Friday, January 30, 2015

For Darkest Winter

Monet's "Rouen Cathedral, Sunlight"

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Sometimes I assume too much. I forget that not everyone is as happy-go-lucky as an art curmudgeon. I forget that not everyone appreciates a pointed tongue, even when it is firmly in cheek. I also forget that not everyone copes as easily as I do with the darkness of winter, when the depressing elements and shortened days allow me to work at a more fevered pitch, but when the same season severely limits the functions and attitudes of others. For those feeling trapped by this seemingly unrelenting season, today’s blog is for you.

Without light, artists are pretty much helpless – and useless. We use light to create illusions – of which all art is – and the same light is necessary for viewers to appreciate the art we create. Winter depletes light from our world like a brand-new, energy-efficient bulb, but we need light to survive – and cope. There are all kinds of light, from the dim, shadow-casting variety that fuels brooding souls, to the day-flooding sort that lifts sun-starved spirits.

Monet's "Woman with a Parasol"

Let’s take a heavy dose of the latter and add some lumens to our day. But please, let’s sidestep the painter of [b]light and his pseudo-nostalgic rays issuing from Victorian street lamps and windowed candle stands. The Impressionists are a much better bunch on which to focus our attention. Besides, they aren’t trademarked or shrink wrapped. We’re talking about serious artists who knew the subtleties of the day’s ever-changing light, who understood its effect on our world, and who chased light with a passion. So grab a cup of cocoa or, better yet, a Margarita, and join me in the sun room of Impressionism.

First on my list is Claude Monet. Famous for his painting series in which he followed the sun’s daily progression on stationary objects, this artist gave us a true impression of the light itself without belaboring details. “Rouen Cathedral, West Facade, Sunlight,” 1894, (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.) is perfect for our consideration. The light is intense in this painting and floods the cathedral’s stonework with whites and pale yellows. Unlike other paintings from the cathedral series, the sun is near it’s zenith, pushing ambers into the facade’s shadowy violets and blues. Monet’s handling of paint creates a shimmering effect, and one can almost sense heat radiating from the hallowed walls.
Sisley's "Church of Moret"

Another Monet painting that can lift spirits is his earlier painting, “Study of a Figure Outdoors: Woman with a Parasol,” 1886, (Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France). Again, the impressionistic light is intensely bright, and clouds, clothing and wildflowers all play in an early summer breeze. The gestural image evokes not only sights of midday, but also teases our senses with imagined sounds and smells, and we are transported out of our perpetual snowbank into marvelous warmth.

Alfred Sisley, a fellow French Impressionist, painted “Church of Moret,” 1893 (Musee des Beaux-Arts, Rouen, France) with a similar flavor as Monet’s ‘Rouen Cathedral.’ Rendered a bit more tightly than Monet’s cathedral, light caresses the massive building. This time the sun is lower in the sky, intensifying the color. In fact, it is earlier in the season – perhaps much earlier. The ground seems snow-covered, but gives up cool colors to ambers and warm siennas. Light saturates the church’s stonework and invades the cityscape. Warm light, coupled with a clearing sky, gives viewers the promise of fairer seasons to come.

Given that hope, darkest winter can be kept in proper perspective. If necessary, shutter winter’s bleak silhouettes and somber shadows, put on some soft piano music and cozy up to a good book or studio easel. And remember the impressions of summers past from the likes of Monet and Sisley, while enjoying the season’s hushed gentleness. The hectic days of coming seasons will arrive in their own time, and will make us yearn for the solitude that is now ours.

Friday, January 23, 2015

His Greatest Work

Mucha advertising art for Job cigarette papers
Copyright © Edward Riojas

An old tale has an inquisitive person asking the artist, “Which is your greatest piece?” The artist responds, “My next one.”

