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Experiencing the David Hockney exhibit at London’s Royal Academy of Art was an immersion into Hockney’s bold, vibrant, hyper-sensory vision. As soon as I entered the room, I was attracted strongly, individually to different pieces of work. Every one was striking, captivating, energetic. And it wasn’t just me. I watched it countless times: viewers found, individually, pieces that they connected to.

In the first room on the right, the colors were muted and the scenes an elegant sort of desolate. Many of those pieces dealt with the desert landscape, and those were among the only images where Hockney blended text and imagery. I especially loved the way he mixed the two in Pearl Blossom Highway. The combination lent the work from this period a multimedia feel, and it, in a different way than his later work, walks that postmodern boundary of high/low art. It’s evidently crafted and intentional, but the craftsmanship seems almost childish, commercial, too simple. He also worked directly with photography in those images, as in the two expansive photomontages. In these three works particularly, the layering that is so important to his later work is physical and more superficially evident. That layering and high/low boundary is visible in the iPad works too, but there it’s even more flattened.

But it was Hockney’s treatment of the English countryside that really caught and held me. Not necessarily because it was the best work in the exhibit; I’m sure for many it wasn’t. But for me, the wall of his paintings of the Yorkshire countryside through the seasons was just perfect. The combination of those works were so reminiscent of the countryside of my home. They took me back to Remini Road in the summer, the two-lane highway that runs through South Carolina directly to Charleston. It was the first time I’ve been full-body homesick since I’ve been here. I could smell it, taste it, see it. I’m not sure whether the countryside around Yorkshire is physically anything like the rural South, but somehow, the feel as Hockney envisions it is similar.

Rimini Road in the summertime.

The fantastic, game-like colors and shapes of his large works, especially The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate and the logging paintings, had a completely different feel, but I couldn’t shake that earlier impression. While their intensity and scale were, if anything, more dramatic and more extravagant and more intense than anything else in the exhibit, it was those qualities which I felt mirrored in my longing for home. I wanted to be able to experience his work purely, not contextualized or buried in references to other art and other scenes. But I couldn’t. The too-emerald green became the green of the woods near Chapel Hill on the 4th of July, 2010. It became the thick, humid dank of the cyprus swamps. It became the everlasting youth of summertime, and in that imagined sunshine, I fell hard for my perception of what Hockney’s work embodied. It broke my heart, because it became clear to me that, sometimes, a love of art or artists is a selfish love, a narcissism. It’s not the work itself that’s affecting, or necessarily what the artist intended with his work- though that imbues it with potency and with the intimacy the viewer can relate to- but what the viewer can see in the work. And what the viewer can see is dictated by who the viewer is.

The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate.

It’s the subjectivity of art that’s the rub, the value given by the valuation. The viewers begin to own, claim, possess the work, and in that ownership, the viewer alters, reevaluates and contextualizes it. Hockney’s work, beautiful and elegant, became mythic in the eyes of the viewers because of what his work meant to them. For some, it’s purely exuberant happiness, for others, it may be nostalgia, clarity, anything. But for everyone, his art is more than just his.

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laissez les bon temps rouler,
the girl

viewing tragedy at london’s imperial war museum

The missles at the front entrance of IWM.
The missles at the front entrance of IWM.

“A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”
Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, VII, 1940.

It’s devouring him, the melancholy of continuation, eating him away from inside and burrowing into flesh from without. Saliva is stripped from his teeth-fronts and tongue, clinging to the edges of his lips before being pulled free and flying into the night. Lit only with unrelenting, unfiltered bulb light, the wrinkles around his lips and the paper thin sagging skin underneath his eyes become crevasses. He’s fighting for every step, every breath, but once he gets there it’s gone, and soon he is too.

First, I’ve now been to the Imperial War Museum three times and the longest I’ve ever been able to stay was when forced to for class. It sends me to tears, which almost never happens, and I’m emotionally worn out after an hour into it. Amid the sounds of the bunkers going around me and the glass cases memorializing men who had given their lives, I got lost the weird, dark labyrinth that is the basement of IWM and cried the first time I went. The second time, trying to brave because I believed it to be worth it, I got so uncomfortably sad and sweaty looking at all the tanks and the images of men who’d fought that I had to sit down outside. No reprieve there, with the imposing facade and giant missile marking the entrance. I pretty soon after called it a day and left for home. This visit, I felt both more worn out and more invigorated than usual, simply because we viewed collections which were more academic, more beautiful, and more subtle than the straightforward educational exhibits downstairs.

