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Monday, June 25, 2018

Dolphin Art

Ocean Paradise, Robert Wyland
One of the most consistently popular content areas for painters and other artists is that of wildlife. That being the case I've written of and highlighted some of the best images artists have created broken down into generic categories such a tigers, bears, giraffes, and zebras, just to name a few. I've even done pieces on skunk art and fishy Art. Today I've chosen to look at Dolphins--one of the most gracefully beautiful creatures God ever created. Before you think I've started repeating myself, keep in mind dolphins are not fish but mammals, which bear their young alive (calves) and "mother" them much as do other mammals. Someone had the bright idea to call mother dolphins "cows" and their philandering mates "bulls" (I can't see the resemblance.) It must have been a zoologist with a crude sense of humor--a mammologist, perhaps.
Fresco of Dolphins, ca. 1600 BC, from Knossos, Crete
If you go looking for the first use of dolphins by artists, you might be surprised to find they go back to at least 1600 B.C. as seen in the Knossos Frescoes on the island of Crete (above). Moreover, the images are quite accurate. Though it's unlikely that these playful aquatics have enjoyed consistent popularity with artists as is the case of more aggressive wildlife, we find a resurgence in dolphin interest beginning about 1960, and likely not by coincidence just a year after Hawaii became a state. Hawaii doesn't have a state mammal but if it did, the Dolphin would probably be the first choice.
Who could resist a face like that.
No, van Gogh didn't paint dolphins,
but if he had they might have looked
like Wayne Cantrell's Starry Night
There are some forty extant species of dolphins, all of whom are part of the Cetacean family. Strangely, their closest living relative is the ungainly (not to mention ugly) hippopotamus. The porpoise is also considered a dolphin though they differ slightly in facial appearance and are much less common. Dolphins have long been credited by scientists and writers as having exceptional intelligence, even riv-aling that of man. Dolphins’ rev-ered status among mammals probably began with John Lilly, a 1960’s era dolphin researcher and psychotropic drug enthusiast who was the first to popularize the idea that dolphins are intelligent, later suggesting that they were even more so than humans. In 1978, Douglas Adams’s hilarious classic, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, suggests there are several animals said to be more clever than humans. Among them were dolphins that knew about the intergalactic bulldozers which eventually vaporized the planet. They tried to warn us of the impending doom: "The last ever dolphin message was misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double-backwards-somersault through a hoop whilst whistling the Star Spangled Banner, but in fact the message was this: So long and thanks for all the fish."
Dolphins by Moonlight, Adrian Chesterman--dolphins a metaphysical beings

Dolphin Dance, Stephen Anderson
As with most art, dolphin art can be broken down into traditional style categories. Dolphins by Moon-light (above) would be considered meta-physical, or spiritual, perhaps even surreal (take your pick). And given the graceful simplicity of their shapes and body movements, dolphins invite no small number expressionist render-ings such as that of Stephen An-derson's Dolphin Dance (right). And as for us who tend toward naturalism we need only look at the work of Howard Hall and Iris Sand (below).

Iris Sand and Howard Hall. If you like Dolphin art, you had better also like the color blue.
If you like dolphin art, you'd best
like sunsets as well.
I should also note that dolphin art is prone to sunsets, often highly exaggerated to the point of gaudiness as seen in the touristy dolphin mani-festation (left). Serious tropical artist often more accurately refer to such work as an in-festation. And for those who really, really REALLY like dol-phin art, you might want to invest in one of those new-fangled ceiling aquariums sim-ilar to that seen below.

Just hope the ceiling doesn't leak.
A Dozen Swimming Dolphin, artist unknown.

It's surprising what you get when
you Google "Dolphin Art."


