photo manipulation by nacrowe
around the turn of the millennium i went with my parents and maternal grandmother to the centennial art exhibit dedicated to 20th century AMERICAN ART at the old upper east side location of the WHITNEY MUSEUM in NYC. in their were the expected POP ARTISTS and ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISTS but i discovered a new favorite through an unlikely source, my clueless ENGLISH grandmother. "this is shit" is what i remembered her saying and what looked me dead in the eye was a late black-on-black painting by notable ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONIST (although he detested that label) immigrant painter MARK ROTHKO. "i could paint that!"
yeah, but you didnt.
if something pissed off my grandmother that immediately and that viscerally then i already loved it by default. its her side of the family that made me sit through FOX NEWS at the kitchen table and LITTLE RIVER BAND concerts, so yeah, karma is a bitch.
that aside, what i love about his work is how it draws you in. reminds me quite a bit of the zazen meditation sessions i experienced at the SOJI-JI temple in YOKOHAMA. when sitting doing nothing your mind first races but then gradually settles and you find yourself paradoxically more attuned to your surroundings as you become unaware of them. even in a vacuum there is still that space and the experience of it. its hard to explain. when i see the work of ROTHKO i am not there looking at nothing, but experiencing the space, taking note of the edges of color and the infinite possibilities available in that border. eventually i don't notice anything and i am just there.
i do not know if ROTHKO was interested in BUDDHIST concepts of SUNYATA ("emptiness") but his art relays such to me. one of my desired vacation destinations within the UNITED STATES is the ROTHKO CHAPEL outside of HOUSTON where 14 of his late black-hued paintings are displayed.
i very much would like to sit quietly and observe that space one day. just experience all that nothingness.
photo manipulation by nacrowe
there was a period in high school after i arrived in SACRAMENTO my senior year where somehow i became familiar with the works of late 19th century AUSTRIAN ART NOVEAU artist GUSTAV KLIMT and the SECESSIONIST movement associated with him.
i think part of my fascination was wanting to be somewhere other than conservative, white bread NORTHERN CALIFORNIA, as KLIMT's art is lusciously decorated with gold and exotic motifs the relay some otherworldly realm of beauty and perfection. then there was EGON SCHIELE.
through KLIMT i learned of this upstart from the following generation that drew these brutally revolting self portraits that could not be more the polar opposite. his drawings convey bodies suspended without in a white plain colored in earth tones that seemed to reference decomposition and self-annihilation. his drawings are nihilistic and reduced humanity down to gangly misshapen limbs and soulless countenance that has more to do with a cadaver than an individual. around this period and i took BIOLOGY where we were taken to the UC DAVIS cadaver lab when i was able to view such lifeless forms out in the open. it immediately reminded me of SCHIELE and his work has been ingrained in my consciousness ever since, outshining that of KLIMT in my opinion.
to me art should challenge the viewer and SCHIELE makes me consider my mortality and my physical being, echoing the visceral nature of CARAVAGGIO, and later 20th century work of FRANCIS BACON and MARK ROTHKO. for me his work is deeply affecting and not always in an uplifting, reassuring manner. his has a definite memento mori vibe that sticks in the craw of your consciousness.
collage by nacrowe
when i think of the weimar-era german painter OTTO DIX, who famously depicted the WWI veterans as contorted, disfigured amalgamations of flesh and mechanical attachments, i think of someone interested in the idea of how identity is attached to one's physicality.
his work almost brings about notions of the paradox surrounding the Ship of Theseus, being that if you replace every piece of wood on a ship at some point it is no longer the original ship, except when exactly does that transformation happen? does it happen?
the german soldiers in his paintings are often seen to be missing limbs and parts of their face that have crudely been replaced by then-modern technology. even paintings showcasing soldiers in action on in the trenches find them wearing gas masks and charging towards the viewer like deranged madmen in a barren dream-like hellscape.
