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Month: September, 2013

W.T.G.A.: Cézanne vs Kandinsky

cezanne vs kandinskyYou would be hard-pressed to find two more pivotal individuals in the evolution of painting than Paul Cézanne and Wassily Kandinsky. Both of their artistic explorations forged new paths in art that countless artists have followed since. One is considered to be the grand provocateur of pure abstraction and the other, the godfather of modernism itself.  If painting is a language; than their works could be akin to the Rosetta Stone, offering countless insights into the possibilities of things to come. Both men left us with a rich legacy of stunning masterpieces and innovative approach, but who is the greater artist?

Paul Cezanne Still-Life with Bottle of Liqueur 1880-1890

Paul Cézanne  Still-Life with Bottle of Liqueur 1880-1890

When we think of Cézanne, we think of greens and oranges, we think of countless variations of  a solitary theme whether it be a distant mountain or still-life brimming with fruit, we think of bathers by a stream or men immersed in a game of cards and then we stop thinking altogether and let the pictures take over. We are helpless to their beauty. A painting by Cézanne is an experience, it starts to work on you the minute you step into its realm; all other paintings seem to fade away in its presence.  At first it may appear to be a pure exercise in painting, marrying colour with technique, but the whole is definitely more than the sum of its parts. In the hands of Cézanne, an apple can take on transcendental qualities. The abstract expressionist Barnett Newman famously called them ‘canon balls’ eluding to their dynamic power.

Wassily Kandinsky Improvisation No. 30 1913

Wassily Kandinsky Improvisation No. 30 1913

Similarly, Kandinsky breathes with explosive flurries of  colour and harmony. We become charged by their energy and swept up in their movements. Throughout his career, he explored the correlation between music and paint and helped to visually interpret the sweeping momentum of symphonies and other musical compositions. When standing in front of one of his paintings in a museum, it sings to you. One composition leads to another and you want more. Kandinsky constantly thrills and surprises you with his choices and you are left amazed by the endlessness of his creativity.

Cézanne  Morning in Provence 1900-06

Cézanne Morning in Provence 1900-06

Early on in Cézanne’s evolution as a painter his palette was dark and dense and his hand was heavy and unsure. As time went on the colours became lighter and the hand more confident. Near the end of his career, thin paint and raw canvas spoke volumes and every brushstroke became a delight. Over his lifetime he stripped away all things unnecessary in his painting and distilled the essential. A seemingly unfinished Cézanne is still a deeply satisfying experience.

Kandinsky Composition No 9 1936

Kandinsky Composition No 9 1936

Kandinsky started out in a fauvist vein attacking the canvas with brilliant colour and a wild technique. Over the years, the landscapes and imagery of his early works slowly were reduced to impressions and eventually disappeared all together into a sea of lines, colours and gestures. Shapes soon took over creating a language all to themselves. The chaos of early works was replaced with order and echos of geometry and biology. The song evolved over the decades but retained its tune.

Cézanne Still-Life with a Peach and two Green Pears 1883-87

Cézanne Still-Life with a Peach and two Green Pears 1883-87

Cézanne’s contribution to the history of art is no small feat. He turned painting on its end by playing with the picture plain. By tilting the perspectives of multiple objects we see the seeds of cubism and usher in Modernism. Braque and Picasso were immensely influenced by Cézanne’s explorations. The rules of painting were being rewritten by these innovations. What should not work or be misconstrued as wrong, resounds true and leads the way.

Kandinsky Painting with Green Center 1913

Kandinsky Painting with Green Center 1913

Throughout his career Kandinsky forged new ground for all those who followed him. He was a founding member of the Blue Rider group, taught at the Bauhaus and  left an astonishing body of work. He wrote extensively about the theory of abstraction and taught many who were willing to learn. He is considered one of the greats, but for a long time his contribution went unacknowledged; even in his homeland of Russia, his paintings were hidden away in institutions like the Hermitage not to be viewed by the public. Time has erased these wrongs and now Kandinsky rises high in the Pantheon of art but can he topple Cézanne?

In the end Kandinsky may have had the canons but Cézanne supplied the ammunition.   

Winner: Cézanne

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Ember 2

Ember 2 2009

Ember 2 2009

Acrylic on wood panel.

Clever Monkey

bb

In the Chilean rain forest lives a species of coniferous tree  called Araucaria araucana, it is more commonly known as a Monkey Puzzle tree. It received this peculiar moniker due to its sharp scale like leaves and twisted limbs that would present a challenge for any fool who would attempt to climb it.

