Sunday, July 21, 2024

Art from War-Torn Ukraine

I cannot remember ever before seeing an exhibition that made me cry. But, so it was when I went to the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe. The current exhibition is called “Amidst cries from the Rubble: Art of Loss and Resilience”. It is a long but good title for a show that illustrates recent art from Ukraine, much of it created from the tools of war.

The curators for the show were Laura Mueller, Deputy Director of the museum, Sasha Samuels and Nina Medvinskaya. The latter did the translations and together with Sasha Samuels found the artists. Nina said that they kept in mind that the artwork featured Ukrainian folk art motifs.

I should start with the work of art that inspired our local newspaper’s weekly culture magazine to publish it on the cover. The work is by Roan Selivachov, a professional Icon painter, who started painting ammunitions boxes in 2014 with the last Russian invasion. As friends and volunteers bring more boxes back from the front the artist uses the sale of his work to provide funds for urgent military needs. He says, “It is a sort of soldier-artist symbiosis”.

Yaroslava Tkachuk applied ammunition casings to the traditional wedding garb in her painting “Woman”, 2023. The artist’s statement, “When I think of a woman, I imagine the space and energy around her. In the face of war, she acquires a newfound power to protect her children, her family, her home, her country, and all else that matters to her”.

Other poignant works using bullet casings are sculptures by Serhii Polubotko At the beginning of the full-scale invasion Polubotko worked with a blacksmith to construct defensive barriers. In his recent sculpture series “Glory to the Sunflower” he endeavors to transform materials of death into ones that affirm life. He explains “The sunflower a Ukrainian emblem, acquired a newfound meaning during the war. It has become a symbol of an unwavering, persevering, and determined nation”.

In the series “Wrapping Art-Art of Salvation” portrait photographer Marta Syrko has found her own way of supporting the cause. She has photographed a number of sculptures that have been wrapped to protect them from shrapnel and debris. This is of a 1983 sculpture by Volodymyr Semkiv.

The last image I will illustrate is a series of pendants by Volodymyr Balyberdin. He calls them “Memory of the Heart” and I see it as symbolic of hope. He has used bullet casings collected near the eastern town of Lzyum after its liberation, melting them down to combine with agate, carnelian, mother of pearl, lapis lazuli, obsidian, and jade in these jeweled pendants.

The exhibition’s introductory wall label contains a sentence that is so apt, ”Art is not merely an expression, but a lifeline – a means of making sense out of chaos”. The museum wanted to see the exhibition travel all over the world but unfortunately, they found because of the difficulties of even getting the works of art here, that this was going to be impossible. What an incredible loss that is.

Sunday, July 14, 2024

Cars Reminiscent of My Past

Every year on the 4th of July in Santa Fe there is a tradition of Pancakes on the Plaza sponsored by the Rotary Club. There are literally lines that you can stand on for hours just to get a rather poor pancake flipped by volunteers including the Governor and Mayor. Like us most Santa Feans, we have done it once! But it is a nice family day.

Along with this tradition is a vintage car show where individuals bring their vehicles to park on a couple of streets around the Plaza. Exceptions to the vintage rule can be made for a truly exceptional car. This year the exception was a Tesla Cyber Truck. I have seen it around town but could not distinguish the front from the back when the truck bed was closed. In the show, it was shown open.

When I was in primary school in New York I was picked up by the school bus. Since I went to a small school they used several station wagons rather than yellow busses. Mine was number 9. Although it was far more luxurious, the 1948 Pontiac station wagon on display was reminiscent of the Woodie I was picked up and brought home in.

I have waxed nostalgic before about my Volkswagen Bug. The first, a used 1959 model, I replaced with a new one in 1962. The Bugs through those years were very much the same. I loved the manual drive with the stick on the floor which I miss to this day. They often fooled mechanics since the engine was in the back and the trunk was in the front. Not much room in there. One of the features that distinguished the vintages of the bugs was the size of the taillights which were extremely small to start with and then got larger over the years. On the 1963 Bug in this display,  the taillights were the next size up from the 1959 version.

Even though drive-in movies began with silent pictures they became ever more popular in the 50’s and 60’s with the baby boomers. By then there were speakers to hang on the window of your car to get the best sound effects. Also, young women would come around to take your food orders. The show had an illustration of this with a 1953 Buick Special fully equipped with a speaker and food tray.

Of course, every teenage kid has his dream car and for me the dream was to own a 1963 Triumph TR3 in British racing green. The closest car I could find in the show was a 1963 TR4, which was obviously larger and in fire engine red. But hey, I will take what I can get!

I did have some runner-ups such as this 1962 MGA 1600 MKII which also had the race car styling. Maybe that’s like comparing a BMW and a Mercedes today.

