Photorealism @ Flint Institute of Arts

From Lens to Eye to Hand: Photorealism 1969 to Today

Davis Cone, American, born 1950. State-Autumn Evening, 2002. Acrylic on canvas. 26 1/2 × 46 ½” Collection of John Gordon.

According to the ancient historian Pliny the Elder, two rival artists, Zeuxis and Parrhasius, once had a public competition to determine which of the two was the better painter.  When Zeuxis unveiled his painting of a bowl of grapes, the story goes that they were so realistic that birds approached the painting and pecked at it.  Convinced he had won, Zeuxis turned to his rival and asked him to unveil his painting.  But Zeuxis had been deceived; Parrhasius had merely painted a very realistic image of a veil, which had fooled not just Zeuxis, but everyone present, and he was thus declared the winner.  The tradition of hyper-realistic painting never died, and even in the 20thcentury when abstract expressionism took the world by storm, some artists chose instead to rebel against the rebels by creating paintings that rivaled photography in their realism.  Through August 12, a fine survey of the first and second generation of photorealist painters is on view at the Flint Institute of Arts, emphatically making the point that the realist tradition is alive and well.

Robert Bechtle, American, born 1932. ’73 Malibu, 1974. Oil on canvas. 48 × 69 inches, Meisel Family Collections, New York

The show snugly fills the spacious Hedge and Henry galleries at the FIA, and traces the history of photorealism from 1969 through the present.  The movement began in densely populated areas in America’s east and west coasts, and the subject matter frequently featured the stuff of urban life.  Early photorealist artists like John Salt and Robert Bechtle produced candid images of automobiles, going out of their way to not beautify the mechanized, industrial world of postwar America. John Salt’s Albuquerque Wreckyarddepicts a junkyard populated with abandoned cars.  Although the scene is unidealized, Salt flaunts his deft ability to connivingly translate reflective chrome surfaces into paint, and the effect is visually striking.  The painting also works as understated social commentary on consumption and waste.  Tom Blackwell’s arrestingly large paintings take a different approach, focusing instead on the aesthetics of the wiring and mechanical components beneath the hood.  His Indian’s Chopper Modified ’57 Harley offers us a close-up of the inner workings of a motorcycle.  Divorced from any frame of reference or context, the highly reflective chrome and the intricacies of the engine components almost become a work of abstract art.

John Salt, English, born 1937. Albuquerque Wreck Yard (Sandia Auto Electric), 1972. Oil on canvas. 48 × 72″, Meisel Family Collections, New York

This exhibition makes clear that there are different approaches to photorealism.  Some artists wanted their paintings to quite literally translate photographs into paint, replete with points of sharp focus in the foreground and blurring and distortion in the background.  Audrey Flack’s iconic 20thcentury vanitas Wheel of Fortune, is a good example.  And at almost ten feet square, this monumental painting is arguably the star of the show.  Other artists believed that painting could actually improve on photography.  Richard Estes’s cityscapes portray the world in extreme lucidity—both foreground and background retain crisp focus.  Strictly speaking, Estes is a photorealist, but his paintings certainly don’t look like photos.

Audrey Flack, American, born 1931. Wheel of Fortune, 1977–1978. Acrylic and oil on canvas. 96 × 96″, Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, New York. Gift of Louis K. and Susan P. Meisel, 2016.20

The show divides the exhibition into two sections, representing the first and second generations of photorealists.  Unlike the pioneers of the style, the artists of the second generation have more technology at their disposal, such as the use of computer software to assist in the transfer of a photo onto canvass.  The works of contemporary photorealists are every bit as satisfying as those of the pioneers of the movement.  Yigal Ozeri blows up small photographs into huge paintings, and his ability to convincingly translate the sparkly dance of sunlight striking ripples in Mediterranean waters into paint is virtuosic.  Perhaps the most convincing work in the show might ironically be the most passed-over, simply because it looks too deceptively real to even be a painting; in a witty demonstration of trompe l’oielwizardry at its finest, we’re deceived into thinking a cardboard box filled with money is resting under glass on a pedestal. It’s in fact a carefully-painted wooden sculpture.

