King Woman (Pen & Brush- NYC)

Hi there,

Last Thursday I attended the opening exhibition party for “King Woman” at Pen & Brush. This exhibition, featuring 25 emerging and existing female-identifying artists, spanned the two floors of the gallery on East 22nd Street. After taking in the paintings, photographs, and sculptures on the ground floor, I descended the industrial staircase to a lower level filled with more artwork (and a bustling bar serving both mimosas and chocolate chip sea salt cookies). It was incredible to see so many people at the opening- easily 300 or more. I have attended openings with significantly fewer visitors, perhaps due to the ease in which people may purchase art online. It is a testament to Pen & Brush’s importance as an institution that there were hundreds of people there to support, discuss, and buy the works of art.

Pen & Brush was founded in 1894 by an incredible painter named Janet C. Lewis who was frustrated by the exclusivity of the male-dominated literary and artistic scenes in New York City. For the past 123 years, Pen & Brush has served as both an incubator and and a platform for emerging and existing female talent.

It is only natural, then, that “King Woman” was curated by Mashona Tifrere. In 2016, Tifrere founded ArtLeadHER, an organization that mentors female artists. In the exhibition catalogue Tifrere writes, “[These artists show] that women can be more than Goddess or Queen: that they are capable of being the pinnacle of power and strength. That they are capable of being King.” She goes on to explain that the featured artists celebrate their gender, but are not confined by it. This point hits home for many women- haven’t we all been told at some point that we were pretty smart… for a girl? The artists in “King Woman” are talented, smart, creative, emotional, and powerful women. They celebrate their womanhood. Simultaneously, they are kings, and their gender is just one aspect of their rule.

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I got the chance to speak more about this dual identity with Stephanie Hirsch. When asked about the tendency of female artists to become “pigeon-holed into a feminist camp” Hirsch explained how she was able to celebrate her womanhood without being labeled. “I think the stereotype of a feminist is inherently changing,” she wrote, “but I still think it has some pretty harsh connotations. I do not need to be harsh to get my message across. I use beautiful imagery and strong words as a juxtaposition. A woman can be beautiful and stand tall and proud in her peaceful power.” Hirsch’s work is not an expression of feminist discourse but a celebration of all aspects of femininity. It also delves into a variety of other themes, such as self-growth and spiritual exploration.

Indestructible (2016) epitomizes Hirsch’s perspective.

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With Indestructible, Hirsch has constructed a beaded garden wonderland. Leaves and flowers decorate the surface of the canvas, sprouting vibrant petals of red, purple, blue, and yellow. They sparkle in the light as one’s eyes travel the canvas,  making the experience of consuming Indestructible dynamic and ever-changing. The artist also includes the figure of a snake and that of a skull (the latter in the center bottom portion of the canvas). As Hirsch notes in the exhibition catalogue, gardens often symbolize personal growth. The combination of symbols indicating both life and death highlights this metaphor. As one develops physically, intellectually and emotionally, his spirit blossoms like a flower. However, there is temptation all around, shown here in the guise of a snake, a symbol established in Genesis. In the first book of the Bible, the snake tempts Eve to eat a forbidden apple which leads to man’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The snake is now synonymous with treachery and temptation. Secondly, the small beaded skull symbolizes the inevitability of death. Though the snake and the skull serve as contemporary memento mori (reminders of death), the overall message of Indestructible is not to live in fear of mortality. If anything, Indestructible reminds the viewer of the inevitability of the circle of life. Yes, life bears death, but death will surely give way for more life.

The presence of the superimposed title over the garden imagery underlines this concept. Flowers, snakes, and skulls are all ephemeral objects, but something here is indestructible. Hirsch writes that gardens within our souls experience a rotation of light and darkness. She emphasizes the fact that it is impossible for life to ever stay the same– one must come to terms with this and accept life for what it is. Perhaps the soul, then, is what is indestructible. The very existence of the garden- though its appearance may change- is everlasting.

And so, Indestructible reflects themes of self-growth and the life cycle. It references the female experience through the allusion to Adam & Eve, and perhaps the femininity of a garden scene, but its purpose is greater. The use of beads as a medium allow for the multiplicity of associations Indestructible bears. “I use beading intentionally for its literal and figurative depth,” wrote Hirsch, “and [for its] illumination to higher consciousness.”

 

You can read more about Stephanie Hirsch on her website, here.

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I also really enjoyed the artwork of Azi Amiri, who I had the good fortune of talking to at the opening. Amiri is an Iranian artist whose work explores the expression and perception of Muslim identity. She focuses especially on how Muslim women are dehumanized in society. Take a look at the work she exhibited at “King Woman,” I Am A Dreamer (2012).

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And here are several details of the work:

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For I Am A Dreamer, Amiri wrote to her friends in Iran and asked them to send her photographs of themselves wearing a hijab. She then removed the faces and bodies from the images, leaving behind colorful hijabs wrapped around invisible faces. Each hijab is positioned differently and made of different colorful fabrics. As Amiri explained to me, women express their individuality through their hijab. She also described the rebellious way with which many women in Iran position their hijab, so that some of their hair is visible. According to Amiri, “The way you wear a scarf is the statement you make in a way that shows on which side of the game you are standing. Depending on how tightly you wear the scarf or how much hair you are revealing, you may affirm how much you approve the force behind the mandatory hijab.” Thus, choosing to reveal a lot of hair is a statement against the mandatory nature of the hijab. The women in I Am A Dreamer exist along a “spectrum of believers and non-believers,” revealing varying amounts of their hair. In this way Amiri used the hijab to communicate  the diversity of Muslim women.

Amiri also asked her friends to send a sentence, beginning with “I,” about themselves. Some of Amiri’s responses were simple and light-hearted (I am slowly falling asleep at the keyboard zzzzzzzz.) Others were poignant reinforcements of identity (I am confident enough to follow my heart.) These sentences reflect genuine human thoughts that are not exclusive to Muslim women. By including these universal thoughts beside images of Muslim identity, Amiri informs the viewer of the humanity and diversity of Muslim women. It is an important service she undertakes, as Muslim women are often dehumanized and de-individualized.

The effect of the work is powerful. It does not feel like an attack on the viewer for having preconceived prejudices. The colors are soft, the images are arranged in a balanced grid, and the words are written in a genial typeface. But the calmness with which Amiri communicates is precisely what gets through to even the densest of viewers. She pulls us in with the grid’s hypnotic nature and then hits us with the realization of our prejudices. In this way Amiri adeptly handles both the political and physical material of her work in order to communicate with her viewers.

 

You can read more about Azi Amiri’s work on her website, here. You will notice that she works in a wide range of styles, which I found fascinating. She works in printmaking, painting, drawing, sculpture, video, and digital mediums. Says Amiri, “Mediums are different containers for your thoughts and ideas… Those times that I just want to touch and feel the softness, whiteness, and smooth surface of a paper, I am not going to use anything else.”

If you’d like to work with Amiri, check out her art-making workshops at the Met. On November 4th she will be leading a free printmaking workshop at the World Culture Festival. Check it out!

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When I descended the stairwell to the lower level I was instantly drawn to Lynn Spoor’s  Flower Path (2017). It was lit so beautifully the colors seemed to jump off the canvas. Take a look at this mesmerizing piece below:

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I looked at Flower Path before reading its title. The swaths of blue swept downwards with a palette knife reminded me of waterfalls and distorted reflections. I felt as if I were staring into the water beside a meadow, taking in the contents of the meadow through their reflections alone. Gone are the specificities of form. They are replaced by color, rippling through water with the aid of light.

When I spoke to Spoor, she was pleased to hear that Flower Path had conjured up such strong nature imagery. She then explained that she is from the Netherlands. Born in Beverwijk and residing now in IJmuiden, Spoor is surrounded by the colorful Dutch countryside. Her upbringing was marked by rainbow-colored tulips. On the surface, Flower Path is an abstract depiction of Dutch flora.

But there is much more at play here. Spoor has mixed acrylic paint with metallic silver and gold to create a dynamic surface texture. When hit with light, the metallic components of Flower Path glow, illuminating the entire painting. However, this is an effect which is felt rather than seen. I cannot pinpoint where exactly the patches of silver and gold have been added. They have been blended too well into the work as a whole. As a result, the glimmering canvas bears a mysterious quality. There is something at work here the viewer cannot understand which renders the work incandescent- perhaps it is divine.

The replacement of form with color is integral to the communication of Spoor’s emotional message. As it is written in the exhibition catalogue, “Reflecting [Spoor’s] energy and state of mind when painting, color will take precedence over shape, departing from the distraction of realism.” I sympathize with the notion that form can be distracting. Spoor’s colors are so rich in feeling; so liberated by the freedom with which they brush over the canvas. To contain them to rigid forms would rid them of their emotional volume.

