Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Public art

Leon Reid IV in São Paulo.

Idea: the beauty of art in public is that art cannot be public. Art is necessarily private, intimate, as any experience (yes, also the so-called "group experience"). So art that is out there, when it's good, makes contact also because it creates a special, intimate zone where the public regains its human dimensions.
And yes, to answer your question, I am tempted to think this applies to any public art, of any size and in any context.

(Leon Reid IV via)

Monday, July 30, 2007


Some artists produce mediocre work because they just can't do any better. Others produce it because they're able to get away with it.

Jack Davis is a highly talented artist who has done beautiful work over a long and stellar career. He also churned out enough lame, half-hearted work to decimate an entire forest.

Davis' talent was obvious from the start. Note the confidence, humor and strength of the brush work in this early contribution to MAD magazine:

Davis was still producing excellent work for MAD decades later.

During those decades, his distinctive style became wildly popular. His work appeared everywhere, from the cover of Time magazine to cheap advertisements in the back of local newspapers.

Davis worked at lightning speed, and apparently did not believe in turning down assignments. He obviously knew the difference between good and bad drawing, but you might not know it from some of the work he pushed out the door:

Every artist is born to confront this same temptation. Artists need to eat and deadlines are remorseless. If a client will pay for a hasty, second rate job, why should an artist ever do more? A great deal depends on how an artist answers this question.

I've previously quoted the great illustrator Robert Fawcett, who was no stranger to this temptation. Fawcett fought back:
The argument that "it won't be appreciated anyway" may be true, but in the end this attitude does infinitely more harm to the artist than to his client.
Ben Jaroslaw, who worked with the famous illustrator Bernie Fuchs, recalled how Fuchs responded to the opportunity to coast along doing repetitive, lucrative work:
All the local art directors kept calling up saying, I want Bernie! I want Bernie! But Bernie got tired of doing pictures of people holding drinks and just said, "shove it."
Another illustrator who worked with Fuchs, Bob Heindel, made a similar observation:
I know Bernie has tried to choose his assignments, and I know he has done some work he is not so proud of....That's how you learn. But you learn to protect yourself, and mostly if you care about it you learn to protect your work. Bernie was always very protective of his ability. Not that he was vain-- quite the contrary. But he knew what he had. And he always wanted the opportunity to do his very best.
Jack Davis has had a wonderful career, but his legacy would be different if he had been a little more protective of his great ability.

One of my very favorite cartoonists, Leonard Starr, once said that writing and drawing a syndicated daily comic strip was like "running in front of a train." He laughed,"you'd be surprised how good a drawing starts to look at 3:00 in the morning." The pressures are real. So where does an artist draw the line? When facing similar temptations, I often think back to this wonderfully instructive passage from Starr's comic strip, On Stage:

We are all entitled to lie down a little, but make sure you know how to count to nine.

Experiencing Bergman

I was full of doubts. I had never been to the cinema to see a Bergman. Tried watching Persona on TV, and I don't recall where and when exactly I was severely disappointed by the Seventh Seal.
Saraband was to be my first real Bergman experience. The film was publicized as extremely slow and extremely beautiful and true - "yet another Bergman classic". I am allergic to film classics. I went to see it on the same principle as I read Hegel and Heidegger - to make sure I know why I don't like it.
I went with a couple of my friends, we were having a great time all day.
The film has a horrible poster of an elderly couple embracing. He has an old sweater, looks filthy, they are both as serious as any Nordic film couple should be. I figured this was one of Bergman's last films.
The experience was stunning. It certainly isn't a classic - thank God. It has a total simplicity about it which only apparently puts it in the bourgeois linage of Strindbergs and other Ibsens. Actually, it's much more delicate, sensitive, it does not play out any scandal (which I am very tired of), only shows how relations between people evolve.
There isn't much more, really. Yet it is the proportions, the subtle movements of the plot, that won me over. I found myself with a sort of enthusiastic empathy for the characters that I didn't know I could have. Yes, it's the artistic containment. But it is also the not-overdoing-it. The getting to what makes up a person.
What impressed me most was that I didn't find any of the annoying symbolism of Persona. There is no need for metaphysics if you look carefully enough into what is in front of you.
Saraband was Bergman's last film.

