Thoughts: old photographs as memorials

Lately I've been looking at a lot of old photographs (1914 - 1950s) of the neighborhood I now live in, Frankford, or more specifically, Northwood, a very early "suburb". The one above is an example, and appropriately enough, of a neighborhood memorial:

Some rudimentary thoughts on the power of photographs as icons; and how that function as icon differs depending upon your point of reference around that photograph:

For the young (who were not there): the photograph is an icon of largeness; how much they don't know about the scene, the time, the context, can be found in this image; every detail trucking a vast sense of newness; of awe, even (in a weird reverse).

For the old (who were there, or in the represented time): the photograph is an icon of smallness; how small a slice of the richness of living, of actual life in this pictured time, or some parallel place; every detail reminding them of how much has changed; how much has been lost - both actually and in their memory - a truckload of details of oldness lost; of the smallness of their new.

For the photograph (bridging the gaps of time; functioning as the hub around which perceptions spin): it is a complex icon, trucking both old and new; its new possibility is a crossroads at which communication and discovery can still be made; relationships and understanding can be fertilized by it: the old can become a new new; the new can be remade in the light of the old...distinctions can become less important; time even may begin to fade a little.


Art at Church: new Second Space show!

This Saturday, the 11th of August at 6 PM, come join us at Second Space Arts of OCMC, for the opening reception of Art at Church: an invitational exhibit. Featuring many of the artists of the Olivet Church Studios in the Fairmount neighborhood. The show will run through the beginning of October. 


Education and Kelly's Barnes Totem

“It is in fact the play of the sun on the building and the sun on the totem, and the interaction of the people at its base that is really magic.”  -Ellsworth Kelly, on Barnes Totem

The symbol of a sphinx and the symbol of a totem have two very different sets of ideas and meanings. And yet we see the two of them interacting in the visual symbolism associated with the Barnes Foundation building on the Parkway. The image of a sphinx (discussed last post), incorporated into the look and mien of the building, emphasizes the Foundation as a keeper of light; knowledge and wisdom – the sentinel if you will, of the temple of culture and education (for what is education but “appropriate culture”?) as constructed by Dr. Barnes, and in this building’s case, a figure leaning into the westerly winds of the future.  However, the sphinx, though here beneficent and worthy, is still nearly always a lone figure – an individual creature.

A totem, referencing mostly the familial sculpture of Northwest Native American peoples, but having precedents in other cultures, always emphasizes community. The very form is familial: a sculpture, both from a tree and tree-like, which in its most common form, shows a cross-section of numerous generations, almost as a “core-sample” of a society’s, village’s, or family’s peoplehood and history. One other important distinction, which appeals to a formalist like myself: the sphinx is normally horizontal, and the totem is always vertical.

When we get to Ellsworth Kelly’s use of the totem in Barnes Totem, this familial sense, colorful in both hue and emotion in the traditional totems, is greatly simplified, stylized, and cooled; but the communal aspect is, if anything, even more important. In a way, the verticality emphasizes community directly. The sculpture is a bead-blasted steel totem, one rectangular element dog-legging from another about halfway up the entire structure’s height. When this sculpture was dedicated this spring, as part of his comments surrounding it, Kelly emphasized the sculpture’s importance as being directly related to its two distinct elements, despite it reading at first glance as one large, fully integrated piece. Not a direct quote, but he said something to the effect of, “one part is lifting the other above itself”.  And in the quote at the beginning of this essay, Kelly emphasizes another aspect which both extends the idea of the Barnes sphinx (gatherer, keeper, and distributor of light) as well as speaks to the core aim of the Foundation: interaction, and therefore the possibility for education. The best of families are always partly about education – the totems were made, after all, for later generations’ memory – and this totem is no different. It is one element lifting another – presumably for a better vantage point; to share knowledge; to teach a lesson; to impart the best of what they are after, what they are looking at; to extend one generation’s limited view further than they themselves could see, through subsequent generations. Isaac Newton said “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” It might even be said that the sphinx is looking after – a caretaker, mostly – and the totem is looking at: together; communally. In this way, the totem further extends the forward-looking lean of the sphinx, and also connects the building, like a key, to the original Barnesian core of education, and indeed the very core of the idea of education itself: continuation, imparting; betterment.