Then another car I greatly admired in the 1960’s was the Chevy Corvette whose first edition came out in 1953. It is still in production today with the same feeling in style. The example in the show was the 1987 version, which is old if you are younger than me, who finds 1990 to be yesterday!

I have mentioned the cars that caught my eye, but it was interesting to see that other viewers focused on different things. Many admired the engines, the style or the history and seemed excited by everyone else’s enthusiasm.

Sunday, July 7, 2024

Art Accidents

A fact of life is that from time to time art is destroyed. Sometimes it is intentional as with the Nazi’s bonfires for what they considered degenerate art. Sometimes it is the result of war as in Ukraine. And, of course, there are natural disasters like floods and fires.

What I am looking at today is the destruction of art by stupid accidents… then again there are no smart ones. What brought this to mind was something you may have heard about recently. It was a six-foot-tall replica in wax of the Lincoln Memorial sculpture titled “40 ACRES: Camp Barker” (2024). It was to be installed at an elementary school in Washington D.C. which is on the site of a Civil War contraband camp where liberated slaves formed a community. The artist, also an art professor, is Sandy Williams IV. Though the artist was aware that the work would not last he did not expect it to melt so quickly with climate change. It has been suggested as a metaphor for the current state of the Union.

Last year at Art Wynwood, a contemporary art fair in Miami, Florida an older woman bumped into an acrylic stand for a version of Jeff Koons’ ceramic “Balloon Dog” that fell to the floor smashing into hundreds of pieces. As acrylic is a clear plastic, I see how this could happen, but it seems to me that the gallery could have better protected a very valuable artwork. Personally, I won’t miss it! Here is an image of the Dog in the installation and after its demise.

Having mentioned an incident where I was ambivalent about a work’s destruction, here is one involving a work by an artist I care very much about, Lucian Freud. The Guardian reported in April of 2000 that a crate containing a Freud still-life was delivered to Sotheby’s, London and placed in an area of disposable crates. Two workman crushed the crate without checking for contents, which happened to include that painting. I have not been able to identify the painting as no image has been published, but Sotheby’s played down its value as an early work.

Another unfortunate incident occurred at the Fitzwilliam museum when a 42-year-old man with loose shoelaces tripped down the stairs and knocked 3 important Kangxi vases (1662-1722) off their stand. Happily, the museum conservator, Penny Bendall, said she was well acquainted with hard past porcelain and did not think it would be a problem restoring them and when she had completed her work they went back on view.

In 2006 there was a story that made a lot of headlines. Real estate developer and major art collector, Steve Wynn, was showing off part of his collection to some illustrious friends including Nora Ephron, Luise Grunwald, and Barbara Walters. He had just made a deal to sell his Picasso, Le Reve (The Dream) - a portrait of Picasso's mistress Marie-Therese Walter, to hedge fund manager Steve Cohen. As he was telling his friends about its provenance his elbow accidently went into the painting creating a 2-inch tear in the canvas at the sitter’s elbow. The immediate result was that it wrecked his deal with Cohen but in 2013 when the restored painting came up at Christie's Cohen bought it for $155 million, which was more than he had offered in 2006.

My father gave me a softcover book called “A Child of Six Could Do It”. The book had cartoons and jokes about modern art. In this case, it was a child of 5 who didn’t create, but rather demolished a work. The artist R. Zhao created a Lego sculpture, valued at $15,000, of the Disney character, Nick Wilde. What would your small child do if he or she saw a big Lego figure? The children I know would touch, hit, or push it resulting in its destruction. Wouldn’t you expect that the exhibitors might have used something more than stanchions and a rope that a child could easily get under to protect it?

There are so many examples of accidents causing damage to works of art. Some are unavoidable but in others, with just a little bit of forethought could protect the art to survive another day.

Sunday, June 30, 2024

Queer in Art

Yesterday, we celebrated Pride Day, and it made me think what the celebration was about. Obviously, it is in acknowledgment that people of all persuasions should be accepted as they are and not be judged.

There is an entire segment of this country and probably the world that finds the LGBTQ+ community to be aberrant and a relatively new phenomenon. A common saying is that “A picture is worth a thousand words” so I want to look at some images from the past in order to show that this is nothing new.

My wife who attended the Institute of Fine Arts in New York often speaks of her professor who told his students that their papers should walk on their footnotes.

Here, I wish my Missive to stand on its images ...

If you are aware of history or more specifically art history, you know that images of queer couples and other manners of sexuality have existed as far back as images have been recorded. Books have been written about these subjects and I am not looking at queer artists or philosophies but just works of art in Western Culture and no further afield for this brief Missive.

There is no direct proof of queer men and women in Ancient Egypt but there is circumstantial evidence in some of the art. In this illustration we have two women assumed to be married as well as two men kising, depicted below (circa 2494-2345 BCE) who were buried together by their families. I have also included a more complete image of the two men.

