Tag Archives: culture

Art, Subjectivity and What Makes Art “Good”?

Recently, I’ve been chewing over how we value and judge art, and how we talk about it effectively. I wrote a piece touching on some of these issues, and an edited version was published over at PolicyMic. I’ve included it here in full, plus a couple of great links to other articles:

Sometimes when visiting galleries or museums, I find myself wondering why a piece was included. Whenever I’d sense I was looking at something not good, or poorly executed, or gratuitous, a nagging concern that I was not educated or qualified enough to evaluate the work would persuade me to accept it. This seemed reasonable at the time; after all, I am a Western millennial, raised to believe that art is essentially subjective and undefinable.

In the contemporary art world, anything goes. I am not criticizing this aspect of contemporary art, but stating the obvious. For this reality, we can mostly thank Marcel Duchamp and his ideological contemporaries. Though the Impressionists got the ball rolling, Duchamp became one of the most famous artists to proclaim that art is whatever the artist says it is. (You don’t have to know any art history to understand the point I’m making, but it is good context if you’re interested.) Jimmy Kimmel did a hilarious satire of this idea (though in a different, more commercial industry) with his Fashion Week Lie Witness News skit:

When it first came to popularity, this idea of anything as art was radical. It gave us a lot of opportunity to experiment, to play, to remove ourselves as creatives from the boundaries of “art” as defined by the cultural elite.

The idea that the artist defines the artwork and creates art simply by declaring it as such diminished the viewer’s experience with the artwork, and eroded the authority of the viewers’ perspective. In this belief system, the artist has the ultimate trump card: “you don’t understand.” Conversation over, and viewer hushed, if not quite shamed into silence.

This eventuality is exactly why people are timid about expressing their opinions about art if they have a lick of sense (this from art school experience), and why casual art consumers leave it to so-called and sometimes self-proclaimed experts to tell us what is art.

Life is by all methods of measurement a subjective experience, and yet, we still trust in the ability of people to percieve, evaluate and share their perceptions in journalism, in storytelling, in history, in law and in science. Why should it be any different in art? It is the responsiblity of the artist, the scientist, the historian to perceive, evaluate, and convey those analyses.

What do you think of this? (Brancusi's "The Kiss")
What do you think of this? (Brancusi’s “The Kiss”)

We also gave up our ability to judge art when we accepted the idea that art could be whatever the artist said it was, because the idea of good or bad became completely irrelevant. If you “don’t understand” something, you cannot evaluate whether it’s good or bad, even in a relative sense.

Entrepreneur Paul Graham wrote an interesting article on his blog many moons ago about how art can be good, which I recommend. Though I don’t agree with everything he writes, he raises some excellent points.

This pseudo-utopian ideal that all art is good art is seductive, but ultimately limiting. It is limiting because if it is impossible to create good art, then any art is as good and as important and as enlightening as any other. And if it’s all the same, then as a creator and a consumer, why bother with effort? Post-modern and contemporary art are crafting their own answers to that question, but those answers are beginning to feel like dead ends to me. I will be elaborating on these “dead ends” later, but I will say that the emphasis on process in contemporary art is a conceptually consistent though reductive eventuality of the idea of “anything as art”.

I’m not arguing that there are absolute evaluations of good art. I am instead saying that I believe there are absolute qualities of good art. Good art makes us aware of that by connecting people, by sharing vision and experience. If a piece of art genuinely moves only one person, it is still good art. If it moves many people, it might be great art. If it moves you only because you think that it ought to, then it is time to start thinking about why. This does involve a Pollyanna-ish expectation of self-awareness and belief in the ability to people to be self-confident in their own perspectives. At the very least, it requires thoughtfulness.

Art should not be bewildering, or impenetrable – it is as universal as any individual human experience writ large. Art is a shared conversation, a conceptually public debate.  People should feel empowered to evaluate art and call it like they see it, without their evaluation targeting them as unenlightened, as long as the evaluation is developed and defensible. “You don’t understand” isn’t a defense, for anyone. Instead, let’s try “show me.”

A major part of what I’m saying is this: if you can’t see the emperor’s clothes, it is most definitely okay to say so.