Yeah, it’s a bit schmaltzy, but there is a grain of truth in that worn-out anecdote. It’s not often that an artist feels as if he’s already done his best, that nothing greater can happen and it’s time to hang up the old brushes. I know because I am an artist. Sure, artists all have personal faves in which everything seemed to gel. That somehow doesn’t cause us to stop doing what we love. There is always a new idea so great that we feel obliged to flush it out of our brain and wrestle it onto a canvas or a sheet of paper or a block of stone. That next piece is a siren we cannot ignore.

Unfortunately, the choosing of an artist’s greatest work in not up to the artist. That label of “his  greatest work” is always foisted on the artist, most often after his death, by either the stupid art world or the fawning masses. It doesn’t matter what the artist feels about his choice. At all.
"The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia," from "The Slav Epic"

An interesting case in point is the work of the Czech painter Alphonse Mucha, who produced work 100 years ago. His name is well known among artists today, and his art is familiar to the public even if his name isn’t. One might even call his images “iconic,” as they are closely related to Art Nouveau and the decorative arts, and in some ways define the styles. His pieces are almost always figurative and feature alluring women of his day. Their wispy gowns flow in imagined breezes and are accentuated by formal arabesque design and opulent decoration. The pieces take us to the brink of sensory overload. But those pieces were eye candy intended to sway the purchasing power of consumers. They were advertising art. And they weren’t Alphonse’s faves.

The artist actually disdained the Art Nouveau style, and the latter part of Mucha’s life was devoted to a far-different project – a cycle of 20 monstrous paintings based on the struggle of the Slavic people, of which he claimed ancestry.  The cycle is known as “The Slav Epic.” It is jarring when looking at these images for the first time, especially after having Mucha’s advertising work engrained in our pea brains. The ‘Epic’ is as overlaid with realistic imagery as the artist’s advertising art is embellished with decoration. Diaphanous forms hover over layers of historical, mythological, and allegorical figures, all theatrically arranged in moody color. The depth of space and time pull the viewer deep into each overwhelming scene of tragedy and triumph. These are not the kind of paintings in which the viewer looks at them once and declares, “Meh.”

It is hard to put “The Slav Epic” into an artistic niche, mainly because Mucha wanted to paint as he saw fit without conforming to the style of his day. The cycle is certainly classical, but one can see connections – whether real or imagined – to other artists of his era and beyond, from the Pre-Raphaelite John William Waterhouse to the fantasy book cover illustrator Frank Frazetta.

Even without understanding Mucha’s passion for the history of his forebears, it is clear why the artist favored this ambitious body of work. But history is not always kind. Both the Nazis and subsequent Communist regimes did not hold Mucha with high regard, and “The Slav Epic,” which was supposed to be enshrined in a special pavilion upon completion, was first hidden from the authorities and then left to stagnate in storage for decades. The cycle finally came into the public light, but even now is haggled over by competing towns and institutions bent on permanently displaying the work that demands serious space. Perhaps once the lingering battles cease and the dust settles, the art world and the pedestrian masses will finally change opinions over which Mucha piece was the greatest. Then again, perhaps not.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Artist Statements: "Blah Blah Blah" Translated

Copyright © Edward Riojas

In researching the subject of artist statements, I waded through page after page of online hits dedicated to how-to’s for writing artist statements and generators that made the task of writing one even easier. That pretty much confirmed my suspicions that there is something stinky in the cesspool beneath artsy-fartsydom. Artist statements are somehow supposed to clarify an artist’s work. In theory, they explain the artist’s essence to any art show juror and thereby allow the cream of the art gene pool to float to the top. In reality, the only place they float is in a latrine.

The biggest problem with artist statements is that they ignore what art is – visual. That means we look at art. We don’t read it and we don’t listen to it. And if we don’t listen to it, then we certainly don’t want to listen to drivel gushing out of an artist’s pie-hole. If an artist must explain something about his work, then he has already failed miserably in whatever he has attempted.

However, it wouldn’t be fair if you only took my word that artist statements have gotten overly ripe. You be the judge and decide for yourself if the artist is being honest about their work. I’ve grabbed some excerpts from real artist statements and have presented them below. For those who fall asleep reading these masterpieces, I’ve also included a translation after each excerpt to save you the time otherwise lost forever to stupidity. I’ve also covered the shame of the artists and left the quotes anonymous...

