Click on photos to enlarge.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Steven Campbell

The first milestone on the road to success--the solo show.
For the most part, artists start out young. That is, they may show prodigious talent, sometimes even as barely more than toddlers, which is then nurtured by loving, attentive parents for a dozen or more years, up through whatever form of secondary schooling is the norm. From there such creative prodigies are refined by not-necessarily-so-loving college instructors to maturity. After that, they struggle...for recognition...for success...for the next ten to twenty years. (The "starving artist" is no myth.) To make ends meet they may turn to teaching, illustrating, designing, portraits, and "art in the park" (sometimes all of the above). The best of the lot, perhaps one in a hundred, attain gallery recognition, win awards, end up in museums, before dying rich and famous (though not necessarily both). Ambition, talent, daring, luck, persistence, morality, religion, spousal support, inherited wealth, and a dogged work ethic are all are contributing factors in this complex success equation.
After a late start, success as an artist came quickly.
Steven Campbell did not start out young. Born in 1953, the Glasgow native was twenty-five years old before he ever set foot in a Glasgow College of Art classroom. At a time in life when most young artists were taking a deep breath and embarking on a career, this former engineer was what's kindly referred to as a "mature student." From 1978 to 1982, Campbell studied the trendy fad of performance art, then wisely gave it up for painting. Being a "mature student" had its advantages in terms of focus and maturity. Upon graduation, Campbell was awarded the Bram Stoker gold medal, and gained a Fulbright Scholarship which he used for further study at the Pratt Institute in New York.

Siamese Boxing Triplets and the Tarantino Dash,
1982, Steven Campbell.
Campbell's first solo show came a year later in 1983, at the Barbara Toll Gallery in New York City. This was followed in rapid succession by numerous other shows both in the U.S. and back home in Glasgow. British artists are seldom successful in both the U.S. and the U.K. Having first made his breakthrough in New York, Campbell demonstrated to his peers that there was no need for any international boundary to their ambitions. As the result of his association with Barbara Toll, Campbell was the first Scottish artist of his generation to be seriously collected in America, thus establishing a highly lucrative bridgehead for others.

I'm not sure which of these two versions (both from 1985)
ended up in the Scottish National Gallery.
Additional exhibits of Campbell's work followed at the New 57 Gallery, Edinburgh (later known as the Fruitmarket Gallery), Glasgow's Third Eye Centre, and in 1985, the Hayward Gallery, in London. The following year, one of his paintings was acquired by London's Tate Museum. In 1988, Campbell's painting A Man Perceived by a Flea (above), painted in 1985, was acquired by the Scottish National Gallery. Campbell’s art has occasionally been described as deliberately obscure. Although that is certainly the case inasmuch as his canvases are often replete with complex symbolism, the greater part of Campbell's body of work, like that of William Blake, is both beautiful and (for the most part) perfectly explicable in its references, whether to classical mythology or to the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Campbell's work was commercial, as well. His exhibitions would regularly sell out.

Elegant Gestures of the Drowned after Max Ernst,
1986, Steven Campbell.
Painter Tripping Over the New,
Steven Campbell
Campbell lived dangerously. By the late 1990s his health began to fail and he faded from view. In 2002 he staged a comeback with The Caravan Club, again at the Talbot Rice Gallery, and in 2004 with an exhibition titled "Jean-Pierre Léaud - after ideas portrayed by the French actor in films directed by François Truffaut," at the Glasgow Print Studio. There, his longstanding affinity for film noir was most apparent. Both exhibitions showed he had lost nothing in terms of painterly invent-iveness and imaginative power. Camp-bell’s last major exhibition, in 2004 un-derlined the fact that he was es-sentially a pre-20th-century artist. The show featured works paying tribute to the great masters, such as his beloved Cézanne of the 19th-century. Camp-bell died unexpectedly of a ruptured appendix in August of 2007, at the age of fifty-four. He was married and had three children.

