Archive for July, 2008

“St. Frida” —Look Down!: IWP, SF#2

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Graffiti with tags , , on July 31, 2008 by Liz Hager

©2008 Liz Hager

Date: July 31, 2008

Time: 1:30pm

Location: Valencia between 20th & 21st, WEST sidewalk

“Indispensable Wisdom on the Pavement”: 6 little icons all in a row, close enough to the store front to avoid pedestrian traffic, reminding us that it is sacrilegious to trample an icon.

“Crying is Okay Here”—Look Down!: Wisdom on the Pavement, SF#1

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Graffiti, Liz Hager with tags , on July 30, 2008 by Liz Hager

Photo ©2008 Liz Hager

On a trip to Buenos Aires, a city with predominantly political and social graffiti, I learned that looking down had its daily rewards. I’ve been doing it ever since.  When you make a habit of watching what’s at your feet as you walk, you notice how much commentary—social, political, humorous, amorous, sentimental, and even artistic—ends up on our urban pavements.  But it’s subtle—not exactly “in your face” the way vertical-surface griffiti is.   Pavement graffiti requires you to slow down a bit. 

This is the launch of an ongoing series on our Wisdom on the Pavement. We begin in our home city of San Francisco. 

With a nod to Brigit Jones, here goes:

Date: 07/30/08

Time: 2:28pm

Location: Guerrero between 18th & 19th, EAST sidewalk

“Indispensible Wisdom on the Pavement”: The pavement gives us permission we may not grant ourselves.  Additionally, an unusual “softer side” touch in the harsh urban environment.

“Accidental Masterpieces” in the Digital Age

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , on July 30, 2008 by Liz Hager

Photo ©n2linux/Matthew Freeman, Flickr Creative Commons license


In his sweetly-nostalgic, elegiac essay “The Art of Being Artless,” art critic Michael Kimmelman muses on “amateur” art, particularly the photographic snapshot and “paint-by-numbers” painting genre best exemplified by 70s-styled Bob Ross in his Joy of Painting TV series.  The Bob Ross phenomenon deserves its own Venetian Red post; suffice it to say, that at least once in every episode I ever watched (alright relax, it wasn’t that many), Bob intones, in his coma-inducing voice, some version of the claim: “No previous experience of any kind is required to make your masterpiece.”  

Kimmelman observes that every once in a while a private snapshot contains a serendipitous and unintended mixture of elements (composition, form, light) that give it “blythe innocence, immediacy, and surrealism and comic charm” and push it into the realm of the publicly-consumed art photograph. He maintains that the boundaries between private and public photography have always been somewhat fluid. An anonymous amateur points his/her camera at something, intends one thing, but gets another. That is the happy process of an “accidental masterpiece.” The result is no less meaningful or beautiful than what is presented in attributed high-art shots. Perhaps the only point of difference is that professionals don’t on rely to such a large extent on the unexpected. 

In this context, it stands to reason, that Kimmelman would go on to lament the popularity of digital photography: 

Since digital technology now permits people to delete mistakes before they are printed and to preserve images in computers rather than deal with deteriorating prints…posterity is being deprived of who knows how many similar examples of creative artlessness.

Although my experience moving from film to digital parallels Kimmelman’s statement, I’m not sure the demise the “accidental masterpiece” has descended upon us.  True, in the last generation and a half, photography has rooted itself inexorably as an art form. We’ve become more visually educated (although not necessarily more sophisticated). We have a huge and growing repository of images to study and emulate. Furthermore, amusing, but insidious, tools like Photoshop force “improvement,” competition even, around creating the most outrageous shot.   Amateurs are now free to pursue the oxymoronic accidental masterpiece. 

To test my hypothesis, I logged onto Flickr to see what “accidental masterpieces” might be buried there. Finding a happy mistake proved to be an exceedingly difficult affair. First, I culled through literally scores of pages, hundreds of shots, in the Portrait, Landscape and Still Life categories.   I’m not saying these shots don’t have a place, but duded up, tricked out, glitsy and slick shots might better have been listed under the “highly-derivative fine art photography” category.    Then, I thought search by the term “family shots.”

