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Monday, April 27, 2015

Sandy Skoglund

Sandy Skoglund's best efforts. (Some are shown below in larger format.)

Sandy Skoglund
Normally when I write about a photographer, I do so in a somewhat different manner than I would a painter. Painters create a limited number of images over their lifetime. Artist-Photographers, on the other hand, often seem to create a virtually unlimited output during their careers. Simply selecting which of their photos to use is an excruciating task. Moreover, photographers are different in that they take their camera and go on hunting expeditions, taking literally hundreds, perhaps thousands of different images (especially with the advent of digital photography, from which they may cull one or two masterpieces. There's an old controversy as to whether photographers make pictures or take them. That of course, depends on the photographer. The "hunter-gatherer" type of photographer "takes" pictures as the mood strikes them or circumstances allow. However, photographers such a Sandy Skoglund fall into the more limited group of photographic artists who "make" pictures, often going to extreme lengths to capture the precise art image they visualize long before they drag out their new, state-of-the-art Nikons. I need to write about Skoglund's art as if she were a painter.
Cheetos Cocktail Party, 1992-95, Sandy Skoglund, live models and manikins all decked out in cheese curls. I'm guessing she couldn't eat a Cheeto now if her life depended on it.
Bacon, 1992-95, Sandy Skoglund
Actually, Skoglund spends more time and effort in planning and creating her art than do virtually all painters today--as much as six months. Then It all comes down to a single day of photography, often with specially dressed live models as seen in her Cheetos Cocktail Party (above). In a similar vein, the art material is raw Bacon, (right) deftly glued over a manikin and a live model (foreground). However, perhaps most distressing of all her works is her Walking on Eggshells (below). I know the people and the eggshells are real, I'm less certain of the serpents (I would hope they're fake.) Here we begin to find a fuzzy line between the conceptual installation and the photos preserving it. Which are the more important? Are the photos merely the canvas upon which the Cheetos and bacon are painted?

Walking on Eggshells, 1996-2003, Sandy Skoglund...both literally and figuratively.
Notice the footprints across the floor and the cute little bunnies protecting the bathers.
1978, Sandy Skoglund
Sandy Skoglund is a New England artist. born in 1946. She graduated from Smith College, an all-girls school, in 1968 with time out to study art history at the Sorbonne and École du Louvre in Paris. After graduating from Smith College, she went to graduate school at the University of Iowa in 1969, where she studied filmmaking, multimedia art, and printmaking. In 1971, she earned her Master of Arts and in 1972 a Master of Fine Arts in painting. With credentials like that you might expect Sandy Skoglund to be a college professor, and you'd be right. She was an art professor at the University of Hartford between 1973 and 1976. She currently teaches photography and art installation/multimedia at Rutgers University.

Revenge of the Goldfish, 1979-84,
Sandy Skoglund
Sandy's early work, during the 1970s involved shooting multiple images of identical vacation cabins, mostly from the 1950s, from all appearances. Later, she moved on to brightly colored pattern repetitions and subtle, low contrast tableaus. Later she set up contrasting shapes juxtaposed against low contract colors and patterns (above, left) followed by the more and more complex tableaus (top) and her Revenge of the Goldfish (right) from 1979-84. Then in 2001, Skoglund teamed up with artist, Ellen Driscoll to create functional art at Smith College's John Michael Kohler Arts Center. They chose the theme "Catching the Drift" involving sea creatures and plant life for the women's facility and "Liquid Origins and Fluid Dreams," dealing with various cultural stories of creation for the Men's Room. These themes are depicted in ceramic tiles covering the walls. The two artists collaborated with the porcelain artists of the Kohler Company (the museums major benefactor) to create distinctive fixtures for their creation.

Liquid Origins and Fluid Dreams, 2001, Smith College, Ellen Driscoll and Sandy Skoglund.
Happy Flushing
Sandy Skoglund's most recent works involve ceramic snowflakes (about 18 inches in diameter) upon which she fires custom-made decals featuring black snowflakes in the center of which she has carefully Photo shopped a single eye, that of a close friend or pet. In so doing, she brings together one of the oldest arts known to man with one of the newest, not so much to be photographed but to exist in their own spaces. Sandy Skoglund, is, of course a photographer (self-taught, in fact) but as this broad sampling of her work would indicated she so very much more, everything, in fact but a painter.

