Category Archives: Art History

Sublime Now

Though it’s impossible to discuss sublime today without historical references, I would like to use these to contradict the traditional denotations.

The term has its background in the ancient rhetorics, then – mainly through eighteenth-century Western-European philosophy it establishes itself firmly as an aesthetic concept, functioning along and in an opposition to other terms within the area like: beautiful, tragic, humorous, profane, ugly etc.

Yet, it’s probably worth to emphasize that, strangely enough, in E. Burke’s and I. Kant’s understanding the Sublime never fits into criteria of metaphysical or ontological phenomenon (or entity) – it simply exists in a beholder’s mind as a powerful yet transient, fleeting psychological and spiritual reaction, an emotion, feeling of sublime. From a historical point of view is interesting to see how the dialectics of the sublime, used by two great ontologists fits into the nature of the phenomenological school of thought, which is both specifically twentieth-century and opposed to metaphysics discipline. It seems that the concept under discussion never fully integrates into a traditional philosophical inquiry – being more Dionysian than Apollonian in its nature – the sublime is born from paradoxes, it’s based on these and – if it functions in any universal form (out of a beholder’s mind) – it probably takes the form of  an ontological oxymoron, an enigma – as unnerving as it is alluring.

Looking forward to the modern and postmodern times one may be easily dazzled by its potential to embody and to convey the sublime to an intensity not possible ever before. After ‘growing out’ of the Great Romantics’ idealistic enthusiasm on the matter, in the ‘after-God” era when the sublime cannot be simply mistaken for a religious/mystical experience, facing the challenges of  the shattered, discontinuous, idiolects and antitheses – based world, reaching scientific and technological heights difficult to imagine even few decades before – the humankind not longer chases but seems to meet on a regular basis that great oxymoron – the sublime.

It takes many forms and definitions – from the A. Hitchcock’s and C. Jung’s shadows then – G. Lucas’s astriferous epics, from Big Brother’s house grotesque and through the war/terrorism-rooted atrocities to Barrack’s Obama intense political charisma – Burke’s mind-expanding ‘negative pain’ and Kant’s ‘indefinite’ yet desired dread is as indisputably a part of the contemporary condition as Aristotle’s catharsis had to be for ancient Greeks.

Andreas Gursky’s photos, which  embrace the traditional understanding of the sublime as the vast, terrifying, annihilating, formless, liminal etc. and the ultra-modern embodiment of it in digitally mastered photographs of a postmodern – globalized and impersonal universe.

His approach would be that of a shock-therapy and a direct, uncompromising attack – perhaps the best way of a defense against the audacity and the… ridicule of the contemporary sublime.

Both Gursky’s work gives a picture of a formidable, limitless, always deeply confusing, often ugly and grotesque, sometimes eerily attractive spectacle, some sort of Baudrillard’s hypo-reality , and the ancient Roman bloody games – the reality, we live in today.

In Chicago Board of Trade II (above) human beings are nothing more than annoyingly numerous, uniform, yet nicely coloured dots, the well-rehearsed pixels; while in 99 Cents (above, 2) the supermarket goods take their place – and guess what? – one can hardly notice any substantial difference…


Ivan Marchuk

Who likes Ivan Marchuk’s paintings? After all – the question wants more than a personal aesthetic statement. Marchuk is incredibly East-y if you know what it may mean. Spiritual, complex and with some philosophical ambitions. Thus, saying yes to his vision seems like supporting a specific world-view.

Marchuk’s painstakingly detailed works, at once lyrical and disturbing look like clinical operations on the open heart. The open heart of living things – the intricate microcosm of structured chaos, stylized forms emerging and dissolving back into itself.

Some more info on painter’s life and work here.


A seminar with Francis Bacon …

Well – he has never taught art to others officially, and has never been taught art by others in such a manner

And while not being entirely sure, if just because or despite of that  – Francis Bacon excels as an art (painting) tutor. I found him so lucidly articulated, so continuously and deeply inspiring in his views on the artistic practice that I just couldn’t help not to present his ‘tutorials’ in a customized, yet systematic way.

