Category Archives: Art

Prophecies in art, or Putin 120 years before Putin

I am side-stepping from the perfume & art topic to share a discovery I made today at Ilya Repin’s exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

Ilya Repin began this painting in 1880 and it took him 11 years to arrive at the finished version. It’s title is “Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire”. 

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It is a large canvas worth a thousands words about the cleverness of its composition, but I will do it later.

Sultan Mehmed wrote a diplomatic letter to the cossacks demanding their submission (in fact he wanted them to stop harassing his borders). The cossacks came back with the most vulgar and mocking reply imaginable. You can read both letters here., learning a lot about fancy swearing along the way.

Each and every Russian is exposed to this painting when he|she is young. Each and every Russian believes that’s the right way to answer any demands of any foreign power. This painting defines the way Russian diplomacy functions even without Russian diplomats being consciously aware what is the source of their immutable desire to behave in ways that are meant to disparage and humiliate their counterparts regardless of the real need to do it. That’s how influential programming at childhood could be, by the way.

Now, let’s zoom in to see the character hidden behind the laughing figurehead boss (or rather figurebelly boss).

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Yes, look at the guy in the grey & yellow hat.

Yes, Mr Putin was there.

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Except that he did shave off the lavish mustachio.

How’s that for a prophecy?

20th Century Art in Scents – 1917

If you missed it: Chapter 1 – launch of the perfume L’Origan de Coty and Art Nouveau

By 1905, when L’Origan de Coty stroke a scented crescendo of the Art Nouveau age, this art movement had already been at its deathbed for a few years. Airplanes, fast steam engines, colossal ships, electric vacuum cleaners, radio transmissions, automobiles: they all promised a faster and more technologically exciting future. Art Nouveau had ceased being nouveau. New art movements were mushrooming faster than an art history student can learn about them today. Of course, at that time, nobody but a select few could appreciate analytical cubism or first attempts at geometrical abstraction, but those select few were the ones who were making artists into big names. To surprise and charm that elite group, a talented artist had to be disruptive, revolutionary, and – preferably – incomprehensible to the bourgeois masses.

There were also artists then who wanted to make new, but understandable art, something that would incorporate “times a-changing” dynamism and also… be useful. Like, think of furniture. Or architecture. Or wallpaper!

Most people don’t know the artists’ names today. Was it a conscious sacrifice to forsake fame for steady income there and then? I don’t have an answer.  Their names may not be known as well as those of Picasso, Matisse, or Kandinsky, but we all know their work. We know Palais de Tokyo or Empire State bulding, even if the names of their architects need to be googled up. We see Art Deco typefaces in logos, ads, texts, but we don’t know who invented them:

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We may sit in a chair like this at any West End theatre (or think of a theatre district in your city) unaware of who was its designer.

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From the early 1900s till 1912 Art Nouveau and Art Deco (it didn’t have a name then) co-existed peacefully, but the Autumn Salon of 1912 saw a clash of modern and uber-modern. The Salon housed Cubists, Futurists, and Dadaists (whose art caused an explosive political debate on the freedom of expression) but was decorated by the department store Printemps in what in ten years would become known as Art Deco.

Art Nouveau was effectively wiped out from the agenda of the future, yet no new scents had been offered!

It is easy to see the contrast between Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Anyone could spot the difference between Alfons Mucha (very well known) and George Barbier (known to Art Deco fans only) or the shift to simplicity from an Art Nouveau ceiling dome to that of Art Deco!

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Cars can be an even better illustation of both technological and stylistic changes. Cars were highly visible, very desirable, and prohibitevely expensive. Perhaps, it was the automotive industry that delivered that final push to perfumers that made them think of new scents.

This is a Pic-Pic (Swiss-made) of 1911. It is exactly the “horseless carriage” type that we may find difficult to call a “car”. It is the epitome of Art Nouveau style.

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Same year as PicPic, Delaunay Belleville, a French marque, was producing their luxury (Russian Tzar favourite) model that was already taking the shape of a car:

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Yet, these babies could only be seen when the tzar or French Prime Minister would go out, and the more massively produced models were still angular and awkward, like Ford T of 1912 (US), the most affordable car then (at roughly $25K in today’s money). Stylistically, it is ahead of PicPic in the proper car category, but it does not herald a new design era (and while PicPic of 1911 could go 70 kmh, Ford maxed out only 60)

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And then suddenly, just as the WWI broke out and millions of people marched to their death, the world was stunned by totally new designs that owe everything to Art Deco artists working on streamlined geometrical shapes and sleek dynamic lines. Of course these designs had been in the works long before the war, but the timing of their launch still bevilders me.

