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 ❤

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Amsterdam Research Trip

Hallo!

This morning I woke up and was not in Amsterdam and let me tell you- I was disappointed. But at the same time, I was so so SO happy that my thesis research brought me to my favorite city for a wonderful week of museums, mayonnaise, and dancing. (For those who have not visited the Netherlands, the mayonnaise and music scene are out of this world).

Today I’d like to do something a little bit different. Instead of giving you an art historical analysis of an exhibit or a work of art (or even a DIY!), I am going to tell you about my wonderful week. After all, Canvas and Crumpets is about beautiful living, and my week in Amsterdam was the perfect combination of academic research and basking in the beauty of life. I’ll touch on my research, pointing to specific works and explaining how they contributed to my research process. However, I’ll be posing lots of open-ended questions about these works and leaving you to put some of the pieces together. Keep your eye out for a post later this week that answers a lot of these questions. For now, enjoy!

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Day 0: I am referring to the day I landed as Day Zero because I went 34 hours without sleeping and spent a decent amount of it in bed. Additionally, the airline lost my luggage so I don’t know if this day deserves a positive number. However, my friends Sofi and Thijl took me to a Jewish Dutch Deli for breakfast after I landed. This was by far the standout of Day Zero. No, there are no pictures. I was too busy devouring my sandwich(es).

I also went to the zoo in between naps with my good friend Sofi. Here we are:

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Just kidding, here we are:

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I believe this day ended with me asleep by 20.00.

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Day 1: I woke up bright and early to go to the Stedelijk Museum. When I was abroad, I was absolutely OBSESSED with the Stedelijk. This museum is where my thesis topic was born. It started as a research paper for one of my abroad classes, A Social History of the Netherlands. In April and May I spent about four hours a day, five days per week in the Stedelijk research library reading old documents. When I left Amsterdam, I decided to turn this research paper into my senior thesis.

The topic of the original research paper- and my senior thesis- is the art movement Cobra. Cobra stands for Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam- the three cities from which the major members of this group originated. I am specifically focusing on the Dutch members of this group, and exploring how the socio-political atmosphere in the Netherlands following World War II led to the groups’ creation.

My research necessitated me returning to the Stedelijk, this time to perform visual analyses on several different works, rather than to visit the Stedelijk library. The museum feels like home to me, and I was beyond excited to go back.

I first took a look at some Mondrian paintings. The following is a work entitled Composition No. IV, with Red, Blue, and Yellow (1929). On the right is a detail of the viewer’s bottom left corner.

And here is another Mondrian work, entitled Lozenge Composition with Two Lines (1931).

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Mondrian was the founder of an important Dutch art movement called De Stijl. You can read a bit about the movement here. What characterizes De Stijl is an emphasis on geometry and primary colors. At the time of its founding in 1917, the movement was radical. It represented the next step in the breakdown of traditional art-making. Mondrian and De Stijl are important for my research because I am investigating the reasons that Cobra came about in the 1940s. De Stijl was the primary Dutch art style before Cobra, so it’s important for me to understand its theories and methodologies. Only then can I ascertain why the Cobra artists rejected De Stijl in favor of something new and different.

Take a look at these two works. What words would you use to describe them? How are line, color, shape, space, texture, and light utilized? These are called formal aspects, and they’re useful for comparing works.

Next, I went to the Cobra room, where I promptly almost fainted of happiness. The following is an incredible three-dimensional work entitled Cat, by Constant Nieuwenhuys (1948). Constant was one of the Dutch founders of Cobra, and one of the central artists in my research.

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Here I am looking more composed than I feel with Cat.

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I’ll be publishing a post soon where I go into detail about the progression of Dutch modernism through key works, so take a moment to think about how Cat compares to Composition No. IV or Lozenge Composition. How are the formal aspects utilized in different ways? And how does each work make you feel? Really focus on that sensation, as both Mondrian and Constant painted to evoke a sensation in the viewer. Furthermore, Constant actively despised Mondrian’s works. Why do you think this is?

Here is another Cobra work from this room entitled Questioning Children, by Karel Appel (1949).

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Here’s a detail of the three-dimensional work made from paint on wood.

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Appel and Constant worked closely together. What do Cat and Questioning Children share that Mondrian’s paintings lack?

Day 1 was made even more strange by my run-in with the famous Dutch talkshow host Humberto Tan. I was on my way to buy clothes (luggage was still not returned at this point) when he stopped me on the street and asked to take a photo of me for his street blog. I figured he was a photographer. Several screaming girls asking for selfies later and I realized he was a famous figure on Dutch TV. Go figure. Here we are smiling. You can still see the jet lag/confusion in my delirious eyes:

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Day 2: Day 2 was, essentially, the reason I came to the Netherlands. I called the Stedelijk museum several months ago to inquire about the works that would be on view at the museum in January. I was directed to the head of the offsite depot, where the entire Stedelijk collection is stored when it’s not on view. Museums only display a small fraction of all the works they own, so offsite depots are massive! The head of the Stedelijk depot informed me that, because I was doing research, I could request any works from the collection to study during my visit. I chose 7 paintings and 1 print, all by Dutch Cobra artists.

I arrived last Wednesday at noon feeling extremely excited. I had been looking at tiny thumbnails of these works on my computer screen, and I was about to see them in person! The building itself was very imposing, with barbed wire and an electronic gate. My taxi driver actually asked me if I was visiting someone in prison.

Anyways, I walked into the viewing room and was completely stunned for several seconds. The colors of these paintings were more vivid than I’d imagined. They leapt out at me like they were alive, swimming within the confines of their wooden frames. Here’s a snapshot of a portion of the paintings I selected:

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And here I am feeling rather posh between two of my favorite works:

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Now, two of the works that I selected were oil paintings by Karel Appel, painted before Cobra. Sitting Girl and Sailor Girl were both created in 1946. Take a look and answer this question: What styles or artists do these works remind you of?

Sitting Girl reminds me of Modigliani’s manneristic portraits of women with elongated necks. Compare Sitting Girl to Jeanne Hébuterne (1919). Sailor Girl reminds me of Picasso’s simplified, deconstructed figures. Do you see a similar utilization of line and color in Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror (1932)?

I was interested in looking at these two works because I am demonstrating in my thesis that the future members of Dutch Cobra did try out the styles of different contemporary artists. What they found- which is well documented in their published periodicals- was that these styles were not sufficient vehicles of self-expression. They rejected cubism. They rejected all kinds of genres. In order to show that Cobra was a result of the socio-political climate of the Netherlands following WWII, I must first explain that contemporary modes of expression were inadequate for artists struggling with the social and political conditions in Holland.

The following work is perhaps the most haunting of all. Constant Nieuwenhuys painted Concentration Camp (War) in 1950.

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How do you feel looking at this painting? I imagine rather sad, especially given the fact that the title is Concentration Camp (War). Yet the sadness comes from within the painting. It does not feel as if the title were slapped on like a price tag. How does Constant achieve this mood? How does he manipulate line, color, shape, space, light, and texture to evoke sadness? I was particularly struck by the use of line and shape to create otherworldly beings with whom I feel an empathetic and spiritual connection.

I also was shaken by another of Constant’s eerie paintings, The War (1950).