Pay dirt!

Among the 76,337 shots listed, I found a number of really interesting mistakes; some that even breeched the perimeter of Kimmelman’s magical realm. Take the above picture for example.  I imagine “n2linux” (aka Matthew Freeman) was attempting to record his young son in action on the mini-golf fairway, all smiles, club in hand.  He’s taken some care to get a good  shot.  The background stage is well-composed. The twin diagonals of the railing and two green fairways draw our eyes expertly back in space to the stairs, thus creating elements like depth and a sense of movement, hallmarks of many an “art” shot. Additionally, this the stairs at the end create anticipation in our minds of what’s beyond. The shadow of the pole shooting across the second green softens the otherwise overwhelming power of the diagonal. The child’s position creates two counterpoint diagonals—one through the lines of his hips, the other through the golf club.

The photographer was probably hoping that his child would look at the camera. But kids will be kids. Just before the press of the shutter, the boy decides he’s got more important things to do then wait for Dad. Whoops! In a flash, the picture is ruined. Or is it? As an anonymous record of a time and place—family leisure in the 21st century—it joins a larger category, “historical record.” More powerfully, the child’s pose the photo elevates the photo to a statement about childhood impatience. It’s not a portrait of a particular child, but of all children.

This photo perfectly illustrates Kimmelman’s point about the beauty of  “accidental masterpieces.”  All it took was luck and a split second. 

Additional resources:

Michael Kimmelman — books; NYTimes articles

Sacrificial Lamb?

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Ceramics, Fine & Decorative Arts, Folk & Tribal Art, Liz Hager, Sculpture with tags , , , on July 26, 2008 by Liz Hager


Figure of a Crawling Baby, Olmec, 1200-900 BC,
ceramic, paint and pitch, 7 1/2 x 9 1/2″
(photo © The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Last weekend, after securing my entrance time to the Dale Chihuly show at de Young, I received an unexpectedly treat, an extra 40 minutes of unplanned time. I decided to spend it with a few of my favorite friends at the de Young, the pre-Columbian figurines. No matter how often I visit them, these figures remain fresh and vigorous.  They are a demanding lot—to fully enjoy their company I find I must pay full attention to the ancient world they inhabit,  a world full of mysterious, incomprehensible rites and unanswerable questions. Invariably I notice some new detail about them that propels me down a new and thrilling path of discovery that links us over the centuries.  Our relationship is ever evolving. In this respect, the Pre-Columbians are the best sort of friends.

I submit to you the chubby fellow above, a relic of the Olmec culture. I had always thought of him as an effigy—a representation of a dead child, a remembrance for grieving parents. He is adorable in his particularly babe-like pose; and I imagined his distressed parents. This time around, however, I noticed the remnants of red paint on his hands and feet. Odd. The Museum label offered no explanation.  Certainly there was more to the story of this child.

The Olmecs populated the Mexican Gulf lowlands from from around 1500 BCE to 400 BCE. With their hallmark complex social organizations, ingenious construction methods, and system of writing (the first in Mesoamerica) experts consider the Olmec to be the earliest civilization in the Americas. Our modern introduction to Olmec art is almost always through through one or another of their colossal basalt heads, those neckless warriors with characteristic flattened noses and downturned  “jaguar” mouths (so-called because they resemble the fierce snarling of that big cat, I suppose).

Olmec Head, Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Mexico City
(Photo ©Liz Hager)

A tiny cousin of the giant heads, Crawling Baby one of a larger (but not huge) group of “hollow babies,” crawling or sitting infant-like figurines, which have been unearthed over the years throughout the Olmec territories, now present-day Mexican states of Veracruz, Tobasco and Puebla.  Although hollow, these figurines were not used as vessels.