People and monkeys alike, are very attracted to all things puzzling, and in our enlightened electronic age we certainly have no shortage of fools who are willing to cut their hands on all manner of topics, including at this time the phenomenal puzzle that is Breaking Bad. As the show approaches its final two episodes, the internet is ablaze with  theories, comments, praise and especially analysis and interpretations.

It seems that people are in shock, both from the events of the show and the finality of it coming to an end. We have become a TV nation of addicts and are already going through withdrawal as we see our supply dry up. We are already making alternative plans to fill the void; courting other eligible suitors to start a whole new love affair with. You hear people casually mention at parties, “Have you seen Broadchurch, House of Cards or Luther?” You’re always on the look out for the new fix, but you don’t want to get burned again. You’re still bitter from the fizzled passion of Dexter. “Dammit, how long until Game of Thrones is back?” American Horror Story season 3 may momentarily ease your shakes and you just found out that they are turning the final season of Mad Men into another two year long goodbye, but the affection you have for Walt and Jesse is special: tattoo special. You never thought you could love another show this much, not after the hole you were left with by the Sopranos, The Wire and Six Feet Under. Breaking Bad restored our faith that it could be that good again and for some, even better.

walter-white-breaking-bad

(slight spoilers ahead)

The monkey cage that is the internet has already thrown out phrases like “Better than… or Best Show of All Time.” It is true Vince Gilligan has created a five part character study that has slowly sunk its hooks in and not let go from the first season  onwards. It is really hard to find a single misstep. Everything works; from the cast, to the setting, to the premise to the intrigue. It is rare nowadays, to have a show that can genuinely create tension for a desensitized ‘seen it all before’ audience and constantly keep them guessing and surprised. A quick simple example of this would be; the shot in S5 ep. 14 where Skyler is looking at the kitchen counter and choosing between the phone and the knife. The beauty of this show is that it constantly lets the audience into the characters’ heads to weigh the decisions they are making. We get to watch as the problems arise, assess their possible options and more often then not be shocked at the outcomes. The ethical waters are constantly being muddied. The audience has to question its own belief system to reject or have empathy for the characters. We can be sickened by the actions but have to appreciate the logic surrounding their circumstances.  We as an audience are encouraged to participate in the puzzle.

In order to solve any puzzle you must first be sure you have all the pieces. There have been a lot of busy monkeys out there combing through every show/scene/shot to assemble the most complete box they possibly can. Perhaps it’s the withdrawal symptoms surfacing, but in many cases people may have started to lose perspective on the whole thing. The monkeys are rattling their cages and flinging their sh*t at one another vying for monkey superiority. A  recent article by  a TV critic over at New York magazine’s  Vulture really laid into other people’s analysis of our beloved show. Vulture generally does TV very well, their recaps are some of the best on the net, but this particular piece may have been a little too close to its subject.

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Using a smart show to make yourself appear smart by association seems to be a negative side effect of our comment on everything society.  ‘Look how smart I am, I figured out that Walt was trying to get Skyler off the hook with his tirade on the phone’ etc.. We definitely need thoughtful analysis of our art to help deepen its appreciation and revel in its nuances but this is neither a race nor a contest. How we watch TV is more telling than what we watch. We can only relate to anything by comparing it to our own experience. Not everybody is going to arrive at the same page and that’s a really good thing. Art should be liquid and be able to fill a thousand spaces in a thousand ways. Breaking Bad is one of the great shows because it allows you to spin your own moral compass and doesn’t present any one clear cut way to look at it.

monkey puzzle

monkey puzzle

In two weeks time I’ll definitely be a little sad that the opus of Walter White will have come to a close. The internet will be clogged with failed predictions, I told you so’s and analytical fallout that will continue well into the winter. Eventually the cleverest monkey will come forward to receive their Breaking Bad crown  and the rest of the world will be lamenting that they are again back on the market.

 

Related articles:

State of Television

First Last for Everything

Ai Weiwei: According to What? at the A.G.O.

Grapes (detail) 2010

Grapes (detail) 2010

The Toronto International Film Festival is wrapping up this weekend. Two weeks of long lines, premieres and celebrity filled red carpet cotillions will soon be over. Our cult-like worship of celebrity will be satisfied for yet another year. Many big names graced our northern clime this season, but I would have to say the brightest star in Toronto right now, would  be Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Unfortunately, the artist couldn’t personally make it to Toronto for the opening of his show:  According to What? at the Art Gallery of Ontario but his presence is definitely being felt.

