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Archive for the ‘Semiotics’ Category

You’re visiting your dear friend Chelsea for tea and catching up.  Her house is as interesting and welcoming as always. You love the nuanced color combinations, the witty juxtaposition of antiques and glass-with-chrome and the good jazz coming from the far corner of the bookcase.  Then you notice a new art work.  It’s a still life nicely framed with a generous museum-grade 4” mat.

Two possibilities:

One, you’re taken aback, you don’t know what to say and you try not to stare. You think something has happened to dear Chelsea. She seems like her old self, speaks in complete sentences, with her usual intelligent sense of humor, shows interest in your life, remembers everything and converses as gracefully as always.  But what’s up with that drawing there?  It’s not finished!!!  How could she!  What kind of person frames an unfinished drawing!!  How irresponsible! Uncivilized! Disrespectful!  Better watch her closely.  Has she been drinking? Was she on something all these years you’ve known her and now suddenly she’s gone cold turkey?

Two, you’re thrilled, excited, inspired, uplifted and liberated by this incompletion. You and Chelsea smile quietly. No need for verbalizations, for explanations, for theories or for questions.  It’s all there. Conversation flows, cups tip and click.

Later, alone at home on your computer, you review the last few posts of the artamaze blog. You scroll down at the other drawings of this kitchen still life with peaches, pears and cup.  At the sight of every one of these drawings you jump up and shout out loud, “FRAME THAT!”

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/05/12/still-life-with-peaches-pear-and-cup-1/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/05/13/still-life-with-peaches-pear-and-cup-2/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/05/14/still-life-with-peaches-pear-and-cup-3/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/05/15/still-life-with-peaches-pear-and-cup-4/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/05/16/still-life-with-peaches-pear-and-cup-5/

 

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

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This painting by Oskar Kokoschka leads you to guess that the flowers might be Black Eyed Susan, Delphinium and Hedge Rose. But you’re not likely to insist on botanical precision.  The painting tells you right away, at first glance, that this is not about illustration.  You know that walking up to it, so that you could study the flowers at close range with your nose almost touching, will not reward you with botanical details.

The reason you know that is because you recognize it as a modern painting. The closer you look at a modern painting, the less detail you get.

Now look at an 18th century painting. This portrait must have pleased the uniformed sitter because it documented not only his smooth features but also his elevated social class:  he could afford to pay someone to do mind-numbing meticulous work.

Notice that the close-up gives you details, ermmm, submissively fussed-over details.  This, to the modern sensibility, is lifeless.  When you look at this, do you feel…confined?

 

Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980).  Blumenstillleben, 1959, oil on canvas, 89cm x 70 cm

Jean Baptist Lampi the Younger. “Daniel Mecséy de Tsoor ( 1759-1823),  oil on canvas 112x91cm.

 

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

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A drawing can go through many stages of development. The artist may not aim for mimesis or may not have a particular style in mind at all.  The artist may try one kind of markmaking here and another style  there.  The drawing may develop with a progression from dark to light or various degrees of precision.

The drawing can be called complete even though it contains visual contradictions.  Let’s look at contradictions.

In the above drawing, the markmaking in A is vibrant and lively. The background to the objects on the table seems to shimmer. In B the markmaking is the opposite, it’s mechanical and tight.  This dense, dark stripe representing the table appears to have been made by a different hand, in a very different mood. The contrast between A and B does not add drama to the image as a whole. Rather, it looks arbitrary and therefore the drawing feels unresolved.

In modern art we often find contrasts, inconsistencies and contradictions that are witty.  Consider the following two examples.

The hand fits perfectly over the face, as when a woman is surprised or embarrassed. But hand and face are from different worlds, different contexts.  So they fit together in one sense, but are mismatched in another.  We smile at this surprising juxtaposition.

 

Collage, a quintessentially modern art form, lends itself very well to creating contradictions and witty juxtaposition.

