Monday, April 25, 2011

Sweet Nike of Samothrace, Enduring

In December of 2001, I visited the Louvre. The statue of Nike of Samothrace (known also as the Winged Victory) enthralled me. Over 10 feet tall, dating from about 190 BCE, she stands at the head of the sweeping Daru staircase. There was a brisk wind blowing up the stairs. The wind seemed to be responsible for pressing the folds of Nike’s garment against her body. Of course, this was nonsense since both her body and garment are marble. The wind is merely a device to heighten the experience for the viewer. For me, Nike was the highlight of the Louvre, if not all Paris. More than thirty years earlier, I had written a sonnet  dedicated to the great Hellenistic statue and the spirit she represents.
My first glimpse of the statue as I ascended the stairs was all I had hoped for and more. Thrilling, inspiring, overwhelming, there was no end of words to apply. I circled the statue in wordless admiration. I just couldn’t get enough of every angle. I circled slowly again and again in complete thrall. How long was I there? I don’t know. Eventually, I had to tear myself away so I could see more of the Louvre and its other treasures, but later, before I left the immense museum, I returned to the head of the Daru staircase and made several more enchanted circuits.
I wasn’t the only visitor circling Nike that afternoon. Many of the people I saw were also walking around her, looking at the thrust of the leg, the ripples of the fabric, the set of the shoulders and the angle of the back and wings. When most people look at sculpture, especially the greatest sculpture, they automatically walk around the art to view the work from different angles so they can really appreciate and understand it. Viewing sculpture is acknowledged to take effort and time to achieve the full experience. With sculpture, you simply have to see it from all sides to really see it. The image included here might be the “best” angle, but you’ll never know that for yourself unless you walk around it.
That being said, below is the sonnet I wrote 44 years ago. I was very young, just married, and it was written after my first visit to the Cloisters, which overlook the Hudson, the opening venue of the poem. Apologies for the quaint language; it still seems to fit.
To Nike of Samothrace

The sun was on the river bright today,
And golden was the sky and all below.
But verily, my thoughts were far away
In France and in the Louvre. They did go
To proudly powered Wing├Ęd Victory
With outstretched body arched into the wind.
No breath have I when of that stone I see
The smallest photograph. What kind
of Time has left the spirit and the flesh
But took away the Head from its high place?
So of all worldly grants that I could wish,
I wish that once I might have seen her face.
In triumph, beauty guiles eternally,
E’en so as sweet the smile of Victory.

Ilene Leslie Skeen
March 26, 1967

Monday, April 18, 2011

Male Art Comes Into Its Own

Fifty years ago this book, 100 Artists of the Male Figure, may have been considered an outrage or an affront. Few artists were working figuratively and fewer still were concentrating on men. Thirty years ago, this book might have been dismissed as a “gay” thing or a “guy” thing, as something relating to “coming out” or grandstanding. Thankfully those days are over.

Kelley, Pan

Today, the most remarkable aspect of the book is not that it is only about men, but that it has tremendous range, expertise and emotion, even with the narrow focus. But maybe the focus is not so narrow. Men, after all, number about half of the 7 billion people on the planet, why shouldn't they have an art book (or many art books) celebrating themselves?

Furthermore, speaking as a heterosexual woman of a certain age, I frankly have to admit that I enjoy looking at men! As the founder and publisher of the nude art calendar contest,, I have often heard the complaint from women as well as men, “There are not enough men in the calendar! Where are the men?”

Lin, Steam
Thus it was with great anticipation and delight that I leafed through the pages of this book, reading the artists' statements and enjoying the art. To my surprise I found some old friends. I discovered also many new artists to respect and admire. Lovers of figurative art will find the range, depth, skill and sentiments of these 100 artists very satisfying. Some of the artists are straight, some gay, and some are not saying. A handful of the artists are women. 
The difficulty of writing about this book is inherent in the very range of the works. There are elaborate scenes from mythology – most of them expressing at least a hint of a modern twist which makes them unmistakably art of our times. There are studies of form and color in oil, watercolor, drawings and sculpture. There are cubist, outsider, ash can, abstract and surreal figures.

The curator, E. Gibbons, prefaces the work admirably, explaining how the range of the content, representing various approaches, styles and emotions is designed to increase the reader's interest and satisfaction. The introduction by Grady Harp sets the male figure in its historical context, from the Kuros figures of ancient Greece, through Roman, medieval, Renaissance and modern depictions. Then each artist has a say: a two-page spread with a head shot, self-portrait or signature image, accompanied by text and, of course, the artist's images. Artists' contact information is also included in the book.
Icarus Landing
Several of these artists are known personally to me: John Woodrow Kelley, for his slim, American figures, sublimely at home in Greek mythology; Tai Lin, whose solid oil portraits and simple compositions display both strength and sensitivity; Michael Newberry, whose inventive genius translates common myths into fresh, surprising and delightful new images. All three of these artists have work in the Barebrush Nudes of the Month calendars. The fourth artist, Jordan Mejias, who monitors the open studio sessions at Spring Studio in New York City, is a master of watercolor, creating solid form with a splash of pure, confident abandon. His figures have the vitality of the natural flow of water, tamed by a sure hand and a masterful eye. 

