Friday, November 27, 2015

Getting Back on the Horse

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Writer’s block is common. Perhaps it isn’t as common as you’d sometimes like, given this blog, but I digress. Among artists, the equivalent of writer’s block is often an ugly spectre. There are all sorts of reasons to leave the brushes untouched; to avoid an empty canvas.

It recently happened to me. Through a messy cocktail of disjointed ingredients, my paint and pencils and drawing board and easel were left unattended for months. First, it was the completion of a painting for ArtPrize that necessitated building a frame in my wood shop. Then there were scads of cruciform shapes to construct and painting surfaces to prepare. Then came ArtPrize. Then went ArtPrize. Then came a cold – thanks to ArtPrize. Then sleep – too much sleep.

I knew it was time to get back into the 3 a.m. groove, but the summer days had lapsed into darkening autumn days, which in turn produced lengthening shadows of excuses.

It took a monstrous effort, but I finally got up early one morning and began unscrewing caps off hardened tubes of paint. Pliers were needed on every tube. And I began to paint.

The simple act of laying on paint became the point. I didn’t need to do something exquisitely beautiful – I just needed to do something. It’s called discipline.
“St. Mark” (Work in progress,
from a Gospel Processional

In art school, I had to do 100 pages of sketches for each drawing class credit. Courses were worth four credits, and I once had to double up on the drawing credits. 800 pages of sketches in one semester, on top of everything else. The painful exercises were training for future days when inspiration was lacking. Don’t feel like doing much? Too bad.

On that early morning, a couple of hours after I began painting, I was looking at a diminutive face of a saint whose intelligent eyes seemed to ask, “Why didn’t you paint me sooner?” I didn’t answer. I just went on to paint the next face.

For writers, two words elegantly strung together are sometimes sufficient to get one’s feet back into the stirrups. For artists, perhaps it’s a couple of marks. But there is no way anyone will make two marks – unless they first make one.

Friday, November 20, 2015

For Thanksgiving

“Jesus Healing a Leper”
[Detail from the “Walters Manuscript”]
Coptic. 1684.
Copyright © Edward Riojas

If you’re like me, chances are you’ll head to church either this coming Wednesday night or the following morning to celebrate the National Day of Thanksgiving. And if your church is like mine and follows the prescribed Scripture readings of the Historic Lectionary, then you will probably hear the Gospel account of Christ healing the ten lepers.

At first blush, the Gospel reading is a bit weird for Thanksgiving, but when we settle our minds into a state of attentiveness and connect the dots, we once again remember how that one leper – the foreigner – came back to give thanks, while the rest of the thankless ingrates headed off in their new skins.

After church, we will go home and begin relishing a day off from work or perhaps a four-day weekend, and we will again be thankful. Before dinner, we will give thanks. Then everyone will eat too much. Afterwards, the guys will plop on the couch with more refreshments and watch their favorite football team lose again. A few will be thankful. Meanwhile, the gals will make plans to go purchase more crap that no one really needs. [“Thank you. It’s what I always wanted.”] If you haven’t yet gotten a hint that something is just a little ugly, start thinking about Black Friday. Yeah, I know, “Thanks a lot.”
“Sermon on the Mount” Cosimo Rosselli.
1481. (Sistine Chapel, The Vatican)

I was a little surprised when I went looking for artistic renditions of Jesus and the ten lepers. There is a glut of really tame images out there. Most of them show healed, healthy folk, sometimes with the token guy at Jesus’ feet. Everyone is squeaky clean, and the lepers have somehow gotten rid of their rags. Everyone is just a tad too happy.

Images that do show the ten lepers seem to follow a pattern set by Orthodox iconography. The afflicted are covered by red spots. Other than the spots, the figures look perfectly healthy. Chicken pox comes to mind.

I finally resorted to my own portfolio for leper images that were a bit more realistic. Executed in black and white, these pen and ink drawings hint at the disfigurement and helplessness that comes with being leprosy‘s victim.
[Two variations from the “Ecclesiastical Art”
Lectionary series] Edward Riojas.
(Collection of the artist)

I wondered why there is not more realistic depictions of the afflicted. Perhaps we are more taken by the power of Christ to heal than we are taken by His mercy. We like to see results. [“Give us a sign, Lord!”] We want to see the heavy-duty cure instead of a malady that causes disgust among men and necessitates the Mercy of our Lord.

