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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Allen Jones

Objectifying women, 1969, Allen Jones.
Allen Jones, Self-portrait, 1957
There was a time about forty years ago when lots of people would have been upset with me for featuring the work of British sculptor, Allen Jones. During the late 1960s and 1970s, when the women's movement was in its infancy, Jones' fiberglass furniture utilizing scantily clad female fetish figures were an outrage (probably still considered by some to be so today). Allen Jones was the enemy, seen by irate feminists as a suitable candidate for castration. He had the unmitigated gall to depict women as art objects, reducing them to subservient pieces of furniture in contorted, highly sexualized poses. Ironically, in their blind anger and outrage, it's likely few of the justifiably indignant women at the time considered the fact that male artists had, almost from the beginning of art itself, been "objectifying women." Ever since a prehistoric sculptor carved the Venus of Willendorf from a lump of rock roughly 28,000 years ago, the female figure has been objectified as a fertility goddess, a symbol of eternal feminine perfection (as in Barbie), the virgin "mother of God," a source of erotic stimulation, and in sculpture, the personification of great physical beauty. How dare some impudent British misogynist "pig" turn women into pieces of furniture!
Allen Jones' work as seen by British cartoonist, Stanley Arthur Franklin, 1970.
Life Class, 1968, Allen Jones, the
last step before merging the
woman with the furniture.
Perhaps there is a deeper irony in the work of Allen Jones. Though probably not obvious at the time, Jones' female tables, chairs, coat racks, and, yes, even refrigerators, may have, in fact, done the feminist movements a favor. At that point in time (1969), women were looked upon differently than they are today. They had very narrowly defined roles--wives, mothers, sexual partners, and homemakers. Outside the home, they were prostitutes, waitresses, secretaries, nurses, and (mostly elementary) school teachers. Objectifying women was so taken for granted that most men, and even many women, barely gave it any thought. Jones' female furniture, however, was so outrageously "over the top" it came to symbolize the very concept of female objectification, providing a mountaintop lightning rod at which women in England, and eventually the world over, could aim their bolts of righteous wrath. Jones and his female furniture became the very definition of female objectification.
Secretary, 1972, Allen Jones
I suppose, if you want to talk about irony, it's likely the ultimate irony in all of this is that the anger and outrage aimed a Allen Jones and his erotic furniture by the women who hated him so, were the same ones who, inadvertently, made the sculptor and his work world famous...not to mention quite wealthy. Three pieces of Jones' most iconic furniture recently brought $3,392,707 at Christies in London. Interestingly, at the height of his controversial career, Jones' work also became a symbol for the male sexual culture of the time. The U.S. film maker, Stanley Kubrick, is said to have called Jones in London and offered him the "opportunity" to design furniture and sets for his upcoming film, A Clockwork Orange, at no salary, simply for the free advertising such exposure would bring. Jones hung up on him. Kubrick, in response, paid his own set designer to imitate Jones work for his film. However, Jones was later paid to create a black latex waitress costume (below) for the movie, designed, shall we say, not to discomfort the ladies when they sat down. Strangely enough, the imitation Jones furnishings used in the film are often falsely credited to the artist. However, they were, in fact, far more sexually explicit than anything Jones ever designed.
Jones' waitress costume for Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, 1971
Maitresse, Jones' 1976 movie design.
Born in Southampton in 1937, later trained (and expelled) from some of the best art schools London had to offer, Allen Jones was, in every way, as personally objectionable as his female detractors painted him. Moreover, just as the feminist movement worldwide grew, succeeded, matured, and moved on to more important issues of gender discrimination, so too did its public enemy number one. Kubrick (below) was "small potatoes." Jones went on to "design" an entire feature- length movie, Maitresse (left), a sado-masochistic French film, directed by Barbet Schroeder, that was so far ahead of the cultural curve at the time (1976) it was unable to obtain certification for public exhibition until 1981 and even then only after some five minutes of the most objectionable scenes were removed.

Stanley Kubrick's imitation Jones tables in A Clockwork Orange--verging on the obscene.