This series Skoglund calls simply "Winter."


Sunday, April 26, 2015

Chapel of the Holy Cross, Sedona, Arizona

Chapel of the Holy Cross, Sedona, Arizona                                             

The chapel is not equally impressive at
night but still striking in its soaring presence
I could kick myself now for having missed it. Last April, as my wife and I were driving south on I-17 out of Flagstaff toward Phoenix, we passed Sedona, Arizona, a small tourist/retirement city some ten miles or so off the Interstate. In doing so, we also passed up the chance to see one of the most remarkable architectural landmarks in the Southwest, perhaps the entire country, the Chapel of the Holy Cross. That's what I get for not doing my homework as to places to go and things to see before leaving home. The little side trip would hardly have taken more than an hour. But, we were nearing our destination and our son and his family in Phoenix (two hours or so south) so we weren't really in the mood for side trips. It's a Catholic church and I'm Protestant, but hey, I can still light a candle and say a prayer when inspired by this kind of spiritual beauty.
The desert landscape of the area dwarfs the chapel. Sedona is off to the far left.
In seeing photos of the chapel such as the one at the top, the Arizona manmade wonder (one of seven)appears pretty impressive. It's only when seen against the grand sweep of the desert landscape (above) that one gets a feel for the God-made wonder in which it resides (the tiny white dot on the left). I'm used to writing that some such landmark has a long and colorful history. This one doesn't. Completed in 1956, meaning it's less than sixty years old; and in its timeless, minimalist simplicity, looks to be far less than that. Moreover, it almost didn't get least not in Arizona. The inspiration for the architectural work of art is somewhat strange--the Empire State Building--yes, the one in New York City. Alright, there is a slight resemblance, but very slight.

From the entry side (the terms front and back are useless here), the chapel is simple,
understated, and fairly unimpressive, far and away overwhelmed by the view.
Marguerite Brunswig Staude
The inspiration dates back to 1932 and a local rancher and sculptor, Marguerite Brunswig Staude. She originally had in mind to build the chapel in her native Hungary, in Budapest. She enlisted the help of Lloyd Wright, the son of architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, to help pull it off. The only problem was, it's pretty hard to build a new church when all around it, old churches are being brought to rubble by the bombs of WW II. So instead, the wealthy heiress decided to build her vision of the "Empire State Building Chapel," near her hometown of Sedona. She hired architects, Richard Hein as project architect, the design executed by architect, August K. Strotz, both of the firm Anshen and Allen. The chapel was to be built on Coconino National Forest land so Mrs. Staude turned to her senator, Barry Goldwater, for a Special-Use Permit. With the paperwork out of the way, construction began, the chapel being completed some eighteen months later at a cost of $300,000 ($2.5-million today).

The entry façade offers no hint as to the beauty inside and the view behind the altar.
With a view like this from the
pews, it might be hard to keep
one's mind on the homily.
Mrs. Staude got her money's worth. The following year (1957), the American Institute of Architects (AIA) gave her chapel its Award of Honor. Fifty years later, 2007, Arizonans voted the Chapel of the Holy Cross one of the Seven Manmade Wonders of Arizona. Lodged in such a magnificent setting, one might imagine a spectacular view of the sprawling desert landscape. Well, yes and no. If you gaze a far off, you see an impressive range of reddish and yellowish mountains (below). If, on the other hand, you look out and down, it's not hard to imagine where the chapel picked up its nickname, "Hollywood on the Rocks." Sprawling not more than a mile from the base of the chapel is one of several gated private estates, this particular one sprawling over several acres with its horrendous architecture, replete with lily pond, gazebos, four car garage, guard house and forecourt fountain (bottom). Seemingly God and man trying to outdo one another.

The view behind the altar.
Just down over the hill.


