Friday, June 27, 2008

What I’ve Learned from Art

This is my first online class and I was pleasantly surprised that an online class can be as engaging as being in the same room as a teacher and my classmates. In fact, I feel that I have gotten to know my classmates better through their blogs than I would in a traditional classroom situation. I did find that I was spending too much time reading my classmates blogs and not enough time reading my textbook sometimes. But it was an interesting group of people and I enjoyed the diversity of opinion. Even when we were looking at the same thing, we all saw something different.

I don’t think I’ve ever had so many deadlines to meet in a class as I’ve had in this one. I don’t think I’ve ever been so concerned with prioritizing my list of tasks or so happy when I put a check mark next to something that I had completed. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t have to make a note to myself to go back and watch, read, or listen to it again. I like to write, but I haven’t always met my deadline. In this class, I’ve been inspired to meet my deadlines, even if I didn’t complete all my tasks. Yes, there will be some reading to catch up on before the final test and a good deal of review before I’m ready to face typing letters and waiting for them to appear in the Blackboard application.

I was surprised by how stirred up people got about Thomas Kinkade, from those who were offended by his money making schemes and lack of involvement in the printmaking process to those who defended him for no other reason than they liked a painting bearing his brand name.

It was great taking time to become more familiar with artists whose works I already knew, but it was also great to be exposed to artists who I had never heard of before. Between the textbook, Michelle’s lectures and study guides, and the art museum visits that I made, I was exposed to hundreds of artists who I might never have known about.

It was fun to learn about artistic techniques. Watching the videos provided, helped to clarify techniques described in our textbook. I think I have a better artistic vocabulary. Thanks to this class, I am more capable of explaining a work of art, than I was at the beginning of the semester. I still have a way to go before I’d try to sell an article to an art magazine.

The other night I stood outside admiring the roses in my front yard, just after my wife had watered the lawn. I suppose I could have taken a picture. It was magic hour plus the recent fires bathed the lawn in a misty soft light. But I wasn’t about making art that night. I didn’t even want to interpret what I saw. I just wanted to enjoy it. I decided to save the art and the analysis for another day.

Tonight was the night.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Art Visit

Mike at the Crocker on May 25, 2008.
Photo by Dave Hall.

I made two visits to the Crocker Art Museum. The first was on Sunday, May 25th. The second was on Sunday, June 1st. The first visit was to get reacquainted with the Crocker's collection and see what pieces appealed to me. I visited every gallery on all three floors, but spent the majority of my time on the first and second floor.

The Asian art collection on the ground floor is small and I remember spending time a few years ago looking at the prints in the Hansen Gallery. I decided to do a quick perusal of the current show, “The Language of the Nude: Four Centuries of Drawing the Human Body” with the plan of coming back later to get a better look. Two pieces impressed me immediately, Cavaliere d’ Arpino’s Christ at the Column after Sebastiano del Piombo’s fresco of the flagellation in San Pietro in Montorio, Rome and Funeral of a Hero by Jacques-Louis David. Christ at the Column is 15 15/16 x 10 ¼ inches and was rendered using black and red chalks. I was particularly impressed by the strong contour lines and the use of hatching to give dimension to the figure of Christ. Funeral for a Hero is “pen and black ink, brush and gray wash and white watercolor over black chalk on blue laid paper laid down to beige laid secondary support.” It is 10 5/16 high x 59 5/8 inches wide. This classical frieze is the subject of a book by Seymour Howard published by the Crocker in 1975.

If you take the stairs to the second floor on either side of the foyer you are greeted by two impressive oil paintings by Charles Christian Nahl. Fandango and Sunday in the Mines are two oil paintings that celebrate the early days of California. Other works by Nahl can be found in the Salon-Style Gallery that offers a mixture of European and California art. There is a good deal of humor in Nahl’s work. I considered buying a postcard of each of these, but the postcards on sale didn’t do justice to the colors found in the actual paintings.

I decided to avoid Renoir’s Paysage A Cagnes (Countryside at Cagnes) an oil on canvas as I entered the Friedman Gallery. It’s right by the passage to the left. On another visit to the Crocker a long time ago, I spent most of my time staring at it.

