Colour and the fauvist movement

The bright primary colours dance and shimmer on the River Thames in Derain’s work. The vibrant colours have a sense of unity and have been applied in bold blocks.

By using colours that do not represent real life (a green sky for example) Derain has made colour the subject of the artwork. The unrealistic colours are the talking point, not the boats or the unmistakable Tower Bridge in the background. The setting has become nearly irrelevant. Andre Derain, along with Henri Matisse, were pioneers of the ‘fauvism’ movement. Fauvists were/are artist with a desire to work only with strong colours. This was completely different to other art works at the time (early 1900s) and created public outcry. ‘Favues’ (french) was a moniker bestowed by art critics and translates to ‘wild beasts’ due to the wild use of colour.

Andre Derain, ‘The Pool of London’ 1906, oil on canvas

When talking about an artwork it is good to think about not just what colours are used but what effect the use of those colours has on the work. Is the use of colour the most interesting thing about the painting? Does it create a sense of harmony or discord?

The defining feature of fauvism is brilliant colour and spontaneous brushstrokes and demonstrates and important shift in the history of art. It was one of the first examples of an emotional involvement with painting. By choosing colours that do not represent real life the artist was revealing to the audience something unique about their thoughts. It gives an insight into their emotional approach to the subject and their state of mind at the time of painting.

Fauvist did not just choose colours at random though. If you look at the best fauvist paintings they all have a great sense of unity which shows a high degree of knowledge about colour theory and which colours work well together (complimentary colours, primary colours etc.)

Andre Derain, ‘Charing Cross Bridge’ 1906, oil on canvas

Jenny Holzer’s ‘Truisms’ series (1977-1979)

Highly conceptual and highly condensed, Jenny Holzer’s ‘Truisms’ simplify complex and abstruse thoughts into concise statements that seem at first arbitrary and then, suddenly, thoughtfully relevant.

Jenny Holzer, ‘Truisms’ series (1977-1979), ‘You must have one grand passion’

The success of Holzer’s work, I think, stems from the fact that this event actually happened (it was the 70s, before the time of Photoshop): during a baseball game between the New York Mets and the San Francisco Giants the electronic scoreboard suddenly flashed the  pithy statement – ‘You must have one grand passion’ – as if to inspire the home crowd. Holzer, realising the ephemeral nature of the somewhat spiritual statement, captured it on film.

Perhaps what also adds to the power of the work is the fact the message is displayed by a computer screen. No doubt the text was typed by a human but, to the audience, it is a faceless human – all we see is a computer interface telling us how we ought to live our very real, very mortal lives. There is an eerie, futuristic and unsettling attraction about that. The eternal-like glow of the orange text appears like a siren, a guiding light we are pulled towards like moths to a flame.

I like concise and clear writing. In her short texts, Holzer is able to address themes such as mortality, love, power, truth, sex and war. Her contextualisation of the text is also effective in creating a sense of importance and urgency in what is being said. In the work below for example, the fleeting quote is permanently recorded in solid marble and makes the text appear ‘truer’ or, at least, more authoritative. Because conversations are fleeting, life is finite and fun comes in ebbs and flows, the contextualisation within the everlasting marble creates an interesting and halting juxtaposition.

Jenny Holzer, ‘Survival’ series (1983-1985), ‘The conversation always turns to living long enough to have fun’

Sculptures by the Sea 2014: the chase

Instantly attracted to this one. Figurative sculptures (sculptures of humans) are a rarity at SBTS with only a few exhibited each year. Perhaps that’s where the attraction stems from. It is also the second year running ‘the chase’ has been in the exhibition (in 2013 the figures were in a different position and had different poses).

Elyssa Sykes-Smith, ‘the chase’, 2013-2014

The two figures simultaneously appear as if they were hastily constructed by a child yet their highly accurate human form gives the sense they are perfectly engineered. The handiwork is conservative. Much more wood is used than is required to make the figures stand but I like the effect this produces. It is nostalgic to me of attempting to make my own Iron Giant as a child from spare wood lying around my garage.

The figures appear as deconstructed robots made of wood. Which, to me, makes them more inviting, friendly, personified. They are constructed from natural materials belonging to this earth (like I am) and not of some amalgamated metal.

