Click on photos to enlarge.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Central Park, New York City

Imagine, a romantic moment for two, alone, in a city of 8.5-million.
During the past few months I've been highlighting the ten best urban parks in the world. New York City's Central Park has been rated number three, though I'm not sure precisely who it is who does the rating. Whether city park "experts" or the real experts, the thirty-five-million each year who use the park, who am I to argue with such a high rating? I'm not one of the thirty-five-million...yet. I plan to remedy that next year as my wife and I go "gallivanting" (an American colloquialism for exploring) around the northeastern landscape of our country. And of course, no city park in this country is better for gallivanting than the 843 acres of greenery smack in the middle of Manhattan. With all its lakes and streams, hills and ravines, lawns and rocky cliffs, not to mention its zoo and its famed Metropolitan Museum of Art (located on Fifth Avenue, about the mid-point in along the highly elongated length of the park), I may be gallivanting for quite some time.
A vintage 1855 map of Manhattan. The area destined to become
Central Park is indicated in green, even though the street grids
crisscross it just as they do the largely unoccupied farm land nearby.
As late as 1850, there was no Central Park and the land that it would one day occupy was already very much occupied by free blacks and Irish immigrants who had purchased plots there to raised livestock. For nearly fifty years, they had built shack-like "shanties," churches, and cemeteries, making up several small communities in the area. Before the construction of the park could begin, the land had to be cleared of its inhabitants. Undoubtedly, part of the impetus to do so involved the removal of what was known as shanty towns and their inhabitants, consisting of free African-Americans and English/Irish immigrants, most of whom were middle-class (by 19th-century standards). Most of these shanty towns were small villages, such as Harsenville, the Piggery District (with its slaughterhouses), or Seneca Village. Approximately 1,600 residents were evicted under the laws of eminent domain during the year 1857 alone. All this didn't come cheap. New York taxpayers ponied up some $5-million for just the land (an outrageous amount at the time).
At times, one has to ask oneself, what's this city doing out
here in the countryside like this? The question arises as to whether
the park is imposing on the city or vice versa.  
in 1853 the New York legislature settled upon a 700-acre tract between Fifth Avenue and Eighth Avenue from 59th to 106th Streets for the creation of a Park. (More land was added on the north end of the park later.) Other than two city reservoirs (located where the "Great Lawn" is now) the land ranged from ideal to virtually impossible for urban development (then or now). However, with its wide-open spaces (pastures), woodlands, five streams, and rugged terrain it would make an exemplary city park. Frederick Law Olmsted began working with a Frenchman named Calvert Vaux exploring Vaux's ideas for a central park around 1857; and in April, 1858, the two submitted what's come to be called the Greensward Plan, one of 33 submissions considered by the non-existant park's board of commissioners. (They split a prize of $2,000 for their efforts.) The Olmsted-Vaux plan was notable in that it combined formal and naturalistic settings with architectural flourishes like Bethesda Terrace and some thirty-six ornate bridges (each one different) that circulated traffic around and through the park.

A look at the park some ten years before it was completed.
Actual construction of the park began around 1860. And, though slowed by the Civil War, it was largely completed by 1873 thanks to the availability of steam powered construction equipment. Still, a massive numbers of unskilled laborers wielding shovels were also required. During this period, more than 18,500 cubic yards of topsoil had to be transported to the park from New Jersey, because the original soil was neither fertile enough nor sufficiently substantial to sustain the various trees, shrubs, and plants called for by Olmsted and Vaux. By the same token, more than 10 million cartloads of material had to be transported out of the park before it was officially completed in 1873. More than four million trees, shrubs, and flowers were transplanted to the park. In the days before dynamite, more gunpowder was used to clear the area than was used during the entire Civil War Battle of Gettysburg.

Regardless of the season, Central Park is alive with things
to do and places to see. No scene is more iconic that this
gracefully arched stone bridge opposite Eighth Avenue's
famous Dakota complex.
Today Central Park plays an indispensable part in the normal lives of New Yorkers by giving them a place with a great number of ways and means to escape from the sounds and chaos all around them into the open spaces, leaving behind the endless clamor and mayhem of the surrounding city. The arrangement of Central Park, as envisaged by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, focuses on the lakes, theatres, ice rinks, tennis courts, baseball fields, various play territories, and distinctive business settings. Besides the zoo and the Met, especially on weekends, when automobiles are not allowed into the park, the place is a welcome respite of peace in an otherwise hurried and harried city. The park, is the most visited urban stop in the entire United States--also the most photographed.

