Saturday, June 30, 2007

Light Drawings

by Ben Claassen III & Kimberly Dorn

Friday, June 29, 2007

Using Yorick's laughter

I'm sure you know Damien Hirst's recent work, For the Love of God. Created as the most expensive contemporary art work in the world, it is valued at about 75 million euros. Hirst underlines the value of the diamonds (about 30 million), and plays on the incapacity of judging the "value" of a work by giving it huge value since the beginning.
This business move, not uncommon among the creme de la creme of contemporary artists, is brilliant, of course. You either get it, or you don't. If you go for the bluff, it automatically ceases to be a bluff. Therefore, if you criticize it for being just a silly idea, or a great idea but with a silly number of zeros next to it, or for being a shallow philosophy for the nouveau-riches, then you just don't get it. Of course. Which makes it seem critique-proof.
So far, so good.
But it gets better.

"We must buy the diamond skull for Britain" - this proclamation was made to his countrymen by Jonathan Jones, a journalist of the Guardian to keep the"most amazing artefacts ever made in this country". Jones thus encourages the British to purchase this "work of art", made by"the treasure of Great Britain" Damien Hirst, which is currently on the market for 50 million pounds. Our British friends, we are coming to rescue you! Like the cheap Polish labour well known to you, Polish artist Peter Fuss wishes to relieve the British nation from such a great expense. "For the laugh of God" by Peter Fuss will be available in the Polish car on ART CAR BOOT FAIR at a competitive price of 1000 pounds. In addition, you may also buy a limited (1000 copies) edition of signed and numbered graphics for only 1 pound each. You will not have to wait for tickets anymore to seea skull set with diamonds, and the time of watching Fuss's skull willcertainly not be limited to 5 minutes! To make his work, Peter Fuss used about 9870 pieces of glass polished and cut to look like diamonds, worth 250 pounds and spent 18 hours to complete the piece. Income from sale of Fuss's skull and its accompanying graphics is supposed to amount to 2000 pounds - this is eight times as much as the invested amount! Before the skull goes to the trade fairs to London, it can be seen inPoland, during the Modelator event in Modelarnia, which will take place on28 June.

This is great. Answering another artist is really a delicate matter (and trust me, I know how it can fail). But here, the perfect match is created. It not only lives off the other work, and lives well, gives it a wonderful ironic twist, but also manages to play on the idea of production and even on the stereotype of cheap Polish labor!
One of the best aspects of this project is that it does not stop at an idea. It is not a conceptual work. Someone actually goes and does this, speaking on the very same level as the original statement. And with a terrific sense of humor.
Peter Fuss has been making some interesting work, most of it apparently attracted to controversy. I have been watching him from afar. Some of his previous work (see, for example, his Three Billboards About Love) is poignant and intense while remaining elegant, if not "beautiful". What I like about them, and what makes me uncomfortable as well, is the state of tension between the will of changing something and the need for a distanced, often ironic look, that tends towards a critical fatalism - if I can use that term (a situation where the work does nothing in the sense of working towards an alternative to whatever it criticizes, and appears to be presenting it as a horrible but unavoidable reality).
"For the Laugh of God" has the wonderful quality of being at the same time a critique and a development, a variation on a theme. Irony does not finish its scope. But then, of course it speaks a very different language. The lightness and double-meaning (after all, it is a skull) resemble Yorick's. There is a game between kitsch, luxury and rottenness that, to me, outplays master Hirst.
I would love to buy this. Unfortunately, not only am I completely broke, but I consider this is an opportunity that has to be understood, appreciated and used by the British. So maybe a print?

More on Damien Hirst's work here, on Peter Fuss's art here, and on other Polish related artists here.

Monday, June 25, 2007


Many people know the work of Edwin Austin Abbey from his famous murals in the Boston library. Still more people know him for his slightly fussy pen and ink illustrations that were so popular in the 19th century.

However, if you want to see what Abbey is really made of, check out his wonderful sketches and studies.

