Musings de l'Art

Month: March, 2013

Jay Defeo and Rudolph Nureyev: Legends

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San Francisco is a hub of cultural activity as a metropolitan leader in the art world. In the Bay Area, we are afforded countless opportunities to view the most acclaimed art, theatre, music, dance and productions. The M. H. De Young Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art are both large, architecturally original museums who house prestigious permanent collections and host world-renowned temporary exhibitions.

I visited the SF MoMA for the Jay Defeo retrospective this fall. The large-scale, two-ton painting, The Rose, stood out to me as the centerpiece; set in its own room on a stage, The Rose takes its proper place as the “star” of the show. Defeo had worked on this piece for eight years without ever completing it. The painting became a part of her personal and artistic life, occupying a window in her apartment as she constantly altered it in an eternal struggle.

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The exhibition space are set up in a straightforward, easy to follow manner. A wall text introduces each room with dated titles, summarizes Defeo’s production during that time, and then highlights certain pieces. The viewer is lead through the white-walled rooms through Defeo’s artwork. The Rose exists outside of this strict chronology. Since Defeo started working on the painting in 1958 and it was first exhibited in 1969, the curator places “The Rose” room after the room titled “The Early 1950’s” and before “The Early 1970’s”. The piece occupies its own room, departing from all the other numbered rooms, as The Rose is still incomplete in Defeo’s mind. She was never happy with the finished product. As a curator, I would have lead the viewer back to The Rose room after the completion of the rest of the chronological exhibition that ends in 1989.  This setup would emphasize the important never-ending struggle that this piece was to Defeo.

Spatial limitations must always be considered when looking at the art of dance as the body moves throughout the allotted space. The De Young exhibits the life of ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev, named A Life in Dance as a eulogy to the deceased legend. As the viewer moved through Defeo’s work, Nureyev’s work moves through the viewer in this special exhibition.

Unlike the MoMA show, A Life in Dance is not set up in a linear fashion. The viewer enters into the darkness as the show begins. Wall texts note information on Nureyev’s personal and professional life along with artifacts, photographs and costumes. The dancer and his partner Margaret Fonteyn’s torn-up shoes are on view along with smaller framed photographs of Nureyev rehearsing. There are several blown-up photographs of the “larger-than-life” Nureyev dancing while costumes that he wore lifelessly hover in front of them. From the beginning of the show, we are made aware of an absent life that is clearly missed. Four beat-up, leather theatre seats placed in front of a large projection of Nureyev dancing recreate the atmosphere of a theatre. We are transported to the time of the dancer’s tremendous impact on the world, getting to witness a ghost of the famous ballerino.

The second part of the exhibition consists of over eighty ballet costumes grouped by show and hung up by transparent strings or on black mannequins that seem to vanish into the background. Music accompanies these costumes that appeared in ballets that Rudolph Nureyev danced in or choreographed. As the viewer weaves through the maze, he is transported in time and place to the different performances of Nureyev’s career. In the presentation of Swan Lake, a video of the original performance is projected onto a somewhat transparent curtain that the costumes float behind. This set-up seamlessly combines the performance with the costumes in a way that does not detract from either. There is no clear path for the viewer to take, as the set-up rather encourages her to wander through at her own pace. This curatorial choice goes well with the subject of the exhibition as a eulogy to Nureyev, not as a straightforward retrospective, but an attempt to communicate the beauty of a single life. The art of dance cannot be examined in the same way as painting or sculpture; the energy of the performance cannot be recreated after the artist is gone. More testimonies of viewers and friends of Nureyev could have been added in the first part to elevate the exhibition to a more personal level, though overall, A Life in Dance fairly credits the amazing life of Rudolph Nureyev.

The set-ups of the Jay Defeo retrospective and Nureyev homage both work well because their flows are defined by the kind of art on display. The differences in the exhibitions are necessary to best credit the artists’ life works. Jay Defeo’s work is displayed in an linear fashion, with one exceptional work bursting through while the more free-form Nureyev show leaves the viewer with a feeling of nostalgia and sadness for the loss of the beautiful dancer. The curatorial choices in both shows display the exceptional work of both artists and lives.

