Category: Fine Art

Carl Andre and Minimalism

Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII (1966) is an intriguing example of Minimalist sculpture. What it is, as one observer put it when it was exhibited in the 70s, was “a pile of bricks”. I agree with this simple observation, as it is a collection of firebricks arranged into a tidy structure, but remains as a mere pile of bricks. The origin of the work, particularly its name, Equivalent VIII, came from a larger work of the same name. The pile of bricks was a part of a collection of eight piles of bricks (all of which were sent back to the brick yard after the works first exhibition), that only gained a level of acceptability as art because something had been done to them. The material, while ‘unartistic’, was manipulated to become something. So, Andre’s Equivalent VIII that was shown at the Tate in 1976, a small part of a larger realized idea, which didn’t even use the same bricks.

To better understand the Equivalent VIII, we need to look at Minimalism closer. According to the Tate via their website:

“Minimalism or minimalist art can be seen as extending the abstract idea that art should have its own reality and not be an imitation of some other thing. We usually think of art as representing an aspect of the real world (a landscape, a person, or even a tin of soup!); or reflecting an experience such as an emotion or feeling. With minimalism, no attempt is made to represent an outside reality, the artist wants the viewer to respond only to what is in front of them. The medium, (or material) from which it is made, and the form of the work is the reality. Minimalist painter Frank Stella famously said about his paintings ‘What you see is what you see’”

This idea that Minimalist art highlights reality, in its most truthful form, and request a viewer’s response to an otherwise overlooked aspects of our reality. I’m curious as to what type of response is expected from the observer, as the controversy around the Equivalent VIII in the 70s suggests that people recognise what they are seeing, and wonder as to what reason it belongs in a gallery for contemplation. When the piece was seen by the public in 1976, they saw something they were already aware of as the display looked like something a person might recognise from a building site. They recognised it as material to be ‘used’ but was unused. The original work of eight piles of bricks from the earlier exhibition discussed the simplicity of work by appearing to do something, to have meaning.

Andre himself would disagree with both of these interpretations. In an interview with the Tate in 2014 he agreed that his work emphasized the material but not that they have any meaning. Andre said:

“When kids start learning to read, they stop making art, because something has to mean something, and works of art don’t mean anything. They are realities, what does reality mean – it’s there. Because our culture tends to turn everything into language, we lose site of the actual being of things.”

Andre is saying that no art has this fabled ‘meaning’, and that it is the fault of culture trying to rationalize and romanticize everything, we can’t appreciate simplicity.

It was this reverence of simplicity that ignited the Minimalist movement in the early 60s as a response to the Abstract Expressionist movement. Where artists assigned emotion into everything they created, expressing an indirect meaning to their work. Minimalism responded to an art world saturated by meaning, by providing the opposite. A meaningless experience.

Student Artwork – The Yeast Imperative

In my most recent module we were tasked with producing Assemblage sculptures. These types of sculptures are similar to Collages. While Collage is predominantly two-dimensional, Assemblage uses similar processes to produce three-dimensional pieces. Like Collage, Assemblage uses unartistic materials such as Ready-Mades (otherwise called Found-Objects) … Continue reading Student Artwork – The Yeast Imperative

How Effective is Surrealism?

To most, Surrealism is the art of confusion, it detaches itself from logic and reason. For others, it is a vehicle where one might explore the artist or even themselves through a multitude of media and to evaluate their meaning through psychological interpretation.

One of the most notable examples are the works of Man Ray, with his combinations of objects and combinations of photographs. This notion of combination of disparate things first appears in Lautréamont’s severe poetry; about the beauty of the accidental encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table. Man Ray’s Gift (1921) combines two domestic objects and transforms them into a dangerous utensil.

Gift, 1921 – Man Ray

The place where Surrealism really took root was in Mexico, André Breton himself described it as the most surreal place on earth. As you may know, Mexico’s culture is known for its colorful celebrations and traditions, such as the Day of the Dead. This is what made it a fantastic place for Surrealism’s development. Artist such as Frida Kahlo (who wasn’t a Surrealist but was admired by Breton as if she were) and Leonora Carrington, who’s bizarre paintings are reminiscent of of characters from Mexico’s traditions, are examples of the countries influence.