But even what I tastefully executed does not do leprosy justice. Here’s some helpful advice: Don’t go surfing online for photos of the real deal this Thanksgiving when family members are passing around the mashed potatoes – someone will end up wearing the mashed potatoes. Leprosy is a hideous disease that runs a vicious attack at the body. Nerve impulses become short-wired so that victims don’t feel pain. At all. Vision and respiration become affected. Body tissues run amok in directions creation never intended. After a while, the victim’s body becomes ugly – with a capital “U.”

It’s no wonder Levitical Law prohibited lepers from worshiping and intermingling with the rest of society. If the priest said, “Get out,” then you left. It didn’t matter where, as long as it was out in the boonies. And you didn’t forget to ring a bell and yell at the top of your pained lungs so everyone knew where you were and where they shouldn’t be. Lepers gravitated toward each other because, even then, misery loved company. So it was that ten of them met Jesus.

They had been kicked out of the kingdom because they were infected. They were ugly. They didn’t realize they should feel the pain of their malady. They were nearly blind. Their condition only worsened as they hobbled through life, and they tried to cover up their own hideousness with filthy rags. They lived a life as outsiders in a hostile world. They announced their presence with bells, and cried, “Lord, have mercy!” from afar.

Some of this should start to sound uncomfortably familiar. Maybe, like me, you are starting to itch.

Our spiritual plight, apart from Christ, is far more leprous than its physical counterpart could ever get. Christ didn’t overturn the lives of ten guys with a bad cough or ten guys who could get better if they simply took more vitamins or exercised regularly or used more caution in life. The lepers were the walking dead. Without Christ, so are we.

It’s interesting that the account of the ten lepers is not a parable, but a reality in the life of Christ. Christ didn’t just spin a good yarn or paint a fine picture to make an important point. The ugly reality of the occurrence points to the uglier realities in our lives. It points to the inestimable Mercy of our Lord and our only Hope for the cure of our disease of sin. Knowing this is good reason to take pause in the respite of a day off or a long weekend, turn around, fall at the feet of Christ, and give thanks to the Provider of every good and perfect gift, including the unmerited gift of salvation.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Bad Art: Some Pretty Ugly Stuff

Copyright © Edward Riojas

“Madonna With Smile” was the first thing that caught my eye. And yes, it is ugly.
“Madonna With Smile”
Unknown artist.
(MOBA, Boston)

Sometimes artists get too caught up in the serious pursuit of perfection to notice the other side of life – not being serious at all. The other day I was surfing for art, and stumbled across the Museum of Bad Art. Located in Boston, MOBA celebrates some of the uglier pieces of art that missed getting carried out to the curb. The folks at MOBA make acquisitions at yard sales and resale shops, scraping the bottom of the creative barrel in a nearly cruel manner. ‘Madonna,’ with its Sharpie smile, is part of the museum’s permanent collection, and it’s guaranteed to make the viewer go, “What the?”

I was so inspired by the piece that I went surfing for some real gems. It’s easy – and mean – to poke fun at stuff  produced by folks who don’t have a lick of art education under their belts, which is what MOBA does. I decided to take a few jabs at the masters, who should have known better. Besides, most of them are dead and won’t give a rip about what I say, anyway.

Colonial art of the Americas is usually a good place to find bad art. Take the “Portrait of a Gentleman,” by an unknown artist. It can be seen in Colonial Williamsburg, but that doesn’t make it any prettier. There’s nothing handsome about a guy on a bad hair day who’s just come in from a hurricane. And, honestly, if you can’t center his eyes, Mr. Artist, then please do a profile.

“Portrait of a Gentleman”
Unknown artist.
(Abby Aldrich Rockefeller
Folk Art Collection, Colonial Williamsburg, Va.)