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Are you starting to see similarities in the subject matter of Dutch Cobra art? Remember that 75% of the Dutch Jewish population were killed in the Holocaust. Hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish Dutchmen died when German blockades caused famine in the last winter of the war. This was a population that had known suffering and death. It’s not surprising that the Dutch Cobra artists felt compelled to express their pain by depicting these dark subjects.

But what about the style of these works? Are you starting to see trends regarding the formal aspects of Dutch Cobra art? In The War, the outstretched arm of the central figure captivates my gaze. It is very much alive, reaching into the air against a backdrop of fire and decay, though it sits atop a mound of dead creatures. This dichotomy is gruesome yet compelling and utterly devastating.

Here are the last three works I studied. The top left is Constant’s Dead Cows (1951). The top right is Constant’s Scorched Earth (1951). (For all my history buffs out there, think about the term ‘scorched earth’ and how it was applied as a military tactic in the Second World War.) The gouache print at the bottom is Cornielle’s Composition (1948).

The Dutch Cobra paintings really are beautiful, aren’t they? Yet they also manage to be uncanny, sad, gruesome, and desperate, sometimes all at the same time. I think that’s why I like them so much. I am fascinated by their historical context, but also by the tension within each work. It is as if the artist himself couldn’t decide if he was hopeful about the future or resigned to the death of humanity.

After my four hour visit to the Depot I met up with my Dutch language teacher, Lisa. She took me for coffee and then to her work borrel. A borrel is a Dutch party for a specific group of people. You could have a tennis borrel for the members of the tennis team, or an art history borrel for art history students. I met all of the creative people she works with at this fun party! Here we are smiling:

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Day 3: I woke up on Thursday at the Hilton Apollolaan, where I spent two of my seven nights in Amsterdam. The rest of the time I stayed with Sofi. Here I am wearing a coat I impulsively bought the day before from Daily Paper, ready to start the day:

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I headed south to Amstelveen, the city right below Amsterdam, to visit the Cobra Museum.  This museum is entirely devoted to the works of the Cobra artists, including the Dutch, Danish, and Belgian contingents of the group. My intention in visiting the Cobra Museum was to perform visual analyses on the works of Danish artists. After the Dutch artists rejected De Stijl, cubism, and a number of other genres, they encountered the Danish Expressionists. This interaction led to the creation of Cobra and the development of the works like Concentration Camp (war) and Dead Cows.

Carl-Henning Pedersen painted Salomon’s Kingdom in 1939. Take a look:

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Do you see a relationship between this painting and the works by the Dutch Cobra artists? Does Pedersen handle formal aspects in the same way? How does his subject matter compare? I am particularly drawn to a quality of creaminess on the painting’s surface that is missing from the rougher Cobra works… but I see a lot of similarities in color and shape. What do you think?

The following is a painting by Egill Jacobsen entitled Sea (1947).

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And here is an untitled work by Asger Jorn painted in 1949.

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Just by looking at Sea and Untitled, it is clear that the Danish artists (and the Dutch artists, for that matter), were not clones painting identical pictures. The point in comparing works is not to conclude that the whole movement painted the same subjects with same color palette, but to draw connections between works that point to a larger ideology and methodology. Sea and Untitled could not be more different in their utilization of color, but what about shape? There are haunting eyes, formed from small bubbles of color, in both works. When I look at both paintings, I have the uncomfortable sensation of being watched. See what other connections you can come up with!

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Days 4, 5, 6: I only had three days of research which left three days for visiting old friends and enjoying the city. However, as I left the hotel to go to my friend’s apartment, I started chatting with the concierge. And wouldn’t you know it, he agreed to take me on a tour of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s famous honeymoon suite. Instead of going about and enjoying Amsterdam, the couple spent their honeymoon in bed, protesting the war. They called this the “bed-in for peace.” You can read more about this story here. I took lots of pictures of the suite. Take a look!

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And of course I had to get a picture of myself in the suite. I wanted to lie down on the bed and pose but didn’t think that’d go over too well with housekeeping, so I went for this pose instead:

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My last three days were an absolute whirlwind. I went to my favorite Dutch restaurant, Moeder’s, for traditional Dutch fare with my friend Tiemen. I went back to my old dorm with my old suitemate Ellie who has since moved to her own place in Amsterdam. I cooked dinner with Ellie and our other friend Thijmen, and many meals with my host, Sofi. I reconnected with some friends I lost touch with and we went out dancing to my favorite club, De School. On my last night, Sofi took me to her favorite bar and I got to meet all her friends! Here’s a little collage of my time spent with wonderful friends last week:

I also managed to spend all my emergency money on clothing. If you’re in Amsterdam and in need of some clothes to wear because your suitcase was also left in Dublin, check out The Girl Can’t Help It, a 1950s-style boutique. Also stop in to T.I.T.S. for whimsical, feminist designs and Nobody Has to Know for ageless, genderless, and sizeless clothing.

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That’s all for now! I hope you enjoyed reading about my research trip to Amsterdam. I have been mostly writing exhibition reviews as of late, and it made me quite happy to share my everyday adventures with you all as well. Perhaps I’ll make a habit of it! Like I always say, inject art and happiness into your life at every possible moment.

Until next time!

xoxo, Chloe ❤

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The Demise of Abraham Reiss (National Holocaust Museum- Amsterdam)

Well, it finally happened. My four months in Amsterdam came to a close (with a few tears, and a whole lot of gruyere). I may be back in the Big Apple, but I’m not ready to let go of my blissful semester abroad just yet- partially because I am in denial and partially because I still have a few posts queue’d up! My last couple weeks in Amsterdam were spent scurrying from museum to gallery to museum and back again, as I feverishly attempted to cross everything off my bucket list.

One museum I am extremely glad I visited was the National Holocaust Museum. Amsterdam has several institutions dedicated to the Jewish experience in the Netherlands. I visited the  Jewish Historical Museum, the Portuguese Synagogue, the Holocaust Memorial, the Dutch Resistance Museum, and the Ann Frank House all before the National Holocaust Museum opened in May. Despite the abundance of Jewish institutions in Amsterdam, the National Holocaust Museum feels extremely prudent, and fulfills an important niche in Amsterdam’s Jewish Quarter. It uses both history and art to weave together an emotional history of the Holocaust in the Netherlands.

The exhibit currently on display is The Demise of Abraham Reiss, by Jeroen Krabbé. In this exhibition, Holocaust survivor Krabbé imagines the life of his Grandfather in a series of nine multi-media works. Krabbé’s grandfather, Abraham, unfortunately did not survive the Holocaust, and was brutally murdered in Sobibor. This series of works is accompanied by a documentary in which Krabbé himself discusses his artistic choices. I will reference his ideas as well as my own in the following analysis.

The first work is entitled, Spanderswoud, 1904. It depicts Abraham at his prime, a successful diamond cleaver and lover of leisure. Here, he is perched in the grass in the woods, where he likely arrived on his Raleigh bike.

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Notice how the the landscape is heavily decorated with both paint and sand. Not a spot of grass or tree is left unpainted. And yet, Abraham himself is sketched in charcoal. It seems as if the slightest brush of a hand could wipe away the marks that represent him. He looks out at us, the viewers, with an unreadable expression. His body, though at rest, seems oddly stiff, as if he is posing for a photograph he did not want taken. Note the one white tree at the viewer’s right. This tree will become important later.

