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Monday, May 28, 2018

Johnson Tsang

At first glance, Johnson Tsang's sculptures often seem whimsical. At second glance, as with his Security Summit...they're not.
A Cup of Tear, Johnson Tsang
Many years ago, before I ever took my first college art class, I experimented with modeling the human head in clay. I was never very successful at it so I chose portrait painting instead. I've never regretted that decision, at least not to the point of going back and trying a second time. Working in two dimensions, even given the demands of realistic illusion, is usually easier than three-dimensional constructions or carving. That is why, to this day, I have a great deal of respect for those with the talent and patience to capture faces, in whatever media, in three dimensions. One such individual is the Chinese artist, Johnson Tsang.
Tsang's medium of choice is the technically demanding art of porcelain.
Tsang was born Chang Tsong-zung in 1951 in Hong Kong. He graduated from Williams College in 1973. Since then (the 1980s), he has been curating art exhibitions. He founded Hanart TZ gallery in Hong Kong in 1983. It is now one of the city's most established. In doing so, Tsang became ;a pioneer in introducing contemporary Chinese art to international exhibitions in the 1990s. It was through his gallery that he organized exhibitions of the Taiwanese sculptor Ju Ming at the Singapore Art Museum in 1986 and Place Vendôme in Paris in 1997.More recently, in Shanghai in 2010, Tsang organized "West Heavens," a contemporary art collaboration between China and India.
Tsang's Hong Kong gallery often takes on the look of a police lineup when all his faces get together for a reunion.
Open Mind, Johnson Tsang
An integral part of surrealism is the latter half of the term, hinting at the link between the conscious and sub-conscious as seen in the work of any number of surrealist painters too num-erous and too familiar to bear ment-ioning. Not so often, however, do we see this relationship in the work of surrealist sculptors (perhaps because there aren't that many of them). Tsang peels back the outer layer of con-sciousness to reveal an inner con-sciousness (sub-conscious) struggling to burst forth and make itself known through the efforts of creativity. Tsang's Open Mind (left) and Lucid Dream series (below) typify the artist's profound, yet lighthearted, approach to his subject content.
Amusing? Perhaps, but Tsang's work is far more than a series of funny faces.
Though Johnson Tsang is based in Hong Kong, his work has been exhibited there as well as, Taiwan, Korea, Spain, and Switzerland. He is collected by many local and overseas museums. Tsang’s mostly employs realist sculptural techniques accompanied by a vivid surrealist imagination, integrating the two elements, “human beings” and “objects”, into surrealist themes. In addition to porcelain, Tsang focuses on other ceramic media, as well as stainless steel sculptures for public art projects.

More from the Lucid Dreams series.

As in the case of many (perhaps most) artists Tsang, for some thirteen years, had a day job. He worked as a police officer before starting to make art a full-time endeavor. It was this passion for art that led him, in 1991, to make the crucial step in devoting himself to ceramics. He fell in love with clay immediately as he kept having ideas even when he wasn’t in his pottery class. Two years later, in 1993, Tsang decided to quit his "day job" to explore a new life as a ceramic sculptor. It was this turning point that changed his life forever. Art changed the way he observed things happening around him.

Soul Shopping,
Johnson Tsang

Open Mind 3, Johnson Tsang

Open Mind series,
Johnson Tsang
At the beginning of his new life, Tsang felt that he had wasted 13 years when he wasn’t exploring art. Then, years later, he began seeing things hiding in his works--influences that likely originated from his time in law enforcement. During that time Tsang had served in many departments in the police force—the tactical unit, an emergency unit, the special duty squad, anti-drug duties, and traffic accident investigation. He saw a lot of the dark side of the city and humanity itself. What affected him most were the fatality cases. He recalls people being stabbed and killed by gangsters, a 6-year-old girl who was murdered by her maid, an 11-year-old girl who watched her younger brother die under the tire of a double-decker bus. Tsang saw the faces of people who lost their lives in fatal car accidents. Today, he looks upon his years as a police office not as being "lost," but as playing an important role in his creative processes.

