Sunday, March 26, 2023

Patrick Hughes: A Three-Dimensional Artist

My British cousin, Karen Demuth, introduced us to the work of Patrick Hughes (1939- ) years ago when she worked at the Flowers Gallery in London. If we had been collectors of contemporary art, we would have bought one of his paintings and, though I am very much against collecting as an investment, this would have been a good candidate. In 2014 the gallery produced a 240-page monograph on Hughes “A Newer Perspective”. When I see one of his paintings, even in reproduction, I still feel that I am not just an onlooker but a participant, walking down the alleyways of his vision. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Time has passed and Karen has left Flowers and is now Hughes’ agent, managing his sales and exhibition program in coordingation with museums and galleries.

I am writing about him now because he will have an exhibition from April 1 to May 30 in the venerable New Orleans gallery, M.S. Rau, founded in 1912. They are calling it, “The Witty World of Patrick Hughes”. If you are not able to be in New Orleans the show will be available at

Hughes has works in a number of public collections including the Tate Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, the Guggenheim Museum, New York, The Denver Art Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. His work has also been seen in exhibitions around the world.

Here is an image of a painting belonging to the Birmingham Museum ...

Credit: Birmingham Museums Trust

What makes Patrick Hughes distinctive is the optical technique by which he envelops you in the scene he depicts. Inspired by his childhood experience staring up at the underside of the basement stairs as he hid from the World War II bombing raids, he developed what he calls “Reverspectives”. These are “three-dimensional works painted on projecting panels that give different readings of a scene as the viewer moves.

Hughes has been credited with “inventing” reverse perspective. With reverse perspective objects farther away from the viewing plane are drawn as larger, and closer objects are drawn as smaller, in contrast to the more conventional linear perspective for which closer objects appear larger.

I find the painting titled “Catalogues 2021” most enticing. It evokes the experience of actually being part of the library as opposed to wandering down its rows of shelves.

The full effect is impossible to see in a photograph, but you can get the idea from the video of a Hughes’ painting where you seem to move through the Barnes Collection.

Linear perspective is certainly not new. Brendan Flynn, curator of Fine Art, Birmingham (England) Museum & Art Gallery writes, “Hughes is developing a line of enquiry which has preoccupied generations of European artists. The architect Brunelleschi (1377-1446) was one of the first artists to make interactive artwork that demonstrated the principle of perspective. By example here is a painting by Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627-1678) View of a Corridor (1662).

Dyrham Park, National Trust

The Flynn article continues, “His discovery and development of reverse perspective gave Hughes an even more potent mechanism for loosening the grip of experience on the viewer’s imagination. It relies on the fact that the human brain and eye are adapted during early childhood to apprehend space in terms of linear perspective – converging parallel lines imply recession and distant objects appear smaller.”

Viewing a Hughes painting is a truly interactive experience that can be disorienting at first as the artist makes you forget what you know of your own world as he allows you to get lost in his.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

The Pink Panther Gang

Who doesn’t like a good heist story, particularly one named after the Peter Sellers 1970’s movie series “The Pink Panther”. The gang was named after a real life robbery of the London jewelers Graff in 2003. The robbers hid a gem in a jar of cold cream, a scenario straight out of the 1975 movie “The Return of the Pink Panther”. In under 40 seconds this video explains precisely how the 2003 heist was perpetrated. Video appears right under the title ...

What caught my attention was the recent headline in Artnet News: “Dutch Police Are Closing In on the So-Called ‘Pink Panther Gang’ Behind the Astonishing Daytime Diamond Heist at TEFAF Maastricht.” TEFAF stands for The European Fine Arts Fair that started in Maastricht the Netherlands and remains there with an offshoot with more modern and contemporary art in New York. This year’s fair in Maastricht closed yesterday, and included 270 of the best art galleries around the world ...

Last year, when TEFAF reopened after a two-year Covid hiatus, four well-dressed visitors at the booth of a Bond street jeweler, Symbolic & Chase, used a sledgehammer to smash a case and make off with the exhibited jewelry. They got away with 10 pieces, the most valuable, a 114-carat diamond necklace purported to be worth $29 million. Two suspects were arrested shortly thereafter but two got away.