Laissez les bon temps rouler,



Street Art and Seasons

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A couple of patterns struck me today, and from them I drew a couple of inferences. I know that correlation does not imply causation, but I’ll let you decide whether these theories hold water.

I’ve noticed a spike in street art and tags around my little corner of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, NC, and it seems to coincide with the emergence of the sun. Outdoor art responds to the weather, of course, so it’s not exactly a genius deduction. I’m outside quite a bit, regardless of the weather, because of the nature of this town. It got me wondering whether street art culture flourishes more in sunnier, or more temperate climes. Or whether it is more tied to civil unrest, as many claim. I’m open to opinions.

A second thing came to me as I was criticizing the trend of misspellings in musician and band names. I wonder if artists chose misspelled names to benefit their Internet presence. They can probably get a website name more easily with a misspelled name, and maybe establish a unique identity. Again, only a theory.

Well, that’s probably enough of that for today. Stay gold.



More Love at the Ackland: Art, Politics and Sharing Since the 1990s


Something beautiful is happening at the Ackland Art Museum today: the much-anticipated More Love: Art, Politics and Sharing Since the 1990s exhibit is opening. Featuring art by Yoko Ono, Louise Bourgeois, Tracy Emin and Felix Gonzalez-Torres (among many fantastically talented others), the exhibit is a real exploration into different kinds of love and its expression.

The idea of sharing, of externalizing the internal, is central to the More Love exhibit. While it’s about sharing in the traditional sense, it also discusses the idea of sharing in the context of new technology and breaking the boundaries of time and space.

The above image incorporates two fantastic pieces in the show. The piece of candy is a part of Dario Robleto’s Untitled piece from 1972. In every installation of Robleto’s piece through the years, a pile of candy is built and viewers are invited to take a piece as they pass. The second piece is the photograph in the background, Janine Antoni’s Mortar and Pestle (1996, chromogenic print). In the photo, the artist is licking her husband’s eyeball. It’s borderline inappropriate and mildly transgressive, visceral and endlessly compelling. The show involves many pieces like these, which are multidimensional in concept and bold in their expressiveness.

I had the chance to talk to Claire Schneider, the consulting curator for the show, about the overall vision. “In the 1960s, it was all about love as commonality,” she said. “In the 2000s, it became love as individuality. Now it’s all about coming back together with our differences.”

Her insight informs the entire show, from the pieces chosen to the overall orchestration of the viewing experience.

She said she wanted to explore the contemporary thought about love, including its social justice elements, without the cheap sentimentality of most pop culture’s expressions of love.

“This is all conceptual art about emotion,” Schneider said.

I was so fond of so many of the pieces; I’ll certainly return. I especially loved Yoko Ono’s piece, “Time To Tell Your Love,” a collection of under-lit prisms that threw light all across the walls. While supplies last, viewers can have a picture taken of themselves expressing their love, and they’ll receive a prism in return. I got one! (I also accidentally broke my first one. Typical.)

yoko ono

Yoko Ono’s Time To Tell Your Love, glass prisms and tower, light. 

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I also loved Dario Robleto’s Coated Love Letters, which are love letters he’d saved over the years, put into pill form. It’s honest, taking the viewer back to the middle school roots of their lovingness.


This show is honestly worth a visit, or 20. I’m still working on how to express it appropriately. I’ve been to a lot of exhibits, but this one is really special.

I can still remember what it felt like to have Julian Schwartz’ Affirmations, a sound installation, murmur over me. When you find the perfect spot on the floor, it sound like 72 people are whispering their answers to the question, “What could someone say to you that would make you feel completely loved (acknowledged, understood, respected, cared for, attractive, embraced, supported, safe, cherished…)?” right into your ears. It was entrancing. Receiving intangible hugs from strangers is a beautiful experience.

Go. You’ll be glad you did.


Hie thee hence, and laissez les bon temps rouler,

the girl

papa ibra tall: hot fresh then & now


Papa Ibra Tall was a Senegalese artist, influenced by Negritude and French modernism. Papa Ibra Tall is the one. I love his lines, his colors, his overall aesthetic. Tall’s work is refreshingly non-derivative.