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The second work, Ostend, 1929, depicts a seaside scene. Here, Abraham strolls down the beach while on holiday in Ostend.

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He does not know that it is his last holiday there. At this time, he can afford expensive suits and vacations, but his investments in American Stock are about to bankrupt him. Krabbé illustrates this sense of foreboding through several visual techniques. Note the way Abraham’s shadow is swallowed up by the surf. Murky blue and green water grab hold of Abraham’s yellow shadow and disfigure it, blending it into the foamy sand. Abraham saunters on, blissfully unaware of what is right next to him. Krabbé also indicates the coming troubles with the rainclouds at the top left. Here is a detail of the storm:

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Note how Krabbé uses overlapping vertical and horizontal lines- a technique called cross-hatching- to create a sense of gusting winds. These cross-hatching lines descend into the water, blurring the line between sea and sky. The water, too, looks hazardous, gradually surging towards the coastline.

Abraham’s black and white form is once more drawn with charcoal, while the rest of the painting is covered in thick brushstrokes and dotted with grains of sand. This isolates him, especially in relation to his family, who are clumped together in the middle of the painting. They are difficult to discern because Krabbé has barely colored them in. They remain white on a beige beach. Perhaps Krabbé meant to foreshadow Abraham’s isolation from his family. Or, the proximity of the wife and daughters to the impending storm symbolizes the catastrophic effect of the stock market crash on the Reiss family. Just how catastrophic this was, is revealed in the coming pictures.

Krabbé also notes that he included a stairway at the top right of the beach. He calls this stairway an ‘escape.’ The addition of an ‘escape’ is poignant because the viewer is aware that Abraham was unable to utilize it.

* * *

The third work, April 24 1942, Jekkerstraat 14-3, was painted from an actual photograph of Abraham, his wife, and his two daughters.

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After the stock market crash in 1929, Abraham lost all of the money he made in the diamond business. His family was forced to move from their luxurious home to a smaller one on Jekkerstraat. This would prove to be fatal for the Reiss family, because they did not have the money to go into hiding once the Nazis started deporting Jews. Abraham’s wife suffered from diabetes, and actually died the day after this photograph was taken. She may not have died in a death camp, but Abraham often said that it was the Nazis who killed her. She died after reading a newspaper headline that stated all Jews were to wear an identifying yellow star. Abraham kept this newspaper, and intended to use it as evidence after the War that the Nazis had killed his wife.

In Krabbé’s painting, imagery plays a vital role. Once more, Abraham is a charcoal ghost, while his family members and the room itself are thickly painted. The room is half a room and half a forest. On the viewer’s left, the room is filled with trees. Do these trees look familiar? Refer back to the first painting, Spanderswoud, 1904, and note how the singular white tree in that painting has multiplied in this work. Furthermore, hints of red have covered its white bark. Then, on the right side of the room, we see decorative wallpaper surrounding a door. The black door leads to a room so red it is quite literally on fire. Everywhere the Reiss family turns, their life is transforming: into fire, into forest, into death.

Perhaps the most haunting details are the whispers of silver sand across the surface of the painting. Take a look:

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The breezes of grey dust cover Abraham, his wife, and only one of the daughters. One daughter- the mother of Krabbé, who survived the Holocaust- is left untouched. We can see, then, that these ‘whispers,’ as Krabbé calls them, signify the inevitability of death descending upon them.

* * *

This is Westerbork, 20 June 1943, the fourth work in Krabbé’s series. It depicts Abraham when he arrives in the Dutch labor camp.

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His charcoal form stands out in the center of this yellow canvas. He still wears his woolen coat and hat, and clutches his bag with one gloved hand. Here, sand, field and sky are one. Swirling yellow sand covers the canvas both figuratively and literally, as sand is a material used in all nine works. The effect is claustrophobic, just as the camp would have been to its inmates. A row of soldiers lines the right side of the canvas. In the far back on the viewer’s left there are tiny figures toiling in the field. They, too, are unpainted, concocted from charcoal and negative space. Their identities are slipping away, much like their representation on canvas.

This was a very heart-wrenching painting to look at. I find the way Abraham clutches his bag to be especially upsetting. The contents of his bag are the last items he brought from home. He probably carries old photographs and family heirlooms. Upon deportation, Jews were told to bring with them only a small bag. Of course, all their possessions would be taken from them, but instructing them to bring a bag created an illusion of safety. If they were allowed to bring their possessions, how bad could their destination be? This psychological deceit I find particularly nauseating. For this reason, I find Westerbork, 20 June 1943 to be one of the most poignant, most emotionally stirring paintings in the series.

* * *

Westerbork, 6 July 1943 takes place several days after the previous work. In this painting, we see Abraham being sent by rail to the next, unknown location. This location would be Sobibor.

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The ‘whispers’ we saw in April 24 1942, Jekkerstraat 14-3 are even more prevalent here. Krabbé has coated the surface of the painting with a tremendous amount of black, grey, and white flecks. As you can see in the following detail, these specks disfigure the faces of the travelers, rendering them identity-less. The man in this detail looks like a mass of yellow paint with black splattered all over. One cannot discern his eyes from the whispers of death. As the whispers become more prominent, and the identities of the figures less distinguishable, one is left with a sense of foreboding.

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Meanwhile, Abraham continues to look at the viewer. There is too much glare on his glasses for us to properly make eye contact with him. And yet, the way he turns to face the viewer at this moment that everyone else piles into the crowded train suggests that he does see us. This moment, this pause, is filled with grace and dignity. One cannot help but admire the way Abraham regards the viewer with quiet confidence, despite the uncertainty of his situation.

* * *

6,7,8 July 1943 depicts the inside of the train during the journey from Westerbork to Sobibor.

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I am uncertain if this is meant to be three versions of Abraham in the three positions he assumed during the journey. The charcoal coloring of all three figures suggests that this is the case. All three figures have balding heads and collared coats with trousers. In this work, the boxcar walls are red and black. If you look closely, you may see the familiar tree motif etched into the red with black paint.And then, in the center, there is a giant X scratched onto the canvas, symbolizing, perhaps, the end. The whispers are black now, floating heavily over all three versions of Abraham. He has closed his eyes, bowed his head, and in one iteration, laid on the floor, but never has he lost his dignity. He stands solemnly, his shoulders relaxed. Even in despair, the Abraham that Krabbé has depicted is noble.

* * *

The following work is entitled, Sobibor, 9 July 1943. It depicts Abraham’s arrival at the Polish death camp.

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This is the first time that we see Abraham’s back, rather than his face. He exits the train car and walks toward the lineup. I find it odd that this work, and the previous, depict the train car to be empty despite the testimonials that these cars were filled way past capacity. I believe that this was done to highlight Abraham’s personal emotional journey, rather than to create a realistic image of what the transportation would have been like. Isolating Abraham serves to place focus on him and his relationship to his surroundings, which are filled with symbolic imagery.