Bacon took with him his mystery of how to talk about highly complex and irrational matters in an analytical and engaging manner.  And this very ability of his redeems his work, which could otherwise be easily classified as a tormented expression of an idiot-savant. Being himself deeply anti-theoretical he offers an impressive theory of his own oeuvre. With a certain force of authority, though never deliberately,  he shows that an artist’s journey is (should be) a continuous interplay between both challenges: ‘making images’ and making sense of them…

All points below are taken from interviews Bacon gave to D. Sylvester and while taking part in a documentary devoted to his work. They are extracts of the artist’s more elaborated statements. To access the original talks get a book and watch the movie (links below).

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You have to decide, that you are not going to be afraid of making a fool of yourself.

One needs to find his subject – otherwise one will be tempted to escape into a decoration. Most of the problems of the painting now result from the fact that painters don’t know what to paint – they are short of images.

The better the techniques of recording the reality become – the more inventive the painter needs to be in his ways to lock reality into something completely arbitrary. Going back to figuration in a more accepted sense is weak and meaningless.

The image – its power and integrity matters more than the beauty of paint.

Narration speaks louder than paint – avoid telling stories, unless you want to.

Aim at a highly disciplined work, even though the methods of pursuing it need to be ever- experimental and deeply instinctive. To make an image one has to control it.

Use secondary imaginary as a compost which will breed you images.

Painting (if successful) is a process of unlocking sensations and feelings on as many levels and as acutely as possible.

Painting is a ongoing interplay of luck/hazard, instinct and one’s critical sense.

Your technique needs to be as subjective and unique as your sensibility is.

‘Fresh’ image is the one which has a ‘foam of the unconscious’ still locked around it…

Make your forms memorable – otherwise they will exist only as ‘blobs’ on a wall…

A chance is more important than a conscious intellect because I made images that intellect would never make.

If you going to capture something REALLY REAL – it will be painful…

The most important thing for a painter is – to paint – nothing more…


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D. Sylvester, ‘Interviews with Francis Bacon: The Brutality of fact’, Thames and Hudson

Francis Bacon Documentary’

Here: preview of a new exhibition of Bacon in Dublin: ‘Terrible Beauty’


Contemporary Art (9) Nathalie Djurberg

Nathalie Djurberg (b. 1978 BirthLysekil, Sweden) – young multimedia artist, lives and works in Berlin. She has won the Silver Lion for a Promising Young Artist at this year’s 53rd Venice Biennale. She was awarded for her multimedia installation “Experiment” (above – first photo shows the work still in progress).

Gothic, rich, visceral and provocative work of this girl could not to leave any mark on the viewers’ collective and individual consciousness. I met people who hated it, yet still remained under its dark spell respecting the way this artist had teased their common sense of civilized, dignified beings.

Djurberg’s theater of absurd – devil’s Eden of huge, colorful wax vegetation was seasoned with caves of screens where the true drama of life, lust, violence and death went on over and over again. Sounds were those of some tribal ‘mysteria’ inter-weaved with some primordial  sub-resonance of deep earthy tones which went on creeping into one’s unconscious. Child-like fascination with this chaotic, pre-rational microcosm battled with one’s impulse to treat the entire spectacle as pure fiction, a theater performance with no or little valid reference to the ‘real’ life outside that extravaganza…

Nothing more deceptive… Djurberg’s worldview is hyper-real and indulgent in parts – indeed – yet it’s much more realistic in its portrayal of the human nature and the Nature in itself than many works of so-called ‘Realism’ in art, where polite and dull landscapes or family portraits were given to the public as the ‘truthful’ depiction of life and man…

‘It’s a strange world’ and ‘Owls are not what they seem’… Let’s Breughel’s, Goya’s, the Romantics and the Surrealists’ dreams go on …


Hans Bellmer – subverted fragility

Bellmer considered his works to be a conscious act of defiance against German fascism with its cult of “the perfect body”. He created and photographed two life-size pubescent dolls, which he distorted, dismembered, or menaced in sinister scenarios that sometimes included himself. These scenarios seemed to be nightmarish manifestations of a journey into his unconscious.