Mejias, IC
Jesus Is Nailed to the Cross

There are also several artists new to me whose work caught my eye. Some of the images are clothed, including the very remarkable and disturbing Jesus is Nailed to the Cross by New York artist Doug Blanchard.

For humor, composition and pizazz, I love Thigh of Relief by Campbell Paxton of Ohio.

For pure physicality of form, my copy of the book obeys my silent command and falls open automatically at Anonymous by Chris Lopez of Florida.

And finally, the artist whose work most seems to capture my feeling of what is needed to be an artist today: Sunday Morning Sam by Steve Cronkite (Connecticut) shows the artist's primary focus on reality, but with the strength, confidence, and a certain brutalized bravado to express the truth. If I could paint like that, I'd be a happy lady.

Paxton, Thigh of Relief
 That I mention these artists does not mean that those whose work goes unmentioned are less worthy. After almost five years of running the Barebrush website with guest curators for the online calendar contest, I often point out that selection into any particular calendar is usually more about the curator than the artist.

I am sure that the reader will find his or her own personal favorites and delights. The curator, E. Gibbons, is planning more books devoted to the art of the male figure. As the first of a possible series, it is a worthy beginning.

Here are all the artists:

Sunday Morning Sam

Lopez, Anonymous

E. Gibbons. 100 Artists of the Male Figure: A Contemporary Anthology of Painting, Drawing, and Sculpture. Atglen, PA. Schiffer Publishing Ltd. 2011.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Introduction IV: The Arrow of Time

Mid-twentieth-century paintings like Jackson Pollock's, One, left, astounded the art world and horrified the “real” (read non-art) world. Squint and you see gray. Look closely and you see drips, drops, lines of paint. Influential modernist art critic, Clement Greenberg, applauded the purification of form and the elimination of historical content.

A current exhibit in the National Gallery (October 30, 2010—April 22, 2011, Washington, D.C.), is entitled, “Modern Lab: There is nothing to see here.” The on-line exhibition text begins:
Verging on invisibility or immateriality, these works can provoke, mystify, or even go unnoticed. The very difficulty of seeing them demands an extraordinary patience in viewing them. Some emphasize the basic properties of their medium, be it photography, drawing, or sculpture, while others make it difficult to tell just what the medium is…

These two images can bring us to the state of the “art world” in the present day, or do they?

First of all, to put it more bluntly, why bother? In the Pollock, there is a lot to see: drips, drops, spatters and lines of paint in different colors, summing up to: drips, drops and spatters. In the Modern Lab, we can take them at their word, there is nothing to see, so asking again, why bother? What’s the payoff?

In Body Language, I am trying to connect us with the principles of art. It would be easy to be dismissive and simply declare that these are not art and we need think no more about them. However, if we want to discover what art is and is not, as if we were putting the concept of art under a microscope and studying its attributes, we cannot, however tempting, eliminate examples of works commonly called art from our field of study, just because we do not like them or understand them.

A second clarification is also in order at this point: there are no bodies in these two art examples. What do these non-representational images have to do with Body Language? The simple fact is that the title, Body Language, refers to us as human, to the primacy of our bodies, the unified existence of body and spirit, and how we communicate with the world. It does not refer to the art we are discussing. Whether this art is non-representational, non-objective, conceptual or only theoretical, humans exist only in their bodies. We can speculate about other realities and eternal life in heaven or hell, but for life on earth, here and now, our bodies cannot be denied.  We have our memory and imagination and we can relive the past or imagine other realities, but we cannot deny or long ignore the continuing requirements of our physical existence for survival. Our bodies require food, water, air and sleep to survive. They can exist in a wide range of temperatures, if we can provide external heat to warm them or cool them. So whether our humanity is part of our art does not change the fact that our humanity is part of us, our humanity is us. We can fall prey to accidents, diseases, perils of nature, attacks by others, and old age. If we deny our bodies, we can die, and that’s the reality of life and death.

It is my thesis that our bodies are controlled by our minds, that our mind is the driver and regulator of all our actions, both conscious and unconscious, and that our mind requires self-esteem – the assurance that we are worthy and competent to survive and that survival is a worthwhile goal. Art is just one (of many) of the psychic rewards of survival.

The second thesis of this book is that art mirrors the biology, culture and philosophy in which it is produced, and it cannot be otherwise. It takes artistic genius to crystallize the essence of any era into great art. So we are going to talk about these artworks because they occupy a certain niche in art history – a niche we want to understand and conquer, whether they are representational or not.

 There’s a saying in the movie business when the public doesn’t flock to a film which critics acclaim and critical acclaim is accompanied by financial disaster. The public, they say, got off the ride. 

