Wednesday, August 29, 2007


João Biscainho, AZAP!(As Zoon as Possible)
From the 2 Stages exhibition at the Centro de Artes de Espectáculo de Portalegre.


In 1913, a pernicious little busybody named M. Blair Coan spied on visitors to an art exhibit in Chicago. Coan, an investigator for the State Vice Commission, was upset by the "immorality" of modern paintings and suspected that Matisse's painting of nude dancers might even be "attracting the gaze of young girls."

Coan stirred up a great public outcry against immoral art. He then turned his talents to spreading alarm about the imminent communist takeover of the United States. In one of his books, The Coming Peril, Coan warned that socialism would ruin society by encouraging free love and giving women the right to vote. For Coan, the most "monstrously immoral" threat was that socialism might permit white women to consort with men of other races:

The negro and the white woman, the white woman and the Chinaman, They draw no race line or color line in the [Socialist] party.
Each new generation must battle its own versions of Coan. Personally, I wouldn't know "immoral art" if I saw it. Rodin used to say, "There should be no argument in regard to morality in art; there is no morality in nature." But even if we all agreed on one standard for morality in art, the law is just not well suited to prevent people from drawing dirty pictures. Author Stephen Becker wrote about the futility of using law as a tool to shape human nature:

Man comes first with his lusts, and then the law, usually in the form of an infinitely reticulated mechanism that serves variously as strait jacket, leg iron or chastity belt. Or that should so serve; but in its preventive function it usually fails and thus becomes merely punitive, the rationale for thumbscrew or dungeon or guillotine.
Today, organizations such as the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund do excellent work helping to keep that punitive function from getting out of hand.

That's the easy part.

Now let's turn back to the gaze of young girls.

I may have trouble recognizing when art is immoral, but I have no trouble recognizing when art is coarse, shallow or laughably immature. A number of popular artists such as Serpieri, who is an able draftsman, have a penchant for drawing beautiful women being gang raped by monsters.

Dozens of other best selling artists, such as Manara or Noe, make a fine living selling highly explicit pictures of adolescent male fantasies. And these are the best of the bunch. There are hundreds of artists out there who, judging from their work, seem to be training to illustrate gynecology textbooks.

I am not morally or legally opposed to this kind of art. I sometimes have aesthetic objections, but not enough to merit burning the books or jailing the artist.

At the same time, we let ourselves off too easily if we deny that there are gentle young things in the world (girls or boys) that deserve a chance to find their footing unmolested. And you don't have to be Coan to conclude that easily accessible extreme images from books, magazines and the internet can distort that process.

That's what I would like to chat about in the next few postings: the artistic quality and social impact of this kind of art, the virtues of extremism and the virtues of moderation. I trust that, as usual, you will have some strong opinions to express and some good artists to recommend.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Quote of the day

One could say that our first performances were exactly as embarrassing to watch as only performance art can be. You know, when it comes to a point where the toes of the audience really start to hurt and everyone but the performers get soaking wet from sweating.
- Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset

Conclusion: no matter how bad the art, there is always hope. So before destroying and discouraging, relax. Think of the beautiful belly on this door, and of the time it took to grow. Respect that.

Pictures are of works by Elmgreen and Dragset: Belly Door (2006) and
Powerless Structures, fig. 187 (2002)

Here is an interesting interview related to another work they made.

Saturday, August 25, 2007


Just one remark (I can't seem to resist the theoretician's temptations of spoiling any pure, unintellectual fun). Notice the postal stamp on one of the postcards. The pleasure of seeing the "unmediated" pictures (although obviously the print suggests they are vintage publicity postcards for Paris venues) is blocked. There is, at first, a feeling of betrayal of the medium. Ah, this is not an image, it is just a postcard. It was used, handled. We are not in the presence of the original, of the source, but of some specific copy. "Specific" is in italics, because paradoxically the specificity is what, at first, appears to take away the uniqueness (aura) of the work.
But then arrives the second movement: the picture has a story. It was someone's. Someone mailed it to someone. There is even a hidden part to it! Also, the painted-on colors seem to gain depth, as they become the ideal mask, the part that doesn't lie, as it does not age, it is not a face, not a breast, it is merely the décor, the play, the mask, it is the surface that remains, it is the stamp, it is the frequency of color, nothing more, and strangely, this surface is what takes these bodies on a long and always illogical journey here.

Edible Estates

Fritz Haeg has been recently creating edible landscape design. Or eatable landscaping. Or vegetable social gardening. Or call it what you wish. In any case, it's only with edible plants. And apparently that's just about the most in thing around these days. But that's not what I like most about it. The best part of it is its connection to the idea of creating a public space out of a private one. Haeg's transformation of space involves a community working on a private front lawn to transform it into a public space, a sort of a public vegetable garden.

My favorite fragment from a very interesting interview:
I am very interested in the real economics involved once you deviate from the commercial conventions of the art and design world.
Most of the work I have been doing never paid until recently. For years I supported myself mostly by teaching and some modest architecture fees for small projects. Now I teach occasionally and I support myself from (in descending order) architecture design fees from the few projects I do, artist commission fees from museums, occasional teaching salaries, speaking honorariums, writing, and a bit from the Sundown Schoolhouse. The amount I actually earn from any one of them varies wildly, so I do what I do and hope every thing balances out in the end. I’m always living right on the edge though. That uncertainty is the price of doing work that does not have a conventional market.
Scary. Scary.

It is also interesting to compare this to the type of question that has been recently raised in Portugal - about the illegal hortas, or vegetable gardens often in the perimeters of cities and often in public spaces, which are often seen as a horrible left-over of the Salazarist era. Today some people seem to have a different approach, considering this an important cultural and aesthetic heritage.
There is something anarchist about promoting the Estates and the hortas, that both attracts and repels me. Maybe it's the feeling that this "new aesthetics" is being forced on us the same way any attempted revolution imposes a new set of values as "universal" (notice, for instance, how in the interview the more reticent onlookers are seen as retrograde and "regressive").