Open Mind 5, Johnson Tsang

Looks just like him...


Monday, May 21, 2018

Colorizing Artists

Claude Monet, 1923, a very valid use of colorization by Dana Keller. I tried unsuccessfully for hours to find color photos of the two paintings for comparison. I was stunned to realize how many water lilies Monet painted.
An oil-tinted, 1963-era photo
portrait. No it's not me. I wore
a red jacket which the artist
was reluctant to color.
There are a surprising number of art media which have acquired over the years a bad reputation. Among them we might include velvet painting, erotic art, balloon sculpture, macramé, and the fine art of colorizing black and white photos. Some of these art forms were quite popular at one time, only to reach a point in which their popularity caused them to become trite (mac-ramé, for example), now residing in the same category as tie-dyed t-shirts. The latter of these arts I just men-tioned (colorizing photos) may, in fact be one of the most hated of the lot. The art is nearly as old as pho-tography itself and may have derived from the art of painting miniatures. As such artists were suddenly denied a sustenance from their work, they struggled to adjust to the "new" portrait technology during the latter half of the 19th-century. They developed the art of oil-painting (tinting) black and white photos to add a sort of artificially lifelike appearance, which continued well into the 1960s (my 1963 high school graduation photo was oil tinted). Of course, with the advent of color film and printing, even this last vestige of such art quickly disappeared.

Red Hawk of the Oglala Sioux Tribe on Horseback, 1905
It disappeared, that is, until the advent of Photoshop and digitized photography. Although such art today is a far cry from that which photo painters rendered for about a hundred years (1860-1960), it is still not without many of the same crude missteps that caused artists and photo purists to come to despise colorization of the tinted variety. Add to that the fact that most photo colorization today centers around the adding of digital color to historic photos such as that of Red Hawk (above). Some might look at such an effort as creating a whole new (and better) work of art than the original. Others might see it as a horrid desecration of an historic artifact. In any case, this and other examples I've collected here serve to underline a longstanding, ongoing problem in colorization--how much is enough (or too much). The line between the two is very real and very thin.

Country store in July 1939, Gordonton, North Carolina, a drastic improvement over the black and white image.
An otherwise neutral image
gains little from the addition
of flesh tones.
Thus, colorization is both a science and an art. That is to say, it takes an extremely astute artist to do it well, while at the same time knowing when to stop. Then there's also the question as to when to colorize and when to leave well-enough alone. Very often I've encountered historic photos in which the addition of color added absolutely nothing to either the human or historic impact of the image. The colorized photo of the Kennedy brothers (right) is a near-perfect example. However, the general store (above) and the famous Depression-era photo by Margaret Bourke-White both benefit greatly from the addition of color. White's American Dream, from 1937, has a gaudy "come alive" quality in the upper region of the billboard which contrasts with the drab, depression breadline beneath it. The result is that colorization strengthens both the sad irony of the message and its visual impact. Despite its dated imagery, the colorized version speaks to us as vibrantly today as it did in 1937.

American Dream, 1937, Margaret Bourke-White.
One of the most difficult and, indeed, treacherous areas of photo colorization is in the area of portraiture. Questions arise from that of simply "why bother" (as with the Kennedy brothers) to the amount of time the artist pours into a single image. The latter can vary wildly from hours, days, or weeks. Flesh tones often range from a deathly pallor to a made-up look akin the art of an embalmer. As a visual historian, everything has to be colored, from the buttons and ribbons on a uniform to nearby props and furniture. Colorist Marina Amaral recalls spending the better part of a month on an early 20th-century photo of New York’s banana docks (below), agonizing over each hat, face, and strip of fabric in the composition.

Banana docks, New York, ca. 1890-1910, Marina Amaral. Despite the artist's best efforts there is minimal color apparent in the image, and what there is seems to have barely more visual impact that the original black and white photo. 