This is Richet-Schneider of 1915 (France).

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And this is a new, war-like model from the luxury maker Delaunay-Belleville that they launched in 1914 and were producing until 1917.

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Can you imagine that ladies in the back of PicPic (1911) and Delaunay-Belleville (1917) would wear the same perfume? So, finally, at the end of the WWI, a new scent arrived.

Chypre de Coty – 1917

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It was based on 4 natural ingredients: patchouli, bergamot, labdanum, and oak moss, and has become a defining scent for modern perfumery.

Together, they produced dry and mossy scent with – as a connoisseur would say – amberly warmth.

The scent was still natural, but much more “serious” than the oriental flowers of L’Origan. It was a perfect transition from Mucha to Barbier.

You may notice that Chypre bottle is very similar to L’Origan’s one. Yes, Coty excelled in scents but their marketing sucked. This Art Deco revolution in aromas fell flat in sales.

Two years later (1919) Guerlain rolled out Mitsouko, with a fruity note on top of the Chypre base, and it became such a success that they would keep making it until today.

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Mitsouko was packaged in strict accordance with Art Deco guidelines and positioned as women’s fragrance, which didn’t stop Charlie Chaplin from becoming a life-long fan.

And yet, by the time Mitsouko hit the market, new trends had already been shaping and shaking the very foundations of European societies.

The Great War was over, but its echo was still heard very clearly.

Women had to fit into men’s roles – and even trousers – during the war, and they were not coming back to the inconvenient pre-war designs. Scarcity of textiles shortened hemlines and streamlined cuts. Ironically, cloth deficit did a lot of progressive re-educational job that Art Deco fashion designers would have to do otherwise. Men were getting bolder and experimenting as well, especially with adding colour to their everyday wardrobe. A Russian magazine of 1917 summarised the conservative fear of the changing morals and fashion in this caricature, capped “in not so distant future”, in which a man and woman switch roles. I am sure it was not meant to be prophetic.

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When Chypre de Coty was making its first steps, Marcel Duchamp scandalised the art market by his attempt to put a urinal in an exhibition. By 1919, when Mitsouko came out in all its glory, cubism had become mainstream (many believed it was already a thing of the past). Leading-edge art was half way out of representational or logical. It was time to start looking for a new scent; a scent that would go beyond a cheerful commemoration to the death of Art Nouveau and the rise of Art Deco; a scent for the fast approaching Roaring Twenties.

Two years after Mitsouko, this scent, one of the few brands in the history of perfumery that weren’t about the past but aimed at and defined the future, came to market.

I am sure you’ve already guessed right.

The next chapter is about Chanel No.5 of 1921.

20th Century Art in Scents – 1905

On average, art reflects society but sometimes an artist can jump ahead of their time (like Turner, Picasso or early Tracy Emin). Perfume doesn’t mirror life, it sums up epochs (it takes more time to develop a scent than to make a painting), but a genius Nose can also catch a whiff of the future. This post is the first in the series that juxtaposes art and scents. Need your feedback — I don’t know if this idea would work out.

1905. L’Origan de Coty

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In L’Origan, Coty pioneered synthetic ingredients in a mix with natural materials (carnation, orange flower, violet), creating an oriental floral scent.

The perfume summarised Belle Epoque, its opulence, prosperity, its asymmetric designs based on natural forms and the exuberant show-off of the bourgeois class, just as the epoch was drawing to a terrible finale.

Change, or rather desire for change, was in the air, and could be felt in all walks of life.

In 1903, Isedora Duncan developed free dance, revolutionising the way people moved and inadvertently pushing fashion towards accommodating the new movements (but it will take a while for the new shapes to pick up). Same year, Salon d’Automne opens in Paris with future cubists, fauvists, dadaists, and expressionists lining up the walls with their first attempts to break away from both classicism and the decorative traditions of Art Nouveau.

And as the highly decorative Art Nouveau style was about to yield way to the industrial and futuristic Art Deco, L’Origan hit Parisian stores.

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If I were to choose an artist to represent L’Origan, it would be Mucha, because if Art Nouveau were a brand, he would be its marketing & creative director. Mucha’s art never ventured into anything new or mildly novel, just as L’Origan failed to see the explosion of crazy styles that would smash the art world to pieces in the next ten years.

Matisse’s wife, dressed to the latest Belle Epoque fashion standard, looks back at her husband, wondering, perhaps, why his new painting style (soon to be branded wild and beastly) is not accompanied by a new fragrance for her. Well, there wouldn’t be no new scents (really new, not just variations of the existing ones) for the next 12 years, when the same perfumer, Coty, delivered Chypre. So….