A Performance of Everyday Objects

Virginia Overton’s solo exhibition at The Kitchen gallery entertains the viewer with a performance of construction materials. The Tennessee-born artist works with rough, rural materials in her post minimalist creations that stress the process of her art. She is linked to artists like Robert Morris and Richard Serra, as their work also interacts with the space it is exhibited in, creating a relationship between the viewer, work, and site. Her work examines the process involved in its creation, as this process is evident in the finished pieces. Overton’s sculptures and installations in the past take the form of minimal objects placed in structural doubt. At a show at Mitchell-Ines & Nash last year, Overton constructed a giant triangle composed of three thick poplar boards wedged between two of the gallery columns. This piece draws attention the gallery space as boards are held in place by only gravity and friction dividing the space by use of the architectural elements.tumblr_lkg51nuWqH1qdeys9o1_500

For her current exhibition, Overton had one week and free reign in the gallery space to gather whatever materials she wanted to create her show. The Kitchen opened up every nook and cranny for her. She found her materials upstairs, downstairs, on the roof, and in closets. Since the gallery is usually a performance space, the pipes, pedestals, and wood serve as perfect mediums for her work.

In her current show curated by Matthew Lyons at The Kitchen, Overton again explores the relationships between architecture, materials, and viewer. Above the reception desk in the first room of the gallery is a light box with the gallery’s name in black letters. This piece replicates the original sign that was above the main doorway of the gallery when it first relocated to its current location in 1986. The glowing box is also reminiscent of the “ON AIR” sign used during live radio and television broadcasts. The presence of the gallery’s name announces that this show is site-specific in the strictest sense. She also created a poster with the gallery’s original brick wall as the background for her pick-up truck.

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Overton uses another light in this space: a light bulb attached to a hanging plank of wood suspended from a wire.  The plank hangs flat, balanced like a mobile. This balance is thrown off by the light bulb commanding attention at one end. This piece references building materials, invoking a plank being lifted up in the construction of a building. One may think of a stage as the single light shines as a spotlight, illuminating the performance of the suspended wood. The viewer is made aware of the space as the sculpture hangs from the rigging in the ceiling. There are also lights that illuminate not only the walls, but lead the eye upwards toward the ceiling, again making the viewer aware of the specific space he or she is in.

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Eighty-six pipes lean against the adjacent wall; each a different height and color. Scrapings, tape, rust, and even a price tag are visible as these materials are being reused. The wall is an integral part of this piece as it holds the pipes in place. Interacting with each other and the gallery, these pipes, usually used for rigging in set creation compose a performance. Another pipe cuts the opposite wall in half, as Overton breaks up the classic white gallery wall with a pipe that fits its location perfectly.

Eight white pedestals levitate in the next room. Held together by small wooden wedges, the scuffed pedestals invoke a past performance. One uses a pedestal to put something on show. Here, the pedestals are the show, performing their levitation act through friction with the walls, threatening to come undone. Overton uses friction again to cover an entire room’s floor with 2×4 wooden planks. The red, black, and natural wood pieces fit together to occupy the floor space; each one fitting perfectly with the surrounding pieces to create a random pattern. Though each piece has been worn down uniquely, all the individual pieces function together as these found objects form a floor fit for walking on. They creak and bend slightly under the weight of a person, creating a symphony of misfit objects.

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Virginia Overton often uses and reuses the materials and images, creating a sculptural vocabulary that reacts to the specific installation site. These materials create makeshift solutions for the problems and challenges that the space provides. She does not use these materials to construct a set, but gives them life as they take the stage in this performing arts space. Overton called this show an “unscripted production” as she improvised her work about, of, and at The Kitchen. Her sculptures challenge the viewer’s idea of space and how it functions, drawing attention to the objects that are usually just part of a builder’s toolkit. These unique pieces are simultaneously fragile and monumental. In each piece, Overton successfully uses the available space and materials to successfully assemble an astonishing performance.

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Strictly Visual: An Analysis

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     Subhankar Banerjee photographs many stunning natural landscapes. The beautiful landscapes that one sees in his photographs present the viewer with a pleasant image, though his images are meant to be read from other angles as well. A specific text captions functions in conjunction with each photograph, explaining the event that is taking place in the photo. Looking at these photos in a strictly visual sense is therefor challenging since each piece of art is supposed to be intertwined with its textual explanation.