Ralph Goings, American, born 1928. Miss Albany Diner, 1993. Oil on canvas. 48 × 72”, Heiskell Family Collection

The visual force of these works gets lost in translation when they’re photographed and reproduced in diminutive form in print or online.  Only in person, for example, looking at Richerd Estes’s Plaza, a cityscape crammed with busy details, do we see that the artist rendered the socks of a foreground figure with a few scribbled in, almost impressionistic brushstrokes.  And the playful ripples in Jack Mendenhall’s Pointe Hilton, when seen close, reveal themselves to be horizontal swipes of paint, bristle-strokes clearly visible.  I was reminded of Rembrandt who, in his 1654 portrait of Jan Six,shows the subject standing with gloved hands; but zoom in close on the gloves, and we see a calculatedly scribbled mess that might just as well be a detail from a de Kooning abstraction.  So while the artists on view are unmistakably contemporary, the tradition in which they work extends through the centuries all the way back to the likes of Zeuxis and Parrhasius.  And From Lens to Eye to Hand emphatically makes the point that even in a world oversaturated with photographic images–  almost exclusively in the form of advertisements– traditional painting triumphantly retains its enduring relevance.

Flint Institute of Arts: From Lens to Eye to Hand: Photorealism 1969 to Today – through August 12, 2018

 

 

Michel Parmentier @ MSU Broad Museum

In 1966, Andy Warhol was churning out silkscreens of electric chairs and car accidents, the Fluxus movement had given the world zany performances by the likes of Joseph Beuys and Yoko Ono, and Lichtenstein’s punchy Whams! and Bams!sprawled across gallery walls by the yard.  Against this cacophonic backdrop, when Michel Parmentier debuted his understated, monochromatic canvasses of painted blue stripes, they might hardly seem particularly radical, yet “radical” is precisely how Parmentier’s work is often described.

Through October, Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum allocates its whole second floor to exploring just what might be so groundbreaking about Parmentier’s work.  The exhibition brings together 30 representative works spanning the artist’s career, along with rare texts authored by the artist. These allusive minimalist canvasses reveal the consistency of the artist’s philosophy, which remained largely unchanged from his early experiments in the 60s to the works he created just prior to his passing in 2000.

Michel Parmentier, installation view at the MSU Broad, 2018. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Parmentier didn’t want his painting to be about anything other than the physicality of paint itself, so he abandoned subject matter.  His work was guided by an almost religious adherence to the pliagemethod, for which he prepared a large un-stretched canvass by folding it like an accordion in increments of 38 centimeters. He’d then spray-paint the exposed surface, unfolding it to reveal visceral horizontal creases and painted bars in monochromatic, horizontal blue stripes.  The creative act was thus reduced to a nearly-mechanical process.

At first, his works might seem to rhyme with the striped paintings of Anges Martin. But Martin’s chromatically subtle works are warm, nuanced, and serene, while Parmentier’s have the impersonal detachment of an improvised painted banner advertisement. He worked in only one color each year. Wishing to disassociate his bars of color from any implied symbolism or personal significance, he’d change the color annually, switching from blue to gray in 1967, and finally to red in 1968.

Michel Parmentier, installation view at the MSU Broad, 2018. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Parmentier joined forces with several other French painters (Buren, Mosset, and Toroni, collectively calling themselves BMPT), but broke from the group in 1967, perhaps believing the other artists were becoming too reactionary.[i]  In 1968, he stopped painting altogether, not producing any art again for fifteen years.

When he resumed in 1983, he integrated some variety in texture and media.  Color disappeared altogether, replaced with varying values of graphite-gray or barely-discernible, creamy white.  And in place of canvass, Parmentier began stapling together individual sheets of disconcertingly cheap printing paper.    In addition to paint, he explored pastel, charcoal, and pencil.  We even see trace elements of the artist’s hand start to emerge: rather than apply paint with a spray can, Parmentier took to scrubbing in his horizontal stripes with pastel, or applying thousands of neatly-arranged horizontal graphite marks.  But his later works never strayed far from that which he produced the 60s.  They invariably retained the same folded horizontal creases at 38cm increments, and they defiantly refused to be anything other than self-referential.