Day of The Dead celebration

El Mundo Magico de Los Mayas, 1963 – Leonora Carrington

However, I’m not posting to discuss Surrealism in Mexico, I would only be doing it injustice due to my lack of knowledge, I wanted to point out an issue that I think needs addressing. The artist Gabriel Orozoco, born and raised in Mexico, made an interesting comment about Surrealism in Sarah Thornton’s book 33 Artists in 3 Acts (2014) that reminds me of something I had been researching for my Graphic Design module. Orozoco said that “I come from a country where a lot of art is labeled surrealist. I grew up with it and I hate that kind of esoteric, dreamlike, evasive, poetic, sexual, easy, cheesy surrealist practice. For example, sculpture that blows up some little thing into a spectacle” What prevents this statement from being uneducated is the artist excessive exposure to the art throughout his life. Which makes his comment that it’s “easy” all the more interesting.

What this reminds me of is the Elaboration Likelihood Model, a devise in advertising that acts in accordance to predicted physiological responses to things, and the use of norm violation, where you do or show something that does not act according to socially accepted things and shocks or disturbs a person. The research I was doing was in support of how obsolete that shock advertising is, the advertising tactic that forces people to view things upsetting (or sometimes just unusual) in order to get an appropriate response.

Like shock advertising, Surrealism was most effective in its conception, when it was first encountered by an audience. But thanks to the mass production of images and the accessibility of them through the internet, which I have described in one of my previous posts, is that much of their initial shock is reduced, much like shock advertising today. (http://www.campaignlive.co.uk/article/900778/close-up-does-shock-advertising-work)

I want to point out that, this does not concern all Surrealist art in my opinion, but of which that makes certain, perhaps easy, alterations that cause you to see the object in a new light. Like what Man Ray had done with Gift through combination of two things. Today this sort of alteration is commonly found in the work of Jeff Koons, where his balloon animals for instance, are the same only in visual appearance as your normal understanding of balloon animals (social norm), yet they become something else with where they are, what they are made from and how much they, while appearing simple, costs (money being a frequent aspect of Koons’s work).

Orozoco continues describing that he does not like “sculpture that blows up some little thing into a big spectacle”, which Thornton points out Koons as an example. What I’m drawing on here is, like Thornton has pointed to in her book, is that artists such as Koons are able to use this tactic to make anything seem Surreal, and thus, artistic. This is what concerned me when I was comparing Surrealism to shock advertising, how that something so simple can be raised to a grandiose level.

(Blue), Ballon Monkey (Red)Balloon Rabbit (Yellow), 2013 – Jeff Koons

This is all my own personal interpretation of what I’m seeing, that these works do remain interesting in themselves, but, some of the simple processes are being exploited. Exploitation leads to repetition, and repetition leads to carelessness, and this removes credibility to a process that I think could be used far more intellectually.

Rather than taking anything and drawing a spotlight onto it through some sort of transformation, leaving viewers to make forced judgments depending on their own relation with the object (which is still surreal, but I fear is becoming superficial). I think that Surrealist art of the transformative kind now needs a core of some kind, perhaps a mixture of things, like a cake recipe that bakes in your mind. Some new direction that is more planed out and respectful of the process that is more assertive.

I know Surrealism is strongly associated with ambiguity and mystery, but I think that this is exactly what is allowing for more “easy” artworks. I would like to see work that actively tries to change this process, adding something to it.

 


 

If anyone wants to interject anything, please do. Perhaps I’m paranoid of familiarity and commercial artists or something.

 

Art Through Interpretation – Part 1 – Symbolism

In the modern world we are faced with an array of differing visual media, those which enlighten us and those which annoy us. These responses are the result of ones interpretation of them, what we understand of them and how they effect us. The intention of art can be mystifying because of how, without the proper guidance or mindset, will appear pointless. I want to highlight some of the methods artists may use to convey their intentions, making use of work that effectively corresponds such. I will look at artwork from the detachment from reality that is Surrealism to the narrative images of Classical paintings. I want to expand your ability to recognize the intention of artists and what they are doing.