Campbell’s wife described him as a man “utterly committed to his art”, but also someone who would come home from the studio and be “a perfect dad and granddad”. Although Campbell had a reputation for being somewhat prickly, in truth he was a generous and humane with a keen appreciation of the ridiculous, and a connoisseur of the absurdities of human life. Mike Munro, the noted chronicler of Glasgow’s language and culture, tells of taking his young daughter to an early Campbell exhibition. He parked the child in a "stroller" beside one of Campbell’s large, very expensive (and sold) works. After a few minutes spent looking round, Munro returned to find that his child had been quietly filling in spaces in the painting with a crayon. When Campbell was told about the desecration, he erupted, not in anger, but in wild laughter.

Untitled (from baby faced), 2006, Steven Campbell,
one of his final paintings.


Friday, December 30, 2016

Alberto Burri

The 2015, retrospective, Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting,
presented by the Guggenheim Museum, the first time Burri's work
had been exhibited in the United States for over thirty-five years.
I've often written before as to how art and war are practically antithetical. War frequently destroys art and architecture quite literally. But it also has a devastating effect on those who make art as well; not to mention the art they make, which often reflects the horrors they've seen and endured. Yet I recently stumbled upon one young man who, during the mid-1940s became an artist as the result of a war. That's not to say he didn't suffer, that his art didn't sometimes reflect the brutal power of wartime conflict, or that his turning to art, becoming a world-renown painter was necessarily a positive result of his involvement in WW II. In fact, being a doctor, specializing in tropical medicine, he might well have become more famous and have served the needs of mankind more profoundly had he not taken up painting near the end of the war. I mean, how can you compare a man who makes totally abstract wall decorations with one who saves lives?

The creator of art with no meaning beyond its materials.
Alberto Burri was born in Città di Castello, in Umbria, Italy. The year was 1915. His father was a wine merchant and an elementary school teacher. Young Alberto earned a medical degree from the University of Perugia. His life was to change forever when, on October 12, 1940, two days after Italy entered World War II, Burri was called up as a medic and sent to Libya. Just over two years later, in November of 1942, the Axis forces were defeated at El Alamein in northern Egypt. Burri's unit was captured in Tunisia. He was interned in Camp Hereford, a prisoner of war camp in Hereford, Texas. It was then and there, lacking anything better to do, that Burri began to paint. The countryside of his home is an idyllic landscape, which served as subject matter for many of Burri’s first paintings--the ones he taught himself to paint as an American prisoner of war. Burri, who had been a member of the Fascist Party, was transformed by the dramatic and painful experience of being a prisoner of war. Even though his political views changed dramatically after the war, he remained mute on the subject. Instead, he embarked on a lifelong creative journey. He used the limited materials available to him at the camp, converting them into pieces of art marked by his experience of turmoil and violence. Lacking proper canvases he painted on burlap sacks. He painted idyllic landscapes of what he saw in Texas, and of what he recalled of Umbria.

Paint and anything else that would stick to stretched burlap.
After the war, upon being repatriated to Italy, Burri abandoned medicine, throwing himself completely into his art. But he took it in a much different direction than did other artists of his time. Burri reduced his visual language, creating images that were entirely abstract. World War II had wreaked havoc on Italy. The country's resources had been bled dry. Defeat had made Italy old and bitter as years of Fascism had imposed an agonizing cultural narrow-mindedness. Burri continued using burlap, which was in surplus in post-war Italy, while also adding whatever other materials, media, and tools that were cheap and readily available. His palette and his images resembled the torn apart landscape of his home country and the texture and appearance of so much that had been wasted.

Rosso Plastica L.A., 1966, Antonio Burri
With the end of the Second World War, a sort of modern-day Renaissance began sweeping through the a new Italy. Artists began to use their work as a way to reexamine the past and the future as the country tried to find confidence in itself. Painters, poets, and intellectuals formed new cultural groups, drafting specialized periodicals, which invited new theories, paving the way for a brand new type of art. American artists such as de Kooning, Matta, Rauschenberg, Rothko and Twombly visited Rome for brief intervals. Thus Rome emerged as an important venue for meetings among international art critics. It was during this time that the works of Afro Basaldella, Burri and Lucio Fontana emerged as pioneers on post-war Italian art scene.