I keep wondering what was there exactly that this Polish-born (1902 Katowice), German-blooded and French-based & buried (1975 Paris) artist had been trying to mutilate and to sodomize with such a passion… One or the other part of his multi-national identity? Surreal tragedy of his paranoid, violent times? Or maybe ‘just’ the black hole of his own psyche, the Jung’s ‘shadow’ – that ‘invisible saurian tail that man drags behind him’ and dreads the confrontation more than anything in his life?

I won’t find out for sure…perhaps all the questions bear a seed of an answer in them… What I find fascinating about Bellmer’s artistic exploits is how his dolls can function ambiguously in two contrasting realms: one is the sphere of extremely wounded, violated innocence and fragility – a dismal betrayal, some bestial deeds… The other side of the same coin is these dolls’ hyper-sexual appeal as they are misogynously portrayed as alluring and dangerous man-eaters, who need to be tamed by dismantling them to pieces… Transgressive and sexist odor of this art is as important as the normality (so-called) it yearns for by subverting it.


Contempotary Art (8) Chris Marker

Chris Marker (b. Neuilly-sur-Seine, France 1921) – actual  name: Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve – multimedia artist, photographer, film director, writer. Lives in Paris and does not grant interviews. When asked for a picture of himself, he usually offers a photograph of a cat instead (so far as the gossip says). His cat is named Guillaume-en-egypte. (See more details in my previous post here: http://wp.me/p8s8b-66)

Creator of: La Jetée (1962), A Grin Without a Cat (1977), Sans Soleil (1983) and AK (1985) a documentary on Akiro Kurosawa. From the recent projects: in 2005 Marker created a multimedia piece for The Museum of Modern Art in New York titled Owls at Noon Prelude: The Hollow Men (influenced by T.S. Elliot’s poem); in 2008: Immemory - an interactive video produced  by Centre Pompidou, created out of fascination by digital technology. 

Marker is as enigmatic, brilliant and witty in his collages above as he would be behind his directorial camera viewfinder. One simply cannot get enough of this artist’s vision – it escapes one’s full comprehension and intuitive potential. It’s a one-man world-view, a singularity which resists any thorough penetration. A beauty and power of human uncanniness captured into a compelling, enthrilling  visual extravaganza. Just keep exploring…

Site about Marker’s view of the world:  Chris Marker


Raffi Lavie: ‘In the Name of the Father’

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Raffi Lavie (1937-2007) Late Israeli artist representing Israel at the 53rd International Biennale in Venice.

A painter, educator, art critic, music connoisseur, and curator. The most central, charismatic figure in the art scene in Israel for the past four decades until his death in 2007.

Influenced by Paul Klee, Jean Dubuffet, and Robert Rauschenberg, as well as by local artists such as Aviva Uri and Arie Aroch, he introduced the avant-garde of his time to Israel by adapting its components into a local discourse. Lavie was the founder of the “10+” group which started its activities in 1965 in a series of theme exhibitions that brought home current international trends.

He was also the key figure in the style that formed around him in the 1970s, which would become known as the “Want of Matter” due to its adherence to inexpensive, ascetic materials such as plywood, and the use of collage; a style associated with the city of Tel Aviv, conveying urban, secular, local values untainted by the narratives of any given ideology.

In some respects, Lavie succeeded in distilling an Israeli aesthetic; by giving it form, he reaffirmed the ethos of the place. His genius stems from the fact that his art reflects our values, ideals, and aspirations that have gone awry. An exhibition of Raffi Lavie’s work at the present Biennale attests to the yearnings invoked by his art, forcing us to question what is it that we wish to remember, and why this therapeutic memory has the taste of urgency.

Observing Lavie’s works, two qualities stand out: the child-like painting, and the obsessive erasure of images via scribbling, carving, and generous color strokes. These practices are connected to his perception of the periphery’s double role as an actual place and as a spiritual dimension. The acts of erasing and starting anew are closely related to Lavie’s cultural heritage as an Israeli and a Jew. Working from within a scopophobic tradition, far-removed from any center, he created an idiosyncratic language, specific to the place, its needs, and desires. (Biennale Information Note on the painter)

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Despite of bearing similarities and invoking comparisons to other artists and trends in the contemporary art (mostly to Cy Twomby, abstract expressionist art or Outsiders Art) Lavie’s works stand out as singularities – created outside the mainstream of art-world, by an alpha – individual, they got that sort of an authority and idiosyncrasy about them, which makes them both commanding and closed to any simplified, superficial reading.