First of all, I want to discuss the importance of symbolism. Not to be confused with references, that always relies on the literal existence of something else, symbols are an important vehicle for conveying less tangible elements for a piece of work. A rose, for example, can symbolize romance due to its passionate red color and its dangerous thorns. A black rose, while similar, has a more sinister connotation evoking death and despair due to its darker features. This extends to settings as well as individual objects. Color is an important factor, just by its presents it can trigger certain emotional responses. Purple, for instance, is associated with royalty because only they could afford to wear it. Here are a few more symbolic interpretations surrounding color:

  • Yellow – Energy, Cowardice, Philosophy
  • Red – Power, Lust, Danger
  • Blue – Peace, Loyalty, Depression
  • Green – Nature, Envy, Healthy
  • Purple – Mourning, Mysterious, Honor
  • Orange – Vibrant, Enthusiastic, Flamboyant

Symbolism Movement

From the 1875s to 1910, Symbolism developed its own movement. The ideas behind it involved mysticism, the melancholic and the perverse. Artists such as Gustave Moreau (1826-98) and Odilon Redon (1840-1915) would create images that seemed dreamlike and dark, that would evoke feelings around religious subjects or present somber moods with some directness. The movements best known work is based around human sadness, such as Pierre Puvis de Chavannes’s (18224-98) The Poor Fisherman (1881) or George Frederic Watt’s (1814-1904) Hope (1886).

Hope by George Frederic Watts, 1886

I want to take a look at Watt’s Hope painting, as I think it conveys many things through symbolic means. The image contains a young blind woman seated on a globe playing the only remaining string on a broken lyre. The woman leans closely to the broken instrument to here its music. There are multiple perceptions to take on the piece, one being that while the title suggests a positive end, the atmosphere of it seems to be of dwindling hope. The setting looks cold and bear with only smoky wisps accompanying it, and the girl sits uncomfortably on a mound while begging for music from her broken lyre. However you could see the girl symbolizing universal hope, as she may be seated on the globe, and represents the struggles everyone may face to attain something beautiful. These are a mere two ideas, there are many more possable meaning tothe piece.

Religious Work

The Symbolism movement wasn’t the only instance where symbolism was present, as it can be recorded being used throughout history in periods including the Renaissance and beyond. Symbolism has always had a strong presence in religious paintings, as religion itself functions on many symbols. Christianity for instance has the cross to symbolize Christ’s sacrifice, and traditions such as Christmas that symbolize his birth.

Christ in the House of His Parents by John Everett Millais, 1849-50

One of these paintings is Christ in the House of His Parents (1849-50). Being one of the first scene paintings produced by The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (1848-1900) by John Everett Millais (1828-1910), who wanted to depict the holy family in a realistic environment that was unsaturated by idealization. By doing this, certain elements that had been used so frequently to symbolize divine characteristics were deemed unrealistic and would detract from the artists intention of a humble origin story. This meant that they would need to be implemented more discreetly. This is what is so fantastic about this image, it’s full of symbols of the young Christ’s future in a way that does not draw away from the domestic scene. In the background there is a triangle that symbolizes the Holy Trinity, Christ has blood on his palm and feet that call to the Crucifixion, which is strengthened by the presence of nails on the table and planks of wood in the background. You also have the young John the Baptist carrying a bowl of water to clean Christ’s wound, another preconception to future events.

Portraits

Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, 1434

Symbolism is also present in portraiture, as can be seen in Jan van Eyck’s (1390-1441) double portrait of a wealthy merchant and  his fashionable wife. While nobody is truly certain of what exactly this painting is for, all can agree on the present symbols that the man is a wealthy merchant because of his expensive fur coat, which may of been his product because of the value of fur at the time. Also, his wife wears the fashionable clothing of the time, that is filled with intricate detail and is made with a lot of material. There is also the decorated environment that symbolizes this, such as the red cloth on some of the furniture, symbolizing power and importance. It also symbolizes passion, to copulate for a baby perhaps. This idea is further implemented  by the green dress the woman is wearing, as green is the color of fertility. You could suggest that the manner in which she holds the dress also indicates fertility, but apparently this was something women did with this sort of dress anyway, but I wouldn’t put it passed the artist to hint at pregnancy. You can also detect a holy presence in the picture; there are miniature details of the Passions outlining the mirror in the background, and some speculate that the single lit candle symbolizes gods presence. Until recently it was officially understood to be a painting that captured the marriage of the husband and wife, but now its meaning is undetermined. It could be that the image in a memorial to the woman, as the couple’s hands may be drifting apart. Or it may very well a simple double portrait that has information regarding the husband.

