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.

Sunday, February 5, 2023

Should A.I. Art Be Dismissed?

Change is difficult to deal with. Anyone over the age of 35-40 knows that. When I first saw the IBM building on 57th Street in New York about 70 years ago the display of a working computer took up most of the block between 56th and 57th Street on Madison Avenue. All these huge machines and reels of tape all of which would probably fit on the laptop I am currently writing on. At the grocery store you could buy milk, maybe skim milk. Today you will find a full row of different kinds milk: soy, almond, oat, etc. You have to adapt or hibernate.

An app called Shutterstock tells us how easy it is to create art using Artificial Intelligence (A.I.). All you have to do is follow the instructions:

1. Imagine anything! Then type it into the search bar. Click Generate.

2. Shutterstock AI generates a few versions for you to choose from

3. Edit the image in Create, if you like. Or just license and download.

You may ask, does that really create art? But how is it different from looking at some object, landscape or person and pushing a button on your phone and having the image captured? In other words, before we dismiss A.I. art we should remember the history of photography. Photographs have been for sale since the 1850’s but at the beginning it was the photographer selling you a picture of yourself or family members. There were also Cartes de Visite which people handed out and the recipients put them in their albums to remember those who visited. It was more difficult to take a selfie with an 1850 Collodion Camera!

In the late 19th century photographic images began to be created as art to put on the wall and, God forbid, for investment. According to the publication, “Afterimage”, you could buy a photograph by the famous photographer Ansel Adams for $400 in 1975 and by now spend around a $100,000 for the same vintage print. I don’t know when that was written but In 2020 this Ansel Adams photo set a record of $988,000. Do note that the value of a photo depends on many things other than the image.

A.I. is advancing by leaps and bounds and while it depends mainly on what has been done before (garbage in, garbage out) the apps keep becoming more creative. Even NFT’s depend on photography. A.I. can be another tool for art created by humans. If you think about it even a paint brush or pencil is a tool with which you create something. An individual can use the app just like an art photographer can frame or manipulate a photograph. Look through the photos you have taken in the past and how many do you really want to show to anybody outside of your family.

Here is an image created by Google using A.I.:

The Week magazine has had several brief articles on the subject of A.I. as it pertains to creative writing as well as visual art. It discusses one of many apps, Lensa, which edits images. Again, artists are concerned that this is unfair competition and will eliminate the need for their talents. They forget that there are hundreds of thousands of other artists out there who are their direct competition.

In a publication called Shutterstock Kristina Libby wrote, “We’ll continue to see A.I. create images derived from and for human pleasure—often with a human involved. These images will more and more closely resemble artwork that we see every day, until we reach a point where A.I.-generated art will look no different than human-generated art.” Why should artists fear, if they become well enough known there will be plenty of artists out there who will try to imitate what they have done. That does not mean they will be successful. “

It is also possible that A.I. will create imagery that nobody has ever seen before. Think of Jackson Pollock. Whether that scares or excites you—or both!—it’s worth contemplating.

Things change and throughout history the human species has eventually learned to adapt … and there is a whole other Missive!