Saturday, April 25, 2015

Fan Art

Harry Potter and his nemesis, by Hito76           

Frank Sinatra, by Hantverk
I love to look at the work of talented amateur artists. Actually the work of some of the not-so-talented is fun to look at too. Outside of the classroom setting, nowhere is this type of art so easily found as in the form of "fan art" on the Internet. Usually it comes in the form of pencil drawings and almost always it's based upon photos from fan magazine. Thus the artist is at the mercy of the celebrity photographer. The quality of these can range from Paparazzi awful to exquisitely rendered photographic studio portraits. Fortunately, most would-be fan artists instinctively choose the latter. I might add that pencil drawings are notoriously hard to capture digitally. Even with some judicious photo adjustments (which I've done with the ones seen here) the results can be mediocre at best. The examples I've chosen here are (except for one or two) well above the mediocre level ranging up to the near-professional level as seen in our old friend Harry (above). Seldom does fan art rise to this level.
A teenage favorite at the moment is the boy-band One Direction. Group portraits tend to be a real challenge for any artist. This artist, named Ashleigh, seems to have mastered the art. (Note: when photographing pencil drawings, half-tones tend to fall away.)
Copyright, Jim Lane
Debbie Reynolds, 1963, Jim Lane
I'm not sure how far fan art goes back. Did Shakespeare have drawn portraits mailed to him by fans? Probably not, he wasn't young enough nor androgynous enough during his most productive years, and didn't appear on stage before adoring crowds in any case. The androgyny factor pretty much permeates virtually all male fan art (bottom). It would seem the more the boys look like girls the more the girls adore them. Glamorous beauty seems to be a key factor with female stars. Needless to say, neither androgyny nor great beauty lasts forever, and in fact, age seems to have something to do with fans' choice of subject matter (teens prevail, both as artists and subjects). I'd be remiss not to mention that I've done some fan art in my time. As I mentioned before, fan art magazines are usually a repository of outstanding (though heavily retouched) portrait photography. Back in the early 1960s, I cut my portrait eyeteeth drawing pictures from such magazines. The drawing of Debbie Reynolds (right) is one of my better ones.

Harry Styles. The linear qualities
of hair lend themselves to pen
drawing. Shaded areas, not so much.
Justin Bieber. Clothing texture
half-tones are easier than the
smoothness of facial areas.

Two faces, two artists, derived from the same photo.
Insofar as fan art is concerned the two most popular teen singing stars today appear to be Justin Bieber and Harry Styles (One Direction). The two fan portraits above, by the same artist, appear to be done in the unforgiving medium of ballpoint pen (probably over a pencil drawing). Two fan portraits of Beyoncé (below) give some indication of the wide range of quality fans often send their singing idols, or post on the Internet. In some cases it's fortunate most celebrities have a sense of humor...or a broad acceptance of widely varying drawing styles (right).

Beyoncé. I'm not sure, but this
drawing has many telltale
indications of having been traced,
and somewhat poorly at that. Notice
the differences in the two hands.
Beyoncé by Liberian Gurrl.
In colored pencil.
Fan artists, especially those of the female variety, are notably different from most artists. They are often very much "in love" with their subject. It drives them to struggle and strive far beyond what they might in drawing any other subject, except for a pet or a boyfriend (though both could be considered to involve an emotional attachment).
Selena Gomez as created though with
the simulation game Sims 3.
Selena Gomez in traditional pencil. As
is often the case trouble with the nose.
It's interesting to note that fan artists, while they continue choose traditional pencil drawing by a wide margin, are also embracing the newest tools of digital art (top). Justin Bieber's on-again-off-again love, Selena Gomez (below), offers an interesting contrast, a pencil drawing (below, left) and a digital screen capture created within the Sims 3 game. Although the Sims 3 was never intended as a means of drawing portraits, with an astute eye for proportions and details, not to mention way too much time on your hands, it does have tools lending itself to fan art.

With most fan artists, pretty boys reign.


Friday, April 24, 2015

James Bolivar Manson

The Tate Museum (now the Tate Britain), London.
There's an old saying in business, "Everyone rises to their highest level of incompetence." Actually, I've seen it happen often enough to elevate those words to "rule" status. Think about it. You get a job, you're successful in that position. Your boss notices, gives you a promotion. Once more you succeed, you get another promotion, etc. Finally, a few more promotions later, though you've gained a great deal of knowledge and experience along the way, at some point in time, you find yourself "in over your head." You're incompetent. That doesn't necessarily mean you'll get fired, only that you've risen to your highest level of incompetence and are not likely to be promoted again. The British painter, James Bolivar Manson knew all about that phenomena. He was the most incompetent director in the history of London's Tate Museum--that is, when he wasn't falling down drunk.
Mrs. Crump's Garden, James B. Manson
Manson was an Impressionist painter born in 1879. His father was the literary editor for London's Daily Chronicle. At the age of sixteen J.B. Manson left high school hoping to enroll in art school. His father, however, had other hopes for is son. He ended up as an office boy for a magazine publisher where he was so prone to obnoxious practical jokes he was fired. He moved on up to the position of a bank clerk, a job he loathed--more practical jokes augmented with bird imitations. All this time he studied art at Heatherley School of Fine Art from 1890 and then Lambeth School of Art. By all accounts he loved what he was doing, though he was by no means exceptionally talented in doing it.

