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Saturday, October 25, 2014

Crowd Art

Artist/photographer Spencer Tunick creates using nude crowds.                              
Marilyn Monroe, Craig Alan--people as pixels
Over the past several months (years?) I've written about the knack artists have in utilizing just about anything they see and touch as material for making art; everything from fruit to frost, cakes to flakes. In recent years some vary daring and creative artists have started using people as an art medium. For lack of a better term, I'm calling it "crowd art." Now, having said that, let me point out I'm not including simply photos of massed humanity. Virtually anyone with a camera and tickets to a rock concert can take such pictures, and, in the very broadest photographic sense, call it art. That's too easy. That's little more than taking attendance at a public event. Nor am I talking about the digital photographer who manipulates a crowd image (more than a little, at least) to create art; though that does involve a good deal more creative input than some guy at the top of a Ferris wheel shooting all the "little people" below. No, I'm interested in the artist who can arrange for a crowd, then rearrange that crowd, molding it, directing it, shaping it, moving it, and using it to create an image (abstract or representational) to make a statement in the larger context of art or social interaction. I'm talking about an artist such as Spencer Tunick (above) and all his naked little people. Craig Alan (above, right) does largely the same thing but in a portrait mode using large groups of people like pixels on a computer screen (presumably with their clothes on). It matters not how the artist chooses to preserve his or her efforts, whether using a camera, or in painting on canvas. That's how I'm defining "crowd art."

Le Sabine, 1799, Jacques-Louis David, who apparently favored nude crowds too.
Crowd art in the traditional mode of painting is really not all that new. Many of the earliest examples involved battle scenes such as Jacques-Louis David's Le Sabine (above) from 1799, or still earlier frescoes on the order of Michelangelo's mostly nude Last Judgment. In fact, medieval painters often used massed humanity in depicting Biblical events hundreds of years before that. The French painter, Thomas Couture, with his Romans during the Decadence, (below) from 1847, must have had a ton of fun depicting sin, far more than the Italian Baroque artist, Giovanni Lanfranco in painting his The Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes around 1620-25 (just below Couture's painting). Very often depictions of Christ teaching have involved several dozen figures. All these efforts are impressive from a strictly artistic point of view, but none of the artists mentioned rendered their crowds from live models. Painting crowds hardly lends itself to that approach.

Romans during the Decadence, 1847, Thomas Couture

Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes ca. 1620-25, Giovanni Lanfranco
Crowd painting taken literally.
With the coming of non-representation art during the early 20th-century, artists began creating crowds in their heads, massing human figures as shapes, rather than as a living entities to create their art. An unknown British artist, apparently a soccer fan, exemplifies this approach with his abstract, yet semi-representational image below. Such massed humanity engaging in a single activity also extends to photography, in the scene at right in which the crowd is, quite literally, painted as well as photographed.

Supporting Manchester. I wonder if that's a self-portrait in the upper left corner.
Looks like a rough crowd. Actors and women were barred from attending coliseum events. It would appear that a few women sneaked in anyway, perhaps dressed as men
Modern day artists have sometimes turned to depicting ancient crowds as seen in the depiction above of Roman gladiator fans enjoying a fun day cheering and booing their favorite athletes in entertainment events often not too far removed from our present day wrestling. It looks like they could have used a hotdog concession. The artist is un-named. Perhaps one of the most daring and complex examples of crowd art comes from Latvian conceptual photographer, Misha Gordin, who has made a career of photographing multiple painted human figures, massed in such a way as to largely negate the fact that his medium of expression is, in fact, human. His black and white photo images such as Texts for Evading Nomads VIII: Museum 2 (below) caught my eye for its incredible sense of design quite apart from the human shapes involved. In fact, the heads seem quite secondary to the designs painted upon them, all but eliminating the human element for the first few seconds when the work is seen.

Texts for Evading Nomads VIII: Museum 2, Misha Gordin
And finally, I'd be remiss in not mentioning the greatest of all crowd artists working today, the British illustrator, Martin Handford. If that name doesn't exactly ring any bells, perhaps you might be more likely to recognize his alter-ego, a slender, bespectacled guy wearing blue trousers, and a red and white, horizontally-striped, shirt. One of his names is "Waldo." Waldo's main claim to fame, other than entertaining thousands of children (and a similar number of adults, no doubt), is that he keeps getting lost in crowds. Handford and Waldo (in the U.S. and Canada), Wally and several other similar names in a total of 26 other countries, have turned a bad sense of direction into an art form. First introduced in 1987, and becoming a pop-culture icon during the 1990s, Waldo (aka. Wally, Wizard Whitebeard, Wilma, Wenda, Woof, Odlaw, and several other aliases) today not only has his series of books, but his own line of dolls, toys, comics, magazines, and a Where's Waldo? TV series. Can you find Waldo in the crowd below?
Where's Waldo, (Wally Wilma, Wenda, Woof, Odlaw, et. al.), Martin Handford
I should note that I'm not totally without experience and a small degree of expertise when it comes to painting crowds. Some thirty years ago, I attempted a crowd scene which I later called Escape (below). It grew from a heavily altered and adjusted photo and was originally intended to have a square format. Half-way through painting it, I said, to hell with this, and chopped it in half, re-stretching the canvas into the horizontal depiction of beachgoers, having taken the better part of two years to complete. Crowd art is hard, boring, work.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Escape, 1984-85, Jim Lane


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