(First of all, don't miss my latest Art Thoughts below...)

For those of you not addicted on Facebook (I'm seriously thinking of giving it up for Lent), this is my official announcement that I've joined a small group of artists from Philadelphia, in opening up a (small!) cooperative gallery in Chinatown. It's in what's become known as the "VOX" building, housing as it does the well-known, long-time Philly co-op. The building is just north of Vine Street, on 11th; for more information check out www.tigerstrikesasteroid.blogspot.com What's with the name? It's a fun way of poking fun at the incredibly small scale of the space, and at the same time realizing the possibilities, especially with being hooked up on Facebook and the web.

For those of you on Facebook, search Tiger Strikes Asteroid for the page, or click on http://www.new.facebook.com/profile.php?id=575482854&ref=profile#/pages/Philadelphia-PA/Tiger-Strikes-Asteroid/54622501034?ref=ts

Our inaugural group show Getting Ready for the Prom is opening March 6th, First Friday, at 6 PM. Be there or be square! Get there early, because over one hundred people have already confirmed by Facebook that they're coming...and trust me, this space is fairly petite.

After the first show, we will be doing a cycle of member solo shows and group-curated shows, featuring work from LA, NYC, local etc. artists. Stay tuned!

(Poster image by Nate Pankratz, www.nathanpankratz.com )


Art Thoughts, Week 41 -- Berckheyde & Synesthesia

Street Scene, Gerrit Berckheyde (Dutch, 1638—1698), c. 1670, oil on canvas, BF829.

My first memory of synesthesia (the triggering of one sense by something associated with another) is from one evening while dozing on my dorm bed. My roommate was listening to music – I’ve forgotten what music, but the most important thing was that I was hearing it. In this subconscious doze, an intense mental picture emerged of a shape divided into three pieces; each with a distinct color. I woke up after that, and realized the music had triggered this crisp image in my brain. This is a concrete example of synesthesia. This capability is latent in every piece of artwork; it has to do more with the participant’s receptiveness – planned or not – and sensual tendencies.

The first synesthetic sensation upon looking at Berckheyde’s Street Scene is that of sound. Several details in the painting jump out as dealing directly with a sound (i.e. a typical sound maker). Crucial to this sensation though is that firstly, the painting is contrastingly quiet: a quiet subject, composition, color scheme, all on a quiet morning. After this sense is absorbed, small details surface, punctuating this veil of quiet with unique sounds: the thud of beaten laundry on the left; the squeak of the well’s straining pulley; the subdued conversation of the central women; the wagon’s wooden creaking; the birdsong and bell-tower pealing (assumed by experience) – all contributing to the fascinating sense of a pre-industrial period where sounds were only naturally amplified, and were more individually distinct.

As mentioned, some of this gently sound-punctuated quietude is owed to this viewer’s experiences with certain times of day. Even in a bustling city like my Philadelphia, intense quiet can be found, albeit in small doses – and the time where it’s most prevalent is early morning – much like the time of day likely portrayed here. Any sounds that are extant in early morning tend to be more individually defined – their edges are more perceivable, by virtue of being rarer. This raises the distinction between noise and sound. Sound suggests individuality; the quality of being more distinct and uninfluenced by overlapping sounds. Our ears can distinguish separate sounds – but noise implies the overlapping quality of a polyphonic experience. Overlapping, clashing – even harmonizing – sounds create an aural texture (noise), which may then become another distinct sound. This is somewhat like two overlapping colors creating another separate, distinct color; say, red and green creating sienna. It is the self-perpetuating quality of artwork and music: materials set into motion by artists, and responding to laws of the natural world.

In Street Scene, the obvious sound makers are distinct in distance, through composition – the wagon, well, voices, etc. – which suggests them as being aurally separate. This also continues the sense of quietude in the painting. Also, other obvious contrasts tend to suggest the separation of not only colors and sounds, but also concepts and values. Chiaroscuro (a painting technique using high-contrast values) is normally a characteristic of early morning and late afternoon lighting – these being more dramatically lit times of day. Contrast is related to polarity, and thus to difference, re-accentuating the particularity of separate elements. So, the Netherlandish morning light creating strong shadows, and the clearly defined shapes and forms, as well as the neatly separated noise makers in Street Scene, all contribute to this idea of sound and encourages the synesthesia of this painting.


Art Thoughts, Week 40 -- Puvis de Chavannes & Trust

Dramatic Poetry (Aeschylus), Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (French, 1824—1898) c. 1896, oil on canvas, BF100.

Symbols are intrinsic to the receiving of visions. In fact, the idea of a vision is that the seer receives a glimpse of something outside themselves and their time – in the future (across time) – but also just as likely across space – in another country, for example. So, symbols are bridges between the vision’s displaced time and space, and our trust. The reception is usually exceedingly clear; i.e., it as if the seer was there physically; however, clear as the active reception of it may have been, it becomes foggy or nonsensical upon waking, like a dream pieced together. This, again, is why symbols are so common in visions – they can carry an enormous load of potential meaning and information, beneficial to interpretation, though they themselves are rather small on the surface. Apocalyptic literature, such as the Book of Revelation, is replete with symbols: scrolls, horses, keys, etc. But we all know that, even though a TV signal may be crystal clear, we may still have no concept of what the programming is about. Symbols therefore are potentially helpful (revelatory, even) in making sense of visions, but can also be exceedingly misleading.