Note in the drawing above how Abbey draws with his eraser as much as his charcoal, in order to create the right values.

I prefer these studies to most of his finished drawings. They are very revealing and they have a powerful, mystical feeling to them.

Very few people ever see these studies. Many are locked up in the Yale University collection. However, I think they are almost as important as the Boston murals themselves when it comes to appreciating Abbey as an artist.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Defining place

I am here:

For a synchronic look, you go here (wonderful!). For a diachronic one, you go here. (and explore the rest of the blog as well).


Cultured people are often offended by the vulgarity of illustration. Rocket ships blasting off, bombs exploding, damsels in distress-- such uncouth material could never qualify as fine art.

Yet, Homer, Chaucer and Shakespeare loved sex and violence just as much as the authors of lurid pulp magazines did. Simone Weil noted in her famous essay on Homer's Iliad, "The true hero, the true subject matter, the center of the Iliad is force." She could easily have written the same thing about a Superman comic book.

Many great artists have been fascinated by the aesthetic possibilities of force:

Explosion by Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1515

Leonardo da Vinci had a fondness for drawing explosions and cataclysms. His 16th century efforts to conjure up violent, powerful images seem almost quaint today. Here, Leonardo draws a picture of two battling armies:

Then he tries drawing a picture of a great big violent storm:

Then he says, "Ah, I know! How about if I draw two armies battling during a great big storm? That would really be cool!"

Leonardo's notion of power comes across as sweet and harmless measured by today's standards, but it was clearly not for lack of trying. If he had only known about exploding space ships, he would probably be drawing them right alongside Alex Raymond (above).

If you start disqualifying art due to uncouth subject matter, artists like Leonardo will end up in the dumpster alongside the illustrators. Better that we should focus on the quality of the image without getting caught up in censorious notions of suitable content.

Changing Identities

1.Redesigning flags according to clients' wishes.

2.Redesigning your identity in Second Life.
Notice the guy's t-shirt : "World without strangers".

Sunday, June 17, 2007


By popular demand:

I love the way Leyendecker studies water in the next three images. He never stops looking.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Telling stories. Andy Huang times two

There are two Andy Hunag's living in the US and making great animation.

1. Andy Huang, a student of arts and animation at the University of Southern California, brings us Doll Face, a fairy-tale about... to be honest, I was so pleased with the visual aspect of the video, at first I completely missed the story. Let me give you this opportunity, too.

So, the story is, well, simple. But the doll is charming, the melancholy lightness of it, the delicate texture. Should we always ask for more?

2. Andy Huang, a graduate of communications design from Pratt University, introduces us to a world where design meets animation meets a baroque sense of humor. His is a polyphonic world, one that flies in all directions, cares not about narrative but about a certain shape, balance, impact.

Both Andys have some things in common. Their work is slick, clean, well-focused, it is not afraid of pop, of a certain type of flashiness.
On the other hand, they represent two different choices. One tends towards clean narrativity, a beginning a middle an end, (and in this order...), the other seems much closer to visual arts, chaos is welcome, Flash animation, clean powerpointy cuts, the new digital collage...
This is really a very serious issue: the consequences of each of these options are impressive. Of course, they can be combined, interpolated, tried out and thrown out at will... But there is such a thing as a body of work, career progress, or artistic development. And there is a need for storyline, for things happening that cause other things happening. Causality. And yet, from the perspective of contemporary art this seems so petty, so ridiculous, when you have all these broken, mashed up, re-redone languages... As if it weren't an issue. New playwriting? Experimental cinema? Installations? Maybe. And yet, while participating in all these experiments, while promoting them and enjoying them, I somehow still feel the deep thirst for story.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


I'm sure I have alienated all of the James Bama fans out there by asserting that Bama belongs to a group of highly skilled, realistic painters who ultimately are less than successful as artists because they lack a strong sense of design, composition and other judgmental attributes of good artists. Instead of continuing to blather about what I find missing in Bama's pictures, I thought it would be better to share concrete examples of painting that I believe does go beyond mere realism to display design and grace and charm.

