Sunday, April 24, 2011

Earth & Sky

At the moment there are two photography exhibitions at the New Mexico Art Museum. One is titled “Cloudscapes” the other “Earth Now”. “Cloudscapes” is an exhibit of just 30 images in a single gallery. “Earth Now” is probably 3 times that many taking up the entire new exhibition wing of the museum.

For me the initial reaction to any art form is all important. Does the image, be it photograph, painting or pot, please me or in some way intrigue. If it doesn’t, why bother. The message the curator is trying to pass along through the combination of images presented is secondary, but certainly can make the total experience more interesting and worthwhile. Even when the curator’s message is not communicated, you hopefully have a collection of enjoyable images and don’t feel you are leaving empty handed.

I was not disappointed on either score in these two exhibitions. The images demonstrate the excellent eye of Kate Ware, curator of photography at the museum. I knew quickly that I had not wasted my time.

I have taken acceptable photographs since the age of six and in college took courses where themes were set for specific topics. I have found this a useful discipline, which I have continued. Clouds has always been one of my favorite subjects. They are ever-changing and can be lyrical or down right frightening but either way they are extremely difficult to capture. Therefore I went into “Cloudscapes”, an exhibition by the great old masters, predisposed to a positive experience.

The works in “Cloudscapes” show clouds in different states from puffs of clouds as in Laura Gilpin’s (1891-1979), “The Big Band Country” (1949) to “Storm from La Bajada Hill” (1946) by the same artist where one can actually see the rain pouring down in the distance. A great percentage of the images are in black and white of the earlier vintage that I grew up with.

“Earth Now” is about the environment that we presently live in and most of the contemporary material demonstrates how we have abused the land.

The introductory piece is a video entitled “Kamilo (Twisted Waters) The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” (2010) by Robert Gaylor. As you are listening to the surf, you see a kaleidoscope of pieces of plastic, that are not bio-degradable, swirling in the waters in the ocean. The souvenir package that I picked up next to the video is filled with tiny pieces of plastic taken directly from the patch in the Pacific, with the label “Plastic is forever”.

In a staged image by Patrick Nagatani (1945-) called “Waste Isolation Plant, Nuclear Crossroads US 285, 60,54’, (1989) from the series “Scenes, Nuclear Enchantment” we see an interpretation of fouling (fowling) the land. A flat bed truck with large aluminum storage tanks presumably holding nuclear waste passes on a highway through a desolate rural area. Lying in the foreground before a roadside historical marked are three dead birds with their legs up in the air.

I relate more easily to earlier black and white photography and while that defines much of “Cloudscapes”, in “Earth Now” there are also a few early images of the land by Ansel Adams (1902-1984) and Elliot Porter (1901-1990). These are beautiful and lyrical which makes the contrast to the contemporary all the more stark.

One of the labels on the wall near the end of the exhibition deals with what has happened environmentally through the medium of photography. Both Adams and Porter were members of the Sierra Club who showed the beauty of the land, but like all photographers pre-1970 they used a toxic process to create their images. These incredible images caused people to want to visit these sites. But when they arrived in great numbers they trampled the land, ruining the very nature that they came to see.

This we can view explicitly in an image by Bill Owens (1938-) titled “Monument Valley, Utah/Arizona” that shows five Port-A-Sans on an asphalt road in the middle of beautiful Monument Valley.

I cannot finish without mentioning my favorite image in “Earth Now”, it is from a series “Grid Lines” by Bremmer Benedict, “Cedar Wash” (2002), who conveys the eerie majesty of the towers of power lines in rural spaces.

What I found most surprising in my own response to the two exhibitions was that while I was totally in love with “Cloudscapes”, and found “Earth Now” a great effort, I had far more to contemplate and learn from the latter.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sammlung Prinzhorn, Heidelberg

On my recent trip to Germany I was able to visit the source of the field of Outsider Art, the Prinzhorn Collection in the lovely University town of Heidelberg. My interest in the subject was reawakened by an exhibition I saw earlier this year, but it goes back to my father who showed me a book, “Bildnerei der Geisteskranken” (Artistry of the mentally ill) published in Germany in 1922, by Dr. Hans Prinzhorn (1886 -1933).