In later years, Burri incorporated welded sheet metal
steel into his "paintings."
The fact that Burri’s newly abstracted style incorporated colors, textures, materials, and forms not unlike the destruction and carnage of the war seemed like an invitation to viewers to assume Burri was creating works about his experiences as a doctor and a soldier. But Burri insisted throughout his entire career that there was no such meaning to be found in his choices, and that there was no meaning at all in his images. Alberto Burri relentlessly claimed that his work exemplified "Material Realism," exploring the reality of the formal, physical properties of his materials, and nothing more. For many Italian critics, Burri's burlap canvases provided a historical link to international modernism and prewar movements, in the collage tradition, that could obscure Italy's recent fascist past. Yet at the same time, the innovative use of non-art materials set them apart as symbols of the progressiveness of Italian culture.
Burri invented the technique of charring (or sometimes
burning holes clear though) thin veneers.
The formal qualities of Burri's art were wildly innovative. He pioneered a broad range of techniques and incorporated an equally diverse range of materials to accentuate the impact of those techniques. Borrowing the concept of collage, his images took on a layered appearance that blurred the line between painting, relief, and sculpture. His early Italian works were mixtures of paint and layered fabric, which he stitched together (a skill he no doubt learned as a doctor). Later Burri added three- dimensionality by cutting, slashing and poking holes in his surfaces. He sometimes charred wooden elements of his work to create his forms. HIs melted plastic, added oddly organic dimensions and textures to his compositions. Rather than giving his work poetic names, Burri simply titled them according to their physical nature, using Italian words for their color, material, and techniques.
Cretto, 1975, Alberto Burri. Notice the
similarities to his Il Grande Cretto (below).
One of the most iconic achievements of Burri’s career came in the form of a technique he pioneered called Cretto (the Tuscan word for crack). The effect is normally considered to be a detrimental element to a painting. Kazimir Malevich’s seminal painting, Black Square, was once a solid black mass. Today it has aged so poorly as to appear similar to one of Burri’s Cretto paintings. To achieve Cretto, Burri exaggerated the processes that led to the natural appearance of cracks in various painting mediums as they aged over time. In using a process normally attributed to decay, he turned it into a process of creation. In so doing, Burri again confronted the dichotomy as to the meaning of things. He created through the act of destruction, finding beauty in decay. Alberto Burri died in February, 1995.
Burri's Il Grande Cretto, near Gibellina, Italy
(on the island of Sicily, actually).
Today, some twenty years later, the ultimate manifestation of Cretto is far outliving its artist. Burri used the Cretto aesthetic to create his monumental work, Il Grande Cretto, (above) one of the largest known works of land art. Il Grande Cretto was built over the former site of the Gibellina, Sicily, which was all but destroyed in the 1968 Belice earthquake. (The town was rebuilt some nine miles away.) Burri's Il Grande Cretto sits atop the ruins, a massive assemblage of irregularly shaped flat forms and crevices measuring approximately 120,000 square meters--an area roughly 300 meters by 400 meter--the town's rubble covered to shoulder height with pristine white concrete.
Burri, as seen through his art.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Designing Children's Bedrooms