Central Park NYC, 1901, Maurice Prendergast
Central Park was no sooner completed than it quickly slipped into decline. One of the main reasons for this was the lack of interest from the Tammany Hall political machine, the dominant political force in the city at the time. Also, by the turn of the 20th-century, the park faced several new challenges. Cars, with their noise and pollution were becoming commonplace. Until 1934, sheep grazed on the Sheep Meadow whereupon they were moved to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and then to a farm just outside the city in the Catskill Mountains. It was feared they would be slaughtered by impoverished Depression-Era New Yorkers who would turn them into lunch. No longer were parks used only for long walks and idyllic picnics. As the 20th-century evolved, so did ball fields for sports and similar recreation.

The Great Lawn, once a Depression Era shanty town.
In the early 1930s, city planner, Robert Moses, was given the task of cleaning up Central Park. Moses, soon became one of the most powerful men in New York as he belatedly dragged the city (often kicking and screaming) into the 20th-century. He took over what was essentially a leftover relic from a bygone era. In less than a year, Moses managed to clean up Central Park. Lawns and flowers were replanted, dead trees and bushes were replaced, walls were sandblasted, and bridges repaired. Moses removed the "Hoover Valley" shantytown, transforming the 30 acre site to create the Great Lawn. Major redesigning and construction was carried out for the purpose of creating an idyllic landscape combined with Moses' vision of a park to be used for recreational purposes with the building of 19 new playgrounds, 12 ball fields, and several handball courts.

Thousands of New York City painters have, for more than a
century, been drawn to the beauty and convenience of Central Park.
Central Park's size and cultural position is similar to London's Hyde Park and Munich's Englischer Garten, and has served as a model for many urban parks around the world, including San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, Tokyo's Ueno Park, and Vancouver's Stanley Park. Over the years the park has had its ups and downs reflecting the periods of financial turmoil afflicting the city of New York in general. Yet, as of 2007 the park conservancy had invested approximately $450 million in restoration and management. Today Central Park has an annual operating budget of about $37-million, which would seem dirt cheap for a park whose real estate value, as of December, 2005, was estimated by an accounting firm to be more than $528-billion. That was eleven years ago. I wonder what it would be now?

With a view like this, who could get
any work done?


Thursday, September 29, 2016

Paintings I've Not Done Yet--Figures

Copyright, Jim Lane
Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, 1787,
Antonio Canova, the Louvre, Paris.
If an artists wishes to paint the human figure (on canvas, that is, not literally), especially nude figures, he or she has few options, none of which are very attractive. The artist can, of course, hire a model, and hope his or her spouse is quite understanding (not to mention that of the model). The artist can, instead, hire a photographer and let the picture-taker worry about the model and any spouses. Or, the artist can go to the Internet and find, of course, a zillion and a half nude photos to download and use as source material, assuming the spouse is tolerant of such things or the artist can do so secretly. Conceivably the artist could sketch clothed figures in public then undress them in later sketches or paintings. Another option is for the artist to do what serious art students in centuries past did take, college art classes and have the services of a model or plaster casts of the human body from which to draw. There is, one other alternative, probably the least convenient of them all, that being to visit major museums and there sketch any suitable bronze or marble sculptures on display. Working from sculptural figures has the added benefit of allowing the artist to add color and other elements to the painting free from the influence of the original model.
Copyright, Jim Lane
The Swimmers, MS Island Princess pool deck sculptures--
a whole new meaning to a bronze tan.
Copyright, Jim Lane
The Imperial Prince and His
Dog, Nero, 1865, Jean-
Baptiste Carpeaux
Of course, taking along a camera saves time and lessens the inconvenience, especially inasmuch as most museums do not restrict existing light photography (no flash). This would be terrible advice with regard to paintings, but most museum sculptures are ideally lit for photography from several (but seldom all) angles. The model doesn't move and the artist can go back to his or her studio with dozens of possible source im-ages, from which to choose only the best to print and paint. Moreover, in the case of some of the largest museums, the "models" available cover a very broad range of sub-ject matter content from mythological nudes to portrait busts, children, the old, the young, the extremely beautiful to the downright ugly. As a sculptor of the human figure in all its Victorian manifestations, Jean-Baptiste Car-peaux (right) is among the best the Orsay Museum in Paris has to offer.
Copyright, Jim Lane
These two figures are also from the Princess collection. I've
taken the liberty of digitally removing the highly cluttered background
The Lone Sailor, Stanley
Bleifeld, Vista Point,
Marin County, California
Inasmuch as today is Thursday, this is the fifth group in a series of photos I've collected over the years as possible sources for paintings. Since I now have far more than I'm ever likely to use, I'm here offering them free of charge for other painters to use (with my freely given e-mail permission) as source material for their own paintings. Few restrictions reply other than to stipulate they not be published as photos and that I would appreciate very much an e-mailed photo of the finished work. Please request the use of only one of these photos at a time from These photos are not to be considered in the public domain--I retain the copyright where applicable. The bronze sculpture of The Lone Sailor (left) overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge from the Marin County (north) end. The copyright in this case is retained by the sculptor. This is one of several copies throughout the coun-try.
Copyright, Jim Lane
Young Tarantine Girl, 1871, Alexandre Schoenewerk
Copyright, Jim Lane
The Three Graces, 1817,
Antonio Canova
For those whose taste in nude figures favor the female variety, the Orsay Museum in Paris, with its deep collection of 19th-century sculpture is an ideal place to take on the persona of an art connoisseur with camera, rather than a peep show pervert. The Young Tarantine Girl (above) and Antonio Canova's Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss were two of my favorites. They seem less overtly erotic in a museum atmosphere. Outside of the typical museum environ-ment, I found another Canova sculpture, The Three Graces (right) on the grounds of William Randolph Hearst's San Sim-eon estate in California. Hearst's tastes in sculpture was very much overtly erotic.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Here you might want to consider the addition
of hands and arms--be creative.


Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Frank Weston Benson

The Camp, Frank Weston Benson (my favorite).
Very often in exploring the work of an outstanding, though lesser-known, artists, those paintings which constitute the main body of their work are not nearly as interesting to me as those which the artist painted for their own pleasure. In most cases, the vast majority of an artist work is done to please others--his or her clients. And, while it may be quite good, almost by necessity and definition it is also going to be pretty standard fare. At their best, they are an artist's "bread and butter." At their worst, they're sometimes referred to as "potboilers." However, when painters paint for their own enjoyment, they are usually painting for a client (themselves) with much more astute tastes and rigid demands. Frank Weston Benson was a New England portrait painter working around the turn of the century and into the early, turbulent years of the 20th-century. Moreover, he's a perfect example of the situation I just described.
Painting for fun and profit.
Frank W. Weston painted Realistic "society" portraits, American Impressionist paintings, watercolors, and etchings. He was born in 1862 the second of six children. He spent his entire life in and around Salem, Massachusetts (located on the coast, northeast of Boston). His father was a successful cotton broker, while his mother, Elisabeth Poole Benson, was from one of the founding families of the city. As a child Frank and his brother and sisters grew up in the out-of-doors sailing, hunting, fishing, roller skating, and (in Frank's case) sketching wildlife (mostly birds). Frank Benson began to study art in 1880 at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, under Otto Grundmann, then in 1883 at the Académie Julien in Paris. As an ambitious young portrait artist, upon his return from Paris, Frank Benson set up his first studio in Portland, Maine, where he met and married a friend of one of his sisters. In his early years as an artist, Benson also painted in Dublin, and Newcastle, New Hampshire, as well as Eastham Massachusetts, where he taught a summer open-air painting class from 1893 to 1898.
Summer, 1909, Frank W. Benson--his wife and three daughters.
Around 1893 Benson, along with two of his brothers-in-law purchased a house on North Haven Island, Maine, as a hunting retreat. There, from around 1901, Benson spent summers with his wife and children. His first success as a portrait and figure painter, came as he began using interior and exterior compositions with his children as models. While he never abandoned this sort of painting, (after all, he had a family to support) around 1912 Benson began depicting game birds and waterfowl with greater frequency. In addition to painting in oils, he often drew in ink wash and composed in watercolor.
Benson's portraits were predominantly female. His wildlife he
painted to satisfy his male interest, dating from his boyhood.
An avid birdwatcher and wildfowl hunter, as a teenager, Benson wanted to be an ornithological illustrator. At the age of 16, he painted Rail, one of his first oil paintings, after a hunting trip. Benson was influenced by a broad variety of European painters from the 17th-century Vermeer and Velázquez, to Monet, and his friends Winslow Homer, Edmund Tarbell and Abbot Thayer. In addition to painting portraits and indulging his artistic interest in painting birds, Benson also taught antique drawing at his alma mater, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. There, in 1890, he became he head of the Painting department until his retirement in 1913.
Benson's sporting art at times makes it seem as if his portraits
were nothing more than a lucrative sideline.
After trying to ply his trade as a portrait painter in various New England cities with various degrees of success, Benson, along with his friend, Phillip Little, opened a portrait studio in his hometown of Salem. Benson was not one to experiment with emerging styles or art movements such as Cubism, Expressionism, and Fauvism. Even as American Impressionism evolved into Post-Impressionism about 1913, Benson stayed with traditional genres and his American Impressionist style. As a result, His life as well as his art was pretty and genteel. Both were criticized by other artists and critics. His reaction was to turn to nature, and birds, which replaced women and children as his major objects of interest. From about 1920 on, we see more and more, as the halcyon days of that period freed from the threat of poverty, Benson gave over more and more of his time and energy to landscapes peopled with hunters and fishermen (above). Despite criticism Benson's portraits grew so in popularity he was able to open a Boston studio in 1888.