Summer Day Doëlan Brittany, James B. Manson
Notre Dame, Paris, 1903,
James B. Manson
In 1903, Manson married Lilian Beatrice Laugher, a violinist. They moved to the Latin Quarter of Paris and rented a room for the ghastly sum of one pound per month. Even in 1903, you didn't get much of a room for one pound a month. They probably could have put his picture next to the definition of "artiste affamé" (starving artist) in the French dictionary. In his spare time (which was likely considerable) Manson studied at the Academie Julian, which in that era meant he studied Impressionism. After a year, they gave it up and moved back to London and a two-room top floor flat. Lilian Manson gave violin lesson in the front parlor, J.B. set up his studio in the kitchen. They must have slept on the couch.


James B. Manson Self-portrait, 1913
In 1910, Lilian Laugher Manson became the musical director of the North London Collegiate School for Girls. There she produced operettas for which her husband designed the costumes. The following year, things began to look up for J.B. Manson as he became friends with the director of the Tate Museum (now the Tate Britain), where he worked as a volunteer hanging shows. Charles Aitkin was sufficiently impressed to offer the struggling artist a job as a clerk. Manson really didn't want the job, but with a nagging wife and two daughters, the salary of 150 pounds per year looked attractive. He became a weekend painter. During that time, he talked his reluctant boss into embracing Impressionism and eventually, the work of another struggling artist, Walter Sickert.

Still Life Tulips In a Blue Jug, 1912, James B. Manson
J.B. Manson's work at the Tate was considered important enough that he was able to get a military exemption during WW I. He was promoted to Assistant Keeper. Manson was primarily a flower painter who managed his first solo show in 1923. Despite some success, and while wishing to become a noted artist, Manson was riddled with (quite legitimate) self-doubt unwilling to give up his day job, fearing he'd be unable to support his wife and family as an artist. Then, in 1930 he was named director of the Tate. He had achieved his highest level of incompetence. He was unfulfilled as an artist, wanting only to be a respected painter. On top of that, Manson had an unhappy marriage, he drank to excess; he suffered from depression, blackouts, and paranoia causing long periods of calling in sick.

Early Spring Flowers, James B. Manson
In all fairness, it wasn't easy being director of an art museum during the world-wide depression days of the 1930s. There were no funds from the government to acquire new works, and even if there had been Manson would have been reluctant to do so. Money was so scarce he was forced to decline the loan of a painting by Camille Pissarro for lack of funds for transportation and insurance. It was an awkward period for art too. Conservative boards of trustees still considered Impressionism a risky investment while up and coming names such as Matisse, van Gogh, Henry Moore, William Coldstream, and others were seen as dangerously avant-garde. Manson himself was no fan of Post-Impressionism. In 1938, he asked Sir Robert Sainsbury if the Tate could borrow A Study of Eve by French sculptor Charles Despiau. Sainsbury agreed on condition that the gallery also show the 1932 Mother and Child by his friend, Henry Moore. Manson's response was, "Over my dead body."

A Light Lunch, 1917, James Bolivar Manson
Pinks in a Vase, ca. 1940,
James B. Manson
Manson also rejected all works of Surrealism and German Expressionism. He did, however, supervise the installation of electric lights in the museum (1935), cherry trees out front, and additional toilets. During the Post-WW I period the Tate could applauded, or at least tolerate, conservative tastes in art. Alcoholism and bad manners, were another matter. Tales of Manson's drunkenly presiding over board meetings were commonplace. In one instance, he cut loose with loud, obscene, drunken outbursts at a museum-sponsored dinner party where he was said to have "precipitated himself" (whatever that means) on the wife of an ambassador with amorous (perhaps even lethal) intent, all of which brought things to a head in 1938. He was asked to resign for "health" reasons.

