Monday, September 24, 2018


John Beech (US, born 1964 Britain), Turning Object #13, 2005–2006. Mixed-media, 6" x 6" x 3 ½" (15.2 x 15.2 x 8.9 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2018 John Beech. (AK-3131)

My reference to the word “Turning” has to do with the changing colors of leaves in the now-upon-us autumn season. Instead of focusing—in gloomy fashion—on the end of summer, however, I choose to focus on an artist whose work really interests me. Of course, in this artist’s work, the word “turning” doesn’t have anything to do with autumn foliage, but so what? John Beech is an artist with a very particular view of the entrenched practices of the deified Art World. I find his work awesome in its unpredictability, and love the fact that at the same time that it is very thoughtful, it also seems very spontaneous.

Beech grew up in a small town in Britain, but moved to the US with his family in 1981 when his father got a job in Silicon Valley. He attended the University of California Berkeley to study architecture, but a trip to Morocco and India in 1985 changed his perspective on art. There, he witnessed materials recycled out of necessity and the patching of everyday objects with whatever is available. When he returned to UC Berkeley, he altered his major to fine art with a new passion for painting and sculpture.

Beech’s work is a paradoxical mixture of painting and sculpture. He has called himself a “reductionist,” which would tend to indicate that his work is connected to Minimalism. However, his complex painting/sculptures go beyond the simple math of Minimalism. Turning Object works are an interesting combination of the found object aesthetic of Dada and Surrealism, the simplicity of Minimalism, and the excitement of Abstract Expressionism in the random (seemingly) application of pure color. The nice thing is that these objects revolve in order to appreciate all sides. 

John Beech, Small Rolling Platform #49, 2001. Enameled plywood and casters, 10" x 10" x 10" (25.4 x 25.4 x 25.4 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2018 John Beech. (AK-3291)

Beech views Minimalist sculptor Donald Judd (1928–1994) as an influence, insomuch as his work emphasizes simplicity in sculpture. Beech considers his sculptures a sort of “street-level” brand of minimalist sculpture. Like his Turning Object series of pieces, works such as this are definitely meant to be viewed in motion. He elevates the utilitarian aspect of the components of such works with his brilliant “action painting” coloration of the work. Works like Small Rolling Platform #49 inevitably call to mind Dada found object works, with the addition of painting that makes the work so interesting. 

John Beech, Bent Glue Painting, 2002. Glue on canvas mounted on wood, 8" x 7 ½" x 9" (20.3 x 19.1 x 22.9 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2018 John Beech. (AK-1323)

Beech thinks of many of his works as painting/objects. This may stem from his time as a museum installation technician while he was in college. He realized that the traditional Art World emphasized the front of a work of art as the primary point of interest. His Glue Paintings, in which he exploits the possibilities of Elmer’s Glue, often are presented backwards to show the support of the work. This bent piece emphasizes the fact that what is habitually viewed as two-dimensional is actually interesting three-dimensionally. He has done many installations that feature his painted canvases turned against the wall, revealing the stretched canvas and stretcher bars as the focal point. Brilliant!

To sum up, Beech’s varied body of work is a joy to behold. It truly does afford the viewer a new way of looking at art as part of the real world. Or is that a way of seeing real art in the world? You decide.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Not Just Furniture

Gonçalo Mabunda (born 1975, Mozambique), Harmony Chair, 2009. Welded weapons (handguns, rifles, land mines, bullets, machine gun belts, rocket-propelled grenades) and iron alloy, 56 1/8" x 34 ¼" x 26 ½" (142.6 x 87 x 67.3 cm). Brooklyn Museum. © 2018 Gonçalo Mabunda. (BMA-5609)

When we talk about art that reconciles political, spiritual, and social beliefs all in one pertinent statement—and I’m certainly not talking about ancient Assyrian art, Jacques-Louis David, or Andy Warhol—it is hard to think of anyone who sums it up quite like Gonçalo Mabunda. A lot of contemporary African art deals with the conflict that evolved between social groups after the end of “colonialism” (I call it “invasion and occupation by European countries).

The Mozambican Civil War began two years after Mozambique became a free state (1975) from the Portuguese. It was a conflict between indigenous Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (a Russian-socialist inspired group) and the Mozambican Nationalist Resistance. The war was exploited by the South African white government to undermine the National Resistance’s support of African nationalist groups in its own country. The war ended in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union and South African Apartheid regimes.

Mabunda, who spent his entire childhood in the violence of the civil war, took part in the reconstruction of his country through art directed as a healing element, determined to exchange weapons for farm tools.