Of course, when colonial sacred art gets thrown into a blender with finger-puppets, you know things will not turn out well. That much is obvious in this unknown piece by an unknown artist from an unknown South American country. I’d be embarrassed, too.
Untitled. Unknown artist.
Date unknown. (Nowhere)
Next up is a piece by Bortolomé Bermejo de Cardenas. The artist apparently missed one or two anatomy classes before painting the Christ Child in his “Retable of the Virgin of Montserrat.” Of course, we can’t rule out a fixation with the movie “The Exorcist.” I know our Lord can do all things, but unhinging His scull for the artist’s amusement is highly, HIGHLY doubtful.
“Retable of the Virgin of Montserrat” [Detail.]
Bortolomé Bermejo de Cardenas. 1485.
(Acqui Cathedral, Acqui Terme, Italy)
Fra Filippo Lippi was a painter of all things sacred, and a big name in early Christian art. The monk didn’t get out much, so we can’t blame him for inviting the wrong crowd to this painting. Even the Virgin Mary is baffled. Jesus, who looks like He’s already had too many Kit Kats, will probably never have a Halloween party again, thanks to Saint What’s-His-Face, who showed up sporting a cranial butcher knife.
“Madonna of Humility”
Fra Filippo Lippi. c. 1430.
(Castello Sforzesco, Milan
Albrect Dürer used the ugly trump card when dealing his painting, “Christ Among The Doctors.” It almost isn’t fair that the artist used cartoonish contrast in showing the Divine intelligence of Christ. The profiled doctor makes Homer Simpson look like a genius.
“Christ Among The Doctors”
Albrecht Dürer. 1506.
(Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid)
Some traditions of the Church just get out of hand.  According to some, li’l St. Nick was so pious that he refused his mother‘s milk during a Friday fast. Whatever. Looking at this piece by an unknown artist, I think he simply got pissed off after being turned into a loaf of French bread by his ugly witch-mom. Then again, maybe it’s her creepy earrings. Or those ceramic vases on her chest.
“St. Nicholas Refusing His Mother’s Milk”
Unknown artist. Unknown date.
Now lets pull out all the stops with Max Beckmann. I looked and looked. I finally found a work of his that wasn’t sadistic or malicious or controversial – I think. The work of this German Expressionist unmasks a less-than-pristine world, but enough already with trying to offend everyone on the planet. The only thing good about Max Beckmann’s work is: It isn’t done by his contemporary, Otto Dix.
“Before The Masked Ball”
Max Beckmann. 1922.
(Staatsgalerie Moderner Kunst, Munich)

NOW we’re talking ugly. Sheeesh. Before you all go hunting down prints of his no-man’s-land “Near Langemar, February 1918,” I should probably tell you that it will only get worse the farther you go skipping down Otto Dixville Lane. Don’t expect unicorns and marshmallow fluff. I’ve got the perfect place over my living room couch for Dix’s “Skull.” Maybe you should consider a similar piece. One never knows when a good conversation stopper is in order.
“Skull” Otto Dix. 1924.
(Museum of Modern Art. NY)
If you STILL haven’t gotten enough of the ugly, feel free to jump on the “Ugly babies of the Renaissance” bandwagon that’s running out of control in every corner of the web. I personally doubt that any Renaissance artist ever saw a child outside of the local freak show. The genre is top-heavy with ugliness, and it’s only a matter of time before the load spills over into every self-respecting gallery in town.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Of Permanence And Other Pursuits

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Some things don’t change at all – even after a year. Others are defined by an exquisite, fleeting moment.

Permanence is a goal among artists who want to leave a mark in the world. We usually don’t want those marks to be altered or smudged or rubbed out. Time in a broken world, however, tends to change everything. Deterioration happens. Things decay. Objets d’art can face the garbage heap after exposure to a harsh world. Thus, artists use the best materials and best practices to give pieces a fighting chance at longevity. Creating things just to have them fall apart and then get trashed usually is not an artist’s aim. Usually.
“The Crevasse” Edgar Müller.
2008 (Dun Laoghaire, Ireland)

Leave it to artists to tinker with ideas. That includes concepts like impermanence.