The figure on the left appears to be holding up the rock while the other appears to be pushing against it. The poses give a mechanical sense of competitive struggle between the figures. The placement of the figures amongst the rock reminds me of Atlas holding up the globe.

The painted black and white wood pieces mixed amongst the natural coloured wood pieces serve to highlight and better define the poses of the figures and adds tone to the work.

Elyssa Sykes-Smith is a young Australian artist whose description of her work perfectly resonates with my experience of it: “My work is founded on the principle that the simple pose or gesture of a figure has great communicative and expressive power. I am interested in translating, as opposed to imitating, the figure to suggest embodied human experience”

Visit her website here.

Sculptures by the Sea 2014: House of Mirrors

Sculptures by the Sea has kicked off for another year. The annual exhibition sees artists from all over the world exhibit their works along the gorgeous Tamarama to Bondi coastal walk.

‘House of Mirrors’ by NEON is one of those works. If you’ve ever been to SBTS before you’ll know the works with the most prominent positions along the coast garner the most attention. ‘House of Mirrors’ features prominently, partly because of its position but also due to its size (a cube, approximately 3 metres).

NEON, ‘House of Mirrors’, 2014

I find a good point to start in thinking about artworks such as this is to describe the work in the same way you would describe to someone who can’t see it:

It’s a cube, made up of small wire boxes on the outside. The inner boxes are solid and mirrored, allowing you to see your reflection. There’s some negative space in the middle of the cube allowing you to see through the work to the ocean in the background.

The title, ‘House of Mirrors’, has a literal sense in that the wire mesh boxes ‘house’ the mirrored boxes in the centre.

My personal attitude is that I get a slightly uneasy feeling looking at the work. It feels cagey and constraining like I’m looking at a prison cell, or a bird cage. Combine this with the reflective middle and I can see myself in the cage, trapped, my liberty taken. The only reprieve I have is the hole in the middle allowing me to look through to the sea. Framed as it is in this light, the sea becomes a saviour and a giver of life, which it is.

So I think it’s a successful work in a couple of ways: it evokes an uneasy emotion, which is pretty hard to do considering it’s surrounded by beauty and neighboured by hundreds of other easy-on-the-eye sculptures. Secondly, juxtaposing the view of the ocean against the prison like cages can cause us to take a moment and appreciate our freedom of movement.

But do I want to feel uneasy in a setting such as this? Is it the right sculpture for SBTS? I’m not convinced.

‘House of Mirrors’ is different to other sculptures at SBTS which attempt to complement their setting by using, for example, natural materials or an easily digestible subject matter. At the least it should be commended for bucking a trend.


How to talk about an artwork, part 4: texture

Texture is a term that can be used to describe both painting and sculpture. It’s how the material looks to us, how it might feel if we touch it, it shows where the artist moved their brush, it shows where the sculptor pressed their fingers into the clay. Texture is a wide reaching term and the effect it can have on an artwork is similarly profound.

Meret Oppenheim, ‘Object’, 1936

Meret Oppenheim’s sculpture ‘Object’ is displayed in the MoMA in New York. It’s a regular teacup, spoon and saucer covered in fur lining. The subject itself is incredibly simple. But the execution is made entirely surreal by the texture of the fur on what is normally a sleek, clean and cold ceramic object.

In the 1930s surrealist artists, such as Dali, were challenging reason and revealing insights into the subconscious. ‘Object’ through its play on texture, challenges our ideas about human senses. For example, fur might be soft to touch but is unpleasant on the tongue.

Man Ray, Cadeau (The Gift), 1921, editioned replica 1972

‘The Gift’ is another sculpture that uses texture to force a juxtaposition of feelings, making us feel slightly uncomfortable. The almost torture-like device combines the sleek, flat surface of the iron with the sharp, rusty, embedded nails. The title of the article, ‘Gift’ (Cadeau, in French as originally named) is like a cruel joke, gifting the viewer something unpleasant, completely useless and uninviting.