These are studies by the great J.C. Leyendecker. They have never been seen by the public before, but I think they are splendid and merit a wider audience.

Note that these are more than just realistic hands. Leyendecker is not simply copying a photograph he likes. He records visual data about shapes and colors and shadows, but he is also seeking out nature's designs and patterns. He is establishing priorities about what "feels" right. There is elegance and poetry in these three studies that is missing from so much of photorealistic illustration.

Here is another great hand, revealing the artists's keen aesthethic appeciation for the crispness of the glove (as well as the bone and muscle underneath).

As much as I respect the ability to paint realistically, in my view it is not the most important part of being an artist.

Saturday, June 9, 2007


Psychologists tell us that children's drawings exaggerate shapes in ways that reveal the child's inner feelings about their subject. For example, this drawing shows the importance of hands to a child reaching out to pick flowers.

In this and other ways, children's art reveals our first pure perceptions of a world unconstrained by logic or physical appearance.

This world is sealed off forever to adults. Mature brains process visual information and spatial relationships differently. Our neurological systems have learned to mediate between vision and perception, and it is hard to unlearn what we know.

Of course, artists still recognize that pictures can be more effective when feelings alter physical appearance. They ain't exactly picking flowers here, but Jack Kirby and Hokusai both show that they remember how to enhance a picture by exaggerating body parts:

But going beyond mere exaggeration, it's interesting that the artists who strain the hardest to return to the purity of childhood drawings-- the ones who try to capture that early, pre-rational essence in a meaningful way-- are often the most intellectual. Paul Klee, Saul Steinberg, Kandinsky and Dubuffet all worked with simplified child-like forms.

copyright The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

They were all highly cerebral artists renowned for writing long, erudite treatises on art theory. I find it especially interesting that when they abandoned rationality to delve into the simple world of the child, the visual result was often frightening.

copyright The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Scientists study embryonic stem cells because, unlike adult stem cells which have hardened into specific applications with limited adaptability, embryonic stem cells have unlimited potential to develop into any of the cell types of the human body, and to regenerate indefinitely. I think artists tend to return to early childhood drawings in the same spirit. They are looking for a place before our patterns of perception have hardened, to seek fundamental and powerful building blocks for new art.

Saturday, June 2, 2007


It is difficult to paint realistic, detailed pictures. However, artists don't really begin to earn their money until they start deciding which details to leave out.

This brilliant portrait by Chris Payne is a good case in point. The face and hands are tightly rendered, even down to individual hairs.

Yet, other parts of the picture are highly simplified and flat.

Payne recognized that it would be distracting to paint the man's coat with the same intensity as the face. Adding buttons and threads would subtract from the picture.
Contrast Payne's portrait with this different approach by the illustrator James Bama:

Bama is so intoxicated by his ability to paint realistically that he doesn't know when to quit. Here, the shirt receives as much attention and intensity as the face. Everything in the picture is equally important, so nothing is important. This is one of the weaknesses that prevent Bama from being a good artist, despite his obvious technical skill.

I'm not saying that a face is more important than a shirt. All I am saying is that good artists set priorities. Payne is able to achieve that intense, piercing look in the eyes partially because the eyes are not competing with a thousand itty bitty little circles. Bama has not yet set priorities because he is too busy saying to himself, "damn, look how good I am at painting itty bitty circles on the folds in this shirt!"

In my last posting on pin ups, we had a fun exchange on whether it is enough for an artist to paint realistically. While I certainly respect the discipline, my point was that the tougher part of art is the judgment to make choices about what is artistically important and what is not. As Leon Blum wrote,
Life doesn't give itself to to one who tries to keep all its advantages at once.... Morality may consist solely in the courage of making a choice. One must pay for an idea as for anything else.
For me, the best pictures evaluate (that is, make a commitment by displaying the artist's judgment about the relative value or importance of forms and colors.)
Besides, to tell the truth I wanted to circle back around to this topic as an excuse for sharing this nifty painting by Payne.