By the same token, even familiar faces from the dry, black and white history books take on a new life in the talented hands of a competent colorizer, as seen at left in the portrait of Lincoln and below in the image of President Teddy Roos-evelt (the child is unidentified). Albert Einstein seems more friendly in color, though I'm not sure where the black and white or the colorized image of Alfred Hitchcock best captures his macabre persona. Of the colorized portrait of Ab-raham Lincoln, one user observed: “I feel like I’m looking at the man, and not the legend.”
President Lincoln as seen
by Marina Amaral

Portrait colorization and personalization at its best.
Winston Churchill, Yousuf
Karsh, 1941, Colorized
by Sanna Dullaway
Why do these reproductions resonate so deeply with so many people? Color images have a greater impact on our visual memory, and allow details we might otherwise gloss over to leap off the page. Marina Amaral’s colorization of Migrant Mother (below), the iconic Dust Bowl image by Dorothea Lange at a California migrant camp is already stunning in black-and-white. It looks strikingly familiar in color. Every detail, from Florence Thompson’s sun-burnished skin to the frayed fabric on her tattered sleeve, the scuffs of dirt on her son’s cheek, all seem to take on new dimensions and feel more alive. The hardship embodied is timeless, more viscerally human.

Colorizing artists ride a fine line between boldness and restraint as seen in these two Dorothea Lange images by two different individuals of both skill and taste.

Technology and the accessibility of software like Photoshop have allowed colorizing to become not just an artistic hobby, but for artists like Dullaway and Amaral, a career. Amaral first began to experiment with colorizing in 2015 on a cache of black-and-white World War II photos she found online. The artist is now collaborating on a book, The Color of Time, with historian and author Dan Jones. She restored over 200 historical photos for the project, many of which have never been seen in color before. Amaral confides, “I never imagined or planned that colorizing would become my profession or that I would built an entire career out of this."

Peace and War
Although purists may take offense at the idea of reworking history, there’s no question that these images have a powerful effect. Black-and-white images seem sort of alien in that they feel like relics from a bygone era. In grayscale, a historical photograph seems trapped under museum glass. When color is added, everything changes--wars are waged, leaders assassinated, a nation’s greatest moments of pride and disgrace are somehow made more real. Color doesn’t just make these images attractive or more palatable, it throws humanity into high relief and forces us to see historical events as things that happened in real life to real people, not events that turn like pages of a history textbook. It's right there in front of us. It takes us there almost like a time machine.

The Dirigible, Hindenburg, Lakehurst Air Station, Thursday, May 6, 1937

Colorizing artists often receives messages from strangers thanking them for help in gaining a better understanding of historical images after seeing such work in color. These artists often hear from people who are not really history fanatics, but who have started enjoying history on a deeper level once they’ve seen colorization and how it affects the human mind. That’s not to say there isn’t backlash. Colorizing artists are sometimes accused of “defiling” history, though most see their work as more of a complement than a replacement. (For what it’s worth, color photography elicited its own fair share of criticism back in its early days.)


