Sunday, March 18, 2018

Painted in Mexico 1700-1790: Pinxit Mexici

“Painted in Mexico 1700-1790” is the name of an exhibition I saw a week before it closed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).  It was a six-year undertaking by the co-curators ILona Katzew, curator and department head at LACMA, Jaime Cuadriello and Paula Mues Ortis of Mexico City and Luisa Elena Alcalá of Madrid. The curators toured Mexico in search of paintings never before recorded that told a piece of art history about which little was known.

By the 16th century artists from Spain were already coming to the New World either to decorate the new churches or complete artistic commissions.  Some formed workshops, which lasted generations. By the 17th century there were artists born in New Spain who had no experience in the Old Country but were informed by a combination of paintings and prints by their forbearers and the world they knew.  This exhibition shows that by the 18th century the Mexican artists developed their own styles.

The exhibition begins with a large painting, “Apotheosis of the Eucharist”, 1723 by Juan Rodriguez Juárez 1675-1728 commissioned for the newly established convent of Corpus Christi in Mexico City.

Nearby are two paintings attributed to Nicolás Enriquez (1704-c.1790).  One is the Interior of the Church of Corpus Christi with a view of the main altar where you can see the Juan Rodriguez Juárez altarpiece which is my previous illustration.

The second image is of the Alameda Park and Convent in Mexico City where we were a few months ago and I wrote about.  These two paintings were lent to the exhibition from the Royal Palace in Madrid as they were commissioned and sent to the King of Spain to show the progress already made in New Spain and to garner continued support for these ventures.

Like many other exhibitions this one is divided into themes, such as Great Masters, Master Story Tellers, Noble Pursuits and a number of others.  Due to a rather disjointed installation it was difficult to follow these themes but it did not detract from the enjoyment of the exhibition and the feeling of discovery.

As I recently wrote about the Virgin of Guadalupe I will illustrate “Allegory of the Patronage of the Virgin of Guadalupe over New Spain,” by an unknown artist, dated 1786, one of a number of depictions in the exhibition.  It was lent by a private collector in Mexico City and is a devotional picture set in an especially lavish silver frame.

The influence Europe still had on the New World is evident in a large painted folding screen, known as a biombo, with Fête Galante and Musicians, attributed to Miguel Cabrera (1715-1768), ca. 1760.  Except for the Spanish costumes it looks like it could have been imported directly from France and and the composition has been traced to a French print.  This piece from a private collection has been on loan to Fomento Cultural Banamex, A.C., the non-profit branch of the National Bank of Mexico (Banamex) located in Mexico City.  It co-organized the exhibition with LACMA and was its first venue.

Though very difficult to decide, I will end with what is, at the moment, my favorite picture in the show.  It is by Nicolás Correa (1657 - ca.1708), “Procession of Saint Rosalia of Palermo”, 1708, from another private collector in Mexico City.  The scene evokes the miracle during the plague that struck Palermo in 1625.  I love paintings where every time you look at them, with fresh eyes, you make a new discovery; here the individual figures in the crowd.

You will have another opportunity to see the exhibition, which is heading now to the Metropolitan Museum in New York where it will open on April 24 and remain until July 22.  If I end up seeing it again I may write with a new view!

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Obama Portraits

The first time I saw images of the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery I was surprised, maybe even a little shocked… but that was probably the way some people felt when we elected our first Black President, even those who desperately wanted him to win.  So why not make the portraits different as well?

Then I remembered where Barack Obama took his wife on their first date, The Art Institute of Chicago.  I remembered that with particular fondness because finally there was at least one politician who cared about the Arts … how very rare. No wonder they had their favorite artists.

Why do so few people, except school groups, go to the National Portrait Gallery? Because the portraits are usually extremely stodgy and boring.  Here you can see other Presidential portraits, . They are not very exciting. There are small differences between them but not major ones with two notable exceptions when Elaine de Kooning painted JFK and Chuck Close did Bill Clinton.

The artists the Obamas requested to do their portraits are, not surprisingly, also African American.   Kehinde Wiley, who painted the President, and and Amy Sherald who painted the First Lady are not strangers to the politics of race and would want to do something different that would stand out for their sake as well as their sitters.  Even in the best of all possible worlds, when all visitors are “color blind”, these portraits would stand out as the First Black President and his First Lady.