Friday, August 24, 2007

Opening doors. Hand in Hand.

I never thought opening doors could be an erotic experience. And yet, the very form of a hand brings us to a very sensible-sensual situation. It's probably an alter ego thing. A Pygmalion thing. And, as all naturalist sculptures are, a somewhat creepy thing as well. This charming Hand-le was made by Naomi Thellier de Poncheveille.


Wednesday, August 22, 2007


These pictures by illustrator Ashley Wood are a cross between drawing and knife fighting.

Wood is one of those artists whose drawings benefit from controlled accidents. His slashing lines and spattered ink are part skill, part chance and part hydrological experiment. When you work that way, you can't be too picky about your materials. The reverse side of the above drawing shows how some of Wood's more fortunate accidents take place on stray scraps of paper:

I like Wood's work. I like that he seems to draw on every available surface, from the backs of envelopes to waste paper, sometimes taping pages together when his experiment runs out of room.

I find his emphasis on telephone lines in these drawings worth noting for two reasons.

First, they show the importance of individual perception in composing an image. In most photographs, phone wires are so thin and insubstantial they don't even show up. In the following painting Edward Hopper ignores the phone wires:

They are almost never an important compositional element such as Wood has made them. It takes a human brain to fix upon a physically insignificant object and amplify and distort it into a major part of the drawing.

Second, Wood's awareness of the telephone lines reveals the sensitivity necessary to make a "spontaneous" style effective. Despite the vigorous, almost violent appearance of these drawings, it required a subtle eye to notice a detail like telephone lines and a thoughtful mind to play them up this way.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


I thought I had it under control. The internet, after all, is not that difficult to move around. Not if you know what you're looking for. One does expect the unexpected, but to some extent. And then comes a site which just blows the lid off your expectations. I've had it happen to me several times, and this is one of them. i heart photograph probably only appeared on my radar now because I thought, well, it was about photography. Which it is. And its brilliant. And its curatorial eye is just damn good. It plays with the concept of photography as an art form, extending to basically any photographic work, whether it is manipulated or a documentation of an installation or anything that at a given point went through a lens. So while I'm working hard to make a show, you go ahead, and betray me. As you can see, it's worth it.

Stefania Galegati, Untitled (Dwarf 2)
Sannah Kvist, Untitled
Vibeke Tandberg, Mother+Dog, Variations #1
Koen Hauser, from Modische Atlas der Anatomie
Joel Tauber, My Lonely Tree

Adrian Nießler and Catrin Altenbrandt, from Um Was Es Nicht Geht
Melanie Bonajo, Bears
Kjersti Berg, Opp/Up
Yvonne Todd, Anonymous Cat

All images via i heart photograph.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Trying to make a frog fly

K’ung-fu-tzu (Confucius) by mi-mi (Mila Kalnitskaya and Micha Maslennikov)

Notice this is real.
Notice the starting point is water.
Notice the frog has no choice but to fly.
Notice she doesn't seem to care.
Notice we hardly have a way of knowing.


PS: From an interview about the performers in the various pictures:
Confucius is unequivocally a Shakespearian character. He is superb in tragic roles. If the project could continue, he would make a remarkable King Lear.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Hamlet Light - rehearsalsss

I am now going back to rehearsals of Hamlet Light, which will have its premiere on September 15th at the Teatro Municipal de Faro and will be in Lisbon on September 28-30.

In order to enjoy theatre, shouldn’t we forget it? Forget that we’re inside a theatre, forget how it works? How about if we just forgot the whole idea of a production and simply focused on how to advertise it? If instead of the play the audience saw the creation of a play’s trailer? What would remain? What would the new scale of possibilities be?

More on this later.
(My activity here might slow down a bit. Or not.)


Lucy Pullen Ropeswing (2003)

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


I recently posted some illustrations by the great watercolor artist John Gannam, who had an astute eye for color.

But before he became famous for his use of color, Gannam did hundreds of black and white spot illustrations in the 1930s and 40s for lesser publications.

Many artists treated such assignments as hack work to rush through. However, Gannam applied himself and learned valuable lessons from black and white pictures which served him well when he later painted color illustrations.

Specifically, he learned from black and white illustrations to master value, which refers to the darkness or lightness of a color. Working in black and white, Gannam taught himself to control the "value structure" of his pictures, balancing blacks and whites and grays. He mastered tonality and contrast and learned to make his pictures eminently readable.

I find Gannam's control over the value scale in pictures such as this one absolutely astounding:

If you don't think this is hard to do, try it sometime.

For years, Gannam refined his color skills by doing black and white pictures.

As Gannam's career advanced, color slowly crept into his illustrations:

When Gannam later graduated to full page color illustrations, he had great appreciation for the values of the colors he used. Much of the strength of his color paintings came from the lessons he learned during that long apprenticeship doing black and white pictures.

Two films by Tomek Bagiński

Bagiński's work is just incredibly Polish. He seems very fond of moral stories, on the verge of moralizing, there is usually the question of the individual and the individual choice vs. disappearing, becoming nothing. Also, besides the social critique, the visual side of The Cathedral (which was nominated to an Oscar for best animated short film in 2003) is reminiscent of (or plain inspired by) the great Polish painter Zdzisław Beksiński:

Monday, August 13, 2007

Art as seduction?

The problem with seduction is that in its core it contains, if not deception, at least a non-truth. Seduction can only be effective as a cynical process.The image above is by Ronan Spelman, but because I find the underwear quite inadequate, I am giving no link, you will have to look for him yourselves.
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