Eyes Front, 2009, Allen Jones
Think Pink, 2011, Allen Jones
Today, Jones' 1969 Chair (top) can be found in London's Tate Gallery. One of his sculptures, City Shadow I (below), stands on a street corner in Hong Kong (protected by heavy security). Though still highly sexualized, Jones' work is no longer met with the controversy seen forty years ago. In much of the world, contemporary culture has caught up with, often surpassed in fetish sexuality, even his most obnoxious efforts. His Eyes Front (above, left), from 2009, and Think Pink (above, right), from 2011, both seem pretty tame by today's standards. Actually, the same could be said about virtually all of Jones' work. In fact, for better or worse, his sculptures might well be said to have had an impact upon the sexual and artistic culture of the time, contributing to its evolution into the more tolerant, less judgmental one we know today.

City Shadow I, Allen Jones, Hong Kong.


Saturday, August 30, 2014

Shadow Art

At first glance, it might look easy, but as with all art, there is a degree of skill involved.                   
During the late 19th-century,
charts such as this were quite
popular, especially after the
invention of electric lights.
There are few forms of art that are so universal that virtually everyone has, at one time or another, tried their "hand" at. The pun was intended. It's so universal most people seldom think of it as art at all; it's merely great fun and our inept attempts at it quite funny. Art supplies? Two hands and a somewhat focused light source. A flashlight will do. A few days ago I wrote about a contraption for drawing silhouettes that our colonial ancestor-artists invented using a simple candle (probably with a concave reflector in back). It's doubtful they could have resisted making a few animated silhouette hand puppets with it. Such efforts may, in fact, be one of our most ancient art forms. I mean, a bonfire in a cave would supply sufficient light to cast shadows upon a vertical stone surface. It would be just one short step from that to enacting great "motion picture" exploits for their awestruck, cavern-dwelling friends. There's even a word for such shadowy dramas--shadowgraphy. It was quite popular even as late as 1900, until the advent of the celluloid versions. When you think about it, projected photography is, in fact, shadows cast upon a wall.
Often the surface receiving the shadow is used to  create the desired image.
The artist/choreographer is
French, no doubt.
In our modern era, hand puppetry has evolved from a schtick by stand-up comics and kiddie show TV into a mature, and really quite complex new type of art. Such art has moved well beyond hand-cramping finger calesthenics to full-body silhouettes involve two or more people (right); and its no longer limited to cute little puppies and flying birds. In fact, many of the best modern-day examples of such art don't even involve people at all (except for their artist-creators). Instead, they utilize inanimate objects, carefully chosen and skillfully created so as to cast totally unexpected shadows (above). In effect, they are sculptures where the shadow cast by the art object is far more important than the object or objects themselves. British artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster (below) have moved away from sculptural elements altogether into simply arranging trash (bound with glue and wire) to cast their shadow art.

British artists, Tim Noble and Sue Webster, are into the skillful recycling of trash into art.
Shadow art self-portraits,
Noble and Webster.
While we've all probably tried casting our own profile silhouettes upon ;a wall, Noble and Webster have even utilized their "trash art" to create self-portrait silhouettes (left) with startling results. Just try to ignore the spikes. Of course, the key element in preserving shadow art, in a sense, that which, in fact, makes it an art form, is photography. Without the camera and a skilled artist behind it, shadow art would be, at best, simply a type of performance art. Sometimes the photographer gets involved in the shadow art as well, creating images that the shadow artists could never manage simply using cast shadows (below). Other artists have moved into the use of bottles and other types of colored glass to create projected images in color, like those of Azerbaijani artist Rashad Alakbarov (below, right).

Photography and shadow art go hand in hand.
Regarded from Two Sides, 1984,
Diet Wiegman
Shadow art is not necessarily
colorless, Rashad Alakbarov
German artist, Diet Wiegman, has created sculptures demonstrating the ever-present fact that shadow art also demands the careful placement of a single light source to create the artist's art-shadow. His Regarded from Two Sides (above, left), dating from 1984, is unique in shadow art in that it makes its point using two light sources, one, placed off to the side revealing the sculpture's apparent shape and a second to cast the shadow creating his "David." Modern day shadow art sculptors have long been aware of the critical importance of light source placement, often making it the key element in their shadow sculpture effects as seen in the wall sculpture below which utilizes a light source placed at an oblique angle to the objects casting the shadow.

Here, the objects are not so important as their placement and that of the light source.

This clever feline artist
casts a fearsome shadow.


