Tag Archives: art appreciation

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.

Shadow Stack

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?

Doors

Doors.

For a few, this word is the simplest psychological test to see if you are a dedicated fan of Jim Morrison. This is not a post about the Doors, guys.

For most, doors are about keeping pets inside and thieves outside.

In arts, doors function differently.

In fiction, doors are a conventional plot device.

A simple door can trigger an engaging plot by transferring the protagonist to a miraculous new world. A door creaks at the height of a passionate moment, and – bang! – Prince Charming now needs to make a formal proposal to the blushing daughter of Evil Queen who just stepped in. Andy McNab, an ex-SAS commando, has made a career in crime fiction by explaining that not only you don’t smash doors when infiltrating a building with terrorists inside (you open ’em doors very carefully), you have to close the door just as carefully after you entered the room, because you don’t want anyone to spring up on you from behind. I am sorry that you won’t enjoy reading Andy McNab now that I’ve revealed his plot structure.

In literature, doors offer endless possibilities with plot development, much more so than windows.

In visual arts windows dominate over doors. Windows create stories by establishing a conflict between the inside and the outside of a room. Painting a window is an easy way to make the painting interesting. Doors, and especially closed doors, are more complicated and less obvious devices to weave a plot, because the observers can’t see what’s behind them, and have to imagine it.

Woman of Cairo at her Door (Girl in Oriental Costume) 1897 - Jean-Leon Gerome

Woman of Cairo at her Door (Girl in Oriental Costume) 1897 – Jean-Leon Gerome

In this painting of a hopelessly classic French painter the door makes you imagine the world this Woman of Cairo represents. Your imagination is, of course, carefully guided by the artist. The caged bird, the contrast between live flowers and the design of the carpet that hangs over the entrance, the seductive pose and look of the girl: everything makes you think of the magic Oriental world into which you get teleported if you step through this door. Again, you don’t know for certain what you are going to find there. Perhaps, you’d get tea and a relaxing massage? Or you’d get caged as the bird above the door?

Doors raise questions, and instead of giving answers they make promises. That’s why, unlike windows, doors are ambiguous (you don’t always know what’s behind).

This is also why doors are employed by modern and contemporary painters, sculptors, and critics, who love to compensate their lack of ideas by complexity and ambiguity.

Paintings by Barnett Newman, one of the biggest names in American abstract expressionism are often described as “portals to the sublime”. A portal rolls in the mouth better than a door if you decide to go metaphysical, and “the sublime” (or its sister, “transcendence”) is a wildcard kind of word that critics use whenever they don’t really know what the heck they are talking about.

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I am sure if Newman’s work is watched for an hour, some of the lines start pulsating, and their lights suddenly flicker, giving you the feeling of a door creaking open for you. That is, if your legs don’t kill you first. I, like most people, prefer other ways to achieve the same kind of nirvana,

I am sure many of my readers have remembered Rothko by now. A lot of people believe that Rothko’s doors are the best in class in terms of teleporting the viewer in a sour or cheerful mood (depending on the colour scheme, of course), but Rothko would probably strangle anyone who would compare his colour fields to a door with his bare hands, so I skip Rothko and go directly to Matisse.

His door of 1914 was one of the biggest door-related surprises this year (besides the time when I didn’t have keys to my own home and no one was there). In 1914, he stepped aside from his Fauvist cheerfulness into pessimistic dark blends, and I am sure you can feel it even in this photograph. The reflection in the glass is me. It gives a scale to the painting, and also jabs an accusing finger at Centre Pompidou who can’t be bothered to frame a modern masterpiece in museum-quality non-reflective glass.

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Imagine yourself standing in front of it. Imagine you need to decide on whether you step through or walk past. Imagine what is waiting for you inside.

Once you’ve done the imaginings, you’d understand that Abstract Expressionism was not a revolutionary American invention but a concept that a Frenchman had once played with for a couple of years before dumping it as a waste of time and effort, and going back to his optimistically pure colours.