Monday, June 18, 2018

Liu Bolin

Liu Bolin visits the cereal aisle.
No doubt there have often been times when we've all endured some awkward or embarrassing situation in which we'd like to simply disappear. As a child my vivid imagination and I liked to pretend I could, in fact do just that (a feat even my hero, Superman, couldn't do). Star Trek once built an entire movie on the premise that a hijacked Klingon ship could use a Romulan cloaking device to make itself invisible while visiting Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. During their visit to the 20th century, Captain Kirk, Bones, Spock, and Scotty took it upon themselves to hijack a whale in order to save Earth (no kidding, that was the plot). More recently Harry Potter came by a similar "cloak" to cover himself in order to achieve the same aim. The Chinese artist Liu Bolin doesn't have to go to the movies to become invisible. He simply disappears into the background.
Bolin must remain very still as he gets painted. The process can take up to 10 hours at a time.
Bolin has an amazing talent. He can blend into any surroundings he chooses, making himself, or his subjects, practically undetectable to the human eye. Bolin, sometimes referred to as the "Human Chameleon", decorates the body and clothes with color, painting himself and his subjects into the surroundings, making them almost imperceptible at first glance. He sees his work as a type of political protest, and a way of hiding from the authorities. Above, Bolin is being painted by his assistants to match the wall of an old temple in central Beijing.
Liu Bolin: the painted and the painter.
Liu Bolin is an artist born in 1973 in China's Shandong province. He earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Shandong College of Arts in 1995 and his Master of Fine Arts from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in 2001. His work has been exhibited in museums around the world. Bolin's most popular works are from his "Hiding in the City" series; photographic works that began as performance art in 2005. His work can be seen in his book Liu Bolin: The Invisible Man. Bolin most recent works can be found in the Klein Sun Gallery.
Bolin, seen or not seen in a London metro station (two upper images), spends uncounted hours preparing for his images.
Bolin is interested in the relationship between objects and the people who use them. Some of his pieces are more intricate than others. Above (third image), Bolin stands in front of the Hollywood sign in California. Graffiti and street art play an important role in Bolin's work. Above (fourth image), he is in front of Queens' famous graffiti mecca, 5 Points, which has unfortunately since been knocked down.
Some of Bolin's painted figures take on a sort of "ghostly" appearance as if the subject is only partially visible.
In many ways, Bolin's art is akin to that of the "fool-the-eye" street artists working in various media. That is to say, his art demands the use of carefully staged photography in order to be effective. If the camera is moved only a few degrees right or left of center, the illusion is quickly lost. Thus Bolin's paintings, and that of all sidewalk illusionist art, can only be classed as "temporary" art with photography the one and only means of preserving it. Thus, the photo becomes the work of art, with the painted Bolin and his background, merely the content.
Sometimes, as in the upper three images, the non-representational aspects of Bolin's chosen backgrounds work to confuse the eye and heighten his invisibility.
In general, the more highly complex the background, the more effective become the photographic image. Although most of Bolin's works fall into the realm of realism, he does not reject abstract expressionist images as seen above in his tribute to Jackson Pollock. Liu Bolin belongs to the generation that came of age in the early 1990s, when China emerged from the rubble of the Cultural Revolution to enjoy rapid economic growth and relative political stability. He followed up his Beijing series of "Hiding in the City" with derivative series in Venice, Milan, Rome, Pompeii, Verona, and New York City. Following the method of painting himself into the cityscapes, Liu chose Italy for its significance within the Western art tradition and New York City for the potency of the underlying conflicts between humans and the objects they create.