Following retirement, Manson continued to paint as his mental health permitted. He abandoned his wife and daughters "to get away from women," but managed to show at the Royal Academy from 1939 until his death in 1945. His final, sad words: "The roses are dying and so am I."
Still-life with Flowers,
1919, James B. Manson

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Renaissance Cities--Barcelona

Barcelona's Gothic Quarter, the old central city, about
as close to the Renaissance as possible today.
By the time you read this, my wife and I will be on board the Allure of the Seas on our way to Barcelona, Spain. We've been there before, in 2001, but mostly what we saw was through a bus window from the airport to the seaport where we boarded the Grandeur of the Seas for a seaborne romp around the western Mediterranean. We had hoped to see at least a little of the city when our ship returned. We had some time to kill before our plane left in the afternoon. However, when it came time to commence our abbreviated tour I couldn't find an English speaking taxi driver, nor did I have enough Spanish currency (in the days before the Euro) to afford one in any case. So, we took a bus provided by the cruise line to the airport and sat around for something like five hours before boarding our plane. It was, to say the least, hardly what you'd call a visit to Barcelona. This year, I'd like to spend a couple days there before taking the high-speed train north to Paris.
An artist's rendering of Barcelona in Roman times. The Mons Taber is in the background.

The Barcelona Cathedral.
There is lots to see in Barcelona, it's a very, VERY old city, dating back to the pre-Roman, Carthaginian days around 300 BC. The Romans planted a military outpost there about 15 BC, laying out a typical, walled grid of streets, the "city" fed by two aqueducts from the mountains to the west. The place had a good harbor, lots of flat land, and in emergencies, an easily defended hill they called Mons Taber. There are still a few remaining vestiges of the old Roman wall if you know where to look. Mostly though, in visiting Barcelona today, tourist center their interest on the Spanish architect, Antoni Gaudi, and his vision of the Sagrada Familia (Sacred Family) church as well as his apartment complex most often referred to at Casa Mila. Both are in the Art Nouveau style of the early 20th-century. The church (begun in 1882) is still under construction, expected to be completed in 2026. Just to avoid confusion, Gaudi's church is not the Barcelona Cathedral (right). It dates from the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries. Its ancient-looking façade actually not all that ancient. It was completed in 1913. You'd think they'd want to finish one church before they started another one.
The Aragon Empire (in blue) during the 15th century.
A street in the Gothic Quarter.
Barcelona during Renaissance times (similar to the street scene at left) was a city in decline. For centuries, though good times and bad, invasions, sackings, and other important happenings, had been the capital of the Catalonian area of Spain called Castile. The Castile empire stretched as far east as Athens, Greece, while also including Naples, most of Italy, Sicily, and all the dry land in between. That all changed in 1469. Isabel of Castile (central Spain) married Ferdinand II of Aragon (the area surrounding Barcelona), forming the roots of the present-day Spanish royal family tree (King Juan Carlos). The capital of Spain became Madrid. Together the couple drove out the last of the Moorish invaders (Muslims), financed Christopher Columbus (below), raised five kids, and the rest, as they say, is history. (Their youngest daughter, Catalina of Aragon, became the first wife of England's Henry VIII thus becoming Queen Catherine of England and the mother of Mary I, Queen of Scots--it's a long story.)

The Return of Christopher Columbus; His Audience
before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella by Eugene Delacroix
Ferdinand II of Aragon, ca. 1515
Isabel of Castile, 1519
Among Barcelona's many events of historic proportions was the establishment in 1401 of the Bank of Barcelona, the first public bank in Europe. (Venice and Genoa followed suit shortly thereafter.) Also, the first European meter as a unit of measurement originated in Barcelona in 1794. A world's fair in 1888 brought worldwide prestige to the city. On the negative side, the years 1650-54 brought Bubonic Plague to the city, reducing the population by as much as a half. During the 19th century, Napoleon was not kind to Barcelona, nor was Generalissimo Franco, the Spanish communists, and various anarchist groups which ruled the city during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). However Barcelona began to prosper during the mid-20th-century through industrialization and tourism, aided by the Olympic Games in 1992. Today, the city is once more growing, despite the general problems of the European economy, boasting an estimated population of 1.6-million. In a few days, my wife and I will be boosting that number a little.

Antoni Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia, 2014.
Neo-Gothic it's not.