I’ve long believed that the more simplified the form in art, the greater the message that can be imparted – the caveat being that this places the onus on both the artist to be conscientious, as well as on the viewer to be paying attention to their reaction to it, and the context in which the artwork’s intent is found. (Viewing art is a type of education, and all education requires concentration, and time – not to mention enjoyment, which can cause one to forget the former two). A formally simple artwork is capable of carrying the weight of great intent – but craft and concept must meet nearly flawlessly, otherwise there will always be an uncomfortable gap between artist and viewer. The Barnes Totem rides this line tentatively – it is not Kelly’s strongest work, in my current estimation – but the context, if one is paying attention, helps the inquisitive viewer. Knowing about the Barnes’ aims will help one realize the importance of the totem – as well as vice-versa. I can imagine a new visitor being confused about the totem, and after absorbing the spirit of Barnes’ collection, having it finally make sense – “lifting up” and inspiring their understanding and absorption about what Dr. Barnes was trying to accomplish, and what the collection – and now the building – attempts to carry on. 

Part of the original role for totems was that they would disintegrate over time, uninterrupted, and in that perhaps, is the final lesson that not all is worth remembering…in a Zen way, to educate, many things must be forgotten. One thing implicit in the Newton quote “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” is that Newton himself became a “giant”, and that giants, even sculptures of them, die, or at least decline: are we as a generation becoming giants for the next to stand upon, to see past us? Both the Barnes and the Totem built for it, ask this question; and offer opportunity.


The Sphinx of the Parkway

The Sphinx of the Parkway

Much has already been written about the new Barnes Foundation building on the Parkway: about its brilliance, or short-sightedness; its accessibility or inaccessibility; its attention to craft, or not. Little however, has been mentioned of its symbolism, as such. Of course all buildings carry something of the symbolic in them: they are, after all, at their best an extension; an extrapolation of both the human body and of nature and landscape: a good (read: successful) building, in other words, is a tranquil compromise. This in itself is greatly symbolic. But that’s writ generally; what about the Barnes Parkway building specifically? Buildings have a way, through their form, of being labeled with all sorts of colorful street monikers: the “Gherkin” skyscraper in London is a good example of this. Of the Merion Barnes building, by Paul Cret, one could say it’s, depending on your viewpoint, a coffin; mausoleum; shoe box; hoagie, and so on. I’ve heard it called a “jewel box”.

The symbol I’d like to suggest for the new Barnes Parkway building is the sphinx – and specifically, the more beneficent, enigmatic Egyptian sphinx. I mean this both formally, and symbolically: that is, the form influences the symbolic nature of what a “sphinx” entails, both historically (as much as can be known) and in the more generic parlance and understanding. The basic form of the Parkway building is of three parts, all long and rectangular: one side (right, or south if facing the west) being the close interpretation of the Merion galleries (or “Merion bar” as it was called early on).The second side is the left, or north side, deviating slightly from the pure rectangle, by wrapping around the back, or east end, but not touching: this is the institutional support section: conservation; offices; restaurant; exhibition gallery; lobby; etc. And thirdly, at nearly the same dimensions, is the light-box, suspended over a covered courtyard between the first two sections; made of white steel and frosted glass throughout. The light box is pushed westward, approximately thirty feet out over its two limestone-cladded “posts”; a light-bearing “lintel”, creating an exterior patio beneath.

So then, when observing one day from the west side while sitting in the adjacent Rodin Museum gardens, I realized the building has a form surprisingly reminiscent, though simplified, of an Egyptian (couchant) sphinx. The light-box head, erect but on a reclining body – here projecting rather than the normal receding – from the two strong front legs: a revived myth straining forward on its haunches. But not just a myth: it’s remarkably like the most famous sphinx, the Great Sphinx, extant and enigmatic among the pyramids of Giza. And the Barnes building cooperates in this mythos. The sphinx has always been an enigma: in some stories giving riddles to inquirers; speech which required discernment; cunning; interpretation: experience, in the term of John Dewey and Dr. Barnes.

