Tag Archives: abstract expressionism

Kerry James Marshall: a ‘song’ of racism in multiple media

Racism and social justice are two themes often found in the works featured at the Rennie Museum (formerly Rennie Collection). Local real estate marketer, Bob Rennie has been showing works there from his collection since at least 2009 when I wrote my first commentary about it (December 4, 2009).

Kerry James Marshall, the latest artist to have his work featured (June 2 – November 3, 2018), carries on the tradition while making those artistic ‘themes’ his own n a breathtaking (in both its positive and negative meanings) range of styles and media.

Here’s a brief description of some of the works, from an undated Rennie Museum press release,

Rennie Museum presents a survey of works by Kerry James Marshall spanning thirty-two years of the artist’s career. Kerry James Marshall: Collected Works features pieces from the artist’s complex body of work, which interrogates the sparse historical presence of African-Americans through painting, sculpture, drawing and other media. …

The sculptural installation Untitled (Black Power Stamps) (1998) [emphasis mine], Marshall’s very first work acquired by Bob Rennie, aptly sets the tone of the exhibition. Five colossal stamps and their corresponding ink pads are dispersed over the floor of the museum’s four-story high gallery space. Inscribed on each stamp, and reiterated on the walls, are phrases of power dating back to the Civil Rights Movement: ‘Black is Beautiful’, ‘Black Power’, ‘We Shall Overcome’, ‘By Any Means Necessary’, and ‘Burn Baby Burn’. The sentiment reverberates through the three 18 feet (5.5 metre) wide paintings installed in the same room, respectively titled Untitled (Red) (2011), Untitled (Black) and Untitled (Green) (2012). Exhibited together for the first time in North America, the imposing paintings with their colours saluting the Pan African flag echo the form of Barnett Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III (1967).

Commanding attention in the center of another room is Wake (2003-2005) [emphasis mine], a sculptural work that focuses on the collective trauma of slavery. Draped atop a blackened model sailboat is a web of medallions featuring portraits of descendants of the approximately twenty African slaves who first landed in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. Atop a polished black base evoking the deep seas, the medallions cascade over and behind the mourning vessel in a gilded procession, cast out in the boat’s wake. The work commemorates an entire lineage of people whose lives have been irrevocably affected by the traumatic history of slavery in the United States, while simultaneously celebrating the resilience and vivacity of the culture that flourished from it.

Garden Party (2004-2013) [emphasis mine] is a long-coveted painting that Marshall re-worked over the course of almost ten years. Created in a style that harkens 19th century impressionist paintings, the work depicts a scene of leisure – an array of multi-ethnic friends and neighbours casually gathered in a backyard of a social housing project. Painted on a flat canvas tarp and hung barely off the floor, the image highlights an often-overlooked perspective of the vibrant everyday life in the projects and invites its viewers to join in the gathering.

In a dimmed room is Invisible Man (1986) [emphasis mine] – a historic work and one of the first to feature Marshall’s now iconic black on black tonal painting. Referencing Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel of the same title, Marshall’s work literalizes the premise of black invisibility. Only distinguishable by his bright-white eyes and teeth, and the subtle warmth that delineates black body from black background, Marshall’s figure, like Ellison’s protagonist, subverts his own invisibility, using colour as an emblem of power rather than of submission. The work’s presentation at Rennie Museum provides an opportunity for viewers to explore the full mastery with which Kerry James Marshall layers his various shades of black.

As always, you book a tour or claim a space on a tour (here) to see the latest exhibition and are guided through the gallery spaces. What follows is a series of pictures depicting the Marshall pieces in that first room (from the Rennie Museum’s photographic documentation for Marshall’s work), Note: There are five pages of documentation and I encourage you to look at all five,

Installation View. Courtesy:: Rennie Museum

Blot, 2014. acrylic on pvc panel 84 × 119 5/8 × 3 3/8 inches (213 × 304 × 9 cm). Courtesy: Rennie Museum

Sculpture (Ibeji), 2006. wood, fabric, beads 24 × 12 × 14 inches (61 × 30 × 36 cm) Courtesy: Rennie Museum

Heirlooms and Accessories, 2002. 3 inkjet prints on wove paper, rhinestone encrusted wooden artist’s frames each: 56 5/8 × 53 3/4 inches (144 × 137 cm) Courtesy: Rennie Museum

I’ve placed the pieces in the order in which I viewed them. Being at the opening event on June 2, 2018 meant that rather than having a tour, we were ‘invited’ to look at the pieces and ask questions of various ‘attendants’ standing nearby. The ‘Blot’, with all that colour, immediate drew my attention and not having read the title of the piece, I commented on its resemblance to a Rorschach Inkblot. It was my only successful guess of the visit and I continue to bask in it.