Baby Figure, Olmec, 12th-9th century BCE
Ceramic, cinnabar, red ocher; 13 3/8″
(Photo © Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Incredibly naturalistic in comparison with later Mayan and Aztec sculpture, the de Young baby nonetheless displays the typical stylized elements of the art form—elongated head, impressionistic features with winged eyes, and paw-like hands.  These features make him seem more like a miniature adult, which would seem to indicate a purpose beyond simple effigy.  The elongated head is a most interesting element; generally,  it is thought to reflect the practice of head binding, a customary way the Olmec differentiated their elite.

If Crawling Baby represents the elite class in Olmec culture, he probably had a ceremonial purpose. Perhaps the remnants of red paint on his hands and feet tie are clues to the his specific use.  The Olmecs were the first people in the Americas to bury offerings with their dead. Other types of infantile figures appear throughout Olmec art as obvious sacrificial objects. Additionally, the Olmecs had a healthy belief in shamanism; the jaguar was a most potent spirit.  Figures in crawling poses are believed to have been emulations of the jaguar, who, among his many roles, transported bodies to the underworld. Thus these figures have come to be viewed as symbols of the transition from life to death.

Was Crawling Baby meant to be a stand in for an infant in a sacrificial ceremony or, worse, the effigy of an infant sacrificed?

Wider Connections

Michael Coe, Ed., The Olmec World—Ritual and Rulership
Colossal Sculptures at La Venta
Tribal Arts Magazine

Cult Offering: Frida Kahlo at SF MOMA

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , on July 24, 2008 by Liz Hager


Frida Kahlo, Moses, 1945,
oil on board, 61×75.6cm
(© Diego Rivera & Frida Kalho Museums Trust).

A friend asked me this morning whether she should go to the Frida Kahlo show at SFMOMA.  At first, I was sorely tempted to advise her—DON’T BOTHER. Even with tickets, the very first room was impossibly crowded. Moreover, it was brimming with hoards of people strapped into their self-guide cassette players, moving sluggishly, as they tend to do, in a crowd, effectively creating huge barrier zones in front of the paintings. My usual strategy of moving on and circling back did not work; there were throngs around every painting in that room. I even encountered more than one mother attempting to manouever baby strollers through the crowd. (Who thought those would be a good thing to allow in a popular show?) Viewing any of the paintings would be a challenging, if not fruitless, effort.

In that first room,  I was all set to walk out of the show in utter frustration. Admittedly, I’ve had the good fortune to have seen much of Kahlo’s work previously in various places (Casa Azul, Dolores Olmedo and Tate Modern’s 2005 show), so my tolerance for overcrowding in this case was extremely low.  Still, I pressed on and was rewarded with a few charming little pieces I hadn’t seen before in the less crowded rooms beyond.

By the last room, my disgust melted into reflection.  Amidst the continuing evidence of mass popularity, I wondered what it was that continued to draw the masses. Was it really the art? After all, other galleries in the Museum were empty.  I began to reassess my relationship to Kahlo’s work. With the Frida image resolutely placed in our mass-communicated consciousness through kitschy magnets sporting images of her paintings, iconic t-shirts and even dress-up paper dolls, I had to ask myself whether the work itself held up. Was it still providing me with new and relevant insights?

Frida Kahlo didn’t hit the US radar screen until the 1978 SF show, 24 years after she died.  Certainly as a dead female artist,  “launched” during the height of the Woman’s Movement, she was bound to attract attention.  In addition, the personal narrative told through her work—the triumph of the human spirit over inconceivable pain—had universal appeal.  Add to that unfailing human Schadenfreude—physical and emotional misery is relentlessly on display in Kahlo’s oeuvre to a degree quite unlike any other artist—and you may have the basic fuel that propelled Kahlo into cultdom (dare I suggest secular martyrdom?) But what is keeping her there?

As a gringa outsider, it was the very deliberate amalgamation of references to her country’s pre-Columbian and art traditions (retablo, ex-votos) that sucked me in—Frida as the product of noble and not so primitive cultures; Frida as embodiment of simple peasantry; Frida as beloved Virgen de Guadalupe, national symbol of Mexican-ness.  She opened up a whole new world of culture that I am still mining. Further, I always found her subject matter more easily accessible than the European surrealists. Also, to me the naïveté of her folk-art style was an antidote to the often overbearing style and relentless march of socialism on display in the work of her countrymen, Rivera and the other muralists.