Monday, May 14, 2018

The 1913 Armory Show

1913 Armory Show, 2014, James R. Huntsberger
Virtually anyone who knows much about art, especially Modern Art, especially modern American art has heard of New York City's famed 1913 69th Regiment Armory Show. There the showing of American and European avant-garde art racked up an astounding attendance figure of more than 87,000 visitors (in the middle of the winter, no less). From New York the show moved on to Chicago where the attendance was more than twice that of New York (188,700), followed by a showing in Boston where, due to a lack of space, the exhibit was stripped of American artists and the crowd dwindled to just 14,400. (Bostonians always have tended to be a stodgy lot.)
The handwritten plan is labeled as a proposed arrangement. How accurately it was followed is problematical. Notice the prominent placement of van Gogh's work near the entrance while the cubist works are tucked away in a far corner.
So important was this show in the history of American art that I've mentioned it, or written about it, on several occasions. For a background understanding, check out the first Invasion of Modern Art, as well as Duchamp (and others) in discussing Vernacular Art. When the show opened, word of the outrageous content spread quickly. The crowds hurried first to the Cubist and Futurist rooms, eager to see the worst. There, most of them felt obliged to laugh, while others were struck dumb in an open-mouth stare. A few were seized with deep despair. So unfamiliar were these violently abstracted forms that they represented something of a blow to the face—a bomb thrown at the art establishment. One dismayed art connoisseur noted, “It makes me fear for the world. Something must be wrong with an age which can put these things in a gallery and call them art. The minds that produced them are fit subjects for alienists and the canvases—I can’t call them pictures—should hang in the curio room of an insane asylum.”
1913 Armory Show overview.
Words of the Devil,
1892, Paul Gauguin
The exhibition was a brilliant success in every way. The attendance was large, and sales were numerous and remunerative. The exhibition set the town talking and thinking. At the turn of the century, the teeming metropolis of New York City was taking large strides into the future. Yet its art world, was about fifty years behind the times. The deeply conservative National Academy of Design functioned as its primary gatekeeper, awarding opportunities to the select few who emulated the historical and landscape paintings of 19th-century Paris salons. New York was home to a mere smattering of progressive galleries, while the few public art museums in American cities functioned as little more than shrines to the Old Masters. Picasso, Duchamp, Paul Gauguin (left), Edward Hopper, and the 1913 Armory Show scandalized America. The American estab-lishment was eager to demonstrate a cultural lineage that ran all the way back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Gilded Age millionaires, who made up the country’s small collector base, sought to acquire grand artworks as a symbol of their status. It was, a system that effectively stifled innovation. However, rumblings of dissent against the National Acad-emy appeared long before the Armory Show.
The driving forces behind the Armory Show.
Robert Henri and a group of artists known as The Eight (later known as the Ashcan School) rejected the idealized subject matter championed by the National Academy. Instead they sought to paint the reality of contemporary life in the United States. At about the same time, in 1911, an American Impressionist named Walt Kuhn, a man who lived his life with a sort of reckless bravado, was struggling to get his art shown. He began to plot a cultural revolution. Towards the end of that year, Kuhn formed a society of artists who would stand in direct opposition to the Academy. They called themselves the Association of American Painters and Sculptors. A middle-aged artist named Arthur Bowen Davies was voted in as the organization’s president in 1912. Kuhn and Davies had both studied in Europe where they developed a strong appreciation for the groundbreaking developments that were taking place, particularly in Paris. Both also had ambitious dreams of altering the very fabric of American art and culture. The pair would be particularly instrumental in bringing to U.S. shores a kind of art the likes of which most Americans had never seen before. With the same sprawling exhibition, they would also provide opportunities they had found so lacking in their own careers to benefit other American artists.
Improvisation 27 (Garden of Love II), 1912 Wassily Kandinsky

Le Divan Japonais, 1892,
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
There was no jury. The 1913 Armory Show was, "Come on in." Such openness had never happened before. Not every submis-sion was accepted, of course (Duchamp's urinal Fountain, for example). But com-pared to the elitist undertones of the Acad-emy’s juried shows, the Armory Show embraced a broad range of artists and styles. Throughout 1912, Kuhn voyaged across Europe to obtain artworks for the show. Along the way, he picked up Improv-isation 27 (Garden of Love II), (1912) by Wassily Kandinsky (above). Its bold, sket-chy lines, vivid colors, and flat, ornamental approache to space set this canvas in stark opposition to the virtuosic techniques so beloved by the Academy. Kuhn included van Gogh's Mountains at Saint-Rémy (below), from July of 1889.