According to the attendant, in addition to resembling said inkblot, this piece also addresses abstract expressionism and the absence of African American visual artists from the movement. In this piece as with many others, Marshall finds a way to depict absence despite the paradox (a picture of absence) in terms.

‘Heirlooms and Accessories’ is an example of Marshall’s talent for depicting absence. At first glance the piece seems benign. There is a kind of double frame. The outermost frame is white and inside (abutting the artwork) a diamante braid has been added all around it to create a double frame. The braid is very pretty and accentuates the lockets depicted in the image. There are three white women pictured in their lockets and beneath those lockets and the white paint lay images of African Americans being lynched. The women, by the way, were complicit in the lynchings. It was deeply unsettling to learn this as my friend and I had just moments before been admiring the diamante braid.

Marshall’s work seems designed to force the viewer to look beneath the surface, which means stripping away layers, which with ‘Heirlooms’ means that you strip away the whitewashing.

As a white woman, the show is a profoundly disturbing  experience. Marshall’s range of materials and mastery are breathtaking (in the positive sense) and the way he seduces the (white) viewer into coming closer and experiencing the painting, metaphorically speaking, as a mirror rather than a picture. Marshall has flipped the viewer’s experience making it impossible (or very difficult) to blame racism on other people while failing to recognize your own sins.

The third piece in the room, the sculpture is a representation of a standard of beauty still not often seen in popular culture in North America. Weirdly, it reminded me of something from a December 21, 2017 posting on the LaineyGossip blog,

[downloaded from http://www.laineygossip.com/princess-michael-of-kent-racist-jewelry-greets-meghan/48728]

I don’t know well you can see this, but it’s an example of ‘Blackamoor jewellery’. The woman wearing it is Princess Michael of Kent and at the time the picture was taken she was on her to a Christmas 2017 lunch with the Queen of England. The lunch is where she was to meet Meghan Markle who describes herself as a woman of mixed race and is now the Duchess of Sussex and married to the Queen’s grandson, Harry. For anyone unfamiliar with ‘Blackmoor art’ here’s a July 31, 2015 essay by Anneke Rautenbach for New York University,

… Blackamoors—a trope in Italian decorative art especially common in pieces of furniture, but also appearing in paintings, jewelry, and textiles. The motif emerged as an artistic response to the European encounter with the Moors—dark-skinned Muslims from North Africa and the Middle East who came to occupy various parts of Europe during the Middle Ages. Commonly fixed in positions of servitude—as footmen or waiters, for example—the figures personify fantasies of racial conquest.

I trust Princess Michael was made to remove her brooch before entering the palace.

The contrast between Marshall’s sculpture emphasizing the dignity and beauty of the figure and the ‘jewellery’ is striking. The past, as Marshall reminds us, is always with us. From Rautenback’s July 31, 2015 essay (Note: A link has been removed),

Gaudy by nature, and uncomfortably dated—a bit like the American lawn jockey, or Aunt Jemima doll— … Blackamoors are still a thriving industry, with the United States as their no. 1 importer. (In fact, the figurines are especially popular in Texas and Connecticut—search “Blackamoor” online and you’ll find countless listings on eBay, Etsy, and elsewhere.) Unlike their American counterparts, which focus mostly on romanticizing scenes from the era of slavery, these European ornaments often depict black bodies as exotic noblemen. And not everyone considers them passé: As recently as September 2012, the Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabbana invited outrage when it included a caricatured black woman figurine on an earring as part of its spring/summer collection.

Encountering bias and (conscious or unconscious) racism in one’s self is both deeply  chastening and a priceless gift.  It’s one that comedienne Roseanne Barr seems determined to refuse (from a June 14, 2018 article by Marissa Martinelli for Slate.com (Note: Link have been removed),

Barr […] suggested on Thursday [June 14, 2018] that it is only “low IQ” people who would interpret describing a black woman as “Muslim Brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby” as racist. The real explanation is apparently much deeper:

Roseanne BarrVerified account @therealroseanne

Rod Serling wrote Planet of The Apes. It was about anti-semitism. That is what my tweet referred to-the anti semitism of the Iran deal. Low IQ ppl can think whatever they want.

Low IQ people and Rod Serling’s screenwriting join Ambien and Memorial Day on the growing list of entities that Barr has used to justify the racist tweet over the past two weeks. The one person whose name you will not find on that list of people responsible for what Roseanne Barr said is Roseanne Barr herself.