Life’s too short to make art that makes it gloomier than it already is.

Perhaps, contemporary artists have come up with new approaches to doors and the related metaphysics? (I am asking it with my tongue so deep in my cheek I appear to have a serious dental problem to an outside observer) 

Let’s take the work of Steven Claydon, a contemporary British artist who is famous for both his sculptural work and playing pipes as a member of the Weird Sisters band in a Harry Potter movie:

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He puts different doors on uniform metal fences hoping, as I understand, to create different meaning about the physically empty spaces that exist behind. Well, yes, it works, but I am not sure I am excited about this. Magritte said it all about closed doors opening up into different spaces, leaving us with so many doors one can spend a lifetime opening them all.

Magritte, 1935

Magritite, 1935

Are you aware of a contemporary artist who has produced a new plot using the door device? I mean, really new, and not a repetition of a century-old idea.  Please let me know!

Also, please share with me anything recent and interesting you know about doors in paintings or sculpture! Or just the doors you love for some reason. 

Exposed vagina: does it make you flinch?

In the “Dial up testosterone” article, I showed three seated nudes by two German expressionist artists, and promised that I’d make a close up on one of them to see if she’s only valuable as a taboo-breaking historical achievement, or is actually a good painting in its own right.

Look at her, again.

Erich Heckel, Egyptian girl, 1909

Erich Heckel, Egyptian girl, 1909

I am not asking if you like her or not. As a man, I am not sexually aroused by this image. I wouldn’t want to flirt with her, and I wouldn’t want her to flirt with me. She does not fit the concept of the ideal female body for me, and I suspect, for many of my readers. Immanuel Kant would be happy that she’s not inflaming carnal desires, but sad that she’s not the ideal. So he, most probably, would dismiss the painting as “not art”.

Art historians and philosophers believe Kant’s definition of art has not been in use for more than a hundred years, but they are wrong. Each time you hear someone say, “I wouldn’t put it on my wall” Kant is summoned from the grave. Is it wrong to apply it? Of course not. Not everyone wants to come home and ponder male sexism that allows only 90-60-90 type of bodies to feature in advertising. Most of us want to come home and look at images that resonate with happy moments, as we understand them, and make us smile at our own associations, that – let’s face it – rarely coincide with art history milestones.

So, frankly, I wouldn’t put this painting on my wall either.

But I would put it on the wall of a gallery.

This is why.

She sits on a bed covered by blue bed sheets, against a dark green wall. That is, at first sight.

She may strike you as not a very intelligent person, what with her squinted eyes, crimson bows, and a half-smile that seems somewhat crawling over her face:

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But tell me, when you are alone, not concerned about anyone watching you, do you always make sure you wear a poster-worthy smile?

Now, let’s just try to imagine how she feels about herself in this painting.

The artist gives us a whole series of cues:

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Yes, she’s all smiles, even if it doesn’t show very clearly on her face. It is confirmed by her necklace, but most importantly, there’s a smile inside her. Look at her nipples and two red brushstrokes on her belly. They do rhyme with her squinted eyes and lips. Some people may have butterflies in their stomachs, and some people just feel good.

She looks up, as if facing the sun, but her belly smile is directed more at the observer. Yet, we can’t say that it is meant for the observer: exactly because this smile is also “squinted”. She is happy but not because we stand in front of her and offer our attention or appreciation. Unlike many nudes before her, she’s not trying to seduce us; she doesn’t care about us at all!

While you were looking at her breasts, you might have noticed that the blue of the bed gets reflected on her chest, and in the whites of her eyes. This is not really possible, unless the ceiling we don’t see is the same blue as the bed. Surprisingly, this blue is not used on the lower part of her body, where it would be appropriate. Instead, it is the wall’s green that is used to emphasise shadows there, and there are also drips of green on her legs. Could these green drops and smears be an accident?

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I’d say it is very unlikely: you don’t see heedlessness of the sort in any other part of the painting.

