Saturday, December 31, 2005

18th C. European Decorative arts

Why are these things called decorative arts instead of art arts ? Who knows. These rooms at the Art Institute are mostly a desert for me -- but these are the exceptions:

My retouched backgrounds make these resemble soft porn -- and maybe that's a good description for them anyway. Clodion takes me into the kind of erotic Classical world where I could live forever -- at least, until I fall asleep.

Why is Houdon in a room of "decorative arts"? Why is
Houdon's George Washington the periodic ojbect of conceptual abuse (now incorporated into someone's postmodern masterpiece) Maybe it's because his portraits embody civilized rationalism like no one else before or since. Maybe the sitter was a dolt - but here he looks like he could serve as chancellor to the Sun king.

O.K., I have no idea why I picked this piece -- it's
off the chart goofy --- guess that's why I picked it --- but I can't tell who
was more responsible for that celestial conditon; the modeler or the glazer at the
Meissen factory ? I see this piece and I feel like putting on the silver suit of the Rosenkavalier.

Here's my favorite detail of the above -- something about those colors --- I feel like I want to take a spoon and start eating it.

Aron Zinshtein at Lincoln Terrace Gallery

Lincoln Terrace gallery is a storefront gallery/studio/home for a small family of art loving, impecunious, Jewish-Russian immigrants in Skokie -- one of whom is the sister of my friend Misha from the Bad Art Society. So this is an insider review -- and I should add that I met the artist, Aron Zinshtein, last Summer (didn't talk with him though -- no English) What a funny person ! Small, round, jovial -- and always drawing -- I mean ALWAYS -- in the taxi-cab, on the street, probably even in the john -- the pen never never leaves his hand. (he even made a drawing of me --
a cartoonish figure with an enormous mouth) His work is childish -- using, in this
exhibit -- the same materials we had in grade school: opaque water based paints -- and displaying the same impulsiveness, wonder, and self-centeredness of children of all ages. But he's a child by design, not just circumstance, so one look is not enough for his paintings -- they're tasty and captivating -- and happy/sad. I don't
think there's enough there for one to hold my attention -- but an entire room of them kept me walking in circles. There's the feeling of being a child dropped into the big people's world -- kind of scary -- kind of confusing -- and clinging to the little touches that keep us happy.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Sculpture exhibit from my website

I repent trashing all the sculptures shown in my last post, so now I'll write about some contemporary sculpture I like -- and have chosen for my internet gallery (once again, because this kind of thing will never be exhibited at a major museum like the Art Institute)

Isabel McIlvain is an art professor somewhere on the east coast -- and I got this picture from a gallery before she left it. Yes -Isabel is a realist-anatomy freak--bringing her forms very close to the model's -- and yet -- she picks beautiful young bodies and then organizes them with a stately, dreamlike, cold perfection that I find solemn and delicious. This is the most classical of classical sculpture: realism and idealism inseparable. There are no forms in a real body - since every shape melts into the next-- and she's caught that melting -- even as she's made a nice little piece of 18th century chamber music.

If Isabel is Periclean -- Diana Moore is archaic-- with the healthy, young hero (or in her case, heroine) staring straight ahead with the calm confidence of eternal youth. This female Kore has climbed straight out of the 5th century BCE - as simple and indestructible as the iron in which she's cast. Diana (appropriately named) makes virgin goddesses - and woe to the man who stumbles accross them when they've pulled off their rusty clothes.

Nicholas Africano makes glass sculpture - so one of the effects, perhaps not seen in this picture, is translucency -- which furthers the dreamy other-worldliness of his gentle figures. His standing statues have too-thick ankles to accomodate the glass -- but a nice, cushy chair is just right for them. His girls are ghosts, not goddesses -- but the good kind of ghosts from Chinese folk-stories that seduce young, impecunious scholars in lonely, remote villages.