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn 1995/2009

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn 1995/2009

See, the thing with Ai Weiwei is; he is kind of an independent spirit living in an oppressive environment. These two elements tend to butt heads when directly confronting one another; and Ai Weiwei literally has the scares to prove it. Targeted by the Chinese government for his political activism, Weiwei has had his freedoms dramatically reduced, including not being able to leave China. You might think that a person who has suffered physical assault and wrongful incarceration (80 days) at the hands of his government would have nothing but negative things to say about China, but Ai Weiwei (in his art) can separate country from state and history from politics. The genius of Ai Weiwei’s work is that he can both celebrate and condemn his homeland in equal measures.

China Log 2005

China Log 2005

China has a spellbinding history with countless contributions to the pantheon of art. Dynasties have come and gone, each leaving evidence behind of their innovations and legacy. Weiwei assimilates their historical artifacts into his assemblages. He recycles the materials and working methods of the past to both pay homage and re-contextualize our relationship with objects. In both China Log and Kippe the sculptures are made up of salvaged pieces from Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) temples. The map of China has been hollowed out of the core of China Log. The log itself has been assembled using  traditional Chinese joining techniques utilizing eight separate temple pillars. The core of Kippe consists of playground parallel bars commenting on the artist’s memories of childhood. 

Kippe 2006

Kippe 2006

Ai Weiwei uses traditional materials in new and unexpected ways, whether it is his supreme unfolding stool of Grapes or his Teahouse. The Tea Houses are exactly as they are named; houses made using a ton of tea each. The delightful thing about experiencing these structures in the gallery is the aroma. Every piece in According to What? has a dual role. They first arrest you with their aesthetic and then subtly play on your emotions.

Teahouse 2009

Teahouse 2009

The other side of Ai Weiwei’s art is to raise a critical finger at the injustices of the world. Weiwei also mines China’s recent past and his filter of nostalgia has been replaced with tragedy and injustice. On May 12th,  2008 a massive earthquake rocked Sichuan province in China killing approximately 90 000 people. A horrific event that went virtually unnoticed by the entire planet. The tragedy was made worse by substandard building practices, especially hard hit were the schools where countless children lost their lives. The government minimized the event in the press and wouldn’t release the names of the dead. For a free spirit like Ai Weiwei, this was unacceptable. He and his team started looking for the lost names and posting them to his blog, which was eventually shut down by the government. In the exhibition, one wall of the gallery is devoted to the names of these lost children. Along with the names sits a massive pile of rebar that forms waves on the floor (Straight 2008-2012). Each metal bar was salvaged from the earthquake wreckage and then manually straightened.

Ceiling Snake (2009) is made using 100's of children's backpacks.

Ceiling Snake (2009) is made using 100’s of children’s backpacks.

The beauty of Weiwei’s work is the balance he strikes between the old and the new and the sublime and the tragic. At his worse he can delve into the sculptural equivalent to a visual parlor trick like:  Forever or Moon Chest. They’re fun to look at but ultimately don’t resonate as much as the other work which can be beautiful, complicated and haunting. He helped shed light on a tragic event, bringing dignity to the departed and was ultimately persecuted for his convictions.  The role of the artist is to interpret the world we live in for good and bad.  Weiwei shows us at our best and our worst and we should thank him for it.

Moon Chest (detail) 2009

Moon Chest (detail) 2009

Ai Weiwei ‘s According to What? is definitely a must see.

Room 118

Mixed Messages 2013

Mixed Messages 2013

Next week I’ll be participating in a very special event; the town where I grew up is resurrecting their Arts festival. After a few years of lying low, Oshawa is going to transform its downtown into a late night artcrawl with a series of pop-up galleries. They’ve entitled the event Space Invaders. I’ll be participating in a group show in one of the invaded spaces. The show will be made up of alumni from O’Neill Collegiate (the high school I attended once upon a time, a long time ago) and is called Room 118, named after the art room where we all started down the path of art. The show centers around the teacher who was a massive inspiration to anyone who found themselves lucky enough to be in his classroom: Mr. Craig Wildman. The alumni date back some decades to Craig’s first year of teaching (that would be me) and go to the recently graduated. The show opens on the 12th  and runs to the 28th, with the big gala celebration on the 20th.

Related post: Paradigm Shift