Friday, August 29, 2014

Augustus Edwin John

Augustus John, "Larger then Life," 1952.
Dashing and dangerous, 1928.
Lord Leverthulme, 1920,
Augustus John--rejected by the lord.
Today we refer to them as "larger than life." The world is full of such figures, Oprah Winfrey, Jay Leno, Chris Christie, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton, and Bill too, I suppose. However I cannot think of a single painter, sculptor, or even film maker alive today (with the possible exception of Steven Spielberg) who fits that description. Yet the history of art is full of such individuals, starting with Leonardo, Michelangelo, Bernini, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, van Gogh, Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright, Georgia O'Keeffe, Warhol, Dali, and perhaps one or two others, all of whom are quite dead. The designation has to do with more than just talent. All these were artists were famous, but in each case, their distinctive, often flamboyant, personalities were at least as important as their talent. In some cases, their carefully cultivated image all but overwhelmed their talent (Dali, for instance). Most ring up instant recognition of their work, even their faces, at just the mention of their first or last names. As you may or may not have noticed, none of the artists I mentioned above were British. Let me add one more name to that list, a Brit who so perfectly fits the "larger than life" description it might have been coined with him in mind--Augustus Edwin John.
Moses and the Brazen Serpent, 1898, Augustus John, an early prize-winning work.
Augustus John, Self-portrait, 1913
If you've never heard of him, keep in mind, the designation "larger than life" can be somewhat transient. As they saying goes, fame is fickle. In the long run, talent dominates and determines the artist's lasting place in art history. If Augustus John, despite his overwhelming persona, is little remembered today, it's because his talent was much more modest than that of the art demi-gods recalled above. Augustus John was a portrait painter, born in Wales in 1878. His portraits have a vibrant, spontaneous, style capturing the personality and appearance of their subjects with a devastating honesty and insight (sometimes a little too insightfully and honestly). One of his clients, Lord Leverhulme (above, right), hated his portrait so much he had the head cut out and stored away in his safe, then sent the desecrated remains back to the artist.
Jamaican Landscape, 1937, Augustus John. As a landscape artist, John was mediocre at best. This is one of his better works deriving from a 1937 vacation in Jamaica.
T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), 
1919, Augustus John.
In terms of style, Augustus John has been compared not unfavorably with Matisse and Gauguin. Whatever the case, his personality and lifestyle certainly compares to that of Gauguin. He was thoroughly bohemian, a heavy drinker, carouser, womanizer, barroom brawler, get the idea. Picasso, who John admired from early days, said: “John is the best bad painter in England.” A friend recalled, "John drank enthusiastically, loved the music hall, particularly the Bedford, in Camden Town. He threw himself into anarchist gatherings held in the Tottenham Court Road, but most of all he fornicated." As near as I can tell he fathered eight children with two wives and a mistress or two. He married his first wife, Ida, in 1898, then in 1903, moved his life-long mistress, Dorelia, in with them where she remained for sixty-five years. After Ida's death, Dorelia much later became his second wife. Virtually every one of his children excelled in later life as artists, writers, or military leaders. And though he knew nearly all the leading figures in British society and the arts during the early 1900s, many of which he painted, many of which were in awe of him personally, they likewise tended to hold him at arms length. Though they admired his talent, he was considered "dangerous." Women, as they say, "fell at his feet," men (perhaps envious) often detested him. Few who knew him would have invited him home to dinner.

Lyric Fantasy, 1913-14, Augustus John--all the women of his life,
including his deceased first wife, Ida (in black at the far right).
John's fame and favor as the most outstanding portrait artist in England was relatively short lived, mostly from the turn of the century until World War I. During the war, he was a field artist, painting portraits of heroic soldiers, until tossed out of the army for brawling in a bar. After the war, though he continued to prodigiously paint portraits of the rich and famous for another twenty or thirty years, his Post-impressionist style quickly passed from favor, his work seen by critics as having degenerated into "flashiness and bombast," as one put it. Nonetheless, his list of clients included such British notables as T.E. Lawrence (above, left), Thomas Hardy, W. B. Yeats, Aleister Crowley, Tallulah Bankhead (below), George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, Dylan Thomas, and British Prime Minister during WW I, David Lloyd George.