1917 Chypre de Coty is coming next!

P.S. Perfume experts say the industry now has circled back to 1900’s “floriental” scents. Are we nearing the end of our own, past WWII, Belle Epoque?

 

Two Masterpieces from Must-see Show in Moscow

The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow has put together a show of art collections of Schukin brothers, kings of the Russian textile industry at the beginning of the last century. Thanks to one of them Russia boasts a great collection of (post)impressionists, fauvists, and cubists. It was split between Moscow and The Hermitage in St.Petersburg in 1948 and is now reunited and exhibited to mimic the way Sergey Schukin hung his paintings.

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While critics applaud this decision, I can’t see real value here. Yes, most Russian avant-guarde artists got introduced to Western art when visiting Schukin’s home, and it might be interesting to see their “starting point” through “their eyes”, but something tells me it was not the hanging that inspired them, but the paintings themselves, and most likely, not as a group, but individually. Gauguin was striving to recreate a paradise lost, but I don’t think he would view his objective accomplished only after a buyer builds a wall out of his work.

All this travesty of Gauguin tapestry ended up with one of Van Gogh’s most amazing portraits, that of Dr.Felix Rey, being hung near the ceiling, where it can’t be seen properly. The portrait was rejected originally (being used to mend a chicken coop), and now it is pigeonholed as a painting which quality is somewhat below Gauguin’s works by hanging it to fill an empty spot above them.

This portrait is worth its own wall. Van Gogh painted it as a form of gratitude, immediately upon his release from Saint-Paul asylum. He portrayed the closest and most caring person in his life at the time. It is an icon of compassion and hope.

Look at the blue whites of his eyes! Look at the Monalisian smile created by his mustache! Look at the sensual lips an Instagram diva would kill for today! This young intern would become a world famous tuberculosis doctor…

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I wrote a bit about the secret to Van Gogh’s portraiture, and I can write a lot more about Van Gogh’s portraits, but let’s get back to the show, and, specifically Matisse.

We all know, thanks to Picasso, that great artists don’t copy, they steal. What is left unsaid, I believe, is that the theft must me meaningful: the stolen stuff needs to be processed and transformed by the artist into something new (even if Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst believe that out-of-court settlement would alone suffice, it would not). Matisse and Picasso were both thieves. They stole from Gauguin, from Cezanne, and from each other. Today, for the way they integrated African art into their own, they’d be facing cultural appropriation backlash on twitter. That thievery is well documented and appreciated. Yet, there was an artist in Italy from whom Matisse stole in broad daylight, and no one has noticed.

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Antonio del Pollaiuolo, 15th c., the Battle of Ten Nude Men. The etching reflects the idea that men can’t but fight each other. Matisse’s Dance is about love and harmony that men can achieve if they stop fighting and include women into their circle. One can see some violent vibes in Matisse’s Satyr, of course, but it was painted a year before the Dance, so let’s not exclude the possibility that the man in this painting leans down to wake up and invite the sleeping nymph to a dance.

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Matisse steals figures, alters them, and mirrors them, but his message is new and polar to that of Pollaiuolo.

Fortunately, the Dance is given its own – huge – space at the exhibition, but art appreciation is invariably spoiled by people queuing to have their photo taken in front of it:

IMG_20190618_204748 Matisse was a visionary, but he failed to foresee Facebook or Instagram. Were this painting a photograph or even a more realistic painting, it would be banned on both platforms, by the way.

What Leftist Art Critics Hate about Art

Summer Exhibition at the RA in London has always been looked at with contempt by progressive high brow art critics. A mix of realist academicians, amateurs, and no-names concocted with the obvious goal of making a sale – what an insult to the politically erect minds of the politically correct!

Last year, the show was curated by Grayson Perry and got 5 starts all over (you can’t say a bad word about Grayson Perry, a darling of the left and right). But this year, the Guardian critic Jonathan Jones, rolled his review back to a single star with the title “…A moronic monument to British mediocrity”. 

This is not true. 

There is plenty of great works by artists both known and new, a lot of mediocre works by very talented artists, and some cheap graphics series from big names because big names love fat wads of cash in small notes they get for large editions. Yet, the experience of visiting the show is not like you have to sift a ton of sand to get a speck of gold. It is more like taking large nuggets out of the sieve without really shaking it.

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This is what selling an edition of 100 looks like. And who can blame the artist or the buyer?

Yes, a large group exhibition like this one mirrors the society more often than not. It shows that people who are well educated, earn above-average money and pay above-average taxes want something on their walls that cheers them up, gives them energy and optimism to keep them going. Is it bad taste to go for a landscape instead of a feminist parody of Lichtenstein with the girl\artist wondering about her right to decide what do to with her body? Keep in mind the landscape was done well and sincerely, while the Lichtenstein homage was made with the too-obvious reason of pressing all the right buttons of the leftist brain.