After the Storm, 1884, Frank Weston Benson, his first
highly acclaimed painting.
In his role as a teacher, Benson's work as an artist led him to become a major influence in the American Impressionism. In 1898 Benson and nine other artists including William Merritt Chase, Thomas Dewing, Childe Hassam, and J. Alden Weir formed "Ten American Painters". Together they organized annual exhibitions of their works in New York City as well as Boston, and became known as the American Impressionists. The Traditional Fine Arts Organization praised Benson as one of the last great American Impressionists. Of all the painters of his generation, Benson was among the few to keep his work fresh and current with contemporary tastes. In the 1930s, when many of Benson’s fellow artists were retiring, critics were still describing Benson's work as “fresh and vital,” or as “contemporary” or referring to it as capturing “the essence of the life of today.” Few artists have had a career so long or so successful in so many media. Frank W. Benson died in November, 1951 at the age of eighty-nine. His father’s fears that he would become a “starving artist” were never realized. Benson became not only one of the most admired artists of his day, but was able to provide very well for his family through his art. Except for those works that Benson gave to friends and family, almost everything he created has been sold. To date, the highest price brought at auction for an oil painting by Benson is $4.1 million. About ten years ago, a watercolor by Benson brought $165,000 at auction.

Two Boys, 1940, Frank Weston Benson


Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Makings of a Blockbuster

The seed that grew the Star Wars money tree.
In looking down over several lists of the top one-hundred films ever made, I was dismayed to realize I'd already written on most of the top twenty. I noticed that number 15 on the American Film Institute (AFI) list was Star Wars: Episode IV--A New Hope. It struck me that, for some unknown reason, I'd avoided this "one of a nine" blockbuster (number VIII is due for release in December, 2016, while the final episode is due out in 2019). So, I spent a good hour or more researching it then decided to check my archives after finding some of what I read sounded disturbingly familiar (this has happened before). To my dismay I found I'd already covered the Star Wars Saga (as a whole), Star Wars Art, as well as a biographical piece on director, George Lucas himself, not to mention his groundbreaking classic, American Graffiti. Okay, so I'd not neglected either the man, nor his art, after all. Moreover, if anything, my admiration for this American creative icon verged on outright overexposure.

The opening sequence, Star Wars. Notice that the voice of
Darth Vader is not that of James Earl Jones.
That being the case, this is not so much about a single film, which successfully "kicked off" a multi-billion-dollar cinematic franchise, as it is about one of the exceedingly rare times when a million small points of creative genius happily came together to form a cinematic masterpiece, using Star Wars IV as a classic example and point of departure. As individual film blockbuster masterpieces go, I could just as easily cite Gone With the Wind, Citizen Kane, or The Godfather, only the latter of which has spawned a series. By the same token, only Citizen Kane was the conceptual work of a single writer/producer/director/actor (Orson Welles) while the others were based upon successful novels. Star Wars IV can claim both of these distinctions. Lucas not only conceived the storyline and the characters, he saw the entire effort through to completion, not just once, but six times. The final three episodes of the saga are in Disney's hands (they're even building a separate, Star Wars theme park at Disney World, Orlando).
George Lucas, ca. 1976--cut from the same cloth as Orson Welles
The entire process of making a movie is sometimes compared to raising a child. The baby is conceived (ideas coalesce, the project is sold to backers, and a script is hammered out); a pregnancy takes place (casting and filming ensues); the baby is born (the promotion and a premier); whereupon the child grows to adulthood enjoying some degree of financial success and critical acclaim. In the case of George Lucas (above) and Star Wars, however, this whole, complex, complicated analogy is more on the order of planting a seed, nurturing a seedling, growing it into a sapling, which becomes an entire grove of money trees. No one, not Spielberg, not Welles, not Selznick, nor Woody Allen, not even Coppola, has ever come close to pulling off such a feat, and doing it so one.
An autographed final script.
Using the baby analogy, the whole Star Wars conception element breaks down immediately. With most films there is one mother and perhaps a whole host of seminal inputs (novelists, playwrights, cinematographers, producers, directors, etc.). Not so with Star Wars IV. From the very beginning, Star Wars was Lucas' baby. That's not to say there weren't outside influences, most notably the Flash Gordon sci-fi series in the 1940s and 50s, but also including the popular cowboy westerns of the same era, Kubrick's 2001: a Space Odyssey, Tarzan, Jules Verne, and even Gulliver's Travels. Lucas began pulling all these diverse influences together in January 1973, working eight hours a day, five days a week, writing, taking notes, inventing weird names, and developing characterizations. He would discard most of these by the time the final script was written, but many names and places eventually made it into the movie or its sequels. Others were revived decades later when he wrote his prequel trilogy. All this Lucas used to compile a two-page synopsis titled Journal of the Whills, which told of the training of apprentice, CJ Thorpe, as a "Jedi-Bendu" space commando. The problem was, condensed to two pages, the whole story was almost beyond comprehension.

