Friday, February 27, 2015

A Little Inspiration

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Par. It might be okay in golf, but par sucks in the art world. Artists don’t create art to be average or acceptable or tolerable. We want to bring a vision to the viewer that is unforgettable and impressive and lasting. Par simply won’t do.

If you make the rounds at all in the art world, be it art shows, galleries or museums, you assess pieces according to the standards filed away in your noodle. Hopefully, most of what you see is way above par. Hope, however, is not always buoyed by reality.

I sometimes feel as if there is an ever-growing heap of sub-standard pieces in the art world’s dumpster. Lack of polish and lack of self-imposed quality control is the biggest producer of junk that should never see a gallery wall. And yes, I make my fair share of contributions to the dumpster.

One very real reason for stumbling on the path to artistic excellence is our fallen world. Simply put: We are flawed from the git-go, and so is everything we make. We can in no way create anything as has The Creator.

Another reason is our acceptance of our below-par condition. We prefer to wallow in it. We rely too heavily on the work of fellow fallen artists for inspiration, are sometimes left uninspired, and then follow suit by producing our own uninspiring art. Sadly put: We have taught ourselves to aspire to par. Or less.
“Fighting Temeraire,” by J.M.W. Turner. 1839.
(National Gallery, London)

Readers aspire to the romantic pages of a Jane Austin novel, not daring to imagine life’s circumstances being more deliciously romantic or exquisitely heartbreaking. They are. We limit ourselves to the experience and imagination of one writer. Likewise, art lovers laud a Turner sky, accept his vision as wonderful, and overlook the reality of The Lord’s creation. We approve Turner’s canvas, but cannot fathom the fact that there has been sunrise and sunset simultaneously and continuously since The Lord first put in place a light to govern the day. And each sunrise and sunset is far more glorious than any facsimile – even by Turner.

We can aspire to greater design and tightly hold to excellence, but instead we applaud a minimalist sculpture with few features save a poorly-welded joint. We heap praise on representational works that can’t possibly hold a candle to their physical counterparts. We hand out awards endlessly. Everyone gets a gold star in this messed up, fallen world.

But I didn’t start this essay to be such a downer. On the contrary, we CAN certainly do a bit better. Someone needs to tell me and my fellow artists to aim a little higher, even if that someone is me. Every writer who has guts will hand their final draft and a red pen to an honest person for serious critiquing, and every artist who is worth anything will take time to step back from a piece, put it in front of a mirror and look for flaws. Being an artist isn’t so much creating a mark as it is correcting the same. One need only look at radiographs of paintings or inspect preparatory drawings to see where the masters made corrections in the pursuit of perfection – well, as-close-as-we’re-gonna-get perfection.

Facing the reality of a flawed piece is not for the easily intimidated. It takes thick skin. One of my greatest lessons happened when an art professor told the class to destroy drawings we had been laboring over for two days. It didn’t matter if our feelings were hurt. We were working hard at being average, and average wouldn’t do. It still won’t.

It’s simple ballistics, really. If you aim at the middle of the target with no adjustment for distance, you will hit low. That’s because there’s this thing called gravitational pull. There are all kinds of things that act as gravitational pull for artists, the strongest of which is sloppy acceptance of the norm. Artists needn’t give in to that pull. Aiming for the equivalent of artistic par will only result in missing the target entirely.

Instead, recalibrate your artistic sights for that next piece and ignore what others have done. Then come out with both barrels blazing. I promise I will do the same.

Friday, February 20, 2015

A Zero for Presentation

"View of the Grand Salon Carr in the Louvre." 1861.
by Giuseppe Castiglione. Not the best way to view art,
but pieces were given respect.
Copyright © Edward Riojas

I don’t often get out, but when I do and a fine dining establishment is on the itinerary, then I have expectations.  Among those expectations is a respectable presentation of food. The entree should be nicely arranged on a real plate and not hanging off the edge of a styrofoam circle.

We expect the same in personal appearance. Most everyone has basic standards when it comes to personal hygiene, and women ramp up those standards to nose-bleed heights. A member of the fairer sex doesn’t just throw on makeup – the process is time-honored and time-consuming. Neither is a beautiful face left to be framed by hat head or pillow head or a rat’s nest.

The same goes for a piece of art – or at least it should. High standards for presentation were once observed in the grand art salons of Europe, but apparently that excellence is now considered gauche in modern galleries. Art frames used to be furniture for the wall, echoing the style of the day, be it Gothic or Baroque or Rococo. Based on current trends, it is clear we have opted for the absence of style.