     Caribou Migration I exists inside an eighty-six by sixty-eight inch rectangle. This large scale allows for one to see closer details of what is happening in the photo. The beauty of the landscape is magnified in this photograph as we can see individual plants and animals as they move throughout the landscape. This format allows one to take at the beauty of the Utukok River Valley as a whole while also allowing one the option to take a closer look at what is really going on.

      The artist also deliberately chose to photograph this scene from the air. This has been a desired vantage point in war photography, allowing one to see views only available from high above the action. From this viewpoint, we get a more complete picture of the caribou and their migration paths than we would from the ground. This viewpoint also helps us to think of the species as a whole, and not of each individual animal, and how they are connected to other things.

     The framing choice is also interesting to look into. In this rectangle, we only get to see part of a narrative. There are caribou emerging from three points outside of the picture frame. The viewer sees the caribou on their way somewhere, but what is left out of the frame leaves us to question where they began and where they will end up. It also may inspire a want to see more, to zoom back further to reveal what is going on outside of the frame. Are there more caribou? Are they behaving differently than the ones present here?  The framing can spark a viewer’s curiosity and make one want to see a more complete picture.

     The composition is mostly white. Banerjee stresses color not as a medium in his work, but as a motif. Most people think of the Arctic as a barren wasteland that only consists of snow and ice. Banerjee wanted to create an image of this landscape with blue and white to reveal the diversity that exists in this place and counter beliefs that this area is a harsh wilderness wasteland.

            The white areas seem to be a mixture of snow and ice. This is not a monotone white; one can see the brown plants, imprints of footprints in the snow, traces of the light blue water at the edge of the river, as well as the caribou themselves. The snow does not seem to be very deep, as one can see the life poking through. There are two patches of white in the blue part of the photo that resemble islands. One may see them as a humorous outlook on the cold winter that seems to be depicted, as islands are usually associated with the tropics and warmer climates.

     There seem to be two forms of frozen water presented here, again underlining the idea of diversity that Banerjee often stresses in his work. A light blue form intersects the mostly-white composition. A light blue ice river cuts through the white coming from the bottom left corner and continuing across the composition horizontally. There are white patches in this blue river where one can be reminded of water. The crescent-shaped patches resemble caps of waves, invoking the moving body of water that has frozen; the water seems to be frozen still in time as the body of water has physically become frozen in this arctic landscape.

     There are darker paths of gray in this blue river form as well. Since the caribou are literally walking over these patches, we know that they are not indentations in the ice. These gray lines may indicate a current deep under the ice. They form lines that may mirror the flow of the river. This flow-like quality is echoed throughout this photograph and can inspire the viewer to contemplate the connectivity of this scene to the rest of the world.

     The caribou first appear as black dots, though if one looks more closely, one can make out the body shape of the caribou and see the directions they face. The path seems to be moving downward in general, which gives the photograph a weight toward the bottom. One may think of the force of gravity, another natural force, in alignment with the caribous’ instincts to move wherever they may be heading. The caribou path intersects the blue river as the animals move downward, creating an interesting dynamic in which the natural landscape and the animals present in it function on their own and together.

     At the top of the photograph, one single line of caribou emerges from beyond the frame. There are several caribou off to the left of this line and we cannot see a clear line of footprints that would connect them to the main line. They seem to be disconnected from the downward motion of the entire photo. As this line continues downward, it oscillates in a haphazard way. The line breaks and then forms again closer to the river as some caribou seem to move away from the main line of the general flow of the animal movement and then make their way back. As this line crosses the blue portion of ice, they split into two distinct groups. The group on the right seems to be turning inward as the caribou form a curved line. One may get the sense that this group will meet up with the other four caribou and they will move toward the more distinct line of caribou who are also crossing the river to the left.

     This group of caribou emerges from the center of the left edge of the photograph. These caribou are more spread out at first and join together near the edge of the river, creating a funnel-like form. Two somewhat parallel lines are created as the caribou cross the river and continue downward, outside of the picture frame. The breaks in this line are more evident; the eye can pick up on the gaps as the caribou are positioned closely together in the connected part of the line. Since this line of caribou can be read more easily as a line, the space where there are no caribou is more alarming to the eye. One can also follow the direction and flow of the line more easily because the footprints in the snow are deeper and more visible, creating a line even when caribou are absent.