Soon after the civil war ended, Mabunda became a gallery director at the Núcleo de Arte, a collective of sculptors in Maputo. He subsequently studied metal and bronze sculpture at the Natal Technikon in South Africa, now part of the Durban University of Technology. A religious organization formed the Arms into Art project in 1997, which was when Mabunda started working full time as an artist.

Mabunda is best known for his throne-chairs. By creating chairs made out of weapons that he experienced during the civil war, the artist negated their evil and the atrocities committed with them. In the genre of collective memory, he expresses not only a moving on from the violence of a power struggle, but also makes comments on the colonialism that fermented the war. He links the weapons-chairs to African tradition, proposing that the lust for power is similar in both Africa and the West in a single work of art.

Chairs, or rather stools, have been symbols of an African ruler’s status and power in Sub-Saharan Africa long before Europeans arrived. They were the literal seat of power, and conquered village leaders used them as representations of loyalty to the ruler. 

Asante People, Ghana, Queen Mother dancing with state stool at Yam Festival, August 1971. Photo: Wilfred Owen. © 2018 Davis Art Images. (8S-11019)

For instance, in Ghana, traditionally the stool used by a ruler was put in a family shrine after his death and venerated on special occasions to honor his wisdom and leadership. During the August Yam Festival in Ghana and Nigeria, state stools were traditionally brought out, washed, and fed the new yam crop, an important subsistence crop in the region. Sometimes, family members of the deceased ruler danced with the state stool as a sign of respect.

Babanki People, Cameroon, Prestige Chair, late 1800s. Wood, 31 ¾" x 21" x 17 ½" (80.7 x 53.3 x 44.5 cm). © 2018 Cleveland Museum of Art. (CL-254)

The chair form was introduced to African peoples (the Chokwe at first, now in Angola and Democratic Republic of Congo) by Portuguese invaders during the 1500s. The form was adapted by many cultures across the region of equatorial Africa as a symbol of authority because of its size. In the Cameroon Grasslands, chairs such as this are valued as symbols of royal prestige and authority. Kings commission such chairs when they first take power as a symbol of their status.

The heads on the base of this chair represent rulers who passed prior to the ruler who commissioned the chair. This makes the chair a potent symbol of the wisdom and royal status of the ruler. It is unusual that it shows both male and female figures riding leopards, the leopard being a symbol of royal strength and authority.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Late Summer Strolls

William Boyington (1818–1898, US), Bellinger House, 2121 North Hudson Avenue, Chicago, late 1860s. Image © 2018 Davis Art Images. (8S-13810)

As autumn is right around the corner, my mind drifts back to one of my favorite pastimes in my hometown, Chicago. I would walk for hours in the various neighborhoods near where I lived looking at the gorgeous late-1800s architecture. During the 1980s, there was a boom in restoring historic properties. I lived about seven blocks north of this house, which I often walked by and loved. If it is true that eight blocks in Chicago equals a mile, then I must have walked thousands of miles in my life there, and saw so many wonderful, restored old houses. This posting will feature the “Italianate” revival style.

I’m pretty sure I walked by the Bellinger House dozens of times in my Chicago period. I asked an art historian friend once about the entrance on the “second floor,” and he told me that it was routinely done in Chicago neighborhoods before the storm drains were perfected. This way, only the kitchen and storage would be flooded when the sewers would inevitably back up. Hence, also the reason for the raised sidewalks of wooden planks at the time.

This house was named for the guy who commissioned it, a Chicago police officer named Richard Bellinger. There is a story about how he saved his house from the Great Fire in October of 1871. Since the fire burned all the way from De Koven Street to Fullerton Avenue (just north of Bellinger House), a lot of buildings around the house were destroyed. Bellinger supposedly saved his house by first dousing it with water from his well. When that ran out, he supposedly used cider from his cellar. He also tore up the wooden sidewalk and patted out sparks.

The Italianate style was popular in the US between the 1840s and 1880s. Before the fire, Chicago homes in the style were block-like residences like the Bellinger House. The style was meant to emulate an Italian “country villa,” though I’m hard-pressed to see that in this building. Stylistic features in Chicago included decorative hoods on the windows, an accentuated verticality, decorative balustrades, and restrained classical elements like the Ionic capitals on the porch.