 

 

It’s easy to play with photographs by collaging together disparate elements.

Place a cassette over a face and, voila, the two holes will read like eyes. As moderns we know that all images, symbols and myths are human inventions and so we chuckle when we see the invention process being made so obvious.

 

 

 

 

Back to the class drawing of the still-life.   This student/artist gives us a very credible rendering of reflected light and deep shadow of the cup at C.  As in the previous drawing, the ellipse is not “swinging” but is drawn slowly and carefully and therefore it falls flat.  Practice. Practice. Practice

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/05/12/still-life-with-peaches-pear-and-cup-1/

We will talk some more about this cup and the demanding but swinging ellipse in the next posts.

More at:

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2016/08/31/untitled-xii/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2014/05/30/plug-by-the-sea-side/

Aphrodite by seph

Videotape Eyes by Rebecca DiLiberto.

 

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

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One of the themes in these past few posts has been the challenge to look critically at much admired paintings by much admired artists.

Giovanni Bellini is one of the celebrated Venetian painters of the 16th century. At first glance, his Madonna of the Trees seems harmonious, pleasing and perfect.

But look again.  First, the woman has no right shoulder. Her right arm would have to be attached to that (missing) shoulder.  Therefore, quite a bit of anatomy would have to be visible behind the baby.  Second, the drapery over the right forearm abruptly stops behind the baby’s ankles. You would expect it to circle around, but no, it mysteriously breaks off behind the baby’s crossed ankles. This abruptness would be more obvious if the legs were separated, so he makes this plump newborn stand up straight and cross his ankles. If you consent to the missing shoulder, why not also accept absurd drapery and a posturing newborn!

As I’m writing this, I keep looking at the reproduction of this painting in a book.  Even after my analysis and my full realization of Bellini’s trickery, I find this painting totally appealing.

Once that happens, I have to figure out why that happens, of course.  The appeal of this painting, I think, comes from the rational organization of the composition. It’s as if your brain said, how can something so carefully laid out not make sense?  As for the interrupted drapery around the arm, notice how the curve of that cloth is echoed in the left elbow’s drapery, forming a perfect ellipse.  There you are, your brain says, I rest my case.

For more on how your brain accepts trickery like this, including optical illusions, see Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.  Readable, relevant, highly recommended.

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

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Every language has a word for three colors: black, white and what would you think?  Yellow, mauve, turquoise, chartreuse, magenta, grey, beige, orange, purple?   Nope,  RED.  Oh, of course, you say.

There are languages that lump all other colors into one word, something like “colorful.”

Why would we single out the color red above all others? Look at strawberries, apples, cherries.  The color red evolved in nature, in fruit specifically, simultaneously with our love of sweetness.  Ripe fruit tends to be red and sweet.  Think strawberry.  Our evolved taste buds longing for sweetness—and, therefore, red—lead us to eat the strawberry.  It’s the strawberry’s way of spreading its seeds and thereby assuring its proliferation.

But we think red is important because it satisfies our craving for sweetness. The red fruit is a source of nourishment and calories to burn and therefore is important for our survival.

It’s not that your mouth is watering when you see red in a painting.  The association is more subtle. Red is deeply connected to survival.  So, red has gravitas.

Test other colors for gravitas:

Not so much, wouldn’t you agree.

 

 

 

 

Again, this exercise in seeing is brought to you courtesy Adobe Photoshop.

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

www.katherinehilden.com

http://facefame.wordpress.com

http://katherinehilden.wordpress.com

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https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2019/03/03/red-and-repetition/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2019/02/20/green-anyone/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2019/02/19/those-blues/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2019/02/12/red-and-rational/

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You know by now that I like to ferret out why a painting or drawing holds my attention.  In an abstract painting this is particularly puzzling because no reference, no narrative, no memory is evoked.  Then how is it that these bold non-referential brush marks can be so compelling?

There are two factors. One is composition, the other is color.