“...Each of my projects serves as a means to connect the scientific concepts I admire with the visual metaphors that I crave, through which I enhance my own personal sense of understanding, while facilitating a dialog and shared sense of discovery with my audience and collaborators.”
TRANSLATION: I like science and want to make visual sense of it, so I talk about it with other idiots.

“I paint in order to see things that would not exist if I did not paint them... As I get older, it gets more difficult to write about my own work. However, the less I am able to articulate what I do, the more I trust in my process.....”
TRANSLATION: I make stuff up, and I don’t have a clue what I’m doing.

“No two voices are alike. No event is ever the same. Each intersection in this project is both made and found. All making is an act of attention and attention is an act of recognition and recognition is the something happening that is thought itself. As a bird whose outstretched wings momentarily catch the light and change thought’s course, we attend the presence of the tactile and perhaps most importantly – we attend to each other. If on a swing, we are alone, we are together in a field. This condition of the social is the event of a thread...”
TRANSLATION: We talk like snowflakes. Everybody recognizes something. I’m a bird.

”...These images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by desire – a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success. Our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction. For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times.”
TRANSLATION: These pictures mean something else. We are so messed up. I recycle.

“There are primitive animal instincts lurking in our own depths, waiting for the chance to slide past a conscious moment. The sculptures I create focus on human psychology, stripped of context and rationalization, and articulated through animal and human forms. On the surface, these figures are simply feral and domestic individuals suspended in a moment of tension. Beneath the surface they embody the impacts of aggression, territorial desires, isolation, and pack mentality...”
TRANSLATION: I might look like an artist, but I’m an aardvark or a mean barn cat or something.

The bottom line is: It is absurd to expect artists to step outside their discipline’s comfort zone and actually write something about art. Oops. Did I just write that?

Sunday, January 11, 2015


Copyright © Edward Riojas

Michelangelo famously said, “In 200 years no one will care.” That was his brazen response in the early 1500s to an irritated member of the ruling Medici family in Florence, who claimed that a particular funerary bust bore little resemblance to the recently-departed family member. Michelangelo was right. He was also wrong.

It doesn’t take a stretch to understand the profound loss surrounding a family death. Those feelings usually extend to memorializing the dead, from the smallest gesture to the most grandiose. The grieving don black arm bands, festoon the house with yards of black crepe, and buy hideous floral arrangements at exorbitant prices. To make the memories last, wealthy families sometimes commission memorials that are unforgeable, and size matters when it comes to a monument.

But monuments tend to be public, and the masses are not so affected by loss as is a family. The grandest of monuments become spectacles in themselves and lose the personal connection intended by a grieving family. The tombs in the Medici Chapel in Florence were no different. I’m sure few empathized with the grieving family by the time 20 years had passed. We look at the figures Michelangelo wrought and see the talent of the artist. We recognize little of the dead entombed there, and we could care less.

Not every culture is into grandiose monuments, and not every civilization has the benefit of being graced by an artist so talented and ambitious as Michelangelo. One would think that even ancient Egypt might side with Michelangelo’s pragmatic sentiment, as the civilization seemingly knew nothing but gargantuan scale and stylized human form. However, deep in the shadows of the pyramids of Kufu and Khafre and eclipsed by the Great Sphinx of Giza, there exists a small hiccup in time when the view of the dead was very different. Enter the Romano Egyptian era.

A kind of intense personal grief can be felt in the mummy portraits of this period. There is no trace of stylized portraiture from the centuries preceding. The polish of fine stone and the nose-in-the-air poses of elevated status are gone. But the faces of the dead weigh heavy on our hearts. The unforgiving encaustic process of infusing pigments in wax has left a richness of color and life that belies the muted corpse behind each portrait. We don’t see heroic visages  ̶  we see the wife down the street; we see the guy with the hearty laugh; we see the running child.

