Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Oriental Institute of Chicago

Peggy Sanders invited us to the grand opening of the Nubian Gallery -- and I could hardly resist the opportunity to travel back 4,000 years with my little camera and pick all my favorites in the museum.

Not much for me from Nubia -- but isn't this pot rather elegant ?.

Here's the star of the collection -- custom made for Sargon II c. 720 BC in his short-lived capitol of Khorsabad. There are several other monumental relief panels from that palace -- but it appears to me that the master sculptor himself worked on this one -- designing all the others, but leaving assistants to complete them. The drama -- the presence -- the magic -- this is what sculpture is all about.

At the other end of the size scale -- come these one-inch
seals from Akkadia, c. 2200 BC. The carvers must have been fanatics to work those small, hard cylinders -- while designing the impression that they would leave when rolled over wet clay -- and their designs are ecstatic. This kind of work was done throughout the ancient middle east -- but everyone (who knows) knows that the Akkadians were the best.

I can't figure these things out -- but these don't seem to be church-going girls -- expecially the one with the very pert bottom. And what fell on that other girl's head ? Who knows. (they're both from Palestine - c 1200 BC - Good-for-nothing Canaanites, no doubt. )

But I think I know what this one is about.
(she comes from Luxor- the Roman period, 1st century AD)

This is my favorite Persian sculpture in the museum -- back when Iranians were fun loving pagans. This piece feels a bit like a banquet table decoration, doesn't it ?

This goddess is very recent, as Egypt goes --
Ptolomaic period, 200 BC -- she's lost her seriousness, but not her sensuality.

I forgot to record the origins of this one -- but I like sculpture of musicians --so here it is.

I'm really attracted to this very ancient and very cute couple. They seem so eager to please. Wouldn't you like to have had them as parents ? They're Old Dynasty -- about 2400 BC from the tomb of Nenkefetka

There were two Persian bowls from Istakhar -- so I'm guessing they're from 4th c. BC.-- and they are ecstatically beautiful -- as their design spins off into another world. This is the civilization that Alexander destroyed.

This is a Cypriot 'bilbil' jug found in Palestine from about 1300 BC.
Apparently it resembles the poppy flower, and residue in similar vessels tests positive for heroin derivatives. If only contemporary ceramics could be so sensual AND stately.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Michael Van Zeyl and Larry Paulsen at P&C

This is a very imposing portrait - no clever, quirky, self conscious artsy stuff here -- just the simple power of integrity -- as if Titian had gotten into a Midwestern head. But there is some kind of anxiety here too, isn't there ? Shoulders bent forward -- hands crossed, like Adam's, to cover his crotch. I think we've entered a Christian world.

And speaking of a Christian world - here we've got a crucifix -- some fish -- and other stuff that seems to compel a symbolic interpretation. That's my latest definition of art, by the way: that which continues to compel fervent, though unlikely, interpretations. And another of my unlikely guesses is that Michael thought of fish after seeing a William Merritt Chase still life in the new American wing at the AIC.

On a completely different note -- we have the pen drawings of Larry Paulsen --some of them made in my own Monday night drawing workshop. I think there's a Zen of pen drawing that similar to oriental brush painting -- i.e. it's all about the right thought at the right moment -- no blurry fudging -- no second chances -- zap, you got it -- or zap, you missed -- and these are ones that Larry got -- with some breath taking lines.

Here's another hit -- look at that figure setting back into space with dignity and control -- ready to fit into a larger composition -- possibly the "Drunkeness of Noah" ??? This is what Tiepolo does in his lively sketches.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Girodet - on various visits

First week: I must have seen this guy back when I toured the Louve all those years ago - but when time is limited -- and Rubens. Poussin, and Delacroix beckon -- I didn't give him a moment's notice. Now though -- with a show all his own -- he's an oasis of splendor in the most threadbare of exhibition schedules the A.I.C. has ever had.

There's a self-portrait right at the beginning of the show that I might pick as his first and last great painting. He was 28 -- it was 1791 -- he was David's crack assistant breaking into his own career -- European history was being made on a day-to-day basis at the national assembly - and he portrays a young man who is sharp, keen, and hungry (much -- much more exciting than the later self-portrait in the Hermitage which is all over Google).

Of course he went on to make many great paintings -- he was a master of space, form, and color -- but he was not a prophet. He mirrored the taste of the rising bourgeoise -- seeking the shallow comfort of gorgeous but petty sensuality that at least never sunk to the sentimentality of Bouguereau and the later academy -- and that deserves to be called decorative -- but what decorations ! I can't imagine living a room surrounded by his life-size figures -- it would be so electric, I would never be relaxed.

The piece shown above was at the show -- and, though thorougly delightful (far more so in person) -- shows the pettiness of his concerns. The lady depicted as Danae was a customer who had rejected his portrait of her -- so he painted her as a goldigger -- her husband as the turkey -- and somewhere in all the detail, a portrait of her lover. The lady was scandalized by society and the painter had his revenge -- but what a cheap use of his great talents.

This is a detail of a very large (and early) painting (which follows) -- showing among all those leaves, I hope, his powerful sense of space -- as well as a hommage to the great master of large-scale dramatic painting: Tintoretto.

There were many more great paintings which I couldn't find on the internet -- but they really have to be seen full-size to get the effect.
Given his abilities - and his frivolous nature -- my greated regret is that he didn't make explicit pornography. I think he could have rivaled the Japanese.

................Second Visit.............
Here's the self-portrait mentioned above -- something about how the facial features line up with how the space is proportioned -- something about the red lips -- and there you have it -- the integrity, the courage, the passion, the drama of a young man.