Augustus John with American
actress, Tallulah Bankhead.
Tallulah Bankhead,
1929, Augustus John
Key to Augustus John's portrait style was his method of painting as he, himself, explained it:
"Make a puddle of paint on your palette consisting of the predominant colour of your model's face and ranging from dark to light. Having sketched the features, being most careful of the proportions, apply a skin of paint from your preparation, only varying the mixture with enough red for the lips and cheeks and grey for the eyeballs. The latter will need touches of white and probably some blue, black, brown, or green. If you stick to your puddle (assuming that it was correctly prepared), your portrait should be finished in an hour or so, and be ready for obliteration before the paint dries, when you start afresh."
The last line suggests the artist had a sense of humor too.

Dorelia Reclining, 1906-10, Augustus John, his mistress, later his second wife. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Jóhannes Sveinsson Kjarval

Svínahraun Lava Field, after 1967, Johannes Sveinsson Kjarval            
Johannes Kjarval
Virtually every major country on earth has a single artist who might be called the "grandfather" of that country's artistic tradition. In Italy it would be Leonardo. In France, Jacques-Louis David, in Spain, Velasquez, in the U.S., Charles Wilson Peale, in England...well, here you can take your pick, Hogarth, Gainsborough, or Reynolds. Anthony van Dyck would be the obvious choice but he was Dutch. Among the Netherlandish painters, the grandfather of them all would be Rembrandt. Among the smaller countries, the progenitor might be lesser known, perhaps all but unknown to most of us. Ever hear of Johannes Sveinsson Kjarval or Ásgrímur Jónsson? Kjarval is often considered the "grandfather" of Icelandic art, even though Jonsson was slightly older and tutored Kjarval in the basics. They both did somewhat similar work.

The Sisters of Sapi, 1948, Jóhannes Sveinsson Kjarval
Skjaldbreiour, Johannes Kjarval
As with England, and probably other countries as well, it's something of a toss-up between Jonsson and Kjarval. Jonsson was primarily a watercolor impressionist, painting bright landscapes of his native island as well as its Nordic heroes and legends. He was Iceland's first professional artist and a major influence upon many Icelandic painters to come. He also had a penchant for leaving paintings unfinished. Born in 1876, he was nine years older than Kjarval. Kjarval was more expressionistic, sometimes delving into Cubism and other forms of abstraction. His landscapes, are in fact, mostly what we'd call abstractions. They are rich in color but not bright and pretty as were Jonsson's. Kjarval loved to paint the Icelandic lava fields, highlighting their "volcanic" abstraction and seeing in them faces and figures, often of uncertain meanings. His The Sisters of Sapi (above), from 1948 is typical of this trait. He was also adept at portraits (below, right) and often used animal figures in his works.

Jóhannes Kjarval's summer studio shanty on a farm near Kjarvalshvammur.
Þórólfur Ríkharðsson, 1926,
Johannes Kjarval
Kjarval was something of an Icelandic legend himself. He was born in 1885, one of thirteen children. Family poverty caused him to be raised by foster parents from the age of five. They had in mind that he should become a respectable businessman. Instead, he worked as a fisherman until he was twenty-seven, at which time, with the support of the Icelandic Confederation of Labor he was off to Copenhagen (Iceland was Danish at the time) to study art at the Royal Academy. Over the years, during the winter months, Kjarval rented living and studio space in Reykjavík. During milder seasons, he took to the raw northern part of the island where a farmer allowed him to camp out in a tent near the sea shore. Later the farmer built the painter a small shanty near his favorite painting location. This tiny cabin and the surrounding area were the only property Kjarval ever owned. Even though he often painted on location, the effort was mainly one of deriving inspiration rather than details from the landscape. One photo even shows him painting a group portrait, outside, "on location," his subjects no where to be seen.

Hvitasunnudagr, 1919, Jóhannes Kjarval, one of his earliest works displaying cubist influences, not at all like his later Icelandic Expressionist landscapes.
Land and Air, 1965,
Johannes Kjarval

Unlike Ásgrímur Jónsson, Kjarval was more than just a landscape painter. Often in the past, his critics have faulted his work by framing it among the landscape genre. Kjarval's work goes beyond that, and much deeper, exploring both the look and feel as well as the shapes and substance of the Icelandic countryside. For the most part, Jonsson painted what's come to be termed "local color." Kjarval, while inspired by what he saw and felt painting in the open air, is much more in tune with the Modern Art of his day, distilling the landscape, painting it in his own Icelandic style and manner. He justly deserves the "grandfather" honors. Apparently his country sees it that way too. His image graces a 2000 Kronur bank note (below) issued in 1987, fifteen years after his death in 1972 at the age of eighty-seven.