A young boy's bedroom with a nautical theme.
Ordinarily the subject of designing bedrooms for children wouldn't be significant enough to merit mention in a forum such as this where art is the primary topic of discussion. However there are a few extenuating circumstances in designing a child's most personal space which call for a heightened awareness. Mainly, assuming there is a conscious interior design effort involved, the "extenuating circumstances" boil down to the fact that boys and girls are different (DUH). Second, children have a habit of wanting to redecorate at least four or five times from the period during which they play with dolls and until they invite them up to their room for to "help with homework." Long gone are the days when you could automatically "do" a girl's room in pink and a boy's room in blue (below). There are also greens, browns, oranges, black, white, grays, red, maroon, and no small number of other hues which are equally appropriate for either gender. Needless to say, this complicates the whole affair, augmented by the fact that the line dividing traditional gender interests is becoming more and more blurred almost to the point of non-existence. And if you really want to stir things up, try designing for two different brothers, separated by five or six years, sharing the same room.
Pink and purple are no longer girls' only options.
Today, kids care about how their rooms look (design-wise if not in terms of housekeeping). They invite their friends in and, consciously or unconsciously, they want to impress (girls especially). When I was growing up, children's bedrooms were for sleeping (period). Today they are usually somewhat larger than mine, and have become home to a whole menu of childhood activities most of us had to do elsewhere. I don't recall ever doing homework in my room (there wasn't room). There was only one TV in the whole house, no computer, of course, a toy box full of mostly broken or outgrown toys, and nowhere to play with them in any case. The room was so small there was barely room for bunk beds. As I grew older I shared a somewhat larger room with a younger brother (eight years younger) and two orphaned cousins--upstairs where it was either too hot or too cold most of the year. I think I recall choosing the wallpaper and the Linoleum for the floor. We weren't poor, but the furniture was all hand-me-down; and any mention of "interior design" would have been met with a quizzical look, if not outright laughter.
A Minimalist, pre-teen, boy's room. Noticed the pile of dirty clothes
in the middle of the floor and "sweeper" next to the bed.
Although professional interior design advice might still be considered rare today in the case of children's bedrooms, most parents are acutely conscious of their kids' feelings in the matter. Other than age, the key element involved today in designing a child's personal space is not gender but personality--the geek versus the jock, shy versus outgoing, bookish versus social media butterfly, Harry Potter versus the X-Men, snob versus slob. As for age, I'm speaking from experience here. Our son went from a room done in yellow with a hand-painted mural (by two of my art students) featuring Muppet and Sesame Street characters, to a smelly zoo replete with fish tanks (one with a piranha) and various caged reptiles (including an iguana). That eventually evolved into an industrial strength man cave of black, gray, and white, heavy with heavy metal and NASCAR. We considered ourselves lucky to have gotten by with just three different decors.

This gives a whole new meaning to the term "rollaway" beds.
As with most areas of interior design, there are rules. As I suggested earlier, most of them would have been laughable sixty years ago when I was a kid. Now they could be considered, if not hard rules, at least valuable guidelines.

Remember, what's fun today will be boring tomorrow.
1. Children's bedrooms should be fun and happy places.

A child’s bedroom should make them feel content. Think bright colors, icons from their favorite stories, and reminders that they are loved and cared for. At the same time, don’t go overboard on a character or color theme, especially since kids change their minds about what they like quite often. Let the kids choose, but not once a year. Let's face it, kids' bedrooms today are for more than just unconscious rest. Turn the space itself into an exciting place to be, rather than just a room containing a few fun things. Often today mattresses are set in bed frames shaped like race cars, pirate ships, or princess carriages (top). If space permits, you might consider an indoor treehouse complete with an access ladder. Include a desk with plentiful lighting (computers are optional). If there's a creative streak, provide a space to encourage such efforts (unless they're into ceramics). Parents' lives are much easier if the kids really enjoy being in their own rooms. However, "Go to your room," looses its disciplinary edge if the room is too accommodating.

Bunk beds with a twist.
2. A children's room should be a practical place.