Now, there are no feet, and this is also a conscious choice not to show them, because showing them would require showing the floor and it seems the artist felt the floor was irrelevant.

Why did the artist make these choices? Unfortunately, we can’t interview the late artist, but we can offer a theory.

What if we turn the painting upside down? The bed becomes the skies that get reflected on the chest, and the green becomes solid earth that gets reflected and mixed up with legs. And the girl then truly squints at the sun. With feet and the floor that would be impossible.

Unless you have a better theory that would explain the artist’s choices, I’d suggest we stick to this one.

Now, it’s time to talk about her vagina.

Why is it exposed in such a shameless manner?

Well, we already know the answer. She is not shamelessly seducing the observer; she’s innocently offering her body to the sun. She opens up for the sun’s warmth (the red lines and hot yellow tones now start making sense, don’t they?). She opens the whole of herself, including her femininity, and her vagina. If she hid it, she wouldn’t be innocent and free, because it would mean she was concerned about a possible male observer.

That’s the beautiful paradox of this painting. It is not about sensual red lines that outline her explicit nakedness, as Courtauld’s curators want to make us believe. It is about giving us a rare opportunity to see a happy woman in the flesh, unconstrained by the morals and taboos of the society, but without her provoking us with her nakedness into carnal cravings. It seems that even Kant, if he could make a leap of appreciation into the expressionist painting technique, would be pleased.

This is why I said I wished that painting was created by a woman, for then it would become the greatest achievement in the feminist art history, long before the term itself was invented.

And, you know, on a second thought, I just might put this painting on my wall. There’s something in those orange bows in her hair. They look like scarlet flowers turning up to the sun. Perhaps, she is not so innocent, after all, except that she just doesn’t know it yet.

Experiencing the beach: dialogue with artist

Friends ask me sometimes, “If you understand art so well, why don’t you begin painting yourself?” That’s because I would make a bad artist. My brain is wired differently. Shakespeare could produce three metaphors in a single line, and I need half an hour to think up one. And chances are it won’t be nearly as good. A talented painter can produce a dozen visual metaphors in a sketch, while I would be half-way through the preliminary measurement of my future painting to locate the golden ratio line. A good painter will find and draw it with the speed of a trained cop drawing his service gun: his hand knows where it is.

Good artists are spontaneously good. It is what sets them apart from art critics who are spontaneously critics. Even though I don’t style myself as an art critic, but as an art appreciation coach, there you are, anyway.

To give you a bad metaphor: good artists come up with orgasmic paintings each time they have sex with their paints, and I would be a nightmare painter struggling with ejaculation problems. It is like a writer’s block experienced by someone who is not a writer. We don’t want it, do we? Of course not.

This morning, I pulled my couch outside to an empty beach in the Bahamas to do some coaching, and – what a surprise – I met an artist who had just finished her sketch. That’s her photograph on top.

So we sat together, and chatted about her artwork.

This is a seemingly simple and very spontaneous painting of a beach hut that Boryana Korcheva put out to dry moments ago.

Boryana

There’s nothing unusual about the yellow sand, the blue skies and the ultramarine ocean, which seems a bit wavy, with some whitecaps at a distance. No wonder then that there are no people on the beach, except the two of us.

Artmoscow: Boryana, you are a resident here. Tell me, is it going to be a windy day? No swimmers or sun-bathers to disturb the view?

Boryana: No, since the island is surrounded by a reef, the sea tends to be calmer on this side of the reef and almost always choppy beyond it, so yes, most of the time there are white caps in the horizon.

Artmoscow: Oh, all right then, so we don’t have much time before people swarm the landscape. Do you come here often, at this early hour? What do you like about being here?

Boryana: I am fortunate to start every day with a walk on the beach – this is my very own hour of quiet dialogue with the ocean and the elements. Before heading home, I love to stand for a few minutes with my eyes closed and listen to the sound of the waves – the ones that crash at my feet and the ones further and further until I lose them. I imagine that the waves go through me – it feels fantastic.