If Tom Robbins’ books were to be illustrated, Tall could do them. His paintings explore the connection and interplay between spaces and shapes, the proportion, the balance, the movement across the page, the overall experience as it interacts with the supreme detail of his pieces. That’s how Robbins’ writing is. Both are unconventional, both create art that involves or references many of the senses.

I love lines and appreciate linearity, and Papa Ibra Tall’s lines are one of a kind. This pseudo-collage, super luxurious feel of his images, bodies them up and saturates them. I think I’ve gushed publicly about Egon Schiele (gasp x 1000, so beautiful*), and I’m starting to feel this way about Tall. However, where Schiele’s pieces are intensely physical, Tall’s paintings feel almost otherworldly.  Unlike Schiele, the boundaries of Tall’s lines and planes are precise, and his colors saturated. Tall’s use of dots and other geometric details to build a multi-layered picture is also unique.  The effect on the page is also very different; Schiele’s work is involved, convoluted, very much about the internal monologue of whoever he’s depicting. There’ve a short story feel about them. Tall’s paintings convey a different narrative. His paintings are never about just one person, even if there’s only one person in the picture, because his paintings are about his subjects in relation to other environmental factors. Tall’s images tell a myth, a legend, an epic. The tonalities and the imagery remind me of an illustrated collection of fairytales that I read as a child.

old houses in krumau

* It ought to be noted that Schiele has some tendencies toward exploitation/voyeurism in his portraits of women. Someone who is hyper-physical, as Schiele is (just look at his treatment of the human form for proof) is hyper-physical in many ways. I’m not excusing it, but instead saying that it might be the flip side of a coin.


Laissez les bon temps rouler,

the girl

the value of art

photo by helmut newton

Today in class, someone said the value of art should be able to sustain itself. Do you think that’s true?

Can someone direct me to reading about intrinsic value of art?


Laissez les bon temps rouler,

the girl

what’s good

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A day late and a dollar short, deep in the summer’s inevitable introspections, I had a realization: I’ve allowed my tastes to be not just directed but shaped by others’ opinions. I think in following others’ lead, I lost some of my own sensibilities. While aesthetics, zeitgeists, shift through time I’d experienced more than that. I was looking at different kinds of artists, diving into different kinds of music, criticizing different sorts of things. One hundred thousand adages can tell you things like “Be Yourself” but it takes a preoccupation with trends to feel the need to remind yourself. With that in mind, I’m dissecting some trends and in the process, calling bull on myself where necessary.

As an aside: My friends are interesting and my age is of the inter webs, which I took for granted earlier but feel the need to declare now. The highlighted trends that will be relevant to the discussion, because it is likely common ground and visible, are from the world wide web.

1. Rap/Hip-Hop, depending on what definition you prefer: I do love the music, appreciate the style, the whole nine yards. I’m into it. But let’s be real here, Kitty Pryde is not a high-quality rapper. Whatever arguments you can make for Kitty Pryde, or Lil B, or whoever Twitter’s #rapperoftheweek is, I’ve made them. I’ve listened to them being made, paid attention and if not agreed, at least acknowledged. The fact that, at this stage of her career, she’s anything more than a very minor blip on the radar screen proves the point that it’s a trend. Lil B, whose enthusiasm and general goodwill I am fond of, or Kitty Pride, whose style I despise but cadence/flow I begrudgingly enjoy (look at me still justifying myself), gain a fan base and that’s great. Power to them. I’m not here to take away anything from their accomplishments. But I am here to say that 1. it’s a trend, and 2. this type of music industry doesn’t produce high-quality artists. When every sound can be sold, there’s not value to being good. There’s only value in being different. Which is fine if different and new is all you want, but I’d rather 100 Frank Ocean and early The Weeknds then 1,000 Kreayshawns and Lil Bs. While we’re at it, I like soulful music and I love old-school country. While Taylor Swift makes my ears bleed, sign me up forever for Johnny Cash and Justin Townes Earles and Willy Nelson and the soulful stuff.

2. Internet art: The accessibility of the internet is its greatest asset. But so-called internet art is lazy. By internet art, I mean the images and symbols and compositions that occur so frequently on the interweb. Cosmic cats? Graphic photo-collages? Pixel art? That lacks originality and artistry. If that’s what you want to surround yourself with, by all means, do. But I’m not going to pretend it’s anything other than simplifications, visual representations of pop cultures endless echo chamber. Theorize all you like about what internet art says about our generation- I’m sure it’ll be wonderfully interesting and full of all the usual bull. But don’t call it inspired- that it is not.