Chaos is not a type of décor. Include ways to keep toys organized so the whole room doesn’t become a junk closet. Just because storage is a practical necessity, however, doesn’t mean that it can’t have a fun look. Colorful stacked bins, shelves of different shapes and sizes, and drawers (lots of drawers) can look cool. The trick is to reduce clutter, and increase space efficiency without taking away from the fun atmosphere. The easier kids can access storage, the more likely they are to use it. Coming up with creative places to put books, art supplies, clothes, and toys encourages kids to keep a tidier room.
A bed reaching lofty heights.
3. A children's bedroom should be a safe, quiet place.
It goes without saying a child's bedroom should be safe. Even with play areas that let kids literally "climb the walls" to heights heretofore deemed unimaginable, the room should still be safe. Weight bearing structures like ladders and loft must be built well and anchored solidly. If Dad can't handle it, then by all means have such things professionally installed. Just as important is that a child's room be age-appropriate in design. Maybe the rock climbing wall for your toddler isn’t a good idea just yet. By the same token, sometimes kids need to de-stress, calm down, or rest. Balance colors and creative activities with curtains that give the room privacy or twinkly lights that make it glow comfortably. This will allow the parental option to transform the room into a calming place rather than an energetic one at bedtime, during afternoon naps, or at “time out.” Soothing elements in the room help kids think about the room as a safe place to go when they’re upset, angry, or tired. A separate electrical circuit breaker my also be helpful during "timeouts."

Recognize the handwriting on the wall? It's that of Walt Disney.
4. A children's bedroom should be a personal place.

Kids love the idea of having a place that is just for them. Customizing and personalizing their bedrooms gives them a sense of belonging. Brainstorm with them creative ways to include their names or initials in the décor. These might include chairs or pillows with embroidered names, wall murals featuring their initials, or erasable door hangings where kids can leave messages for visitors. Kids enjoy showing off their rooms to friends and family.
Whether a boy's room or that of a girl, messy is messy.
5. A children's bedroom should be a clean place.

Good storage might keep things neat and tidy, but you can also design with clean in mind. Kids make messes (it's almost part of their dictionary definition). Avoid fabrics that can’t be washed, light colors that stain, expensive rugs, or soft woods that mar easily. You want the space to look nice and be furnished well, but you don’t want to waste money or ruin things derived from their just being kids.
A socializing platform
6. A children's bedroom should be a friendly place.

Even though a child’s bedroom is their own space, it’s also a place for socializing. Kids often invite friends and family to join them for movies, stories, and games, so they need space for their guests. This doesn’t mean that a small bedroom won’t make a good children’s room. Consider where grandparents might sit at story time. or where a sleepover friend might spend the night. Loft and bunk beds are space efficient and fun, often allowing space for a reading corner with a comfortable adult chair, body pillows, or bean bags.

Flexible sleeping arrangements lead to flexible space usage.
7. A children's room should be versatile.

Versatility is more than just style and color. Kids grow fast and two years from now they might not want the same princess themed door decals they were desperate for yesterday. It's not easy to design a room that is age-appropriate yet one which can change with their tastes over the years. Incorporating their favorite color is a safe choice, but they might not want super heroes painted across the wall when they’re 16. Decide how often you want to face redoing the entire room. Perhaps a compromise can be reached which allows the room design to evolve easily. An art corner with a chalkboard desk can be transformed into a study corner and computer desk for high school, while the tree house loft might make great space for an expanding shoe collection.

Overindulgence...maybe, maybe not.
The key factors involved in designing a children's bedroom are the kids, of course, their age, interests, gender, and latest census figures. In addition, money, flexibility, space, and parental indulgence are also factors. Are you willing to watch your teenaged son feed live mice to his piranha? Can you afford to allow your daughter to choose "fifty shades of purple" for her walls? Will you devote an entire corner of her bedroom for a media center with it's own video projector? Do you consider Playboy pinups a valid decorating accessory for your teenage son's bedroom? Do you have a limit as to the number of SpongeBob SquarePants effigies you can stand to see in visiting your preschooler's room (below)?

Keep telling yourself, it's just a phase...they'll outgrow it.


Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Cándido Bidó

Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, colors reminiscent of Candido Bido.
When you read this, on Wednesday, December 28, 2016, my wife and I, along with my sister and brother-in-law, will be spending about eight hours in the Dominican Republic. For those not familiar with the numerous islands of the Caribbean, not to mention the countries and cultures which inhabit them, the Dominican Republic occupies the eastern five-eighths of the island of Hispaniola, in the Greater Antilles archipelago. Santo Domingo is its capital. The western portion of the island is Haiti. Both are what would be considered third-world countries, though Haiti might actually be considered a fourth world country (if there is such a designation) in comparison to its more prosperous eastern neighbor. The Dominican Republic is the second largest country in the Caribbean after Cuba. We will not be visiting the crowded capital but a more tourist-friendly town called Puerto Plata (above) on the northern coast of the island. We're following in the footsteps of another famous tourist, Christopher Columbus, who first visited the island 524 years ago on December 5th, 1492. Today, the Dominican Republic is the most visited tourist destination in the Caribbean. Columbus must have done his homework.
Candido Bido's painting style and colors are often imitated
by other Dominican Republic artists to the point they have
become iconic of virtually all the country's art.
Speaking of homework, I was in the process of doing my own when I came upon arguably the most famous artist of the Dominican Republic, a painter named Candido Bido. The artist was born in 1936 and raised in Bonao, some sixty miles south of Puerto Plata in the central highlands of the country. He graduated from one of the top ten schools of fine arts in the world, the Escuela de Altos de Chavon in Santo Domingo. Starting in 1962 Bido served as assistant professor and faculty professor at the National School of Arts. Later, Bido founded the Cándido Bidó Art Center in Santo Domingo, where he taught painting, drawing, and sculpture. However, in 1987 Bido closed the art center and left the Cándido Bidó Art Gallery in Santo Domingo. He founded the Cultural Center Plaza in his hometown of Bonao, along with the Cándido Bidó Art Museum, also in Bonao. Then in 1996, he also founded the School of Arts of the Dominican Air Force in Santo Domingo. Every air force should have its own art school, right?

Madres, 1993, Candido Bido.
Pursuing the art of Candido Bido has not been easy. Although there's a reasonable number and variety of his works to be found online; of them all, I could find only one, the painting title Madres (above), that had either a title or a date (1993). However, the painting is highly representative of Bido's overall work as can be seen in the montage of his work (below), none of which were titled or dated. Two distinctive elements can quickly be seen in Bido's work, his extremely hot, bright, Caribbean colors, and his compositional affection for the circle. Also, most of his works feature women. Bidó portrays a countryside, both real and surreal, populated with men, women, and children who inhabit a pre-technical world--a fusion of races; black, white and indigenous Arawak. Merging with their luminous landscape, they are naïve, mystical archetypes. Their mask-like faces evoke a surprising poignancy; their farmland is wild, but benign. Candido Bido died in 2011 from a heart condition. He was seventy-four years of age. As one of the most famous artists in Dominican Republic, he not only introduced modern art to his native land, he also introduced the Dominican Republic to the rest of the world.

Bido's love of the circle is said to derive from the hot Caribbean sun.
Birds and fruit are another common characteristic of Bido's art.
The Dominican Republic is more than just golden sandy beaches, tropical forests and a setting somewhat reminiscent of Jurassic Park. Beneath the surface, there is a world of rich culture, intriguing history, and most of all, world-class contemporary art. Santo Domingo's major art museum, the Galería de Arte Moderno, has a collection of Bidó's paintings. His work is also displayed at the Fundación Bonao Para La Cultura, the organization he started in his hometown of Bonao to provide art education, entertainment, and cultural facilities to the Cibao community. With the sun as the hallmark of much of Bidó's, his colors are super-intense. Sun-hot colors were so integral to Bidó's work that at one point, the gallery sold small cans of his signature paints, custom colors he created himself--blazing yellows, turquoise-sea blues and fiery shades of orange.

Olivia Peguero Painting in
la Playa Limon de Guaco Miches


Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Charles Billich

Salon de Fashionista, 2014, Charles Billich
If the goal of all (or most) artists is to become rich and famous, their names a household word, at least in the art world, then we must be especially appreciative of those coming from humble, beginnings in small, remote countries who, somehow, managed to make their way to the top of the art world based upon their talent, certainly, but also persistence and hard work. One such artist, whose work I find especially attractive, is the Croatian-born Australian painter, Charles Billich.