Vartkes Barsoumian is an Armenian-Syrian sculptor in the tradition of 20th century Armenian -- and therefore Soviet-- sculpture. This piece is a puzzle isn't it ? The head is a serious old man -- the body is a don't-fool-with-me old woman. The character seems both severe and maternal - and yet there's a kind of whimsical lightness about him/her. He seems so real -- but it's the reality of personality, not of physical anatomy. It's a full body-language portrait of a distinct personality -- made to feel important -- but also made to feel beloved. The title of it is "My Father" -- and if I were assembling an exhibit of great portrait sculpture of the world, I might begin with Akhenaten, and end with Barsoumian.

I have no idea what Hanneke Beaumont's figures are doing -- they look bewildered within some profound circumstance -- serving as memorials to important events thatnobody has ever heard of. I guess that qualifies her as post-modern so gets into contemporary galleries -- but she also gets into mine. Maybe I'd call her a social (but not a socialist) realist -- because this is how urban office workers appear to me when I see them on the train platforms. This particular fellow seems to be walking in the treacherous landscape of his dream-world -- possibly anxious about his job at the bank.

(I first saw the above two sculptors at the now-defunct annual Navy Pier Art Fair)

I am grateful to my friend, Bernard Charpentier, for sharing his photos of this Russian sculptor, Viktor Korneev. (as a diplomat, and sculpture fanatic, Bernard takes his camera to a lot of distant places). Korneev is an outstanding graduate of Soviet art education -- but he didn't stop working when the empire crumbled, and it looks like he's turned in the Italian direction -- like Emilio Greco or Marino Marini. A warm, Mediterranean breeze has reached the Baltic shores of Petersburg -- and let's all dance with the inner rhythms of sensuality !

Tom Tsuchiya was sent by the sculpture gods to be my aging father's first, last, and only real student -- combining an oriental devotion to mastery with an abundance of talents -- and only he, so far as I've seen, has created a vision of contemporary social life that is both positive and realistic -- making him the ideal sculptor for an ancient faith (Roman Catholicism) that wants to make that faith evident in the contemporary world. He's got the power and gentle inner swing of the great sculpture made for Buddhism and the Hindu sects, as well as Christianity -- but like the great Japanese-American before him, Isamu Noguchi, who also started out in European classicism, he may well end up making Zen sculpture -- or will his subject matter progress from the mascots and donors to a Jesuit university (and the baseball heros of the Cincinnati Reds) up to the saints, the Virgin, or even the Savior himself? People with great talent have many options.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Sculpture exhibit in "Art & Antiques" November 2005

The Art Institute (and other major museums) may never have this kind of exhibit in my lifetime -- but sculptors can always pay to promote themselves in magazines --
so here's an impromptu exhibit culled from the above publication -- and juried by
available funds. Warning: I'm going to be pretty negative about all these pieces -- as I think they deserve the dreaded word, "kitch" which the dominant American art theory of 50 years ago assigned to all representational work.

But now that we've enjoyed 50 years of the pseudo-intellectual nihilism that replaced it, maybe we can begin to sort figure sculpture into the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

Frederick Hart: A much-praised - though weak -- entry in the great tradition of spiritural figures -- again relying on the surface rather than the mass - a facial expression of profundity, rather than profundity as an inner quality --- and the surrounding space wrapping the figure like paper around a filet of fish, rather than as an important space giving play to an important figure. It feels like "make-believe " -- rather than "I believe" -- and what could be worse for a national cathedral ?

MacDonald: mistakes the expression of a face/body with the expression
of a sculpture - a smiling face does not make a smiling sculpture -- a twisting, elegant, wispy pose does not make a twisting, elegant sculpture This is how an
illustrator thinks-- and it's designed like graphic illustration, based on
an arrangement of contours rather than mass - the feeling for which is consistantly defeated:- by the wispy string of the dress; by the fragile connection of the off-balance foot to the base; by the head broken-up by the grimace. So it has the feeling of forced jocularity -- forced lightheartedness -- and what could be more unhappy ?