Even with such an obvious tweet, Barr can’t (consistently) admit to and (consistently) apologize for her comment. It may not seem like a gift to her but it is. Facing up to one’s sins and making reparation can help heal the extraordinary wounds that Marshall is making visible.

You may have noticed that I called this show ‘a song of racism’. It’s a reference to poetry which in ancient times was sometimes referred to as a song (Song of Solomon, anyone?). It was also a narrative instrument, i. e., used for storytelling for an active, participatory audience.

Marshall tells a story in allusive language (like poetry) and tricks/seduces you into participating.

On that note, I have one last story to tell and it’s about the placement of Marshall’s artworks in the first floor room. It’s my story, yours and Marshall’s might be different but he has inspired me and so …

The ‘Blot’ or Rorschach Inkblot is a test, which tells a psychologist something about you and how you apprehend the world. It’s the first piece you see when you enter the Rennie Museum space and it sets the tone for all that is to come.  What you see says much about you.

The women, in the sculpture and the lockets, provide contrast and, depending on your race, hold a mirror to you. What is ‘other’ and what is ‘you’?

There was religious imagery in much of Marshall’s work elsewhere and I was particularly struck with the hearts that appeared in some of his paintings. I was reminded of the ‘sacred heart’, a key piece of religious iconography usually associated with Roman Catholicism although other religions also use the imagery.

It is a symbol of love and compassion although I’ve always associated it more with guilt. (My mother favoured the version featuring the heart pierced with a crown of thorns.)

Getting back to “What is ‘other’ and what is ‘you’?” Marshall seems to be hinting that after guilt and suffering, forgiveness is possible.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

As for Marshall, he is a thoughtful artist asking some difficult questions. I hope you’ll get a chance to see his work at the Rennie Museum. As I write this, every tour through June is completely booked and first set of July tours is getting booked fast. You’d best keep an eagle eye on the Visit page.

ETA June18, 2018: Kerry James Marshall was in Vancouver and gave this talk about his work just prior to the show’s opening: https://vimeo.com/274179397 (It runs for roughly 1 hr. and 49 minutes.)

Fractal imagery (from nature or from art or from mathematics) soothes

Jackson Pollock’s work is often cited when fractal art is discussed. I think it’s largely because he likely produced the art without knowing about the concept.

No. 5, 1948 (Jackson Pollock, downloaded from Wikipedia essay about No. 5, 1948)

Richard Taylor, a professor of physics at the University of Oregon, provides more information about how fractals affect us and how this is relevant to his work with retinal implants in a March 30, 2017 essay for The Conversation (h/t Mar. 31, 2017 news item on phys.org), Note: Links have been removed),

Humans are visual creatures. Objects we call “beautiful” or “aesthetic” are a crucial part of our humanity. Even the oldest known examples of rock and cave art served aesthetic rather than utilitarian roles. Although aesthetics is often regarded as an ill-defined vague quality, research groups like mine are using sophisticated techniques to quantify it – and its impact on the observer.

We’re finding that aesthetic images can induce staggering changes to the body, including radical reductions in the observer’s stress levels. Job stress alone is estimated to cost American businesses many billions of dollars annually, so studying aesthetics holds a huge potential benefit to society.

Researchers are untangling just what makes particular works of art or natural scenes visually appealing and stress-relieving – and one crucial factor is the presence of the repetitive patterns called fractals.

When it comes to aesthetics, who better to study than famous artists? They are, after all, the visual experts. My research group took this approach with Jackson Pollock, who rose to the peak of modern art in the late 1940s by pouring paint directly from a can onto horizontal canvases laid across his studio floor. Although battles raged among Pollock scholars regarding the meaning of his splattered patterns, many agreed they had an organic, natural feel to them.

My scientific curiosity was stirred when I learned that many of nature’s objects are fractal, featuring patterns that repeat at increasingly fine magnifications. For example, think of a tree. First you see the big branches growing out of the trunk. Then you see smaller versions growing out of each big branch. As you keep zooming in, finer and finer branches appear, all the way down to the smallest twigs. Other examples of nature’s fractals include clouds, rivers, coastlines and mountains.

In 1999, my group used computer pattern analysis techniques to show that Pollock’s paintings are as fractal as patterns found in natural scenery. Since then, more than 10 different groups have performed various forms of fractal analysis on his paintings. Pollock’s ability to express nature’s fractal aesthetics helps explain the enduring popularity of his work.