Citizen of the world.
Charles Billich's story is long, difficult, and strange. Born in Italy/Yugoslavia/Croatia, educated in Austria, working worldwide from China, the United States, and France, while keeping a main residence in Australia, Charles Billich is a world citizen, not to mention a prolific artist. Each chapter in Billich’s life seems to be a saga of personal paradises lost and found. Billich was born in 1934. His birthplace, was a small town called Lovran in an area of Italy at the time called Istria. Typically cosmopolitan, the boy’s family members conversed easily in Italian, Venetian, Croatian, and German. He was about ten years old when Italy lost the war. The young boy’s rich world was splintered by, as Billich puts it, “...a plot between Roosevelt and Stalin." A 1945 U.S.-Russian treaty erased Istria and annexed, it along with neighboring territories, into the newly formed Yugoslavia. Under the dictatorial leadership of Josip Tito, Billich's s new homeland quickly fell behind the Communist Iron Curtain. Billich’s world became highly restricted and policed, yet he continued to pursue his youthful artistic interests. He studied humanities and drawing at the Classical Lyceum, while writing articles for local magazines in his free time. He was accepted by the Rijeka Opera Corp of Ballet, which proved to be an exhilarating experience that even today occupies a central place in his artistic inspiration (below).

Joyful, 2015, Charles Billich
About 1952 some of Billich's anti-Communist writings came to the attention of local authorities. Billich attempted to flee to Italy. However, his girlfriend turned out to be an informant for the state security service. He was arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison. Ironically, this difficult period provided him a valuable mentorship with many great intellectuals of the day who were also political prisoners. From this exalted prison company, Billich learned several new languages, art history, the contemplation of spiritual questions, and practical life skills. Billich was recruited to construct scenes for the inmates’ theater, stimulating a passionate involvement with the fantasy art of set design. Then, suddenly after surviving two years of hunger, cold, and sadism, came unmitigated joy--the abrupt, totally unexpected, gift of outright amnesty engineered by the Red Cross. Billich was freed from prison.

The S.S. Toscana on her final voyage.
Billich decided to devote himself to painting and start a new life on the world stage based on the inspiration gained from his introspective prison years. He fled to Salzburg, Austria. However, long winters and Austrian provincialism eventually eroded Billich’s preference for Salzburg. He boarded a ship bound for Australia hoping a fresh atmosphere would inspire him. Billich emigrated to Australia on the Italian ship, S.S. Toscana (above), on her final voyage before being scrapped. He was asked by two Australians teaching English on board to join them--his first Australian job. Upon disembarkation, Billich worked for the Employment Service at Bonegilla Migrant Reception and Training Centre, assigning immigrants and political refugees from all over Eastern Europe to work on the Australian continent. During the same time, Billich went to Melbourne to study art at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and the National Gallery Art School. All this while also working at various times as a taxi driver, a sign painter, graphic designer, and advertising art director before beginning his career in fine art.

In his melding together sports and art, Charles Billich might
be considered an Australian LeRoy Neiman.
Billich's first big opportunity arose when he was asked to provide paintings for French film director, Roger Vadim's use in his film, Night Games. Filming took place in Manila, where Billich became absorbed into a new and exotic society of artists and patrons. His paintings attracted international attention, which brought him an invitation to exhibit at the 1983 International Festival of Two Worlds held in Spoleto, Italy. Four years later, in 1987, Billich's work received the distinguished Spoleto prize. That, in turn, led to Billich being chosen as an official painter of the Bicentennial Commemoration of the establishment of the Australian colony. For research, Billich sailed along the route of the original ships sent from England to found Australia. He learn to climb the masts of sailing ships while carrying bundles of painting equipment in order to paint nautical scenes under rocking ocean conditions.

The Last Supper, Charles Billich
In 1990, Billich’s path circled back to Post-Communist Croatia as a guest artist. For his skilled celebration of the interrelation of art and athletics, he was selected as the 2000 Sport Artist of the Year by the United States Sports Academy in Alabama. In 2004, Billich’s paintings went on display at the United Nations, New York. His art works are held in some of the most prestigious collections and museums around the world, including the Australian Embassy, Japan, and The Royal Collection of Thailand, and the Vatican. Billich’s early experience of the tragedy of losing basic freedoms has inspired him to live a rich life to the fullest. He describes himself as, “an itinerant artist,” and sometimes a troubadour of contemporary art.

