Thursday, October 22, 2009

Why I Love Art Museums

You learn the most amazing things from the artists of the world, sometimes. Let me share a couple of fun examples that I recently discovered. I was over at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art yesterday (our local museum in Kansas City), mapping out a route for the field trip my class is going to take there tomorrow.

The field trip is about Notan, Chiaroscuro, and still life—and I found some good resources, of course (the Nelson-Atkins is an awesome museum). But I had more fun collecting oddball bits of knowledge I never dreamed I’d encounter.

First of all, who would have thought that the Netherlands in the 17th century would be a place to look for Italian Greyhounds? People who know me are aware that I’ve been trolling the listings on recently, seeking to correct my current, deplorable state of doglessness with an “IG.” But I really didn’t expect to see any in Gallery P17.

I was wrong. First of all, there was Jan Steen’s the-more-you-look-the-more-you-see-in-it painting, Fantasy Interior with Jan Steen and the Family of Gerrit Schouten (1659-60), which I can share with you because the Nelson allows non-flash photography of its own collection (thank you!!).

Do you see it? Right there, front-and-center, is a little dog that—if it isn’t an IG—certainly is a dead ringer for one.

Wow, I thought. Dutch winters are cold. I wouldn’t have expected an IG to do well in unheated buildings there, but it’s hard to argue with the historical record. I continued on, and promptly encountered this painting.

This is Hendrik van Vliet’s Interior of the New Church at Delft (ca. 1660-70), and what are those two small creatures at lower left and center? They look extremely much like Italian Greyhounds to me. What do you think?

They are too small to be greyhounds or whippets (whippets weren’t bred till the 19th century in England, anyway). No, they’re IGs. And you also might note they are strolling nonchalantly with their families . . . inside a big new church that was the pride of the community. Dogs in church? Cool!

But the fun wasn’t over yet. Did you know that, according to a Roman Catholic tradition in Boulogne, Italy, St. Luke (the Gospel-writer) was an artist? They have a revered icon there of the Madonna, and tradition has it that St. Luke painted it. I learned this in Gallery P14 when I discovered Saint Luke Displaying a Painting of the Virgin (1652-53), by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, whom the information card said was called “Il Guercino.”

Of course, Il Guercino, in true Baroque style, didn’t try to make the icon look like an icon. But it was an interesting idea to me that one of the “biggie” saints might be thought to have been an artist. Later, I looked up more information on Il Guercino, and discovered that his nickname means “he who squints.” Was he nearsighted, I wondered. No. According to Wikipedia, that source of all kinds of wonderful knowledge, Il Guercino squinted because he was cross-eyed.

Cross-eyed? Talk about an occupational disability! Can you imagine any guidance counselor in his/her right mind saying, “Sure, Willie! Art sounds like a great career! Go for it!” to a kid who was cross-eyed? But you know, old “Squinty” turned out to be a pretty darn good painter. It just goes to show, you should follow your dreams, eh?

All in all, it was a fascinating excursion. Dogs in church, and cross-eyed Baroque masters: who knew? And that’s why I love art museums.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

A Fiber Extravaganza: the Surface Design Association's Members Show

The Surface Design Association left its mark on First Friday in Kansas City in June, and my group of friends started at the “epicenter” of the SDA’s influence, the Belger Arts Center, where the association’s Members Show, “Surface Matters,” occupied the ground floor exhibition area.

More than 200, eighteen-inch-square pieces were submitted to the show, which was judged by Alice Kettle and Jennifer Angus. Both of these judges also had solo exhibitions on the third floor.

The Belger Center allowed me to take photographs, so I have a nice group of them for this entry. The first one shows part of the exhibition area, next to the movable glass garage-door-style entry area. The second shows a view of the same door/window, now raised some, from the outside. I think this makes the former warehouse an interesting and flexible display space.

“Surface Matters” offered an interesting array of materials, colors, and approaches, despite the rather rigid size requirements. While most were fairly flat, some extended well into the third dimension. Inevitably, some appealed to me more than others.