Artmoscow: I am lucky to meet you here just before you were going to leave, I guess. As I look at the hut, I can’t fail to notice it is painted differently from the sea and the sand. The latter look like a serene stage set for the rather chaotic shed.

Why is it chaotic? What did you think about when you were painting it?

Boryana: A lonely beach hut against the vastness of the ocean – an unsteady shelter, forbidden lovers’ hideaway, a place of shadowy exchanges?

Artmoscow: I see it may mean a lot to you. To me, it doesn’t seem to be a firm structure bolted to the ground. It is crawling forward, as if the wind from the ocean shoves it to move on.

There’s movement in the painting, as if some energy is passed over from the ocean to the hut. Something is handed over, like the baton in a relay race.

The heaving ocean is breathing at the hut’s back as a live beast, which is, quite fortunately, separated by the wide stripe of sand from the observer (which, in its turn makes me, the observer, feel safe).

This dynamism is provided by a perfectly proportioned positioning of the hut just at the border of the centre of the painting, to which the eye wants to draw the house, and the slanted lines of the roof indicate this direction: they prompt the eye to drag the shed up and to the right .

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It is also possible to see this house as a live animal, resisting the wind, with its head stubbornly lowered and its tail stuck out in the effort to remain rooted to the spot.

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Boryana: oh, no, I don’t think I wanted it to be an animal… Though you never know what chaos can unleash…

Artmoscow: OK, but this hut, moving to the right, does seem to be alive with specks of bright colours like a twinkle in the eye and the orange flag on top blown about by the wind…

Boryana: Yes, those flickers of  light, cries of seagulls, clatter of loose planks against the rustle of the waves, it is all there. And then – the eternal peace of the horizon.

Artmoscow: If I talk like a complete bore, you seem to be reciting some nice poetry, as a true artist probably should. Yes, I can see the wind gushing through this semi-transparent hut, and I guess, I can hear the planks clatter… So, there’s not just movement in this sketch, there’s also plenty of sounds.

Boryana: Yes, the audio world is just as exciting as the visual one, but we tend to neglect it. Try to stand still, close your eyes and tune to the noises around you – the immediate and then the distant ones. Another one is to pay attention deliberately to what you perceive through your skin.

Artmoscow: That sounds like a psychotherapy exercise that better be undertaken in solitude. While you are here, I would like to understand a bit more about the chaos of the hut.

Boryana: Subconsciously I must have been painting my mind, with its ragged, uneven thoughts wheezing through it like the wind through the cracks.

Artmoscow: OK, let’s talk about your “ragged and uneven thoughts”, for they just might be the key both to the chaos and movement in this work.

I remember you mentioned a “lovers’ hideout”. We all have our own associations with this, but what’s yours?

Boryana: This is difficult to pinpoint. The easiest thing is to say a “flight of imagination”, but every such flight is rooted in an actual experience. It may go back to my teens, when we used to go camping on the Black Sea coast and when, if two of you wanted to sneak away from the crowd for some privacy, you would head to the beach hoping to find shelter in a shack or something like that. Teen beach sex, when you can’t afford a hotel room – to put it straight.

Artmoscow: People say there’s more disappointment than pleasure in sex on the beach. Sand gets where is shouldn’t. Yet, I can imagine the shed being quite chaotically shaken by these teenage lovers. I won’t ask you about the “place of shadowy exchanges”: let’s let the readers build their own crime and passion stories around that.

Anyway, I see a lot of life in your vision, and life means movement and dynamism. Yet, there are no people and – save for the shed – the lines are simple flats.

Boryana: You know, my overall feeling of the sea and the beach is of something dynamic, always in motion, even when it appears perfectly still.

Artmoscow: So this is where the movement is coming from, finally. For the record, this is what I think is great about your sketch:

This alive, semi-transparent house with winds blowing through it, is moving across the frame, which makes it a small wonder to watch: there’s a conflict being played out before the eyes of the observer. The beach spreads beyond the frame, unlimited and endless, and so the drama is not going to end anytime soon. There’s plenty of time to watch it, thinking of time, other lives, the elements that will outlive us all, the joys that await us in future, and the destiny of the hut, which crawls along the beach at a snail’s pace.