At the SF MOMA show, however,  I found myself disturbingly and inexplicably disengaged from the auto-iconic nature of the work. Seeing the same version of her in every painting became hypnotic after a while. I stopped really seeing the details.  For the first time, I had a nagging thought that an oeuvre comprised solely of self portraits from anyone less famous would be labeled narrow and self-indulgent. Was I reluctant to face that Frida’s work had passed from the realm of high art to mass iconography and I wasn’t a member of the cult?

With time, I expect that Kahlo’s work will become something like an old, undemanding friend to me. Though the intense emotional relationship has faded and we don’t see much of each other, we still have history together, and that counts for something.

Wider Connections

Venetian Red: “What the Water Gave Her”

Denise Rosenzweig—Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress: The Fashion of Frida Kahlo

Heyden Herrera—Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo

Helga Prignitz-Poda—Frida Kahlo Retrospective

Santos y Milagros: Retablos and Ex-Votos

Posted in Folk & Tribal Art, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , on July 17, 2008 by Liz Hager

San Luis P., Retablo (commissioned by Inocensio Medina?), 1972, enamel (?) on tin. (Photo courtesy the Author)

TRANSLATION — “I give thanks to the Virgin of San Juan of the Lakes and to Christ the King of the Mountains for the miracle granted of restoring my father’s health.  During the 6 months of being ill with an illness, a dangerous one.  He waz (approximates the misspelling in Spanish) going to be operated on and that was not necessary.” 

When I met my husband many years ago, besides being interested in him, I was fascinated by the small ex-voto he possessed (above), the first I had ever seen.  Retablos (or retablos santos) and their first cousins, ex-votos, are small devotional paintings of saints (retablos) or miracles (ex-votos), introduced into Latin & South America through Catholicism on the heels (or should I say “on the hooves”?) of the Conquistadores. These simple, sometimes surreal, pieces of folk art are very much a part of the larger art traditions at work in Central and South America since the Spanish arrived. The particular brew of indigenous cultures, Spanish colonialism and Catholicism has made for some fascinating, even intoxicating, outcomes over the centuries.  

Initially, only the wealthy could afford retablos, as they were painted on expensive materials, such as canvas, wood, or copper. By the early 1800s, however, cheaper tin-plated steel became widely available, and these paintings provided an accessible way for the masses to possess, in the case of a retablo, an icon of a saint on the home altar that would ensure health, fertility, or general good luck.  When an individual was rescued from dire circumstances (e.g.saved from drowning, severe illness, death, etc.),  a specially-commissioned ex-voto documented the intercession from Christ or the appropriate saint. Executed largely by untrained artists, ex-votos unlike retablos,  contained the story in childish scrawl (complete with misspellings), which only adds to their naïve and utterly enchanting quality.  Although the tradition endures, the popularity of these paintings as devotional items pretty much peaked in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

A robust collectors’ market thrives, however, spurred on, I suspect, by the legitimacy conferred on this art form by major museums in Mexico City (Museo Franz Mayer, Museo Nacional de Antropología,both fantastic places to visit on any trip to DF) and the American Southwest. The retablo collection at New Mexico State University totals over 1700.   

Want more?

Colonial Arts —A reliable Bay Area source of Spanish colonial artifacts and a source of great retablos images.  I’ve always visit their booth at the annual Tribal Arts Show.

Art & Faith in Mexico: The 19th Century Retablo Tradition

For a wonderful connection (with pictures) between Romania’s Merry Cemetary and Mexican ex-votos—Paula’s Backlog

Airport Art: Michael Stutz’s Peplos Kore

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Public Art, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , on July 15, 2008 by Liz Hager


Michael Stutz, The Peplos Kore, installed 2005 5.5’x22″18,” shredded cardboard over plywood armature, San Francisco Terminal 1, installed 2005 (photos © Liz Hager)

If you fly through SFO with any frequency, no doubt you’ve noticed the special exhibit cases running the length of the Arrivals Hall from the security gates to the boarding areas.  The exhibits change every so often. From what I was able to tell over the years, albeit it from the poor vantage point of a brisk moving-walkway, they ranged from the cute (e.g. toys) to the educational (e.g. the antecedents of computers) and even the seriously interesting (e.g.Scandinavian furniture design). On the one hand, art in airports is a novel concept; since many corporations have deemed public access to lobbies a security risk, an airport is one of the few public places that masses of people can actually still see free art. (Not all of it is behind the security gates.) On the other hand, when traveling, who actually has the time, or feels they have the time, to spend really looking at pieces of art?

