In Praise of: Jerry, 1931

Magic Realism, how beautifully this painting reflects these two words. That fleeting, warm, moist, intimate and impudent moment when the object of your love and desire looks at you with confident requited love. The moment may be real, but it sure feels magic.

Paul Cadmus painted a portait of his lover Jared French in Mallorca while travelling with him through Europe to study the likes of Piero della Francesca, Andrea Mantegna and Peter Paul Rubens. Influenced by the narrative and techniques of the Old Masters, Jared French and Paul Cadmus were later to return to America to paint large murals in public spaces for the Works Progress Administration. In turn surrealist or expressionist, bodies either mannerist and elongated, or rotund and sensuous, Paul, Jared and their contemporary George Tooker, created a new and personal style later coined as Magic Realism.

Jeux Interdits”: Paul, inspired by his revered Old Masters use of symbolic elements in paintings, instilled a little riddle in his portrait of Jared. Could the prominent display of James Joyce’s Ulysses, a book banned in America, be a subliminal message for “the love that dare not speak its name”?

In Brazil, thirty five years later, Sergio Mendes put into his own words and music this universal feeling of awe and gratitude

“The look of love is in your eyes
A look your smile can’t disguise,
The look of love is saying so much more
Than just words could ever say.                                                                                                                            And what my heart has heard
Well, it takes my breath away !”

 

Paul Cadmus, Jerry, 1931, Oil on canvas, 1931. 20 x 24 in. Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio

Advertisements

“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”

With this quotation by Ansel Adams, I want to propose a little historic perspective and some contextualisation. Quoting extensively from Art Historians and photographers, I would like to take the opportunity to share my admiration and love for them.

“The invention of photography provided a radical new picture making process – a process based not on synthesis but on selection … But he (the photographer) learned also that the factuality of his pictures no matter how convincing and unarguable, was a different thing than the reality itself. Much of the reality was filtered out in the static little black-and-white image and some of it was exhibited with an unknown natural clarity and exaggerated importance. The subject and the picture were not the same thing, although they would afterwards seem so. This was an artistic problem not a scientific one…”

John Szarkowski The Photographer’s Eye The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1966

“Embracing the vernacular as a model, Walker Evans dispensed with the sophisticated markers of craft that distinguished the artistic photograph from all others and swept away the barrier that had encircled modernist photography’s privileged subjects. For the first time, the photograph as-a-work-of-art could look exactly like any other photograph – and it could show us anything, from a torn movie poster to a graveyard overlooking a steel mill. The photograph’s claim of artistic distinction relied solely upon the clarity, intelligence, and originality of the photographer’s perception.

This profoundly radical idea more than the example of Evans’s work itself is the wellspring from which later flowed the very different work of Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander. For them, neither the choice of what to look at, nor the way in which to look at it, nor the sense of what it might mean to look at such a thing in such a way was dictated by a pre-ordained rule.”

Peter Galassi American Photography 1890–1965. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1995

“… Szarkowski called them “documentary photographers” and believed them motivated by “more personal ends” than those of the preceding generation, sharing “the belief that the world is worth looking at, and the courage to look at it without theorising” (qualities that also suggest William Eggleston, Joel Meyerowitz, and Nicholas Nixon, among others)

At the time when the practice and history of photography were making their way into academia, Szarkowski stubbornly defended an anti theoretical and non academic approach, which he described – betraying a taste for provocation – as “the easiest of the arts”: “Putting aside for today the not very mysterious mysteries of the craft, a photographer finally does nothing but stand in the right place, at the right time, and decide what should fall within and what is outside the rectangle of the frame. That is what it comes down to.”

Quentin Bajac. In Photography at MoMA: 1960–Now. The Museum of Modern Art, 2015

And, if I may add my own “pinch of salt”as the French would say, I will venture that the reason why these choices made by photographers (moment, light, framing), are interesting for us to discover and admire, is that they are guided not only by their brain, but by their soul. And some people have been graced with the talent to let the direct link to their soul express itself by producing, what we commonly call, Art.