I have heard an anecdote about Bergman's severe approach to moviemaking: during one of the shootings, his cinematographer's mother fell very ill and was said to be dying. The cinematographer wanted to go. Bergman looked at his long-time, faithful collaborator and said: "If you leave now, you son of a bitch, you can never come back!".
I don't know which film they were supposed to be shooting. But it simply couldn't have been Saraband.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Doing the right thing for art

Fragments of Richard Jackson's installations.

Parantheses from Barthes' Camera Lucida (1&2)

(this is how life is made up of small solitudes)
(one needs to classify, to group, if one wants to constitute a corpus)
(if it exists)
(a certain photo and not the Photo)
(spoken out)
(from what it represents)
(which happens in the case of any other image, charged since the beginning and by principle with the mode in which the object is simulated)
(professionals can)
(out of commodity it is necessary to accept this universal which, at the moment, only sends us towards the tireless repetition of contingency)
(I believe the sharks, according to Michelet)
(I didn't know yet that out of this stuborness of the referent in being always present would appear the essence of what I was looking for)
(there is no photography without something or someone)
(to take pictures of)
(the voice of science)

all the parantheses from chapters 1 & 2 of Camera Lucidaby Roland Barthes (my translation)

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Vik Muniz : how much cool is too much?

This is pretty.
Aesthetic experience, yes. Or maybe just a hint of a possible one? How is one to distinguish?

Here is Brasilian artist Vik Muniz presenting his work to an American, non-artistic audience. Notice how technically sophisticated the presentation is. And how the classic dynamic of informal intro - funny bits - thoughtful part - witty ending is well executed. You can clearly see he worked in advertising - he knows how to sell his product. Also, notice what impresses the audience: the technique, the means. The sugar drawings. You did this with sugar?
What's wrong with that picture? What makes it sound like a trick and not like something "creative", in the sense of our dear old contemporary art? Maybe because what is appreciated, in the case of this audience, is mainly 1) skill, and 2) wit. So why is that not enough? Maybe because we tend to dismiss it as having more to do with craftsmanship than with art. But is it really so? The sugar drawings are of kids who work on sugar cane plantations. Still not enough. Something too easy about it, too directly linking two worlds, not letting us travel far enough?
Entertainment. That's what disturbs the artsy eye. He aims to please. He makes his own art look like a fun adventure, not a serious, deep labor. From time to time, he sends a message to the more attentive viewer, but mainly it's just, well, cool.
But an attentive viewer will see there is a lot in there. There are delicious (sorry, I couldn't resist myself) approaches to contemporary art, and some pretty effective dialog undertaken (the dust reproductions, but see also the pigment ones). Effective. Effect. Material. Fluffy little clouds of cotton. Happy. Too happy? Is too happy not contemporary enough? Or is it that sugar is, well, simple, limited? And chocolate, too... Unless, of course, you are Bobby Baker. But maybe, as in Bobby Baker's case, this is to be taken to another level? (The people at PS1 certainly think so)

My favorite part, as you might guess, is at the end, when he speaks about theater and about illusion: "It's not really about impressing, or making people fall for a really perfect illusion, as much as it is...about giving somebody a measure of their own belief, how much they want to be fooled".

You may also want to see Muniz's erotica (made of Silly Putty), although I don't find it particularly attractive.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


Let's face it-- artists love to draw faces. Penetrating eyes, distinctive noses, expressive mouths-- these are often an artist's richest lode.

But when that face turns away and the artist no longer has facial features with all their emotion and meaning-- what does that leave? Just the simple line of a human cheek. What can an artist possibly make of that?

Well, my friends, that depends on the artist.

Look at the knowledge that Alex Raymond conveys with this sensitive drawing. This cheek demonstrates more wisdom than most artists could convey drawing a full face.

Next, Austin Briggs applies a cruder tool and a simpler approach to the same subject, yet still manages to convey just as much information. As I said in an earlier post, I think this is a thrilling piece of draughtsmanship.

In the following detail from an illustration by Robert Fawcett, the person drawn from behind was obviously a much tougher artistic challenge than the full faces drawn from the front.

Finally, the great Mort Drucker infuses personality and vitality into a face that is not only viewed from behind, but is also obscured by layers of scuba gear.

Despite the obvious drama of the human face, it can be a far greater challenge to draw the head using just the subtle contour of a cheek. Experienced artists recognize that it is difficult to draw the head from that perspective. For many, the result ends up looking like a blob of pastry dough.