Michel Parmentier, installation view at the MSU Broad, 2018. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

The Broad Art Museum’s retrospective compartmentalizes the artist’s work chronologically, beginning with his earliest blue, gray, and red paintings from the 60s.  As the artist intended, they’re unframed and affixed to the wall only at the top, making his paintings almost look like linens hanging up to dry.  An adjacent gallery displays a large selection of the artist’s writings and projects a one-channel video showing the artist preparing a canvass using his signature pliagemethod, giving us a sense of the mechanical rigidity of his working process.

A third gallery space is devoted to his later works, generally consisting of many sheets of paper affixed together, marked with graphite or pastel.  Here, viewers can see elements that get lost in translation when his work is reproduced in photos.  Easily missable (even in person) are the dates he’d stamp repeatedly on the hem of each work; if a piece took him several days, we’ll see several dates, each stamped on the relevant section of the image.  It’s an element that recalls the conceptual paintings of On Karowa, who famously produced paintings of the day’s date, always painted in white against a black background.

Michel Parmentier, installation view at the MSU Broad, 2018. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

In a letter to a friend, Parmentier once wrote, “To work without producing is undoubtedly one of the finest ideas there is […], not to work at all is another.  Detachment from everything is a third.  Being interested in everything without actively drawing any conclusions—simply doing, rather—seems to me very good.”[ii]It’s a philosophy which certainly informed his work, which always remained intentionally disengaged and aloof.  So it’s to the Broad’s credit that it took a chance on organizing an exhibition exploring such an esoteric artist.  And while this may lack the punchy visual theatrics of some of the Broad’s previous shows, it carries some historic weight as the artists’ first ever retrospective in the United States.  Furthermore, one really does need to see Parmentier’s oveurein its entirety to grasp the unflinching consistency of his desire to produce art which, as one critic intoned in 1967, “simply exists.”

Michel Parmentier @ MSU Broad Museum through October 7, 2018

Jim Cogswell @ University of Michigan Museum of Art

Digital study for Cosmogonic Tattoos Installation at UMMA and the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

Jim Cogswell, Digital study for Cosmogonic Tattoos, 2016. Courtesy of the artist

The images that comprise Jim Cogswell’s frieze-like mural Cosmogonic Tattoos are lyrical, fanciful, and, at times, utterly bewildering. Anthropomorphic Greek amphoras sprout legs and scurry about. A hybrid harp/boat ferries its unusual passengers – expressive, personified hands— across surging waves. And ancient-looking architectural structures rise and collapse in post-apocalyptic ruins.

Occasioned by the University of Michigan’s bicentennial, the university commissioned artist Jim Cogswell to create a set of murals celebrating the holdings of the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) and the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. Cogswell’s mural speaks to material exchange across cultures and the necessarily distorted histories and narratives that shape when artifacts are taken out of context and placed behind glass in museum environments. It’s an ambitious and highly conceptual cycle that manages to be both playful and cerebral.

 

“Cosmogonies,” Cogswell explains, “are our explanations for how our world came to be.”[i] His idea of a cosmogonic tattoo is sourced in the character Queequeg in Moby Dick, who bore a tattoo on his back depicting “a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth.”[ii]   For this site-specific installation, Cogswell created hundreds of vinyl images based on his paintings of 250 objects from the holdings of the Kelsey and UMMA. Affixing them to the expansive horizontally-oriented first-floor windows of each museum, he created a frieze of images which tell an ambitiously sweeping narrative addressing the migrations of ideas, artifacts, and people.

The narrative begins on the windows of the Frankel Family Wing at the UMMA. A ship full of anthropomorphic hands (derived from paintings within the UMMA), sail across a sea in a boat toward a promontory, only to endure a series of apocalyptic natural disasters. Taking what few cultural artifacts they can carry, these travelers embark on foot to find a new home. By design, the narrative breaks, and viewers must cross State Street and traverse a block north to view the rest of the mural at the Kelsey.