The composition here is based on repetition.  There are three “brackets” of different size, orientation and articulation. By articulation I mean how clearly the “bracket motif” is stated. The small one at upper right looks like an emergent, potential bracket.  The largest one of the three is more elaborate than the mid-size one at upper left.  The artist, I’m sure did not analyze her process this way, but rather painted intuitively.  And that’s because the repetition of forms is so compelling in a composition.  We like repetition, rhythm and rhyme in poetry and music. And also in our visual art.

What about that yellow dot? Go back up to the original painting and notice how your eye goes back to this tiny element and how fascinated you are by it. That’s it!  The small yellow dot breaks the repetition, it adds a high note.

The second factor is color, which will come up in the next post.

As I was working on this analysis, I randomly pulled a book off the shelf.  It was a book of poetry by Billy Collins, “Aimless Love.”  I opened it at random and read:

Lucky for some of us,

poetry is a place where both are true at once,

where meaning only one thing at a time spells malfunction.

Cassie Buccellato, painting in oil, 6′ x 4-1/4′

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

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In the early 2000’s green was a fashionable color, meaning it was associated with romantic love.  In Steve Martin’s 2005 movie Shopgirl (he wrote the screenplay) the walls of the shopgirl’s apartment were green. I remember thinking, how odd, I thought green walls were for hospitals.

So it goes with color associations.  We talked about that earlier, in the post about blue.

There have been paintings of solid black (Barnett Newman), solid blue (Yves Klein), solid white (Bruce Nauman) and solid red (Malevich). But solid green?

In the 1990’s the Tate showed large solid color paintings by Maria Lalic, including a green that is, however, not applied evenly and flat but thinly striped. So we can’t count it.  https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/maria-lalic-2639

What is it about green? Why has nobody made a solid green painting? Kazimir Malevich would not have shown a Green Square next to his Red Square in 1915.

On the internet you can look up “color therapy,” and read that green is the most therapeutic color: “This is the most basic color of all in healing. It is the color which you always use first and last.” https://www.aetherius.org/healing-yourself-and-others/color-therapy/    Is that why walking in parks and woods is restful? But then, consider that there’s more hitting the senses in the woods than green-green-green.

A given color will affect us differently in different contexts.

Try this.

It’s 3 feet square.  In what room of your house would you like to see this?  Really?  For how long?

Next, imagine walking unassumingly into a museum or gallery and there it is, it 8’ x 8.’  Your whole visual field is filled, it envelops you, nothing else exists. Here you have green and its complementary color, red, for maximum contrast.  The Malevich juxtaposition in 1915 would have been comical, but here the contrast may give you a profound jolt.

Now let’s take another break from color.  What happens when you switch abruptly between the Renaissance sensibility and the modern sensibility in which we’ve been immersing ourselves here? We will now toggle back again from 2000 to 1500.

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2019/02/18/black/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2019/02/12/red-and-rational/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2019/02/19/those-blues/

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

http://www.katherinehilden.com

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http://katherinehilden.wordpress.com

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Can you isolate a color from your memory or your culture or art history?

Just the word Blues triggers an association in your mind.  “Feelin’ blue”–you hear the music in your head.

Our culture and history are loaded (and weighed down) with the symbolism of certain colors.   In 15th century France red was the color of power, as in for the king; green was the color of love; blue was for the Virgin Mary. But in Renaissance Italy Mary is often shown wearing blue and red.  Symbolism falls apart easily when you stop to look and think about it even a little bit.

Consider the colors in flags, like the popular red and blue.  Any given country will have historic and symbolic explanations for the color of the stripes in its flag.  Same color, different symbols for different flags.

I’ve read that blue is the most widely loved color throughout the world.  No symbols necessary.

But here’s the thing. Any attempt to pin a color down to meaning, symbolism or cultural propriety has to fail.  The reason for this is simple:  color does not exist by itself, in isolation.  Any color will always be seen next to another color, i.e. in the context of another color.