The President is set against greenery, and according to the New York Times the flowers have symbolic meaning for him.  The African blue lilies represent Kenya, his father’s birthplace; jasmine represents Hawaii where he was born; Chrysanthemums are the official flower of Chicago where he first got into politics and where he met Michelle.  Some said that Obama seemed too aloof as President, always the academic.  While that was never my feeling, here you see him as a contemplative individual, always taking his decisions very carefully in spite of the many frustrations!

 The Times describes Amy Sherald’s take on Michelle Obama as emphasizing an “element of couturial spectacle and rock-solid cool”.  I do understand these aspects but also the seriousness with which Michelle saw her role in the White House.  Not trying to do her husband’s job but doing something just as important speaking for the young, as far as education and health are concerned.  I have hardly any interest in haute couture and though I am supposed to have heard of Michelle’s dress designer Michelle Smith, I have not.  I can note, however, that this dress has style and most importantly to me is that it is different but tasteful and distinguished.

I can also perfectly understand why a little girl could be mesmerized by Michelle’s portrait.  Not sure that a young child would think, “Oh, this is a woman who was the first Black First Lady”.  I think that the monochromatic effect of the work makes it all the more powerful, as the First Lady was in her own way.  Here is the photo of two-year-old Parker Curry, taken by another museum visitor Ben Hines.

I don’t think that the Obamas had in mind what their portraits would do for the National Portrait Gallery but attendance at the museum has been up 300%.  I doubt that any other Presidential portraits inspired that kind of attendance  when they were unveiled.  How refreshing mixing politics and art with the emphasis on the latter while serving the former!

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power

You might think that an exhibition with a title like, “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” might open in Los Angeles or New York but would you believe The Tate Modern in London?!  As I am writing it is in its second venue at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, AR ... founded by Walmart heir Alice Walton.  Unfortunately, we have not been there yet but all reports are raves!  Just as surprising in my mind is the fact that I read about the show first in Business Week magazine.

As the press release from Crystal Bridges generously notes the show was developed by the Tate.  The curators for the show are Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitley at the latter and Lauren Haynes for Crystal Bridges

In the introduction to the catalog the curators from the Tate write, ”There is no America without African American”.  Thank goodness for those who observe us objectively and not xenophobic-ly as we so often see ourselves!  As you have probably already surmised all the artists are black and the art was created between 1963 and 1983, an especially turbulent time for Black America.  The show which is a bit smaller in its second venue is organized in 12 sections, movements, geography, and civil rights being a few of them.

Here are some examples of the work in the show:

Norman Lewis’s, (1909-1979), America the Beautiful of 1960 is a black and white image with a very ironic title.  It is not the abstract image it appears to be at first.  Look closer and you will see the peaked white hoods and crosses of the Ku Klux Clan.  When abstract art was all the rage for the whites, or Anglos as I have learned to call us in the Southwest, the blacks had very different priorities to deal with!

I must admit to not being familiar with all the names  of the artists but one that is very well known to me as a big fan, is Romare Bearden (1911-1988), represented here by Pittsburgh Memory 1964.  It appears in the catalogue under a section called American Skin: Artists on Black Figuration.  His collage paintings draw from the workingman in the general populace, here accentuated by the monochromatic tones. It does not take much to imagine these two figures as steel workers, just one step above the title, slave.

Benny Andrews (1930-2006), Did the Bear Sit Under a Tree? from 1969.  I am afraid I could not find the precise meaning of the title but it is certainly a powerful statement.  Andrews grew up in the segregated American South and became a leader of black activism in the arts.  It does not take much imagination to understand “Black Power” and “Power to the People” from this painting and collage including rolled cloth of the flag and the zipper glued across the mouth of the black man.

Carolyn Mims Lawrence, (1940-), Black Children Keep Your Spirits Free 1972.  The title is right there in the center of the painting.  I find the colors and fantasy offer liberating hope, in contrast to depressingly dark, monochromatic paint.

Betye Saar’ (1926-) Rainbow Mojo from 1971 might be a positive note to end on.  I should have guessed it,--the concept for this series came out of her interest in astrology- and its bright colors create an optimistic tone.

This is a very small slice of art from the exhibition and my hope, as usual, is to have whetted your appetite to learn more.  If you are old enough, think back; if you are younger learn about the years following 1963, the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the a period of black activism, two decades that are so important to American history.

The exhibition at Crystal Bridges closes on April 23 and will travel next to The Brooklyn Museum where it will open in September.  Strange irony that where you would think the show would be born is where it ends!