Friday, 24 December 2010

The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2010, at the National Portrait Gallery

The more I go to photographic portraiture exhibitions, the more the boundary before me of portraiture and documentary photography is blurred. From a very good selection of photographs, five winners were highlighted, of which most had on analysis little more than an interesting story, or exciting location to reason their renown. Naturally, subjective as it is, I hardly ever agree that those awarded at prize exhibitions are the cream of the crop…

Thus, it has led me to consider what makes a good photograph? This has to be a distinct answer to what we ask of a painting. And as a medium of modernity, it is perhaps subject to more change. Subject to the treatment of a commodity. Photography represents the leisure of modern society, the accessibility of all to technology, and the blurring between art and the everyday. Therefore for photography to be a high art, it has to live up to increasing standards and regular jousts of criticism. That said its market is wide reaching, and its works potentially mass-produced. Photography is able to be a driving force of modern art, so it’s worth taking seriously.

My opinion is that, fairly formalistically, a photograph’s quality ought to be recognised in its materiality - That is the aesthetic properties in the design of the photograph. Not, for example then, for its exotic location or sob story, that is often true of much photojournalism, especially, as this is a portraiture exhibition.

Through some of my favourites from the exhibition, a visual delight and a mere £2 entry cost, I will define what I believe makes a memorable and praise worthy work of digital art.

The first, Haitian Woman by Ramin Talaie, is to prove I’m not anti-narrative. It would be hard to see a photograph entitled Haitian Woman and not consider the earthquake of early 2010 –therefore the narrative is silently present. The photographer can instead grip us with his oxymoronic model, who is bold yet fragile. To me it is an image of hope. The history of her very face, recalls the history of the natural disaster in our memories. The memory will not leave her; she cannot look at us to acknowledge that which is outside of the event. However her pose is reminiscent of the Greek gods sculpted into marble, held in contrapposto. She stands firm on neglected land, in a dress that carries a feministic and daring confidence. To me the depiction, the colours, the focus, and composition of this photograph are all fine-tuned perfection.

‘Unsafe Journey’ champions the exhibition. Again, it is not the exotic location that sells this picture to me. It is the undeniable technical skill of the photograph. We look down upon a Bangladeshi woman precariously clings to the back of a train in the packed Ramadan season, cradling herself in a wealth of sari material. Of course there is only one place in which to take this shot, from above, and so we imagine Amy Helene Johansson held to the top of this train unshaken and so taking a picture of her ‘sitter’ in crisp, ironic stillness, where the ground beneath blurs into zigzags and strips of earth colours. The lady seems confused to be photographed, but not anxious by her experience – a pictorially anecdotal image.

An example of well-rehearsed concept is The Solitude of Pygmalion by Steve Barrett, who has redressed the Greek myth of the sculptor he was so astounded by the beauty of his work, that he then fell in love with his creation.

Tony Blaire #1 is certainly my favourite headshot of the show. It embodies the characterization and individualization of a good portrait. As well as flaunting the fundamental benefits of the photographic medium – post shooting editing, there is a soberness of his role reflected in the dull tones, and a haggard effect honouring his hard work, in what I believe is a positive portrait of the politician. His eyes glisten, reminding us he is still alive with ideas, and fixed on a goal.

All these photographs speak for themselves. They are visibly mouthy.

Pictured: ‘Haitian Woman’ by Ramin Talaie

‘Unsafe Journey’ by Amy Helene Johannsson

Don’t miss The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portraiture Prize is at the National Portrait Gallery until 20th February 2011.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

The Dizzy of Art

Banksy most be one of the most well-known artists of our generation. Street art as a whole is quickly becoming the twenty-first century’s pop art – the Dizzy Rascal of art. In Coventry, is an exhibition dedicated to the celebrated genre – ‘Street Art: Contemporary Prints from the V&A’, at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum. What is it then that gains it its edge from other contemporary and past art, and popularity amongst a diverse group?

Street art appeals to the rebellious (a side of which everyone has,) because of the forbidden nature of the medium it has grown out of – graffiti. This is only emphasised by the genre’s leading artist Banksy being a fugitive himself, as though he has to hold his head down in shame.

The unique and refreshing core of street art is that the attention isn’t on the artists themselves, as there is only a tag to track the author’s identity, the emphasis is always the artwork. “I’m just trying to make the pictures look good; I’m not trying to make myself look good,” which Banksy recently stated after The Mail on Sunday claimed they’d discovered the name of the infamous character. The paper reported that the man, based on photo identification is the Bristolian (that we know true) Robin Gunningham. Though this information seems dubious when the mother of the thirty-four year old public school boy denied ever having a son.