The fashion among cutting-edge artists is to shun frames and, apparently, all common sense. This becomes more obvious with each art show I attend. Paintings historically had enormous frames. They eventually adopted less ornate ones, then simple strips of “lath” were considered sufficient. Now a canvas might sport painted edges – if it sports anything at all.

Likewise drawings, which used to be sealed behind glass and mattes and frames, are now crucified to gallery walls by push pins and thumb tacks. The job once tackled by framing masters can now be done by the gallery handyman.

“Hey George, waddya think will work on dat big sketch – some sinkers or penny nails?”

“Nah. There’s some duct tape in my box.”

It’s like artist’s brains have seized up. They want to create such absurdly-large works that they ignore how best to present them. Sadly, presentation is often on the far edge of an artist’s radar screen. Sometimes there isn’t even a blip.

What is sadder than an artist’s lack of presentation skills is their ignorance of conservation.

Frames serve a real purpose. They are protection for the artwork contained therein. A canvas’s stretcher frame is given greater rigidity with the addition of an outer frame, and that rigidity is amplified by increasingly-massive frame designs. It’s hard to ignore the fragility of a canvas while toting it around in a frame weighing as much as a sofa.

For drawings, the addition of mattes and glass increases the protection. Not only are the artwork’s edges fully protected, but it becomes nearly impossible to touch the drawing that is susceptible to many things, including corrosive oils contained in a human’s nasty paws.

Another function of frames is to delineate the boundaries of the art, respective of the environment in which it hangs. Like the china in a fine restaurant, a frame keeps the artwork where it belongs and visually separates it from everything else that is not part of the artwork.

“You may come this far, but no farther...” Thus spoke The Creator, recorded in the book of Job, when commanding primordial elements into existence. In essence, that is similar to the purpose of a frame – to delineate the boundaries of an art piece and allow the viewer’s eye to give art the respect it deserves. Then again, perhaps the creators of these pieces don’t expect much respect. If that is the case, we may certainly oblige.

"Elephants." 2012. by Adonna Khare. The edge of a drawing should not appear this way in public – much less in a gallery.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Artsy Pairings

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Some things just go together – love and marriage; horse and carriage; pizza and beer. One needn’t try very hard to find wine suggestions for entrees on a restaurant menu. It seems most folks like pairings, and welcome suggestions for the same.

Fine art and music are sometimes described in similar ways. “Tone,” “color” and “line” are but a few words that characterize both music and art. Pairing the two, therefore, seems natural and appropriate. Both can evoke emotions and can take us on imaginary journeys, and the combination of complimentary pieces can be a delicious feast for the mind.

My own tastes are inclined toward deeper flavors – very deep. I’ve tried, but “subtle” simply isn’t in my repertoir. Neither is “delicate.” Maybe it’s a guy thing or a curmudgeon thing. Some might call them epic or rich or even indulgent, but most of the five pairings I’ve chosen for our consideration are bound to sink into your mind and not easily let go.

To make this work, you’ll have to manage a couple of windows – click on the highlighted song title for the sound, and click on the images to get a closer view. And please don’t rely on the forty-nine cent speakers installed in your computer that make everything sound like a McDonald’s drive-through. Make your experience memorable. Either don a pair of headphones or use fancy-schmancy speakers with surround sound. Then crank them up enough to make the windows rattle.

We begin with a couple of regal pieces – Salvadore Dali’s “Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus,” 1959, (Salvador Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, Fla.), paired with “Storm” from the soundtrack of “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” written by Craig Armstrong and A.R. Rahman.  One is, of course, based on the history of England and the other deals with the history of Spain and the New World, but these two opulant pieces play nicely together without sinking an Armada. Pay attention to the higher vocal parts and the deep undertones of the music and see if, like me, you start assigning sounds to different parts of the painting. Dali’s ‘Discovery’ reflects one facet of the surrealist’s work in which layer upon visual layer play with the mind. He borrows images from his other work, and indulges – as he frequently did – in making sure his beloved wife and muse, Gala, figures prominently in the painting. I love the themes of glorious victory and tragic defeat that are woven into the fiber of both pieces.

For a second pairing, I’ve taken two examples that share elements of romance and magic. Both pieces hint at a large story spilling beyond their respective frames, and in that sense they are narrative. William Waterhouse’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” 1893, (Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt, Germany), uses John Keats’ ultimately woeful ballad as the painting‘s subject. Waterhouse was among the Pre-Raphaelite group of artists who leaned heavily on romantic idealism drawn from myth and legend. The same legendary theme flows through Philip Glass’s “The Orange Tree” from the soundtrack of “The Illusionist.” A delicate celesta plays with a galloping tempo, suggesting a fleeting romantic moment on the edge of danger. Both pieces exude a deliciousness that is hard to ignore.

Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” was a shoe-in for the next pairing. The incredibly heart-breaking strain of Barber’s well-known piece translates well into my own piece, “Ecce Homo,” 2014, (the artist's collection). This pair is best left to be experienced and not described. If you don’t understand them, you either lack a brain or heart – or both.

We return to Dali’s portfolio for a fourth pairing. “Anthropomorphic Cabinet,” 1936, (K20, Dusseldorf, Germany), shows a far different facet of Dali’s work than our earlier ‘Discovery of America.’ This painting pulls from his nightmarish, Freudian side. Dali began life by being named after a brother that died in infancy, so we can‘t fault him too much if it appears he isn’t working with a full deck. Like James Horner’s “The Car Chase” from the soundtrack of “A Beautiful Mind,” the painting is a tad off-center. It is unnervingly beautiful, but we know that something is not right, and we are allowed to stumble in a quagmire of emotions askew. The surrealism of this Dali is more about haunting questions allowed to rot, rather than a resolution of any kind.

To cleanse our palate of the previous rich offerings, I thought I would end with a much lighter pairing. I’ve put the French standard, “J’Attendrai,” performed by Alison Burns and Martin Taylor, along side Vincent Van Gogh’s “Café Terrace at Night,” 1888, (Kröller-Müller Museum, Netherlands). Both have that French, lighter-than-air vision which encourages us to enjoy life and not dwell too much on the darker side.

With Van Gogh’s undertones, however, even a cheerful café can get dicey and begin playing its own tune. Sheesh, now all I can think about while listening to “J’Attendrai” is a girl riding a red bicycle. A baguette and bottle of wine are in the bicycle's wicker basket, the girl's hair is tied back and there's a smile on her face.

Sorry Vincent – a little French tune just passed you by.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Midas Touch. Not.

No cheesy art was harmed in the making of this slightly silly illustration (The Art Curmudgeon)
Copyright © Edward Riojas

It’s everyone’s dream: We go to a garage sale, buy a cheesy print of dogs playing poker, and take it home. We remove the crappy print to re-purpose the frame, discover a tiny Rembrandt sketch previously unknown to the art world, and make a bazillion dollars on a pawn shop reality show.

Wake up people! That only happens to bidders at a Christie’s auction who dish out a bazillion dollars for a wonderful Rembrandt and find another one hidden inside the frame. The only thing you’re going to find behind that painting of poker dogs is decades-old dust and ladybug bodies.

Everyone wants to discover a work by a famous artist, but here’s a question: Is EVERYthing an artist produces worthy of a museum? The answer is a definite “No.” And no, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus. So get over it. Why is it then, that I get a sinking suspicion most folks think art masters had some kind of golden touch?

As an artist, I know my limits, and I know those works of mine that fall far below the grade. Even MY grade. For some reason, my sub-par works never make it to the incinerator – mostly because they aren’t worth even that much effort. Those ugly things sit around, piled up in a corner, and continue to bug the crap out of me. My hope is that they are never discovered by some aunt who loves everything I do. My hope is that they never again see the light of day. But there’s always the chance that my worst works might end up in a garage sale, and some bargain hunter perchance will slither among the card tables and spy my trash. Then things will really get ugly.

I was once browsing through a museum’s exhibition on loan of Impressionism and came across a Degas that was embarrassing. No, it wasn’t a nude – it was just plain ugly. I mean, the thing was a mess. It certainly wasn’t the Degas that we all know and love. The clarity of color and vibrancy of life was poisoned by a smudge of black so obvious that it caused me to wonder why the artist was pissed off the day he worked on it. Yet the thing was proudly hung on the museum wall, and I had to ask myself, “Why?”

At some point, an expert on Degas decided that the work was, indeed, painted by the Impressionist master. No one ever thought to check where it was previously hung. My guess is that it was hung in the artist’s bathroom. Near the floor. And he “missed” a lot.

Artists, after all, are human. We have good days. We have bad days. This side of heaven, we are more apt to have an abundance of the latter. Not every doodle I’ve done as an artist is worthy of transferring to a canvas. Often a sketch isn’t even worth the effort of erasing. While I’m no master, I know that even the masters have done a doodle or two worthy of nothing greater than the city dump.

Apparently, that doesn’t stop art aficionados from clambering over every scrap of paper and searching for previously unknown pieces touched by the masters. Perhaps people simply want to claim ownership of something – ANYTHING – produced by an art genius. Perhaps folks want to completely reconstruct an artist’s life from bits and pieces of junk. At some point along the road, discerning folks need to use their noggins and give every piece of art its due. It may be worth its weight in gold, or it might not be worth a plug nickel.