When Jackson Pollock’s One appeared 33 years after Matisse’s Auguste Pellerin II, it was ridiculed by many and venerated by a few. For the most part, the public was effectively “off the ride” in 1950.[1] Clement Greenburg, the influential art critic, called any portrayal of subject matter “kitsch,” thus denigrating 3,000 years of art history from the Egyptians, going straight through the Greeks, Romans, Middle Ages, Renaissance and beyond, to the Impressionists, and even the radicals like Picasso and Matisse.  Greenberg compared Pollock to Picasso, saying that Picasso was dated. This may have helped impel elite collectors to collect, and elite museums to acquire the pieces. In fact, public distaste and distrust of “modern” art may have contributed to the elite mystique of “modernism.” This is the familiar, if you don’t get it, I can’t explain it ploy.

Anthropologist, Stuart Plattner, recognizes that “the nominal criterion for high art is some meaningful contribution that advances our cultural vision.”[2] He calls the high art aesthetic experience “transcendental” in that it can “change the way the viewer looks at reality.”[3]

In other words, the best art of our age sums up our age and tells us what we are facing next – it is not about where we have been, but where we, as a culture, as a civilization, are going. In so far as the philosophy of an age determines the path of its civilization’s progress, then we can paraphrase Thomas Aquinas and say that Art is the handmaid of Philosophy.[4]

The third thesis of this book is that time passes, we can look back, but we can never go back. Seeking to re-create the past is impossible. The arrow of time moves in one direction only, forward.

So where is our art going? If we look at these two images as a guide, the answer is: from chaos to nothing. So three thousand years of western art ends with monumental drips and a piece of glass leaning against the wall. Subject matter repudiated, one is left with nothing. The philosophy with the stated goal of achieving nothingness is called Nihilism.

To this, I say, resoundingly, “No!” Although it looks now, in our cultural state of confusion, that most contemporary artists are merely rehashing the past, it is my contention that from within any culture at any given time, it has almost always looked this way. Time passes and cultural trends become visible in perspective. In the course of this book, we will talk about the times of momentous discovery and the period of digestion. Regardless of the times, only a few in each generation are leaders. That is simply a fact of leadership.

Each artist works, and can only work, in his or her style, from his or her psyche, choosing from the world he or she experiences, the materials available, the history of what has gone before, and most importantly, the philosophy and ideas which dominate and permeate the culture, or the new ideas which promise change. These influences define to the artist those images, issues, subjects, and emotions which are important for visual presentation.  When you think about it, this might be what Ayn Rand meant when she said, “Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.” True enough, but Rand insisted that photography and non-objective art were not really art because neither was truly a re-creation. We will come back to question this requirement for “re-creation” as a definitional imperative again.

For now, we concentrate on the trajectory of art history. The art “world” (the world of art elites) diverged from the great mass of humanity and of artists about one hundred years ago, but the history of the last quarter of the twentieth century, and continuing in this decade, has seen a resurgence of subject, of skills, and of human values like truth, life, dignity, personal worth, and even beauty. Images of degradation are not generally valued. The hero with feet of clay is old news. The art of our century seems to show simply people worth knowing, things worth thinking about, emotions worth feeling, art which evokes the spirit of our common humanity. Art which touches us undoubtedly contains strength, insight or truth shining through. Looked at in this light, figurative art is about shared humanity (who am I, who are you?), landscape art is about evoking an emotional sense of place (where am I, where are we?), abstract art is about the experience of the media (what fun can we have with these materials?).

These two images are separated by a gulf of sixty years. The Jackson Pollock became a symbol of the “new” art, and everything wrong with it – it does remain an icon of its age: nihilistic, impenetrable, and to most people, pointless. It still hangs in the Museum of Modern Art, and people stop in front of it from time to time. It took some skill and patience to produce this gigantic canvas of balanced and running drips and splatters in an overall pattern of chaos (if such an expression makes sense). And it probably took some nerve and “creative” thinking to mount a government-sanctioned exhibition which includes the tag line, “there is nothing to see here.”

Photo of street sign NYC,  2010, ad by MSNBC
So do these two images bring us to the entire state of the “art world” in the present day? The short answer is no. Like atonal music, there is a limited audience for chaos and nihilism. However, there is a broad audience for the new, New Art. This is the art which is coming from artists whose work throws aside the bankruptcy of nihilism and throws aside the pointlessness of producing art to be understood only by artists, art critics and elite collectors. This book is about opening one’s eyes to the art of our human heritage. Seen in this light, art of the twenty-first century can draw upon the wealth of 3,000 years of western civilization, the even longer cultural traditions of the east and the distinctive visions of the third world and result in a new cultural vision for our world and our time.  It is about the art that is already here, because the twenty-first century is underway, we’re alive and life is still worth living. This makes it a good time to reconnect with art.[5]

[1] Many traditional artists and much of the public actually abandoned modern art after Picasso abandoned three dimensional forms in the early 1900’s. Years later, Picasso draws blockbuster crowds of aficionados and tyros alike, principally because the art is now clearly in an historical context and its influence on what followed it is also clear. His early and transitional works are still the major draw for the museum-going public.
[2] Plattner, Stuart. High Art Down Home: An Economic Ethnography of a Local Art Market.  University of Chicago Press. 1996. P.6.
[3] Ibid, P. 7.
[5] This entry is a lot more that 500 words! In general, I’ll keep the posts short, but there was a lot to say and it would have been annoying to string it out over multiple posts.