Carrie Fisher never looked so good.
In frustration, Lucas then began writing a 13-page treatment called The Star Wars in April of 1973. Lucas went looking for money. United Artist said thanks, but no thanks. Universal, who had fin-anced his American Graffiti, did likewise. Sci-fi just wasn't that big a deal in the mid-1970s. Even Kubrick's landmark 2001: A Space Odyssey had trouble gain-ing financial traction until later. Hollywood has always been more interested in endlessly repeating past successes than in planning future ones. Beyond that, Star Wars IV was unlike any sci-fi film ever made in the past. It was not about the future, but a space adventure having taken place "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away." It was a frightening de-parture from the norm. Moreover, the budget for such a picture was frightening as well. Lucas wanted eight-million. The final budget ev-entually bloomed to eleven-mil-lion. Walt Disney also rejected the project (and has now paid through the nose to the tune of $4-billion for their shortsightedness). Finally, in June, 1973, Lucas was able to pursued Alan Ladd, Jr., then head of 20th Century Fox, to underwrite the project. A deal was completed for Lucas to write and direct the film. Although Ladd did not have much understanding of the technical side, he believed in Lucas. The deal gave George Lucas $150,000 to write and direct Star Wars.
The Death Star came relatively late in the Star Wars conceptual process.
An idea for a film that began taking shape in January 1973, had already gone through various rewrites. Lucas would write four different screenplays for Star Wars, in search of just the right ingredients, characters and storyline. By May 1974, he had expanded the film treatment into the rough draft of a screenplay, adding elements such as the Sith, the Death Star, and a general by the name of Annikin Starkiller. In the process, Lucas changed Starkiller to an adolescent boy, and he shifted the general into a supporting role as a member of a family of dwarfs. Lucas envisioned Han Solo, as a large, green-skinned monster with gills. He based Chewbacca on his Malamute dog. A full year after he'd first begun, Lucas completed a second draft of The Star Wars in which he made a number of important simplifications including the introduction of the young hero, Luke Starkiller. Annikin became Luke's father, a wise Jedi knight. "The Force" was also introduced as a mystical energy field. This second draft still had some differences from the final version as to characters and relationships. But the film, and indeed, the entire saga, was starting to take shape.

The Star Wars IV cast with Lucas and producer, Gary Kurtz.
A third draft, dated August, 1975, was titled The Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Starkiller. The third draft featured only minor differences as to characters and settings from the fourth and final plot. The third draft characterized Luke as an only child (he'd had brothers, earlier), with his father already dead, to be replaced by a substitute father named Ben Kenobi. The fourth and final draft was dated January, 1976, with a title of The Adventures of Luke Starkiller as taken from the Journal of the Whills, Saga I: The Star Wars. Obviously an abbreviated title was needed. Fox approved a budget of $8.25-million largely on the basis of American Graffiti's positive reception. which afforded Lucas the leverage necessary to demand the sequel rights to the film. For Lucas, it was a most fortunate arrangement in that it protected Star Wars unwritten segments and most of the merchandising profits. Fox owned only Episode IV. Lucas grew rich from all the others.