Mountains at Saint-Rémy (Montagnes à Saint-Rémy),
July 1889. Vincent van Gogh.
While Kuhn was collecting art in Europe, back home, other members of the society gathered together works from a couple hundred American artists. These included abstracted landscapes by Albert Pinkham Ryder, a still life by Marsden Hartley, and, notably, work from female artists, including the muscular nudes of Kathleen McEnery. Days before the month-long exhibition finally opened on February 17, 1913, there developed a linear tour through the evolution of modern art, from Ingres to Matisse. The impact was immediate. It would be difficult to overstate the role of this exhibition in changing American understandings of art, both for artists and collectors. Today, we live in a very small world, one where you can watch what’s happening at a gallery in London or Paris. That was not the case then. Color photography wasn’t widely accessible, and the quality of black-and-white photos was often poor (as you can see in some I've chosen). Thus, artists and collectors had to rely on verbal descriptions to understand the incredible extent of the artistic revolution happening across the Atlantic. It was impossible for an American who couldn’t afford to travel to know about the newest art from Picasso.

J.F. Griswold, The Rude Descending a Staircase (Rush-Hour at the Subway). Just above, Cubism, by John Sloan.
The artwork that generated the most headlines was almost certainly Duchamp’s now-famous painting Nude Descending a Staircase (upper image, above) from 1912. Armory Show visitors, saw no nude figure. Duchamp and his "nude" became a lightning rod for any number of satiric cartoon drawings (above). ARTnews even issued an invitation to their readers offering a $10 reward to anyone who could decode the meaning of this inscrutable work. One man wrote in, suggesting that Duchamp might have been experiencing a brain malfunction at the sight of a nude woman. “The painter, never having seen a nude lady, in doing so becomes rather confused. The picture plainly shows this emotion, a veritable brain-storm.” The winning poem hypothesized that the figure was, in fact, a man. The painting, nonetheless, found a buyer.

Monk Talking to an Old Woman,
1824-25, Francisco Goya.
This typifies the reaction of many

visitors to the Armory Show. Never
again was the American art world
allowed to dictate that art must
be beautiful.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Matthew Pratt

The American School, 1765, Matthew Pratt. The standing figure is West, the figure in front of the blank canvas is that of Pratt.
One of the tasks I do often in writing for the Internet is to evaluate artists and their work. That would include unknown artists from hundreds of years ago to the up-and-coming contemporary artists of today. Probably the most difficult art to evaluate is that of the portrait artist. At first reading, that sounds like it should be fairly cut-and-dried. Either it looks like the subject or it doesn't. That's true, except when we have no idea what the subject of the portrait looked like, and sometimes no idea even whom the subject might be. That opens up a third unknown. Sometimes the portrait seems not at all attractive, raising the questions, was the subject really that ugly (male or female) or was the artist simply inept in his or her rendering. A case could be made for both factors being a problem. Adding to that is the fact that most good portrait artists tend to flatter their subjects to some degree. Thus, the unattractive sitter may, in fact, have been even more unattractive that what the artist has portrayed. That's especially a problem when the artist is largely self-taught. Was he or she simply a poor student, or did they have a bad instructor (or both).
Matthew Pratt had a tendency to exaggerate the length of the neck in painting his female subjects. Was this poor anatomy or was it a matter of style demanded by his subjects?
I've encountered this quandary in various art periods, but never more than in dealing with American portrait artists of the colonial period. There's seldom a problem with the real masters of the 18th century American art scene--John Singleton Copley, Benjamin West (above), Gilbert Stuart, John Smibert, Charles Wilson Peale, or John Trumbull (among others). They were all excellent examples of artists who rose above the difficulties of a nascent art world in the pre-revolutionary period. The problems mentioned above arise in evaluating the second tier of American portrait artist, men like Ralph Earl, his brother, James, William Jennys, Jacob Eichholtz, Edward Hicks, and Matthew Pratt. The list of American itinerant artist is surprisingly long, their talents falling across the entire range from godawful to merely somewhat uneven. The Philadelphia painter, Matthew Pratt is a good example of what I mean.
Matthew Pratt, Self-portrait,
ca. 1764
Pratt was born in Philadelphia in the year 1734. His father was a goldsmith, his mother, Rebecca Claypoole, the sister of the artist James Claypoole Sr., a sometimes portrait painter but also a housepainter and galzier (which says a lot about his talent as a portrait artist). Perhaps his primary claim to fame was that he took on his nephew as an apprentice when the boy was a mere lad of fifteen. Pratt learned from his uncle the basic aspects of portrait painting along with a healthy dose of business acumen. In 1764 Pratt escort-ed his cousin, Betsey Shewell to Eng-land for her marriage to the American expatriate artist, Benjamin West. West was gaining a distinguished reputation in England. Pratt stayed on in England for two and a half years as a pupil and colleague to West. It was during this period that he painted one of his best known works, The American School (top).