Furthermore, the richness of Spoor’s colors and their freedom on the canvas reflect her desire to evoke positivity. “Today, it is a reflection of re-capturing and appreciating purity through [my] colors, brushstrokes and textures,” Spoor writes. “It is returning purity back into a world that has lost its way.” This idea is built off the underlying assumption that art can impact people’s feelings and actions. As a strong proponent for the ability of art to transform the viewer, I believe that Spoor’s vibrant canvases do have the capability to return positivity to a wayward society. It is impossible not to feel an overwhelming sense of light and happiness when gazing upon Flower Path. This is the sort of immense feeling needed to heal a broken world.

 

You can read more about Lynn Spoor on her website, here. You’re bound to come away from it feeling lighter and more at peace.

 

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I also took great interest in the paintings of Renee Phillips. I had a full conversation with the woman standing next to me about how tangible Phillips’ canvases are. They make you want to dive into them and roll around in rivers of pastel-colored paint. Take a look at Meditation XXXII (2017) and I’m sure you’ll experience the same urge:

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Here are two close-up images of Meditation XXXII, if you weren’t already enticed. Note the clarity of color and variety of texture and depth:

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Phillips was inspired to create the Meditations series during the pregnancy of her first child. I love the way Phillips described this experience in the exhibition catalogue, and I will quote it here:

“During pregnancy a profound internal shift was occurring. I found myself at the threshold of change; shedding old adolescent beliefs and habitual behavior. Raw emotion introduced clarity in thought and perspective; my once hard exterior was realized to be a facade, and a softness emerged that was grounded in true strength, authenticity, and love.”

I love this passage because it so clearly manifested itself in Phillip’s work. The nature of the enamel paint in Meditation XXXII is dynamic. It feels as if we have frozen time just as a wash of paint were being poured carefully over the canvas. It pools in places, following the laws of gravity and matter. The dynamism of the work reflects the spiritual and emotional growth Phillip’s underwent during a formative period. On the canvas, Phillips performs her own transformation. Furthermore, she performs the disruption of her old way of life. Layers of paint pile on top of one another, reflecting the build-up of experiences that have led to her present self.

I felt a very strong feminine energy exuding from Meditation XXXII. I started to see reconfigured female anatomy- was I imagining this? I questioned Phillips on the matter, and she told me that she uses her entire body to pour the enamel paint on her canvases. She referred to this movement as a sort of guiding “dance.” Thus, “the subconscious undercurrent of feminine energy in [that dance]” is what provided Meditation XXXII its intense feminist associations.

Additionally, Phillips ought to add “scientist” to her CV. When I asked about the extraordinary quality of her colors and textures, she revealed the scientific manner in which she studies paint before beginning her art-making dance. She spends hours taking notes on how paint dries depending on viscosity and temperature. Writes Phillips, “These studies help me further investigate time, gravy, and movement for each color so I know how to manipulate the paint on larger works.” She describes the experience as “peaceful and contemplative.”

The combination of dance, science, and painting in the creation of something beautiful exemplifies the power of the interdisciplinary. I am very passionate about incorporating art in the classroom, especially in conjunction with math and science. It was lovely to see a work incorporate a concept so near and dear to my heart.

 

You can read more about Renee Phillips on her website, here. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with another work from the “Meditations” series. Meditation IX (2017) is too beautiful to leave out.

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In the 1970s, Jane Olin was living in California, where male photographers like Ansel Adams were gaining recognition for their vistas of the western American landscape. Olin and her fellow female photographers fought to be included in gallery shows due to their supposed inferiority. Rather than cave to the “limits and rules” imposed by male photographers as the status quo, Olin formed a salon to support her fellow female photographers. In this environment, they thrived, breaking boundaries of photography and slowly securing themselves a place in the Monterey Bay art scene.

Today, Olin’s work reflects her personal experience fighting for recognition. It is deeply personal, and I am so pleased I got to hear her story to supplement my viewing experience.

Greta: A Woman’s Journey of Self Discovery (2017) is composed of four silver gelatin prints. Take a look:

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There is a very tangible tension to Greta. I believe it is a product of the figures’ evocative gestures and their intentional blurring. Greta is photographed in four installments. One version of Greta imagines her standing in a box, holding a square object in one hand. Another shows her recoiling slightly from the camera. A third is a nude torso. The last shows Greta clasping her mouth and wrist. It is only natural to question the purpose of these poses. And yet, the slight blurring of each image prevents the viewer from making full contact with each photograph. We are left in a constant state of curiosity, desperate to make sense of the emotional content spilling out of each work. We want to know who Greta is and how she feels.

I asked Olin about the figures’ gestures and blurry surface quality. She responded that Greta is a demonstration of women’s marginalization. Women have been trying to overcome their subordination for thousands of years. We are in a state of constant movement, as we try to move forward, and perhaps fall short of our ambitions due to external conditions. The soft, out of focus quality of the photographs represents this constant motion. This metaphor is complicated by the fact that the viewer does not know if the figures are coming in or out of focus. Is Greta moving towards her hopes and dreams, or is she in the process of being stifled? Olin asks, “Is Greta holding her hand over her mouth or is she finally pulling her hand away?”

The images represent various moments along Greta’s journey to find her voice in a world that asks her to be silent. The figure of a nude, standing tall with her shoulders back and her breasts pushed unabashedly forward, is delightfully positive. Her definitive gaze, meeting that of the viewer, is determined. Meanwhile, her position in a box demonstrates her mobility, and her recoiling from the camera reveals her instinctive response to fear.

Olin discovered the soft, out of focus quality that is central to Greta purely by accident. She neglected to refocus her enlarger in the dark room and her prints came out slightly blurry. “It felt mysterious to me,” said Olin, “I felt a visceral acknowledgment that this was how I wanted to print this body of work. I went back and reprinted the images that I had already printed in this way.  This printing method underscored how I feel about the process of empowerment and self-realization.”

 

This August, “Salon Jane” will exhibit the work of its six members at the Monterey Museum of Art. I am hoping to be there and see more of Olin’s evocative photographs. In the meantime, I will have to appease myself with her website, which you can explore here.

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Lastly, I want to take some time to discuss Kharis Kennedy’s deeply moving Glove Scarf by Dolce & Gabbana (2017). Take a look:

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My eye goes first to the white gloves entangled around the figure’s face. Due to the red and brown markings on her neck, I assumed that the gloves were strangling her. When I asked Kennedy about this, she responded ambiguously. “I am interested in the physicality and energy inherent in not only our bodies,” she wrote, “but also in objects. I wanted it to be unclear whether her neck, a place of physical vulnerability, is being actively injured, or if her covering of [her injury] is incidental.” I love this response. It pinpoints what is so uncanny about this painting. The neck is an instinctively vulnerable body part- did you just touch your neck protectively? I did. Kennedy pairs this association with a seemingly innocent object- a pair of gloves. Suddenly, the gloves take on this monstrous image. Are there invisible hands inside, strangling her? Who on earth would strangle someone with gloves? Who would strangle her in the first place? The mind is a whirlwind of associations and anxiety regarding the personification of a pair of gloves.

My next thought when looking at Glove Scarf by Dolce & Gabbana was to consider the title of the piece. What could the name-dropping of this designer have to do with our protagonist? (Notice how I said “our.” In about .3 seconds I established a connection with this figure.) Kennedy’s art often explores “how clothing/fashion can be used as both a signifier of class and as a public expression of one’s inner world.” It is typical of Kennedy to satirize how fashion is used to construct both group and individual identities. With this in mind, the gloves bear additional associations. Perhaps Kennedy is suggesting that our protagonist is a victim of the stylistic trends that dictate her race, gender, and/or class? On the other hand, the nonchalant draping of these gloves around her neck, and their transformation into a scarf, could represent the proudness with which she has constructed her own individual identity. Her wide-legged seated position and upturned chin suggest this approach. Her stance is not unlike the many men who frequent the subway with each leg sprawled to the side. (Do they lack spatial awareness or just social awareness? Jury is still out). Our protagonist sits this way intentionally, to claim her own power. Both are appropriate readings, though I prefer the second. In an exhibition entitled “King Woman,” I think it’s most appropriate.

When I asked Kennedy about the possible reference, she responded that the connection was not intentional. However, her exploration of the female gaze situates Glove Scarf in the same vein as these past works. There remains a key difference that identifies Kennedy’s work as the most contemporary- her agency. Olympia’s agency in Manet’s titular painting is often debated. While her razor-sharp gaze zeroes in on the viewer, her obvious occupation as a courtesan suggests only an illusion of self-sufficiency. Kennedy’s protagonist is also in a state of undress for ambiguous reasons. However, as Kennedy writes, “What is known is that she accepts her vulnerable state and through acceptance remains empowered.”

I was also struck by the presence of the black cat. It reminded me of the many manifestations of the female nude shown with an animal. Note this trend in Titian’s Venus of Urbino and Manet’s Olympia.

I feel this truth in her petulant upturned chin, her refusal to make direct eye contact, and her wide-legged stance. Her independence manifests itself in black stiletto heels and red underwear- markers of both seduction and power. The black cat- her spirit animal, as Kennedy says, looks out at the viewer. We haven’t been given the chance to turn away before the black cat crosses our path; She is in control.