The dilemma of a progressive art critic when covering shows like RA’s Summer is, in fact, about money. If you praise a realistic landscape (priced at £2K for a customer with income around £200K) you can’t possibly justify the sale of a minimalist white square at the neighboring Pace Gallery (hovering above £500K and targeted at an uber rich collector, who ultimately pays for the champagne at exclusive previews). As a progressive, you can applaud realism only when it is politically provocative because it is impossible to address a political issue while staying abstract. The Times can give the show 4 stars out of 5, but not the Guardian.

So, if you are in London, Summer Exhibition at the RA is half a day well spent. Steer clear of the politically motivated stuff (It is the only thing that is mediocre about the show) and approach ladders with caution. This year the show is fixated on the images of ladders and stairs. Perhaps, it is a temporary effect of the unending climb/descent somehow associated with Brexit.

P.S. The top image is a large-scale collage of “street art” and council estate photos. Let’s say, this image speaks volumes to the heart of a Muscovite (me) who’d lived ten years in very similar conditions. 

Sean Scully, Extraterrestrial

This summer, in the Regent’s park in London, the annual Frieze sculpture show has a piece by Sean Scully. It is titled “Shadow Stack, 2018” and made of Corten steel.

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Shadow Stack, 2018 by Sean Scully

The short curatorial note describes it as follows: “Shadow Stack continues Scully’s preoccupation with the horizon. A three-dimensional extension of his Landline paintings, the oxidation of the steel echoes their stripe motif, giving the surfaces a textual painterly quality”.

I believe it was written by someone from Blain|Southern gallery that represents Scully.

I don’t think I could never be employed by a respected gallery of the Blain|Southern caliber. First, I tend to say “rust resembling paint” when I see rust resembling paint. Second, I don’t believe that a “preoccupation” with something by any one person is of interest to anybody.

The end result of any artist’s phobias, preoccupations, and insecurities can be interesting if it goes beyond addressing people with the same “diagnoses”. Otherwise, it is simply a clinical illustration of a patient’s “condition”.

Take Yayoi Kusama who fears penises and vents out this fear in her art. Her fear of male genitalia is her idiosyncratic psychological problem that is of interest to her therapist, but her chair made of the objects of her terror has a much broader appeal, because it reminds people of rape, abuse and sexual violence – all the more relevant today in the context of the #MeToo movement.

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When creative motivation is reduced by a critic to “preoccupation” I get an acute pang of “myötähäpeä” (personal embarrassment one feels on account of and for another who is making a fool of him or herself). I don’t think Scully is preoccupied solely with the horizon. His thinking is broader.

There is one point though on which I agree with the critic from Blain|Southern. I agree that Scully’s sculpture is a three-dimensional extension. The question is, an extension of what?

If you read my previous text about Scully’s paintings, you will see the point I make is that Scully is painting a world of a different set of dimensions. His paintings are flat projections of a different, multi-dimensional universe onto ours.

His sculpture does the same, except that this time it is a 3D protrusion of Scully’s multi-dimensional universe into our world.

Here is my logic.

This piece is not made organically in this world, that is, not created by nature. It can be seen as either an edifice that was man-made and placed on the grass above ground OR it can be perceived as something that came up from below hence originating in a different, supernatural, world.

While the first notion is, in fact, the ‘reality’, it doesn’t offer any significant meaning to the viewer, while the second supposition transforms the viewer into an observer of something phenomenal and unique: a universe where natural shapes and forms are very foreign to our daily references yet remain aesthetically pleasant at the same time.

The absence of a pedestal, with the bottom slab half-submerged/half-emerged from the ground (depending on how you wish to read it) offers another argument in favour of theory #2.

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The slabs tick away a vertical rhythm that makes the mind believe there is an upward push. There is also a sense of ‘unevenness’, of ‘disorder’ that enhances the artist’s search for rhythm. As the slabs shift against each other, they manifest the internal energy and a bit of chaos inside the structure. We welcome chaos because without it there is no life, and we celebrate order because it is essential to life preservation. This sculpture has them both.

I can’t think of a better place for this sculpture than a park. This otherworldly projection is foreign but somehow quite fitting to the earthly landscape.

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The magic Scully creates is in the absence of weight. When we look at a tree, we don’t think of the pressure that the trunk is experiencing at its lower part. No compassion outpours towards the wood cells at eye level that are locked up in the heavy trunk. Yet, we feel the weight and pressure in, say, a building such as the one in the following image:

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If we reflect on it, we can imagine the subliminal effect this has on the ground floor employees working there and we can even feel sorry for them.