In this work, the landscape begins to turn charcoal like Abraham’s figure. The trees in the background- yes, the tree motif we have seen throughout the series- are drawn entirely in charcoal. These are the famous birch trees that populated many of the forests surrounding extermination camps. They are known for having white bark and peculiar black markings all up and down their trunks that resemble eyes. This gives a deeper meaning to the expression, “the forest has eyes.” In this case, the forest did have eyes, eyes that witnessed what was about to happen to Abraham and his fellow Jews.

It is in this painting that the themes of the series come together. The trees and whispers of death that have followed Abraham throughout his life- throughout this series of paintings- end in Sobidor, where they surround him. Abraham’s charcoal existence begins to make sense. It is Krabbé’s way of representing what the Holocaust did for individuals: it tore away their identities until they were nothing more than blank white canvases. Sobidor stripped Abraham of his identity. His past life became a memory, and then a myth. In the first several works we see, it is as if we are looking back on his life after he has died, and his identity is threatening to wash away completely. Krabbé has captured him with charcoal, forcing his memory back onto the canvas and into the minds of viewers. In depicting his grandfather’s story, Krabbé returns to him his identity.

* * *

In the last two works, the metaphor is completed. Much of the canvas turns to charcoal while the color of the paint desaturates until it is only black and white. This is Sobibor, 9 July 1943 11 am. 

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In this work, Krabbé depicts the de-humanizing act of undressing that the Jews were forced to endure in front of the Nazi guards. I think the sorrow in Abraham’s face speaks for itself.

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The forest is watching too. Note how the forest is almost as powerful a protagonist as Abraham himself.

* * *

And finally, Sobibor, 9 July 1943 11:30 am. 

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The field is empty. All of the Jews from the train, including Abraham, are inside the gas chamber of Sobibor. The smoke that steams out of the chimney is black and dotted with white specks- these are the origins of the whispers that chased Abraham through the previous eight paintings, the remnants of his body and soul wiping away his identity:

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Krabbé explains that geese were used to cover the noise of people dying in the chambers, so that new arrivals would not panic and flee. They are painted in red. Perhaps this is because they are the only figures left alive on the canvas.

* * *

It is not easy to read posts like this. I recognize that, and don’t blame you if you skimmed through this or only made it halfway through. It was even harder to write, and more difficult yet to see at the National Holocaust Museum. But exhibits like this are important. In exhibiting this series, Krabbé returned to his grandfather his dignity and his identity. The more we say his name- Abraham Reiss, Abraham Reiss, Abraham Reiss- the more we triumph over the evil that stripped him of his personhood in the first place. Keep Abraham Reiss and Jeroen Krabbé in your minds and hearts.

The Demise of Abraham Reiss is a poignant example of why I love art so much. It has the capacity to make people learn things and feel things that they could not have had they simply read a history textbook. I hope that these images and my words helped you with both. As always, feel free to let me know if you disagree with something I said, or have something to add.

Until next time!

 

xoxo, Chloe ❤

 

Soot-O-Mat (Mediamatic- Amsterdam)

Hey all!

Hope your May is treating you well. I’ve been cramming like crazy for my final exams and papers and wishing I had more time to explore during my last few weeks here in Amsterdam. I also just found out that my thesis prospectus was accepted (!!!) I am going to be researching the Dutch Cobra artists, so I am trying to get my hands on as many primary sources as possible while I still have the entire Stedelijk library at my disposal.

But that doesn’t mean I haven’t had time for fun this past month! A couple weeks ago I went to one of the coolest spots in Amsterdam, Mediamatic. Mediamatic is an unconventional exhibition space that combines technology and biology with visual art.  When I went, I took a look at the current exhibitions, but Mediamatic is also known for its greenhouse, and for hosting lectures, tutorials, and workshops. Today I am going to talk about Soot-O-Mat, created by Dr. Špela Petriča.

Here is a photograph of Soot-O-Mat:

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At first glance, it looks like a series of copper wires attached to lamp shades and whirring boxes, all balanced on a rolling cart.

But now, take a closer look at the lampshade, specifically what is on the base of it.

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That tiny little speck is actually the muscle of a mussel, isolated from the rest of the creature. It is still pulsing, slowly but steadily. Attached to the muscle is a thin strand, which is in turn connected to the mechanism beside the lampshade. As the muscle pulses, the mechanism makes an imprint along the length of the cylinder. Note how most of the imprint curves around the lampshade in a smooth line, yet tiny spikes interrupt the lines every few centimeters. These spikes represent the pulse of the muscle.

After a time, a pattern forms on the lampshade. Take a look:

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Soot-O-Mat epitomizes the mission of Mediamatic: to combine the biological and the technological to create art. But that is not all this work does. I would like to propose my own interpretation of this work, one that is deeply subjective, and may not be in line with your own thoughts. Keep your own interpretations in mind while you follow my train of thought.

When I look at Soot-O-Mat, I am highly aware of the concept of size, for several reasons. Firstly, it seems odd that such a tiny object, a mussel’s muscle, provides the energy to power so much machinery. Secondly, it seems strange that the effect of so much equipment would be so minor- a little blip on a line, a dip in a curve.

Perhaps the strangest sensation that I am filled with, however, is meaninglessness. We are given an aesthetic object, a lampshade, decorated with a mildly interesting pattern. Yet we are also forced to view the mechanism as well. The viewer sees the machinery, its size and complexity, and the energy source: a living thing. Or if one wants to be technical, a body part that used to be part of a living thing. When confronted with this complex system, the final product looks trite. What’s the point of killing a living thing, isolating its muscle and strapping it to a mass of wires if the result is going to be an unwieldy, easily replaceable lampshade?

That question, I believe, is what Dr. Špela Petrič was trying to  get viewers to ask. Soot-O-Mat points out the strangeness of using animals to create consumer goods. A leather jacket doesn’t look like a cow. A billiard ball or piano key made from ivory doesn’t look like the tusk of an elephant. When using shampoo and conditioner, we are completely displaced from the animals that the product may have been tested on. But what if you could see the cow being slaughtered, the elephant shot, or the guinea pig coated in pink liquid? Would you still want to buy those products? In showcasing the process of making, in addition to the final, purchasable object, Dr. Špela Petrič forces the viewer to see the abuse of an animal for human consumption. Perhaps not all viewers would have the same response, but I was left wondering why this was even necessary, when there are so many other ways to make a lampshade look pretty, that don’t utilize a living thing.

Soot-O-Mat is not a PSA about crustacean abuse. In this interpretation, it stands for something greater, for questioning the use of animals in all kinds of aesthetic objects. Are we not an advanced enough species, Dr. Špela Petrič seems to ask, that we can’t make beautiful things without costing lives?

With all that in mind, another part of me wonders if this work could also be a celebration of the power yielded by the smallest of things. A mussel is already tiny. A muscle of a mussel is even tinier. If I saw it on the beach i wouldn’t notice it, and would walk right by as I picked up shells for my growing shell-necklace collection. Soot-O-Mat illustrates the great power of life by juxtaposing a small yet powerful creature with an unwieldy manmade contraption. The fact that such a small thing can even influence the motion of heavy metals is astounding. When viewed together, one cannot help but be in awe of life.