As an oblique sort of proof, an emphasis on the medium and method as an intrinsic end is required to justify its artistic value. That necessity on explanation shows that it’s a flattened sort of art, an easy, an unsustainable art. Quirky, funny, clever, accessible, current, yes. Da Vinci didn’t need medium and method to prove his point, and neither did Dali or Miro. Means to an end, but not the end in itself. This emphasis on the medium and method are characteristic of modern art, and even contemporary art. I have a theory that art became sterile and too oblique around the time medium and method became the primary movers of the art world. Jackson Pollack, one of the first to emphasize method, was revolutionary, but method was again a means to an end, not an intrinsic end. Besides the “if you’re not first, you’re last” idea, it’s important to recognize that Pollack’s work, and other  revolutionary artists’, struck people and resonated. That being said, I’ll never give up iheartcatgifs.tumblr.com. GIFs are, for now, manipulable enough to be a whole different story. I’m not a fan of so-called “internet art,” though I might have fooled you a year ago.

3. * cRaZy SyMbOls *:

It’s not always bad but it’s not always good, and it’s always indicative. For me, trendy frivolity is nothing to be proud of. If it looks good, roll with it, but if your diamonds and snowflakes and capitals are a desperate internet plea for quote-unquote relevancy, just, no.

The bottom line is this: You Don’t Need Anyone To Tell You What’s Good. You Know.


As always, and especially now, laissez les bon temps rouler,

the girl

american girls by ilona szwarc

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Originally published over at Don’t Panic Online.

Focusing her lens on Americanness, Ilona Szwarc isolates and examines peculiar, innocuous aspects of American pop culture. I talked with Szwarc, a Polish photographer working in the States, about identity and connectivity.

Gillian, NY.

Let’s talk a bit about the American Girls series. Those images are haunting, intimate. Could you speak about your inspiration? 

When I first came to New York City, photographing, I started noticing girls carrying their dolls that look like them and wearing matching outfits. At first, the girls just began appearing in the corners of my frames, then eventually I sought for them and I would stop them on the street and take their portraits. For the next two years, I was developing and researching the idea for the “American Girls” project.

My initial attraction was towards the visual image of girls walking around with their mini versions of themselves. I was struck by the fact that the product was actually called “American Girl”. I thought that it clearly meant that the company imposes stereotypes about who a contemporary American girl is. I have discovered that there are almost no girls born and raised in America who did not have those dolls. As an artist I was interested in this area where the product creates the culture and defines the people.

Lexi, NY

In American Girls, as with your other work, your approach to photography seems to have a fine art as opposed to documentary aesthetic. 

I think it is very difficult to say whether my project is documentary or fine art, I actually think it is both. I do think about it as being both documentary and conceptual. I find girls who are passionate about their dolls, I photograph them with their own dolls, in their own houses, as they are. This set of rules, although conceptual, brings me closer to being true in depicting their reality in a documentary manner. In that sense, I am not constructing a reality that is not there.

Could you talk a bit about how you craft your photos, and what elements you consider?

I decided to work with a 4×5 camera which changed the look of the photographs and meant I had to slow down my process. The photographs became a collaboration in a sense that girls would react to me and my personality, and being involved in a slower process of taking pictures they would open up to me. I would always have an idea what kinds of photographs I would want to take, but I would always try to stay open to what may come up. Now looking back at how I was working it seems to me that by just placing the camera in a certain spot creates a situation in which my subjects would react to it. By asking my subjects to  stay in one spot for some time I would observe how they would react and what would they do and then try to notice and capture something interesting, peculiar and personal from their behavior.

Kayla, MA.

What do you mean about the placement of the camera and its effect on the photograph?

Working with the large format camera on a tripod is something unusual. Especially when working with kids, who often have not been photographed before, except for posing for family snapshots, it creates an unique situation in which my models react to the camera as well as they react to me. I found that often with kids, who are very intuitive and free, we communicate without words – we connect on different levels and they often open up their imagination and that informs the photographs, too.

