Friday, August 26, 2016

The Nude and Nudity

Copyright © Edward Riojas
“Adam and Eve”
Lucas Cranach the Elder. c. 1509.
(Musée des Beaux-Arts et d'Archéologie,
Besançon, France)

Leave it to a sacred artist to open a can of worms.

Sooner or later – probably while trying to overdose your kids on culture at the art museum – you and yours will be exposed to a nude. It will be one of those situations – like a tornado-laden, pyroclastic tsunami – for which you did not prepare. You brought the Band-Aids and stashed the bee sting kit in your purse, but child-size blinders are hard to come by. Sometimes, so are explanations.

This post, however, isn’t so much about answers as it is about some thoughts behind, um, all those behinds.

Like it or not, the subject of the nude has been around since Adam and Eve. It’s the Fall that ruined things and screwed up our perception of God’s greatest creation in its original form. Even sacred depictions of Mr. and Mrs. Adam usually avoid full, frontal nudity. For all children know, the first couple were always up to their armpits in foliage.
“The Birth of Venus” Sandro Botticelli.
c. 1486. (Uffizi, Florence)

Some things, however, cannot be forever avoided. That includes the nude. The road of avoidance and unbending prudishness can take an ugly turn, ending up in a dead-end where the female body must be covered, head to toe, and death be dealt to those who think otherwise. On the other hand, we cannot this side of heaven return to our roots, get all hippy-like, and display our endowments willy-nilly.

Context is a major key, and each piece must be judged on its own merits. Paintings of fully-clothed figures, for example, can be more provocative than sans-garment counterparts. Some nude studies are so dispassionate that they barely [pun intended] get noticed. The “form vs. function” idea becomes imperative when discerning viewers ask WHY a piece was produced. The human body is without doubt the crown of The Lord’s creation. Scripture bears this out. It should not be so strange, therefore, that artists find its form so noble a subject when getting “creative.”
“Elle n'a fait que passer” by Luis Treserras.
Clothed or otherwise, the line between
photograph and painting becomes blurred
at the hand of this contemporary,
masterful technician.

Art schools that are worth their weight offer prerequisite figurative classes. Some art programs also insist on taking anatomy courses from the science department. As in medicine, it is impossible to artistically understand the human body without being exposed to it wholly, and those who have somehow avoided that exposure are themselves easily exposed.

The human body as an artistic genre is often a natural selection beyond academia. Indeed, some artists produce figurative work throughout entire careers. Figurative realism takes cues from centuries-old classical artists that run the gamut from Cranach and Botticelli to Ingres and Waterhouse. Among contemporary adherents are the likes of Luis Tresarras, Al Saralis, Kamille Corry and Jacob Collins. Each of these artists show that exacting excellence and exquisite beauty do matter in an age when too often an awkward splattering of paint takes center stage, making us cringe with embarrassment.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Artistic Movements You've Never Known

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Picasso had his Blue Period, his Rose Period and even his African-inspired period, and was a member of the Cubist Movement. The Baroque Style had its adherents, such as Diego Velázquez and Nicolas Poussin, as did the Gothic Period, including Claus Sluter and Fra Angelico. There have been Mannerists and Surrealists, and members of the Blue Rider group, the Ashcan School, and the Hudson River School, but what about the Bozo School?
“Blue Horse I” Franz Marc. 1911
(Lenbachhaus, Munich)
Marc was a member of
Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider).

Lest we inundate ourselves with too many artistic superstars and art movements carrying the Artsy-Fartsy Housekeeping seal of approval, it is only appropriate that we consider some of the unheralded periods of art throughout history and in our own time. What follows is a scant listing of not-so-important artistic epochs, periods, and movements. I’ve included a brief description of each that will certainly come in handy during your next social function.

The Bozo School: This is perhaps the only art movement fed by a phobia. And if one clown painting isn’t enough, the digression went first to two, then three, until a whole Big Top of grease-painted monstrosities entered our every nightmare.

The Chartreuse Period: I would say that Picasso enjoyed this period, but he didn’t. Too many jalapenos, too much Cheese-Wiz, and not enough Pepto-Bismol after a night of drinking. “Guernica,” however, was probably the result of the same.
“Both Members of this Club”
George Bellows. 1909.
(National Gallery of Art, D.C.)
Bellows was a member of
The Ashcan School.