     The three caribou that are apart from the group as they cross the river are more noticeable and seem to be more isolated, as they contrast with the clear main line. Their bodies seem to be pointed toward the group, which could indicate movement in that direction or simply their awareness that they are part of this larger group. Below the river, the two lines continue downward at a slight diagonal and out of the picture frame.

     There is a line of five caribou emerging from the bottom left corner that seems to be swooping down and possibly then upward, creating a “U” like shape. Since there are so few caribou in this group, they could blend into the landscape and be overlooked. They emerge into the photograph on a patch of white, adding to the isolation that this group exhibits.

     All of the caribou resemble ants, possibly invoking the idea of looking at something very small. One may be inspired to think of the connectivity of all things, big and small, as they move throughout the environment. The paths the caribou create seem to be deliberate, as they follow each other in line; we are unable to tell what is really happening without the element of time passing. This photograph captures one moment in the lives of these animals, marking this moment as important and leading us to question where they are headed and why. 

A Rubbery Contemplation

The Penitent MagdalenGeorges de La Tour  (French, Vic-sur-Seille 1593–1653 Lunéville), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Penitent Magdalen
Georges de La Tour (French, Vic-sur-Seille 1593–1653 Lunéville), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s The Penitent Magdalen, painted by the French artist Georges de La Tour, depicts the biblical figure Mary Magdalen in a contemplative state. The symbols that surround her and the painterly style that La Tour uses to construct her body and the setting she resides in denote the story of Mary Magdalen’s conversion and penance as she chooses to reject sin and follow Christ. This subject is represented through weighty forms, as light is used to dramatize the scene. Georges de La Tour used his style of painting while employing symbols to communicate the theme of reflection in this painting.

Little is known of this painting’s early provenance. It’s location was first documented in 1890, when it was housed in a private collection bordering the Lorraine in France. The son of the private collectors moved it to Côte d’Or in 1920, where it remained until it was sold to the Galerie Heim in Paris in 1963. In 1978 Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman both bought the painting and gave it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (“Metropolitan Museum of Art”)

Georges de La Tour painted many religious scenes that appealed to the followers of Catholicism, the dominant religion in France in the early 17th Century. French art remained under the influence of Flanders and Italy as they were recovering from religious wars. La Tour’s work was popular during his lifetime and then forgotten about until the 1930’s, when French art historians began to explore the roots of 19th Century Realism. (Sutherland Harris 277-278)

The oil painting depicts Mary Magdalen seated with her hands crossed over a skull that rests on her lap. She was a sinner who renounced her worldly pleasures for a life of reflection and penance. In this version of the Magdalen subject, she is depicted in the moment of her conversion, as she renounces her worldly life. On the table lie a candle, a rope or jewelry, and a gilded mirror, in which one can see the reflection of the flame and candle. The composition shows her seated in full length in a loose white shirt and red skirt in a dark interior setting.

He painted at least five versions of this same subject. It was characteristic of La Tour to concentrate on one theme and create different renderings of it. In each painting, he made alterations in design and mood, though in all four of the known Magdalen paintings, La Tour included the seated, full-length figure, skull, and a lighted candle or lamp. In the painting of the same name that is housed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., the flame is blocked by a skull, whose reflection can be seen in the mirror. This figure holds a classic pose of melancholy, with her head in her hand. It seems that La Tour chose to represent a different moment in the story of Mary’s conversion.

The scene in The Penitent Magdalen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art emphasizes Mary’s contemplation. She is shown here repenting her sins and appears to be deep in thought, as she gazes toward the candle. Her attention is moved inward, as we cannot fully see her face but only her profile. She does not appear to be looking at the candle, but past it, to the mirror.

There are many symbols embedded in this piece that aid in the exhibition of its introspective quality. The skull symbolizes mortality, as it invokes a dead body. Humans will die and their bones will be the only things left of them in the physical world. The mirror represents vanity and reflection, as one uses a mirror to look at oneself. The deeper meaning embedded in the mirror symbolizes a looking into oneself. Looking at one’s own exterior alludes to inner reflection, as a mirror’s function is to reflect. The candle symbolizes the shortness of life as it can go out at any moment. A flame is also often a symbol for the light of the Divine Presence; God may be with Mary at this time. We can see the resonation of Mary’s sigh as the flame of candle is altered. The rope may be a tool used in penance, where one physically harm oneself with it to experience the pain that Christ went through before and during the Crucifixion. The rope can be used to reflect upon Christ’s suffering and grow closer to Him. If that form is in fact jewelry, it could symbolize the earthly pleasures that Mary gave up to follow Christ. The pearls are strewn onto the table haphazardly.