Prinzhorn was born in Westphalia and studied Philosophy and Art History earning his doctorate in Vienna; later he studied medicine and psychiatry and served as an army surgeon during WW I.

In 1919 he worked as an assistant at the psychiatric hospital at the University of Heidelberg and there he expanded the collection that had already been started of artwork created by the mentally ill. It became his passion. He believed that one could learn about the inner workings of the mind through the creative power in everyone. He related it to children’s art and folk art. . His 1922 book was highly influential, particularly in the art world, and Dubuffet latched onto his ideas, defining Art Brut (outsider art).

Patients and psychiatrists alike from Europe and America sent Prinzhorn images. By the time he left Heidelberg in 1921 the collection had an inventory of 5,000 pieces. Each work that came in was carefully catalogued with a number, the name of the patient (artist) and where it came from.

Prinzhorn was not just interested in the traditional analysis of patients through their creations but he was fascinated by the relationship of scientific study of mental disorders and artistic composition He felt they were all the result of the same psychic expression. Regarding the works made by the mentally ill in the same manner as works by recognized masters, he leveled the playing field, allowing others to experience the work.

After Prinzhorn’s death in 1933 the collection was stored at the Heidelberg psychiatric clinic. In 1938 some works were taken out and included in Hitler’s “Degenerate Art” exhibition to show how the insane and the Jews were synonymous!

The museum is located where it all began in the Psychiatric Clinic of the University of Heidelberg. Although it is quite small, though there are plans for expansion, it has regularly changing exhibitions drawn from the collection and often focusing on a particular artist.

When you walk in there is a monitor on which, upon request, they play a 15-minute video which is a recreation of scenes of Prinzhorn interviewing patients and asking them to explain the meaning of their works. Many images from the collection are shown, some of them illustrated here.

As I was leaving I enquired whether they continued to build the collection and the answer was, “selectively”. I asked whether the works of art were collected from artists who were considered insane and the lady replied, “not today”. I hesitated and asked, “how about disturbed”, and she nodded, “yes”!

During my visit I had the feeling of falling in love. Sadly I had discovered another field of art that I could neither afford nor make room for.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Surreale Dinge (Surreal Objects)

At the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, I was pleasantly surprised to find the exhibition Surreale Dinge (Surreal Objects). I enjoy most an exhibition that a) makes me smile or gasp, Wow! and b) that helps me to see art in a new way; one that I had not thought of before.

Once I had entered the show, I can only describe the experience of walking up the steps to the main hall like being inside an amusement park fun house. The light was low with a reddish tinge. On the red painted walls were models of body parts and heads with various other objects hanging at odd angles off the walls. At the top of the flight of stairs I found normal exhibition galleries which began with a wall of quotes from the surrealists artists themselves. Then came a few of the surreal mannequins presented as they were in the Surrealist exhibition at the Galerie Beaux-Arts in 1938, on platforms without vitrines independent and unrelated to each other. None really making any logical sense. The following galleries held 150 more surrealist objects of all descriptions as well as photos of objects.

André Breton, the writer and critic was one of the founders of the surrealist movement which came out of the devastating experience of World War I and the Dadaism. He presented the first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924 which I have looked at and it is impossible to explain or repeat without 6 more blogs! The most direct and simple definition that I could find according to the WebMuseum's glossary is, “surrealism is a 20th-century literary and artistic movement that attempts to express the workings of the subconscious by fantastic imagery and incongruous juxtaposition of subject matter.”

The first exhibition which was devoted to the surrealist object was in 1936 at the Galerie Ratton in Paris; here and at the Galerie Beaux-Arts in 1938 we find the genesis for the present exhibition. The idea of surrealism and the exhibition is to push the viewer to look at things differently and it certainly succeeded with me!

I have seen many photographs of surrealist objects but seeing the three-dimensional works themselves, they make much more sense to me. Somehow the penny never dropped that the photo images I had seen in the past were mere substitutes for the objects themselves and lacked their emotional impact. Man Ray’s iron with spikes coming out of the center underneath perfectly illustrates Salvador Dali’s 1942 definition: “The Surrealist Object is one that is absolutely useless from a practical point of view and is irrational, created wholly for the purpose of materializing in a fetishistic way, with the maximum of tangible reality, ideas and fantasies that have an insane character.”