Before entering the Tsakopoulos Gallery, I spent sometime with John Mariscal’s Pitbull Phenomena. This is a very colorful ceramic piece made with cotton and wire.

One of the highlight of my May visit to the Crocker was seeing Stephen Kaltenbach’s Portrait of My Father. The photographs I’ve seen of Kaltenbach’s painting didn’t preparing me for its size or the patterns that overlap the entire image.

Seeing this work in person is more awe inspiring than looking at it on a computer screen or printed out in a study guide. It’s so nice to see artwork up close. A picture in a book can’t show you the texture of a Renoir or show the subtle play of light on a sculpture as you look at it from different angles.

I’ll come back to the Contemporary Art Gallery in a moment to discuss my favorite piece, but first, I wanted to mention the runner up I found in the European Art Gallery, Edward Marsal’s In the Artist Studio. I loved this oil from 1889. I liked it so much; I bought the postcard and debated whether or not I wanted to write about it. Maybe another time.

On my June visit, I took the docent tour of The Language of the Nude. Mary, the docent admitted that she didn’t know much about the exhibit, but walking slowly through the galleries and discussing each piece with the other two people on the tour gave me a chance to look at each drawing more carefully and get used to the dim lighting used to protect the delicate drawings from fading.

My June visit, was a chance to take a second look at Richard Notkin’s All Nations' Have Their Moments of Foolishness from 2006.

Notkin is an American, born in 1948. He currently resides in Helena, Montana where he has a studio called MudFire. Notkin is a firm believer that artists also need to be activists. Here is the Artist’s statement from his website:

We have stumbled into the 21st Century with the advanced technologies of "Star Wars" and the emotional maturity of cavemen. If we can't find more creative solutions to solving worldwide social and political problems than sending young men and women to shred and incinerate one another's flesh with weapons of ever increasing efficiency, we will not survive to celebrate the passage into the 22nd century. And to make a dangerous situation worse, our country and too many of our fragile planet's nations are now in the hands of right wing thugs and fundamentalist tyrants who are fumbling the planet towardsWorld War III.

It is for these reasons, and far more, that I have chosen to continue to make ceramic sculptures which reflect on the social and political dilemmas of our world. As André Malraux observed, "Art is a revolt against man's fate." Need I say more?

All Nations’ Have Their Moments of Foolishness is made up of “earthenware tiles fired in sawdust filled with saggars with added watercolor mounted on panel.” From a distance you can see a Dumbo eared portrait of George W. Bush, reminiscent of Mad Magazine’s mascot, Alfred E. Newman, but as you get closer you begin to see the images cast on individual tiles mounted together to complete the portrait of our current President.

The tiles are many and varied. There are pictures of bombs, dice, skulls, sperm, representations of the KKK, and many more.

I’m looking forward to my next visit to Crocker. There are exhibitions of Warner Brothers’ cartoon art and Maxfield Parrish’s works coming up in the future.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Conceptual Art

Laurie Anderson at the Hollywood Palace, 1984.

Photo by Mike Maginot

I can thank my friend, Terence, for introducing me to the sound of Laurie Anderson.

In the sixties, he introduced me to Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention and we used their recording of "The Return of the Son of the Monster Magnet" as the soundtrack to our 8mm experimental film Intolerable.

In the seventies, Terence was house-sitting for a friend and he invited me to come along. The trip to a house in the middle of nowhere was made memorable when Terence introduced me to the music of Randy Newman.

In the eighties, I moved to Los Angeles and Terence was there before me doing a variety of odd jobs, from carpentry to driving a cab. He had a cassette tape of Laurie Anderson that he must have dubbed off the radio. It was material from her show, United States of America, but the performance wasn't yet available on record. I liked what I heard and when the album, Big Science, became available, I bought it.