 

In Praise of: Trail’s End Restaurant, Kanab, Utah, August 10, 1973

Trail’s End Restaurant, Kanab, Utah, August 10, 1973“Transcendent documents” is how Walker Evans explains the way a photograph can simultaneously describe the place (what we see) and the nature of the people that live in it (who we are)

In 1972, native New Yorker Stephen Shore, a young and successful photographer, starts a series of road trips across America inspired by Walker Evans and Robert Frank’s earlier work.

Color Photography was mainly used in fashion or advertising, and, for the burgeoning group of scholars and aficionados of photography as fine art, the use of color was akin to sacrilege. How garish and “untruthful”,  emotion could only be achieved with black and white.

In reference to the transient aspect of his encounters, the project  was named”American Surfaces”. Keep in mind that a photograph had to have a meaning, a purpose, a story to illustrate. Photographing the daily banalities surrounding one’s seemly aimless voyage was quite new. Still, with the brilliant work of  Stephen’s contemporaries, William Eggleston, William Christenberry, or Joel Meyerowitz, vernacular color photography was taking ground.

Saddled with Watergate and the never ending Vietnam war, conveying a sense of identity was not expected of an artist, nonetheless these pioneers of color were expressing, in their own quiet way, their love for the simple and perfectible things that constitute America.

“To see something spectacular and recognise it as a photographic possibility is not making a very big leap,” Stephen Shore once said. “But to see something ordinary, something you’d see every day, and recognise it as a photographic possibility – that’s what I’m interested in.”

And with that in mind, we have Stephen to thank for our own, everyday, teetering attempts on Instagram : )

 

A Stephen Shore retrospective is currently exhibited @ C/O Berlin 

In Praise of: “A Subtlety, or the Marvellous Sugar Baby” 2014

“An Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant” 

Fathom a gigantic (35 x 75 feet) sculpture of a strange Deity made from 5 tons of melted white sugar. She rests surrounded by thirteen little black boys. Each 60 inch tall sculptures of small Blackamoors made from sugar and molasses are enlarged versions of ceramic blackamoors still made in China today. These small figures melting slowly as the exhibition progressed.

At first one is overtaken by a sense of awe at the enormous undertaking and sheer size of the space. Quickly as we grasp the context it evokes, our initial feeling is replaced by wonder, empathy, and a deep sense of unease.

Kara Walker‘s storytelling is made of attractive, energetic, undulant and playful imagery that carries, on closer inspection, a violent and powerful message.

Regal, this beautiful slightly menacing Mama Sphinx bearing generous breasts and an Aunt Jemima knotted kerchief, looks down at us. She sits proudly, her body the shape of a Lioness resting serenely on her paws. As we walk along her monumental body, we discover her impudent and magnificent “Ti Bounda“.

Offered as it where, to our embarrassed or attracted view, large and perfectly proportioned heart shaped round buttocks ensconce protuberant labia. Symbol of the absolute vulnerability and ultimate humiliation of slavery: rape.

Slavery functions on the premise of the complete annihilation of self, you have no name, no family, no identity other than the one of the Master to whom you belong.

This horrific “droit de cuissage” had obvious consequences. It created new beings with undefined identities. They were neither black, nor white, neither Master nor slave. Born ostracised, they later became the ruling Bourgeoisie. Sprung from violence, the new Establishment, perhaps to atone from the seed of the original sin, created a fresh layer of humiliation and self hate within its own structure: skin tone, the lighter the better.

The triumph from these bleak realities is the result of the most admirable and powerful human ressource: resilience. Through a project such as this, Kara Walker inspires, educates and enriches our culture. Cultural history and knowledge gives perspective, culture is identity, identity is power.

 

A Subtlety was made possible by the munificent generosity of CreativeTime

Art Rant: Ai Weiwei’s intellectual shenanigans

(Art Rant: because sometimes you just gotta vent!)

Ai Weiwei has the jovial face of a Chinese Santa. Albeit a slightly creepy one. Then again aren’t all Santa’s a bit creepy ? Ai Weiwei’s trade is to denounce. Denounce the way the Chinese government treats dissidents, denounce the way ancient Chinese art is used for political propaganda, denounce his own country’s unyielding rules to the point of becoming a martyr of his own game and getting arrested. That in turn becomes more material to make very effective grand installations, successfully exhibited in important art venues around the world.