Puvis is considered a Symbolist painter, and his painting Dramatic Poetry (Aeschylus) is no exception to that definition. The culturally-influential and proven symbols of mythology are the largest influence here, in the form of a bound Prometheus, the attendant Oceanids, and the descending, torturous eagle. However, the one foreground figure who twists this painting towards our own reality, and therefore makes the background even more symbolically-driven, is Aeschylus, a historical playwright of ancient Greece, who is reclining and reading a scroll. So, between the strange tableaux in the background and the viewers, lies the realm of symbols – with Aeschylus as the featured vessel. We, however, have the additional filter of Puvis. And indeed, Puvis himself, being interested in the obvious and deliberate divestment of reality through the power of paint, influences both the myth of Prometheus, as well as what becomes the “myth” of Aeschylus – that is, an additional layer of ostensible reality juxtaposed over a vision of pure surrealism. So, with symbols flying between, we simultaneously are given views of the back-side and front-side of a construct: myth displayed as reality to an historical human, which turns out to be an unreal human depiction watching a myth unfold. We may try to follow one side to an end, only to find that, like on a Mobius strip, we’ve come back to the same point. Simply put, nothing can be trusted.

Actually, we can trust one thing in this scene, which reads strangely synesthetically like white noise: the paint. With great skill Puvis has physically emphasized the metaphysics of this scene by both his deliberate modulation of edges – from sharp and bulky, to skimmed, dry and soft – as well as his colors, which are wan and dreamlike. The background cliff edges, for instance, fade in and out of the sky, differentiated by the sinking of paint into canvas, then the subsequent rise of paint again – all enveloped in those tightly analogous, sun-bleached colors. All this enhances the vision-bound state of Aeschylus, and the pained stupor of Prometheus…and also invites more connections to John the Revelator, who was blinded by his revelation’s weight. It is the one true thing we can hold on to: the artifice…and that is (probably) what Puvis wanted.


Art Thoughts, Week 39 -- Demuth & Progress

Masts, Charles Demuth (American, 1883—1935) 1919, tempera on composition board, BF343.

America has always been a place of transition; of change; a country of forward resolve and restlessness. There is a continuous line of transitional figures and groups that make a bold line across the country, east to west and north to south. In many ways, the conquests that began America have never ceased. Perhaps this is linked to our unique place in the world as a cobbled-together entity, as opposed to a country with deeply-rooted common cultural identities – we are always adjusting; recalibrating – looking for something new. This mentality comes out more strongly at some times than others, and more strongly in some art than others. In art, this is often coincidental, or at least situational. Important art is always interested in meaningful progress; not always the society.

A case where society and art seemed to be in syncopation is in Masts, by Charles Demuth. Painted in 1919, there is in this painting a curious mix of both revelry in our country’s progressive past, and a sense of the massive, global sigh, having just exited from the Great War. The former is expressed through the beautifully stylized and honed lines of masts and booms of harbored ships in Nantucket; the latter may be seen in the optimistic dynamism with which Demuth has composed the formal shapes of the scene. He has taken a cliché of traditional art – the harbor or boating scene – and divested it of sentimental identity, then distills it into a sleek, modernist machine of upward and onward progress. The romanticism of boats – not unlike other romantic American tropes, such as the cowboy or mountains – was, and still is an Achilles heel for many artists who are seduced by the tendency to soft-pedal critique of American myth. Demuth, however, has uncovered the mix which ended up being the key to the progression of American art towards the forefront: he has isolated certain elements of the ships – the masts and booms, namely – and juxtaposed them with the harbor roof-tops. They create an alternative mythic machine of progress, its arms spread like a drawn crossbow, ready to jet forward with brutal and ruthless speed; and a full quiver to boot. Herein, as we later come to discover, is this idea’s weak spot: the unvarnished optimism. Who can blame the country, however, emerging from an unprecedented blood bath?

Demuth emphasizes this potential change and progress symbolically, as well. The most dynamic of these symbols is the bolting line which meanders crisply through the masts, eventually flying out of the picture space. Additionally, the composition moves dramatically from dark to light; from larger elements to smaller, creating a culmination; an acme; a focus on the tip-top. It is also a common factor, drawing as it does the two more disparate elements of the composition’s bottom into the bound rope of a goal at the top. There are two other subtle elements of this painting which are both interesting contrasts, and also highlight those two essential parts of meaningful progress: the past and the future. Firstly, Demuth has used a medium which is a bastion of traditional painting craft, tempera. And secondly, the execution is not filled with the accoutrements of realism, as tempera is wont to encourage; it is rather sporting the cartoonish polish of purposeful stylization. Both of these point to Demuth’s talent in meshing the traditional and futuristic, and therefore seeming supremely prepared to comment on societal change and progress. The best artists are limnal in function; becoming a Janus for their society.

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