You can read more about Kharis Kennedy on her website, here

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I hope you enjoyed this analysis of several key works in “King Woman.” It has been wonderful delving into the works of these six artists. Their artwork touched me and the way they discussed their artwork compelled me to share their artwork with you. If you’ve been as moved by this series as I have been, please follow up on the artists exhibited in King Woman. The following are the remaining (incredible) artists, whose work contributed to the triumph that is King Woman.

Ingrid BaarsHunter Clarke, Donna FestaCarole FeuermanLola FlashKit Kang, Meredith MarsoneLacey McKinneyYvonne MichielsReisha PerlmutterTrixie PittsA.V. RockwellVictoria SelbachSwoonTaïraRoos van der Vliet, Elizabeth Waggelt, and Lynnie Z. 

Thanks to all of the artists who shared their art and their words with me. Thank-you also to Dawn Delikat, Lani Doktori, and Janice Sands at Pen & Brush for sharing the story of Pen & Brush with me.

Until next time!

xoxo,

Chloe ❤

CHloe

 

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Spotlight on Clayton Woolery

I first encountered Clayton Woolery in a basement on Ossipee Road by Tufts University, during his performance Removing Targets in our final Pokykhroma exhibition. I had been unfortunately under the weather for his previous performance with Polykhroma, so I was delightfully in the dark about Woolery’s work. All I knew was what the other curators had told me– that his work was both simple and complex, utilizing simplistic, repetitive movements to unravel multifaceted ideas. Removing Targets was no exception.

He began by unpacking a large plastic shopping bag and setting up its contents on the floor. Woolery brought with him a mental contraption, a long stretch of green Ikea packing paper, white paste, and folded clothing, amongst other items. He then began setting up the paper on the contraption, so that the front of the paper was stretched across the metal and onto the floor in neat folds. Then, the writing commenced. Take a look:

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Woolery would write in thick, capital letters on the stretch of paper until a certain amount had been filled with words. He then removed the paper and stood to attach it to the posterior wall.

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By the end of the evening, Woolery himself was caged within the metal contraption, layers and layers of inscribed paper all over the walls and floor of the space. Phrases such as “REMOVING ENGLISH” and “BURY ME” overwhelmed both his figure and the space, taking on a louder voice than the harsh din of the exhibition opening occurring behind him.

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The entire experience was mesmerizing. Woolery moved with a quiet fluidity, seemingly unaware of voyeurs. There were six other (wonderful) concurrent exhibitions and more than fifty people in the basement at time, but Woolery remained in his space, only concerned with the world he was building on plaster and stone. A small group of us stood for long stretches of time, watching him. It felt meditative to follow his smooth, repetitive movements. The build-up of materials also carried a hypnotic weight. The more Woolery himself was covered up in paper the more I craved an understanding of these cryptic texts. Simultaneously, the more I attempted to decode these texts, the less alphabetical they seemed. Though they signified what I instinctively knew those words to mean, their entire meaning became clouded. The sheer amount of words made it difficult to zero in on one verbal idea. Instead, the entire mass of words seemed to be the subject; the concept of language as a whole.

After the show, I was eager to hear more from Woolery about Removing Targets. It had been a spellbinding experience for me, but I was curious if my interpretation matched what Woolery had walked into Ossippee Road hoping to impart on viewers. I also had many questions about his perspective on the art world– after all, millennial/Gen Z artists are carving out the future of art-making and consumption.

We met for tea at Diesel Cafe and discussed all the above. It was important to me to connect with Woolery on a human level. If we involve technology in every interaction we have, we dilute their importance int he moment. It can come to feel like every action we take is made for the purpose of documentation. And so, my conversation with Woolery was unrecorded. It flowed naturally in all directions, leisurely making its way around to all my questions.

I followed up with an email asking Woolery to answer questions that related to our discussion the day before. And so, before you is a condensed version of our free-form conversation at Diesel Cafe. Read on to discover the truth behind Removing Targets and the details of Woolery’s artistic practice.

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CH: Tell me more about your performance piece at Polykhroma! What inspired it? What were you hoping to accomplish? I’d love to detail for my readers your explorations with language.

CW: Removing Targets stems from a longer term incrimination of language that inflects my art practice.  Embedded in every language are the cultural mores of the society developing that language, and American English is a prime example. From polarized gender expression to phonaesthetic regimes (i.e. “this is america: speak english!”) even the most radical explorations of meaning making must tread the fraught space of language, which flattens the relationship between signifier and signified. I first came in touch with these ideas in the context of queer theory and incorporate them into an abject, provisional art ethics.

In performing a durational “exorcism” of language I wanted to explicitly place myself and my presentation of myself in the paradoxical dimension of western ideas of utopia/dystopia. I caged myself in my nicest clothes, accompanied by many indicators of conspicuous consumption (swell bottle, DSLR, tablet, “Madewell” bag) and began to work tirelessly unpacking these contents from a laundry bag that illustrates a certain cluttered world view in the form of a red, white, and blue target.  In truth the material elements of the performance are selected specifically but treated anonymously— the experience of the performance, im sure, was that of watching a hunched, billowing scribe attack long swaths of green ikea packing paper.

The language I graft, paradoxically, too, was a free form treatise on how best to achieve utopia, a line of thinking that quickly falls apart. I was left to sift through my tattered science fictions and face the apparent long-windedness white men are afforded in magisterial and abject spaces. Here I’ve gone on for so long!


CH: How did your work change once you got into the space?

CW: Performance art in my experience always feels like a circus I am stubbornly staging alone. It was important in terms of labor and exhaustion for the actor in this piece to be myself, and therefore I didnt want to have myself elevated or removed in my original conception of the work.

When viewing “Art” people have accepted the training of galleries and museums and, in this scenario, even being in a basement could not counteract the formation of spectacle. The work became highly dissociative, with a clear ring of people several feet from me. I felt no ability or desire to draw them closer, and allowed this to free me from attempting to be legible in the ways I had planned to be.  I let the action take center stage and released myself from an obligation to posture their experience. It became about execution and in many ways simplified helpfully the extravaganza of content i had prepared.

(Quick note: I was a dedicated member of the ‘ring of people’ watching. I can attest to the strange energy between performer and voyeur during Woolery’s performance. It is true that he made no attempt to invite us in, in fact seemed completely oblivious to our existence, and yet we were too mesmerized to turn away. What resulted was  an uneasy balance, like a rope tied tightly between two points, vibrating from the tension.)


CH: We talked about how your work bridges the gap between wall-painting and performance art, as you enact the application of art to wall surfaces. Tell me more about this middle ground you’ve created.

CW: The terminology that is sticking the most for the work I’m doing is “performed composition.” I am presenting a collection of abject materials and material applications that deliver a sense of provisional and incomplete gestures, thus opening a space for this completion to occur in the form of live or instructional interventions.  This then creates a space beyond indication for the labor of creativity — you see the activity of painting in a Pollock, but never is that labor performed and examined as the painting itself.  This is to say that painting is an action and never an object. Furthermore, such actions that result in aesthetic (performative) objects are yet another form of labor.  I am highlighting a critical need for a reevaluation of labor.  Who is doing the work that makes this industry possible? What meaning can be derived from being delusional about this labor, and the cost of supporting the arts but not the artists? The space is really one that seeks to excavate work from an artwork, and place it coyly in the gallery.  It is also a post-studio space that problematizes ideas of finish and rarification that make the art world a beacon for ridicule.


CH: What generally inspires you creatively? Who are your influences?

CW: Creativity is a box full of lenses with which seeing can be filtered.  I get inspired when I am able to identify something between two previously separate elements that the lens of poetry, theory, activism, etc. may make apparent.  So it can be anything, most often occurences in my daily life are the beginnings of my favorite pieces. There can’t be an end or border on the creative practice.  But these thoughts have sources, such as Joseph Beuys and J. Jack Halberstam.  I take particular interest in and support works by established artists such as Sarah Sze, Janin Antoni, and Edgar Arceneaux, as well as emerging artists like Jesse Kanda and Puppies Puppies.


CH: What do you think is the role of the artist in society today? How do you see yourself fitting into that role?

The artist has an identity crisis on their hands.  Some art theorists and practitioners believe, as Donald Judd put it, that the ideal artist is “original and obdurate; they’re the gravel in the pea soup.” However this breaking of homogeneity operates from a space of art as a service for or against society rather than as a labor intrinsic to it. Do artists seek harmony or discord, and is seeking either through art only a swinging pendulum? I am inticed by more collective action in the art world, allowing for the tyranny of the artist-ego (Foucault’s “author-function”) to be subsumed into a symbiotic relationship with radically earthy art institutions.  I am wanting everyone to feel inclined to say “I am an artist” or at least understand the importance of establishing an ecosystem for the consumption and recapitulation of art.


CH: What do you think is the role of the curator in society today? We discussed how positive the dialogue was between artist and curator in the Polykhroma exhibit. Tell me more about how you envision the relationship between the two to be.