Alec Guinness (Obi-wan Kenobi) and director, George Lucas
on location, of Star Wars: Episode IV--A New Hope, 1976.
Lucas finished writing his script in March of 1976, just before the crew started filming. What finally emerged through the many drafts of the script was obviously influenced by science-fiction and action-adventure with all the other influences working together in surprising harmony. While much of this new sci-fi genre was, indeed, unprecedented, there were also certain traditional aspects which have helped perpetuate the Star Wars saga. During production, Lucas changed Luke's name from Starkiller to Skywalker, and fortunately, the title was altered to The Star Wars, and later just Star Wars. The film debuted on May 25, 1977, in fewer than 32 theaters. Eight more came aboard two days later. Immediately box office records began to fall, causing Fox to quickly broaden its release. The film was a huge success for 20th Century Fox. Within three weeks it had more than doubled the studio's stock price and raised the company's annual profits from $37-million in 1977 to $79-million the following year. In total receipts, the film has earned over $775-million worldwide. Adjusted for inflation, Star Wars IVhas earned over $2.5 billion worldwide at 2011 prices, making it the most successful franchise film of all time.
The people who made it all possible--the Star Wars fans.


Monday, September 26, 2016

Manfredi Beninati

Self-portrait? Manfredi Beninati

Untitled, 2005, Manfredi Beninati
It's long been a debatable topic: how far can an artist depart from reality before his or her work becomes non-representational? The Surrealists pondered this debate as did the Cubists, and of course, the Abstract Expres-sionists a generation later. The line is "fuzzy," to say the least. The only way to answer such a nearly rhetorical question is to venture quite near or over the line, or better still, meander back and forth across the line. The Italian painter and installation artist, Manfredi Beninati, does just that, and quite often. Just when you think you see some hint of recognizable content in his work, it slips away. Then, when least expected, as you study what appears to be non-representational piece...whoa, what's this? A human figure?
Beninati creates art tableau installations, sculpture, and
collages, as well as painting in oils, watercolors.
Manfredi Beninati is a contemporary figurative painter, though his work also covers installations, drawings, sculpture, and collage. He was born in Palermo, Sicily, in 1970. Beninati first began by studying law, then switched to film courses in the early 1990s while working as an assistant director in the Italian film industry. Having dropped out of both law school and film school, Beninati began working as an artist, devoting himself to drawing. He spent some time in Spain and England then in 2002, went back to Italy, where he began to make sculptural figures and figurative paintings, drawing directly on real and imaginary childhood memories. Beninati's big break came In 2005 when he was selected as one of four artists to represent his country at the 51st Venice Biennale. There his Taking Notes for a Dream That Begins in the Afternoon and Continues through the Night (below), won the Audience Award for the Italian pavilion. In 2006 he received a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome.

Taking Notes for a Dream That Begins in the Afternoon and Continues through the Night, 2005, Manfredi Beninati, Venice Biennale.
Whether abstract or figurative; sculptural or painterly; two or three dimensional, Beninati's completed works seem to remain in a state of incompletion. Some might go so far as to deem them over-completed, bearing not just pictorial suggestion, but a constant shifting between formal identities. This uncertainty is seen in both his sculpture and art installations. Beninati's sculptural forms are in white plaster, their pristine surfaces are of classical statuary daubed and pigmented with whole range of candy colors. Some of Beninati's more elaborate installations are often inaccessible, viewable only through cracks in a wall or dark glass appearing to be flattened much like a photograph, as seen in his Carrying Case installation (below) from 2008.

Carrying Case, 2008, Manfredi Beninati.
Beninati's paintings often seem smudged, as if by rain, with striations of color partially obscuring his scenes plucked from memory. Others are adaptations of grand classical themes as in his vanitas still-lifes. Various layers become a single visual plane. His strips of obfuscation are reminiscent of Gerhard Richter's vigorously smeared abstractions. In some ways Beninati's style seems an assault on the academic representation with which his works are initially created, as he questions the validity, and strength to adequately represent his content. However, since his over-painting is only partial, the resulting abstract and figurative elements hint at a state of flux between opposing forms.

Surrealism with an overlay of Expressionism. Most of Beninati's
paintings are untitled, bearing only the year painted.
Sand Castle-4, Manfredi Beninati.