Jim Cogswell, Boats and Hands, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist

Here, we see more figures on migratory journeys. Architectural structures on promontories are erected, only to be destroyed by natural forces and invasion. The figures, always on the move, carry more cultural artifacts with them, and they themselves even metamorphose into complex mash-ups of disparate elements borrowed from multiple cultures: a Roman female torso sports the head of a goose derived from a Greek wine jug, for example. The narrative is like a obius strip, and ends with migrants on the move. Cogswell didn’t conceive of the Kelsey as a destination, but rather a “roundabout,” ultimately channeling the narrative—and the viewer—back toward the UMMA.

Every character, prop, and setting in this unfolding drama comes directly from Cogswell’s digital renderings of his paintings of artifacts at the Kelsey and the UMMA. But, like Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel, Cogswell’s images synthesize disparate elements from vastly different sources. A Greek kylix becomes the satellite dish on a radio tower, for example, and the radiating concentric rings of an Egyptian necklace becomes its transmission signals. Greek amphoras sprout wings derived from decorative Roman architectural elements. The seemingly random combination of elements calculatedly speaks to the mutability of cultural artifacts and their subjective meanings.

Jim Cosgwell, Study for Cosmogonic Tattoos, Working on site, Image courtesy of the Levi Stroud

While this sprawling horizontal collage of images seem utterly haptic, every element of the mural was impressively thought-out. For example, a rendering of Greek portrait bust from Cyprus is wittily placed on a window pane right behind the actual portrait bust itself. Like Cogswell’s own mash-ups, the bust reflects visual elements from multiple cultures (Greek and Egyptian), and even obliquely addresses migration: while the Mycenean culture declined, refugees from the mainland settled in Cyprus.

Jim Cogswell,  Study for Cosmogonic Tattoos, Working on site, Image courtesy of the Levi Stroud

Cosmogonic Tattoos worthily aims to make us consider the histories of objects across space and time, and their ever-changing meanings. The British Museum’s Elgin Marbles, as a case in point, would certainly carry different associations for visitors from London than visitors from Athens. And these contemporary associations would contrast vastly from the pride and patriotism that an ancient Athenian would have felt, gazing on the same marbles in situ, wrapping, as they once did, around the Parthenon. Furthermore, America’s current changing views toward monuments to the Confederacy suggests that such change can occur even within a culture, and rapidly at that.

Admittedly, Cogswell’s mural cycle, while certainly visually engaging, might be prohibitively cryptic to anyone unfamiliar with the artist’s statement of intent and the helpful explanatory essays in the exhibition catalog (itself nicely produced and beautifully illustrated). But perhaps there’s a certain poetry to that, as it rather nicely underscores Cogswell’s metanarrative concerning the mutability of images and their meanings.

Jim Cogswell, Woman Duck,  Study for Cosmogonic Tattoos, 2016, shellac ink and graphite on mylar. Image courtesy of the artist

[i] Cogswell, Jim, et al. Jim Cogswell : Cosmogonic Tattoos. University of Michigan, 2017.

 

University of Michigan Art Museum

 

African Bead Work @ Flint Institute of Art

Ubhule Women: Bead Work and the Art of Independence at the Flint Institute of Art

Zondile Zondo. I am ill, I still see Color and Beauty: Jamludi The Red Cow, 2012. Glass beads sewn onto fabric. 49 × 64 1/4 × 2 in. (124.5 × 163.2 × 5.1 cm). Private Collection.

In 1999, two South African women, Ntombephi Ntobela and Bev Gibson, established an artist’s community on a former sugar plantation in the rural outskirts north of Durban. The goal of the Ubuhle (Ub-buk-lay, Zulu for “beauty”) community was to use traditional bead-art as a way for women to develop a skilled trade and become financially independent. Since then, the work created by this small, tightly-knit group has experienced meteoric success and has been shown internationally, including an exhibition at the Smithsonian in 2013. Through the end of March, Ubhule Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence ambitiously fills the spacious Hodge Galleries at the Flint Institute of Art, and is well worth the visit.

Zondile Zondo. Flowers for the Gods, 2012. Glass beads sewn onto fabric. 51 × 21 3/8 × 2 in. (129.5 × 54.3 × 5.1 cm). The Ubuhle Private Collection.

