Sunday, 26 April 2009

Yan Pei Ming

Self Portrait, 2003
Oil on Canvas 220 x 220 cm

Frieze Art Fair
October 2007

I have seen is work a number of times at art fairs, this piece was on the David Zwirner stand at Frieze in 2007. It is a self portrait and typical of his style with the head filling the canvas. He always works in one or two colours (usually black or red) mixed with white. This one looks like burnt umber. He was born in Shanghai in 1960 and moved to France in 1980 and the use of such a controlled palette reflects an aesthetic influence from the brush and ink paintings of the Chinese cultural tradition.

I presume it is painted from a photograph, as all his other economical portraits of iconic or historic figures (for example, Chairman Mao, Pope John Paul II, Bruce Lee, and now Barack Obama) are. The composition is also very typical, with the face central and touching all sides of the large square canvas.

Despite its larger than life size, the way the head is tilted slightly forwards with a shy downwards gaze gives a sense of intimacy. He suffers from a stutter (the reason why he was rejected from art college in Shanghai) and this may have a connection with both the melancholic themes and the very expressive brushwork of his paintings. He achieves the latter on such a scale by using 20 and 30 inch paint brushes attached to long poles. He has even pieced brushes together to make a 50 inch brush! He explains how this approach developed in an interview:

“In 1983 or 1984, I went to Holland and saw the Van Gogh Museum, and I counted how many times he did his brush strokes. So I said, 'If I do a much bigger piece, how many brush strokes should I have?’ I figured, if you have a bigger painting you should have a bigger brush."[1]

The majority of the surface is the very physical application of thick paint, but the final touches of flecks of thin paint are what distinguishes his work; denying painterly depth and pinning the image to the surface.

The scale of the work is also of interest; the magnifying small photographs into iconic portraits indicates not just a influence from Andy Warhol but also the propaganda posters of Mao Zedong that used to cover every civic wall in China. Seen in this context, perhaps painting his self portrait on this scale implies identification with his own lost cultural heritage, and it is memories of painting images of workers and peasants, familiar images that fitted in with the ideals of the Cultural Revolution, that are hidden behind the shy gaze of the artist.

[1] Master of the Big Brush Strokes: Yan Pei Ming By David Barboza Artzinechina

©blackdog 2009

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Francisco José de Goya

The Dog, 1823
Oil on Plaster, on Canvas 131 x 79 cm

Museo Nacional Del Prado
18 April 2009

I finally managed to make my pilgrimage to The Prado Museum in Madrid to see Goya’s Black Paintings for the first time. These were amongst the last of his works and were painted directly onto the walls of the house he ‘retired’ to in 1819. After years of neglect, all 14 paintings were removed from the walls and transferred to canvas in 1874 and in 1881 donated to The Prado. Originally in two rooms on separate floors of the house[1], they are now all shown together in the same room. They are all identically framed in black and gold, and the location is very sympathetic both to the mood of the work and allowing them to be seen as a group.

Although there are relationships between the various works I will limit my reviews to those with the most melancholic overtones. The Dog is probably the one that this mood is most intense, it is also the one that the paint surface has suffered most in the transfer process. This deterioration only seems to add to the plight of the animal, which has been interpreted as sinking in quicksand.

It is also possible that the painting is actually unfinished, and whilst it is understandable to try and weave a narrative for the dog, we can only interpret the paint we see. I think the power of this, the simplest of The Black Paintings, lies in its ambiguity coupled with the tension introduced by Goya’s dramatic composition.

The picture is a long narrow rectangle divided in two, an above and a below. The upper area that fills most of the picture is pale golden ochre; the lower area is a brown soft edged strip across the bottom rising from left to right. Behind this slope there is the head of a dog in black and grey that seems to be looking at something higher up to the right of the canvas, but there is nothing there. Consequently the dog appears to be at the bottom of a well or at the foot of a vertiginous cliff, pressed down by the weight of the void or mass above.

The relationship of the figure to the space strikes me as emblematic of the human condition; the problems of existence in the face of hopeless doom. The fact that we cannot see the body and legs of the dog serves to emphasis its plight, something I see as synonymous with the state of inertia associated with extremes of despondency and melancholia. This affinity with despair is reinforced by the dog’s fearful gaze on something unrepresentable, knowing it is trapped in its loneliness, awaiting its fate in terror.