I have chosen six to include here. I think that for me the most interesting aspects were rich colors and surface textures, a certain amount of 3-dimensionality, and a certain amount of layering. As you'll see from my choices, I am drawn consistently to these qualities, as well as to fairly vibrant colors and quite often, diagonals moving through the picture plane. As you also will note, however, the artists each have made a unique and personal statement with their pieces.

At right is a good example of many of these qualities: Aerial Map #3, by Rebecca Cross. The rich texturing of the repeated lines of stitching give character and dimension to the background areas, and complement the 3-D parts that splash across the picture plane at a diagonal.

Timeless Memory, by Gerri Calpin at left, uses many similar elements, and even some of the same palette, but evokes a more subtle mood.

You'll note the diagonals, strong colors, and rich surface textures once again in Malachite, at right, by Marianne Williamson. Williamson, however, uses a greater variety of textures, and a broader range of colors.

We find an even brighter burst of colors in Calypso, below left, by Phillipa Lack. Here we find a greater variety, not only of colors and textures, but also of materials, including the shiny beads that sparkle through the composition evoking the theme given by the name.

Brooke Atherton also used beads to enrich the surface of her piece, Matriarch's Child, below right. Her bold diagonals are splashed across a more stable square shape at the center, keeping a dynamic tension between the irregular lines of stitching and surface enrichment, the rough X-shape at the center, and the duller, cooler, more stable and calm squares that anchor the composition.

The squares are a bit more irregular in Pieces Moving Through Dimensions, by Hellenne Vermillion, at left. We still have diagonals working here, and the surface texturing is just deliciously rich, but the palette is more subdued, and the key much lower, except for the high notes in the center area.

I hope you were interested to see these images from the "Surface Matters" show. Going to see it was a valuable experience. I'm looking forward to next year's show!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Original Differences

“Wow,” I thought, “so that’s what he was talking about!” I was standing in front of Grant Miller’s 2008 painting Untitled (EYO-937) at the Byron Cohen Gallery for Contemporary Art in the Crossroads District of Kansas City, MO, looking at an excellent example of the way some artwork just defies accurate reproduction.

My first encounter with this image had been a couple of weeks earlier and a few blocks away, at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. Miller had been one of three artists featured for the February “slideshow” at the museum. At the time, I’d listened with a certain amount of puzzlement to his presentation, as he projected pictures of his paintings onto the Kemper screen and spoke of “building” a painting up in layers. He likened it to the learning process, or an expansion of knowledge. His work, he said, was “about a place that houses knowledge.”

Looking at the projected images, and again later at some of the same images reproduced from on the Internet on my home computer screen, I could only partially grasp what he meant. Yes, logically, his technique of building up as many as 30 layers of clear acrylic medium, with an accumulating collection of overlapping lines, colors, and shapes, would have a certain 3-D quality. However, it didn’t seem an important aspect of the images I was seeing.

In my notes I wrote, “I look at these pieces and ask myself, ‘does this speak to me of the learning process, and evoke a place that houses knowledge?’” Even after hearing Miller’s presentation, I was thinking more about the contrast between the sharp-edged architectural shapes and the sinuous, vein-like linear elements. If I’d had to come up with an interpretation, it might have been something more on the order of the mechanical being superseded by the organic. I felt that a viewer would need more information than an indecipherable number and “Untitled” to derive his meaning.

Then I saw the originals. In no way do reproductions adequately convey the translucent depth of the originals. “Depth” is an intellectual understanding at best with the reproductions, but it is a visceral certainty when one is standing in front of the large originals. The reproductions are an interesting arrangement of lines and colors; the originals pull you right into their depths. I could imagine wandering in those depths for days.

The originals interact with light, a fact made clear by their display area in the Cohen Gallery that was suffused with indirect daylight from outdoors. If you lived with one of them, you conceivably could look at it every day, or several times in one day, and never catch all the nuances: as the ambient light changed through the day and night, in subtle ways so would the painting. No reproduction can reproduce that quality, and therefore no one who only sees a Grant Miller painting reproduced on the Internet or on a printed page will be able to understand basic things about the work.

When you view the originals you can see the buildup of layers, and grasp an idea of some of the process it took to make them. Suddenly it’s much easier to imagine the piece as the artifact of a progression or development process. His intentions begin to come through more clearly.

If you ever get a chance, go see Grant Miller’s originals in person.