The impact of nature’s aesthetics is surprisingly powerful. In the 1980s, architects found that patients recovered more quickly from surgery when given hospital rooms with windows looking out on nature. Other studies since then have demonstrated that just looking at pictures of natural scenes can change the way a person’s autonomic nervous system responds to stress.

Are fractals the secret to some soothing natural scenes? Ronan, CC BY-NC-ND

For me, this raises the same question I’d asked of Pollock: Are fractals responsible? Collaborating with psychologists and neuroscientists, we measured people’s responses to fractals found in nature (using photos of natural scenes), art (Pollock’s paintings) and mathematics (computer generated images) and discovered a universal effect we labeled “fractal fluency.”

Through exposure to nature’s fractal scenery, people’s visual systems have adapted to efficiently process fractals with ease. We found that this adaptation occurs at many stages of the visual system, from the way our eyes move to which regions of the brain get activated. This fluency puts us in a comfort zone and so we enjoy looking at fractals. Crucially, we used EEG to record the brain’s electrical activity and skin conductance techniques to show that this aesthetic experience is accompanied by stress reduction of 60 percent – a surprisingly large effect for a nonmedicinal treatment. This physiological change even accelerates post-surgical recovery rates.

Pollock’s motivation for continually increasing the complexity of his fractal patterns became apparent recently when I studied the fractal properties of Rorschach inkblots. These abstract blots are famous because people see imaginary forms (figures and animals) in them. I explained this process in terms of the fractal fluency effect, which enhances people’s pattern recognition processes. The low complexity fractal inkblots made this process trigger-happy, fooling observers into seeing images that aren’t there.

Pollock disliked the idea that viewers of his paintings were distracted by such imaginary figures, which he called “extra cargo.” He intuitively increased the complexity of his works to prevent this phenomenon.

Pollock’s abstract expressionist colleague, Willem De Kooning, also painted fractals. When he was diagnosed with dementia, some art scholars called for his retirement amid concerns that that it would reduce the nurture component of his work. Yet, although they predicted a deterioration in his paintings, his later works conveyed a peacefulness missing from his earlier pieces. Recently, the fractal complexity of his paintings was shown to drop steadily as he slipped into dementia. The study focused on seven artists with different neurological conditions and highlighted the potential of using art works as a new tool for studying these diseases. To me, the most inspiring message is that, when fighting these diseases, artists can still create beautiful artworks.

Recognizing how looking at fractals reduces stress means it’s possible to create retinal implants that mimic the mechanism. Nautilus image via www.shutterstock.com.

My main research focuses on developing retinal implants to restore vision to victims of retinal diseases. At first glance, this goal seems a long way from Pollock’s art. Yet, it was his work that gave me the first clue to fractal fluency and the role nature’s fractals can play in keeping people’s stress levels in check. To make sure my bio-inspired implants induce the same stress reduction when looking at nature’s fractals as normal eyes do, they closely mimic the retina’s design.

When I started my Pollock research, I never imagined it would inform artificial eye designs. This, though, is the power of interdisciplinary endeavors – thinking “out of the box” leads to unexpected but potentially revolutionary ideas.

Fabulous essay, eh?

I have previously featured Jackson Pollock in a June 30, 2011 posting titled: Jackson Pollock’s physics and and briefly mentioned him in a May 11, 2010 visual arts commentary titled: Rennie Collection’s latest: Richard Jackson, Georges Seurat & Jackson Pollock, guns, the act of painting, and women (scroll down about 45% of the way).

Google Arts & Culture: an app for culture vultures

In its drive to take over single aspect of our lives in the most charming, helpful, and delightful ways possible, Google has developed its Arts & Culture app.

Here’s more from a July 19, 2016 article by John Brownlee for Fast Company (Note: Links have been removed),

… Google has just unveiled a new app that makes it as easy to find the opening times of your local museum as it is to figure out who painted that bright purple Impressionist masterpiece you saw five years ago at the Louvre.

It’s called Google Arts & Culture, and it’s a tool for discovering art “from more than a thousand museums across 70 countries,” Google writes on its blog. More than just an online display of art, though, it encourages viewers to parse the works and gather insight into the visual culture we rarely encounter outside the rarified world of brick-and-mortar museums.

For instance, you can browse all of Van Gogh’s paintings chronologically to see how much more vibrant his work became over time. Or you can sort Monet’s paintings by color for a glimpse at his nuanced use of gray.