Ancient Greece is better known as the beginning of depictions of homosexuals and lesbians. There is so much material here but one image that any collector would covet is this group of Lydian women. The kingdom of Lydia, in what is now Turkey, is recorded to have existed over 3 dynasties during the late Bronze age reaching its highest achievements during the 7th and 6th centuries BCE.

Then a bit later there is a courting couple illustrated on the interior of an Attic Greek Cup. The painter is said to be from Colmar circa 500-450 BCE. The object is in the Louvre.

After Greece, the next great period for art is in ancient Rome and here we find a fragment of a wall fresco showing two women dating back 1-75 CE.

An example of crossdressing or transgender identity dating from In Medieval is represented by St. Eugenia. On the 24th December the Eastern Orthodox Church remembers St Eugenia / Eugenios (monk) of Alexandria, one of the group of female saints in the early church who dressed as men to be admitted to all-male monasteries.

Then, of course, we come upon many examples of our theme dating from the Renaissance. Aside from nonspecific gender cavorting angels, a good example might be “Caravaggio’s, The Musicians (1595) in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum.

Two Women Surprised by a Cat by Jean Alphonse Roehn, French (1799-1864) does not have to be explained.

At the beginning of the next century, we find Picasso exploring the subject with two women.

The New Museum’s 2021 Triennial showed a very large painting by Anbera Wellman (1982- ). Here is the painting and a detail to bring our tour near a close.

When we get into the twentieth century and abstract art, it is more difficult to find examples in paintings, but we do have plenty of material in photography, for instance, Diane Arbus’s “Female Intimacy”.

I will end with a 21st-century photographic image by Clifford Prince King.

Clearly, queerness in its many manifestations has been with us since the beginning of time and always will be. It is part of many cultures in our diverse world.

Sunday, June 23, 2024

Visual Arts That Inspire Music

We often say that art inspires, but are never too specific about it. It is interesting to think about how one field of art can inspire another and so it is with the visual arts and music. I am speaking of inspiration and not necessarily historical accuracy.

Coming across a list of contemporary art-inspired musicians and rappers brought to mind a song I remember from my youth, Dean Martin singing Mona Lisa. He was not the first person to sing it, but I know he was played on “The Make Believe Ball Room Time” with Martin Block in the 1950s when I listened to the show with my father. I doubt I have to explain the painting so here is the song.

Paul Simon drew on the surreal artist René Magritte for his song “René and Georgette Magritte with their Dog after the War.” Simon did not take his inspiration from a Magritte painting but rather from a photograph taken shortly before the artist died in 1967 which inspired his lyrics.

The images Simon references in the song suggest Magritte’s Post War return to Surrealism. Here is the lovely song.

For something a bit more contemporary in style, we have David Bowie’s song “Andy Warhol”. Sarah Gascone wrote of that song in 2016, “ ‘Andy Warhol, silver screen/Can’t tell them apart at all.’ The words reference Wahol’s wide range of creative achievements, from music to art to film, and capture just what an important figure he was for the evolution of art.” This in spite of the fact that they did not care for each other.

Funny, but I never have thought of the Statue of Liberty as a work of art but, of course, it is. As we know it was a gift from the people of France by the French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi. It was dedicated in New York Harbor on Liberty Island in 1886. In this case, the song in its honor is quite literal. A group I have never heard of before, XTC, sang the song that starts out:

The first time I saw you standing in the water
You must have been all of a thousand feet tall
Nearly naked, unashamed like Herod's daughter
Your love was so big it made New York look small …

A lot of works of art have inspired classical music but the relationship is not always as obvious as a song with lyrics. Therefore, I have left this example for last because it is not short but if you are into classical music you might want to hear it all. Here there is a very direct correlation between the artist and his influence on music. Modest Mussorgsky composed “Pictures at an Exhibition” in memory of his friend, the Russian artist Viktor Hartmann, who died at age 39 in 1873. The composer visited a retrospective of Hartmann’s sketches, stage designs, and architectural studies and felt the need to translate the experience to a piano suite in 10 movements.

Here is the orchestrated version by Maurice Ravel with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Orchestra. 

If I have piqued your curiosity there are many more examples you can find and you probably have a few favorites of your own.

Sunday, June 16, 2024

Art on the Screen

The other day it got quite hot in Santa Fe and our swamp coolers were not doing a very good job. I was thinking that when my parents came to this country in 1939 and lived in a one-bedroom apartment backing up to a brick wall. They went to Radio City Music Hall to cool off, because there was air-conditioning in the theater. Now we watch a movie every week, but it is on our television set and we rarely go to a movie house.

Another result of the Pandemic is that television interviews are usually done remotely. Those interviewed often choose their kitchens for a background (though in one case, I saw their hotel room, bed and all) but sometimes we get to see art from their private collections.