Let me know what you think about Soot-O-Mat! Should biological and technological art be analyzed according to the same standards as paintings and sculptures? Is there a non-vegan interpretation of this work? (I’m not vegan, but I began to feel like one the longer I thought about Soot-O-Mat…) I’m curious about other people’s thoughts, as this was a very unique post for me.

Until next time!

 

xoxo, Chloe ❤

 

Banksy: Laugh Now (Museum of Contemporary Art-Amsterdam)

Hey guys!

Last weekend my parents visited me in Amsterdam, and I was so happy to take them around and show them all my favorite artistic spots. But I was even more happy to explore the Moco with them, because it opened only a few days before they arrived! The Moco (Museum of Contemporary Art)  is the latest addition to the bustling museums in Museumplein, such as the Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk, and the Van Gogh Museum. It is also another in a continuing stream of museums around the world that devote themselves to late modern and contemporary art- a difficult feat, as museums are typically retrospective spaces in which temporality is presented chronologically. Museums have to adjust their historical perspective to allow contemporary works to be seen. I will save my discussion about the shift in museum culture for another day, but keep this in mind while I discuss the Banksy exhibit at the Moco.

Here is the exterior of this absolutely beautiful building.

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And here is the placard that hangs on the gate outside the museum. It is also repeated on merchandise throughout the museum shop. I bought a t-shirt with this phrase on it, and have been walking around feeling 75% cool and 25% obnoxious.

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* * *

The first work that caught my eye was The Key to Making Great Art (2004), made from spray paint on canvas.

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The Key to Making Great Art is a wonderful visual pun. The phrase on the canvas reads: “the key to making great art is all in the composition.” However, the layout of this phrase cuts off the word ‘composition,’ effectively enacting poor composition. It is a cheeky commentary on the rules of design. Who says what makes ‘great’ composition? And what happens when your composition doesn’t fit these standards?

* * *

I also found Crude Oil Jerry (2004) very humorous.

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In this work, Banksy has taken an existing painting, likely purchased from a second-hand store, and painted over it the motif of Jerry from the children’s cartoon, Tom and Jerry. The original painting features an idyllic landscape. Houses are tucked away behind verdant trees and boats sit peacefully in the still water. The brushstrokes are light and frothy, lending this painting a gentle air. It looks like a painting by John Constable or one of the Hudson River School artists.  Cartoon Jerry, however, has been painted in thick, smooth slabs of paint. He sits on a tree branch in the foreground with a match and lighter fluid in his paws and a frighteningly enthusiastic smile on his face.

The juxtaposition of these two scenes is very funny for the viewer. It is not every day we see a pyromaniac cartoon character traipse over a beautiful landscape. But I believe Banksy was after something more than comedic anachronism. In painting over a traditional, existing work, Banksy makes a statement about the western art canon, and what we define as “traditional.” This statement is mirrored by the figure of Jerry starting a fire. When he drops the match, the landscape will go up in flames, consuming the little boat, the tiny houses, and all the green shrubs that are visual markers of an elitist, euro-centric art canon. These two acts: painting over an existing scene, and depicting the scene on the verge of destruction, very clearly articulate Banksy’s views on traditionalism and privilege. He obviously sees this impressionistic style of landscape painting as indicative of wealth and euro-centric traditionalism that he wishes to destroy with an image- Jerry- who is universally recognized and enjoyed. In this sense, Crude Oil Jerry is more accessible than the original painting.

While accessibility of the arts is one of my major interests (hence, the existence of Canvas And Crumpets), its focus in this work contradicts the prices of Banksy’s works and their presence in a museum that charges €12,50 for adults and €10,00 for students. Now, for Museumplein, that is not a steep fee. The Stedelijk next door charges €15,00 for adults. The Rijksmuseum charges €17,50. I understand that museums need to charge money because they need to pay their overhead costs- it is a business, after all. But all of that seems very contradictory to Banksy’s critique of the western art canon and inaccessibility in the art world… On the flip side, Banksy does need to make money too. Spray paint and rent money don’t fall from the sky. It is an interesting paradox. How can a street artist keep his cred when he goes global and starts making big money?

* * *

This work is entitled Kids on Guns (2003).

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Here, Banksy uses spray paint on canvas to depict two small children standing on top of a mountain of guns. They seem blissfully ignorant of the ground beneath their feet. The little boy clutches a teddy bear. The girl holds a red balloon in the shape of a heart above their heads. The two look at each other. We cannot see what they are saying, or what their faces are revealing, because they are silhouetted against the white sky.

The depiction of children amongst firearms is a common trope used to make a statement about violence. Children represent innocence. They are a reminder that we were all once children, who didn’t believe in the causes that lead people to kill each other today. Children are not inherently racist, colonizing jerks driven by thirst for oil, and a simultaneous desire to keep those different from us, away. These are learned behaviors. Depicting children amongst firearms- reminders of the violence that plagues this planet- is a call for peace.

Seeing these two figures above the mountain of guns makes me feel like everything going on is, well, silly. Obviously police brutality, terrorism, and the aftermath of colonialism are nothing to laugh at. But when you see children amongst the mess, you start to wonder what the hell is wrong with all of us. How did we go from clutching teddy bears to holding guns?  Banksy seems to be asking the same question.

* * *

In Four Monkeys (2001), Banksy utilizes his usual medium of choice-spray paint- to make yet another statement about society.

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This image recalls for me the image of the monkey, dressed in a vest, trained to play the cymbal in old Vaudeville acts and movies. They also used to make, and still make, toys commemorating this totally humane practice. Here’s a video, in case you never want to sleep again.

What this old practice points to is more than just animal cruelty. Mankind has always had a strange relationship with monkeys, perhaps because they are more similar to us than we care to think. When Darwin proposed his theory of evolution, he was met with scorn by his fellow humans who believed they were too dignified to be at all related to such a primitive species. I find this rather funny, given that slavery and colonialism were paramount at the time of The Origin of Species’ publication. But that’s a separate rant.

Anyway, hearing that this ‘evil-lution’ business was proposing strong ties between man and monkey had a strange effect on people. They were eager to demonstrate just how stupid monkeys were, in order to separate themselves further from them. Thus, the monkey became a symbol of stupidity, simpleness, and primitivism. It was shown clapping a cymbal repeatedly, with a glazed look over its eyes, to prove to people that monkeys were only capable of simple tasks. (Unlike the human, who could enslave entire races of people. What a skill!)

What Banksy has done here, with Four Monkeys, is bring attention to the idea of human-supremism. These monkeys stand almost entirely upright. Their faces are turned down in a very human expression of sadness. The signs around their necks warn that their time in charge is coming. Even as someone who doesn’t think monkeys are stupid, that is a terrifying thought. After all, we have been raised to feel superior, because we are people, and have the most highly functioning brains of any species. With the exception of poaching laws in certain countries regarding endangered species, we kill all animals we deem tasty, dangerous, or inconvenient. We have assumed our role at the top of the food chain in an unsustainable way. The world is far too populated with humans to sustain us infinitely.

In Four Monkeys, Banksy reminds us that we are not the only beings on this planet smart enough to be ‘in charge.’ It is both frightening and humbling.

* * *

Lastly, here is a photograph of Girl with a Balloon Diptych (2005). This motif, created from spray paint on canvas, is one of Banksy’s most iconic images.