Because of this,  I am sorry to say that the scope of the commitment at SFO to permanently-installed contemporary art had actually never registered with me.  A recent trip changed that. My husband is a seriously nervous traveler. Thus, with lots of time to spare, we ambled down Terminal 1 to Gate 46. Passing Deborah Butterfield’s metal horse released a moment of thought.   Reveling in a new-found sense of leisure, I purposely scanned both sides of the aisle in search of other art. What I saw amazed me. Over there was a Manuel Neri; my, my, there’s a Jun Keneko ceramic sculpture; oh wait, isn’t that a…NOGUCHI?

Under the aegis of the SF “Public Art Ordinance” (under which 2% of the cost of the construction of government structures goes to art) and the curatorial direction of the SF Arts Commission, SFO has been collecting works since 1977, both through commissions and purchases. The permanent collection now numbers more than 75 pieces by modern and contemporary artists, many of whom have lived or had some association with San Francisco.

With 20 minutes until boarding, I pondered Michael Stutz’s cardboard Kore, which, from what I can tell, the Arts Commission commissioned from Stutz (for $33,000, as notes to the Commission meeting reveal). Korai are the female statuary equivalents of male Kouros, not exactly deities, but perhaps based on Persephone, goddess of the underworld.  In keeping with this interpretation, they were often deployed by wealthy citizens (circa 6th century BCE) as votives or stand ins for the patron with the gods at the grave site of a family member. Korai are almost always approximately life-sized, although curiously not replicating human proportions, and fully clothed (just the males were nude). Stutz has replicated the Peplos Kore at the Acropolis—facing frontal, one foot slightly ahead, one-arm extended with an offering, a wreath or incense perhaps, to their respective deities.  In a wink to our modern experience of the icon, his statue too is missing her hand. In emulating the garish colors traditionally painted on the Korai through the colors of everyday “found” objects (cardboard strips), Stutz contrasts the mundane with the sacredness of a precious cultural artifact.

But why choose a Kore, and why the Peplos Kore, for this venue?  As the agents called for boarding, I was left to wonder what Stutz’s modern-day equivalent of a commemorative statue for the dead was ultimately saying about our airport.

Interested in more?

For a full listing of works and their locations: SFOArt.

Michael Stutz


Peplos Kore

13th Century Shock & Awe

Posted in Architecture, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Mosaic, People & Places with tags , , , , , , on July 12, 2008 by Liz Hager


Unknown Artist, Deësis (Entreaty), mid 13th century
Glass mosaic,Hagia Sofia, Istanbul
(photo ©Liz Hager)

Justinian consecrated his famous church in Constantinople (Istanbul) in 567. It  was to stand as the largest church in Christendom for over 1000 years, until the completion of St. Peter’s in Rome.  In the mid-1970s, sitting in a darkened art history classroom, I never imagined that one day, 30 years later, I would be standing underneath the huge dome of Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom of God) blissfully mesmerized by the shafts of light streaming down through its nearly 40 clerestory windows. Along with frescoes and other ornament, the church—later mosque and now museum—is filled with large, exemplary mosaics of a quality rarely now found anywhere else in the world (with the possible exception of Ravenna). The “Deësis (Entreaty) Mosaic” is probably the most famous of the Hagia Sophia’s Byzantine mosaics. The theme shows up often in the world of icons—Christ is flanked by Mary (on the left) and St. John the Baptist (right), both of whom gaze at him imploring him to intercede for humanity on Judgment Day.