The Pink Panthers are believed to be responsible for at least 370 heists. Estimates have put the groups' takings at around US$500 million. These are most likely retail figures. There are estimated to be 300-400 men and women (the published numbers vary up to 800) in the gang from former Yugoslavian states such as Serbia and Montenegro. They are further believed to be remnants of the Bosnian War who have made use of their militaristic skills.

In 2016 the Magazine Town and Country published a story saying, “Early Monday morning, five armed men disguised as police officers broke into Kim Kardashian's hotel room in Paris, held her at gunpoint, and stole over $11 million of jewelry. Few criminals have the wherewithal to pull off a heist like that and leave no trail, so it's already rumored that the infamous Pink Panthers were behind that robbery as well.”

Why are these thieves so successful? They differentiate themselves from other organized crime groups with the organization of their operations. Attractive women in expensive clothes and jewelry scout out the possibilities. Never more than five execute any strike. They try to avoid violence by striking suddenly and with impact like the example shown in the video above where they rammed two Audis into the jewelry shop in a Dubai mall. They act swiftly and with precision. They are not rummaging around but know what they have come for, get it and get out.

Over the years Interpol (The International Criminal Police Organization) has made inroads and captured a number of members of the Pink Panthers and learned of their structure and modus operandi. Interestingly enough the gang itself only receives a portion of the takings, estimated at 40%. Diamond buyers make most of the money by selling the jewels in Antwerp, Belgium where the majority of the black-market deals are made.

Keeping the large organization decentralized helps to hide the gang’s order of command and the identity of the leadership is still unknown.

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Attacking Public Libraries & Librarians!

In May of last year in a Missive about Banned Book Clubs I wrote, “Happily, individual libraries and librarians are at the forefront of keeping freedom to read what you wish alive and encouraging young people to learn history and societies priorities through reading. The Brooklyn Public Library is offering free digital library cards to young people ages 13 to 21 across in the U.S.”

I spoke too soon. On March 4th of this year Hannah Allam of The Washington Post published very frightening article, she writes “… a parent-led movement in a handful of schools to ban books about race and sexuality has evolved into an organized nationwide campaign that library advocates say represent the greatest threat to intellectual freedom since the McCarthy era.”

That is Senator Joseph McCarthy, who, together with his allies, in the late 1940’s and through the 1950’s saw communists everywhere and suspected anyone with leftward leanings. They were blacklisted if not thrown in jail. Pete Seeger the well known folk singer was one of the victims of McCarthy’s congressional hearings. As a result Seeger was banned from television and radio during the 1950’s and 60’s.

Do read his amazing story.

It is always the same, those who do not learn history are bound to repeat it.

According to the American Library Association (ALA) their members face “an unprecedented threat of censorship, fueled by a blend of hard-right politics and Christian nationalism… Librarians who reject book banning have been threatened, harassed, sued, fired and labeled “groomers” and “pedophiles” by social media”.

It gets even worse as politicians are pushing for laws to criminalize teachers and librarians. No wonder these underpaid people who work for a more educated public are quitting because on top of everything else they are being terrorized.

Last year Pen America celebrated its 100th anniversary. From their website, “PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect free expression in the United States and worldwide.” Pen acknowledges 1,641 book titles blacklisted and writes that there are more. The subject matter covers a very wide range, not just sex issues such as LGBTQ+ and racism, but also books about rights and activism and even books with characters and stories that reflect minorities, such as Jewish, Muslim and other faiths and traditions.

The two most banned books on one list are The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie and the Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey . With Sherman Alexie the controversy stems from his discussion of alcohol, poverty, bullying, violence, and sexuality. I am reading another book by Alexie right now where those subjects are included as part of the life of a Native American on the Spokane Reservation in the state of Washington. What are we protecting people from? The Truth!

The banned Captain Underpants series won a Kids' Choice Award on April 4, 2006. It includes 12 books, two activity books, and 15 spin-offs that, as of 2014, the series had been translated into more than 20 languages, with more than 80 million books sold worldwide. Are we to protect elementary schoolers from the stories of two misbehaving 4th grade boys who invent a superhero in underwear that has engaged so many in reading?

The Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, upon hearing that her most famous book, “The Handmaid’s Tale” was being banned encouraged those that banned it. She said the more the book is banned the more copies she will sell. The censors, however, are going after bookstores as well.

