But What Is Art?

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Grafting Into History

     The following student work shows three related pieces from each person alongside possible connections to the work of previous artists.  This critique excercise helps students to recognize that their work belongs to the history of ideas.  Artists are influenced and make choices based on art they have perceived in the past. 

     Ideas belong to everyone.  The contribution of an artist is to graft their work into a genre or movement and further that idea in the present.  Students gain a sense of how their work is similar but also different from the work of other artists.  The goal is to recognize a style or subject matter or technique unique to the individual student which adds novelty to a particular category of art. 

Student 1 began work with chalk using geometric and angular forms. Her work is imaginative and non-representational. I paired this piece with Kandinsky because of the use of geometry in the design. Subject matter is not identifiable but detached from physical reality. This is similar to the spiritual aspects of Kandinsky's later work.

Wassily Kandinsky, Composizione VIII, 1923, oil, 55x79 inches. Kandinsky wrote Point to Line and Plane as well as Spirituality in Art. Natural forms are progressively abstracted until they detach from recognizable subject matter. Kandinsky uses the pure elements of art to elicit responses that are individualized and personal. Everyone sees themselves somewhere in the composition. Viewers can individually interpret meaning in the non-representational work.

Student 1 continues with non-representational subject matter but experiments with curvilinear forms. Color and shape are dominant. The changes in this work to more curvilinear forms suggest a connection with biomorphic abstraction in the work of Miro. Possible direction for the student would be to tell a story or describe a setting. Miro's work is more narrative so similar but different from this piece.

Joan Miro, Summer, 1838, gouache on paper, 29x22 inches. A Surrealist who invented biomorphic shapes, abstractions of nature emphasizing color and shape to communicate universal experiences. This piece depicts a mother and children at the beach.

Here, Student 1 simplifies the background and emphasizes foreground shapes. Those shapes have become biomorphic in the sense that they create movement by combining shapes into one form. But they are also mechanical suggesting a departure from naturalism at the same time. It reminds me of Klee's twittering birds that can make sounds of nature that are not real but mechanized. Both artists are asking questions about technology and it's place in our natural world. The forms appear to be flying so might represent birds or insects.

Paul Klee, The Twittering Machine, 1922, watercolor and ink. The birds are represented as a technology for making nature sounds through machines. They are also hanging precariously over a chasm, suggesting that machines cannot replace our intuitive connection to natural forms. He understood the effects of technology as removing us from direct interaction with our environment.

Student 2 begins with a nostaglic image that reflects on how vital technology is in the lives of women. Prior to the telephone, many women were isolated as primary caregivers, cooks and housekeepers. The outside world was the domain of men. This lifeline provided women a way to connect with other women. They began defining their world in terms of solidarity with the changing roles for women in the home and workplace. I paired this piece with Gober's Wedding Dress. The dress is a symbol of female captivity and subordination in a culture that is male dominant. The use of symbolism in the wallpaper behind the dress could be a direction for the student to explore.

Robert Gober, Wedding Gown, 1989, silk, satin, 54 inches. The wallpaper behind the dress, a symbol of purity, depicts images of the lynching of a black man and a white man sleeping and complacent. The ritual of marriage is part of the oppressive social stereotyping, encouraging prejudice and exclusion.

Another image of technology is the automobile, primarily sold to men for work and pleasure. But women saw their opportunity for greater mobility and soon added chauffeur to her many roles. By this time, social expectations of women were changing as more entered the job market contributing to the economy. The poster of Rosie the Riveter depicts a strong and assertive woman echoing similar themes in the student's work.

"The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter" is a 1980 documentary film by Connie Field about the American women who went to work during World War II to do "men's jobs." The image is a poster for the film confronting gender stereotypes that continue to exist today.

Student 2 then experimented with collage techniques using colors and images from the 1950's. The collages create a sense of the conflicting values women now experience in society. She can cook, paint the house, commute to work, attend college or travel the country. Never before were there so many options for women to live free and independent lives. Flack's self-portrait uses images often associated with women to make a personal connection with her mother and female lineage. This might be an interesting direction for future work.

Audrey Flack, Queen, 1976, oil, 80x80 inches. This self-portrait brings together cultural symbols of femininity. The rose, orange and apple refer to women's sexuality and fertility. Power is expressed in the Queen of Hearts and chess piece. The portraits of mother and daughter suggest a strong bond between the artist and other strong females in her family history.

Student 3 explored the pure use of color, juxtapositioning warm and cool complements in simple flat compositions. The house is neutral compared to the brilliant orange sky. Heron's color field study also evokes an emotional response but has more shapes which may be a direction the student could explore.

Patrick Heron, Manganese in Deep Violet, 1967, oil, 40x60. Depicts a 5 sided star, red arm, circle and part circles and amoeba shapes emphasizing color and light. The artist sees the natural world as an aesthetic environment. He also uses overlapping shapes to create more depth in the picture plane. The changing size of the shapes add variety to the color study.

Again, in this piece a dominant yellow color pushes subject matter to the edges. A small silhouette of a neutral tree anchors the color to a horizon line. Derain's mountain study also begins with flat shapes in bright colors. The texture added to various shapes may be another direction the student could take to explore texture and color in future work.

Andre Derain, Mountains of Collioure, 1905, oil, 32x40 inches. Fauves “wild beast” used explosive color and impulsive brushstrokes. Texture is applied in short strokes of pure contrasting color on flat shapes.

In this piece, Student 3 explores secondary colors, purple and green, in a symmetrical composition. The tree shape is repeated and more dominant with multiple horizon lines creating backgound planes. I paired this work with Thompson's large Jack Pine in the foreground and offset to the right. Verticals are also present in the student's work, which Thompson creates with the tree itself. Introducing more depth and value changes would be possible directions for the student's next piece.

Tom Thompson, The Jack Pine, 1916, oil, 50x55 inches. Canadian identity recorded in paintings of Algonquin Park. After his death, the Group of Seven, continued his work. Strong verticals and horizontals using the pine tree and lake view. Darker foreground area emphasizes the light and color along the far horizon.