The luxurious trapping such as the gilded mirror and red fabric with glinting gold along with the graceful turn of the head mark this painting as the most elegant of La Tour’s Magdalens. (“Metropolitan Museum of Art”) The mirror and the pearls on the table are opulently painted, as we can see them glimmer in the candlelight that illuminates the scene. These luxurious objects may be indications of Mary’s legendary past as a courtesan, when she would have been able to afford such expensive goods.

After he found his style, La Tour isolated himself, closing his mind to the influence of other artists. His unique style set him apart from others, but leads one to question his artistic influences. It is unclear as to whether La Tour found his stylistic influence in Utretch or Rome. Michelangelo Mersi di Caravaggio, who painted powerful religious scenes in Rome, influenced the northern Caravaggisti. As one can see in Caravaggio’s The Crucifixion of Saint Peter, the light provides the viewer with a focus point, the body of the saint, as the background is almost completely dark. His followers took interest in Caravaggio’s dramatic use of light, emphasizing the contrast between light and darkness in their work. It was typical of these Caravaggisti to include the light source in their paintings. La Tour uses this technique to create his own visual language, as the light can have a deeply religious meaning, as the flame is very symbolic as the light of God.

La Tour simplified the forms that one would see in daily life into cylinders and volumes as they become almost abstract. The rubbery treatment of figures gives them an almost waxy look. This simplification is especially noticeable in Mary’s hands. Her fingers are each individual tubes that are intertwined over the rubbery surface of the skull. These forms lack intricate details as they are painted evenly and appear to be solid. The crease in between her arm and her hand looks very flat and we do not see the individual wrinkles of the skin. The figure’s hair sweeps down onto her back in a fluid motion. It shines and creates the illusion of a single form, instead of several individual hairs. The textures of her clothing are also depicted as volumes, though they do not appear to be as rubbery in quality. The red skirt and her shirt have visible folds; we can see that they are of a different texture than her body.

The light source in this painting is present and not hidden. The viewer can see the effects of the light on all the forms in the painting. One can make out subtle contrasts of the light and shadows on the wall. Even Mary’s fingers cast shadows onto her hand and the right side of the skull is shaded as well. We can see where the light from the candle does not reach as we see the shadows it creates from its two sources: the candle itself and the reflection of the candle.

As the light falls on the simplified forms, there is little complication of the surface, drapery, or texture that would deflect or splinter the light. Like the forms, the light is also geometrically simplified as it is cast upon smooth volumes. This invokes a classical stability and stillness, a sense of calm. (Davies, Denny, Hofrichter, Jacobs, Roberts, and Simon) La Tour uses a restraint in creating these forms so that the emotional feeling can come across more clearly.

The expression of the subject does not define this piece; there is no grand gesture taking place and we cannot make out any minute details. The light is the most dramatic aspect while the gesture and attitude of the figure are understated. We do not know what Mary is thinking about, but she seems to be in deep contemplation. Around her are symbols that relate to mortality, giving this painting a serious tone. The light is the center of the painting, creating a reflective mood as we see it illuminate part of the composition.

Bibliography

Davies, Penelope, Walter Denny, Frima Fox Hofrichter, Joseph Jacobs, Ann Roberts, and David Simon. Janson’s History of Art: The Western Tradition. 8th. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2010. Print.

Kleiner, Fred. Gardner’s Art Through The Ages, A Concise Western History. 2nd. Boston: Clark Baxter, 210. Print.

“The Penitent Magdalen Georges de La Tour (French, Vic-sur-Seille 1593–1653 Lunéville).” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011; adapted from Ref. Fahy 2005. Web. 9 Apr 2012. <http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/110001283&gt;.

Sutherland Harris, Ann. Seventeenth Century Art and Architecture. 2nd. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education Inc., 2005. 277-278. Print.