By the time, Mister Heartbreak came out in 1984, I was working at two jobs, a photo lab in Westwood and the mailroom of the American Society of Cinematographers, which was the home of American Cinematographer Magazine. I was spending my Friday and Saturday nights at a downtown club called the Variety Arts and writing material for a young comedienne named Diane Dunnie who was the MC at the Variety Art's Ed Wynn Lounge where performers did their stand-up routines on a huge drum that was once used by Eleanor Powell in her Las Vegas nightclub act. What does this have to do with conceptual art? I'm getting there.

Diane and I had talked about doing a take-off on Laurie Anderson's "Big Science" called "Big Dentist", but we never really got around to it. When Laurie Anderson's album, Mister Heartbreak came out, she was doing a record signing at Tower Records in
Westwood with Adrian Belew, who was with the British band King Crimson. I stood in line with my copy of the album and Laurie and Adrian both signed it. I told them about "Big Dentist", so Laurie drew a gaping mouth and Adrian drew a hamburger.

Back Cover: Mister Heartbreak.

Autographes and artwork, Laurie Anderson & Adrian Belew.

Laurie and Adrian had a show coming up at the Hollywood Palace and I told them that I planned to be there. I didn't know what the picture taking policy was at "The Palace", but I took my camera in the hopes of getting a few good shots of what promised to be an intimate performance. As it turned out, this was probably one of my best concert shoots. At one point, I even climbed a stack of amplifiers to get a shot and nobody stopped me. In some ways, I actually felt as if I was a part of the performance.

Laurie Anderson has always used technology in her work and used her work to explore how human beings interact with technology. Her concerts are often multimedia experiences. She used to refer to herself as a storyteller, but her current official biography calls her "one of today's premier performance artists." Her other roles include, "visual artist, composer, poet, photographer, filmmaker, electronic whiz, vocalist and instrumentalist." The Wikipedia website devotes space to two of her inventions that she uses in performance; the Tape Bow Violin and the Talking Stick. The Tape-bow Violin "uses recorded magnetic tape in place of the traditional bow, and a magnetic tape head in the bridge."

According to program notes, written by Anderson, the Talking Stick "is a wireless instrument that can access and replicate any sound." It isn't surprising to find out that in 2003, Anderson became NASA's first artist in residence. Big science indeed.

I've chosen four examples of Laurie Anderson's work to share. Two are from her film Home of the Brave, which documents one of her stage performance. The other two are music videos that were specifically made to promote her record albums, Big Science (1981) and Mister Heartbreak (1984), both hold up pretty well as artistic works as well as commercial endeavors.

As you can see from these samples, Anderson uses film, video, stagecraft, music, dance, and graphic arts to explore how humans interact with technology.


1. In "Language Is a Virus", from the film Home of the Brave, Anderson questions basic communication skills.

2. "Sharkey's Day" is a track from the Mister Heartbreak album. It tells the story of Sharkey who can't decide whether to experience life first hand or experience it through the filter of television.

3. "Zero and One" are the building blocks of digital technology. For this piece, Anderson wears a mask and speaks in an electronically enhanced voice of authority about the personality of binary code. This is from Home of the Brave.

4. In "Oh, Superman", Anderson talks to mom. Perhaps, the mom she is speaking to is the mother of invention. (Not to be confused with Frank Zappa's band that I mentioned at the beginning.) This is a track from the album Big Science.

Video Samples

Friday, June 20, 2008

Two Worlds Collide

My first reaction to Aziz and Cucher’s Dystopia series was that these guys went a little crazy with the Photoshop cloning tool. Based on their interview with Cay Sophie Rabinowitz, they have some lofty goals that include creating an alternate reality through their work. Aziz says that he has “always been interested in photography for the kind of fiction it produces”. I was reminded of the monster with no eyes on his face in Del Toro’s film, Pan’s Labyrinth, which even in production stills looks more “realistic” than any of the individuals pictured in the Dystopia photographs.

These people have had the life sucked out of them via digital manipulation. Frankly, I think others have been much more a effective at creating realistic looking images using digital tool. These photos wear the badge of manipulation. Areas that could be given realistic modeling look like big flat blotches of pixels. If I want to see “external portraits” of subjects that have “turned inward”, I seek out Van Gogh.