The Reddish-yellow, But-not-quite-Brown Era: Most everyone likes this era. Not. It centered around artist wanna-bees who turned their palettes into visual mud pits while mixing together all their favorite colors. Including chartreuse.

The Yarn Style: An art style with fashion leanings, this took the Granny Square to new depths, traversing philosophical questions from “Who seriously thought Granny Square swim trunks would hold their shape in water?” to “When did my swim trunks become a tourniquet for my waist?,” and other things. Mostly, we now look at the hideous constructions produced by the style and shudder.

Confusionist School: Framed within the context of unrealized talent and laziness, this became a fungicidal group for those who aspire to little and produce less, but somehow manage to create a following. Their rhetoric and applications for art grants produces laughter in most corners, excepting art critics and mindless TV talk show hosts.
“Composition VII”
Wassily Kandinsky.1913.
(The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)
Kandinsky was a member of
Der Blaue Reiter, but also created
non-objective pieces.

Discombobulists: A co-movement of the Confusionists, these artistic cousins will never hit the talk show circuit, and are proud of it. Members of the movement spend untold years undoing old art, only to recreate the same crap in cyclical fashion. Most of their time is spent re-naming the same pieces, and arguing that chartreuse is not really a color.

The Bile Movement: Not to be confused with Non-objectivism... okay, go ahead and confuse the two... this movement came at either end of a long journey pitting radically bad taste against urges to forego all modicum of decency, within the confines of deeply-seated thinking and porcelain ceramics.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Wrapped up in Paper

Copyright © Edward Riojas
Arches watermark near
the sheet’s deckled edge

Like all artists, I appreciate a fine sheet of paper. You can have your ream of 8 1/2 by 11 goldenrod – I prefer something much larger that is hand-made, with a natural deckle and a watermark in the corner. Artists get snobbish that way.

In order to produce excellent art, one must start with excellent material. In the case of paper, that means spending extra to obtain a sheet made by methods honed for more than a thousand years. Put away thoughts of deforestation and think “rags.” Today that might come in something made from 100% cotton rag. In years past, a similar product might be linen-based.

Papermaking at one time moved in a completely different orbit. The language was equally foreign. The process included retting, bucking, souring and stamping. “Improvements” came in the form of the Hollander beater. Among those employed at paper mills were sorters, vatters, couchers (pronounced "coochers") and glaziers. Sure, papermaking necessitated fibrous material and water, but don’t forget gelatin made from rabbits and eels or, in cheaper products, the feet and ears of oxen and cartilage from old animals.
Close-up of a Fabriano screen,
showing how its watermark
is attached

Speaking of animals, don’t confuse paper with other materials that serve a similar purpose. Parchment is the laboriously-processed hide of young mammals, and vellum is the same made exclusively from calfskin. Of course, these names annoyingly find their way as labels for specialty paper made from, of all things, trees.

Papyrus technically isn’t paper, either. It is more like a very delicate plywood, in that it’s fibrous layers run in perpendicular directions to each other. Paper fibers, on the other hand, are random in orientation. And, yes, you can easily find paper with a linen finish, but it contains no linen at all. It’s confusing, I know.

Although the Church at one time banned paper for its manuscripts as being produced by those outside Christendom, its use was eventually embraced when Gutenberg's little invention pressed it into use.
Vintage sheet of Watman paper,
with its watermark and
screen pattern

Paper production spread from its origins in the East, wended its way through the Middle East, and became established in mills of Spain and France. Linen rags were recycled for papermaking, and remained the main source for paper manufacturing until the late 1700s. During most of the 1800s, cotton overtook linen as the rag of choice because of its abundance, but increasing demand for paper made mill owners nervous about raw materials. Eventually, they turned to the forests.

During the late 1800s, however, a handful of American industrialists eyed an untapped, abundant source for the superior linen. Proprietors of mills along the Eastern seaboard, including Gardiner, Maine and Broadalbin, New York, looked toward Egypt. It was the same place that would soon come under the rule of the British Crown, and the same place which had long piqued the interest of Western archaeologists and opportunists. (Sometimes they were one and the same.) While there is little evidence of its production – excepting an oddly-colored handout produced by the Chelsea Manufacturing Co. in Greenville, Conn. – there is certainly much talk of linen paper being produced from enough raw material to satiate the U.S. demand for 14 years, using linen from – of all things – a then-estimated 500 million Egyptian mummies.