Sometimes it pays to look for artistic greatness in the simplest places. The philosopher Santayana wrote,

Miracles are so-called because they excite wonder.

In unphilosophical minds, rare or unexpected things excite wonder, while in philosophical minds the familiar excites wonder also.

Lots of artists can dazzle you with flashing eyes or a dramatic expression. But the artist who can find the miraculous potential in the humble curve of a cheek and can convey that miracle to you-- that is an artist worth watching.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Art > > framing

photo by Jindrich Marco (via)

I get a sense (...) that somehow I trade majorly in comical irrelevance and apparent digression. Narrators/voices that are never really getting to the point, or who are straying from the point very often and as far as possible. Also the totally irrelevant fact from the background pulled out as preposterous foreground. Makes me think (on a tangent) of that description of movie extras (or is it scenery painters?) - as 'background artists'. Manipulation of background. As if foreground were (is in fact) only ever an excuse for what you are *really* doing, elsewhere.

Tim Etchells, on his excellent (and bloggaly self-centered) blog

The White Desk

by Benoit Lemoine & Cecile Boche

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Two absolutely unassociated quotes hereby given a common ground

One suggestive bracket for the project and very close ot the idea of the interview which guided Żmijewski in the realisation of this cycle, is Truth Serum. Althamer is asked a series of question while under sodium pentothal. Żmijewski begins with the usual prosaic issues: Where do you live? How many children do you have? (...) And at the end, a question about art: 'What is the significance of the fact that you make sculpture, dolls, films?' 'It gives me joy,' replies Althamer. 'I like when people laugh.'

- in: Artur Żmijewski. If it happened only once it's as if it never happened. (my bold)

Lisbon and Berlin are, currently, comparable places of creation and experimentation: there, artists seem more free to explore the limits of their undertakings [plus libres d'aller jusqu'au bout de leur propos].

- Léa Lescure, in: Mouvement, #44, July-Sept. 2007

And if you really need a connection, here is a quote and a song (uhmmm... press play):

“A new born child has no teeth.”—“A goose has no teeth.”—“A rose has no teeth.”—This last at any rate—one would like to say—is obviously true! It is even surer than that a goose has none.—And yet it is none so clear. For where should a rose’s teeth have been? The goose has none in its jaw. And neither, of course, has it any in its wings; but no one means that when he says it has no teeth.—Why, suppose one were to say: the cow chews its food and then dungs the rose with it, so the rose has teeth in the mouth of a beast. This would not be absurd, because one has no notion in advance where to look for teeth in a rose. ((connexion with ‘pain in someone else’s body’.))

L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (for a simple analysis followed by a ridiculously complicated statement, see here, and for a note on Bruce Nauman's work inspired by this quote see here)

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Krijn Van Noordwijk - saying more

Is there anything else you wanted to tell me?
Really, there seems to be something you left aside. As if something could explain your silence, your persistent silence.
I am watching, but I am not sure if what I see is what you want me to see. How am I to interpret it? Shouldn't there be some clearer way of knowing where it's you, and where I'm just daydreaming?
After all, I can see you and I can tell, you are this person, from here to here, you have physical limits and those limits constitute you.
Why is it, then, that your look escapes me, that your words seem shallow, as if only touching on the surface of what you are saying? Is there a code? Some sort of password I need to get somewhere?

Come on, be honest. There is nothing. What You See Is... Then why do I see so much, and get so little? Why do I feel we share something we can't admit? Should I shut up? Let it go? How dare I?
All the pictures taken from Krin Van Noordwijk's site, which deserves a close look (although it's not very comfortable to look through).



Today is the 90th birthday of Walt Reed, the world's foremost scholar and historian of illustration art.

Walt is author of the seminal Illustrator in America, 1860-2000, the foundation of all scholarship in the field, as well as Fifty Great American Illustrators, A Century of American Illustration, monographs about artists such as Joseph Clement Coll, Harold von Schmidt, John Clymer, Mort Kunstler, etc., and Famous Artists School books on Figure Drawing and other subjects. Each book is respected for its integrity of scholarship, soundness of judgment and clarity of expression.

When I was a young boy, I saved the money from my paper route for an entire month to buy The Illustrator in America. When I finally had that treasure trove of artists and styles in my hands, I nearly wore out the pages studying it.