Self-censorship is the next step. Puffin Books, the publishers of Roald Dahl’s classic dark children’s books, are now issuing sanitized versions eliminating descriptions like fat, ugly, bald and crazy.

Are ‘they’ going to censor Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” next? You don’t think so? From Hamlet, “That’s a fair thought, to lie between maids’ legs”. Hopefully ‘they’ have not read it yet.

Sunday, March 5, 2023

A Show I Missed: “Wit, Humor, Satire”

If I listed all the exhibitions that I wanted to see that I missed, I could fill a few volumes, for example the Vermeer show that opens this month at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The one I am about to write about I have no excuse for missing since it was only an hour away at the Albuquerque Museum, but so it goes. I salved my wounds by acquiring the 218- page catalog which clearly came out after the exhibition opened.

The Museum Director, Andrew Connors, reports that one of the visitors wrote in the museum’s comment book, “This exhibition isn’t very funny”. How often have you thought that someone has no sense of humor? We all literally have a different sense of humor. What one individual might perceive as comical satire, another may take as an attack on their beliefs. Just between husband and wife we find we are not always laughing at what the other finds funny.

The Albuquerque exhibition draws exclusively on the Museum’s permanent collection which is limiting, but it turns out that there was more than enough material. It must have been an enjoyable process for the curators looking at the collection and picking and choosing. Just as with my Missives, once I start with what I think is a limited subject I find that there is so much more that I had not thought of in the first place.

The Museum’s chief curator Josie Lopez, quotes the American humorist James Thurber, “The wit makes fun of other persons; the satirist makes fun of the world; the humorist makes fun of himself, but in so doing, he identifies himself with people – that is people everywhere, not of the purpose of taking them apart, but simply revealing their true nature.” Fro myself I prefer works that that do not require an explanation, but like, with everything else, in order to properly understand the subject, context is needed. Obviously, that is truer of satire than any other form.

I will highlight just a few of the more that 100 works in the exhibition.

Jewelry is one of the art forms of Native American culture. An unknown Zuni artist chose this medium to blend Native and Anglo cultures in a necklace of silver beads and with Disney characters in traditional Zuni inlay, including Micky and Minnie converging at the bottom. I can see it being viewed differently if it is worn by another Native American, who may see it as satire, or by an Anglo taking it just as amusement.

Patrick McGrath Muñiz, an artist I have mentioned several times over the years and devoted a Missive to his work ( titles his painting, “The Disneyfication of a Hero”. This 2010 work measures 38 x 52 inches so it is difficult to see all the detail in the image below. The classical hero Hercules is surrounded with images from the history of various cultures including Muñiz’ native Puerto Rico. There are references to violence and threats such as the censorship of books, (on the right is the 16th century Spanish prelate who burned Mayan scriptures). These disturbing images are mitigated by Disney characters scattered throughout the painting.

A drawing by Julio Fernandez Larraz satirizes President Lynden Baines Johnson speaking ata Meeting of the National Alliance of Businessmen in 1968, thanking them and encouraging them to hire more workers in order to get more people working and stimulate the economy. The President mentioned Henry Ford ll several times, praising him as a leader of the group. Larrraz responded with this caricature of a two-headed figure of Johnson with his foot in an old car and holding a screwdriver and Ford with his foot in one of his new models holding a pencil … the two united for a single purpose.

I once owned a print of the 1974 photograph by Judy Dater included in the exhibiton. It is an image that always made me smile. The revered photographer Imogen Cunningham, at the age of 90, is shown coming across the model Twinka Thiebaud in the woods. Imogen looks surprised and Twinka seems embarrassed by this famous photographer seeing her for the first time in her state of undress. Dater thought of the image as a take off on Thomas Hart Benton’s 1938 voyeuristic “Perephone” in the Nelson-Atkins Museum.

Are any of these images Wit, Humor or Satire? It all depends on you the viewer, not necessarily the artist.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Shi Guorui & The Camera Obscura

A few weeks ago, we went down to the Albuquerque Museum to catch the last days of an exhibition called "Thomas Cole’s Studio: Memory and Inspiration".