Portrait of Père Tanguy, Van Gogh: a tale in a painting

Vincent Van Gogh, ‘Portrait of Père Tanguy’, oil on canvas, 1887

Without knowing much about this painting (besides the famous artist) there is still a lot to appreciate. First of all, look at the composition. Mainly the background. It’s a fairly standard portrait but Van Gogh has selected this tapestry like patchwork background of Japanese influences. There is what looks to be Mt Fuji above Mr Tanguy’s straw hat, a cherry blossom tree to the right and imperial Japanese samurai characters to the subject’s left and right. This brings a narrative to the painting. A story about the subject’s past, present or future? Who is Mr Tanguy? Has he been to Japan, what stories did he bring back with him?

The texture and short, rapid paint strokes are classic of Van Gogh and are distinctly his style. How would you describe the pose? Mr Tanguy looks relaxed, almost as if he has sat for his portrait a thousand times before. He looks serene, full of enjoyment.

The painting links the impressionist style which Van Gogh was so influential on with tradition Japanese art. It links two cultures, two completely different styles of painting in a way which seems completely natural. The colour can be described as bright and vibrant.

So without knowing much about the painting, we have discussed it in an engaging way. But what if you did know more about the painting, the subject and the artist? Mr Tanguy was an art dealer and sold Van Gogh’s paintings and was one of the first people to recognise Van Gogh’s commercial talent. He was someone who was passionate about art and loved to discuss art.

After Tanguy’s death, his daughter sold the painting to Auguste Rodin and the painting is now on permanent display at Musée Rodin in Paris.

How to appreciate abstract art, part 1: “A 5-year old could have painted that!”

Do you ever get annoyed when you see a painting at a famous gallery and think: ‘why is that there? A 5-year old could have painted that!’. Well, sometimes you’re right to think that. Just because a painting is hanging on a wall in a gallery doesn’t necessarily make it a good artwork. Gallery curators make mistakes.

It’s also true that a few artists get incredibly rich off paintings that require very little physical work on their part compared to traditional masterpieces and, to some, that’s infuriating. For example, ‘Onement VI’, painted in 1953, sold for $44 million in 2013. Put simply, it’s a wash of blue paint with a white line zip down the middle.

Barnett Newman, ‘Onement VI’, 1953 on display

But remember it’s an incredibly small minority of artists getting rich from highly abstract art. And more often than not, they thought of the ideas first. In a world where nothing is original, they were.

I’d also say this: let go of the notion that art is something that has to have meaning. Let go of the notion that you have to ‘get’ a painting and that if you don’t ‘get it’ then it’s not a good artwork. Don’t worry if you feel others ‘get it’ but you don’t ‘get it’. Letting go of these notions frees your mind up to appreciating the painting in other ways: is it something no one else has done before, is it using a material in a unique way, is it making you feel something (anything), is it confronting, is it disturbing, is it so bad it’s good, is it distinct to a specific artist (the Newman painting above is distinctly his style), can you imagine the artist splashing the paint onto the canvas, do you get an insight into their artistic process…there are literally an infinite amount of ways to appreciate a painting.

So how can you appreciate abstract art? First of all, there’s a range of what ‘abstract’ means. The Jackson Pollock painting below is abstract in it’s subject matter. That is, it’s not really a painting about anything. It falls under the category of abstract expressionism. Pollock was one of the first to pioneer this art movement. Remember before this, art was usually always about something. It had a subject: a person, a place, a thing. With abstract expressionism, the paint itself and how it was applied to the canvas was the subject. Pollock pushed the definition of what art is into something no one else had done before. That alone is something to appreciate in this painting.

Jackson Pollock, ‘Convergence’, oil on canvas, 1952

Pollock laid his huge canvases flat on the ground, loaded his paintbrush with his own concoction of runny, viscous paint and walked across his canvas waving the paintbrush through the air and letting the paint dribble onto the canvas. Pollock had amazing compositions in all his paintings. That is, every bit of the canvas is interesting to look at. It’s interesting to look at from far away, taking in the whole painting and also from up close focusing on the way the dribbled lines overlap like silly string. Pollock also knew a lot about colours. He waited for certain layers to dry. Sometimes he didn’t, allowing the wet colours to mix. The crazed paintings were a therapeutic way for him to escape and indulge in his dangerous alcoholism. So yeah, a 5 year old could dribble paint around a canvas. But would it be as intriguing as a Pollock? Nah.