True, giving the finger to the (painted) face of one of 20th century’s biggest murderers, or photographing a nymphette (wearing Birkenstocks no less) showing her white undies on Tiananmen square must feel quite good. Denouncing the abuses of a totalitarian regime, even by using shrewd visual effects, is not exactly new and it hardly constitutes the premise of sustainable art. But we, Western society bombarded by narcissistic vacuousness eagerly and greedily want it to matter.

ai-weiwei-study-of-perspective-tiananmen-1995

Shameless self promotion is not exactly new either, recent examples abound; Tracy Emin (oh sister, please !) Damian Hirst, (don’t get me started!) Jeff Koons (whom I happen to adore). Are we to assume erroneously that because Ai Wewei is Chinese he would be a little more crude and insensible ?

But wasn’t Marcel Duchamp, the chic looking, pipe smoking chess player of Cadaquès, the ultimate provocateur ? Wasn’t he the one who got this whole mess started with his exquisitely funny LHOOQ, and Rrose Sélavy. To say nothing of his pissoir or bicycle wheel, thus throwing a series of extraordinarily stupefying bombs in the face of early 20th century convention. The French humorous contrarian was onto something. Something that has sustained the test of time and free our minds to question.

Why, pray tell, do we put Ai Weiwei’s eruptions into the “art” department ? Because, merci Monsieur Duchamp, we have now been trained to understand that when you take a common/usual element, fact or event and bring it out of its habitual context, we accept that it can be considered in a different manner, a new interpretation process is awakened. Dear Marcel started it more than 100 years ago, so the concept has had time to become accepted as natural in our minds. This way art performs its own transubstantiation. (had to use that word!)

So, where does one draw the line? apparently nowhere as Mr. Weiwei seems to tell us in his use of little Ilan’s tragic death. To denounce Europe’s handling of the refugee crisis, Mr. Weiwei has himself photographed face down on a beach just as the little boy from Syria was horrifyingly found.

I suppose after the tepid and lovely bourgeois pleasing renditions of Chinese dragons at Le Bon Marché in Paris, (Aah, the mellifluous lure of LVMH millions!) he needed to get back in the media circus with something more in tune with his idea of self relevance.

And so, again, he has won, in shamelessly raping an atrocious personal and public tragedy for his own promotional purposes, Ai Weiwei is back in the news and Google algorithms everywhere percolate his name to the top of the list…

Robert Mapplethorpe: Ad Maiorem Corii Gloria

In 1983, I was working as a trainee at Christie’s in New York in the Modern Paintings department. One of my duties was to be on the exhibition floor making sure clients inquiries would be attended.

One particular winter morning I see, from behind, standing intently in front of a Magritte, a perfectly coiffed blue rinse bouffant. As I approach to offer my help, I notice a frail heavily bejeweled hand clasping a small alligator bag against a fluffy white Lynx coat.

” May I help you, Madam?”

“Madam?! “ Alexander Iolas screeches, “Oh not Madam yet Darling!”

Alexander Iolas was a Greek art dealer who had made a very good life for himself selling, among many other classics, late Picasso’s to Greek shipping tycoons with Swiss residencies.

Albeit our awkward beginnings, I spent a lot of time with this ageing “Grande Dame” of art dealing prone to peremptory sayings:  “A Great work of Art is Always equally very simple and very sophisticated, mon Chéri !” 

The first time I saw Robert Mapplethorpe’s work was at Le Palace in Paris in the winter of 1980. A very grand and very chic party was held in the “it” place of the day. Do remember that the idea of a “Gay only” disco was just not in style yet…

A slide show of the X Portfolio was projected on the immense screen above the stage. Golden showers, fist fucking and many other intricate delicacies were glanced sideways by smoking luminaries, granting a Gallic shrug at what was to become a seminal work of contemporary photography.

Andy Warhol had introduced me to Robert at a “kids” lunch at the Factory in early 1979.  I, blond Park Avenue cutie part of Andy’s “chickens” was simply of no interest to this sexy, energetic, intense looking, leather clad, ambitious waif from Long Island.