[1] It should be noted that in 2003, Juan Jose Junquera, a professor of art history at Complutense University in Madrid, made an unwelcome discovery whilst researching a book about the Black Paintings. The documents unearthed suggested that the building didn’t have two floors in Goya’s lifetime and consequently he couldn’t have painted them. The implication is that they are fakes passed off as Goya’s by his grandson Mariano.

©blackdog 2009

Monday, 6 April 2009

Marlene Dumas

Stern 2004
Oil on Canvas 110 x 130 cm

Frith Street Gallery, London
3rd December 2004

This was my first visit to The Frith Street Gallery; which comprises a group of small rooms on several floors in a terrace house in this street in Soho. Exhibition is titled "The Second Coming" and really works well in the space. Despite the positive religious note struck by the title the predominant aura of the work is one of death.

There is a good reference to the importance of the camera in Dumas work in her introduction in the press release "If we get to heaven and meet the Big Bright Light what will it be - the eyes of the saints or the flash of a camera?"

Six of the twelve paintings were of women’s heads with ambiguous facial expressions. The gallery notes gives the origin of these paintings as follows; Angelique (2004) is an upside down version of an Ingres; Lucy (2004) from is from a Caravaggio; Alfa (2004) is that of a victim of the Moscow theatre siege in 2002; Kim (2004) is from a Dutch newspaper photograph of the 25-year-old Kim Hyon-hui, responsible for blowing-up a Korean airliner in 1987; Ophelia to Medusa (2004) is from the Millais painting; and Stern (2004) is from the photograph of the corpse of Ulrike Meinhof taken from the magazine of the same name.

I found Stern the most compelling of the group, with an almost overpowering emotional sense of melancholia. The strongest perhaps because Gerhard Richter used exactly the same photograph for three paintings in his October 18, 1977 suite of paintings, depicting the body of Red Army Faction member lying dead in her prison cell.

Her version has a very thin wash on face, dark ground behind, eyebrows and lips burnt umber, a couple of white highlights left in thin paint. The face fills the canvas much more than Richter’s version (left), making the space really claustrophobic.

The green under-painting has been left in outline around the face suggesting a deathly glow, and the exaggeration of the open mouth seems to be almost gulping down the darkness above. The paint on the face itself is so sparse, but gives crucial clues to her death by hanging, yet the burn mark from the towel seems to strongly depicted, yet this flaw adds to the freshness of the image. I am sure I would have been tempted to correct it – how wrong that would have been!

I have now seen this painting over a dozen times and whilst it’s melancholic aura is undiminished, the impact in the two settings (Venice Biennale, Tate Modern) have not given the piece the stunning power it had the first time I saw it in the small white rooms in Soho.

©blackdog 2009

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Mark Rothko

Black on Maroon, 1958
Oil on Canvas 266 x 366 cm

Tate Modern, London
19 October 2008

The Seagram murals were originally painted to decorate the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building, New York (the skyscraper in Park Avenue designed by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson). When Rothko was finished, he realised he had actually created three different series, yet decided that the paintings did not suit the setting, saying that he hadn’t realised they were for the restaurant. He decided to withhold his pictures, which remained in his possession, and returned the amount already paid to him.

Nine of these paintings were given to the Tate by Rothko in 1969 and I have seen them in three different group settings prior to this exhibition of his late paintings in 2008. The centre piece of the exhibition is a room that brings together an extensive group of Seagram murals, uniting for the first time, eight of Tate's murals with a selection of those from Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art, Japan and the National Gallery of Art, Washington. The exhibition was informative and I learned a lot about Rothko’s techniques, mainly thanks to a collection of ultravoilet photographs of samples and being able to see the back of a painting. However, the drawback was that the exhibition was extremely busy and it was impossible to spend any time in contemplation of the works I hadn’t seen before. Instead I have chosen a work from a quieter room and spend a little time with.