Even though many people believe that photos don’t lie, they always have. Long before digital manipulation became commonplace, photographers distorted reality and told out right lies with their film cameras. Camera tricks can be done with special lenses or filters, vertical and horizontal lines can be shifted using an adjustable bellows, pictures can be double, triple and quadruple exposed to create a variety of dramatic effects. Tricks can be done during processing and even more tricks can be done in a darkroom when making a photographic print. Spiritualist photography, pictures of auras, and pictures of UFOs are usually fabulous fakes made to amaze or to make a profit.

As a photographer, I can tell you that people don’t want to be photographed as they are. They want to be photographed as they see themselves or how they would like to be seen by others. We can blame the media all we like for telling lies, but every person who’s photo I have taken has asked me to tell lies about the way they truly appear. It is a rare woman that doesn’t want her skin softened by filters, her wrinkles and crows feet retouched, and her physique cleverly camouflaged by the choice of camera angle or the magic of Photoshop. Men too, become vain before the lens. They want to be more rugged, more handsome, and manlier.

The media manufactures images of men and women that bear little resemblance to what is real. They do it because they know it will sell products and lifestyles that answer a deep need in their consumer audience. As a society, we seldom accept diversity, each generation and each and every sub culture has it’s own concept of beauty. The media feeds society images that society wants to see, real or unreal. We can blame the media for creating unhealthy role models, but what it takes to combat these illusions is a healthy understanding that film and digital media are not designed to show us what is real. They are only capable of interpreting reality. Let the buyer beware.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

My Favorite Painting

Edward Hopper began working on Nighthawks soon after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and America entered World War II. Nighthawks is an oil painting on canvas and it belongs to the Chicago Institute of Art. The painting has toured in several major exhibitions of Hopper’s work.

According to Hopper’s notes, that he kept in a ledger book with a sketch of his finished paintings, “‘Nighthawks 33 x 60. Finished Jan 21, 1942. Blocks and Winson & Newton colors, W& N Zinc white, poppy oil, English linen, domestic priming.”

According to Judith A. Barter of the Art Institute of Chicago, in an essay called “Nighthawks: Transcending Reality”, found in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s wonderful book Edward Hopper, “X-rays of the painting show no changes underneath the thin layer of paint. Hopper provided texture and highlights by scraping the paint back with the handle of his brush, creating small details like the rim of the man’s fedora and his shirt cuff. Thin glazes, particularly in the yellow areas, suggest smooth plastered and enameled diner walls.” Barter also reveals the following regarding Hopper's working methods; “Extant drawings show that he worked out the composition in a series of small sketches, so that his plan would be clear when he began to paint.” Barter goes on to describe how the four people in the diner got smaller and smaller and the plate glass window got bigger and bigger.

Urban isolation is a common theme in Hopper’s work and many of his pictures show people isolated from one another in the frame or sitting alone in contemplation. Hopper’s wife, Josephine, who he met while attending art school, was often the model for the women in his paintings.

The thing I like about Nighthawks and many of Hopper’s paintings is the cinematic quality they possess. According to my sources, Hopper was an avid filmgoer and his paintings show the influence of silent and early sound films.

When I look at Nighthawks, I am looking into a human aquarium. I can see the people, but they can’t see me. I equate the voyeuristic quality of Hopper's paintings to a similar quality that I find in the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Brian De Palma, and Robert Altman.

I have always been a great admirer of Hopper's oil paintings and watercolors. Thanks to Gail Levin’s book, Edward Hopper As Illustrator, I was able to check out his early work as a printmaker and commercial artist.

Recommended Links:

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston's website includes an excellent slide show and excerpts from Hopper's sketchbook which was an alphabetical ledger.

The Art Institute of Chicago's Edward Hopper page is where I grabbed the image for this blog.

Wikipedia has a page dedicated to both Hopper and to Nighthawks. The best part of the Wikipedia Nighthawks page is section on those Hopper influenced and inspired with his painting. Homages to Nighthawks are found in all popular art forms including other paintings, sculptures, films, literature, music, etc.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Is Vanity Fair?

