Monday, October 12, 2009

Lost in the fog of Contemporary Land

As one can tell from my blog of September 26th on John McCraken’s “Sound”, I am not a fan of contemporary art. I intellectually get the principles behind the modernist and post-modernist movements thanks to the amazing education that I am getting, but I still have a tough time reconciling blobs of paint or a big blue rectangle leaning against the wall as art that belongs in the same building as the great renaissance masters.

Upon hearing that we would have class at the Walker Art Center and would be treated to a private tour, I pretty much wanted to claw myself in the face with a garden rake. A two hour trip to an unlicensed dentist with a New Jersey accent could not be more excruciating than being forced to ponder an entire museum full of the “art” I loathe.

Here is the record of my agony.

The first piece I’d like to talk about is from French artist Yves Klein. “Suaire de Mondo Cane” or “Mondo Cane Shroud” was painted in 1961. Supposedly a performance piece whose meaning (if it ever had one) is lost in time, it was painted by a bunch of naked women rolling around in a tube of Yves Klein blue paint, then crawling around on the canvas in time to some French hippy music. Being that Yves did not actually touch the canvas during the creation leaves me a little short of being able to call him the artist, but I suppose one could say that since he invented the color, chose the music, recruited (and probably drugged) the women, and came up with a composition that had no point other than his own arrogance- it can be called a pure representation of form. I call it a desperate attempt to see some naked women by a guy who probably did not have an outstanding record in that department.

“Kiki” by Chuck Close is another piece that I’d like to talk about. Done in 1993, this piece is painted in small cells of vibrant and diverse color grouped to form a collage of Kiki. Combining realism and abstraction, the content that I get from this piece is far more important that the brilliance of the painting itself. It’s chameleon-like ability to break apart and reform to shift hues and shimmer depending upon the angle you view it from really is a great way to parallel the abstract aspects of our lives. There are so many different personalities and moods that hide within each and every one of us that after viewing this piece I pictured they movie scenes of hurried New Yorker’s rushing down the side walk with their features melding and shifting, breaking apart, and coming beautifully together as their moods changed from minute to minute, step to step.

Halfway through the tour, we came upon a piece that completely reinforces my belief in that contemporary could possibly be the biggest con game to ever have been played on the world stage. Isamu Noguchi did a sculpture and called it “Mortality”. It looks to me like an oversize bronze mop head in a museum. One can’t even make the argument of form that one could make in the big blue rectangle, or one of those canvases painted bright red. What is the content- it’s a mop head. Our tour guide was so kind as to point out that it was not a mop head, but it was supposed Japanese calligraphy for the word mortality, and that the original was made of balsa to give it movement and add to the impression of life. I tried to picture that and still got a mop head- albeit a wooden one that blows in the wind- but still a mop head. If you don’t know Japanese, and last time I checked I don’t how would you get anything out of it. It would be like me making up a language, then building a made up word out of toothpicks, and then putting it on display for some people in Germany- ridiculous.

There was an untitled piece by Kazuo Shiraga that really captured my eye. Done with paint in the Gutai style, this piece carries both form and content. Shiraga suspended himself above untreated canvas and swung himself back and forth, pushing and sliding around waxy globs with his feet in a creative frenzy. The color choices, the choice of direction and force in his suspended movements, and the form of the piece has layers of depth and meaning. After learning the back story from our guide and realizing that the piece came about in post-WWII Japan, I could really get the content implied in the angry red and black loops and swirls. Reminiscent of the Hiroshima atomic explosion you can get the rage and despair that Shiraga transfers to his piece. An apt statement on the horrors of war, this artwork is a sign of where mankind is headed with nuclear weapons and out of control wars.

My favorite piece at the Walker is Hans Hofmann’s “Image of Cape Cod: The Pond Country, Wellfleet.” Done in 1961 it is an abstract composition of different geometric forms. As we all know by now- I don’t get abstract- or forms really. This one I got! Our guide asked what we saw when we looked at the piece. I immediately said “Chicken”, and most of my classmates looked at me like I had sprouted a third head. I backed myself up by pointing out the clear orange baby chick in the upper center of the piece along with the red barn, green grass, and blue pond. Our guide then told us the name of the painting and the theme behind it and I was right. You can usually make whatever you want out of abstract paintings, but this one was clear to me. This piece tells me that there might be something to this contemporary crap after all. Hans was very clever to break a rural scene down to what he felt were the purest elements and yet to still translate that it was a rural scene. Kind of makes me want to get out the finger paints and revisit some of the kindergarten abstraction I did.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Five Capital Executions in China

Firing Squad
Drawing and Quartering

"The Five Capital Executions in China" by Chinese 2D artist Zhi Lin is a sublime work of art created to make us question the things we let the world get away with. Zhi Lin grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution. He remembers people only being able to wear the colors green and blue with no designs or patterns, people being tortured by Mao's Red Guard, and his father being dragged away to serve time in prison for rumors of having possessed books. Looking at these pieces, we are made to feel dirty and guilty. You can feel the forced tension that Zhi Lin must have felt every day of his childhood. Zhi has used the talents he honed at the China National academy of Fine Arts and the Slade School of Fine Art at the University of London where he received his Bachelor's degree and Master's degree in Fine Arts respectively. This artwork was not only brilliantly done, but was painstakingly done in the process as well. Each painting started as a carefully arranged thumbnail, progressing to a full size drawing, which was then painted. The immense 12 x 7 ft size of these paintings give you an awesome God-like view of the scenes. You are both above the crowd and part of it. There are people that look back out at you in each picture, begging you to understand, to see. The paintings are done in classic Chinese scroll format with watercolor on canvas and ribbon, except for Draw and Quartering which is charcoal. There is an incredible amount of light and color involved, making you want to enjoy the feeling of revelry, but your eye is constantly chastised and brought back to the torture involved in each capitol punishment. These executions are made to be spectacles, made to involve and entertain the crowd, and through Zhi Lin's genius, you are made to be part of that crowd. The artist believes that there is a role in society for art, and that art can be used to prevent the kind of things that his work is shedding light on. He is looking at the role of humanity and the abuse of power by those in authority. Once you realize that, you are forever changed, you are never clean, you can't ignore the wrong and monstrous injustice you see in the artwork, just as you find will now find it tough to ignore the wrong in injustice you see every day. Zhi Lin's painting will change your life.

Images courtesy of HowardHouse.Net/Artists

Works Cited:
Sheila Farr review. Seattle Times Entertainment Section. March 30, 2007
Zhi Lin- Interview with Per Contra Archives. July, 2006
Zhi Lin- Wikipedia Free Encyclopedia. August 20th, 2009