But, as chickens tend to follow roosters, we arranged to meet Robert for a late dinner followed by a visit to one of his favorite places TheAnvil.  Andy left early, others, bewitched, bothered or bewildered, did not.

The essential image: “Man in Polyester suit”, just imagine the sheer terror or delight this image conveys! The manifest crass cliché it implies: primal and poor black men in polyester suits will rape our wives and molest our boys with their huge cocks!

The Political implications of the image in Ronald Reagan’s America as in Barack Obama’s are manifold. In simply taking a photograph of what Robert loved and knew intimately (Milton Moore, one of his trysts), he threw a spongy bomb in the face of all the prejudiced, racist, homophobic, and fear mongering prophets.

Ultimately, Robert created an image that fits the standards of a great work of Art; simple in its “raison d’être” and concept, formidably sophisticated in the interpretations and ripple effects they cause.

Also, time has proved, it had staying power, historically and economically. Did Robert know he was making great art? He certainly always intended to.

Robert used all that New York can give with gluttony. Re-invention; by meeting all the right people, loosing those along the way that are no longer profitable, and quickly becoming the “Enfant Chéri” of the Uptown swells, photographing pretty flowers and making portraits of their children.

He reminded me of Lou Reed’s brilliant evocation of an earlier down town:

“Candy came from out on the Island
In the back room she was everybody’s darling
But she never lost her head
Even when she was giving head
She says, “Hey, babe,
Take a walk on the wild side.”

In 1987, I went to one of his last shows at Robert Miller Gallery in New York. An emaciated, leather clad old man, looking at me through eyes clouded by malady, flashed his carnivorous smile at me, his slow burning and wiry intensity still glowing softly.

Robert’s generation, such as Peter Hujar or Lynn Davis, with the help of their dealers, were pivotal in the transformation of the Photography market, from an infinitely reproductive process into the controlled and limited edition Fine Art we know today.

His images can be interpreted as staged, cold, manipulative, pornographic, violent, too classic, scary, and gross or boring, but they are crucial. For Photography, for LGBT studies and for a global understanding of the mortiferous mendacity of the eighties, Robert is an undisputable and unavoidable icon.

XYZ, the current show at Thaddeus Ropac Gallery in Paris is an absolute must see!    (Three Portfolios were made, X for SM sex, Y for floral still life and Z for African-American male nudes)

A masterful selection of the portfolios, show beautifully printed images that are powerful, raw and disturbing.  Exactly how Robert should be remembered.

Oh, and last but not least, the Ropac exhibition is curated by Peter Marino, über Architect of the grandest fashion names and 21st century’s living representation of the glorification of leather!

 

Written for and published on UK’s most read Photography Blog SMBHMag            (warning: seriously “Not Suited for the Meek” images on there)

All images ©ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE FOUNDATION 

In Praise of: St. Francis in the desert

Giovanni_Bellini_St_Francis_in_Ecstasy

Dawn, vulnerability, submission, Faith: if ever an image was “on message” this would be the one. A serene contemplation of the ultimate act of love: the gift of Francis’s life to God symbolised by the bruises in the palm of his hands and feet mirroring the suffering of Christ on the cross (the stigmata).

A brilliant cinematic “mise en scène”: Dawn, a soft blue light spreads its misty hue. The moment of the day where our soul is filled with hopeful anticipation of what is to come. Our mind is not totally focused on the “self” yet, we are more in tune with what we “feel”rather than”think”.

“Make me an instrument of your Peace.” Aloft, repeating his monotonous toil, a shepherd takes his herd to pasture, the day begins. As a donkey, a bird and a rabbit look on, Francis lifts up his head to the sky, opens his arms in submission and starts to pray.

Unlike many later religious paintings, Giovanni Bellini does not seek dramatic effect and heavy handed Pathos to tell his story. Rather Zen, this painting is a bit like the magnificent sculptures of smiling heads of Buddha, eyes closed, gently glowing with the knowledge that they have found resolute inner Peace.

This absolutely necessary painting while evoking the celestial brilliance of a Cantata by Bach, reminds us that love, be it Holy or terrestrial, begins with, is built upon and remains, an act of faith.

 

Giovanni Bellini (Venice, circa 1430-1516) Frick Collection, New York