CW: Developing an active and attentive community that balances artist and audience, resources and risks, taste and tact, has always been the admirable and impossible task of curators.  Igniting an appreciation for engagement with ideas is crucial; placards and pacing and replication of the white cube, however, are hindering this endeavor.  Curators must really open artists, technicians, and audiences to the possibility of doing things differently than how they believe they must do them, and in turn reap unexpected and surprising results in the pursuit of inventive solutions to the problem of the gallery.


CH: We talked about spectacle art and blockbuster exhibits. Tell me a bit more about your thoughts on this trend. 

CW: I have heard about 15 different takes on the Whitney Biennial. As someone who decided, in light of the protests of Black Americans against the showing of Dana Schutz’ Open Casket, to abstain from visiting as an act of solidarity, I have yet to hear a review that is positive and descriptive.  People no longer know why they go see the things they go see. Institutional loyalty precludes the mass acceptability of exhibitions— and there is money to be made.   And we see even further surreal elements of the same show: Katy Perry promoting her singles by hiding beneath a silver serving tray to the beguiled response of visitors to the Whitney, who have paid $18-$25 dollars to believe they are spending an afternoon devoid of such marketing. In late capitalism this form of collective cognitive dissonance is not surprising. Art cannot settle for its current place as a condensation of social-media-informed modes of escapism/inspiration. There is no community, no real stakes, only a self-aware act of conspicuous consumption.

(Quick Note: Dana Schutz is a white female artist whose graphic depiction of violence against black bodies was included in the Whitney Biennale. This created a huge controversy last year. Read more here.)


CH: You told me about your desire to participate in a larger artist collective. Tell me more about that! What would this entail ideally? How has your knowledge of past collectives informed this decision? 

CW: Ideally it would entail utilizing technology at hand to create an engaging and accessible space of committed and regular collective creative practice. I’m talking rotating collaborations, conference presentations of ideas, and streamlined collective decision making. These goals could be achieved through first a smaller team of people that develop this space as an inaugural iteration of this. I am wanting an art government, essentially! One that erases borders that limited collectives of the past through open enrollment and collaborative spirit. In addition, I am seriously interested in the VR potential for exhibition “space” and making the production of the collective as public as possible.

In reality, a collective could exist just attempting to illustrate this ethereal realm i’ve dreamt up in the paragraph above.


CH: What are your thoughts on the Boston art scene?

CW: I am still exploring it, but do believe that it does not know how to incorporate the energy of young artists into a cohesive space with the galleries and museums here.  I do think art institutions are strong but almost entirely leashed to their percieved clientele (students, brahmins, etc) rather than to a specific goal or movement of art.

That said, I am particularly impressed by organization in the audiovisual scene and believe there is potential in a coming together of music, visual art, and tech-savvy creatives.  Boston holds back so many potential convergences, the social structure is made of countless interlocking bubbles and such social carbonation is disorienting and difficult to navigate.


CH: What are your thoughts on art at Tufts?

CW: There is certainly a great deal of potential in the hands of an administration that has very little track record in pushing for an integration of art on or for campus.  I find the estrangement between creative student organization and adequate resources to be a hurdle in need of overcoming before this potential may be accessed. 

I would say many things are special for what they are. Maker spaces like Crafts Center have been influential in my appreciation for collectivism in art; the museum school has yet to lose its radical energy for me in the wake of all the money suddenly coming its way.   I deeply cherish the flash collective I participated in with Avram Finkelstein in 2015 that resulted in the billboard on the Lower Campus Center lawn, despite it no longer existing.


CH: What’s next for art? Where do you see artistic trends going in the next few years?

CW: I see event based art organizing at critical mass: controversy in other creative arenas such as Fyre music festival and Noma Mexico luxury dining display a serious tone-deafness to global issues of disparity and neglect. In its wake all sorts of radical activity could take an unexpected center stage.  I would be very keen to see socially engaged art practices recieve more coverage and be more fully inducted into the canon of art as artists working in this way such as Pablo Helguera and Paul Ramirez Jonas are allowing people to feel welcome in the art world that may previously have been disenfranchised.  I am also for an art world that empowers and better documents performance artists and art of protest.

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 Thank-you so much to Clayton Woolery for participating in Polykhroma Presents: Utopia/Dystopia and for sharing your ideas with me (both over tea and email!)

To my readers: I hope you enjoyed reading Woolery’s insights into art and its global significance. It was especially exciting for me to take part in this conversation after seeing his work live. Woolery will be exhibiting his work next spring in a thesis exhibition at the SMFA. In the meantime, check out his instagram to keep up with his work. And if you find yourself in the Boston area, keep a look out for exhibitions occurring through Polykhroma. There’s a good chance you’ll catch a performative piece by the hypnotic artist, Clayton Woolery.

Until next time!

xoxo,

Chloe ❤

Modern Art in Berlin Pt. 2 (Berlinische Galerie- Berlin, Germany)

Hi everyone! I hope you enjoyed my previous post about modern German art at the Berlinische Galerie. As explained in my previous post, there is simply too much to say about this collection/topic to do it in one post. And so, I am analyzing key works from the collection in four increments. You can read Part 1 here.

Part 1 discussed the Berlin Secession and the Pre-War years. Today I am going to discuss a little-known work painted during World War I: Stürzender Engel, by Benno Berneis (1914). There is so little information about Berneis, we will have to use only our eyes and knowledge of historical context to make sense of this eerie painting.

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At the outbreak of war in 1914, the artist Benno Berneis painted Stürzender Engel (Falling Angel).

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For such an extraordinary painting, very little is known about its painter. Benno Berneis (1883-1916) was a German Jewish painter who served as a pilot in the First World War. He died in service in 1916. According to journalist Von Nicola Kuhn, from the German newspaper Tagesspiegel, Berneis’ work was exhibited with that of Lieberman and Matisse before the War. He was poised to follow in the footsteps of his fellow German Expressionists. Unfortunately, his death cut short what was sure to be an incredible career. Now we are left with a smaller collection, albeit a beautiful one. You can look at his other works on his website, which is run by his grandson, Michael Berneis. I have been struggling to find much academic information on the artist (in German OR English). Please let me know if you come across anything!

And so, in lieu of any academic information, we shall have to use our eyes and knowledge of historical context to sort through Stürzender Engel. Take another look at this beautiful painting:

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What stands out to you? The loveliness of the pastel color palette? The illusion of roundness on the canvas surface? The obfuscation of the figure’s face? The curious nature of the figure itself? How about the tree bending sideways- does your mind attempt to find the source of wind contorting its thin branches?

My mind tries first and foremost to make sense of the space. It is (relatively) clear to me that the tree stands on some sort of green hilltop. The curving nature of the earth next to the tree resembles rolling hills. Additionally, the green pigment coloring the hill becomes less saturated as it approaches the bottom of the canvas. Pinks and browns are introduced, and are blended with larger, swirling brushstrokes. Not sure what I mean? Here’s a detailed look at this part of the canvas:

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Note how the inch above the canvas is a wash of different colors, blended into an ambiguous mist. It is only as the eye rises up the canvas a couple inches that the brushstrokes fall into place and one can make out the appearance of a grassy mound. What results from Berneis’ manipulation of color and texture is the sensation of mist rising, clouding one’s view and understanding of the hilltop’s appearance. My extremely limited experience hiking has taught me that there is quite a lot of mist and fog at higher elevations. Atop the highest mountain in Arcadia National Park, I could see only a few feet in front of me due tot he immense amounts of fog. And so, decreased color saturation and the decreasing specificity of brushstrokes lead me to believe that this painting is situated at a very high altitude… and the drop-off from here is incredibly steep.

What sorts of things do you associate with being at a very high altitude? I think of Heaven, spirituality, isolation, pilgrimages, extreme weather, Mt. Everest and all the people who have died trying to climb it, Cloud Forest in Ecuador and my sister’s incredible experience there, and getting altitude sickness at Yellowstone National Park when I was 15. What all these associations have in common is a sense of otherness of which we are in awe. We look to the highest points on earth with a sense of amazement– for the people and creatures who inhabit them, and for their unique (and often dangerous) climates. For some, the way of life atop Earth’s highest points is so foreign that it accumulates otherworldly associations. Mountains in the sky become religious symbols. It is this angle that Benno Bernis took in painting Stürzender Engel (Falling Angel). The title immediately indicates a religious, or at least supernatural, perspective.

Because of our location atop a misty hilltop, close to the heavens, we are poised to watch the angel’s fall from grace right at the moment of its happening. Take a closer look at her exit from the clouds:

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The angel’s body is still touching the voluminous clouds from which she falls. What are we to make of her descent? Firstly, she is nude. Perhaps her stark nudity symbolizes the loss of her wings; without them, she is naked. She covers her head and face, as if in shame. Berneis has actually emphasized the hiding of her face by blurring the outlines of her forearms and her head until what remains is a mass of pink and yellow over the remnants of dark brown. I have to wonder if this signifies Berneis’ chastising of the angels’ actions, or the angel’s own anguish at her fall from grace.