The first paintings I noticed this time around were the classical historical tableaux -- spinning off from David's "Death of Socrates" or "Oath of the Horatii" -- but almost immediately, it's apparent that the timeless, heroic, serious Classical detachment is gone -- and instead, we're getting some kind of elaborate cartoon -- with grimacing faces that forget they're actors on a Classical stage. (detail of "Joseph and his Brothers" shown above -- and doesn't look like a scene from the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical ?)

Girodet may be the greatest French painter between David and Gericault/Delacroix -- but in comparison with them -- well --- let's just say he feels like a lightweight.

The next painting I noticed this time was the Ossian fantasy he painted for Napoleon (detail shown above) - and with the pretense of classicism gone -- the silliness is actually more enjoyable -- demonic British ghosts battling heroic French ghosts -- surrounded by beautiful ghostly young women, glowing with a supernatural light. It's like the best cover art that trashy pulp fiction has ever had. Napoleon, apparently, didn't like it -- but I think he lacked a sense of humor.

The last paintings that I saw on this visit were the portraits that he did of an older physician, Dr. Trioson, who cared for Girodet when he was a young orphan, and formally adopted him as an adult. I don't know the story behind their relationship -- but the physician is presented as a very kind, caring, rational, and level-headed man -- perhaps a foil to the artist's own whimsical, poetic nature. Actually -- on this visit -- this portrait was the painting that moved me the most. Girodet knows nothing about half-measures --and the character of that father figure jumps out of the frame.

The following is a link to an essay based on the 1911 entry in the Encyclopedia Brittanica:
click here
You'll notice that the painter is taken to task for trying to express Romantic sentiments within a Classical style -- but I don't know that I want to follow this progression-of-styles approach that is the foundation of academic art history. As I read the character of Girodet the orphan -- I think cherished a fantasy life that semed much more attractive than the cruel world -- and that's where he took his painting. If he were directing films today -- I'd see him as a Steven Spielberg -- and if making movies were an option back in 1800, I think he would have preferred that to painting.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Preston Jackson at the Chicago Cultural Center - Two views

Last week I wrote:

Julienne's Garden: Preston Jackson's sculpture reminds me of some exotic weapons of South east Asia: a simple, direct form -- like a knife blade -- sets the foundation -- and on top of it
extravagent ornamentation is laid. (I've seen such things at the Field Museum -- and will photograph them for this blog eventually).

The things really look evil -- as if the tip of the blade was the least of your worries --- and as if they exist in world that's so twisted and convoluted -- a knife might find its way into your heart with no apparent cause or agency.

Preston's bronze sculptures look just as evil -- bloated forms covered with excruciating detail -- presenting ante-bellum nightmares of slavery/hatred/perversity/murder/degradation -- continuing a 20th Century Chicago taste for the macabre begun, most famously, by Ivan Albright -- and connecting to what may be a narrative movement in contemporary African-American art exemplified by the American-history-as-degradation silhouettes cut by Kara Walker.

These things have the smell of death -- and seem to belong in a special, dark temple dedicated to hatred, self-loathing, and isolation.

But taken out of that temple and separated from their lurid narratives -- some individual pieces might lead new lives as enjoyable visual adventures in figure sculpture - at least that's how I feel about the dynamic tableau of two figures plowing a field.


But this week I visited the show again --- ignored the narratives that were posted beside each statue -- and realized that I may have taken these figures too seriously -- i.e., they don't belong in a temple of death -- they're more like whimsical charactatures -- closer to the world of televison sit-coms or in-your-face hip-hop/rock-n-roll. Unlike the cartoonish figures that are sold in shopping malls -- they are anti-nostalgic (who could be nostalgic for slavery ?) and very energetic, like Remington's ridin' cowboys. They're evil like Gangsta rappers are evil -- i.e it's just the exaggerated attitude of prolonged adolesence.

All together in one room -- it's a bit overwhelming --- but alone on a shelf -- next to something more staid and classical -- I think that's where they belong -- and they are world's apart (and above) the contemporary world of gargoyle/monster dolls.

Clayton Beck nudes

I guess the most embarassing thing for me about the Palette and Chisel, my art club, is that my taste is almost identical to that of its membership. Time and time again, over the past 15 years, whenever the members vote the winners of a competition, the ones I pick are the ones that win -- and this year -- even more than usual -- since I picked all three winners in exactly the order that they received their votes. (see my earlier post showing the winning paintins Mary Qian, Romel De La Torre, and Kathleen Newman.) We members didn't care for Clayton Becks's portraits -- but today, in the faculty show, he redeemed himself with the two jewel-like miniatures shown above. (neither one is much more than 12" long)

They're awesome -- because these are not just slap-dash studies -- they're as small and precise as enamels -- yet they have that wonderful freshness of being studied from life. I can't remember seeing anything like it in art museums.

Pious medieval merchants would carry around miniature icons of the saints so they could perform their devotions in barbaric lands far from home --- exactly as I would like to carry around these miniature nudes to remind me of Classical painting if I ever had to visit someplace like -- say -- Texas.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Che Lives !

Casto Solano has sent me pictures of another statue of his - shot straight from the Spanish baroque -- updated to represent a modern saint: -- strong -- tender -- brave -- boyish....

......and with a cute little ass

I'm being irreverent, but this statue does have a real flair.
A fold of drapery is not just a fold of drapery, it participates in the compression and release of energy, i.e. Solano makes sculpture, not lifesize dolls.

He makes small sculptures, too ... and what better place to keep them than in the pockets and on the sleeves of the larger ones. O.K. -- maybe 'Che' was already cute enough -- but the tiny statues actually are very good tiny statues.