The odd effects of Roman influence on Egyptian culture produced this view of humanity that is stripped of pretentiousness and idealism. The reality of death and its affect on our fallen race hits home, and we feel as if these foreigners were family. Never mind their religious beliefs or political leanings or social standing. These were real people, and they are gone.

Perhaps Michelangelo’s Medici debacle was a self-fulfilling prophesy in leaving us devoid of feeling for the aristocratic family. We feel the effects of death over mankind, but we don’t feel the same for a man. One wonders what Michelangelo would have thought of those Egyptians whose timeless portraits still cause a twinge of sorrow more than 2,000 years after their demise.

Friday, January 2, 2015

When to Stop

Leonardo da Vinci's "Lady with an Ermine," left, and "Mona Lisa"
Copyright © Edward Riojas

The subject of stopping may seem a strange way to begin a blog, but more than one artist has brought up the issue, most often in a question, when talking about their own art: When should an artist stop working on a piece?

Art, after all, is not plumbing. No plumber wants to linger around the base of a toilet after calking its base. No plumber sits back and re-thinks a washer once it’s been properly installed. There is no guessing the time when a plumbing job is done. The same can be said of many other professions.

Artists, on the other hand, are more apt to wonder about the completeness of a project, and whether they have spent too little or too much time on a canvas. All artists hesitate toward the end of a project. Most second guess the finality of it. Some even fret over it. The ugly specter of a piece becoming “overworked” is always lurking in an artist’s mind.

Which brings us to what is inarguably the most famous work of art in the world  Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.” It has been celebrated, copied, and parodied to the point that it is nearly impossible to avoid its recognition. I am sure there is a shaman of some obscure Amazonian tribe with a tattoo of the Mona Lisa on his left buttock.

da Vinci spent eight years working on that portrait of Lisa del Giocondo. The true identity of the sitter has been disputed, but we’ll get to that later. For now, we can assume the artist had other things going on during the same time, what with dissecting cadavers, inventing battle tanks and schmoozing with Italian nobility.

Let’s also assume for a moment that Leonardo da Vinci had a friend named Guido.  I often wonder why Guido didn’t take his artist-friend aside and say, “Leo baby, give it up on Mona already.” Guido should have stepped  in during year two, and perhaps even earlier. In my opinion, da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” is overworked. And ugly.

Now before you drag me outside the city walls and stone me for such artistic blasphemy, let an art curmudgeon give his nickel-worth of reasoning. And while you wipe the angry froth from your mouth, let me pull out another of da Vinci’s works for equal consideration his “Lady with an Ermine.”

There is no doubt a great deal of mastery involved in much of the “Mona Lisa.” The background and drapery follow the conventions of that which was considered high art during the Italian Renaissance. Not so much the face. I find it strange that so much speculation surrounds the mystery of the smiling subject that it extends to ideas of self-portraiture, the artist’s mother and, if I may offer my own speculation,  a monkey at the local zoo. The fact that the subject’s identity is questioned is reason enough for suspicion. She looks like no one and she looks like everyone. That is not how portraits are painted.

Now let’s take a gander at “Lady with an Ermine.” There is no doubt that we are looking at a specific person in time.  We admire her features. We might even lament that she is no longer with us. But we don’t wonder if da Vinci was trying to put himself in that face. There isn’t a trace of his mother’s expression. There is no monkey face. Why?

The simple reason is that da Vinci knew when to cease work on the ‘Ermin Lady,’ but didn’t know when to stop working on the “Mona Lisa.” For some odd reason, he got hung up on getting something right in the expression or in the woman’s features. And for some odd reason, most smart folks are blind to that flaw.

Thankfully, there is a litmus test that can be applied to the “Mona Lisa” and “Lady with an Ermine” which settles the overworked ugliness argument. That test can be put in a question: Guys, which of the two women would you ask out on a date? I thought so. And don’t even think of inviting me on a double date.