Category: Art

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A few stylized paintings by Giorgio de Chirico.

Giorgio de Chirico’s Nostalgia for the Strange

It’s the minor greats who tend to reward more casual spectators of art. Attempting to dip a toe into a topic as overwhelmingly protean as Matisse or Picasso could be an open invitation to critical piranhas. But Giorgio de Chirico’s work, on the other hand, is all charm and free fancy. His early paintings from the 1910s were a catalyst for the Paris surrealists. He was a favourite of Sylvia Plath. The list goes on. Simply throw a dart and you’re bound to hit one of his disciples – whether it’s Feuillade or Cocteau or Hitchcock, Bunūel, Dali, Robbe-Grillet, Edward Hopper, John Ashbery or Rene Magritte. Could we really imagine any of them without de Chirico’s empty cities and enigmatic objects?

A Greco-Italian, Giorgio de Chirico worked in a style termed pittura metafisica – technically an offshoot of Italian Cubo-Futurism. Romantic-symbolist in their subject matter, his paintings often have an allegorical, dream-like atmosphere. Images recur of a ghost-town, comprised of looming towers and classical boulevards reminiscent of the sinister mezzanines in David Lynch horror films or the ‘backrooms’ of Tiktokism.

There’s an early work called ‘The Poet Returns’, which is admittedly a personal favourite of mine. For almost five years it’s been the very first thing I can see upon waking and the last as I fall asleep; a disintegrating colour reproduction torn from a primer on Dada to decorate bedroom walls. But this personal affection confirms its (modest) power. No, it’s not the best nor the most iconic de Chirico painting, but it’s a perfectly serviceable example of his style, nonetheless. Hopefully, in describing it, I can say something useful or succinct about Giorgio de Chirico’s aesthetic – a manner that continues to perplex and beguile even today. […]

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A sepia portrait of Agnes Martin next to her canvases.

Forcing Quiet: Notes on the Painting of Agnes Martin

Agnes Martin was one of the lesser-known abstract painters of the second New York School. This is largely because she was a woman working in a male-dominated field. It’s also because her paintings didn’t really look like other AbEx paintings so people didn’t know what to make of them. It wasn’t until after the minimalist craze of the sixties that people started really taking her seriously and calling her a pioneer and a feminist icon and such.

Martin’s compositions are invariably rectilinear and orthogonal. She started off with pencilled grids but towards the end of her career (the period I am most interested in) she settled on horizontal and vertical pinstripes. Her colours are muted pales and pastels. The scale—middling. Not large. Not small.

Agnes Martin uses paint in thin, transparent washes with traces of the underdrawing still visible. No bravura or technical virtuosity. Just cool, quiet regularity without being too evidently adroit. The reiteration is mechanical but not mechanically reiterative. There are exquisitely subtle modulations but whether they are unconscious or staged is impossible to say. […]

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A stylized image of the artist Charles Ray, his arms folded in a red shirt.

Charles Ray & Postmodern Art: A Retrospective

Compared to other artists of a similar age, Charles Ray has made very few pieces—only a single sculpture every two years or so. It used to be that no one talked about him. Now everybody does. He’s the guy you mention to your hipster friends. Jeff Koons? Pfft. I’m over it. Charles Ray is much cooler.

Don’t know him? He’s the one who started all that controversy with his statue of Huckleberry Finn and Nigger Jim. MoMA didn’t want it standing in their courtyard because they felt it might frighten parents and families. Both Jim and Huck are naked. The older man reaches out, seemingly to caress the boy’s shoulder. It’s a psychologically charged moment. Ray is plunging headfirst into a sweaty world of race and homoeroticism.

Charles Ray began making a name for himself during the nineties. Neo-Geo was a phrase that got thrown around a lot back then. Not a genre, so to speak, but a catch-all for the kind of postmodern art that was le dernier cri in the big apple. In the halcyon days of MTV and Artforum, being a contemporary artist was a lot like being a rock star. In fact, painters and sculptors chummed around with rock stars all the time. Sometimes the artists even behaved like rock stars and the rock stars commonly mistook themselves for artists (take Tracey Emin and David Bowie, for example). The unspoken rules of postmodernism were as follows: whatever sticks, works. No pussyfooting around the last fifty years of modern art theory, gingerly kissing eggshells. As long as it felt fresh, and surprising, it was valid. […]

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A drawing by Pablo Picasso of Picasso and Manuel Pallarès looking at the Eiffel Tower.

Pablo Picasso and Apostate Cubism

The painting I want to talk about is this one: “Guitar and Mandolin”. It’s one of Pablo Picasso’s biggest still lifes and a prime example of what’s generally referred to by art historians as synthetic Cubism. It’s not as beloved or as famous as works such as “Guernica” or “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” but I would argue it’s a masterpiece and one that summarises something uniquely Picasso’s own.

Having invented Cubism, Picasso was probably the first artist to lose faith in it. For years he and George Braque had been a double act. Following the breakup came an odd shuttling back and forth of different styles across the next decade, of feints and impostures. But what precisely do these differences in style-type represent? Do they represent different prospective audiences? Different social attitudes to taste? It’s difficult to say. But perhaps they represent some deeper change or retrogression within the artist.

