Friday, October 21, 2016

Norske artister II: Edvard Munch

Painting from 1893 by Norwegian artist Munch
The Girl by the Window, Edvard Munch, 1893
Everyone knows that painting by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. The figure on the pier, hands to its cheeks, mouth open and emitting a scream so piercing that it causes the solidity of the pier and the immateriality of the sea and sky to tremble (though curiously the promenading couple in the background appear to remain unmoved).

But I first got to know Munch as a painter through other works, such as the one above, The Girl by the Window, from 1893. This painting resides in the Art of Institute of Chicago, where I took a class of my students last week. Seeing it reminded me of being compelled by such works when I was a teenager, both for their style and their subject matter. A seemingly ordinary moment -- a young woman standing in her night dress before a window through which the moonlight streams -- is fraught with unsettling intimations of fragility and danger. Is she reading? Is she sleepwalking? Is she looking at someone down in the street? Whatever she is thinking, the painting is entirely painted in loose and close strokes of paint, most of them slanting diagonally from the window into the room. She seems poised between the eerie light of the moon, and the dark green and black interior of the room behind her.

Paintings from the same few years in the mid 1890s also have this mood of dark obsession and unsettled psychological states, such as The Storm, also from 1893:

Oil painting from 1893 by Norwegian artist Munch
The Storm, Edvard Munch, 1893
Note that the figures in this painting all stand in the same pose as the figure in The Scream. This painting compels me more, though, and it's something to do with the watercolour-like washes of oil paint, the merging of figures and landscape into similar blocks of undulating shapes, and the tonality, as if a dark cloud was descending not just onto this village but on the whole world.

Even when Munch painted landscapes, they seemed to become transformed into visions of things that transcend the physical world:

Large semi-abstract landscape painting by Norwegian artist Munch
Moonlight, Edvard Munch, 1895
In its bold use of form, this painting is already knocking on the door of abstraction in a way that wasn't seen again until Matisse's canvasses of the early 1900s.

Munch is thought of as a wild Expressionist who laid it on the canvas as quickly and as thoughtlessly as possible in order to preserve a sudden rush of feeling. But I find that I can look at his paintings for a long time and get lost in their striking colours, their contrasting shapes, and the variety of their textures. He wasn't just a madman: he was a true painter.

Monday, October 3, 2016

9 Things About Expo Chicago 2016

1. This is the fifth year that the giant exhibition hall at the end of Chicago's Navy Pier has hosted the Expo Chicago art fair, and according to its organizers and PR people, it was the biggest and most successful of all, in terms of participating galleries, attendance, and sales.

2. I could not tell whether the impressive, shiny, well-produced art on display was any different from what I saw on the walls last year, or the year before that, or the year before that, or the year before that. But a couple of things with lots of texture and loose execution caught my eye, nevertheless:

mixed media painting and collage
Rose, Donald Baechler

heavily textured monochrome painting
Mica Painting (Sunflowers), Catherine Howe

3. The special projects, ranged around the sides of the hall, were dedicated to more experimental works created by exhibiting artists. I liked this piece by Cody Hudson:

lasercut wood and wall painting installation
Hold It Up to the Light, 2016
4. Why does anyone go to art fairs? It's about as much fun as going to Walmart. Yes, there is a lot of contemporary art in one place, but that's as much a minus as a plus. Even at the finest museums, aesthetic exhaustion sets in after an hour.

5. Not all of the special projects were well done. I admire the subject matter of these paintings based on the life of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, but not enough to avoid noticing that as oil paintings they were very poorly done:

oil painting with political themes
Harriet Tubman En Route to Canada, Kimathi Donkor
6. But then there might be a didactic piece that does have power, such as this series of prints by Samuel Levi Jones. He was inspired by reading about a Gerhard Richter installation from 1972, in which the German artist created a series of icons of Western culture, most of them conspicuously white and male. That was the year that the full set of the Encyclopedia Brittanica was published, with similar omissions. Jones took sheets of Britannica paper, and printed photos of iconic black figures on them, such as Gwendolyn Brooks and James Baldwin. The prints are so dark you have to strain hard to see the faces, which gradually emerge as shadow faces. Perhaps they make an obvious point about how many of us have to peer hard to see representations of black people, even culturally significant ones. But I thought the prints were physically beautiful, too, which leavened the political history lesson significantly:

underexposed prints of famous black personages
48 Portraits (underexposed) - detail, Samuel Levi Jones
7. I went to the Venice Bienniale in 2013., only saw a fraction of the art on display despite spending almost all day at the Arsenale (the main exhibition grounds), and was too tired and art-ed out to want to go back. And that was in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, too. Again, who apart from rich buyers voluntarily subjects themselves to this?

8. On the other hand: I love art fairs when they produce a genuine surprise by an artist who is completely new to you, like this painting by a painter from Senegal, made entirely from inexpensive materials like acrylic, gouache, and pencil on cardboard:

mixed media painting by senegalese artist
The Decision Maker, Omar BA
9. The best piece of all was this superb tunnel installation by Sabina Ott. There are video screens inside a labyrinth constructed from sculpted styrofoam, displaying quotations from the writings of Gertrude Stein. Ott's work is tactile and sensual, and literally immersive:

immersive sculpture by Sabina Ott
because the mountains were so high, Sabina Ott
It was placed right next to the entrance, too, so in theory I could have just seen the best work there, then turned around and left without even subjecting myself to this:

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