I think it also bears noting that this angel’s fall is more of a graceful descent. She is not plummeting out of the empty sky. In fact, the cloud from which she is released bears likeness to a human hand. Its three-dimensionality, achieved through careful shading and use of light, provide the form a firmness not characteristic of vaporous clouds. It feels thick and soft to the viewer’s eye, like a human hand. If we take this to be true, whose hand is it? The hand of God? The hand of Fate? It is a kind hand, who carefully releases the angel, newly wingless, into the world.

It follow, then, to ask what the angel has done to merit her expulsion from Heaven. Here is where context plays an important role in visual analysis. Given the context of the years preceding WWI which I detailed in my previous post, and the fact that WWI erupted in 1914, it is impossible to separate this painting from the world in which it was born.

Angels are beings believed to be messengers of God. They are women of extraordinary virtue and moral conduct. For one to be expelled from Heaven, she would need to act in an immoral manner. In 1914, what would qualify as such? Perhaps the angel represents Berneis’ homeland, Germany, and her fall from grace, Germany’s descent into violence. Or perhaps the angel is Europe, in which case Berneis’ criticism of violence would incriminate all of the countries involved in the conflict.

I also wonder if Stürzender Engel (Falling Angel) could be making commentary on the effect of war on spirituality. If angels are God’s messengers, could it be that an angel’s fall represents the death of God’s ties with the human race? Had people finally reached a violence so evil that He no longer wished to communicate with them through His messengers? If this is the case, it would explain the delicate way in which the Hand releases the angel. Her fall is not a plummet; the effect of being thrown in disgust from Heaven. Her fall is a gentle, reluctant push, enacted by a remorseful hand. It seems that Benno Berneis wondered if mankind had reached a low so low that God no longer wished to have contact with people. And so, the angels were dismissed.

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I hope you enjoyed this analysis. It was exciting to dive headfirst into a work of art with no literature to bounce my ideas off of. This is a wonderful example of using visual analysis and historical context to understand a work of art. That is how accessible art is! All you need are your eyes. (And if you paid attention during history class, that is a tremendous plus…)

Until next time!

xoxo, Chloe ❤

Modern Art in Berlin Pt. 1 (Berlinische Galerie- Berlin, Germany)

Hi everyone! It’s been a while since I last wrote. I’ve been super busy with my intensive German language class. (Es ist fantastisch!) But I’ve been meaning to get back in the game. I never quite finished blogging about my Euro Trip, specifically the museums I visited in Berlin. I really enjoyed the Berlinische Galerie. This museum explores the history of art specifically within the city of Berlin. Rather than discussing one of the special exhibitions I’d like to talk about the permanent collection, and how it reflects the history of Berlin.

I initially planned to discuss the entire permanent collection in one post, but I got so excited writing about the first two paintings that my word count quickly became quite high. And so, I’ve decided instead to break this post into increments. Part 1 examines two works: a painting by Ludwig van Hoffman from 1900 and one by Ludwig Meidner from 1912. The two demonstrate changing conditions and artistic trends in Germany during this vital 12 year period.

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Until the late 19th century, German art predominantly followed the artistic trends occurring in other European nations. The German states witnessed their own Renaissance (as part of the larger Northern Renaissance), and subsequently experienced developments in the Baroque, Rococo, and Neo-classicism. Romanticism found its way to Germany at the same time that it did to England, manifesting itself in a movement with distinctly German character. Think of Caspar David Friedrich, whose Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog evokes the grandeur of the German landscape while shielding the identity of its protagonist. Though the work is filled with tension, it’s undertones of civic duty and grandeur as well as its cleanly licked surface remain academic in nature.

It wasn’t until 1892, when a group of German artists in Berlin chose to secede from artistic conservatism, that German art took on a life of its own. The Berlin Secession, as it came to be called, was more about separation from academic art (the art exhibited in salons across Europe) than it was about specific visual trends. The Berlin Secession encompassed artists who dabbled in pointillism, symbolism, art nouveau, and naturalism.

The following is a painting entitled Abendsonne (Evening Sun), painted in 1900 by Ludwig van Hoffman.

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Note the softness in the brushstrokes that dot Abendsonne. Compare these to the smooth, almost invisible brushstrokes in Wanderer. Furthermore, note the figures’ state of undress. In classical academic painting, nudes are typically Venus figures or nymphs. In religious societies (such as the German States), these nude figures were not seen as German women. They were characters removed from the realities of human flesh and interpersonal interaction. Thus, their nudity was no threat to German morals and values, such as religion, chastity, and female modesty. In Abendsonne, van Hoffman has removed the Greek imagery associated with the acceptable female nude, and left in its place the realities of the naked woman. This unraveling of the myth of the female nude occurred in France several decades earlier. It is exciting to watch it be staged on the German canvas in 1900.

However, though the female figures in Abendsonne resemble actual German women bathing, they have still been awarded a decent degree of modesty. The two entirely naked figures are so far away in the middle-ground that the viewer cannot consume the specifics of their gender. They are also positioned so as to hide the most obvious aspects of their gender. The figure in the foreground holds a wad of fabric around her body as she walks to the water to join the other women. The positioning of this fabric is tantalizing to the viewer. Note the tiny brushstroke between her arm and her chest that indicates the slightest shadow on the side of her left breast. The shadows across her neck and sternum draw the viewer’s eye down her body until it stops, frustratingly, at the obfuscating folds of fabric.

Skin is not the only tantalizing aspect of Abendsonne. The play of light is as delicate and sensual as the shadows dancing across the figure’s skin. Notice how the flecks of yellow brushstrokes seem to rest daintily atop a path of green grass, or the length of a tree-branch. It is as if van Hoffman’s paintbrush were a finger grazing skin ever-so-lightly, leaving behind a bit of light with its touch. The lemony-yellow color of the light- the color of the evening sun- is sensual in nature and in its connotations. Soon the yellow will turn to darkness, and we will lose all view of the naked women. This is our last moment to view them, and to consume them.

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The second painting I’d like to examine is a work from Ludwig Meidner’s “Apocalyptic Paintings” series, which he began in 1912 and completed just before the outbreak of the First World War. 12 years had past since van Hoffman painted the sensual Abendsonne. Life in Berlin had changed, and this was reflected in the work of the city’s artists. Take a look at this Apocalyptic Painting before reading more about the painting’s context.

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In 1882, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy signed the Triple Alliance in order to ensure European allies during their personal quests for land acquisition. Additionally, Germany had only been officially unified as a nation-state in 1871. It was eager to solidify its place on the map of Europe with strong allies- specifically ethnically related allies.

In 1894, the Franco-Russian Alliance was signed in response to the Triple Alliance. It signaled the deterioration of both Franco-German and Russo-German relations. Further alliances were formed as the 20th century plodded forward, indicating growing animosity between Germany and the rest of Europe. The Franco-Italian Agreement in 1902, the Entente Cordial in 1904, the Anglo-Russian Agreement in 1907, The Russo-Italian Agreement in 1909, and the Anglo-French Naval Agreement in 1912 gradually tied together all of Germany’s enemies. This made the Germans very uneasy. The forging of military alliances kept everyone on their toes– the possibility of violence was on the horizon.

Other factors contributed to the strengthening of political and military divides in Europe.  The first Moroccan Crisis (1905) involved the German Kaiser intervening in North Africa to declare his support for the Sultan of newly-independent Morocco. This move was intended to drive a wedge between France and England, whose colonial disputes had a long, long history, but instead brought the two countries together AGAINST GERMANY.

A second Moroccan Crisis, as well as the involvement of the Great Powers in the Balkan Wars, deepened animosity between nation-states.

AND SO, now that you have an understanding of the political situation in Germany between the painting of Abendsonne and Apocalyptic Painting, are you surprised at the differences between the two?

Here is Apocalyptic Painting once more:

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Note the darker color palette. The sky is filled with blacks, greys, and dark blues. The people are a wash of black and maroon clothing. The yellow hills are tinged with a putrid shade of green and a corrosive black to indicate shadows- and perhaps evil itself.

The brushstrokes are much thicker as well. Take a look at this detail that demonstrates the three-dimensional quality of Meidner’s brushstrokes:

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Thicker brushstrokes make it more difficult for the artist to render realistic-looking faces. However, their capacity for emotional expressivity is greater. Globs of paint mottle the countryside, allowing its destruction to be rendered more emotionally than realistically. Instead of a naturalist interpretation of what a field ablaze looks like, Meidner’s painting presents the sensation of one’s home being destroyed. Thick wads of paint render the landscape more and more unrecognizable until it takes on a creepy, garish character of its own. A yellow hill one used to sit on in summertime now looks evil due to its sickly green overtones and sharpened outline.

Thick brushstrokes also allow Meidner to simplify human expression, leaving behind the purest of human emotion while eliminating the anecdotal detail of individuality. Note the two women at the foreground of this detail. The woman on the right has been pared down to her wide eyes and outstretched hands. These two glowing orbs on the front of her face embody the essence of fear. Her hands, clutching each other and stretched in front of her face, reflect man’s last human protective instinct. As if putting her hands in front of her could possibly protect her from what is to come.