One of the most provocative entries in the exhibition was a breast with fur surrounding it, Marcel Duchamp and Enrico Donati’s, „Prière de Toucher“, 1947. Of course in the museum display they covered it in plexi. What kill- joys these museum curators are!

André Breton said already in 1924, “In the bad taste of my time I go further than anyone else, or I try to anyway.” The prime exampl
e for me in this instance was done a quarter century later in 1953 by Hans Bellmer “Halbpuppe” or “Half Doll” which shows one arm, one leg, one breast and in the top of the head the ass crack. To me the work relates to another Breton quote, this time from 1953, “In surrealism, woman is loved and glorifies as the great promise that will still exist after its been fulfilled.”

If a picture is worth a thousand words I would assert that seeing a 3-dimensional work of art is worth a thousand photos of it. Although Surrealism was part of my art education it was only in seeing this exhibition of Surreal objects that I truly felt the impact of the movement.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Le Salon du Dessin and Drawings Week in Paris

I arrived in Paris to participate in drawings week which culminates with the Salon du Dessin where a select group of the best dealers from France and around the world show their best works on paper but this is not the only event of the week. Many other dealers hold exhibitions in their own galleries or ones they “borrowed” for the occasion. Here one can sometimes make a “discovery”. At the salon the discoveries have often already been made and you can buy and enjoy but at some of the “smaller” galleries, many on the left bank, there is much more to think about. It is nice to have certainty and security (if such things exist) but it can be even more fun to enjoy the possibility of discovery.

My first day, Sunday, in Paris I went to visit a friend on the left bank who has a small but choice gallery. I had received the catalog in advance and gone specifically to see two drawings and as so often happens I decided that neither was for me but I bought another, possibly better for the American market because not only has the authorship been blessed by “The Authority”, but the painting that it was done for has been identified. I was lucky, I arrived at the gallery on Sunday morning before a couple who were considering the piece, but had not reserved it, came in during the afternoon.

Monday, there were auction sales to view and then get back to my computer to research some of that data. Though, as I think I have said before, I much prefer to buy privately or from dealers where I know what I will or will not pay and can make more rational choices.

Then in the evening the Louvre’s drawing department opened it’s doors to a special invitation list of serious drawings specialists consisting of dealers, collectors, scholars and curators. One always runs into friends and people you want to see but inevitably there are names that you can just not pull out in time! On the tables in the drawings study the Louvre curators have put out drawings without frames and without labels so the cognoscenti huddle together trying to work out who the artist might be. It reminds me of Daumier’s illustrations of the Connoisseurs.

There is always a theme and this his year it was French drawings that had been in the famed Pierre-Jean Mariette (1694-1774) collection. Former Louvre director and French scholar Pierre Rosenberg has just published his 464 page, volume 1 of the collection as well a facsimile edition of the original 18th century Mariette auction catalog showing many of the lots with small sketches by Gabriel de St. Aubin, certainly more sympathetic than today’s illustrations.

Though the week will continue with a myriad of openings, lectures and exhibitions, the main event, as mentioned, comes on Tuesday evening with the opening of the 20th Anniversary of the Salon du Dessin. The public began to swarm in at 4pm sharp but they did not necessarily buy immediately though some did. Many just enjoy and appreciate the experience of a wonderful group of drawings that they can bask in.

Having said that, when I walked in shortly before 6 pm I already saw a number of red dots on various galleries stands. In some cases for the “most important” work in the booth but more often not. Collectors were not looking for trophies they were looking for what spoke to them and fit into their collections. The flow of people in an out all evening was quite incredible.

Having been to Maastricht where I already saw over 25% of the 39 dealers exhibiting there were many pieces that were not new to me. Yet some dealers brought an entire other set of drawings or at least many that had not been seen in Maastricht.

There was a lovely German Romantic picture that I had been debating in Maastricht but could not make up my mind and sad to say it was no longer available and had remained with a Maastricht collector. Well, at least I need no longer lose any sleep over it.

If I find a few works of art that I not only think are wonderful but that I also believe are attainable, even if it is only in my fantasy, that is what makes a fair for me.