The most frequent point of comparison for “Guitar and Mandolin” is Matisse’s “Still Life after Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s ‘La Desserte'”. The similarities are intriguing when one considers the famous rivalry between Picasso and Matisse. But is it true that “Guitar and Mandolin” was intended as a kind of avantgarde diss track? Was Picasso really attempting to send-up what is Matisse’s least successful cubist venture? Admittedly I am not at all very interested in the veracity of this claim. But at the same time, it establishes an interesting line of inquiry. After all, if “Guitar and Mandolin” is a caricature of Matissean Cubism the question becomes whether the mockery of the mockery holds any kind of actual authentic status. Who in the end is actually being subverted? Is it Matisse or is it Picasso himself? […]

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A self-portrait of a young Claude Monet wearing black and sporting a beard, set next to Jessica Schneider's collection of ekphrastic poetry, "Ekphrasm".

Transforming Claude Monet: On Jessica Schneider’s “Theme de Camille” (EKPHRASM, 2022)

Art’s encounter elicits a multiplicity of responses, most of which are perfectly commonplace, barely penetrating superficial acknowledgment. This would be the main method of engagement for most people (including artists) most of the time, since no matter how much one loves or professes to love the arts, no one has enough time in the day to deeply engage with every work of art they come across. Indeed, many works of art don’t bother to ask such from the percipient in the first place, intentions notwithstanding.

Yet there is always the moment of real and lasting engagement. Sometimes this is due to the work’s undeniably high quality, and other times due to whim and circumstance, with works of varying quality. Sometimes, there is only the engager’s want, beneath which the art must break or bend – or transform. Let us consider Jessica Schneider’s poem “Theme de Camille”, from her 2022 collection, “Ekphrasm”. […]

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Edouard Manet's "Luncheon on the Grass", which depicts figures of technically "incorrect" proportions.

Edouard Manet And The Mystery Of The Crowd

Everything was changing in late 19th century Paris. A series of disastrous wars and failed uprisings had precipitated the forming of a public works commission to rebuild the city. But this rebuilding was nothing on its own. It was meant to be the emblem and agent of a wider economic transformation – the emergence of modern day capitalism and consumerism. Suddenly gone was the old Paris of narrow streets and quartiers. The new Paris of cosmopolitan boulevards cut up into little pieces the city’s pre-existing world of fragile appearances – its traffic of class segregation and urban life. And this awareness of change was to be crucial for the emergence of an artist such as Edouard Manet. The elusiveness of the social world, the precarian nature of being in it, and being of it, are central subjects of the paintings he produced at this time. […]

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Gustave Courbet's "The Painter's Studio", featuring the artist and his canvas in the center.

Gustave Courbet & The Allegory Of The Studio

In 1855, three of Gustave Courbet’s paintings were rejected by the Exposition Universelle, something which Courbet took as a personal affront. It was, after all, the single largest exhibition in the history of the salon with a projected attendance numbering in the hundreds of thousands. In retaliation Courbet erected and promoted an exhibition all of his own, situated just across the road from the Exposition itself. It was called the Pavillion of The Real and inside the public were treated to over forty paintings by Courbet. Among them was a painting was called ‘L Atelier’ or ‘The Painter’s Studio: A real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life’ (1855).

The artist’s studio is today considered a genre in its own right. It is a genre which lends itself well to allegory in that it offers a means of representation of the practice of art and offers up the artist as a personification of that practice. Variations of this genre can be informative illustrations of arts changing social history, the artist’s professional character and his production in relation to a market economy. Common features include introspective self-portraits such as Gericault’s ‘Portrait of an Artist in his Studio’, or the gallery of a dealer/connoisseur such as we find in ‘The Artist’s Studio’ by Amelie Legrand de Saint-Aubin. Images of poverty, power, fame, success and failure occur alongside images of the artist’s technical and iconographical resources. Sometimes we see the artist as he wishes to be seen; other times he sees us seeing him. In the paintings of Vermeer and Velasquez the studio is a site of encounter, between the artist and his model as well as other value systems. In the work of Braque, Matisse and Picasso, the studio is a metaphor for the psyche, a private world of individual creative passions. […]

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Chris Ware, author of "Rusty Brown"

Mere Reaction: Why Chris Ware’s “Rusty Brown” Fails

In reading the comics of Chris Ware again, long after the dazzle of his formal novelty had dimmered, a word came to mind: ‘reaction’. Now, let’s excise all narrow political connotations and deal with the essence of the term: that any swing too much in one direction necessarily begets a counterforce, less because it has value than simply that it must exist, as uniqueness is a perennial human want, though little understood. And, as much contemporary media is infantile, democratic in the basest sense, and abusive of well-rooted psychological patterns, alternatives are almost destined to crawl out of the margins of the mainstream. In the most lucrative, and most besieged mediums, that of comics, video games, and animation, reaction creates a mirror-world of seriousness, clutches at ‘the grown-ups table’, an aesthetic to counteract the frivolities, the ‘sell-outs’, that is consciously unfun, unentertaining, uninteresting, and bloated with consciousness itself. None of this determines that the products be mediocre, as Art sometimes has a way of slipping past intentions. Yet what it means is these works are subject to the same dice-rolls that plagues all pabulum. This is because reaction is also a pattern; a nobler pattern, but a pattern all the same. […]