Why is it important that these are American Girl dolls, as opposed to other kinds of dolls?

To me it felt really exclusive – only about Americans and for Americans  – and I began to wonder where I fit in this scenario and if I could ever fit in. Through those dolls I wanted to investigate identity and gender, what it means to grow up in the US and what it means to be an American girl, a future American women.

The doll is a way that helps girls carve out their identity. Girls project their identities onto the dolls and then they experiment with them through the mini-me doll play and then when they’re ready they leave the doll behind. The doll comes also with a baggage of culturally and socially conditioned gender performance that is passed onto girl’s behavior – dressing up, grooming hair, tea parties – all very traditional feminine and domestic activities. So in my project I am questioning how much freedom do we have in choosing our identity and gender in contemporary American society.

Jade, NY.

What did you find about that freedom to determine gender and identity through American Girl dolls?

This lack of freedom became visible to me after I met one of my subjects, Jade. She described herself to me as tom-boy over the phone and I thought that was wonderful. She explained that she didn’t really have anything to choose from at the American Girl Place that would reflect her own style and personality. She had a very strong feminine side, but didn’t want to fit in the American Girl scenario, where dressing up, getting the doll’s hair done and attending tea parties with your dolls are the most popular activities. In that sense the definition of gender in consumerist culture is limited- the most popular and the best-selling items influence how broad is the definition of womanhood.

So the American Girl culture is more definitive than reflective?

To me, the most powerful statement lies in the choice of the name of the company – American Girl. Every time I talk about either the dolls or girls in America I use the same defining phrase – ‘American Girls’- and that overlap creates this tension and interest for me. Obviously the company wants to appeal to American girls and it is doing so. There is a culture created around those dolls – going to the store with moms and grandmas, having birthday parties at the American Girl Place. This is not so much reflective. I think it is creating certain consumer behaviors.

I also think that American Girl dolls are based upon Victorian ideas and that those ideas are taught to the girls through the emphasis on the historical girls and the recreation of their domestic spaces from different time periods. So in that sense it is also creating and defining rather than reflective.

Canadian, TX.

Your Canadian, TX series also deals with American-ness. How did this project evolve? 

It’s a further investigation of an aspect of American culture. In Anna – the project I did on my mother-in-law, I was looking at aspects of Polish immigration in the US, in American Girls I was examining American childhood and definition of femininity in contemporary America. In Canadian I am want to open up to what it means to be American. I work in the same way where I photograph people in their environments and I am introducing some landscapes to the series as well.

Canadian, TX is a small town in Texas Panhandle where I used to live. I was a foreign exchange student, lived there with an American family for a year and graduated from High School there. I made a lot of friends and it became a very special place for me. I think it is very unique that I ended up living in Canadian, TX especially coming from Poland – such a small town in the heart of Western culture. It is a very exotic and foreign place to me but at the same time it feels very familiar. I wanted to create work from that place of tension between the familiar and the foreign. It was always intriguing to me that this town is called “Canadian”. It implies the foreign-ness of Canada, therefore I think it functions as a great title for my new series. It implies foreign-ness yet it is familiar.


What was the most interesting or intriguing aspect of working on this series? 

I think I am still in the most interesting and intriguing part of working on this project, as it is just at the very begininning stage. I have made two trips over there to photograph and to find the core of the project. I have produced a lot of work and discovered few different threads that can lead me to few separate projects – so this is a very exciting moment for me. Although, working with people and places where they live always is a very special time for me. To get to know them, connect with them, see who they are, where they live, what their dreams are and capture all that in a photograph that will communicate a nature of that exchange and therefore to relate to a universal human experience is always my greatest challenge.

Could you talk about the relationship between photographer and model in your work? 

Working with people and places where they live always is a very special time for me. To get to know them, connect with them, see who they are, where they live, what their dreams are and capture all that in a photograph that will communicate a nature of that exchange and therefore to relate to a universal human experience is always my greatest challenge. It is about spending time together and sharing moments, about connecting. That connection becomes the spine of the portrait.

Tiffani-Amber, Kylie, Sophia, Elizabeth, Angelica.

laissez les bon temps rouler,
the girl

picasso: contextualizing art and artists

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Orson Welles, in his movie F is for Fake, in which Picasso figures prominently.