When I entered the Israeli Pavilion in Giardini I saw these works as a manifest of pure, raw creativity without any superfluous conceptual or political scaffolding around them. Their  predominant whites and reds brought to mind the troubled history of the land they were created in, the simplicity of the technique and modest materials (plywood) had the power of some explosives, instead of undermining the message. Some of the paintings were arranged on a wall as a sort of an assemblage in paint telling a story perhaps, or just supporting each other in the common struggle for the survival in viewers’ eyes and minds.

All that felt fresh and inspiring after some hours spent in the national pavilions of the 53rd Biennale. I saw Raffie Lavie as one of those really good artists, which are rare to be found nowadays, partly because they don’t necessary seek any wider recognition. I read his paintings as a personal statement, personal one-man exhibition and as a comment on his and his land human condition. A that was a sort of a relief to experience in Venice, among the sea of (just) entertaining, ‘smart’, in parts dull and often painfully self-conscious art about art…


‘Making Worlds’ by losing your way…

That is a surprisingly romantic title for an enormous international art show – ‘Making Worlds – Fare Mondi’… Right from the day it was announced I knew I got to see it.

In a strange way that name referred to my own idea of art as a device for creating universes, for inventing new realities and new ways of perception of what is ‘known’ and ‘familiar’… To see how very different artists from tens of countries address this very issue right now; and to experience it in one place within only few days of an intense take – that sounded like a dream-come-true opportunity.0

Then I made my way to Venice… A group of us – final year fine art students – we spent half of a night and most of a day getting ourselves from a tiny, misty Irish airport right to an artistic epicenter of the 53rd Biennale. And then – the true challenge had begun… Being a first time visitor to Venice – one has to invent ways – quick and efficient:  of avoiding crowds, of finding ways in an omnipresent maze of lanes and canals, of keeping cool when faced with a wondrous strangeness and beauty of the place and, finally – to get the most (and the best) of the shows presented – tens of them blown around the city like some erratic parts of a huge machinery; often in places that even locals found difficult to find…

I can be pretty sure not to be the first and the last of the 53rd Biennale visitor, who was immensely tempted to dismiss the entire pandemonium and to spend some quality time in one of the Irish or English pubs; just drinking some wine and staring at Venetian light reflected from the Grand Canal… So tempting…

Anyway, I went through it all in a less indulgent way, which means: I stuffed myself, my cameras and my notebook with the visions of ‘Making Worlds’… Facing it all, and reflecting on it afterward looking for a compendium, links and any order – that is a sort of making yet another world – so diverse, rich and demanding the whole experience is. Yet, it does not necessary mean, that the Biennale was/is a miraculous, creative Wonderland…quite to the contrary – but by its intrinsic qualities like the size, inter-nationality and the inherited prestige – it’s born to leave a clear mark on one’s artistic psyche; not matter how critical and contemptuous one becomes when addressing it.

Making Worlds… artistic (and curatorial!) calling, duty, obsession, wonder and a doom. Nothing more self-indulgent, nothing more pretentious. Nothing more marvelous, nothing more risky. In fact, I don’t personally believe that the most of Birnbaum’s show has stood up to its own challenge… And instead of some down-spine shivers and wide-opened eyes browsing a miracle of some new-born, never seen before worlds – one had to chew up, once again, the same familiar concepts and interventions  cooked and served in a way, which anyone even mildly accustomed to the history of the contemporary art has to know by heart by now…

In other words, there was a chance-taking, adventure -seeking, alternative-supporting attitude bitterly missing in all the curatorial effort of this Biennale. Each show of this type is a sort of an authorship (sometimes – dictatorship); but if a good author hides his strings he is pulling to make his personal vision to be appreciated, Birnbaum made it all too predictable and dull as a whole. One has to allow to risk it all, to be completely lost in order to make entire world out of this self-implied or provoked chaos. There is no other way of creating new world than the one which faces chaos and a gulf; otherwise we got ‘re-making’ old worlds or ‘recycling’ the existing, but worn out ones…