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Here I am, attempting to imitate the pose of the little girl with the balloon. Unfortunately I’m squinting and look more like a terrible ballerina than the little girl in Girl with a Balloon Diptych. 

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The little girl here is mostly silhouetted, though we can see her hair blowing in the wind and the hint of an eye. She stretches one arm upwards towards her escaped balloon. It has blown so far away that it is on another canvas, threatening to leave it through the top-right corner. This girl does not really reach for the balloon. If she were, she would be on her tip-toes, jumping, both hands reaching towards the sky. Her posture is much more stoic. She stands upright, calmly lifting one arm towards her flyaway balloon.

Her attitude towards the balloon is much more relaxed than one would imagine for a small child. The way she stands firmly on her feet, gazing up at the sky, indicates that she has come to terms with the fact that her balloon is gone. But her outstretched left arm reveals that she will never lose hope. It is a kind of calm, constant, peaceful hope that I would not expect to see in a little girl. Perhaps that is the most pure kind of hope; unwavering faith despite the appearance of failure.

This little girl’s hope has a multiplicity of meanings, depending on who is looking at her. When I see her, I think about my life, and the calmness and openness I want to approach it with. When someone else sees her, they might feel hope for the entire future of mankind. I believe that Banksy intended for this multiplicity of meanings. I love art that takes into consideration the experience of the viewer. In fact, I think Girl with a Balloon Diptych needs a viewer’s interpretation to be complete. Banksy’s works don’t just hang on a wall. They are conversations with people.

* * *

Now, I’d like to leave you with a few works that I won’t analyze. See if you can draw your own conclusions about these works from what we have been discussing about Banksy and your own observations.

Top Left: Bomb Hugger (Not dated)

Top Right: Keep It Real (2003)

Bottom: Tortoise Helmet (2009)

* * *

Speaking of hope, I hope you enjoyed this post! And I hope all is well and that, wherever you are, it’s warmer than where I am. It’s 48 degrees and I am NOT happy about it. Good thing I spend 80% of my time in museums 😀

Until next time!

xoxo, Chloe ❤

Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art From Saudi Arabia- Amsterdam

Goedenmiddag!

Today I am going to tell you about the Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia. This small museum is located in Leidseplein, in a larger office space down the street from a cluster of busy bars and clubs. I stood in front of “The Chicago Social Club” for a good ten minutes seriously pondering if a collection of contemporary Saudi art could be housed inside in some secret room (behind the bar..?) But no. If you intend to visit, walk down Korte Leidsedwarsstraat, beyond the mass of outdoor bars, toward a silver-doored office complex. You will absolutely not regret it. And here is why:

The Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia is a gem; a sizable collection of fascinating Saudi art, each work with a unique story and connection to the collector/curator. I am not sure which to refer to him by, as his personal acquisition of each work would suggest that he is a collector. Yet his extensive and scholarly knowledge of Saudi Arabian history and contemporary politics/art, as well as his consideration of the viewer’s experience when viewing the work, reveals that he is undoubtedly a curator as well.

In a visit to a larger museum, there is little opportunity to interact with curators and gain first-hand information about the work beyond the wall placards and audioguide. Here, the curator walked me through the exhibit and engaged me in a dialogue about Saudi Arabian history, politics, and art. In this way, the experience was more like visiting a gallery, and yet none of these works are for sale. That is the wonderful paradox of the Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia: it has the intimacy of a gallery and the dignified atmosphere of a museum.

Take a look at some of the impressive works and their stories. My analyses are a combination of what I learned from the curator of the museum and my own interpretations. Feel free to challenge me, or to add on to my thoughts.

* * *

Here is a photograph called,  The Path, by Abdulnasser Gharem (2008).

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The Path is actually a still photo of a video work of the same name. Both works depict a bridge in a south-western Saudi Arabian village. During a dreadful flood in 1982, villagers took refuge on this bridge. Tragically, the foundation of the bridge was unstable, and the flood caused the bridge to break, killing all of the people on it. In 2007, remnants of the bridge remained, reminding people of the tragedy that occurred over twenty years before. No one is certain why the bridge collapsed, but it was likely because the builders did not give it a proper foundation. This irresponsible decision likely also saved the (corrupt) construction company a lot of money.

Gharem visited the site of the collapse in 2007, and spray-painted the word ‘al siraat’ over and over again on the road. ‘Al-Siraat’ means ‘the path’ in arabic. This act was captured on camera in a video-installation. In this video, the child of a victim partakes in the spray-painting, which adds a greater tone of somberness to this already bitter work. You can watch the video here.

‘The path’ may very well refer to Islam. In the Islamic faith, ‘the path’ is the road Allah summons Muslims to take; a way of spiritual living outlined by Allah. By repeating the word’ al-siraat’ over and over again on this broken bridge, is Gharem suggesting that certain elements of his faith are broken? That following ‘the path’ may lead to death?

It is, of course, possible, but I do not think that this is what Gharem is trying to say. It seems too easy a jump to make- too simple and graphic a metaphor. I believe that Gharem is pointing out a flaw in the mentality of his people, not in religion. Perhaps he is saying that the basic tenets of Islam are being lost beneath religious politics and modernization. After all, it is written: “Serve God…and do good — to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbours who are near, neighbours who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer (you meet), and what your right hands posses: for God loves not the arrogant, the vainglorious.” [4:36] Respect for human life is a basic principle of Islam. There is nothing less Muslim than the tragedy of 1982, as it was the consequence of corruption in the construction firm that built the unstable bridge. After all, it is much cheaper to build a shallow bridge than a properly stabilized one. The moment that saving money becomes more important than protecting human lives, there is something deeply wrong. In this way, I believe that Gharem is calling for a return to ‘Al-Sitaar.’ His people have wandered off the path, and he is directing them back.

* * *

This is Pedestrian Crossing, also by Abdulnasser Gharem (2008).

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Pedestrian Crossing depicts the iconographic image of the plane flying into the World Trade Center. On the viewer’s left is a curved yellow road meant to represent the same metaphorical Path described in The Path.

In this work, stamps are the medium, but not to create a print. Usually, stamps are used to imprint an image or text in ink on a sheet of paper. Here, the stamps themselves are used, their rubber corners lined up to one another to form a larger image. Note how most of the work uses arabic-lettered stamps, but the body of the Twin Towers utilizes latin letters.

It is important to note that 15 of the 19 hijackers associated with the 9/11 attacks were members of Al-Qaeda from Saudi Arabia. With Pedestrian Crossing, Gharem seems to be grappling with the fact that several of his countrymen were responsible for the attacks. The Towers and the Path are depicted starkly, with clean, straight lines delineating one form from the next. They float in a gray vacuum, forcing focus onto the motifs of the buildings and the plane. Such a graphic representation forces the event to be seen, and begs for it to be discussed. Pedestrian Crossing does not get bogged down in aesthetics or emotions. It puts forth the facts: two buildings were struck, thousands died, and the majority of those responsible were Saudi Arabian. By forcing the facts onto the table, Gharem demands viewers to face what has happened. He wants them to talk about how such a thing could happen, how a basic principle of Islam- respect for human life- could be forgotten.