This mosaic dates to the period known as the “Restoration of Constantinople.”  From the 7th century until the early 13th century,  Byzantine aristocrats (Greek Christians really) ruled Constantinople in an unbroken line.  After the Third Crusade failed miserably in its attempt to recover Jerusalem, subsequent Popes agitated for another Crusade. Nearly a century later, when forces were mounted , the political situation in Byzantium (as the city was then known) had changed dramatically. The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) never made it to Jerusalem, rather it was permanently diverted to Constantinople.  In attempt to reunite the two Christian empires, the Crusaders drove out the Byzantian emperor, and installed one of their own.  It was the most profitable Crusade with most of the spoils going to the city-state of Venice. In fact, you’ll need to go to St. Mark’s Basilica to see the riches of Hagia Sophia. (The horses that guard the Basilica are perhaps the most well-known items of booty.)

Christ Figure (Deësis) detail, mid-13th century,
Mosaic, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
(Photo ©Liz Hager)

On July 25, 1261, the forces of Michael VIII Palaiologos, a Byzantine aristocrat and commander, recaptured Constantinople from its last Latin Emperor, Baldwin II.  Their actions served to divide the church forever into the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic sects. (The city’s conversion to Islam was another  Michael, who ruled as Emperor for nearly 25 years, became embroiled in his own political intrigues, while trying to wrestle his kingdom from the clutches of the Italian merchants and defending it against the Turks, the Slavs, and the various peoples of Europe.   So what does the Deësis Mosaic have to do with the Crusaders? Legend has it that it was commissioned to mark the end of domination by the Roman Catholic Church and return to the Orthodox traditions.

By comparison with the rather stiff and formal icons of the period, the Christ of the Deësis Mosaic is more naturalistically depicted—his face composed of many fleshtones and softer contour outlining, no mean feat when dealing with little squares of pre-existing color. In fact, many compare the Deësis Mosaic stylistically to the work to an Italian painter of the same time—Duccio.  You be your own judge, but I think the tiny specks of glittery light thrown off by the mosaic’s tesserae create an otherworldly aura no painting can match.

Mary & Child Icon, ca. 13th century
Tempera on Wood
(courtesy: The Icons of Cyprus by D. Talbot Rice)

Beyond the associations with the color gold, the shimmering squares enhance the overall majesty of the image, already a potent one as a result of its larger than life-size dimensions. I can imagine the Deësis Mosaic as the 13th-century equivalent of a religious billboard, broadcasting its message about the Christ Pantocrator and the potency of true faith.

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Madonna and Child, c. 1300,
tempera and gold on wood
(photo courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Wider Connections

Stolen (and recovered) antiquities in a modern venue — Cypriot icons

History of the Deësis Mosaic

Egg Tempera

David Talbot Rice—Art of the Byzantine Era (World of Art series)

Your Bhangra Education

Posted in Liz Hager, Music & Dance with tags , , on July 10, 2008 by Liz Hager


Not a distant cousin of the bongo.  

If you’ve never heard of this danceable music form, you wouldn’t be alone, but your group is becoming smaller and smaller. Bhangra is out of the basement, so to speak. Once you’ve sampled, if Bhangra doesn’t propel you out of your seat (or at least wiggle in your chair), possibly there is no hope for you. 

Bhangra is a traditional Punjabi (i.e. Sikh, now part of Pakistan) folk music—lively, joyful, infectious. Primary instruments include the signature whiny string instrument called the iktar and the dhol (plural dhlolis) the double-end drum. Usually, but not always, singing accompanies the music. Although technically I have no idea,  I just imagine that bhangra is about celebration (of love for example), not complaint.  And what would bhangra be without the dancers? I know this is a traditional dance, centuries old, but sometimes, a line of bhangra dancers look downright silly with arms and legs all a kimbo.

Since 1990 Bhangra has been arguably the fastest growing music/dance form around the globe, due to cross-pollination with hip-hop and reggae—it’s amazing how well they all go together. If you really get into it, you’ll probably end up at one of the more or less annual dance competitions staged around the country (but mostly in California, as UC-Berkeley, LA and San Diego especially active).