I loved Daniel Adel's response to the controversy over Annie Leibovitz's picture of Milet Cyrus. It's in the July 2008 issue of Vanity Fair.

I wonder if these pictures by Lewis Carroll and Julia Margaret Cameron caused as much of a fuss in their day?

Thomas Kinkade...Artist?

Thomas Kinkade is a commercial artist. He went to school at Art Center School of Design in Pasadena, an institution with a “commitment to teaching students not only tangible skills in commercial applications, but also important, if less tangible, lessons in social awareness and responsibility.” (Richard Koshalek, President Art Center College of Design.)

Let’s face it. Art schools don’t teach their students to be starving artists. Besides the classes in various mediums, students are offered education in marketing. I’m sure that Kinkade’s stint as a background artist for Ralph Bakshi Studios taught him the value of collaboration. Film studios are factories and while a film may be the vision of one person or a small group of people, hundreds of people are employed to make that vision a reality that can be marketed to a mass audience. I should also point out that very few artists in the world of printmaking are a solo act.

Kinkade doesn’t hide the fact that others are going to his licensed galleries to add highlights to his work. In fact, he cleverly markets these touch up jobs as events to draw in additional clientele.

I tried to find out more about the FBI investigating Kinkade’s business practices, but could only find variations of the Associate Press piece by Rachel Konrad. Kinkade’s detractors like to portray him as some sort of Christian Svengali capable of convincing people to make poor business decisions or as an obnoxious drunk hypocrite. Kinkade’s empire grew during an era when Christian organizations put out business directories promoting the concept of doing business with other Christian businesses. If Kinkade used his “faith” as bait, he wasn’t the only one fishing.

As far as his drunken outbursts, groping of women, heckling, and off-color remarks, it sounds like he would fit in well with the Warhol crowd or Jackson Pollock. It’s tough to live up to your own morality or the morality associated with your art. On the brighter side, Kinkade has managed to do some nice charity work. The folks in Pasadena should be proud.

But what of his art. It’s not cool. It’s not edgy. It’s not in your face. It’s not threatening…well maybe to some people. It’s little old lady art. It’s what Kinkade’s mother likes and evidently other people like it too. The list of licensed partners on the Kinkade website is impressive. These companies wouldn’t be licensing from Kinkade if they didn’t think his artwork would help sell their products.

Kinkade’s style hasn’t changed much over the years, but as an artist he has remained true to his own vision. Kinkade is an artist in the business of helping other people sell their product and in the business of selling his own product, which is reproductions, based on a formula. A large part of the formula is catering to the values and faith of his audience. If they want their order to go with a side order of highlights his cracker jack crew of apprentices will be more than happy to wave their magic wands and add just a little more light to America’s most-collected living artist’s canvas. Why should he ever have to touch his work? Other artists design and have others execute the concept. The style is recognizable and the reproductions have built in signature value. In the final years of his life Salvadore Dali would sign just about anything to give it value and make a few more bucks. Warhol would sign soup cans. He didn’t sell them, but I’ll sell you mine for enough money.

Kinkade’s artwork is pleasant enough and I’m not going to condemn him for being successful. It is a shame that he undercuts the people who have licensed his name and his art in the hopes of being successful gallery owners. The problem is these people who got sucked into the gallery racket didn’t consider the value of diversified commodities.

Do Kincade’s paintings contain “a larger moral dimension”? There are those that think so and they make up the vast majority of his audience. Criticism of the artist sometimes extends to a criticism of the artist’s audience, but I can’t fault Kinkade’s audience. Even I find some of his work fun to look at.

My wife read over most of the material presented to our class about Thomas Kinkade and wrote her own short essay. This is one of her comments: I find the whole “Master Highlighter Tour” a complete farce. He should get off his lazy ass and highlight his own pictures himself, especially if he calls himself “Painter of Light”.

I realize that by “Painter of Light”, Kinkade is not just saying that the cottages and houses in his paintings are running up a large electric bill. He is suggesting that his work holds a greater value as a reflection of the gospels of Jesus Christ. If that’s the case, I recommend consumers look elsewhere. After all, they’re just pretty pictures.