FRANCIS BACON used contorted figures to provide insight into his fragile mind-state and strikingly express the depths of his psychosis. with DIX i think that his use of body disfigurement was more to showcase the fragile collective german mindstate in the years after their defeat in WWI. along with the work of GEORGE GROSZ, i find his work endlessly compelling as it attempts to honestly channel psychological realism about the psyche of a nation. its power is what made it so dangerous to like of the third reich who later deemed it degenerate and attempted to suppress it in order to spin a much darker narrative with "realistic" historical paintings that were very much a quixotic fantasy.
ironically hitler's need to mock the work of DIX among others is what preserved their work. go figure.
i originally came across the graffiti patterns of 80s NYC street artist KEITH HARING from the charity christmas album A VERY SPECIAL CHRISTMAS in what had to have been the late 80s when i was still in single digits. in fact, hearing the EURYTHMICS rendition of "winter wonderland" immediately puts me in the yuletide spirit as only a child could imagine, even as a now-30+ year old agnostic in the middle of june.
HARING, much like british director DEREK JARMAN, is an icon of a place and time when creative homosexual men were navigating the line between commerce and identity and really struggling. also like JARMAN, he left this world too soon a victim to the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the indifference of society at large during that period.
and its that indifference to the plight of others that makes me feel that his work resonates with me now in our current cultural moment. when i see his crude patterns of interconnected humanoid figures, full of movement and spontaneity, i am reminded of our collective kinship and our mutual obligations to each other. to me that was his message.
our humanity connects us.
that message was powerful in a NYC 80s art context where peers and loved ones were passing on from the new Black Death within a political/cultural/societal context that didn't recognize or have any compassion. reagan didnt give a shit. neither did any catholic priest.
feels the same way now with many families being separated, mothers and fathers having their children kidnapped in OUR NAME. that indifference kills me yet it perpetuates what i see in our media and in our culture. i had the pleasure of living in Myanmar and i witnessed this same indifference to their other, the ROHINGYA. living one lived reality while knowing full well that atrocities and war crimes where only a few hundred miles away.
no difference here stateside. we are deluding ourselves with our indifference.
RIP keith haring. thank you for your message of inclusivity and tenderness and continually reminding us of our obligation to each other.
Painting (1946), Oil on Linen, Museum of Modern Art
FRANCIS BACON was a 20th century british painter best known for his post-WWII work that often included crude depictions of animal carcasses, popes, and portraits of himself and his peers. it is often said that his work related an existential unease of many during the post-war period where many were forced to reevaluate their place in the world, both as individuals and nationally. being a highly intelligent homosexual man during this dark, less-enlightened period only further compounded such national and individual issues of identity.
i find his work fascinatingly inventive and gloriously opaque, its fractured nature almost the art analogue to LEWIS CARROLL, except way more self-examining in nature and more sinister in its implications for what constitutes human nature. essentially his beauty is visible in the grotesque and unsavory dark corners of the human psyche.
his work has influenced countless artists, a recent example being the MARK ROMANECK-directed 1994 video for the NINE INCH NAILS song "CLOSER" (embedded below).
if interested, i found this 1966 BBC documentary "FRAGEMENTS OF A PORTRAIT" to be particularly insightful into the psyche of this most impenetrable of artists.
Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da
"Judith Beheading Holofernes" (1598), oil on canvas, Galleria Nazionale dell'Arte Antica Rome
CARAVAGGIO was a 16/17th century italian painter during the counter-reformation. that's all well and good, but the reason i adore his work is the visceral realism they portray. his figures don't seem to be a part of some faint idyllic plane, as most religious paintings of the period i've experienced seeming do. in his paintings, CARAVAGGIO's figures deal with issues of aging, decay, indulgence, exhaustion and pain. especially pain.
his work is well worth seeking out if you get the opportunity. a few are scattered throughout the united states. luckily four of his works are part of the permanent collection at THE MET, two on current display being "THE MUSICIANS" (1597) and "THE DENIAL OF ST. PETER" (1610), but most of his notable works are at museums and catholic churches and cathedrals across italy.
embedded below is an excellent BBC documentary by COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY art history professor SIMON SCHAMA as part of his 2006 "POWER OF ART" series. it is worth watching.