects, Biggers reflected on the larger state of African American communities in America and their experiences. His signature style is a complex network of hatching and cross-hatching to build up form, with an expressive exaggeration. The image of a poor, Southern black woman cradling three hungry children was an image that many African Americans, particularly refugees from tenant farming in the South, could identify with.

Check back tomorrow for part two of my Compassion in Art series, which will take a look at this subject in photographs.