When I applied the “golden ratio snail” to the painting,  the hut fit perfectly inside it: it’s seemingly chaotic lines rhyme with the shape of the snail, its chaotic details turn out to be proportioned accordingly. Moreover, the snail of the hut fits into a bigger snail that seems to bring together the skies, the ocean, the sand, and the house into some single entity, creating a union of the elements: air, water, and sand.

This painting is a very interesting representation of not sitting on a beach, but EXPERIENCING THE BEACH.

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You didn’t plan to build this movement around golden ratio rules and geometrical representations, at least consciously, I believe. I know artists who just feel golden ratio because their eye and hand are trained in this, and I guess you’re one of them.

Honestly, did you think of the golden ratio proportions when you worked on this painting, or you just “felt” and painted the harmony, because your eye and hand are trained in this?

Boryana: Placing the hut off-centre was one of the two conscious thoughts I had about the composition of the painting. The other was about the horizontal lines – the line of the horizon and the line between the sand and sea. But I didn’t think of proportions, rather of ‘what would look right’.  The process of painting the hut itself was more gestural than deliberate. I must have thought of it as something that is temporary, impermanent, fleeting.”

Artmoscow: I tried to play with some of the proportions in this painting by cutting off a bit of sand and some of the skies, but the harmony gets lost.

Speaking of “experiencing the beach”, what is in it, for you, personally?

Boryana: Since it is not a specific hut on a specific day, they are all the thoughts that go through my head when I walk on the beach in the morning. I think about people, about things I’ve read, about art, about past experiences, make plans – big and small ones – ‘the windmills of our minds’ kind of thing. Sometimes I get specific ideas about paintings, sometimes the whole mental stew takes shape in a spontaneous piece like the Beach Hut.

Artmoscow: I am sure the reader has his or her very personal associations with a sandy beach, and your sketch is a great way to wake up those associations. You painting is not about a beach hut, but about the Total Beach Experience. I don’t think photography can ever do it. 

You told me it is be shown at a NY gallery soon. I think it will sell fast. Were I the gallery owner, I would show more work from this “experiential” series. It would be good for the visitors, emotionally, and just right for me, financially. Good luck with the show!


This is, of course, a semi-imaginary dialogue, based on a brief Q&A session over e-mail. I did not have to edit Boryana’s answers, but I had to do cosmetic work on the questions. We are 5700 miles away from each other, but art is known to cross borders and cover great distances in the blink of an eye.


For my readers who have not been before to Boryana’s website: go there. Check out her other, very different, types of artworks or paintings. Pay attention to the self-portrait in a bottle. Don’t tell me you’ve never felt like this.

THREE ART INSPIRED STORIES

This week’s Writing Challenge is about writing a story of 50 words. As this is an art blog or rather a blog on art appreciation, I thought it might be nice to launch a new category: art-inspired stories. If you like it, let me know, I’ll make it a regular feature.


 

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF BLIND FAITH

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She was a hardline atheist. “No exequy”, were her last words.

After the funerals, he slumped in the empty kitchen, afraid of now, mortified by tomorrow. So he prayed.  For her.

He realised there was God above when he felt… ascended.

My dear, he whispered, you were… ARE dead wrong!


 

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF MEMORY

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He trained his dog to bring the top newspaper from the stack in the bedroom.

He would tell visitors his dog could read, and commanded it to fetch over The Times, then The Guardian, and then The Star.

It was important to remember the order the papers were stacked in.


 

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF NOT BEING LITERAL

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Decade is a period of ten years.
Century is a period of one hundred years.
Millennium is a period of one thousand years.
“Together forever” lasts a fortnight.

That is, statistically.
That is, in about 90% of cases.

That is also why romantic mathematicians are so hard to come by!