Lastly, I’d like to spend some time on Meidner’s attention to space. How is the landscape’s sense of perspective constructed? No plane stands entirely horizontally. The foreground, middle ground, and background blend into one another due to Meidner’s use of curving, diagonal, and intersecting lines. These lines disrupt the viewer’s attempt to separate what is near from what is far. They ignore the rules of physics, swooping from the top of a mountain to a crowd of huddled figures in the span of two inches. Because the surface of the painting is uneven for its own inhabitants, the viewer’s experience of Apocalyptic Painting is equally vertigo-inducing.

The destruction of perspective contributes directly to the painting’s sense of chaos. There is nothing more terrifying than one’s trusted sense of the universe being upended. In Apocalyptic Painting, the end of the world is symbolized by the literal implosion of the earth.

And so, what are we to make of the fact that Meidner painted Apocalyptic Painting BEFORE World War I? He would later explain that he had the gift of foresight, but I would argue that he had the gift of observation. He recognized the tensions rising in Germany due to external political and military conditions. He understood the implications of these conditions and their likely culmination in war.

…But I think there’s more. In Apocalyptic Painting, the world is not simply coming to an end. The ground beneath the people’s feet is caving in. This suggests an internal collapse rather than an external bombardment. It makes the apocalypse personal, even implying oneself in the fact of its existence. Perhaps Meidner had not only the gift of observation, but the (truly rare) gift of self-criticism. Could he have looked objectively at Germany’s growth since 1871, its political and military decisions, rapid industrialization, and the discomfort of its people, and wondered if Germany itself would play a role in its own downfall?

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What do you think about the vast differences between Abendsonne and Apocalyptic Painting? How much of their differences do you attribute to personal style and how much to changing political and military conditions in Europe? Can you even separate personal style FROM the artist’s context? (That question keeps me up at night). Let me know! And keep an eye out for the next post about the Berlinische Galerie. I’ll be highlighting works painted during the Great War.

Additionally, I am very curious about Ludwig van Hoffman and how his art may or may not have developed in the 20th century. I will likely head to the Met Library soon to do some research. Let me know if you have any books or articles about him you recommend.

Until next time!

xoxo,

Chloe ❤

Jana Euler: High In Amsterdam. The Sky Of Amsterdam (The Stedelijk Museum- Amsterdam)

Hi everyone!

Thanks for checking out CanvasAndCrumpets.  As you may know, I just got back from my Euro Trip and I’ve been posting about the exhibits I saw in order. I recently posted about three different exhibitions I saw in England. You can check them out here, here, and here. After a week of museuming and eating bangers and mash with my English cousins, I flew to the Netherlands.  On my flight I was seated in the middle of a large bachelor party, next to the groom-to-be-himself. If you have the chance to travel with a very drunk bachelor party you absolutely must take it because it was the best flight I’ve ever had. There was also a large party of middle-aged-women wearing shirts that said “F*** off, I’m with the birthday boy” and a rather emo looking high school student wearing a shirt that said “F*** off, I’m the birthday boy.” All of the women were screaming.

And so, I arrived in Amsterdam slightly tipsy and very excited. The city did not disappoint (as always!) At the absolute top of my list was a trip to the Stedelijk Museum. The Stedelijk is where I fell in love with Dutch art, and where I did much of my research for my senior thesis. I’m obsessed with the art, the building, the library, and the now deceased museum director Willem Sandberg. (I’m currently reading a compilation of Sandberg interviews).

On view at the Stedelijk right now is the exhibition, “Jana Euler: High in Amsterdam. The Sky of Amsterdam.” While it is difficult to read that sentence without immediately thinking of Dutch drug policy, it would be remiss to read off the German artists’ trippy canvases as mere mushroom-inspired dreamscapes. Euler’s works are explorations of different genres. She takes the concepts and strategies associates with each and plays with them, bending them inside-out. The Stedelijk describes Euler’s work as being “recognizable not by how it looks, but by its effect.” Let’s take a look at my favorite work from this show and see Euler’s process in action.

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Here is the ethereal Understanding Doubts and Logic (2017):

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For this work Euler airbrushed acrylic paint onto the surface of the canvas and then used oil paint on top. The two layers operate as separate paintings as well as aspects of a finished whole. The airbrushed layer features a multi-limbed and multi-breasted female figure resting in a garden filled with flowers. The oil layer features shoes, nail polish, and fake eyelashes. If you look closely, you’ll also see that there are tiny pictures of men sitting at a table with a bottle of wine painted in thin brushstrokes of oil paint. Stranger yet is the fact that white breastmilk from each of the figure’s many breasts pours into the bottles at the men’s tables. Oil is also used to spell the phrase “understanding doubts and logic” and to connect this phrase to a yellow sun by way of a thin yellow line.

Now, I have a lot of thoughts about this painting and what it might “mean.” So I’ll begin by saying that Jana Euler’s work is not explicitly symbolic. It does not fit into an allegorical box that matches icon with signification. Rather, it suggests a multiplicity of signification for various images across the canvas. It points to potential interpretations without maintaining that it must be read a specific way. And so, my reading should be seen as one angle of many that fit Euler’s multifaceted work.

I see Understanding Doubts and Logic as a blend of two genres: the female nude, and the sort of impressionistic cafe paintings that were popular in late 19th-century Parisian art. The airbrushed painting is the nude, as the naked figure takes up the majority of the canvas. Her head heads several inches below the top of the canvas, and her many feet end slightly before it, or have their toes chopped off by the bottom of the canvas. Because she fills the canvas, the focus of the painting is on her. The viewer’s eyes are free to travel across the surface of the painting, consuming different parts of her body at every turn. We as viewers fill the role of the voyeur in the relationship between viewer and subject in this genre. Euler is keenly aware of this dynamic and playfully mocks it by multiplying the subject’s breasts. Euler seems to be saying, “I know you’re going to look at this woman, so why don’t I give you a lot more to look at!” The artist has also multiplied the amount of feet in the painting. I find this very amusing, as it is clear to all that feet were never the focus of the viewer’s gaze.

Another way that Euler plays into this genre is through the figure’s gaze. In classic female nudes like this and this the female figure looks away from the viewer, allowing him to consume her without confrontation. Making eye contact would break the illusion that she wants to be consumed and is there for male consumption. She would be individualized. No longer staring at an anonymous doll, the viewer would feel confronted by the figure and embarrassed by his blatant ogling. And so, restricting eye contact allows the viewer to consume the figure in peace. Like the academic nudes do, Euler’s figure looks away demurely, allowing the viewer to get lost in her multitude of breasts and legs.

However, the longer we stare at the figure, the more we begin to feel that we are being made fun of. Not only has Euler multiplied the significance of the figure’s gender through the multiplication of breasts, but she has also aggressively emphasized other aspects of femininity. The long, curling eyelashes added over the airbrushed layer of paint are so ludicrously long it would be difficult for the figure to open her eyes. There are many kiss imprints haphazardly stamped on the surface of the painting. The figure’s red fingernails are half the size of her fingers themselves. Her breasts are many different colors, as if the figure is somehow able to be many ethnicities at once and therefore satisfy the male viewer’s many racial fantasies. Euler has created a woman who screams “WOMAN” so loudly that she becomes a parody of what the voyeuristic male wants– and expects– women to be.

This interpretation is supported by the second layer of the painting that I find resembles the cafe scenes in impressionistic France. Men outlined in black paint sit around a table drinking from proportionally enormous bottles of wine. I am reminded of 19th century cafe scenes because of the leisurely, gendered nature of each tableau. I find it comical that the female figure has been so artfully constructed with layers of paint and bright, vibrant colors, while the males are designated to mere outlines of form. While painterly attention to the female body is often objectifying, Euler’s self-conscious multiplication of gendered body parts is actually empowering. Thus, the contrast between the colorful female figure and the haphazard outlines of teeny male figures renders the male characters inferior. Euler further emasculates them by unknowingly serving them wine bottles filled with breastmilk. Droplets of white paint spill from each nipple into a bottle on each table. This is perhaps the most amusing aspect of this painting. Euler has taken the sexist notion that a woman’s role is as a wife and mother alone and used it to turn the power dynamic between men and women on its head. The men are infantilized by their small size, simplistic depiction, and the hysterical fact that they are drinking a woman’s breastmilk.

Here are Lara (my travel pal) and I, very amused at this:

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So what do we take away from Understanding Doubts and Logic? I quite like the interpretation I just presented, though I am not sure how the title fits in. Perhaps the female creature, whose forehead bears this phrase, is somehow all-knowing in her female genius. She can understand both the understandable and what we doubt we can comprehend. I come away from this painting feeling empowered and amused. Euler has turned gender dynamics on their head with a coy smile. Her belittling depiction of men is not a statement that women are actually superior, but a commentary on the way the reverse is so prevalent in our society.

I recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath. The point of this book is that the so-called weaknesses attributed to underdogs are actually qualities that give them an advantage against their opponent. Euler has taken the “weaknesses” of women that the patriarchy attributes to the “fairer gender” and turned them into symbols of power. Breastmilk and long eyelashes signify greatness and strength.

Until next time!

xoxo,

Chloe ❤

Two Paintings from the Walker Art Gallery (Liverpool, England)

Greetings everyone!

If you’ve been following, you’ll see that I’m on quite the roll this week! I posted about the  Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth on Tuesday, and the Tate Liverpool yesterday. I’m blogging about my Euro trip in order, so this will be the last England post! I was very excited to visit the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool because the collection houses some of the world’s most famous Pre-Raphaelite and Victorian art. Rather than analyzing an overarching exhibition, I will discuss two fascinating paintings from the collection. Echo and Narcissus, by John William Waterhouse (1903) and The Punishment of Lust, by Giovanni Segantini (1891) reveal much about morality and gender politics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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Echo and Narcissus, by John William Waterhouse (1903) is one of my favorite paintings. I believe I have reblogged it on my tumblr a minimum of seven times. Seeing the work in person was an absolute dream. Here I am posing beside this beautiful painting:

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And here is a photograph of the painting in context of the room, hung below another masterpiece:

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Echo and Narcissus tells the story of the Roman myth whose characters bear the same names. Echo was a maiden infatuated with Narcissus, who in turn was too self-absorbed to notice her advances. She withered away until just her voice– an echo– remained on this earth. As punishment for his behavior, Narcissus became obsessed with his own reflection, and could not bear to part from it. Here, we see Echo looking longingly at Narcissus:

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Note her body language. Rather than pointing towards the object of her desire, Echo’s torso is flush with the canvas. Her bent knees are positioned even further away from Narcissus. And yet she turns her face to look back at him, creating a thin line of taut muscle in her throat where she twists her neck. She clutches a tree in one hand while the other is used to steady herself on a rock. The tension in her body language demonstrates her convoluted emotions; part of her body turns away from him while the other part physically reaches out towards him.

Furthermore, her posture is that of a person trying to emulate a certain persona. Her knees and feet are kept modestly pressed together, covered in a draped pink fabric. Yet she allows the fabric to fall away, revealing the breast closest to Narcissus’ line of vision. Her gaze, too, affirms her desire. It is a bit difficult to see in this photograph, but t Echo’s eyes are wide open. Zoom in on this version of the picture to see better. The angle of her pupils points her focus directly on Narcissus. Waterhouse employs the tiniest of brushstrokes to indicate her slightly-arched right eyebrow, which lends her face a combination of intensity and distress. Echo’s love for Narcissus comes at the expense of her own composure.

Now take a look at the way the artist paints Narcissus:

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We are not able to see his face as it is focused on his reflection in the water. However, we can learn a lot from his body language. Narcissus lays down on the rock in order to get as close as possible to the water. His right hand reaches towards the lake. What could he accomplish in doing so? He cannot be using it to, say, drink water or catch a fish, because he is already engaged in an activity: looking at himself. Thus, the movement of his hand is part of this activity. He is reaching out to touch his reflection, which is by nature a non-tangible entity. He is so obsessed with himself that he disregards what he knows to be the properties of water in order to be closer to his reflection. This demonstrates the severity of his curse. There is also a moral lesson for the viewer behind this pictorial choice. Waterhouse seems to be warning the viewer that self-involvement engenders irrational, foolish thinking.

If you take another look at the zoomed-out picture you’ll see that there are a few yellow flowers growing by Narcissus’ feet. These are Narcissus flowers, commonly known as daffodils. The myth describes how these flowers sprouted when Narcissus finally died at this very spot.

What do you think Waterhouse was trying to accomplish in Echo and Narcissus? Was he warning viewers about the dangers of lust and self-absorption? Or was he simply fond of Roman mythology and its possibilities for Victorian painting? In the wall plaque, the museum states that unrequited love was a favorite theme of Waterhouse’s. Keep in mind that this was 1903, and gender dynamics were quite different. Perhaps Waterhouse’s paintings fetishize the stereotypical lonely female. They certainly do the protagonist no favors in rounding out her character. Though what I like about Echo and Narcissus is that neither character comes out unscathed. Echo is foolish to contemporary viewers, perhaps, but Narcissus is as well. Waterhouse makes less commentary on their genders than on the concepts they represent.

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Speaking of morality, the painter Giovanni Segantini painted his own tale of warning about vice in The Punishment of Lust (1891). Take a look:

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And up close:

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What we are presented with here is a supernatural scene in the midst of an ominous landscape. Two curiously identical figures float in mid-air, their torsos facing in opposite directions. Their hair- a beautiful golden red- rises in the air as well. Some strands float parallel to the earth while others blow gently in an invisible wind. The arms of both figures are relaxed. The figure on the viewer’s left floats easily, her arm resting in the air as if there is a bed beneath it. The figure on the viewer’s right floats just as soundly, though her hand rests on her belly. We are not given privy to the legs of either girl, as they are encased in a silvery fabric that stretches ambiguously up each of their bodies. It is not clear where the fabric starts and ends. There is the semblance of a visible breast on the body of the figure at right. The impressionistic quality of the brushstrokes and the similar coloring of the fabric, the girls’ skin, and the landscape behind make it difficult to discern fabric from skin and snow. We are also not given access to either girl’s face. They are turned towards the sky and powdered with droplets of color that blur their features. Tiny smudges of grey suggest the shadow of closed eyelids.

What other clues do we have, besides this analysis of the figures’ bodies? We have their desolate landscape. The earth is barren, covered in a thin layer of white snow. The scraggly bushes and trees around the figures are few and far between. It is not immediately clear if they are dead or simply leafless for the winter. There is also a stretch of black mountain uncovered by white snow. The world is not a frosted wonderland of snow mountains and evergreen trees. It is a wasteland, just too cold enough for proper greenery to grow, but not cold enough to create a winter wonderland. If my memory of 8th grade earth science is correct, this could very well be the tundra.

Because the figures are situated in such a desolate wasteland (and because of the title of the painting) it is clear that the figures are enduring a supernatural punishment for their sins- specifically, lust. Is this lust for each other? The two women are intertwined. Perhaps their lustful sin is the engagement in lesbian sex. They could also be sisters, or mirror images of one self. What do you think?

On the plaque at the museum it is written: “This is based on the 12th century poem, Nirvana, by Luigi Illica, which describes the progress of neglectful mother through a Buddhist purgatory. The tree symbolizes the tree of life. The floating mothers’ souls will eventually achieve Nirvana, a Buddhist heaven represented by the mountains. The painting may be the Italian artist’s protest against women’s emancipation.”

Wow, take a second to take that all in. No matter how much visual analysis I did in front of this painting, there was a zero percent chance I was ever going to land on that interpretation. I simply am not exposed enough to Buddhist imagery to have made that leap between tree and tree of life, or floating bodies and the achievement of Nirvana. However, with all that in mind, do you have any initial reactions? I am struck by two things. First, the fact that Segantini has painted two separate mothers identically. Surely the artist had the capability to paint women who look different, so why paint them the same exact way? Perhaps their neglectfulness as mothers renders them unworthy of individualistic depiction. Secondly, the fact that the artist actively protested women’s emancipation lends the work another layer of significance (and makes my blood boil). He clearly did not think very highly of women if he was against their emancipation. So, the depiction of women as sinful, neglectful mothers is a warning to lawmakers in society. If women cannot be trusted to perform their traditional duties as mothers, how can they be allowed to take on more societal responsibilities? (This literally pains me to write). And so, with this wall plaque to help us interpret The Punishment of Lust, we come away with a deepened understanding of both the artist’s personal politics, and the significance of the painting itself.

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It is sometimes difficult to be a woman and love Victorian art (or pretty much any art before the 1970s) as it often features women in objectified, fetishized positions. Rarely do I see a painting that is actually propaganda for misogynistic politics, but I am no stranger to the fetishized nude. What does this mean for me as an art historian, student, and woman? As I often say, learning about art is important because art is a reflection of how people feel and think. If you want to better understand history and conflict, you must look at the art being made by those living within it. And so, in order to understand the history of gender politics and make positive steps towards improving conditions for women, we must understand how we got to where we are. We must look at the history of gender roles and how people felt about these roles. One of the best ways to do so is through art. Sometimes this can be upsetting, as in the case of The Punishment of Lust. Other times it can be rewarding, especially when you find a painting that seems bizarrely feminist in a time when feminism was not being discussed at all. (Read: Olympia).

Let me know if you have any thoughts, feminist, artistic, or otherwise. I’m going to go look at some works by female artists and feel powerful again.

Until next time!

xoxo,

Chloe ❤

Tracey Emin and William Blake in Focus (Tate Liverpool- Liverpool)

Hi everyone,

Today I’d like to talk about a particularly interesting exhibit I visited in Liverpool several weeks ago. Tracey Emin and William Blake in Focus sees the work of two brilliant artists exhibited together in the same space. The two artists in question are not usually associated with one another.