We were watching “Franklin” the new limited series on Apple TV+ about Ben Franklin in Paris. Michael Douglas inhabits the role so convincingly that forever more we will envision him as Franklin. With great attention paid to the settings, scenes were filmed in several chateaux in France and even various rooms in Versailles! My wife and I enjoyed discussing the actual works of art that we could see in the shots.

I had not given it much thought before, but it made me look into films that are shot in locations where art is displayed, most notably museums but other places as well.

Of course, as subject matter, how many heist movies have there been with thefts from museums. Why? Because most of us have been to a museum and often we know the work of art that is being stolen. Such as in “The Thomas Crown Affair” where a bored billionaire Thomas Crown (Pierce Brosnan) decides to entertain himself by stealing a Monet from the Metropolitan Museum. Here Crown meets up with the detective, Catherine Banning (Rene Russo) who is investigating the case for the insurance company.

Why does art so often act as a backdrop for a film? I must admit here that for this question I went to Google’s Chat GPT. Here are some of the reasons I gleaned from that search. Art can set the atmosphere of a scene. One might use a shot in a gallery of abstract art in a lighthearted comedy or a scene in the Dutch galleries of the Rijksmuseum for a more somber spy film. If the plot takes place in a different country or time period art can better establish the moment.

I did not watch the popular television series “The Sopranos”, so I missed this bedroom scene where “The Visitation” (1528-29) by Jacopo Pontormo hung.

Since the characters in the series are mafioso I presume they stole the Pontormo from a small church ten miles west of Florence, in Carmignano where it belongs, or maybe when the painting was on tour in the U.S.!

I found there are several movies I look forward to streaming to catch a glimpse of the art. In Bernardo Bertolucci’s 2003 film “The Dreamers”, an American exchange student and French twins feeling isolated during the 1968 student riots in Paris take a romp through the Louvre.

In a 1961 movie called “The Duke” a 60-year-old taxi driver decides to abscond with the Goya portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery, London, in order to blackmail the government into providing more care for the elderly. It is based on a true story!

I know that from now on I will pay more attention to identify works of art used in background settings. Maybe you will join me in this armchair art spotting.

Sunday, June 9, 2024

Waste Management

There is so much talk about the environment and how to save it. A number of artists are showing their support for this effort by using all kinds of recycled materials such as scrap metal, cans, floppy discs, old cassettes, plastic toys etc.

Recycling is, of course, not new. We have repurposed vessels and tools from ancient times. Until the rise of disposable items, it was the norm. But the idea of using discards to create art … when did that happen?

You might think that Recycle Art is fairly new. In the Outsider Art Fair, you can find a number of artists who create what has been called Upcycled Art Works but that Fair only started in 1993. However, already in 1912 Picasso, who has been said to have “invented” collage, used recycled materials with bits of paper, photos, newsprint, and small objects. He did the same with sculpture with bits of wood and other scavenged materials.

Bull’s Head, 1942

Though I lived in New York most of my life I did not know that in 1977 the Department of Sanitation in New York came up with the concept of an arts residency at a waste facility. The first artist to gain the residency was Mierle Landerman Ukeles. She has continued in that position until now as the official unpaid resident. Other sanitation departments have established such residencies as well.

The New York All Street Gallery on Hester Street even had an exhibition of the work of a number of these artists. The show included work by Philadelphia’s Recycle Artist in Residence, Lily Cox-Richard, and Jade Doskow Photographer in Residence from Staten Island who concentrates on the recent history of waste management. This is an example of Cox-Richard's work.

I continue to learn. The headline on this article from Artnet is “Taking Stock: A Massive Group Show Takes over a Queens Pantyhose Warehouse”! Andrew Russeth in this recent article makes a statement I never thought I would see: “Without hosiery, contemporary art would be a great deal poorer. “He continues “for decades, Senga Nengudi has stretched pantyhose into inventive sculptures, Sarah Lucas has dressed uncanny human figures in stockings, and Ernesto Neto has filled hose with all kinds of spices to build beguiling installations. Now those garments, in some sense, have inspired a spirited group show, “Means of Production,” at a warehouse on the edge of Queens with more than 70 participants—a few established, most emerging. You should see it.” Here is a brief video with Senga Nengudi on her use of pantyhose in her art ... 

This November Santa Fe will have its 25th annual Recycled Santa Fe Art Festival with juried adult and student exhibitions. With the work of over 100 artists, it claims to be the largest and oldest Recycle Art market. One of the most popular features has proven to be the highly imaginative fashion show. Here is an image from the Recycled Festival.

What better way to make a statement about recycling than creating art out of what others discard and there is a possible bonus that it will be again recycled when someone buys it and puts it on their wall or maybe even wears it!