Humanity United, 2002-05, Charles Billich
Humanity United (above) was created from a brief extended to him by the Australian Red Cross to commemorate the 2001 Centenary of the Nobel Prize for Peace. In June 2004, hosted by the UN Friendship Club, Billich exhibited at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. He was invited back with his Humanity United collection in September of 2005. In 2004 Billich completed Jubilation China's 100 Year Olympic Dream Realized (below, left), a work depicting the celebration that followed the announcement of China's to be the 2008 Olympic host nation. Billich also created cityscape paintings of Beijing for the 2008 Olympics as well as for Melbourne, Australia's 1996 games (bottom).

Figures from the Beijing Olympic, 2008, Charles Billich.
Olympic cities, Melbourne, and Beijing.


Monday, December 26, 2016

Ralph Albert Blakelock

Fire in the Sky, Ralph Blakelock
As a general rule, I'm not easily impressed by landscape painters. I think the reason being that I've done more than my share over the years and for the most part, I find them well beneath my capability as an artist. One might almost say they consist of a few standard brushstrokes and color combinations (depending upon the season and time of day) which amount to hardly more than camouflaging the canvas. Unless there's some content element involved (which often elevates them to some other type of painting), they are little more than depictions of nature in a background mode. For this very reason, the landscapes of the late 19th-century American landscape painter, Ralph Blakelock, seldom impress me. All to often they seem to be little more than a brightly lit sky, possibly reflected in water, framed by a mesh of silhouetted trees and undergrowth. Fire in the Sky (above) is a near-perfect example. His Moonlight, Indian Encampment (below), from 1889, is another, though less garishly rendered, sample of what I mean.
Moonlight, Indian Encampment, 1889, Ralph Blakelock
At a time when nearly every American artist of any consequence was expected to study in Europe, Ralph Blakelock did not. In fact he didn't study anywhere in particular. He was primarily self-taught. Instead of heading across the sea, Blakelock headed west. Already an accomplished landscape painter, having exhibited in the National Academy of Design, Blakelock set off in 1869 for the West, visiting Utah, Nevada, California, Wyoming, and Colorado. Long after he returned to New York, he continued to draw upon sketches and memories of this adventure for most of his subject matter. Blakelock's work is characterized by a moody, mysterious appearance, often depicting night scenes, such as his Moonlight, Indian Encampment (above).
An artist defeated by his own style.
Born in 1849, the son of a New York physician, his romantic landscapes, often featuring a silhouetted foreground of various bitumen pigments (coal tar), which darkens with age. His work often exhibited heavy impasto painting that was at the same time delicate and elegant against the strongly contrasting background of moonlight and water, reminiscent of the work of the English pre-impressionist, J.M.W. Turner. Blakelock had a large family to support, but his work did not find a ready market in the East, which contributed to a series of endless financial woes that eventually led to a mental breakdown. He was institutionalized in 1891.

Shanties in Harlem, 1874, Ralph Blakelock
Yet, like van Gogh in France, at about the same time, in fact, he could not stop painting. And even though supplies were scarce, his output did not diminish. Often reduced to painting on cardboard, fragments of window shades, or wallpaper, Blakelock continued to create his beloved landscapes. Strangely enough, after a time, his work began to attract critical attention and purchases, though they were largely too little, too late. With this came an increase in prices and ironically, a virtual flood of forgeries (his work is quite simple and easily forged). It's been documented that there are now more forgeries of his work than originals. Ralph Blakelock was released from the mental institution in 1916. He died a year later.
Pawpack Falls (left) and The Old Mill (right)
Rockaway Beach, Long Island, New York, 1870,
Ralph Albert Blakelock--his only beach scene.

Snow Scene, Ralph Blakelock--his only snow scene.