Untitled 2003, Manfredi Beninati.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Edward Ben Avram

Jerusalem, Edward Ben Avram
Over the years, I've written about quite a few Jewish painters (I'm not sure there are any Jewish sculptors). However, in nearly every case they have mostly been what I call "hyphenated" Jews. That means they were Russian or Polish or German, Dutch, Swiss, or Americans first and only incidentally Jewish--some very incidentally--perhaps more accidentally Jewish, in fact. Seldom have I written about Israeli artists. Despite the centuries-long artistic tradition of diaspora Jews (those having fled to Europe after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD), Israel, as we know it today, is a very young country. It dates back only to 1948. And, as with other such countries, the fine arts are among the last cultural elements to develop. In fact, were it not for tourists (many of them Jewish, of course), even today Israel might not have much in the way of an art market. In any case, one of the internationally known stars of that market is the Bombay, India-born painter, Edward Ben Avram.
Kotel (the Wailing Wall Plaza), Edward Ben Avram.
It's hard to say what part tourism plays in terms of art purchases and their impact on the Israeli art market. Despite the constant threat of international terrorism (and nowhere is it more constant than in Israel), tourism reached a peak of about 3.5-million visitors in 2013. However, since then, the numbers have gone downhill to an alarming degree. Having said that, Israel takes its own security and that of one of its major sources of income very seriously. Israel is a small country with a negligible domestic art market. To enjoy much in the way of success, Israeli artists must rise to a certain level of international acclaim, allowing them to market their work in major Jewish population centers overseas. Few ever reach that level. Thus, Israel's periodic little wars in Gaza and elsewhere inevitably have an impact on the tourist economy. And even though he sells his paintings and prints in galleries around the world, local conflicts are not good for artists like Ben Avram.

Noah's Ark, Edward Ben Avram
Edward Ben Avram
Edward Ben Avram was born in 1941. He came to Israel as a teenager, graduating from the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. The vast majority of Avram’s oil paintings and watercolors depict present-day Israeli cities, religious festivals, and familiar Old Testament Jewish lore such as his expressionist view of Noah's Ark (above). He paints in creamy sensual tones involving traditional Jewish symbols such as doves, menorahs, and Shabbat candles. In other words, he paints what tourists come to expect in buying Israeli art. And what tourists come to see most, therefore what they yearn to take home with them, is the city of Jerusalem. Perhaps as much as half of Ben Avram's work involves various views of the city (below). The various ancient gates and the Western Wall (of the original Jewish Temple) better known as the "Wailing" Wall appear prominently in his work. (The wall doesn't wail and neither do most of those visiting it).

Ben Avram's style varies with his subject matter and media from nearly non-representational to Expressionism, even flirting with Impressionism at times.
The themes Ben Avram employs deal mainly with urban landscapes of his much-loved Jerusalem, depicting arched alleyways, steep, narrow streets, spires, citadels, and gates in the walls of the ancient city. Ben Avram's seascapes, are delicate watercolors, near Jaffa and Acre, having a minimal regard for nature's laws, instead reflecting the light and rhythm of the Mediterranean coast. If I had to compare Ben Avram's work with that of any other Jewish painter it would be Marc Chagall, as seen it the two examples of their work below.

Nearly as many similarities as differences.
As many painters native to the Mediterranean region claim regarding their local light, Ben Avram considers there to be something special about the sunlight and the local scale of colors in the Land of Israel. His work tends to reflect an understanding of this environmental element. Usually his subjects are "suggested" rather than explicit, with few details clearly presented. More than anything else, Edward Ben Avram stimulates our imagination while not imposing a detailed narrative. His art does not preach, but arrives at the heart of his subjects through allusions, as seen in his Jewish Wedding (below) and Jacob's Dream (bottom).

Jewish Wedding, Edward Ben Avram

Jacob's Dream,
Edward Ben Avram


Saturday, September 24, 2016

Domino Art

15,000 tiles, as beautiful as it is amazing
(quite modest by some standards).

In writing about art every day for over seven years now (since August 10, 2010), I've often felt the need and curiosity to go in search of the newest, weirdest, strangest, funniest, biggest, smallest, or most obnoxious types of art known to man. This ongoing quest more often centers around unusual art materials so common in everyday use most people would never even consider them as an expressive or creative item associated with art. Alternatively, maybe they've seen such materials used in such a manner but never considered as art. Yet, I wouldn't be exaggerating too much to say that there's hardly a day goes by in which some creative genius doesn't "invent" a new type of art; then popularize it over the Internet; the photos or video goes viral; records are set; others try breaking those records; while others see in it a profitable venture. Sometimes, within a matter of months, we are "blessed" with another fascinating type of art.

Spirals have the advantage of not requiring any camera movement.
You'd better watch this one sitting down.