Danielle Anjou "The Titans": This is the most conservative piece in the show. It wants to be a piece of 19th C. Beaux arts garden sculpture --- which I suppose it is -- even if it's below the quality of the mediocre work from that era. An attempt is made at composition - but design never overcomes anatomy -- a tendon is still a tendon, nota measured stroke within a symphony of forms and spaces. So every part feels small and studied -- not rapturous, befitting the pagan gods to whom it is dedicated.

Snowden: In her full-page ad, M.L. Snowden claims the artistic legacy of Rodin through Robert Eberhard and her father, George H. Snowden -- but I think the legacy has come through Camille Claudel instead, that poor woman who was not strong enough to control the Rodin-like power with which she tried to work. This piece is a corpse-enshrouded nightmare -- appropriately titled "Caldera" (the collapse of a volcanic cone) This is the tension-lost collapse of energy -- and it belongs in a haunted house.

Shray: In response to early cubist sculptors like Lipchitz, American sculpture went through a highly stylized period in the forties and fifties -- which I don't think ever was that successful. The problem is that sculpture does not get any better or easier by removing the complex surface details -- it's just becomes quick -- too quick -- to make. This piece illustrates a gesture -- but nothing more. Shapes are either ballooned or pinched - which makes the piece feel as slick, empty, cold, and facile as romance in a soft-porn film.

Gary Lee Price: There's no point in criticizing anything in this genre of cutesy figures of children. It's the love of smallness in every way -- smallness of spirit, ambition, decision, -- a longing for a world that is as soft, comfortable, and shapeless as a warm blanket. The ad does not list the size of these pieces -- but the smaller the better.

Gregory Beck "Edge of Faith" : When a dramatic gesture meets a weak form, the result is pathetic -- even if that's exactly how some people feel about their personal "edge of faith" -- people who might appreciate an artist who expresses that desparate pathos and brokeness. Is it too cruel to say that this presentation of bombastic, televangelistic self-delusion is comical ?

Bruce Wolfe: Why are we looking at these women ? What are they doing ?-- other
than posing for a sculptor -- who arranges their parts in an orderly, business-like fashion - each major anatomical feature handled with care and aplomb. Nothing dramatic -- nothing sexual -- even with the girl who has her booty up in the air. What's she doing ? Did the model fall asleep from boredom ? And yet -- there is a feeling of volume -- which distinguishes it from the others.

So I guess this exhibit is pretty much a failure -- evidence (if more evidence were needed) of the collapse of the Classical European sculpture tradition in the mid 20th century. It's as if Ms. Anjou never saw Carpeaux, Ms. Snowden never saw Rodin,
Shray never saw Lipschtiz, Hart never saw Rheims, Wolfe never saw Clodion,
Beck never saw a Kore. Overall, there's the problem of energy: it's all centrifugal -- spinning outward from the surface, without also pulling inward toward the mass -- so whatever gets expressed feels superficial, insincere -- and a bit destructive -- like modern, consumerist/capitalist civilization spinning out of control. There's the feeling that once the composition is set, and the details and gestures are in place , then the story is told , and it's time to move on. That is to say -- the ambition here is for illustration, not contemplation.

On the one hand, I wouldn't blame the sculptors for this. They're being business professionals in the sense of meeting the needs of a specific market --and a lot more people want to see a cute little child done to look cute and little -- rather than to look profound or timeless (as a Medieval sculptor might show the Christ child). But on the other hand -- they're following a culture, not leading it -- and isn't that the job of everyone (in every kind of work) who is capable of doing it ?
And -- as noted above -- there is no place where the European tradition of classical/natural sculpture can be assembled for comparison and judgement since our art museums are still in the final throes of terminal nihilism. But eventually -- that will change.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Chinese sculpture at the Art Institute

Here's a compilation of my favorite items from the genres on permanent display at the Art Institute. Some of these things are in the place where I saw them on my first visit -- about 40 years ago -- but some are more recent - and I've painfully learned that nothing is on permanent display. So I thought I'd take a moment to document what I like the most.