Approaching Picasso is a daunting task, simply because he is so famous and his work so highly-regarded. It’s almost easier to discuss Picasso in relation to other artists and other artwork, simply because it provides an anchoring point. Otherwise, a person could get lost and wander forever in a discussion of his work and his life. Maybe Tate Britain also felt that way, and so decided to approach his work through comparison with other artists in their Picasso & Modern British Art exhibit.

Comparative literature and art hope to achieve greater truths and more perceptive insights by comparing and contrasting art and artists. But comparisons threaten to diminish the artists individually, and may over-define, over-contextualize the artwork. With that in mind, I found Tate Britain’s goal of showing not only Picasso’s work but his influence admirable, but not effective. In some cases,  the connection was tenuous and sometimes irrelevant. In others, the parallels reduced the importance and skill of the British artists, like Duncan Grant. Alone, Grant is impressive, but when compared with Picasso, he seems unremarkable. Also, some of these individually remarkable works, like Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure, were diminished by being so heavily contextualized. Lastly, I’m not sure if a show dealing with Picasso’s influence is even necessary, since it’s so widely appreciated. Further to that point, I’m not convinced discussing his influence via Modern British Art is effective. Though it occurred, there are more salient points of that art period and these artists to discuss. It was certainly an effort by art historians, where the analysis came first and the art second.

From beginning to end, it seemed to me that the discussion of Picasso’s influence was often more a discussion of imitation, though it ended on a high note with Hockney. But Duncan Grant and Graham Sutherland’s artwork, specifically, seemed too directly defined by Picasso’s. Their inclusion didn’t give any more depth to our understanding of Picasso, but did decrease my appreciation for their artistry.

This is especially true for Duncan Grant’ 1913 piece, The Tub. This piece was considered part of the modern, “primitivist” movement, of which Picasso was a major figure. In this context, Grant lost his individuality and his artistic individuality – as an artist, he played with trends, but in the context, he looked like a copycat. I looked up his other work, though, and found that he seemed to be heavily influenced by all kinds of artists, including Seurat. Even recognizing his individual merit artistically, his work doesn’t seem to be more influenced by Picasso than any other prominent artist. In such a large show, the inclusion of an artist like Grant, and later Sutherland, was unnecessary clutter.

I felt immediately an attraction to Henry Moore’s sculptures later in the exhibit, and could track the influence by the juxtaposition of the two artists’ work. The linkage in this portion of the exhibit was particularly strong and one of the most effective portions of the exhibit. In both Picasso and Moore’s work, the human form was heavily simplified and distorting, owing debts to what the referred to as “primitive” traditions. I so badly wanted to be able to touch Moore’s work, because the lines were so fluid and the form so intriguing. It reminded me strongly of Picasso’s Head of a Woman, in that it made me want to touch it and let me around the form with its curves. Those pieces were both such striking testaments to physicality, and both felt feminine and intimate.

The choice to include Francis Bacon’s work was a bold and effective one for this collection. He’s one of the small set of artist included whose presence enhanced both the overall exhibit and the impression of his work individually. His work, gruesome and grotesque, shared some of the drama which make Freud’s and Picasso’s work so compelling. Even though Picasso’s approach to emotional turmoil was less overt than Bacon’s, both dealt with that in their work. The most eye-catching piece of Bacon’s, for me, was his Study for Three Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion, 1944. I  was interested in the simplification of their faces to gaping mouths, and in the treatment of extreme agony. The emotion, so wrought and raw against a swathe of orange, caught my imagination and meant that I couldn’t look away. Picasso also dealt with crucifixion, but I think the connection between the artists is less concrete here than that. It seems to me that Bacon was inspired by Picasso’s approach to art, and the themes in Picasso’s art, more than Picasso’s style or subject matter. I noticed little overlap in subject matter and very few similarities in style, though Bacon’s exposure to Picasso was definitely influential to his career. It’s said that Bacon began to pursue visual art seriously after seeing an exhibit of Picasso’s work.

