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Archive for July, 2016

Vanitas

This drawing has four of the standard elements of a 17th century vanitas image:  skull, book, mirror and hint of a plant.  All are symbols of the passage of time and the futility of holding on to anything.  Hence, the category “vanitas.”  “Vanitas” is a genre that the Dutch painters of the 17th century often worked with.  More on that in the next post.

As I looked at this drawing on my screen, I felt conflicted between looking at the skull as the major element and at the mirror image as the focal point.   The skull won.  But the skull is not as interesting as the mirror image, is it.  So I flipped the image in Photoshop.

VanitasFlip

Ta-tah!  Here the skull is still the most poignant element in the drawing—it’s the strongest and most complete symbol of mortality.  But look what happens to the circular mirror with the partial profile of the skull.

VanitasFlipAnalysis

Here the compositional lines lead UP to the circle.  The circle holding the skull reflection now has an upbeat, optimistic feeling.  This goes against the vanitas theme, which is supposed to be a warning against pride.  Forget pride and preaching.  This drawing, seen in the flip version (flip!), is ironic and witty.

We’ve seen in previous posts how flipping an image will change how it feels.  Same information, very different feeling.  But this vanitas drawing, flipped, is uncanny.

Drawing by Jeanne Müller, graphite, ~16”x20,”

VanitasSetUp

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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ElainedeKooningBullfight

Elaine de Kooning, Bullfight, 1959. Oil on canvas, 77-5/8 x 131-1/4

Paintings have to be named.  Bullfight?  OK, Bullfight.  But you should not imagine that Elaine de Kooning started with the intention to illustrate the idea of “bullfight.”  Rather, she slashed paint onto this enormous canvas and at some point stood back and said, that’s it, it’s resolved.  Only then did the title come about.  Maybe somebody else suggested it.

http://denverartmuseum.org/exhibitions/women-abstract-expressionism

This must be a powerful exhibit. It will be at the Denver Art Museum until September 25th.

After the DAM, the exhibition will travel to the Mint Museum, Charlotte, in October 2016 and the Palm Springs Art Museum in February 2017.

Unfortunately we won’t see this work in Chicago.  But surely, “Women of Abstract Expressionism” is worth an excursion.  Time to consult flight schedules.

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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MondrianTree6

Oh, trees!

If you’re a Mondrian-lover you stand in front of one of his paintings, like the one above, and exclaim, “I just love the way he painted trees!”  Right?

You have a friend who doesn’t understand Mondrian, so you volunteer to give her a tour of the moderns at the Art Institute of Chicago or the MoMa.  You position yourselves in front of the Mondrians, and you learnedly explain that here we have the essence of tree-ness.  Right?

Mondrian was painting simplified trees.  Right?

Mondrian drew diagrams of trees. Right?

Abstract trees. Right?

Oh, please!

No one has ever looked at a Mondrian and seen trees. Right?

Right!!!!!

Then why do we constantly get the evolution of his paintings—The Mondrians—from trees.

http://emptyeasel.com/2007/04/17/piet-mondrian-the-evolution-of-pure-abstract-paintings/

MondrianTree1

[The] process of simplification and reduction would continue until he wasn’t even painting from nature at all.

The rise of Cubism also gave Mondrian a means to segment and reduce objects to their most basic forms.

MondrianTree2

Dutch painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) lived in Paris when he was in his early 40’s.  There he met Braque and other Cubists.

To interpret Cubism as “reducing objects to their most basic forms”  is as blatantly ridiculous as the other cliché about cubism, namely that a cubist painting shows us an object from all four sides.  I’ll post just one example here, Picasso’s “Portrait of D.H. Kahnweiler,” 1910. Have a good look. You are seeing Mr. Kahnweiler’s “basic forms” and you’re seeing him from all “four sides.” Correct?

kahnweil

Really?

LOOK!

Cubism is so scary to think about that people, even otherwise intelligent people, repeat these absurdities about “basic forms” and “four sides.”  You’ll find this sort of thing not only on internet pages but, with more academic circumlocutions, in serious publications. The Cubists—Picasso and Braque–are scary to think about because they made a clean break with the past.  Naughty, naughty. Thou shalt honor thy father and mother…  The only father the Cubists honored was Cézanne and he, in Robert Hughes’ words, painted DOUBT.

Let’s see now, we don’t have any commandments honoring doubt.

In 1910, art that threw out all previous assumptions was difficult to take.  Still is.  But doubt is so much more invigorating than having answers without first having questions.  Medieval certainties and Renaissance illustrations of mythological characters are not invigorating, are they?!

The Cubists—and they didn’t call themselves that—came up with something new.  The painting is now not an illustration but a work in its own right.

You must be kidding?  In its own right?  The audacity!

That’s right.  Audacity.

So, are Mondrian’s paintings abstractions or essences or diagrams of trees?  No.  They are something completely new.  They stand in their own right as objects.  Something to contemplate.

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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TreesNot

One of the painters in my “What Would Mondrian Do?” group often brings photos of flowers and trees to class to kick off a painting session.

Keven Wilder is an accomplished painter.  The collectors of her work eagerly follow her latest output. The reception of this painting has been enthusiastic.