Photo from WHAM: War History Heritage Art and Memory Research Network
Photo from WHAM: War History Heritage Art and Memory Research Network

We first visited the exhibit about Don McCullin’s war photography. McCullin, now 75, grew up in England during the Blitz, marked as a youth with the trauma of war. The exhibit was a  retrospective of McCullin’s photographs through Berlin, Vietnam, Cambodia, the UK, Biafra, Cyprus, Bangladesh, and the Middle East. It included excerpts from magazines he worked for and his own notes. Especially here, I appreciated the structure and flow of this exhibit. With it’s sharply angular walls and evenly spaced photography interspersed with text, the destruction and trauma of these images were reduced to bite-sized pieces. With this structure, viewers could look at each of the conflicts individually, aided by historical and contextual information.

In small bits, I first consumed the horrors of conflicts in the East, children abandoned in the street and US Marines shellshocked into oblivion. I was able to hide in a corner while the faces of children and water-wanting mothers in Biafra stared desperately, defiantly, accusingly. And when McCullin ventured into portraiture of a lighter shade, I did too, sympathetic for his attempts to add levity, and aware of the futility of such a wish. Here, I appreciated the starkness and unwillingness to shy away.

Still, the ethics of war and documentary photography are a hazy gray. I can’t evaluate whether or not it’s right for McCullin to take those pictures, see such terrible tragedies, and not act. I feel instinctively that I could not watch as he does. Photographing, though, is its own kind of action.

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Later in the museum, I found my way to a set of stunning films.

Ori Gersht’s remarkable films This Storm is What We Call Progress and Will You Dance For Me? deal with two figures in Jewish history, tied to both conflict and place. The unrelenting attention on these two figures, an actor playing cynic and writer Walter Benjamin, and female Holocaust survivor, draws the viewer in. The pain evident on both of their faces begs us to watch, urges us to look away. In these pseudo-documentaries, the emphasis is on decaying triumphs and the loss of future. I was seduced by these films, enthralled and enraptured both by their aesthetic and the depth of their melancholy. These films depict the survivor’s struggle, post-trauma, to continue surviving.

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“For there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.”

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

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Laissez les bon temps rouler,

the girl

sarah esteje’s ink menagerie

Screen shot 2012-06-10 at 6.25.46 AM

Originally published in full at Don’t Panic Online.

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Armed with a blue ballpoint pen and an eye for detail, French artist Sarah Esteje creates meticulous portraits that blur the lines between drawing and photography, human and animal.

When did you start drawing, and how did you learn to draw in this style? 

When I was in junior high school it was already my favorite course, even when nobody else cared about it, then I spent most of my time drawing on every notebook in high school.

Actually, I first wanted to be a graphic designer. When I went to LISAA just after I had graduated from school, I realized that being a graphic designer was mostly working on a computer. At this moment, I think I just wanted to draw, and have fun while doing it. I didn’t want to be commissioned, I was afraid I couldn’t handle it, so I started studying photography in a great public school in Paris; 20 students were chosen from 800 candidates.

During this period when I discovered photography I didn’t draw so much, but I began to miss it a lot. I guess studying photography sharpened my eyes a little more. And now that I was taking lots of pictures, I could draw from them. I enjoyed being the closest to my photography, without really trying to. I’ve always loved details more than the whole picture. Drawing from a photograph freed me from the white paper which used to make me so nervous.

What do you mean that the white paper used to make you nervous? 

I don’t really know, the start is always the hardest. Instinctively, I drew what I saw, but I was never satisfied. I was always looking forward to draw some details that caught my attention, and I never could achieve it. I hadn’t enough time, or I was too far away.

Drawing from a photograph was perfect.

Your mastery of that hyper-realistic style is really remarkable. How did you learned to draw that way?

First, thank you. I didn’t really learn to draw that way, I had normal drawing courses, with models, still life or landscape drawings, everyone had his own style. I certainly do not draw the same way when I have only 5 minutes and a living model in front of me. But I enjoy taking my time, observing things, forgetting about it, and to see it again, as if it was new to me.

Most of your work is portraiture, either of animals or people. What attracts you to this subject matter?

Portraiture is what I like the most, whether in drawing or photography. For my animal portraits, I really chose pictures in which they looked human, and in some of my human portraits, I love how brutish they can look.

But in a general way it is difficult to touch somebody with the portrait of a stranger, it is easier with animals.

That’s really interesting. Why do you think that is? 

Animals represent our imaginary world, childhood, tales, every kid wants to have one.  When i was little, I always dreamed one day, a nice panther would come and take me away from school; I really don’t think I was the only one.

Human portraits may seem too real, too brutish, and too close. We do not fear what seems unreal, or very different to us. I don’t know if this will help you, I’m not even sure I could have been more clear in French.

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laissez les bon temps rouler,

the girl