Here’s an introductory sampling:

Snap – The Power of Bhangra

Bhangra fusion, Singapore backdrop, English & Punjabi rap, elephants, tea plantations. What can I say, it’s the ultimate!

More video

More rap meets bhangra

Bhangra (Michael) Jackson. I dare you to laugh outloud, Simon did.

Other resources

Basement Bhangra  DJ Rekha is the it girl.

Basement Bhangra (You Tube)

Rajinder Singh Rai aka MC Punjabi

The Prince of Pilfer: “Spiritual America” at the Walker Art Center

Posted in Contemporary Art, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , on July 9, 2008 by Liz Hager


Richard Prince, “Untitled (Cowbow),” 1989, Ektacolor print, 50×70″ (photo courtesy The Guggenheim)

We’ve just returned from a hot and miserably humid Fourth of July weekend in Minneapolis. Even the mighty Mississippi, which for the most part is actually quite lazy up that way, couldn’t offer much respite from the sweat-drenching conditions. A Saturday morning visit to the grounds of the Walker Art Center to see choreographer Tricia Brown recreate four of her early dances temporarily diverted our thoughts from the heat.  It was a special treat to have the choreographer present, moving here and there among the spectators (shouting directives at us rather than the dancers!). I was introduced to Ms. Brown’s work in the early 80s; all these years later, I still find it fresh and witty. I still have an immediate emotional response.

Later, in the cool dark haven of the Museum, among the temporary exhibits, I found “Spiritual America,” the traveling “retrospective” of Richard Prince’s work. This show generated a lot of controversy when it opened at the Guggenheim last fall. With no plans to be in NY at that time, however, I had more or less written off the opportunity to see it.

I entered the show at the wrong end, and thus made my way through it backwards. Interestingly, that didn’t seem to matter, as the exhibit is organized to reflect the artist’s predilection for working in themes (or the fact that he has no discernible progression of style).  A great deal of what is on display are works of appropriation, the technique on which Prince’s built his reputation. Some, like the ubiquitous nurses and recycled jokes are paintings; others, like the cowboys and biker chicks, are photographs.

As I wandered through the rooms, disappointment grew. The work was doing nothing for me.  Despite, or perhaps because of, this I paused for a long time in front of the cowboy images and pondered my lack of connection. Here before me was quintessentially American subject matter. Surely I must have some response! There had to be something to it; after all, the cowboy image featured above sold for nearly $1.25 million at Christie’s in 2005, a record for a work of photography.

There were certain things I had to acknowledge.  I know that Prince, along with Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, and others in the “Pictures” generation, is a figurehead in the post-Warhol, Post-Modern (read: fresh and unique) comment on America’s commodity culture.  I can even appreciate how he has gone beyond Pop Art, which used the symbols of popular culture for its own artistic ends quite effectively. By contrast, Prince has made his mark by  “clipping” (technically re-photographing) whole images, as well as stories and jokes, and RE-presenting them, often virtually unchanged from their original state.  Because the cowboy images were originally part of the Marlboro ads, they immediately evoke the mass-consumed fiction that was served up by the campaign. On a grander plane, the pieces function as mirrors reflecting us to us without the bother of an artistic sensibility.  Ok, I get that. As an artist, I’m intensely bothered by the wholesale appropriation. Sure, every artist borrows, but hasn’t Prince crossed over the line to outright stealing? A corporation holding the copyright on an image (as Philip Morris does with the Marlboro photos) doesn’t make it any less problematic for Prince to use it.   (For a thoughtful discourse on this topic, see James Traub: Art Rogers vs. Jeff Koons.)

Finally, as a mixed-media artist using photography, I am quite sympathetic to the ways in which Prince, along with Thomas Ruff, Jeff Wall, and Hiroshi Sugimoto have pushed the traditional definition of photography in the fine arts world.

In the end, acknowledging all of this was of no consequence, because I couldn’t get beyond the images themselves. Actually, the honest truth is that I found them boring and tired. I want art that elevates above the banal, not glorifies it.

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