An individual’s evaluation of Picasso is almost like a litmus test of insight and intelligence. Work that really grabs hold of my attention does so without my conscious consent, and I didn’t feel that way very often about Picasso’s work. I hesitate to admit this, but I’m not sure I’m qualified to evaluate Picasso simply because I’m not sure I “get it.” I can appreciate academically his importance in art’s progression, and understand why people are so attracted to him, but I don’t personally feel that way very often about his work. I enjoy it, but that attraction is more academic than instinctive. At the end of the day, I’m not much for Modernist art in general, and that may be the problem.

As always, laissez les bon temps rouler,

the girl

N.B. I hyperlinked most of the images, rather than posting them, for licensing reasons.

freud takes london, kind of


Recently, I made it over to the National Portrait Gallery in Trafalgar Square to see the Freud exhibit, a retrospective of Lucien Freud’s artwork, and was reluctantly impressed. Though the subject matter was sometimes perverse, demanding, and grotesque, the craft of his portraiture held me spellbound. For me, the intense physicality of Freud’s work was the most impressive. Like Egon Schiele, an Austrian painter prolific in the early 1900s, the curves of the body and the twisting of the muscles underneath the skin, emphasized the psychological and emotional intensity. I so dearly love both of those artists’ treatments of the planes of the body. I don’t love that both of them play with perversions of sexuality. Schiele’s work is a less fraught, more peep-show, than Freud’s invasions and possessions of his subjects. But sensuality is critical for both artists.

In the earlier portraits, it was the quality of lines that conveyed the combination of scientific attention and emotionality. Many of these paintings, for their emotional distance and emphasis on isolation, reminded me of Edward Hopper’s work. The people in both artists work exist in close proximity to one another, but don’t make eye contact and rarely touch. Freud’s Father and Daughter, 1949, is one of the only portraits that includes people in contact with one another. 1954’s Hotel Bedroom is a monument to emotional isolation amid physical proximity. So much in that image is broken and breaking, and the treatment of the subverted, melancholic turmoil with color and style is just gorgeous.

Freud habitually exaggerated the size of the hands, eyes and lips of his subjects, especially in his earlier work. This intrigued me, since those are generally considered sexual attributes, and important to human evaluations of each other’s attractiveness. I wondered whether he consciously emphasized these aspects of his models, and if so, why. It was also interesting given the public’s awareness of Freud’s promiscuity.

Of the entire exhibit, I was most disturbed by his treatment of women and children, especially in his early paintings. Often he painted women and children naked or partially naked, acutely and sometime uncomfortably observed. This intimacy didn’t seem particularly invited or welcome. Of all the uncomfortable moments during the Freud exhibit, viewing Large Interior, Paddington, 1968-9, was the most disconcerting. It seemed an almost total exploitation of this young girl, lying exposed and vulnerable on the barren floor in the fetal position. Only after reading the label did I learn that the child was, in fact, his daughter. The refusal to acknowledge the identity of women and children in these early paintings was, I thought, derogatory. He seemed to use them but not to honor them, almost rejecting their value as individuals because they were women and children. His gaze fell especially harshly upon children. I cannot pretend to understand what might have provoked that perspective, but that the museum’s treatment of the collection barely mentioned it.

As his style evolved, the application of the paint and the treatment of edges became thicker, more worked. By the end of the retrospective, it was clear that Freud thought of himself as an artist. As his public reputation grew, so did the scale of his portraits, his demands on his models, and the texture of his paint. It was around these that Freud lost me; he became more of a persona than an artist. Though I was still fascinated by his work, it was morbidly so and his motivations seemed more superficial. His work became less complex, for me, because it seemed more actively driven by external forces. In general, I felt that his persona as an artist swamped and overpowered the quality of his artwork.

This exhibit was both interesting and worth being seen, but I think the art would be more impressive if viewed apart from Freud’s name. Seen on a wall, hung discretely in the National Portrait Gallery, viewers would inevitably be drawn to the work, drawn to the drama and the tension. In that context, viewers would be allowed to experience the power and skill of the work before they evaluated it through the lens of public perception of Freud. He’s such a complex and demanding artist that the art should be contextualized within his life only after after the art has stood alone.


laissez les bon temps rouler,

the girl

big purple, big orange


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.

laissez les bon temps rouler,
the girl