And so with the Barnes building: the left leg symbolizes the past of the collection galleries; a legacy with which all participants and viewers deal with through interpretation and engagement, but also linked to a particular time and person through its present, preserved form. The right leg, the support building, symbolizes several layers of progress – treatment; research; development; new amenities; support in the broadest psychological, institutional and physical sense – but always and in every way connected to the left leg (the gallery). And what connects them? The sphinx’s head, or the light-box: always looking west, towards a gathered and joint future: past and present gazing ahead to what’s next. Light is imparted to both sides by this gatherer and distributor of energy and inspiration in the form of physical and spiritual light (and isn’t light always a combination of the two?). The center is the light, and light is always now: the present. In this way, the head, or light-box, of this modern sphinx, is an eternal torch, by day and by night, for concentrated perpetuity. There always has been and always will be riddles endemic to the Barnes collection and foundation – but riddles may be solved. And the hope is that, like the curious androgyny, this sphinx also has ambidextrousness: neither past nor future pulling ahead, but always remaining balanced in this symbolic, future-gazing sphinx of the Parkway.

(Next post: investigating how Ellsworth Kelly's Barnes Totem extends this symbol of the new building, and the human experience therein.)


CO Flag: now in Indiana

CO Flag, enamel on found door panel, 2004. Collection of Mennonite Church USA.

 Hi friends. An older painting of mine has been accepted into the (brand new) collection of artwork in the (also brand new) building of the Mennonite Church USA headquarters in Elkhart, IN. Below is the short blurb to help viewers engage with the (admittedly) minimal image. I'd be interested in your feedback, as well.

Several years ago, I was working my way through a book by Perry Bush, entitled Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America, a study of the gradual transition of Mennonites from quietism to active pacifism, and happened upon a passage which piqued my interest on the psychological impact of color. During World War II, when there was a heightened animosity against conscientious objectors, an Ohio Mennonite place of business had, overnight, been splashed with a can of yellow paint. Yellow has long been associated with cowardice, and this is likely what the perpetrator was intending to convey. Being from the (at least outwardly) more politically-tolerant east coast, I was unfamiliar with this discriminatory practice, and it struck me as an opportunity for artistic experimentation.

My artistic approach has become fairly minimal, that is using a minimum of materials and components to convey a maximum of expression, so that connections often need to be sussed out by the viewer. This piece, CO Flag, was made easier by the fact that a friend of mine, knowing that I enjoyed painting on and engaging with found objects in my work, had given me an aluminum screen door panel, stamped with an iconic "barn-door" pattern. I decided to use it to experiment with the possibilities of yellow. The thought process was something like this: if one assumes that the perpetrator of the yellow-paint vandalism was doing that action because of perceived patriotism, and if one also assumes that the Mennonite victim of this crime also was, in their own way, trying to be a good citizen, what might be an expressive icon or symbol of that unusual common ground? In other words, what kind of flag (a calling-card of patriotism) would a conscientious objector (CO) have, or choose to have? And of course a little artistic tongue-in-cheek approach doesn't hurt.

Re-appropriating the cowardly color yellow, I made it the primary color of this flag, and squeezed it into a very basic representation of the American flag, and painted it on a door panel: another re-appropriation. One piece of advice to discriminated people is to take back something that was taken away, and make it new. This is also a part of the Gospel: old things have passed away; the new is here! My hope is that some of these connections were successful in this painting, and that it goes on as an encouragement to creative discussion -- and creation.

March 31, 2012.


Essay: Karla Siegel Paintings at Artspace Liberti

Untitled, 2011, Karla Siegel

Below is an essay I was commissioned to write for friend and fellow studio mate, Karla Siegel. The show just opened up this past Friday; please go see it and support not only her work but Artspace Liberti in Fishtown. I think this is some of the best stuff I've written recently...