This is an exhibition that can only be experienced firsthand; the arresting luminosity of these textile and bead-works, much like the ethereal shimmer of light on a Byzantine mosaic, is entirely lost when reproduced in photographs. The Ubuhle women created a modern innovation on traditional South-African bead-art; they stretch textile (ndwango) across a canvass, into which they meticulously hand-sew tens of thousands of infinitesimal Czech glass beads. The completed result recalls Seurat’s pointillism, but enhanced with striking luster as the images reflect actual light. These ndwangos range from figurative to abstract, and the vibrant plains of color deny any sense of illusory depth. Visitors who lean in close will notice the artists frequently applied the beads in a complex array of circular patterns and spirals, another special-effect that doesn’t translate well in photographs.

Ubuhle Women comprises 30 works by five artists, and the subject matter is intensely personal, often making use of abstract symbols to reference autobiographical events. Some works pay tribute to those of the Ubuhle community who have died since its founding from HIV (about half its number); red ribbons are a recurrent motif. The time-consuming process of bead-sewing itself functions as a form of therapy and coping—just one panel can take nearly a year to complete. For the Ubuhle women, beading is both catharsis and a visceral way to make tangible the memories of those lost.

Nontanga Manguthsane. African Crucifixion, n.d. Glass beads sewn onto fabric. 177 1/2 × 275 3/4 × 16 inches (450.9 × 700.4 × 40.6 cm). The Ubuhle Private Collection & Private Collection

The culmination of the exhibition is the ambitiously-large African Crucifixion, a sprawling work comprising seven panels created by seven Ubhule women. Originally conceived as a visual focal-point for the Anglican Cathedral of the Holy Nativity in Pietermartzburg, South Africa, the work is a complex tableau that addresses specific local issues like apartheid and the HIV crisis, as well as broader, universal themes of life, death, and redemption. A suspended golden crucifix dominates the composition, flanked by a menacing Tree of Defeat (replete with vultures, representing politicians who feed off people) and the Tree of Life, comfortably situated in an idyllic, fertile landscape. In the panel depicting Mary and John at the foot of the cross, a white house in the background personalizes the image, uncannily reminiscent of Thando Ntobela’s reductive portrayal of the Ubuhle community in her 2011 work Goodbye Little Farm. The African Crucifixion is a triumphant and virtuosic demonstration of the potential of beadwork, every bit as grand and pathos-driven as an early Renaissance fresco.

Looking at these works, my initial response was to mentally liken them to comparable works of art with which I was already familiar; the bright, smack-you-with-color fauvist paintings of Matisse, for example (and there really is a resemblance).   But these ndwangos, as luminous as they are allusive, pugnaciously defy any easy comparison with any equivalent in Western art. Furthermore, they represent the power of art to—in a small way—affect real social change, as demonstrated by the determined effort of the Ubuhle women who, through their craft, achieved financial independence one glass bead at a time.

Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence was developed by the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, Washington, DC in cooperation with Curators Bev Gibson, Ubuhle Beads, and James Green, and is organized for tour by International Arts & Artists, Washington, DC.

Flint Institute of Art  – through March 2018

 

Culture at the Crossroads @ Toledo Art Museum

Glorious Splendor: Treasures of Early Christian Art

Byzantine, Gold Pendant Cross with Openwork Decoration and Sapphires, 6th–early 7th century. 11.3 x 8.0 cm; weight: 64.8 g. Private Collection, North America

 

It was a family feud that would irrevocably shape the culture of the Western World. In 312, Constantine, who for years had challenged the legitimacy of Emperor Maxentius— his brother-in-law— led an army toward Rome seeking to depose the alleged usurper. Establishing an encampment near the Tiber River, on the eve of battle Constantine famously had a vision of a cross in the sky, which he interpreted as mystical assurance of victory. The following day, he ordered the symbol painted on the shields of his soldiers, who subsequently defeated Maxentius’ army at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, establishing Constantine as the emperor of Rome. Whatever the precise details of the account (and they do vary), it’s hard not to see the battle as one of history’s decisive turning points. It resulted in the legalization of Christianity in Rome and, eventually, the establishment of a second Roman capital in Constantinople, later the heart of the Byzantine Empire.