It was the first painting sent by Rothko to the Tate and is also known as “Sketch for Mural #6”. It is a typically gloomy example of his later work and features a dark floating frame over a maroon gound colour. I always find looking at these works an act of meditation, and the longer you look the more you see subtle shifts and nuances of colour and tone. The palette is more complex than is possible to guage from this small reproduction; a feathered edge of blue can be seen beneath the black and the central elements have a pinker tinge than the external ground. The detailed support for the exhibition explains that he achieves this subtlety and depth within these large paintings by developing a complex approach to both the preparation of the canvas and the layers of paint that were subsequently applied. The paint is in fact not just oil based, but also include resin and alkyd paints, and the glazes use dammar varnish, egg and oil. It is this complex arrangement that lies behind the haxe over the central elements.

The scale is immense and the claustrophobic image reads as a metaphorical portal or window, particularly when grouped with others around a gallery room. Sitting with this painting in the past, in that kind of quiet environment with others from the group, I have felt that the work communicates a deep melancholia. Consequently I wasn’t surprised to read in the catalogue that Rothko claimed to not be interested in the abstract relationships of colour and form, but “in the basic human emotions - tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on, and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate with those basic emotions”.

Also in the exhibition was the original maquette of the room the Tate planned to hang the work in and satisfy the artist’s intention that the works should form a homogeneous group and be seen alone in a space of their own. Tragically the pictures arrived in London on the day of Rothko’s suicide, and he never saw them in position. The Seagram murals are amonst my favourite works in the Tate collection and I have spent many hours, often in solitude, with them. I am looking forward to them returning from their global tour and being rehung in a Rothko room again and seeing them in surroundings closer to the artists original intention.

©blackdog 2009

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Lisa Yuskavage

True Blond Draped, 1999
Oil on Canvas 38 x 29 inches

Not Seen

I first encountered the paintings of Lisa Yuskavage at the “Galleries” show at the Royal Academy in 2002. The subjects of the paintings were all women, some with extremely large pendulous breasts and all with improbable 'ski slope' noses. My curiosity was aroused as to why she would invest so much time and effort in making a caricature by emulating the grand tradition of painting. The only difference between her chiaroscuro and that of the masters is that she uses soft hues, not the browns of Caravaggio.

Her classic approach is described by Marcia Hall; “... craftsmanship is as important to her as any painter of the Renaissance. She prepares a composition with numerous drawings, in the same way as masters in the academic tradition. As part of her laborious preparation, in imitation of sixteenth century painters like Jacopo Tintoretto, Yuskavage makes three-dimensional models of her figures…and uses them to study light. She photographs the models; then she may draw from the photo in ink, or pencil, or pastel.”[1]

The overall colour is a deep red with the figure merging with the spatially indeterminate ground in places. The figure is realistic yet almost implausible, sat in a three-quarters pose that reminds me of photographs in the windows of high street photographers. It is the style of a commercial portrait, complete with tight cropping and a plain studio lit background. This language conveys the impression that the model has been deliberately posed like this for another intended viewer's gaze, that of the buyer (probably a clothed male). As John Berger explains this passive nakedness is “not an expression of the model's own feelings it is a sign of her submission to the owner's feelings or demands”.[2]

The hair is painted blonde and I can only assume that she is a true blonde, and that the title of the painting is not ironic, ensuring that she becomes an object of envy as well as being burdened with expectations of femininity and sexuality. The girl is looking out of the canvas at the viewer with a very guarded and weary expression. In fact the eyes are deep in shadow, almost accusing the viewer. The 'trade mark' ski ramp nose makes the face look almost like a caricature. The face looks young and old at the same time and may signify that she is extending her adolescence and the weary look is the strain of trying to extend the blonde myth or from having to live with it.

The breasts are natural, large and pendulous, and this deliberate exaggeration in the painting could connote several things. However, in this pose without the aid of the glamour photographer’s tricks, her breasts look more of a burden than an asset. In actual fact "True Blonde" isn’t from an old soft porn magazine, but stems from a photograph that she took of her friend from her school days after the birth of her baby. She just happens to have the upturned nose that has run throughout Yuskavage's work since the beginning.

I read the painting as surveying the burden of her own femininity; contrary to the nudes of traditional European painting, the nakedness is an expression of her own feelings, not a sign of submission to the viewer or buyer.

[1] Hall, Marcia B. Painterly Paradoxes (exhibition catalogue “Yuskavage”), ICA University of Pennsylvania 2000 p26

[2] Berger, John Ways of Seeing, Penguin Books 1972 p52

©blackdog 2009