Since that time, I've had the pleasure of getting to know Walt personally. The sincerity and the purity of his love for the art form is an aesthetic experience all by itself. He has the respect and admiration of all who know him. Who else can say that at age 90?

He doesn't go on the internet and won't see this, but happy birthday anyway, Walt!

Friday, July 20, 2007


Happy Famous Artists on the Wittgenstein Forum. Here, this is a triple inside joke. And it makes me smile.

Machine That Tries to Tie a Shoe
by Adriana Salazar

Placed outside of the White Cube Gallery Masons yard at 3.30 am on Sunday night in response to the Damien Hirst's "For The Love of God" diamond skull exhibition.The "For the Love of God" prank was created using 6522 Swarovski crystals
and took Laura, the artist, a month to create.

The Power of Re-blogging

Some art bloggers seem to consider re-blogging, or the idea of having the same image, review or "discovery" appear on many sites, a proof of a lack of originality and frankly a waste of the reader's time. After all, we want to see new things, discover new territories, etc. It is one thing to have a group of political blogs re-post the same silly picture of the opponent, but quite another, to have the same artistic event presented in the very same way on different art blogs. This idea clearly implies that art blogging is "supposed to be" about uniqueness. The art blogger is somewhere between a curator, a critic and yes, an artist.
Re-blogging, in my view, is a wonderful way of discovering what we have in common, of creating trends and actually promoting artists and events. Copying someone else's text might lack in originality, but isn't that one of the things which gives, say, the sciences so much credibility? Doesn't it empower those who speak? A quote is a powerful thing. And if at first I frowned upon seeing the very same news appear in several art blogs, I now find it thrilling. So what if I've already read some comment - right besides it there are three others I've never stumbled upon. It's strange to see how the "artistic milieu" has a tough time dealing with the idea of a wave, a tide. Some blogs of course go for it, even all the way. But it's as if it were wrong, or worse, poorer. If you really need it, you can just consider that the different contexts in which the news appear shows the broadening scope of a work, it's range of impact. But actually, I find the "art milieu" so far behind in respect to self-promotion, PR and the like, I wouldn't mind seeing ten times as many re-posts. Ah, a world filled with art...

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Gravel, Mayes, Sondin-Klausner and the art ripple

Oh boy, oh boy... When life mixes with art, it's exciting. But when politics becomes conceptual, that's really something!
First, here you have it: a video of former US senator Mike Gravel, who is now a candidate for US President.

I need not say this is brilliant. And funny. And this and that.
Now what you need to know is that, contrary to what many news-desperate journalists claimed, this is not part of his campaign.
It is actually the work of two young artists and art teachers, Matt Mayes and Guston Sondin-Klausner. You have all the background explanation in this lengthy interview:

The funniest comment on this event appeared in the LA Times. My favorite part is:

Gravel's works confront us with our own existences and our deaths, the brute thereness of truth, the skull beneath the $400 haircut, the cellulite under the pants suit. His is neo-existentialist, post-apocalyptic, post-post modern art, a silence that screams and cajoles.
I suggest to you that a Gravel presidency would lead to an entirely new America, doing to us what cubism did to post-impressionism: dragging us moaning in glorious epiphanic pain into a new world.

(Some people actually didn't see the irony.)
It is amazing to see how even after they acknowledge that the video is not a political ad, commentators still analyze it as such. This brings about a few issues:
- The power of presence. No matter how many times you explain the context of your action, if you are facing a camera/the viewer, you are identified as yourself, and are thus, yes, creating a ripple.
- It's impressive how people find it difficult to accept that this is no stunt, no ad, no campaign. It might be pointing towards one, but, as Gravel says himself, he didn't even get the chance to buy the two artists a cup of coffee. Apparently, though, the (American?) viewers find it hard to disassociate a politician with his political life.
- There is room for art in politics. Also thanks to the net and YouTube and the like. You just have to be witty.
- If someone had an idea for promoting his product and decided to take a fairly known politician to do it, it could be difficult to execute. Especially if the idea was odd and came from an unknown individual who had a (seemingly) low social impact. But, and this is my thesis, because it is art, it was accepted. Meaning art at last has managed to become a political lobby! Or, to put it more calmly, there seems to be a space opening up for artistic/social games that extend towards politics.
- Mike Gravel himself has clearly underestimated the power of what he participated in. But he seems to be a courageous guy, fighting vehemently for many issues other politicians avoid. So this is not a random choice on the part of the artists, it is a deliberate participation in a political debate. Which brings me to another question:
- Couldn't we see this sort of activity as a narrowing of artistic perspectives? Yes, I mean by using them to a concrete political goal, making a very specific statement, letting go of so many other issues we could have... If you drop by here from time to time, you know my view: art is not just some golden puppy. Sure, it can be. But there is nothing wrong with opening up to a "broader audience". And letting in some fresh (political! social!) air.
The link between artists and the rest of mortals is a delicate issue, mined with all sorts of surprises and turn-arounds. Many works that at one point seem completely isolated from society (think Duchamp's Fountain, but also many films, actions, etc.) some time after are cherished as a wonderful expression of what "society feels" (heheh). But also, and this is the part many of us forget, many initiatives that are made with the goal and conviction of bonding with the world (think the Living Theater), when seem from a perspective look a little (or very) ridiculous, and certainly not attaining the utopic communion with the onlooker. So it is great to see a work that in a very simple way manages to convince people to stop a second and watch the ripples in the water. And, because of the particular context, help them make some sense of it.