Sidewalk art is [pardon the pun] the most pedestrian form of impermanent art. Work like that of Edgar Müller is meant to wow the public with trompe l’oeil imagery and immediate access, the typical media – chalk and soft pastel – is susceptible to natural elements and, of course, the unnatural idiot. The first steady rain is enough to render sidewalk art a memory. Foot prints, bicycle tires and long board wheels give similar results.

If a sidewalk seems a questionable place to produce lasting art, then a beach is less so. Andres Amador goes with the ebb and flow of the tides when creating his “sand paintings.” Filling entire beaches with patterns defined only by disturbed and undisturbed sand, his work is hard to ignore. But incoming tides are blind to everything in their path, including an artistic vision of a solitary man.
“Beach Painting,” by Andres Amador.

There are, however, artists who take the impermanence-thing to rather unpleasant extremes. Forget sidewalks. Forget beaches. One need only mention words like excrement and putrid to realize there are fakes and charlatans, even within the highest art circles. But we aren’t talking about them – we are talking about the exquisite and thoughtful pieces of established artists who don’t need a bio-hazard to make an artistic statement.

Some of the most cutting-edge contemporary pieces totally ignore the longevity of materials in preference to immediacy of action and feeling. Archival quality? No. This is art at its most visceral state. This is art now. It may be hard for the casual viewer to seriously understand, much less enjoy, this kind of thing, but it is simultaneously a question and a statement: Is art enduring? The answer lies in the passing experience of art and its remembrance. Like a fading sunset, art is not always a thing of permanence. It’s inherent beauty is precisely because it is impermanent, and it begs to be fully enjoyed in the now.
“Salt & Earth: Garden for Patricia”
Young Kim. 2010.

The impermanence of art is not always subject to mindlessness or natural elements. Sometimes there is a great deal of thought behind extremely fragile art – and this is often inside environmentally-controlled spaces.

Young Kim’s “Salt & Earth: Garden for Patricia” was an installation that was an entry in ArtPrize 2010. It featured photographs of a woman with a debilitating illness and the garden she loved, each a calotype on granular salt and powdered earth and lit by individual light bulbs. The images faded over the course of the event’s three weeks. The fragile photographs, some carefully mounded but not roped off, were destined to be eroded by hundreds of thousands of visitors. And the intentional happened – fingerprints and hand prints. Some visitors gasped at a footprint.

Deliberate or not, the footprint and growing dishevelment was expected – and intended – by the artist. The piece pointed to the fragility of man and his tenuous existence. As humans, we are not permanent fixtures on this world. Kim’s installation capitalized on equally-fragile materials, and the point was well-made.
Hannah Bertram working on
“The Silence of Becoming and Disappearing”
(Courtesy of the artist)

Hannah Bertram pursues impermanence with some of her installations, using materials that are, in themselves, products of time. Using layered imagery and patterning with dust and ash, Bertram creates work that will, in time, revert to the original randomness of inert components. Using extreme patience and artistic skill, Bertram employs Baroque arabesques layered with equally elegant forms to create images precisely where foot traffic is heaviest. It takes great fortitude to put so much effort into a piece that is destined to be stepped on, kicked aside and finally swept up in a dust pan.

Some of Tina Tahir’s work follows a parallel path as Bertram’s fragile floor pieces, but Tahir’s work branches out in several directions. Some of her work uses powdered spices and equally-fragile materials in patterned floor installations reminiscent of ethnic carpet motifs. Other images allow organic forms to “infest” spaces. Yet other pieces make use of light-sensitive material that changes with the presence of viewers.
“Forty Increments” by Tina Tahir.
After 20 hours, at left, and after 110 hours. 2012.

“Forty Increments,” was an installation of decomposing, virtual wallpaper projected on a 12 by 40 foot wall, and making use of sensors to change the image. Drawing on an exquisite definition of fragility, the patron didn’t even have to touch the piece – only be present in the same environment – to affect change.

Many of these impermanent works defy classification. They aren’t necessarily 2-dimensional, because they invite space and environment. Neither are they sculptural, for they simultaneously deny space and eventually have little presence at all, much less volume. If anything, they are kinetic, but their movement is on a near-molecular level. They are the sort of thing that invites and demands revisiting, again and again, to fully appreciate this ethereality of art.