I lost my way dozens of times in Venice. Venice is the space to be lost and to be found, and this very process goes in circles and in-finitum… One has to throw away all maps, one has to trust his instincts and follow no path other than the one which cuts across the old ones instead of re-drawing them…

Making worlds is the most human of all human dwellings… And it is possible, yet not easy – to make a new world out of this too-familiar, too-excessive, too-indulgent entropy of art today.  By losing one’s way in it – one will find the way out of it…


Contemporary Art (7) – Marlene Dumas

“My best works are erotic displays of mental confusions (with intrusions of irrelevant information).”

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Marlene Dumas (b. 1953, Cape Town) – one of the most important, influential figurative painters working today.

With Dumas one may easy get into a trap of ‘an infatuated viewer’. Trap she has crafted herself – deliberately or not- it is working well, and blinding all those moths that had dared to approach these paintings too close, well beyond the line of their personal zones…

They are there to seduce, to spit at taboo, to provoke, to lit the flames of all sorts of powerful emotions… Embodied femmes fatales, dark and alluring, doomed and the born survivors…

To form any theoretical apparatus for Dumas’ work is a waste of time. Yet, it doesn’t mean the paintings are irrational. Quite opposite is true – to experience them means to approach them with some sort of a keen intelligence, yet it’s a special kind of intelligence; even not the emotional one – more sensual, passionate one… And some deeply fleshly logic has to be put to hard work… Painted with brooding, intense sensations they reveal themselves under the touch of a viewer’s neurological stir…

As paintings-artworks they are deliciously painterly and ardent in execution. Paint is being laid (poured) loosely and in a number of visceral, beautifully transparent layers; highly expressive marks co-exist with a smooth, detailed finish in one part or another. The overall impression is that of a juicy, bitter-sweet forbidden fruit – to be taken of left behind….

Mmmm…


New toys of a dirty boy – Eric Fischl

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A gifted boy with dirty imagination is back.

Eric Fischl (b. 1948, NY) has apparently abandoned his flamboyant yuppies and bad boys lost in their hedonistic activities on daddies’ yachts and in flashy apartments. Or rather – he grew up with them, since the new characters of his painted stories are middle- aged couples, lost again, yet in thoughts more than in purely sensual stimulants.

In 2002 the painter has staged and directed few episodes of a very contemporary drama, he hired actors and then extensively photographed them in a home-like setting; then he painted a series of works based on their performance there. So-called “Krefeld Project” (from then name of a place in Germany) has been accomplished.

As the portrayed relationship goes deeper and stranger, so the paint on the surface of canvas dissolves and disintegrates. Identity of the examined individuals goes to pieces (or rather – layers) with it. They are every-and-any-of-us, white, heterosexual, ‘normal’, inhabiting a modern-looking, comfortable space.

Yet, there is that unsettling, heavy air that lingers, much like in D. Lynch’s movies. Sexually charged atmosphere is rendered beautifully in peachy, golden light; a viewer is faced with everyday scenes of great intimacy… But it’s hardly yet another “Casablanca” – nobody is going to make a life-saving sacrifice here. A couple plays enjoyable roles in their cushy world, just like many of us do. They may stay this way for years or leave each other next day, to find another apartment with fresh towels and soft robes, to create a new illusion of communication and sense with another human being. Like many of us – middle-class, Caucasian, modern – would do…

Leaving all these complex (always highly individualized) readings of Fischl’s work, there is no way to miss his technical mastery (best appreciated, obviously, in details), which he had managed to gain over the years and displays in his recent paintings. He virtually doesn’t ‘paint’ mechanically speaking – he seems to project his thoughts seamlessly on canvas, like dreams project upon consciousness without any conscious effort or even a will. Fluid yet fractured, complex yet straightforward, intimate yet sunk in itself – the life, the world, the people of our age. We – our – selves… A lesson from a grown-up dirty boy?

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One can appreciate E. Fischl paintings from the “Krefeld Project” in the National Museum of Krakow, Poland till the end of August 2009. To see my article on the exhibition there: here. To see more detailed photos and descriptions: here.


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