Monday, June 11, 2018

Relearning Art History

University of Cincinnati archaeologist, Sharon Stocker, stands in the grave of the Griffin Warrior, discovered near the Palace of Nestor in Pylos, Greece.
One of the more frustrating difficulties in most areas of learning is having to discard what you know in favor of the tentative ambiguity of newly discovered or invented common knowledge. Those in the medical professions, for example, constantly find themselves in a footrace to absorb all the new treatments and procedures looming on the horizon, or coming into practice. The same is true in electrical engineering, especially that having to do with computers. Even mechanics, school teachers, taxi drivers, and virtually all designers face the same or similar problem (add changing tastes and styles in the case of designers). Perhaps one of the most "stable" bodies of knowledge might well be human and natural history in general and art history in particular. Yet even these areas are not without new understandings of their "who, what, when, where, how, and why." Moreover, such novel "relearning" often has direct causes and effects stemming from discoveries and innovations far afield from art. Just look what the advent of computers has brought to dozens of contemporary art forms.
Where it all began. Hardly much bigger than a pebble, the archaeological "dig" team might easily have discarded their unexceptional looking, Limestone encrusted Pylos discovery.
During the past two or three years, researchers from the University of Cincinnati have unearthed a 3,500-year-old tomb in the southwest of Greece. The tomb belonged to a Bronze Age warrior they nicknamed the “Griffin Warrior.” The tomb yielded many treasures, such as four gold signet rings, that have challenged previous notions about the origins of Greek civilization. Perhaps one of the most important and visually captivating finds from the tomb occurred a full year after its discovery. Researchers uncovered a carved sealstone (above)no larger than an inch and a half wide. The “Pylos Combat Agate” meticulously displays two warriors engaged in battle with bodies strewn at their feet. Some details were less than a millimeter wide. The carving is perhaps most astonishing because it predates artistic skills that were not associated with Greek civilization for another millennium. The representation of the human body is at a level of detail and musculature not to be found again until the classical period of Greek art 1,000 years later.
the Griffin Warrior, was uncovered in an olive grove near the ancient Greek city of Pylos in 2015.
Sharon Stocker, a senior research associate in UC's Department of Classics, and her husband, Jack Davis, professor of Greek archaeology, note that even more extraordinary is the meticulously carved combat scene was painstakingly etched on a piece of hard stone measuring just 3.6 centimeters, or just over 1.4 inches, in length (below). Indeed, many of the seal’s details, such as the intricate weaponry ornamentation and jewelry decoration, become clear only when viewed with a powerful camera lens. Some of the details are as incomprehensibly small as a half-millimeter.
Shown in the top image at about three times actual size, the detailed carving can best be seen only through a microscope.
Though the seal and other burial riches found within the tomb suggest the Griffin Warrior held an esteemed position in Mycenaean society, inasmuch as the artifacts are Minoan-made. This raises intriguing questions about his culture. Scholarly consensus has long theorized that mainlander Mycenaeans simply imported or robbed such riches from the affluent Minoan civilization on the island of Crete, southeast of Pylos. Although the Minoans were culturally dominant to the Greek mainlanders, the civilization fell to the Mycenaeans around 1500-1400 B.C. or roughly the same time period in which the Griffin Warrior died. The discovery of four gold signet rings (below) bearing highly detailed Minoan iconography, along with other Minoan-made riches from the tomb, indicates a far more complex cultural interchange took place between the Mycenaeans and Minoans. Researchers point out that the skill and sophistication of the Pylos Combat Agate is unparalleled by anything uncovered before from the this era in art history. That raises a bigger question: How does this change our understanding of Greek art in the Bronze Age?
A diagram of the combat image found on the Pylos agate. In a testament to the anonymous artist’s skills, it should be noted that magnifying glasses were not believed to be used for another thousand years.
Given the magnitude of the Pylos find, it may be necessary to rethink when the wider area around the city began to flourish. It may have been earlier than previously thought since, somehow, whether via trade or force (raiding), its inhabitants had acquired the valuable objects found within the tomb. Many of the tomb’s objects were made in nearby Crete and show a strong Minoan style and technique unknown in mainland Greece during the 15th-century BC. This new discovery, may be a catalyst leading to a complete reevaluation the timeline and development of Greek art. More recent probing of the 3,500-year-old tomb of the Bronze Age warrior has rendered an incredible trove of riches, including four gold signet rings which likewise have challenged accepted wisdom among archaeologists about the origins of Greek civilization.

This gold ring with a Cretan bull-jumping scene was one of four solid-gold rings found in the tomb. That's more than found with any other single burial anywhere in Greece.
A specialized team reconstructed
the face of the Griffin Warrior by
layering facial tissue over his skull.
So, whose tomb did Davis and Stocker discover? The tomb may have held a powerful warrior or king. Perhaps he was a trader or a raider who died at about 30 to 35 years of age. Whoever he was, he helped to lay the foundations of the Mycenaean culture that later flourished in the region. Davis speculates, “He seems to have been celebrated for his trading or fighting on the nearby island of Crete and for his appreciation of the more-sophisticated and delicate art of the Minoan civilization (of Crete), with which he was buried.” A remarkable store of riches was deposited in the tomb with the warrior at the time of his death. The mere fact that the vessels in the tomb are of metal (rather than ceramic pottery) is a strong indication of his great wealth.

The 3,500-year-old shaft grave has revealed more than 3,000 objects arrayed on and around the warrior’s body, including four solid gold rings, silver cups, precious stone beads, fine-toothed ivory combs (seen here), and an intricately built sword, among other weapons.
"It seems that the Minoans were capable of producing art of the sort that no one ever imagined,” explained Davis. “It shows that their ability and interest in representational art, particularly movement and human anatomy. Such work is beyond what it was imagined to be. Combined with the stylized features, that itself is just extraordinary.” The revelation, he and Stocker say, prompts a reconsideration of the evolution and development of Greek art. Sharon Stocker predicts that, “This seal [will] be included in all forthcoming art history texts, and will change the way prehistoric art is viewed.”