There's likely very few of us who haven't viewed a video of several thousand "dominos" carefully arranged in such a manner so that tipping just one, sets off a spectacular chair reaction, sometimes lasting for several minutes. We've even applied such a spectacle to political, social, and military thinking, what we term the "domino theory," in which one, perhaps relatively minor event, triggers a host of others, which may escalate into something cataclysmic. Civil disturbances often demonstrate this phenomena. On a global scale, the U.S. fought the Vietnam War based in part of such a unsubstantiated fear, that every nation on the Indochina peninsula would fall to Communism if South Vietnam was reunited with North Vietnam.

Dominoland - 3 Guinness World Records.
Notice the unexpected halt in the chain reaction and
the underwater smile face,
As with toppling countries, for dominos to become a part of a chain reaction, conditions and their arrangement must be near perfect. One might think that those who create such works of art would worry most about their hours of work being accidentally destroyed by one wrong move. But in fact, when all is said and done, the countdown ends, the tiles begin to tumble, their biggest concern tends to be that some miscalculation will suddenly bring an unexpected halt to the chain of tiny, tipping, timely, tumbling events--their toppling tiles won't all fall over as planned. If it all works, there is applause from the audience. If it doesn't, there may arise an embarrassing, sympathetic moan for the patient protagonists. In any case, the whole act is seen mostly as entertainment rather than as an art form.

Biggest Spiral Ever Made! (84,790 Dominoes, a world's record)

Yet, as I've mentioned a few times before with regards to such art forms as fireworks, fountains, landscaping, topiary, bonsai, and several other more obscure types of art, it's when art and science work together hand-in-hand, guided by a gifted artist, that some of our most spectacular art takes place. This is especially true when there is added the fourth dimensional element of time to such works. What would a movie be, even given this merging of art and science, if it consisted of only one image? Domino art is all about the science (engineering) having to do with gravity, friction, placement, angles, and probably some other more obscure physics lessons all spread out over a period of time. Anyone want to venture a guess as to how long it takes 50,000 dominos to fall over?
At around $300, the ideal gift for the Domino player who has everything.
Dominos may be a relatively recent development in the realm of art but they've been around as a game for centuries. The oldest mention of dominoes was written during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) by an author who listed pupai (gambling plaques or dominoes), as well as dice as items sold by peddlers during the reign of Emperor Xiaozong of Song, 1162–1189. Sailors on trading ships found them to be an ideal means of killing time while on long ocean voyages, gradually spreading the game first to Italy then the rest of Europe and around the world. Today a decent set of 28 dominos can be purchases for as little as $14, or a luxury set (above) for around $300. Neither would be ideal for toppling. There's no record as to who may have been the first to do so, but the International Domino Day exhibition in the Netherlands dates back only to 1986. The record number for a single installation (now destroyed) is 4,345,028.

The Rube Goldberg Incredible Science Machine
--200,000 dominoes. First a word from their sponsors.
Set back and relax, this one takes a while.

Domino artists, even when they set world records, are seldom famous. Often they work as a team. They do, however, sometimes turn a profit from sponsors of their artistic stunts. Who would have imagined that knocking over dominos could become an advertising medium? And, as if spending several fourteen-hour days setting up such international art events weren't demanding enough, each setup requires many more hours of thought, design, and experimentation to make sure it all "works." Add to that the fact that some such domino artists have a "Rube Goldberg" streak inherent in their psyche, and what starts out as a work of art, begins to assume the qualities of a science experiment involving chemistry, centrifugal force, mathematics, weights, balances, mass, and magic (or so it might seem, anyway).
Don't forget, you'll also need a good deal of floor space too.
Toppling tiles, from the
tiny to the titanic.
If all of this seems to "heavy" for our artist's minds, there are shortcuts in the form of domino kits on the market (Domino Rally and Domino Express, above) ranging in price from $19 to $25 containing up to ninety pieces including items similar or identical to some of the accessories seen in these videos. Speaking of money, the "dominos" (really just blank tiles usually made of wood or plastic), come at a cost of around $75 per thousand for multi-colored plastic to a mere $30 per thousand for the standard black variety made of wood. More exotic items such as plastic tiles of a single color (virtually any color) cost around $14 per hundred. It might also surprise you (it did me) that competition dominos come in five sizes as seen at left. Also, if you plan to indulge in Domino Art, be aware that one of the most vital items in your "art bin" are what's known as a "fall walls" (bottom). They are simply a breaker in-stalled at various intervals along the line during setup as a means to limit any damage due to an accidental triggering of a premature presentation of your art work.

Spectacular Domino Rally Stunt

The size and height depend
upon the size tiles being used.