Back to the hue called blue.  There are many variations of blue.

Does the blue at the top of this post remind you of uniforms?  Official orders? The proper way to do things here?  The energetic brushwork we saw in the red version of this painting, the original painting by Keven Wilder, seems to get dampened by this cold, military blue.  Doesn’t it?  I can’t be sure.  Color is subjective.

If you mix ultramarine blue with a little alizarin crimson, you get a purplish blue, but still blue, a so-called warm blue:

If you mix cerulean blue, which is already cool…

with a bit of yellow, you’ll get a very cool, even greenish, blue, but still blue. Like this:

After that, things get more complicated depending on what wall color you hang your blue painting or  whether the painting next to it will have red, yellow or orange in it, for example.

We’ve looked at this before.  https://artamaze.wordpress.com/?s=albers

The groundbreaking authority on the relativity of color is Josef Albers. For an eye popping introduction, go to: https://www.google.com/search?q=josef+albers&tbm=isch&source=hp&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjw48eBpMbgAhUHTawKHbmvDdEQiR56BAgEEBU&biw=1222&bih=815

Josef Albers is an essential teacher and companion in any study of color.  Keep his little book Homage to the Square at your side. He won’t simplify anything for you.  On the contrary, he will show you how infinite and subtle the perception of color is.  It may drive you a little crazy.  Ahhhh! Color!

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2019/02/18/black/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2019/02/12/red-and-rational/

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

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http://katherinehilden.wordpress.com

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Here we have it in black. What do you think now?  What do you feel?

Do you think this is more cerebral, more subdued? Neutral?  And does that go with “less emotional or not emotional at all?”  Even “cold?”

Would you consider this friendlier, more accessible, more tuned to emotion than the previous red version?

Would this be just right for a child’s room? A dining room?  For a corporate office?

Would you like it huge, say 10’ x 10’?  Then, would you like to have the huge version in your home or should it be in a museum?

Would you say it’s more “modern” than the original red?

None of these adjectives have anything to do with ultimate judgments of “like” or “dislike.” Actually doesn’t like-or-dislike come first, as the immediate gut reaction?  Gut reactions are emotional.  All other descriptions like “neutral” or “cerebral” come later, as rationalizations of that gut reaction, don’t they?.

This is a valuable exercise. Thanks to Photoshop we’re able to isolate one factor, in this case, color, in a painting. We can now test out how we react to color.  How do we associate to color?

Review the original at https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2019/02/12/

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

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This painting by Keven Wilder is three feet square. It is monochrome; painted with only two tools, a wide brush and a wide squeegee. And it is immediately appealing.

Monochrome: the artist used only one color, red, and then the same red mixed with white for a paler, heathery red near the border.

The red was applied with a flat 3” brush. Then came the squeegee.  While the red was still wet (this is oil paint) the 3” squeegee, loaded with white paint, deposited white paint in the center of the painting, scraping some red into it in the process.

Appealing. The painting is immediately moving and intriguing.  How can that be? How can something be intriguing, when it can be described so easily, even mechanically?

The first reason is that in all cultures red is perceived as emotionally evocative. Red is sensuous:  enveloping, round, cozy, sweet, ripe, luscious, delicious.*

The second reason is that the strokes of the brush and squeegee are the opposite of sensuous.  They are abrupt, quick, random, indifferent, angular, flat, rational, raggedy.

These two qualities, red and rational,  are contradictory.  That contradiction creates drama in this painting.  You can deconstruct this all you want.  But the painting is not a well-argued paragraph in a debate or a dissertation at the Sorbonne.  It’s a paradox.

The paradox is to be inhabited.  And once you’re in it, you’ll be scintillating and lose your self.

*I want to talk about red in greater depth in future posts: symbolism, psychology, history, language.

Next, let’s run this painting through different hues.  What’s special about red?  We’ll see about that!

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

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