Glorious Splendor: Treasures of Early Christian Art, on view at the Toledo Art Museum through February 18, offers a compelling glimpse of cultures at the crossroads, revealing the fluidity of Roman visual culture during the empire’s slow transition toward Christianity. The exhibition is an intimate single-gallery display of 30 precious objects– mostly on loan from other collections– dating from the 2nd through 7th century. The instructive selection of objects highlights the perhaps surprising cross cultural exchange between Christian and Pre-Christian Rome, not merely in subject matter, but in media, style, and technique

Parthian, Gold Earrings with Woven Wire, Granulation, and Garnets, 1st century A.D. Length of each: 8.0 cm.; weight: 11.2   and 11.4 g. Private Collection, North America

 

Upon first appearance, these nearly two-thousand year old objects are perhaps disappointingly small, but they reward close inspection. Several pairs of magnifying lenses, thoughtfully supplied by the museum, allow visitors to get in close. Most of these artifacts loosely fall under the umbrella of decorative art, and include pendants, bracelets, broches, rings, earrings, cameos, belts, and other finely crafted jewelry. They’re almost all made of gold and are frequently adorned with precious stones.

Byzantine, Gold Openwork Bracelet Set with Gems and Pearls, 6th century. 10.5 x 9.5 x 4.0 cm; weight: 239.6 g. Private Collection, North America

 

 

Most of these artifacts are comparatively small, but all are exquisitely handcrafted. A Byzantine cross-shaped gold pendant is a tour de force, its surface adorned with vegetal patterns and sapphires. The exhibition’s pièce de résistance is a dazzling 6th century bracelet studded with gems and pearls, the sinuous intertwining tracery on its interior anticipating the elaborate 8th century Hiberno-Saxon decorative knotwork later made famous in illuminated manuscripts like the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells. An explanatory note on the display case reminds us that these fine works were crafted after the fall of the Roman empire, checking the notion that the dark ages marked a universal cultural decline.

Byzantine, Silver Paten Depicting the Communion of the Apostles, 547–50. Diameter: 40.2 cm; weight: 1813.0 g. Private Collection, North America

 

 

Some of these objects are freighted with real historical significance. A small golden bust of the assassinated Emperor Licinius II is a rare image of the emperor that survived his damnatio memoriae (damnation of memory), a posthumous dishonor in which the Roman senate required all images of the disgraced emperor to be destroyed. And a silver patin (a plate used to hold the bread during the celebration of the Eucharist) from the 6th century portrays the earliest known depiction of the Communion of the Apostles.

Greek, Amethyst Intaglio Depicting Eros Binding the Arms of Herakles, Set in a Gold Pendant, 2nd Century B.C. 6.5 x 3.8cm; gem: ca. 4.8 x 3.0 cm; weight 39.3 g. Private Collection, North America

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the exhibition is that most of these works, despite the title of the show, are hardly “Christian” as we might expect. There’s an abundance of imperial propaganda, including a handsome silver shield portrait of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, who more than any other Roman emperor capitalized on art as a means of political persuasion. There’s also an abundance of mythological characters which (in a very literal sense) make cameo appearances– Helios, Eros, Herakles, the Three Graces, and Venus (who also appears in her Greek iteration as Aphrodite). In some of these works we see prototypes for the more explicitly Christian visual culture which would follow. A golden pendant depicting the sun god Helios shows thorny rays of light emanating outward from the deity’s head, a visual precursor of the halo, so ubiquitous in subsequent Christian art.

Glorious Splendor is a small but worthwhile exhibition that hints at the gradual seismic shift in Western visual culture during Christianity’s first few centuries, reminding us that early Christian art didn’t emerge in a vacuum. While the battle of Milvian bridge is understandably viewed in retrospect as a decisive, watershed moment, this exhibition reminds us that the view from the ground was much more nuanced, and offers a rare opportunity to see lucid examples of Christian and Classical visual culture jostling at the crossroads.

Toledo Art Museum  – Through February 18, 2018