What so often distinguishes Banksy’s and others’ genius is the mischievous nature, the wit of exemplar pieces, of which is only really comparable to the Dadaists, and breathes freedom to the rebel. Freedom, firstly found in expression. Much characteristic pieces of work are a comment on an aspect of society – a social or political issue – a form of propaganda, and this appeals to our democratic senses. For example, the print Gaza Strip by Blu, c. 2009, pictures a figure-of-eight racetrack in which alternating tanks and construction vehicles meet each other’s tails. The artist identifies in simple visual form the repetitive nature of destruction and rebuild in the war-ridden Middle East.

Freedom is also from the restraints of traditions in art. It is endearing in this manner because it bridges the gap between what can be perceived as the pretentious world of idealised fine art, and life as we see it – the subjects of these works of art. This highly honest form of pictorialisation, mocks idealised and superficial representation, inserting the figure reality. For example, Banksy’s painting of Van Gogh’s wilted Sunflowers; and sculptures of Venus de Milo and Apollo Belvedere as today’s familiar characters (heroic or not): an overindulging party princess, and proud extremist.

Again this is comparable to the Dadaists, who were essentially anti-artists posed as artists. These examples of street art protest against the beauty that most artists have made it their life aim to achieve a sense of, as though it is a one-sided encounter of life. Street art exalts the underdog, because in many senses it is the underdog.

Moreover the British are fascinated by all perceptions of their own culture. Is this not the reason why we gawk in front of endless hours of reality television programs? By choosing not to view the idealised, utopian, perfect, or beautiful, they present a real, if often borderline angry, view of urban life and culture. Take for example Modern Youth by Kerry Roper. A boy with a polished fresh face of a china doll, and perfectly laid hair of a child featured on a 1960s edition of Blue Peter is hooded, obliviously holds a weapon of war in his right hand almost the size of he. This exhibition exemplifies that most commentary is focussed on the bad, and the ugly – the cynical and critical – rather than the good. However, though often-blatant parody, out of such untainted observations comes thought-provoking truth.

Perhaps my favourite part of the exhibition was ‘Fresh Paint’ a look at six up-and-coming street artists. Included within this was a film entitled Nowhere Near Here by Pahnl. This is a street-level viewpoint of the city of Oxford through continuous motion long exposure shots; over which is laid an animation of a running dog, which we discover at the end is cheerfully chasing an untouchable cat.

This short film pulsates life – it embodies the joy and energy of the city. Surely this is one other reason why street art has become so popular – for so many of our population the cityscape is life. This I believe to one of the key reasons Impressionism is so enjoyed too – it represents (if in very different form) city life.

The film remains true to the subject matter of street art, though lacks some of the other characters mentioned above. However this is no disappointment. As street art becomes more popular, it also expands into a range of disciplines such as film and photography, and purposes. A genre that was once cheap and ugly vandalising, is now a professional and noteworthy art form.

Street Art: Contemporary Prints from the V&A is at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry until 16th January– free admission.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Visual Indigestion

Pop artist, Robert Indiana, stated in interview, “Impasto is visual indigestion.” I am humoured by his analogy but couldn’t be more opposed.

There is no artist before or after Rembrandt that paints a person like he does. The impact of his style is immense. His sitter, his pose, composed and painted by any other and the result would be a painting, but Rembrandt’s is a person – once living, once feeling. It is due to his sensual and personal handling. He sculpts the face through high impasto in oils. Yet it is not modelling alone that defines it alive, for there’s been many artists hundreds of years before who painted a dramatically realistic 3D portrait.

Enter Portrait aged 63 - It is his use of light – real, unidealised, undesirably dinghy, but cosy with dark edges that encase the figure inside further earth tones. It is the vivacity of brush stroke – it feels the motion of life, and lifts the man from the canvas. In some ways also I think it is the lack of crisp vision – our sight circles a person, when we try to make them out, we do not look in once place. Usually, as Self Portrait aged 63 does, we then rest on the face and begin to investigate, but on first sight, we do not remember the exactings of his appearance, but we gain an impression - a very positive one this is.

Turner would not finish a painting if he had created the impression he had hoped to; in fact one of his Royal Academy contemporaries described his technique as not being refined, or methodical, but that he instead ‘drives the colours about [the canvas] till he has expressed the idea in his mind.’ This I admire, as I am very much caught by ideas, but when I see one of Turner’s best, I needn’t any other thought of interest to capture my imagination.