Jóhannes Sveinsson Kjarval--onto big money.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Chantal Joffe

A portrait of the artist as seen through her studio.              
The twenty-first century is less than fourteen years old. We who follow art, past and present, await anxiously some indication of the direction contemporary Postmodern art may be headed. I don't often highlight living artists, much less those young enough to have been one of my students, but it's not often one comes upon a painter whose main body of work mostly falls within the past fourteen years and would seem to indicate so tellingly the nature of what we can expect during at least the first few decades of our adolescent century. Her name is Chantal Joffe (and for the record, she was never one o my students). She was born in 1969 in St. Albans, Vermont, though as an artist, she is thoroughly British in the tradition of Lucien Freud, Tracy Emin, Francis Bacon, and Charles Thomson.
The Big Head, 2003, Chantal Joffe
Self-portrait with Esme, 2009
If the family named, Joffe, seems kind of familiar, congratulations, you're at least a somewhat erudite follower of the British "arts and letters" scene. Chantal Joffe's mother, Daryl Joffe, is a noted watercolor artist, while her younger brother is the painter and novelist, Jasper Joffe. She comes by her genetic credentials as an artist quite honestly. Her academic credentials are just as impeccable, starting in 1987 with the Camberwell College of Arts, finally graduating with honors and a BA in Fine Art from the Glasgow School of Art. She received her MA in painting from the Royal College of Art in '94. Even before graduating, Chantal had gallery representation in Manchester followed by shows in London, New York, Vienna, Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, and elsewhere in Italy. Thus she was perfectly position as an up-and-coming young artist of the twenty-first century.
Untitled 17, 1995, Chantal Joffe. She sometimes paints men too.
Dan, Eating a Banana, Chantal Joffe.
Her men are as unflattering as her
female figures.
Chantal Joffe paints almost exclusively women and children. And lest you make the mistake of classing her as a dining room tabletop painter or typical easel artist, know this: most of her works are painted from a scaffolding. Most fall within the ten to twelve foot range. Virtually all are expressionistic, many being portraits (of a sort). I think it would be safe to say that not since Willem de Kooning has any artist painted such unflattering images of the feminine gender, though Joffe doesn't go as far as de Kooning in that regard. De Kooning's massive madams were downright ugly--ugly for the sake of ugliness. Also, de Kooning was a man, and male artists have long been known for sometimes being unkind to their models on canvas. Chantal Joffe is not the type artist to be deliberately unkind, it's just that her paintings usually turn out giving that impression. She's not likely to be commissioned to paint the queen.
Untitled, 1995, Chantal Joffe. Her children are charming without being "cute" or "sweet."
Perhaps the most surprising element in Joffe's painting, given her Expressionistic style, is the fact that she works mostly from photos. Very few artists, bound to photos as their source, depart from them so readily and drastically. Her photos come from family albums, fashion magazines, advertising, even pornography. In fact, she claims her major art influence has been, not a painter, but the American photographer, Diane Arbus, whose work involved deviant and marginal subjects such as dwarfs, giants, transgender people, nudists, circus performers--people who seemed ugly or surreal. In effect, Chantal Joffe is the painting equivalent of Diane Arbus.

Twins, 1991, Chantal Joffe. The Arbus influence (below, left) is obvious in this early work.
The Diane Arbus twins grow up and grow old.
Identical Twins, 1967, Diane Arbus
Critics have chastised Joffe for her "big, rude paintings." Perhaps, but Joffe works with minimal, almost effortless control of the paint. The first impression of her work is that of being simple and childlike. Her brushstrokes are broad, carefree, and unfussy. She is little concerned about stray blobs of paint or runny dribbles. Her highly liquid painting style has the effect of filling her subjects with personality and a somewhat disarming humor that is highly enjoyable while being strangely thought provoking. Working from a scaffolding makes stepping back to survey the work in progress difficult (even dangerous). Thus much of the distortion appears to have a Picasso-like quality, though such similarities, she claims, are largely inadvertent. For the most part, the persnickety British art critics love her work, one terming it; "...simply exquisite representations of femininity." I guess it depends upon how you define "femininity." Jarring as they may be at first glance, if this is the direction this century's art is head, it should be a wildly adventurous, if somewhat bumpy, joyride.

Untitled, Chantal Joffe. Is that Mary Lou Retton? No wonder it's untitled.