Madonna of St. Jerome, 1764-66, Matthew Pratt
Despite the title of the painting, while in England, Pratt developed the style of the London School of artists. Although Pratt was four years older than West, he became his first student in a long line of others, as well as West's assistant. In London, Pratt also painted his one and only (insofar as I can tell) religious work, Madonna of St. Jerome (above), which strangely utilized figures and images from both the first and fourth centuries--acceptable, perhaps, if the work was seen as allegorical, but not so much if Pratt intended it as a biblical scene.

Thomas Paine, Matthew Pratt
Although Pratt never gained the same degree of notoriety as his teacher, West, he still left a large oeuvre of works behind him. Pratts' catalogue includes portraits of famous early Americans such as West, the essayist, Thomas Paine, and Benjamin Franklin. Pratt's style is often difficult to identify, but it is clear that he was influ-enced by both American and English painters. In 1770, Pratt once more jour-neyed to England and Ireland when he had to claim an inheritance for his wife. While he was there, Pratt painted a few portraits in both Dublin and Liverpool. Pratt also worked in New York from 1771 to 1772 where he was commission to paint a num-ber of government portraits. While he was there, Pratt became friends with John Singleton Copley. The following year, Pratt traveled to Virginia and worked briefly in Williamsburg (below).

Elizabeth Gay (Mrs. Thomas Bolling) with twins Sarah & Ann, 1773, Matthew Pratt--not one of his better works.
By most standards, Pratt was mainly a portrait painter, but he could not live off his income from portraits alone. After the Revolution, Pratt's career slowed, despite the fact that he went into a business partnership. As a partner in Pratt, Rutter and Co., his business offered portraiture and ornamental painting. In order to support himself, Pratt would also paint signs for business owners. These were often hailed for their beauty and for the great skill in which they were created. Pratt created signs for taverns, counting houses, and other shops with a skill matched by few in Philadelphia during his lifetime. During the latter part of his career, Pratt became more known for these unusual signs than for his portraits. The artist died in 1805.

Mrs. Samuel Powel, Matthew Pratt
During his lifetime, Pratt was said to have created a considerable number of por-traits, though today very few are at-tributed to him. Perhaps this is due to the fact that he may not have signed all of his works. The only painting attributed to him that is signed is The American School. This leaves a great possibility for many of Pratt's unknown and otherwise unauth-enticated works to surface all over New England, Virginia, England, Ireland and possibly even Jamaica. As to the point I was making in the beginning, even though he was not self-taught and displays a significant dose of English style portraiture, Matthew Pratt must still be considered an itinerant painter, albeit one of the better practitioners of the art. Thus, as exemplified in the two female portraits below, it would seem he did not do women well (the sober, but sensitive Mrs. Samuel Powel portrait, above, seeming to be an exception). Perhaps he was above flattering his subjects, or, on the other hand, maybe they were every bit as homely looking as Pratt rendered them.

Two of Matthew Pratt's long-necked matrons. This trait, whatever its source, does not appear in the artist's male portraits. Maybe Pratt was sick the day West taught the female anatomy.