Mayes and Sondin-Klauser also made another video with Gravel, Fire, which I find somehow less appealing, probably because the editing with a several-minute-long close-up of fire was to me, hummm, boring. And also, as often in minimalist works that never end, I find it slightly arrogant to have me there staring and waiting what will happen, just so I get the idea that this will last. I get it. No need to push the issue.

(found here)

Monday, July 16, 2007


When I recently posted a drawing by Frank Brangwyn (1867 - 1956), I was surprised to hear how Brangwyn-- once one of the most famous artists in the world-- had faded from memory.

Early in his career, Brangwyn was touted as "the Rembrandt of tomorrow." Then fashion took a sharp turn toward modernism, and Brangwyn quickly became yesterday's news.

One such modernist group, the Futurists, wrote a wonderful manifesto:

We want to deliver [art] from its gangrene of professors, archaeologists, tourist guides and antiquaries.

To admire an old picture is to pour our sensibility into a funeral urn instead of casting it forward with violent spurts of creation and action. Do you want to waste the best part of your strength in a useless admiration of the past....?

For the dying, for invalids and for prisoners it may be all right. It is, perhaps, some sort of balm for their wounds, the admirable past, at a moment when the future is denied them. But we will have none of it, we, the young, strong and living Futurists!
I get a kick out of the Futurist manifesto, but on my little oasis in blogland we do not judge art on the basis of manifestoes, fashion trends or market statistics. Strip away the politics of the art establishment and judge these once again as pure drawing.

Just as with the studies of Edwin Austin Abbey, Brangwyn's working drawings enable you to see his talent in mid-flight. Note his theatrical instincts as he searches for just the right dramatic pose.

He ain't no Rembrandt, but there's a lot still to be learned from a great talent like this.

What a computer virus really looks like

Too much virtual art research can be hazardous to your, well, being.
(See here and here)

Thursday, July 12, 2007


The starting point for art is our five senses. Yet sight, touch, and other senses are no help when it comes to one of the most powerful themes for art.

In his final play, Shakespeare laments, "Our little life is rounded with a sleep." That sleep-- vast, profound and impenetrable-- defeats artistic understanding. There are no colors or shapes or designs to portray it. In fact, the clues we receive from our meager senses usually end up making the artist look silly.

In Robert Frost's poem Home Burial, a mother wails at her inability to accompany and understand her dying child:
The nearest friends can go
With anyone to death, comes so far short,
They might as well not try to go at all
Perhaps for this reason, most artists satisfy themselves with depicting the observable detritus left behind, rather than trying to get any closer.

Artists who do try to explore what lies beyond consciousness usually get about as far as the veil:

The powerful painter Arnold Bocklin employed a similar device-- a distant island-- but the point is the same: no sneak previews allowed.

If art cannot help us see past the veil, what insight and consolation can it give us?

For me, one of the most successful efforts was George Herriman's lovely dialogue between Krazy Kat and the afterlife. Here, Krazy Kat uses an ouija board to seek the wisdom of the spirits on the other side of the veil.

Herriman's light and elegant touch combines profundity and humor. Most of all, his tenderness and humanity seem to me a far better response to our ignorance than the grim and ponderous approaches of Bocklin or Brueghel.