Here I am focusing on the last word of the show’s title “Inspiration”. One of the contemporary artists included in the exhibition was Shi Guorui, a Chinese American artist who uses a camera obscura to create very large images. The name of this show within a show is “Ab/sense-Pre/Sense”. Shi’s images in this case were based on the landscape paintings of Thomas Cole (1801-1848), founder of The Hudson River School.

The camera obscura was the forerunner of the cameras we know today. The earliest known reference was provided by a Chinese philosopher called Mo-tzu (or Mozi) in 400BC. He noted that light from an illuminated object that passed through a pinhole into a dark room created an inverted image of the original object. Later on, the concept was recreated using a box or tent as housing.

Shi Guorui was photographed by Nathan Bajar for The New York Times, building his camera obscura out of a tent in a forest near Kaaterskill Falls in the Hudson River Valley. The artist spent 34 hours in that tent to get his time lapse photos of the falls.

Shi moved to Catskill, New York from Beijing in 2014 when he was in his late 40’s. Thomas Cole was one of the few Western artists he had been allowed to study at his art school and he became fascinated with Cole’s landscapes. He had an “eye” similar to Cole’s in their shared love of nature. For this exhibition Shi retraced Cole’s steps through the Hudson Valley to capture those similar images, literally in a different light.

Shi travelled all over this country to see as many of Cole’s landscapes as possible and then back to Catskill to re-capture those images in an ancient medium. Hanging huge sheets of light sensitive photographic paper to absorb the images projected over many hours through his large-scale camera obscura, he creates haunting black and white landscapes. According to the posting in the museum Shi used the camera obscura to slow things down in reaction to the frenetic pace of life in China and, of course, what we see in cities here as well.

What was a surprise to me was that Cole himself used a small camera obscura to frame the landscape and define the composition of his paintings; an iPhone would have saved him a lot of work!

Both Cole and Shi Gourui put into words their effort to convey something beyond the visual record: "Years! They are naught to [a mountain], and centuries and centuries roll by harmlessly." - Thomas Cole, Journal July 8, 1837

"Time flies and things change. All the way through history, natural scenery and constructions remain, while relevant people disappear. ... Living in the present, how can we recapture and reproduce historical thoughts, opinions, feelings, or memories by means of photography? And what new experiences and feelings can we come up with during the process of recapture and reproduction?" -Shi Guoru

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Is All Art Political?

Last week an artist friend said to me “All art is political”. I have heard the statement before and started to think about it. In order to asses the idea, we have to define “political”. In this country it has come to be confined to government but here is the broader definition: “Politics (from Greek: Πολιτικά, politiká, 'affairs of the cities') is the set of activities that are associated with making decisions in groups, or other forms of power relations among individuals, such as the distribution of resources or status.”

I have written recently about murals. Clearly these images are statements, sometimes in protest and sometimes in celebration but as public art murals address a group that may be for or against the message of the artist.

Though we are taught that in this country there is separation between church and state we can see that that is blatantly untrue. The governing of a state cannot be separated from the religious views of its people that affect its leaders and lawmakers. Law mirrors society.

Cave paintings are generally interpreted as having symbolic or religious meaning to those who created and observed them. Some believe that they relate to Shamanic beliefs and practices. Then we have the religious works of art from the Middle Ages. They too are in celebration of the divine, but they also bolstered social control of the Church. In a publication “Retrospect Journal”, Shea Furguson writes, “During the Italian Renaissance, art was a deeply political endeavor, often blatantly so. In his work on painting in Renaissance Italy, scholar Michael Baxandall writes of the social relationships that gave context to the creation of artwork; on one side there was a painter who produced a piece, and on the other a commissioner who portrayed a vision and provided the funds necessary for its completion.” Later the dramatic religious imagery of the Baroque was a blatant tool of the Catholic Church of the Counter-Reformation.

Master of the St. Lucy Legend, Madonna and Child with Angels,
Donor and his Patron Saint (1483), Los Angeles County Museum

It is more difficult to see but even landscapes of the 19th century have political implications. Romantic images of the American landscape from Thomas Cole, , to Albert Bierstadt, and Frederick Edwin Church lured people westward to an ever-advancing frontier. You only see the beauty but not the reality of hardship, primitive lifestyle nor the massacres of the Native Americans. According to the abstract artist Julie Mehretu regarding the American frontier, “The abolitionist movement, the Civil War, the move towards emancipation all of the social dynamics that are a part of the narrative we don’t really talk about in regard to American landscape painting. And so what does it mean to paint a landscape and try and be an artist in this political moment.”