The Stocker-Davis discoveries are already making waves in the areas of archaeology and art history.


Monday, June 4, 2018

Art Rivalries

Constable and Turner, perhaps not the most famous of art rivalries, but certainly one of the more typical and interesting.
Whether in the area of the fine arts, or virtually any other professional endeavor requiring exceptional skill and effort, the one thing we find they all have in common is the presence of rivalries. They might be professional, personal, social, or involve military, political, or romance--sometimes several, if not all, of the above. More often than not, the most intense rivalries involve men. Some are more or less friendly, while others could only be considered cutthroat. Hitler had his Stalin. Augustus Caesar, his Mark Anthon; Donald Trump his Hillary Clinton (or Barack Obama, take your pick). And those are only in the "political" arena. The term “rivalry” can conjure up images of bitter and jealous adversaries fighting it out, but more commonly (especially in the arts) it can also imply a meaningful and productive relationship borne out of mutual respect if not friendship. In the 19th century, we think of Delacroix and Ingres, and before that, during the Renaissance, the strained civility between Leonardo and Michelangelo.

A truly legendary rivalry, neither of the original works exist today.
True art rivalries, require that the protagonists have something in common. Usually that means working in the same place at the same time competing for the same recognition. This commonality was at the heart of one of the most infamous artistic feuds ever--between Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti. Though there was an age difference of some 23 years (Leonardo was the elder), both were Florentines trained by the finest artists of their times. In 1504, they were challenged to paint opposite sides of the Hall of Five Hundred in Florence (above). On one wall, Leonardo painted The Battle of Anghiari (second image, above), while on the other, Michelangelo toiled over The Battle of Cascina (lower image). Da Vinci was older and more established, having already gained acclaim for the Mona Lisa. Michelangelo, on the other hand, was a brash, ambitious, young upstart. Michelangelo is said to have insulted da Vinci in the street with a snide comment about a giant, bronze, equine sculpture in Milan (that da Vinci had never finished). Leonardo responded in kind, suggesting that Michelangelo’s David should have its penis covered up. The tension between them was so great that neither were able to finish work on the Hall of Five Hundred. The project had to be completed by other artists. In the process, the originals were destroyed, or (in Leonardo's case) possibly covered up by Giorgio Vasari in a subsequent remodeling of the room.

The Bernini-Borromini rivalry is immortalized in Rome's Piazza Navona.
Roughly a hundred years later, during the height of the Baroque era, Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini were two of Rome’s most celebrated artists. Bernini was an Italian sculptor, painter, playwright and architect, credited with creating the Baroque style of sculpture. Borromini was an architect with an idiosyncratic style who manipulated Classical architectural forms, combining geometrical rationales and symbolic meanings in his designs. He had an understanding of structure, which Bernini was said to lack. The rivalry between the two emerged when Borromini was working under Bernini in the 1630s. Borromini lacked Bernini's social skills and as a result failed to secure as many commissions from high ranking patrons. Tired of being in Bernini’s shadow, Borromini broke free. Later, in 1644, they clashed over the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, (Fountain of the Four Rivers) one of the great works of Baroque art (lower images above). Bernini's fountain sits in the Piazza Navona directly opposite Borromini’s Sant’Agnese church (upper image, above), standing as a backdrop to Bernini’s sculpted human figures, which seem to mock the church’s features. Many art historians believe that the pressure of this rivalry may have contributed to Borromini’s suicide in 1667.