It's a matter of belief then. Do you believe that what this picture is showing you is true; that it truly exists or once existed? Do you believe that the artist is being sincere in their motive, approach, and depiction? When light, which is a major problem (in the sense of an experiment or challenge) in Karla Siegel's work is invited, even encouraged, to have its way, the question must be asked: what do you believe? It's probably too philosophical a beginning for most of us, but nevertheless underlying all vision lies the question of belief. And when an artist such as Siegel, doubly a painter, invites light into the mix as powerfully as she has, the questions crop up.
    Light makes painting not only beautiful, but also confusing; it imparts order as well as chaos. Take an example from art history; say, Impressionism. This movement was brief as far as movements go, but at its heart it was interested in the same thing painting has been interested in all along: the capturing of an essence. Impressionist painters went about it by, as some critics spit at the time, "flinging” their paint-pots at canvas. Despite the ironclad acceptance now of Impressionism, these critics were not far from the truth. These painters – Monet, Pissarro, et al – were often working so ardently to capture and encapsulate the play of light creating and destroying form, they nearly were flinging paint in their zeal to stop light and time in their tracks. (Of course flinging with intent, and without, makes all the difference here). Monet, for example, was so doggedly after the enigma of light, that he did several scenes – one of the most haunting and well-known being the haystacks – over and over, in this light and that, one day after the other. Siegel's painting is rooted directly in the traditions of painting: she says as much herself. Portraiture and still-life are the two expressions of painting that are most obvious here. But, as mentioned before, she is most deeply rooted in the more primal – more human, you might even say – painterly instinct, that of pursuing and subduing the essential element of light. But how exactly – and how does Siegel call us to belief through her paint?
    One method is layering. Time and light have been companions throughout the history of art – one example has been mentioned already. In some cases, the artist attempts to stop time, or at least express the effect of a set time period of light upon paint. In other cases, time is less linear and more layered, something like the difference between a cupcake and a layer cake. The former is heat, time and materials all running parallel in one take; the latter is again the product of heat, time and materials running the same way, but then separated and stacked to create an entirely different result – and reaction. Siegel's portraits are the layer cake: we see different time + light creations piled or layered upon each other. And the technique and perspective reiterate this: in several paintings the face comes up close, very close to the painting surface, becoming muddled and thick in its execution; in others the outlines of shoulder, neck, and head are recognizable, but they are cut from the up-close detail of another face, like a small profile snipped out of a larger image from a magazine. Another of the portraits has a pulled effect, not unlike taffy, that moves the figure up into the blocks of light suggesting a large studio window. The figure, though owing a bit to Bacon, is more calm than his tortured, drawn figures. Even here though, one intuitively picks up on the layers of reaction to light that Siegel has percieved, and subsequently sandwiched into the picture.    
    A second tactic of Siegel's to subduing the enigma of light can be seen in her still-life-inspired abstracts, which suggest not only fountains, bouquets and blooms; but also driveway fireworks and bright, smoky explosions. Earlier mention was made of the action of light through paint at times creating confusion or chaos. In the still-lifes, Siegel is not actually trying to confuse or unsettle the viewer; rather she, like any good artist or scientist, is attempting to solve a problem – and here one problem is fresh depiction. And the approach chosen is to de-clarify; to make indistinct; to obfuscate. But why? One cannot really know; often even the artist can't articulate their own reasoning. Here's a shot, however: consider the full-on, noonday sun. It is blazing; crippling; impossible to look upon fully without pain and damage. If one made an attempt to do so, it would literally blind you – just as omniscience would implode our understanding. In other words, humans are incapable of the full absorption of light's power; of full absorption of worldly knowledge – we are too corporeal. But...what of those hazy and foggy days when the sun is obscured; covered by a scrim of moisture, smoke or steam? Now, the sun – the full sun – can be gazed upon with no damage! Its spherical contour can be made out through the haze – one element of the sun's existence does not escape us. In the case of Siegel's still-lifes, the full knowledge of the scene or source would not actually be physically injurious to us – from human to human, pure knowledge and vision do not function that way. However, without Siegel's haze of paint; scrim of manipulation; we would be stymied by too much – too much information; too much direct representation – we'd not be asked to do any work. As with the full-on sun, we'd be blinded by our own visual callousness. But through obfuscation and haziness, Siegel tells us less, and the painting teaches us more. And as with the hazy sun, one element at least does not escape us. This is the part of the basic paradox of art that Siegel so adeptly and consistently dips into.
    Finally, Siegel captures light by doing exactly that: collecting it, largely in the impasto of her portraits, but also more subtly in the delicate washes and glazes in the still-life abstracts. This occurrence came while looking at them closely: the impasto, lain horizontally, vertically, diagonally this way and that, captures, gathers, and intensifies the cast light from sources both natural and artificial, much like a screen or colander captures grit or grains on its grid, creating independent patterns and intensifying the light's power in particular areas, as well as modulating the surrounding and underlying colors. This uncovers an approach to the original question of belief: this collecting and emitting of light –as nearly physical as is possible without a filament or diode – underlines emphatically the base materiality of the work. Thus an utterly material attribute of the painting – the impasto paint with its furrows, hills and dales – is capturing and enlarging the effect of a highly immaterial entity: light. Here is where the enigmas might clash. But because of this sudden kiss of the material and immaterial, we find ourselves able to answer to a point, perhaps timorously, perhaps boldly: "I believe – but help me with my unbelief!"

Timothy Gierschick
January, 2012

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