You can also read daily stories about subjects such as stolen Nazi artworks or Bruegel’s Tower of Babel. …

A July 19, 2016 post announcing the Arts & Culture app on the Google blog by Duncan Osborn provides more details,

Just as the world’s precious artworks and monuments need a touch-up to look their best, the home we’ve built to host the world’s cultural treasures online needs a lick of paint every now and then. We’re ready to pull off the dust sheets and introduce the new Google Arts & Culture website and app, by the Google Cultural Institute. The app lets you explore anything from cats in art since 200 BCE to the color red in Abstract Expressionism, and everything in between.

• Search for anything, from shoes to all things gold • Scroll through art by time—see how Van Gogh’s works went from gloomy to vivid • Browse by color and learn about Monet’s 50 shades of gray • Find a new fascinating story to discover every day—today, it’s nine powerful men in heels

You can also use this app when visiting a real life museum. For the interested, you can download it for for iOS and Android.

Jackson Pollock’s physics

Take a mathematician (L. Mahadevan), a physicist (Andrzej Herczynski), and an art historian (Claude Cernuschi) and you’re liable to get a different perspective on Jackson Pollock*, a major figure in abstract expressionism, art. (I’m pretty sure there’s a joke in there of the: “There was mathematician and a physicist in a bar when an art historian came in …” ilk. I just can’t come up with it. If you can, please do leave it in the comments.)

Let’s start with a picture (image downloaded from the Wikipedia essay about Jackson Pollock’s No. 5, 1948),

No. 5, 1948 (Jackson Pollock, downloaded from Wikipedia essay about No. 5, 1948)

In a recent paper published in Physics Today (Painting with drops, jets, and sheets, which is behind a paywall), Mahadevan, Herczynski, and Cernuschi speculate about Pollock’s intuitive understanding of physics, in this case, fluid dynamics. From the June 28, 2011 news item on physorg.com,

A quantitative analysis of Pollock’s streams, drips, and coils, by Harvard mathematician L. Mahadevan and collaborators at Boston College, reveals, however, that the artist had to be slow—he had to be deliberate—to exploit fluid dynamics in the way that he did.

The finding, published in Physics Today, represents a rare collision between mathematics, physics, and art history, providing new insight into the artist’s method and techniques—as well as his appreciation for the beauty of natural phenomena.

“My own interest,” says Mahadevan, “is in the tension between the medium—the dynamics of the fluid, and the way it is applied (written, brushed, poured…)—and the message. While the latter will eventually transcend the former, the medium can be sometimes limiting and sometimes liberating.”

Pollock’s signature style involved laying a canvas on the floor and pouring paint onto it in continuous, curving streams. Rather than pouring straight from the can, he applied paint from a stick or a trowel, waving his hand back and forth above the canvas and adjusting the height and angle of the trowel to make the stream of paint wider or thinner.

Simultaneously restricted and inspired by the laws of nature, Pollock took on the role of experimentalist, ceding a certain amount of control to physics in order to create new aesthetic effects.

The artist, of course, must have discovered the effects he could create through experimentation with various motions and types of paint, and perhaps some intuition and luck. But that, says Mahadevan, is the essence of science: “We are all students of nature, and so was Pollock. Often, artists and artisans are far ahead, as they push boundaries in ways that are quite similar to, and yet different from, how scientists and engineers do the same.”

There’s more about this study on the physorg.com site including a video illustrating fluid dynamics. You can also find a June 29, 2011 news item on Science Daily and a June 29, 2011 article in Harvard Magazine about the study. From the Harvard news article,

MODERN ART WAS NEVER more famously lampooned than when Tom Stoppard [playwright and screenwriter] said, “Skill without imagination is craftsmanship and gives us many useful objects such as wickerwork picnic baskets. Imagination without skill gives us modern art.”

The article by expanding on Mahadevan’s research gives the lie to Stoppard’s quote. (I wonder if Stoppard will write a play about physics and art in the light of this new thinking about Pollock’s work?)

This all brought to mind, Richard Jackson’s work which was featured in 2010 at the Rennie Collection in Vancouver (my most substantive comments about Jackson’s work are in my May 11, 2010 posting). Trained as both an artist and an engineer, he too works with paint and its vicosity. I still remember the piece in the gallery basement that featured three (as I recall) cans of paint apparently caught in the act of being poured. In retrospect, one of the things I liked best about the show is that a lot of Jackson’s work is very much about the physical act of painting and the physicality of the materials.

One final note, the L. in Mahadevan’s name stands for Lakshinarayan.

*’Pollock’s’ corrected to Pollock on April 27, 2017.