Again, Gharem is not attacking his own faith. Rather, he is questioning the general mentality of his country that has engendered extremist groups whose warped version of Islam abandons its true, peaceful intentions. With Pedestrian Crossing, Gharem exposes this twisted mentality, and calls for a discussion about confronting extremism in Saudi Arabia.

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 Cardiac Illumination, by Ahmed Mater (2007) approaches the subject of Islam in a very different way.

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Mater uses gold leaf, pomegranate, tea, ink, and x-ray to create this illuminated ‘page’ of the Quran. It is reminiscent of medieval illuminated manuscripts, yet this page is not book-size. It is over a meter tall and reads more like a painting than a book.

I find this work fascinating because it rides the fine line between profanity and sacrality. In the Islamic faith, figurative representations are prohibited. Contrary to popular belief,  figurative Islamic art does exist outside the Mosque. However, such a thing is sacrilegious in religious spaces, because the only image of Allah is The Word, printed in the Quran. And so, the use of x-rays as decoration on an imagined page of the Quran is questionable. An x-ray, by definition, is a depiction of the human form. At the same time, it is a scientific scan, rather than an actively painted or drawn estimation of the human body. Furthermore, an x-ray only depicts bones. It leaves out all of the elements that make a figure resemble a figure, like muscle, skin, hair- a face! What is an x-ray more than a series of eerie white lines arranged around a spine?

So why, then, did Mater choose to include these controversial x-rays in his work? It can not be just to provide a loophole to a rule in his faith. I think it has something to do with the pureness and liberty of faith. Having faith is an act of baring one’s soul, and opening it up to light. For many, prayer is an act of sharing one’s innermost thoughts and seeking peace of mind. A skeleton is a very literal translation of this concept.

Furthermore, skeletons look more or less the same, while individual people with faces and clothing are distinguishable. By depicting x-rays of human bones, perhaps Mater also suggests that we are all the same to a higher being. Skin color, social status, daily stresses and problems are stripped away in the eyes of Allah (or the Jesus Christ, or God… is it really any different in any other faith?) The fact that one is just as loved as everyone else is a very comforting thought to many who are unsatisfied with their present conditions on earth.

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Lastly, I would like to show you Yellow Cow Products, also by Ahmed Mater (2007).

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The yellow cow is part of a story in the Quran in which Moses tells several Israelites to slaughter a yellow cow and perform several rituals with it. In doing so, they will find out who has committed a dreadful murder. It has taken on a role as a motif that is highly recognizable as a part of Islamic faith.

And so, its commercialization as a line of dairy products is a cheeky response to modernization and capitalism in Saudi Arabia. The yellow cow becomes a product that can be farmed, marketed, sold, bought, and ingested. Importantly: it can also go bad. After all, dairy products do have an expiration date. Mater writes on his blog about this work: “In the ‘yellow cow’ the world is ornate; its bright color is joyful. This glittering world implies that it is highly valuable, that it is all that you want, and all that you live for, but once it owned you (while thinking it owned you) you start to realize what a poor, shabby world it is. And you become a poor shabby human.”

I think this most interesting aspect of this quote is the concept that the world of the yellow cow owns you, rather than the other way around. This is the effect of capitalism, in Mater’s mind. It is a trap in which we are caught and tricked into thinking we have control, but in reality, we are slaves to the products we think we need. Capitalism, Mater says, has the ability to transform even the holiest of things- the yellow cow- into something that is churned (put intended) out to meet consumer demands.

At the bottom of the frame the words “ideologically free” are printed. This is a play on words, as some dairy products are “pesticide free,” and “homogenized” and “pasteurized.” Here what we are free from is not hormones, but any kind of ideology with a set of values and beliefs. Instead, we have been stripped of our individual ideologies in order to survive in an increasingly consumer society.

I think that this attack on consumerism can apply worldwide, but that it is specifically aimed here at Saudi Arabia, a country whose modernization in the past forty years has been uneven. Gharem’s The Path shows how modernization in small villages has been careless and haphazard. In central cities, however, Mater describes crowds of people snapping pictures of towers with their iPhones. Using the yellow cow, a symbol of the Islamic faith specifically, is a reminder to the people in Saudi Arabia of the entrapment of consumerism.

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I hope that you enjoyed this post. The Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia was one of my favorite museums here in Amsterdam. I left feeling like I had learned a lot, but with even more questions than I started with. I look forward to doing further research about contemporary Saudi Arabian art. I am also doing research on conflict in Saudi Arabia for one of my courses here in Amsterdam, and I look forward to incorporating what I learned at the Greenbox into my paper.  It’s funny how things come together like that- I discovered a museum devoted to Saudi Arabian art the same week I chose Saudi Arabian modernization as a topic for my research.

Keep your eyes and ears peeled for art that can add depth to other things that you are learning. It is fascinating to see how interconnected the world is.

Until next time!

 

xoxo, Chloe ❤

OBEY presents:”Covert to Overt” (Melkweg Expo- Amsterdam)

Hey everyone,

I’m pretty stoked to show you some photographs I took at the opening of OBEY presents: “Cover to Overt” at Melkweg Expo in Amsterdam. It was really exciting for several reasons.

Firstly, I’m a big fan of Shepard Fairey, the artist whose works are photographed in this exhibition. If you don’t recognize his name, you’ll probably recognize his immensely popular clothing line, OBEY, characterized by a rectangle of solid color with the word “OBEY” printed on top. This idea originated in 1989, when Fairey was studying art at RISD. He began a street art campaign called “Andre the Giant Has a Posse,” in which images of the famous wrestler and his dimensions were printed on stickers, then distributed by the skater community all over the country. The phrase caught on, and was appropriated into mainstream culture through these stickers, as well as in everyday speech. It spurred the creation of several documentaries as well . As a result of the image’s popularity, Fairey faced a lawsuit for using the name of a trademarked athlete. And so Fairey brilliantly turned his idea on its head: he simplified the face of Andre the Giant, and changed the catchphrase to “OBEY,” mocking the very system that created its existence. This new motif became Fairey’s trope- he modified it and enlarged it and transformed it for different surfaces all over the United States. He then branched into graphic design, and from there, skate ramps and high school hallways were  blessed with the iconic OBEY flat-brimmed hats and t-shirts. Today he continues to design clothing and create artwork, both on the street and in galleries. It is very exciting to see an exhibit that reflects Fairey’s journey from covert college student printing ironic stickers and getting arrested for destruction of property, to a celebrated artist and clothing designer who is famous for the famous “Hope” poster of Obama from the 2008 election.

I am also very excited to talk about “Covert to Overt” because I really like exhibits that view an artist’s work through a different (pun intended) lens. Last year, Fairey showed a series of paintings at the Jacob Lewis Gallery in NYC, and at the Art Center in Pasadena, his street art was displayed alongside other outdoor installations in “OutsideIn.” “Covert to Overt” explores Fairey’s street art through a photographic lens; that of photographer Jon Furlong.  Furlong has accompanied Fairey for the last ten years, snapping photos of the artist and his work as both have developed and transformed. It is fascinating to see how photography adds even more meaning to Fairey’s work. Furlong’s use of framing and light makes these photographs works of art in their own right.