I’m glad.  I find the enthusiastic response of non-representational art very encouraging.  It’s a measure of progress in human consciousness, I think, not to be tied to the literal.

Nobody looks at this painting and says, “Oh, yes, trees. I see the blue sky and the vertical tree trunks and the horizontal branches.”

People who love this painting love it even after they find out that the artist started with a photo of trees against a clear sky.  They don’t get hung up on trees.  Sorry there.

People who love this painting love its color, shapes, texture, process, surprises.  It’s not an illustration, abstraction or diagram of anything.  It’s an object in itself.

An object of contemplation.

Keven Wilder showed this painting at the Ethical Humanist Society earlier this year.

Thank you, Keven!

http://ethicalhuman.org/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2016/07/05/exhibit-at-ethical-humanist-society/

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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www.khilden.comEthical Humanist Society

 

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Geometry

The clarity of what’s being depicted here may at first glance be satisfying. What have we here?  Answer: the basic shapes of two-dimensional geometry.  Square, circle, rectangle and triangle.  What a relief, you don’t have to work out some perceptual subtlety of modern art.

Well, actually you do.  It’s true, you’re seeing those four geometrical shapes.  But they are not on top, they are not resting on a surface, as they would be if the painting were about them.  What’s actually on top is the surface around them.  We see the square-circle-rectangle-triangle as the result of an act of omission.  The painter just didn’t get to those bits and let the “background” show through.  Just so happens, his negligence was overly careful.  You can verify this by looking at the “frame” that is the “background”—that splattered surface—and then it’s clear that the geometrical shapes floating in the middle are “nothing” but part of that “background.”

This foreground-background game engages the mind without ever getting boring.  You think you’re looking at the figure (foreground) and it turns out you’re actually looking at the ground (background) and you realize that they exist at the same time but your mind can’t focus on them simultaneously.  You get this flickering sensation in the brain, like a strobe light, and if you stay with it, you’ll get a buzz.

The artist, Harold Bauer, assures you that this is his game, by creating additional frames—frames within frames.  Just look at the edges of the painting. Where does this framing business end?  Seems to go on and on.  A mind game.

TopIllusion

In a later version of this process, the artist takes us into deeper uncertainties.  Notice how in this painting the shapes are not easily named.  No clear square, circle, rectangle and triangle here. The edges between foreground and background get fuzzy and torn looking.  The artist is working with the same aesthetic ideas as in the earlier painting, but here the game is richer, more engaging.

Both paintings were shown at the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago this spring.

http://ethicalhuman.org/

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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KeepItMoving

Let’s have a closer look at one of the paintings in that show at the Ethical Humanist Society: acrylic on canvas, 40” x 30,”  by Robert Frankel.  We might call it Keep It Moving.

Isn’t that what happens when you look at this?  Your eye and mind are restless, moving all the time.

How can that be?  There’s no narration, no hint of horses on the beach or racecars taking a curve or birds in flight.  The whole composition is nothing but rectangles, all placed solidly and stodgily on one of their sides.  Nothing tips, everything says STABILITY.  But does it?  If the composition were stable, you’d doze off.  Instead, your mind is jumpin’ as it does when you listen to jazz.

These rectangles are flat, you say, isn’t that what rectangles are, flat?  Yes, they are flat.  But, if they’re flat, how is it that this image draws you in to puzzle out your sense of depth?

And what is that white rectangle with the thin horizontal black one doing there in the midst of all this popping color?  Imagine this white/black thing in any other color combination.  See? Gotcha!

http://ethicalhuman.org/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2016/07/05/exhibit-at-ethical-humanist-society/

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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MondrianGroup

The “Mondrian Class” exhibited paintings for ten weeks, from mid-March to the end of May, at the Ethical Humanist Society in Skokie.

http://ethicalhuman.org/

This was a great opportunity for students to experience hanging a show, a rotating show in this case. The space is not a gallery, per se, but the large meeting room of the Ethical Humanist Society.  The painters had a chance to show their work without costs or complications and the people meeting in that spacious, high ceilinged room with one wall all glass, enjoyed the works and the inspiration it brought them—a winwin arrangement.

EthicalHum1

We got this space because I attended Darwin’s birthday party there in early February, saw the drawings displayed there and had an aha-moment. By coincidence, they were eager to have a new exhibit.  Ta-tah! Not only that, I mentioned that I could give a talk on “Morality in Modern Art” and, ta-tah, there was a day open for a presentation, April 24.  These things happen, you know.  The talk was well received and I hope to give it again this fall, at another venue.

EthicalHum3

Artists showing their work in “alternative” spaces is a well-established strategy.  Eateries of all kinds have been doubling as galleries for a long time.  Now, consider your living room as a gallery.

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/04/arts/design/its-an-art-gallery-no-a-living-room-ok-both.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Farts&action=click&contentCollection=arts&region=rank&module=package&version=highlights&contentPlacement=8&pgtype=sectionfront&_r=0

EthicalHum2

Shown in these photos are  works by Robert Frankel, Harold Bauer, Keven Wilder and Terry Fohrman.

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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