Tracey Emin was born in 1963 and rose to prominence as a member of the Young British Artists, alongside contemporaries Damien Hirst and Angela Bulloch. On her website it is written that “Emin’s work has an immediacy and often sexually provocative attitude that firmly locates her oeuvre within the tradition of feminist discourse.” I have been reading a book about the Young British Artists called Artrage!: The Story of the BritArt Revolution. In it, Emin’s works have stood out to me for their broad range of mediums and brutal– at times repelling– emotional honesty.

On the other hand, William Blake was born in 1757. His relief etchings and paintings, influenced by his peculiar views on the supernatural and sexuality, were largely criticized during his lifetime. The post-humous publication of his biography in the mid 19th century propelled his legacy into the foreground of artistic and philosophical thought. Today Blake is considered one of the most important artists in Britain’s history.

So why has the Tate Liverpool chosen to exhibit the works of these artists together? On its website, the museum cites “a shared concern with birth, death, and spirituality” as the reason for comparing the two artists side-by-side. It also touches on Blake’s categorization as a Romanticist. The Romanticism movement witnessed a creative shift towards the individual, his emotions, and his place in the natural world (alongside God, as well as plants and animals). According to the Tate Liverpool, the exhibit “affirms Blake’s romantic idea of artistic truth through existential pain and the possibility of spiritual rebirth through art.”

In this post, I will explore how Blake’s journey for artistic truth mirrors and enhances the emotional gravity of Emin’s famous work, My Bed (1998).

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First, take a look at Emin’s installation:

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Note the array of items strewn across the carpet– condoms, a bottle of alcohol, slippers, a newspaper, a razor, a cigarette box, dirty tissues, a belt, dirty underwear, and a stuffed animal, to name a few. Note also how the mattress has not been sanitarily fitted with a sheet, but haphazardly covered with a thin layer of sweat-drenched bedding.

Emin created My Bed after spending a weekend in her bed– this bed– guzzling alcohol after a sour break-up. She woke up one morning to the scene that us visitors now have the privilege to see as objective outsiders. She looked down upon the mess of bottles, tampons, and cigarette butts and realized that this bed, and all of the items around it, were the purest expression of her emotional state. Any other attempt to express herself at this specific moment in time wouldn’t hold a candle to the stark reality of her bedroom. And so, she exhibited the bed and all its accouterments at the Tate Gallery in 1999.

My Bed was met with a variety of responses, all of them impassioned. After all, how could one have a lukewarm impression of such a bold, shocking work? Some found it to be genius, a moving snapshot of the artist at a breaking point. Others ridiculed it, stating that a collection of objects– which anyone could piece together– could never be art. This was a perspective put forward by a visitor to the Tate Liverpool during a lecture I attended. The basis of the woman’s argument was that each individual aspect of the work, such as a single sock, was not art, so therefore the entire work could not be. The lecturer responded brilliantly. First he said, “You believe that you could have done this. And yet, think of the darkest time of your entire life. Everything you felt, deep inside. Now imagine sharing that with the entire world. Would you do that? Most people wouldn’t. But Tracey did. That is why it is so special.”

Secondly, he listed an idea and skill as the two concepts that can be utilized to make art. He pointed out that Emin undoubtedly has technical skill– it is evident in many of her other works. But an idea, too, can be art. And her idea was an emotional, painful, never-before-seen idea that causes visitors to stop and feel something. I personally really like My Bed. When I first saw it, I felt a pang inside my chest. While I have never gone on a three-day-long alcohol binge without eating, I have experienced loneliness– we all have. One’s bedroom ought to be a place of solace, but during dark times it can morph into a cave of isolation. Since it is no one’s space but your own, it is easy to retreat into it, and never expect anyone to come looking.

Here is a photograph of My Bed in the context of the room, and one of me beside it:

 

 

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With everything I’ve said about Emin in mind, let’s switch gears and take a look at a series of works by William Blake.

This first painting is a work entitled Pity (1795).

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It is worth mentioning that Blake claimed to see visions for the entirety of his life. Thus, the supernatural elements in a work like Pity take on a more series significance. This is not merely a religious depiction of an angel peering down at a sleeping woman, but a scene that Blake took to be real, to some degree.  Blake saw a very thin barrier between the living and the death, the divine and the human; a barrier that could easily be penetrated. The title of the work, “Pity” suggests that the angel above the sleeping woman is taking pity on her for some reason or another. Perhaps the figure dangling from his fingers is a man he is sending down to earth to be with the lonely woman. Or perhaps the figure has just died, and the angel is taking him up to heaven, away from the grieving woman. Either way, the fact that the angel has an opinion about the woman, and takes an active role in improving her well-being suggests that Blake viewed his own life as being influenced by supernatural beings. It reinforces Blake’s romantic interest in his own self and his place within the greater scheme of life. It also demonstrates what the Tate Liverpool describes as his desire to seek artistic truth through the depiction of his perception of the universe.

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Another work that achieves a similarly eerie effect is The Soul Hovering Over the Body Reluctantly Parting with Life (1805).

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Here, a wispy series of lines designates the outline of a soul. It peers down at the dead body below, longing to be with him. This drawing reflects Blake’s perception of life and death, and his characterization of the relationship between the soul and the human body. Perhaps it was his own fear of death that propelled him to make such a work; it reinforced the notion that there is some sort of existence after the body has expired. Or perhaps Blake witnessed such an occurrence in one of his visions. Either way, the drawing is another example of the artist’s exploration of his own place in a multi-dimensional world.

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I was quite fond of Blake’s 1826 painting, The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve for its emotional depiction of each member of the family.

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In this scene, Blake’s religious upbringing is evident. He depicts Eve bending over the body of her dead son Abel in sorrow, her arms contorting out of their sockets above her head. Behind her, Adam looks towards Cain with an expression of confusion and sadness. His hands are flexed upwards in a manner that today seems effeminate, but likely were composed with the intention of appearing shocked; the angle and straightness of the fingers can only be maintained with great tension and effort. Lastly, Cain flees the scene in a manner that manages to be both graceful and deeply distressed. Note his pointed right foot and the straightness of his right leg. He looks as if he is in the middle of a ballet. Blake maintained a high level of craftsmanship while simultaneously breaking traditional molds to show these biblical figures with real, human emotions. Take a look at Cain’s face below:

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Cain’s eyes dip to one direction, staring into nothingness as he panics about what he has done, rather than seeing what is directly in front of him. The sense of distress is reinforced by his furrowed eyebrows, carved from several upward brushstrokes and mirrored by upturned eyelids. An open expression of fear is frozen on his mouth. Though we cannot see Cain physically tearing his hair out, the tension in his arms– specifically a bulging vein in his left forearm– indicate the strength with which he is pulling at his hair.

The intensity of Cain’s expression, as well as those of Adam and Eve, serve to humanize a religious tale, placing it closer to the realm of reality. This signifies Blake’s own relationship with religion, or at least with the morals religion teaches. His conflation of the supernatural/divine with the real suggest that there is not such a strong boundary between the two. Furthermore, it reveals Blake’s own journey for truth through an exploration of morality.

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I have now delved deeply into My Bed and a series of Blake’s works. Before I wrote that this post would elucidate how similar the two artists are, and how their work reinforces the emotional weight of the other. Can you infer before reading further how this is so?

First and foremost, the two artists broke traditional expectations of what art is supposed to be. Emin created an installation that pushed the boundaries of modern art. She created a concept, withholding her technical skill, to showcase a moment of her life more truly and deeply than she believed a painting ever could. Furthermore, its autobiographical nature, unshielded by a frame or allegory, tested many people’s limits. Blake created religious images that challenged the norms of religious paintings by humanizing characters from the bible. He also confronted societal perceptions of life, death, the divine, and the supernatural by depicting interactions between these supposedly separate entities.

Secondly, the two artists used their own methods to explore the possibility of spiritual and artistic rebirth. Emin, though the display of My Bed, was able to look objectively at a moment in her life and realize its emotional power. In sharing this dark part of her soul, she accepted its place in her life and could potentially move past it. In doing so, she broke the rules about art and moved into a new creative headspace. Blake, with the aid of his visions and unique philosophical views, explored his place in the world through paintings that conflated seemingly disparate entities. This process legitimized his perception of the world while simultaneously shifting the paradigm of religious art.

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I hope you enjoyed reading this post as much as I enjoyed writing it! If you’d like to read more about Tracey Emin I suggest you take a look at ArtRage! And if you’re interested in William Blake as I am, well, accompany me to the library because we both have quite a lot of reading to do. In my background research I also found several sources that touched upon his liberal sexual politics– apparently Blake also disagreed with marriage as an institution. How does that knowledge influence your reading of his works? I’m interested to hear.

And if you have the luck to be in Liverpool before early September, swing by the Tate. You won’t regret it.

Until next time!

xoxo,

Chloe ❤