Frederick Church, “Valley of the Santa Ysabel” (1875),
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

I had trouble getting my head around the political implications of abstract expressionism. Then I thought about what one of my art history professors said speaking of Willem De Kooning (1904-1987) and his work. “His women look like they have been shoved from a 3rdstory window.” This was said in the early sixties about the artist’s works from the 1950’s. Abstract Expressionism came in after the horrors of World War II when the world had been on fire. Think of the emotions that must have exploded into the works of artists at that time as they rejected the pre-existing rules and expectations of the art establishment.

William De Kooning “Woman on Bicycle”
(1952-53) Whitney Museum

Clyfford Still “1957-J No. 2” Clyfford Still Museum

You don’t have to accept what I have written but if you think about art throughout history the artists who have been remembered are those who have succeeded in conveying their beliefs and feelings to the observer. Isn’t that what politicization is all about.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Art I Used To Hate

It is amazing how tastes change over time, or is it just that we adapt to what is?

Let’s start with something simple like fruit. When I was young if I did not care for fruit and only ate it to be polite when it was served to me. Then one day decades later we were invited to stay at the home of the director of the museum director from the museum in Portland Oregon where Penelope was to become a curator. Every morning for breakfast there was a big bowl with berries and other fruit. Penelope and I both liked it and ever since have made it part of our breakfast at home. Yes, my taste must have changed but there were certainly other factors. We were not in NYC but on the west coast, i.e., better fruit? And the ambience was great …

People change over time: some define it as maturity. We get used to the unknown which scares everyone at first. Frank Lloyd Wright’s (1867-1959), last project opened the same year he died and was nothing like anything anyone in Manhattan had seen before, and certainly not for a museum. It was the circular gallery of the Guggenheim Museum, which was to house, what was a then a collection of contemporary “non-objective” art. The first question that all wanted to know was how do you install flat paintings on curved walls. Its first director, Thomas Messer, was asked that question over and over again. He would chuckle and basically say “You get used to it and then enjoy the process. It becomes a creative effort.” Though I was horrified at the age of 15, I now enjoy it as a landmark on a corner contrasting with the surrounding rectangular high rises.

A half century ago my father gave me a book called, A Child Of Six Could Do It: Cartoons About Modern Art” by George Melly. It was, in my opinion, a put down of abstract art. Understanding is a part of a change in attitude and if you can learn what the artist saw or felt while he was working it helps to reach and move you. I have mentioned before that seeing one Rothko you might think that it is just a few blobs of paint of muted colors on a canvas. I am sorry I could not find the author but on line at The School of Life I found the following, “The most unexpectedly uplifting and consoling artist of the 20th century was the abstract painter Mark Rothko, the high priest of grief and loss who spent the latter part of his career turning out a succession of sublime and somber canvases that spoke, as he put it, of the ‘tragedy of being human’.” I was first surprised to discover this feeling at lunch in a private home where the dining room had Rothkos on the walls. I experienced it again in the contemplative environment of the Rothko Chapel in Houston.

Diane Arbus (1923-1971) is a very well-known name in the annals of photography but when we were collecting I had absolutely no interest in owning one of her works. The reason was simple, they gave me the creeps and still do. In 1971 she committed suicide by both taking barbiturates and cutting her wrists with a razor. A rather gruesome and lonely end. I still don’t wish to own her works but I have come to appreciate them in the light of what she must have been personally going through. Here are 3 Arbus images in one frame.

I am going to end with sculpture that I have never liked and don’t believe I will live long enough to change my mind. For me it is pure kitsch. The artist is Jeff Koons (1955 -). According to the press for a 2009 exhibition at the Tate in London, he “is known for his use of themes and subjects from popular culture (such as toys, ornaments and advertising) characteristic of pop art. But Koons’s work also has qualities that suggest minimalist art.” Maybe so, but I just don’t understand how, in 2019 the estate of magazine magnate S. I. Newhouse, Koons’ stainless steel rabbit sold for 91 million dollars.

That is what is both fun and serious about art, you can make up your own mind and you are neither right nor wrong.