Detail of an oddly-colored handout produced by the Chelsea Manufacturing Co.,  Greenville, Conn.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Citius - Altius - Artius

Copyright © Edward Riojas

“Faster - Higher - Artsier”
“Panathenaic prize amphora”
The Euphiletos Painter. c. 530 B.C.
(Courtesy, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, N.Y.)

Well, that isn’t exactly the motto of the Olympic Games, but it’s close. Perhaps it’s closer than you think. In spite of seeming to be polar opposites and attracting folks with vastly different skill sets, the Olympics have a long-running relationship with art.

The ancient games certainly found a home on artifacts we studied in art survey courses. Greek kylixes and amphorae were occasionally covered with figures of runners, long-jumpers or wrestlers. It seems even the ancients had to have their commemorative Olympic cups when plopping down to watch the games, and those cups were decorated by artists.

More recently, Leroy Neiman foisted his garish paintings on Olympic sportscasts during the 1980s. That was during a time when splashy, pre-teen color schemes were all the rage. So, too, were bell-bottom pants, huge mustaches, and self-promoting artists with enough muscle to pick up a brush and a microphone. The sportscasters gave Neiman all tens for execution. History has given him closer to a 6.5.
“Swimmer” From “Olympic Suite”
Leroy Neiman. 1986.

Of course, this year we have Rio. The Olympics always inspire, and that inspiration spreads like e.coli-tainted water to artists as a matter of course. But one doesn’t have to venture too far from Brazil’s venues to see the country has talent to spare. Forget this year’s controversial logo that hints at plagiarism. Forget the questionable color of the water reserved for the swim events. Whether directly inspired by the sporting events or simply mandated to whitewash an undeniable presence of poverty, the street art of Rio de Janeiro makes a good case that sports and art are close enough to rub shoulders. Some of the painted walls, at least, are worthy of a medal.
Street art by Ment. 2013.
(Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)

Which brings me to one of the best finishes of all time: At one time, art WAS awarded Olympic medals. Founding member of the Modern Olympic games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, envisioned a competition in which more than just muscle-heads could compete, and that included painting, sculpture, architecture, literature and music. It took a while for the idea to have traction – I mean, it takes time for the beer & pretzel crowd and the wine & cheese crowd to get on the same page.

During the inaugural sculpture competition in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, “An American Trotter” by Alfred Winans of the U.S. nosed out Frenchman George Dubois to win the gold medal. (Winans also took a silver for marksmanship.) One can almost hear the chanting, “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!” Dubois took the silver for sculpture, but a sparse pool of artists left the podium lacking a bronze medalist. For you medal-counting freaks, the Italians topped the list that year with two golds, followed by France, Switzerland and the U.S. with one gold each. Whatever. I think the Italians were doping.
“An American Trotter”
Alfred Winans. 1912.

1948’s London Olympics gave the gold in painting to homeboy Alfred Thomson for his “The London Amateur Boxing Championship Held at the Royal Albert Hall.” Apparently, some of the judges thought he went the distance with his title alone and was therefore deserving. The U.S. did pathetically that year and didn’t appear at all in the artistic medal count. Perhaps that’s because we were giving more attention to post-war muscle flexing. In the sporting events, the U.S. took 38 golds in 1948 – more than double of the nearest competing country, Sweden.

Shortly after the London games, however, it was decided to bench the artistic portion of the Olympics. The artists, it was argued, were professional, whereas the athletes were not. And we all know one can’t ever, ever have professional athletes on an Olympic team. A non-competitive arts and culture Olympic event has since moved in the shadows of the more dignified ping-pong and curling, which, when translated, means the art event is currently on the disabled list and of no consequence.

Perhaps the Arts as an Olympic power has all but dried up, but the next time you get together for the Olympic over beer and pretzels, feel free to wax nostalgic and bring up the old Olympic greats like Winans and Thomson and Dubois. We showed those French a thing or two about art, didn’t we! Those were the days.