Still Life

Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life by Harmen Steenwyck, 1640

Still life, while usually disregarded as true art due to their perceived simplicity, became integral to an artists success during the the Protestant Reformation and in countries that adopted Protestant ideas such as Holland and Spain. This was a change that meant depictions of holy figures, such as St Peter or the Virgin Mary, was sacrilege. This meant that patrons of this faith would be far less inclined to commission for religious works, and the Protestant churches, who beforehand used to be their main patrons, were now lost. The reason that still life thrived in this time is because they did not traditionally depict holy figures. They consisted of physical objects, those of which followed a certain theme, like breakfast or hunting. But for those who still wanted artwork that related to religion in some way, there was vanity paintings. These works would not contain direct items that had clear religious implications, instead they used symbolic meaning behind certain items to convey religious attitudes. They would present objects of earthly pleasures, in contrast to symbols of death and heavenly ascendance. They might contain the decay of fruit to symbolize the decay of ones piety through such indulgences, and inevitable end we all face. These vanity paintings were invented to stir people onto the right path to heaven. Here are a few more examples of items and the symbolic meanings they held:

  • Books – Knowledge, Luxuries
  • Shells – Fertility, Wealth
  • Produce – Sustaining life
  • Silk – Wealth, Luxuries
  • Blades – Military, Craftsmanship

Composition would also play a part in these works. In Harmen Steenwyck’s (1612-56) painting, shown above, he displays all of the objects on the right side of the painting diagonally and has a shaft of light come down in the empty space. This light is directed towards the symbolic objects, which in doing so symbolizes ones spiritual existences in contrast the the physical realm and its vanities.

Surrealism

In the wake of Freudian psychoanalysis (in early 1900s); artists, poets and writers from around Europe came together to create work concerning the human mind that contradicted the logical expectations of the conscious. This group were called the Surrealists. Andre Breton (1896-1966),  their leader, concluded that the the unconscious and the conscious could be combined to create a “super reality” – Surrealism. They experimented with how their own mind could be altered in order to gain greater access to the unconscious. The work produced by the Surrealists were strange, scary and confusing. The images created are considered dreamlike given there strong association with the unconscious and that they sometimes even resemble dreams. But they do hold symbolic meaning, hidden in a code of mental filtering that is best understood through psychoanalytical dissection, you can create your own picture of certain aspects of the artist, perhaps secrets about their childhood or intimate desires.

Salvador Dali (1904-89) was a prominent figure of the Surrealist art, as he was one of its most famous and controversial members. He always attempted to go against the logical and made shocking statements that went against much of what surrealists valued. Dali’s work, specifically between 1928 and 1933, relied on the “paranoiac-critical method”. Essentially another way for him to access his unconscious, but this method also allowed him to make use of his conscious state at the same time. It allowed him his precise artistic style (using his conscious) while inspired by his unconscious. This is interesting, because it allows for the abstract thoughts of the unconscious to be rendered into a readable manner.

The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali, 1931

The Persistence of Memory is one of the results of this combination, and given the paintings title along with its subjects, you can see that there’s a connection. Although, like many Surrealist works, the meaning is almost never straightforward, especially with Dali, it’s known that he creates work that includes visual identity through two disparate objects. In this case it appears that Dali has attempted to make a connection with time and melting. This could have a somewhat literal meaning, symbolizing how time can simply melt away before you know it, or the flowing eternity. Or it could symbolize a physical description of Einstein’s theory of relativity, about how time is subject to changing dramatically anywhere in the universe, a subject that was being discussed around this time. Besides the pocket watches, there appears a flat portrait of whom might be Dali, equally as flexible as the watches, there seems to be a fixation with himself and time. This portrait also seems to stretch off into the darker side of the image and is lacking any sort of mustache. Perhaps Dali is showing concern about his future, this is supported be the be the ants that are eating one of the timepieces. He was highly ambitious, so the idea of losing it all must have plagued his mind.

Conclusion

Symbolism, as you can see, exists throughout almost all art, if not intentional it’s psychological. Unfortunately most of us lack the required knowledge to pick out some of the less obvious symbols. Leaving us only the written work of others to rely on if we are struggling with our reading of art. But provided the examples I’ve provided, you should find that artists are communicating far easier. Remember that sometimes you may need incite to the artist and the environment they lived/ live in. You may also find that other media such as films, books, games, theater and music may also contain symbolic messages; if you are interested in subjects than I suggest you look into the YouTube channel Wisecrack at https://www.youtube.com/user/thugnotes, they have a series that deals with this subject and has quality writing.

The great 19th century writer Thomas Carlyle (On Heroes and Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History – 1840) writes that Symbolism is “a concealed revelation, something we can see visibly, but the true meaning is deeply hidden and can only be unlocked if one contemplates and considers. However once unlocked, true revelation of that meaning of the symbol, is revealed.”