John Constable versus J.M.W. Turner
In 1832, Constable was putting the finishing touches on his masterwork The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (above, left). It was a painting he had been working on for almost fifteen years, and was about to show it in an exhibition at London’s Royal Academy (top). There it was to hang alongside Turner’s Helvoetsluys (above, right), a smaller, quite dissimilar, painting depicting ships at sea. The two artists had long been wary of each other. Though Constable had praised Turner in public, privately he criticized his rival’s work as being "just steam and light." Before the exhibition, Constable was in the gallery fussing over his painting when Turner, who had been working on his entry for only a few months, saw the two paintings next to each other for the first time. Noticing the contrast in color, he decided his painting needed an extra touch. Turner left, then came back and added a single daub of paint--a simple red buoy in the water. He then left without saying a word. This tiny addition drew huge acclaim for the artist, and stripped the attention away from Constable’s work, which was seen as contrived. Constable was left seething with resentment, remarking after Turner left the gallery, "He has been here and fired a gun."
The battle of the self-portraits.
Undoubtedly the saddest artistic rivalry of all times was the sour relationship between Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. Ironically, this rivalry began in friendship. The two artists had long admired each other’s work. In 1888, the ardent idealist, van Gogh, invited his hero, Gauguin, to join him in the south of France in what he hoped would become a utopian artist collective. After repeated requests, Gauguin finally obliged. For two men so much alike in spirit (or perhaps because of this) in living together they argued constantly. Van Gogh, ever the lonely, needing one, became increasingly paranoid that the friend he admired so much would leave. As their relationship deteriorated, the now legendary incident in which Van Gogh cut off a part of his left ear, proved to be the final straw. Gauguin fled the "colony," leaving Van Gogh to be institutionalized (and perhaps indirectly leading to his suicide as well).

Minus the museum labels, much of the work of these two rival artists would be indistinguishable.
The rivalry between Picasso and Matisse is unique in that it represents a fine example of the power to inspire truly great art. Both artists spent their whole careers creating some of the most iconic and influential modernist paintings. Essentially, they spurred one another on by attempting to out do each other. They even went as far as painting the same subject and producing works with much the same titles (above). This profound rivalry was one rooted in admiration. As it grew, so did a mutual respect and powerful friendship. However, when Picasso introduced his mistress, Francoise Gilot, to the elderly Matisse, the sensual artist charmed her so much that Picasso became sexually jealous. He clearly felt threatened by Matisse as a man as well as an artist. Indeed, at times their artistic relationship became heated as when Picasso compared Matisse’s designs for a Venice chapel to a “bathroom.” Yet overall, this rivalry made for an intense friendship. The constant competition ultimately led each painter to push himself to new heights they may not have reached alone.

A rivalry contrived more to sell newspapers than art.
During the Post-WW II period, two quarrelsome art critics, Clement Greenberg, and Harold Rosenberg, wielded an enormous influence on the New York art world. Together, they engineered a rivalry between the two most colorful rising-star artists of the time, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Greenberg championed Pollock, as the perfect embodiment of his modernist, abstract ideals. Rosenberg, a more existential thinker, vehemently supported de Kooning’s paintings, as coming alive with thick impasto brushstrokes. Despite the contrived nature of this so-called "rivalry" the heated discourse between the rival critics gave rise to new much-needed ways of discussing and interpreting Modern Art. (Rosenberg coined the phrase “action painting.") In a turn of events that entirely shook the close-knit New York art scene, the de Kooning-Pollock rivalry eventually took on an even more visceral and personal tone as de Kooning began an affair with Ruth Kligman, Pollock’s mistress, soon after the artist's death in a tragic car wreck in 1956.

A rivalry between mentor and protégé.
Like that of Borromini and Bernini, Lucien Freud’s relationship with Francis Bacon began early in his artistic career. Bacon was an older, more established mentor, who taught Freud a lot about life and art. Although Freud had always painted portraits, initially they were painted in a fairly conventional manner with soft edges and wide eyes. Freud’s early paintings are strikingly different from the fleshy, thick impasto portraits that defined his later work. Bacon’s loose, bold, and coarse painting style, along with his preoccupation with the space surrounding his subjects, inspired the young Freud. The younger artist later claimed that Bacon's way of painting freely, helped him feel more daring. Bacon’s influence led the emerging painter, who was also a skilled draftsman, to give up drawing entirely for several years. This led to a change in style that alienated many of Freud's admirers. The two artists painted each other with enormous intensity, their highly involved portraits of one another suggesting the two shared a deep and intimate friendship. In the early 1970s, however, for unknown reasons, Bacon and Freud's relationship almost completely disintegrated. They stopped talking, marking the beginning of an unparalleled feud. Even a decade after Bacon’s death in 1992, Freud refuse to discuss his former friend. Yet, there are indications that the bond between the two survived this period. After Bacon died, a small portrait of Freud by Bacon was stolen in Germany. Freud set about making a "wanted" poster for the lost work, much like an act of mourning.

Lucien Freud, 1952, Francis Bacon
(stolen, whereabouts unknown).