Thursday, June 28, 2012

Shadow Focal Length

I don’t remember consciously noticing that shadows have what you might call a “focal length,” until a few years ago.

This 18th-century Epergne by Thomas Pitts I is in the
Folgers Collection at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
I was enjoying a long, detailed look at the intricate baskets and trays of the amazing 18th-century Thomas Pitts I Epergne at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, when I became fascinated by its shadows.

Some of the shadows, cast by lower parts (closer to the surface on which it stood), were dark, sharp-edged shapes. These shadows clearly showed the multitude of intricate openings (they appear to have been blurred and softened in the official photo published online).

The taller parts, however, cast paler, fuzzier shadows. I never realized shadows had depth of field, I thought. The piece is a beautiful and amazing tour de force in its own right, but that day I was even more entranced by the shadows.

Leaves from different levels on the tree cast sharper or
blurrier shadows depending on their distance from the street.
I’ve since had an opportunity to notice this effect in other places, most notably in the shadows of trees in my neighborhood when I walk my dogs.

It’s been so hot lately that I’ve taken to walking after dark, when it’s cooler. The streetlights on the leaves create a very similar effect to the one I remember observing at the Nelson-Atkins, and I managed to get some photos.

PHOTO CREDITS: The image of the Thomas Pitts I Epergne is courtesy of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, MO. The photo of the leaf shadows is by Jan S. Gephardt, taken in June 2012 in Westwood, KS, and may be distributed online under a Creative Commons license, providing it is not altered and credit (preferably with a link back) is given. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Nudity and Public Art

Yu Chang's sculpture recently
caused a furor in Kansas City (Photo by
Fred Blocher, for the KC Star).

“Being unclothed is not the equivalent of lewdness,” I wrote in a Letter to the Editor recently, but unfortunately many people persist in seeing it that way—and it has an impact on artists.

In Kansas City recently, we've been wading through yet another controversy about nudity in public art. As readers from outside KC may be aware, and as my home-turf readers can readily testify, both Kansas and Missouri are very socially conservative states.

This is not to say that people around here cannot be well educated or sophisticated. But the echoes of the 19th-century Holiness movement, with its cultural wariness about anything “worldly,” still reverberate loudly around here.

The focus in Kansas City at this moment is a sculpture in the Overland Park Arboretum. Chinese artist Yu Chang’s sculpture, Choice: Accept or Reject would not at first seem much of a candidate for a charge of immorality: the poor woman has lost her head, and is coming all to pieces over taking a photo of herself.

The work strikes me as being rather far from sexy or sensual. I think it would be more appropriate to see the nudity as expressing vulnerability to self-esteem issues.

The message of Pray Standing by Arden Ellen Nixon
has little to do with sexuality!
This episode has brought to mind another recent experience. I am the Art Show Director for the annual ConQuesT Art Show, held in Kansas City each Memorial Day Weekend.

One of our exhibitors, Arden Ellen Nixon, is unfortunately all too familiar with the heavy-handed censorship that can come from a misunderstanding of nudity in art. She queried me beforehand, about the acceptability of some of her images for the show. “Do I need to engineer some painter's tape pasties, or are [these] pieces acceptable as is?” she asked.

The pieces in question needed no “pasties,” as far as we were concerned. She sent them, we exhibited (and sold some of) them, and not a single word of complaint came to anyone on the Art Show staff. Compliments, yes—complaints, no.

To me, her work makes expressive use of nudity as a metaphor for spiritual concepts, as in Pray Standing, the work she gave me permission to share here. I really love this piece. It speaks to me of standing in complete openness before the Creator—a powerful message that we could not receive without the nudity of the central figure.

To get into a dither over exposed “boobies” is something most adults should hope to have moved beyond when they made it to high school . . . and yet, the petition to remove the sculpture still gathers signatures. 

How much better to simply confront the artwork, and let it speak to you with its own visual vocabulary!

IMAGE CREDITS: The photo of Yu Chang’s sculpture is by Fred Blocher, and was published through the Kansas City Star’s “Johnson County 913” magazine. Pray Standing is shown here courtesy of the artist, Arden Ellen Nixon. See more of her work on her website