Here are some of my favorite works from this exhibit. As you look, pay attention to the color scheme and motifs Fairey uses. Also note how big or small the art is in relation to the rest of the photograph. Look at what here is Fairey’s art, and what is Furlong’s. How do the two play off each other?

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“Obey. Never trust. Your own eyes believe what you are told.” This eye, filled with tiny whirring particles, seems to look blankly into the soul of the viewer. Its lack of a central pupil lends it a hypnotized appearance. Fairey seems to be suggesting that we are hypnotized as well, brainwashed by some unspeakable “they” who controls what we see. Perhaps this “they” is the government, or the media.

Beside this poster lies a black and white city. Juxtaposed with this sign, the city looks barren and and cold. There is no one on the street and the sky is a wash of overcast whiteness. The elevated position of the viewer above the city also suggests an all-knowing presence. If we can look down upon this city and see everything, does that mean we are always being watched as well?

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“This has been called to your attention so you will know that it has not been overlooked: PEACE.” A giant red arrow draws the eye leftward, to where these words are printed beside a trippy-looking image of Andre the Giant, enclosed in a patterned circle. The artwork itself seemed to me to be a scathing commentary on how difficult it is to get the world- especially the first-world- to focus on peace-making. It quite literally takes a red arrow on the highway to grab people’s attention.

This image, already eye-catching and powerful in its message, is even more impactful when seen in the context of this photograph. The sky captured by Furlong is immense, highly detailed and deeply saturated. The clouds seem to reach back into the sky for miles into an infinite horizon. This framing of the sky reminds the viewer of the space he or she is present in. Space is more than just the several meters from one’s car to Fairey’s sign. Space extends for miles beyond where we can see. With this photograph, Furlong reminds us that peace is not really peace unless everyone under every sky can feel it. “Attention” calls the viewer out on being materialistic and selfish, while Furlong’s photograph forces the viewer to empathize with people who exist in different spaces.

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This is a beautiful shot of Fairey at work on a mural. I like how the mural’s asymmetry contrasts with the symmetry of the two black poles in the foreground. I also like how Fairey’s clothing emphasizes his trademark red, white, grey, and black color scheme. The sharp lines of the ladder and the poles create a visual dialogue with the swirling mural.

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I also really like this personality shot of Fairey with what looks like a black eye. He stares at the viewer with an unreadable expression. I cannot tell if he is confronting the viewer or attempting to model in some fashion. I am not surprised that Fairey would pose in such an ambiguous way. His art is about challenging societal norms and questioning why things are the way they are. Why should a self-portrait be any different? Why should he reveal himself to the viewer in a truthful way, when so much of the world is masked by media and coded with false meaning?

Furlong cuts off the side of Fairey’s arm. This framing draws attention to Fairey’s face and his black eye, which gives the artist an aura of toughness. He looks like the ultimate “cool guy,” which I find funny because Fairey’s art is about the misrepresentation of people and things in the media. Perhaps Fairey and Furlong were using Fairey’s person as a canvas to make a statement about image and identity.

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This mural depicts the corner of a women’s face and a tear rolling down her cheek. The tear contains a dollar sign. The phrase “OBEY” can also be found on her forehead, climbing down her eyebrow. I like how this image was placed on the side of a building closer down to the ground. It means that the average passerby can see this image, and question its intention. The allusion to money and sadness suggests a commentary on consumerism and capitalism, or perhaps materialism. Is this woman crying because she doesn’t have enough money? If so, is this because she is greedy or because she is in need, because of “the system” or because of her own material tendencies? We are not given enough information to make an informed conclusion, but Fairey raises a multitude of questions worth pondering with this work. Perhaps my biggest takeaway is: our society forces us to view money in a particular way. The cost of living in most places is so high that, if we do not obey the economic system outlined by society, we find ourselves left behind.

I like how Furlong narrows in on this mural rather than stepping back to see it in its context. This way, focus remains on the message of the mural. One could say that the message becomes even more glaringly obvious, and its effect even more intense, due to the framing of the image.

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I like this simpler work that uses spray paint as a material and a brick wall as a surface.  The depiction looks hastily painted, as if Fairey was being chased. Given the laws surrounding painting on public property, that isn’t totally unfeasible. But it is also possible that Fairey intentionally painted “Hello Obey” in a haphazard manner  1.to cover a large amount of ground with his work in a short period of time 2.to allude to the time pressure reinforced by a  capitalist society 3. because he wanted to and overanalyzing is counter-productive. These are all possible interpretations. Do you have any other ideas?

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Here’s a snapshot of Fairey in the middle of painting a mural. His stance and facial expression are playful. I like seeing something light-hearted after a series of slightly paranoid responses to authoritarian society. Even the scaffolding he uses to reach high surfaces is red. The car in the background is red. I am beginning to wonder if Fairey is physically capable of seeing colors other than black, white, and red.

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Lastly, this was my favorite photograph in the entire exhibit. It made it onto my Instagram (shameless plug: chloelikescrumpets. Follow me!) and it’s become the go-to image I show people when i tell them I went to “Covert to Overt.”

This image reads: “Giant cured all my obedience problems!” Giant refers to Andre the Giant, the wrestling figure i referred to in the beginning who inspired the OBEY motif. Now, I’ll be honest. I’m not entirely sure what Fairey is trying to say here- and I think that’s ok. As Fairey said in an interview with Loud Paper, ” When people don’t know what something is, they feel threatened by it.” So, I’m not going to shy away from talking about my favorite work just because I cannot fit it neatly into an analytical box.

All I can really do is take what I do know about Fairey’s inspirations and social concerns and try and relate them to this image. In several other works I showed here, Fairey made commentary on the brainwashing of the media and the watchfulness of the government. The issues seem huge and out of any individual’s control. And so, referring to Fairey’s concerns as “obedience problems” could be a humorous understatement. Stating that “Andre,” which seems synonymous to me with the OBEY brand, could have solved those problems simply by existing, is even funnier. What I take from this poster, then, is that Fairey is being self-deprecating about the importance of his brand. The work underlines the need for action on many fronts: wearing an OBEY flat-brimmed hat is great, but taking political action would be better.

Again, let me know if you gathered something different from this work, or have heard Fairey discuss this particular motif. I am really curious about what Fairey intended it to mean.

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“Cover to Overt” is an incredible exhibit. I am so happy I was able to see it here in Amsterdam. Melkweg Expo did a great job at the opening- the DJ played relaxing but upbeat tunes while visitors sipped free beer and perused the photographs. Signed copies of “Covert to Overt,” the exhibition book, were sold in the corner for sixty euro. Were I not a twenty year old college student who compares bread prices, I would have immediately bought one. I did get a chance to read the preface and the introduction, and it looks like a very thoughtfully-written book. I am really interested in reading more about Fairey and his political/social beliefs.

Here’s a snapshot of the event:

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And here’s a great shot of my friend looking at a display of photographs.

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And here are three more pictures, if you’d like to try and extract meaning from them, and fit them into Fairey’s narrative:

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As always, thanks for reading! It makes me so happy every day to see that people all over the world are checking out CanvasAndCrumpets, and searching for ways to make their lives a little more artistic, and a whole lot more beautiful.

Until next time!

 

xoxo, Chloe ❤