This Tang Boddisatva is my favorite piece in the museum -- and given it's prominent location -- I don't think I'm alone in my admiration for it.

Front view of the same sculpture (taken with my new "image stabilized" camera)

Cute little doggie, isn't he ? Found in a Han tomb - but it seems like it would also work as a roof-top decoration.

This jovial fellow was found in a 6th C. AD tomb -- thought to be an entertainer.

A Han dynasty tomb figure - with an especially thoughtful expression, don't you think ?

I'm not a big fan of jade -- I think it's so hard to work, the issue of design is
made secondary. But this Ming era chalice with dragons is one of the nicer pieces. Can you imagine actually sipping from it ?

This is my favorite Tang vase in the collection -- those white splotches are more than just splotches -- they're alive -- like an airborn flock of geese.

These delightful, rainbow-colored girls have always pulled me into their private little boudoirs. They're about the right age for the pavillions in "Dream of Red Chamber", but they lived 1,000 years earlier.

For whatever reason, China doesn't seem to have portrait sculpture of ancestors --
I'm guessing that's because the power of the head-of-family is so absolute, everyone is relieved when he's finally gone. But monastaries are the exception - where maybe those lonely guys really did miss those who have died. This is an 11th Century
piece -- hollow with a lacquer surface.

Another one of my 40-year favorites - see how even an unusual vantage point offers a delightful view. So soft -- so gentle -- so stately -- the happy, idyllic world
of Tang. Why couldn't it last forever ?

I've never been able to imagine myself in a social event that would use these architectural wine jars from the Zhou dynasty (1050 - 770 BC )

They have whimsy and power, don't they ? As if they contained something more important than wine. They seem to belong in a room into which no one is allowed to enter.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Keith Achepohl Collection

Born in 1934, Keith Achepohl is currently the head of the printmaking Dept. at the University of Iowa -- and somewhere along the way he collected a lot of African pottery.

As he tells it, he began his collection while traveling through Africa.
Dealers would pull up their trucks at the markets and he would go through their stuff -- looking for the unusual, the extraordinary. That's the kind of collection it is -- based less on historical authenticity and more on what looks interesting. So the museum's official title of this exhibit, "For Hearth and Altar", is somewhat misleading. It should be called "For fun viewing".

There's a good-natured, swinging goofiness about many of these things -- like those
neighborhood brass bands that proliferate in some not-yet-industrialized countries around the world -- and I can understand why Mr. Archepohl says he sold his collection of contemporary American pottery when he discovered these engaging objects, most (but not all) of which also contemporary, i.e. mid to late 20th Century.

I'd like to put some of the large jars side-by-side with the 16th Century Japanese jars (also in the Art Institute) that are so similar in size/shape/color -- but feel so different -- as they reflect an intellectual choice to be simple/natural that goes back to the Taoist philosphers of the 4th century BCE.

It's also interesting to see Mr. Achepohl's own graphics -- as they reflect the disastrous consequence of academic modernism on the European pictorial tradition: - failing as both design, picture, and engaging expression -- even if pleasant enough for a dentist's waiting room.

I'd also like to note that although the musuem's brochure tells us that these "often surprising ceramic vessels have been created for domestic and ritual uses" -- there's
no documentation to that effect -- and it's quite likely that since most of them are less than 50 years old, many of them were made for the collector's market -- which would, of course, in the twisted art-philosophy of the art museum, disqualify them as art objects worthy of their collection. One may also note that not a single potter is identified by name -- although if it really counted - i.e. -- if name were important to value like it is in the post Renaissance European tradition, inquiries could have been made -- the artists, or at least their children/grandchildren are still living -- and some artists could have been identified. But that would have removed them from their mythic state of anonymity - and probably revealed that the artist did, occasionally, make things for sale to dealers. (who wouldn't jump at the chance of making some money?)

So the contemporary tribal artist is honored as such only as long as he remains
anonymous. Once known -- he's no longer an artist at all -- he's just a manufacturer of trinkets for tourists and street fairs in places like Chicago or Atlanta.