Venice from the Canale della Guidecca, Chiesa di Santa Maria della Salute&., a mouthful, but is absolutely stunning. I cannot find any fault it in. Everything is so well balanced – colour, forms, contrast, technique…The 3D effect is incredible. Yet it doesn’t grow outwards like a sculpture, like relief. It appears like a canvas, that then concaves backwards to form a stage set of surprising depth….

Well-crafted and inserted technique can make a painting. Let’s be frank, art is about aesthetics, and so aesthetics in art can mean everything.

And this, I hope I don’t sound too enthusiastic to add, is also why Rembrandt is to me the champion of the portrait, and Turner the champion of the landscape.

Pictured: ‘A Woman bathing in a stream’ 1654, Rembrandt

‘Venice…’ 1840, Turner

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Women – Concealed and Revealed

I think that allegory, embodying abstract ideas inside a persona, is one of the most powerful and creative philosophical tools available to an artist. I’ve become fascinated by how so frequently it is women who are used to express temperaments, characteristics, and even more so: the varying genres of the arts. It’s quite ironic then that an article I wrote a good year back I entitled Beauty is a Woman in reference to Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride, thinking I’d found a relatively undiscovered and explored idea.

Recently I’ve had the light shone on some 18th century art, and thus begun to recall some 18th century pastoral literature, in which I became acquainted with the nine muses. These, the inspiration of the arts: Caliope of epic poetry, Erato of lyric poetry, Clio of history, Euterpe of music, Polyhymnia of choral poetry, Terpischore of dance, Melpomene of tragedy, Thalia of comedy and Urania of astronomy, are personified by the attractive Grecian goddesses; almost like the precursors to the Spice Girls – each to their very own female empowering identity (though, I feel sorry for Scary Spice!)

Is or is this not a compliment to female sex, that, all that is possessed in that creative character is female. It surely elevates the capabilities of the gender? I have found it particularly pleasing and encouraging that painting (right hand figure) pictured in Angelica Kauffman Hesitating Between the Arts of Music and Painting (right painting) and in Artemisia Gentileschi‘s self portrait (left painting), is an alluring female (and is such in paintings by male I do not hesitate to add!) So here’s my thought - If painting’s character is female, surely she is, even more so, insightfully actualised by a female [artist]. Unfortunately the past is proof that this hasn’t been an idea that has struck any significant people – for then female artists would have been all-over-the-shop praised with natural talent! So surely I must be missing something?

Perhaps then this would be too optimistic a view to hold and in fact I am missing the point of women’s involvement. While I see visual arts as essential, and liberal in form – an output of intelligent beings – for much of history, the arts have been underappreciated when compared to other disciplines. In the modern world, science has taken precedence, especially in the Enlightenment (1800s) when what was rational and reasonable gained significant not that which ‘persuade[s] by touching men’s sensibilities…’ as French socialist St Simon (1760-1825) said in ‘The Artist, The Savant and the Industrialist’. So it could be said, that being the inspiration for the arts is a minor role as far as progress is concerned, and that the arts’ importance (and some would say) like women’s is, is concerned by emotional matters.

Does allegory flatter its model? In the tradition of Feminine Portraiture in the Royal Academy at the time of their first president, Joshua Reynolds, allegory such as the Tragic Muse used to represent the tragedienne Sarah Siddons began to cover the sitter’s individual female identity with a generic form that doesn’t record the lady in contemporary social status or noteworthy history. It’s a generalised but true statement that portraiture of females were more commonly idealised than of men.

Now I see also how to be a Beauty, as many female portraits are known as Bellas without the real name of the sitter when lost, is not in fact a compliment upon her radiant looks, but simply eye candy for a male viewer. This opinion of art is very well argued in John Berger’s second essay from Ways of Seeing. Then again, for I hate to leave writings on a negative note, without the inspiration of the muses attributed to the female sex, so many masterpieces would not have existed, and in this case is it a worthy cause for good art?

Thursday, 2 December 2010

ReQuietening – the natural landscape

‘Viewing…nature’s scenery assuages from the soul all passions frees it from all tensions, brings together its scattered powers invites it to calm contemplation, and strengthens, enlivens, and refreshes it.’ Ludwig Fernow from ‘Römische Briefe’

I thought landscape appreciation was for the middle-aged, but of late I’ve become fixated by the very art that is outside of my my window, and become convinced of the remedial ability of it – the spiritual connection achievable through it. On a rare occasion I’m not going to attempt to discuss, but to show you the quietening potential of the natural landscape… (photographs by myself.)