The architect of this house, William Boyington (1818–1898), was conversant in numerous revival styles for his designs. Born in Southwick, Massachusetts, he trained initially, as many American architects did during the 1800s, as a carpenter. He then apprenticed in a New York architecture firm before moving to the quickly growing metropolis of Chicago in 1853. Because of the lack of architects in the city, he was able to get commissions all over the upper Midwest. Aside from Italianate, he designed many private homes in the Gothic Revival, Romanesque Revival, and Beaux-Arts Classicism (Second Empire Baroque).

Boyington’s most enduring monument in Chicago is the Water Tower (Romanesque Revival), which survived the Fire and still bears some burn marks.

William Boyington, Water Tower, Chicago, 1869, from south. © 2018 Davis Art Images. (8S-13806)

Here are some variations on the Italianate style. There are a lot of examples in Charleston, South Carolina, because, fortunately, the city was not messed up to the extent of cities like Atlanta during the Civil War (1860–1865). 

Unknown architect, John Ravenel House, 5 East Battery Street, Charleston, SC, 1847–1849. Image © 2018 James Coberle, Davis Art Images. (8S-28662)

Charles Autenrieth (1828–1906, US) and Edward Collins (1821–1902, US), Lit Brothers Department Store (now Mellon Independence Center), Philadelphia, 1891. Image © 2018 Davis Art Images. (8S-14712)

This Autenrieth and Collins design is still preserved in downtown Philadelphia, although the Lit Brothers stores went under in 1977. In 1979, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Buildings. This gorgeous building is a combination of cast iron with a facing of glazed brick and terracotta window surrounds.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Never Thought About This

Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902, US born Germany), Blue and White Cloud. Oil on paper, 7 ½" x 9 1/8" (19.1 x 23.2 cm). © 2018 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-5599)

Landscape painters who are smart do studies of subjects such as clouds. I, on the other hand, just worked hours on a landscape last weekend using nothing but my reminiscences of how clouds look to paint a sky. Dummy! I’m always relieved when I find out artists whose work I adore actually do studies of virtually everything they include in their landscapes, including the sky.

Albert Bierstadt is sometimes equated with the Hudson River School, since many of his early works were of locations in the Hudson River Valley. I always associate his work more with the so-called Rocky Mountain School, eastern artists who braved the wild to document the spectacular beauty that is the American western wilderness. I would think it would be safe to assume that this study of clouds was executed by Bierstadt on one of his many sojourns west. He is known to have produced hundreds of oil sketches for paintings of the West that he subsequently produced in mammoth proportions at his New York studio.

Nothing is known of Bierstadt's years in Germany before he and his parents emigrated to New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1832. By 1850, however, he was giving drawing lessons in Boston. He went to Germany in 1853 in hopes of improving his skills by studying with the famous German romantic landscape painter Andreas Achenbach (1815–1910). He ended up, fortunately, studying with expatriate Hudson River School painter Worthington Whittredge (1820–1910).

While in Europe, Bierstadt observed Achenbach's admonition for landscape painters to go directly to nature for subject matter, doing endless sketching tours. On his way back to the US, he stopped in the Alps in Switzerland and Italy, where his love of mountains as subject matter was confirmed.

Bierstadt made a reputation painting European scenery, and began making painting trips to the White Mountains and the coast of Rhode Island in the late 1850s. With his passion for mountain scenery, the American West beckoned to Bierstadt as a source of boundless, new, spectacular mountain subject matter. His first trip west was to the Rockies in present-day Wyoming in 1859. Subsequent trips came in 1863 (Yosemite Valley), 1871 (Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada range), 1876 (Estes Park in Colorado), 1880 (California and British Columbia), 1881 (Yellowstone), and 1889 (Canada and Alaska). The large canvases he produced from these trips west attracted eastern buyers willing to pay high prices. In 1877, he also sketched the scenery in the Bahamas.

I think Bierstadt’s studies of clouds really paid off, if you care to see his many storm-shrouded views of Western landscapes. There are dozens of versions of storms in the Rocky Mountains, where his depiction of low-hanging clouds is simply stunning. I’m not equating the above study with this Museum of Fine Arts, Boston painting, but the comparison is sure tempting. 

Albert Bierstadt, Storm in the Mountains, ca. 1870. Oil on canvas, 38" x 60 1/8" (96.5 x 152.7 cm). © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-383)

I couldn’t resist throwing in this odd little painting. For a whacky subject, it certainly is a tour-de-force of Bierstadt’s study of clouds. And I’m sure that study of clouds came in handy depicting the smoke as well! 

Albert Bierstadt, The Conflagration. Oil on paper attached to board, 11 ¼" x 15 1/8" (28.6 x 38.4 cm). © 2018 Worcester Art Museum. (WAM-270)