We feel the changing weight in the sculpture of Chung Hung in the photograph below:  it is much heavier at the bottom than at the top:

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Chung Hung metal sculpture made with Corten, at Vanier Park. Source

Even a simple concrete tower radiates weight that lands on earth from above:

But weight is not the first association that comes to mind when we look at Scully’s tower:

As the mind tucks away the weight aspect, we pay more attention to the play of shadows, the shifts of slabs, the growth of this otherworldly edifice and, ironically, we feel a sense of lightness – a contradiction I believe the artist wanted us to experience .

In essence, Scully opens up a hole in the fabric of our reality, and something interesting comes out, which he leaves up to each viewer to imagine, for his or her self.

What do you experience when you look it it?

Sean Scully: the artist of a higher dimension

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If you were in an exhibition of Sean Scully’s work and walked up to a random viewer and asked him or her to describe what hey see when they look at one of his paintings, most often the answer would be “patterns of color and geometric shapes”.

Although a cursory glance might lend some truth to that observation, the same answer could be said of quite a lot of wallpaper – and it doesn’t help to understand why some people are enchanted and captivated by his work.

Similarly, it is often difficult to venture beyond the formal description of an abstract work of art intellectually or emotionally, in a same way that’s impossible to appreciate the beauty of E=mc² unless you’ve covered quite a lot of basic physics –or the brilliance of a famous chess move unless you are familiar with the rules of the game.

What we will do now, is prepare our minds for Sean Scully and, together, we will be able to decipher the magic and power of this artist.


Imagine any spring (like the old fashioned ones for beds). In order for it to release its energy it has to be compressed first. Similarly, to think big, to let one’s imagination explode, it is necessary for the ‘thinker’ to reduce “the big picture” and think small before freeing their mind and letting it go loose. Our brain uses the same mechanism when we look at a scaled model of a sculpture or a building (or anything monumental) to better understand the workings of a complex machine.

When math students are first introduced to the abstraction of a multi-dimensional space it is difficult for them to really comprehend what it means. We are so used to three dimensions that even the next step up, a four-dimensional space, is a concept that is often impossible to grasp – the way to understand the basic idea of a 4d space, however paradoxical it may seem, is to reduce the number of dimensions; most often that does the trick.

Imagine a two dimensional space such as the image below – yes, view image on your screen as a sheet of paper. As you can see, it is inhabited by dots.

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The dots can’t jump off the page, as they are not aware of the third dimension. They are not even aware of our existence.  Look at the square and imagine a dot has locked itself in its house, certain no one can see it. It is true that other dots only see the walls. But we see the furtive dot perfectly well.

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And, if we want to punish the dot, we can hit it on the head, erase it, cut it in half, and the dot would never even know from whence came the flogging arm.

In effect, we are the dots’ ‘gods’.

And, if we try to imagine what a dot in this universe we have just created is capable of seeing it would be something such as the image below:

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A red dot, a blue house, a green house, a blue dot, a red house.

The way the dot sees its flat world is vastly different from the way we see it from above.

By applying the principle we just used with the dots, it is possible to imagine what four-dimensional beings may feel about us. They simply wouldn’t see the same picture. We don’t know what exactly they would see. They would see some pattern that we can’t even fathom.

Or can we?

It is possible the picture they would see would have different colors, high and low temperatures, order and chaos, busy life and inanimate stillness. However, similarly to our situation with the world of our dots, they would see much more than we can comprehend, albeit in a completely, maybe even undecipherable, way.

And this is exactly the way to approach Sean Scully’s work.

His patterns have the rhythmic order of a world governed by physics’ laws but the chaos of the paint inside the stripes makes life possible.

Scully’s order is beautiful because it is calming, predictable and quieting. Scully’s chaos is excitingly unpredictable because of the different energies it radiates. Somewhere within this, life is born and, at the same time, inanimate death is lurking somewhere near.

Inside his paintings exist elements, patterns, synergies, and rhythm – -everything we know about this world and exploring them raises the observer to another dimension.

It does not have to be an intellectual exercise (you don’t have to know physics to get a kick out of flying a hand glider), just approach them in a different way, as we approached the dots, and permit yourself (and his is the important part…allowing oneself), to revel in the sheer fun of being up there with the omnipotent gods, enjoying the patterns of this 3D universe.

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And while standing in front of some of his pieces note your own shadow walking thought the space of the picture, with the effect much like the one achieved by Gerhard Richter in his grey mirror paintings. 

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I inside a Sean Scully painting