Friday, December 12, 2008

A brilliant sunset: art and the atmosphere

The first time I saw the paintings of Frederic Church I was struck by the brilliant, almost garish colors in such compositions as his Twilight in the Wilderness from 1860. I had always assumed Church, along with the other Hudson River School painters, were exaggerating for effect, much like the German Expressionists had.

But when my wife and I moved from Brooklyn to Catskill, a small town in New York's Hudson Valley, I realized I was wrong. One day, just after we had moved up, I was driving from the east side of the Hudson River, just outside of the city of Hudson, heading back across the Rip Van Winkle Bridge to Catskill when I nearly drove off the road. The sky looked like it was on fire. It was an explosion of alizarin crimson, eggplant purple, lemon yellow and a hundred shades of orange, with a deep electric blue peaking through in places. The usually brown Hudson River reflected the sky, mellowing the colors and complimenting the scene.

A few months later, my wife and a I were eating at a riverfront restaurant in Athens, on the west side of the Hudson, when we witnessed a similar scene. Just across the river in Columbia County, the tree-covered hills suddenly turned from a dull green to a riot of reds and oranges just as the sun began to set. The shift was so sudden it didn't seem real.

The quality of light and atmospheric fireworks of the Hudson Valley drew a loose affiliation of 19th century landscape painters that would become known as the Hudson River School to the area and ushered in the (arguably) most important contribution to world culture by 19th century America. The attraction to the the land was so great that the two leading painters of the school—Church and Thomas Cole—permanently settled in the area.

The connection between the atmospheric peculiarities of a place in relation to the output of a painter working there is vital to understanding any given piece of art.

One can't look at the paintings of Henri Matisse that were produced in the south of France without understanding that he went there specifically for the light. His time spent there transformed his canvases, altering his palette for the rest of his life. In 1917 he permanently settled near Nice.

The relationship between palette and place extends beyond figurative painting. The later work of Willem De Kooning—one of the great 20th century masters—is a good example. When he left Manhattan in 1963 and moved out to East Hampton, at the end of Long Island, his colors lightened. The forms, as if bathed in light, lost the hard linear quality of his earlier work.

I was recently discussing this subject with an attorney I know, who said he wished that his art professors in college would have explained this to him, since it seems to be a large part of the picture (literally).

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Severing the tie that binds: art, politics and the real world

I'm not a fan of politically motivated art. I feel that as artists we should dig deeper and strive to produce work that deals with humanity's common threads as opposed to surface issues. Great art is often made about intensely personal subject matter, but what makes it great is its ability to go beyond the merely personal to touch upon a universal truth.

The question I've been pondering is whether political art can ever be truly great as well as whether an artist with aberrant political ideologies should be black-balled from the pantheon of great art.

When dealing with groundbreaking artistic work that has underlying racist or propagandistic elements the artistic merit cannot be stripped away from the content.
D.W. Griffith’s (1875-1948) film “Birth of a Nation,” from 1915, is considered by many to be a masterpiece.

The film is a plaudit to the founding of the Ku Klux Klan and presents a skewed history of the post-Civil War Reconstruction era.
The film was the first blockbuster and is credited with both innovating and solidifying cinematic language.

At best, it can be considered in a historical/sociological context, specifically for its ability to propagate a racist world-view and its effect on the public as well as later Hollywood productions.

Early Soviet era cinema and the films of Leni Riefenstahl made for the Nazi Party are other works that must fall into this category.

I’m focusing on film because of its unique potential as a tool for propaganda. No other art form works in the way that film does because it so closely mimics reality, easily persuading the public that its perspective is a common one.

There is no denying that The Battleship Potemkin (1925) by Segei Eisenstein or Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1934) have influenced later filmmakers, but we should not consider these films as true art but as dogma in the guise of art. The medium and the message are intertwined in these films making it impossible to untangle the two.

I feel there is a difference in the case of artists whose personal beliefs may be shocking or repulsive to most, but whose work doesn't reflect their personal beliefs.

The German Expressionist Emil Nolde (1867-1956) was a Nazi sympathizer and brilliant artist. His work exhibits vigorous brushwork, intense coloration and an exuberance not unlike Vincent Van Gogh's paintings.
Nolde's Nazi affiliations began early, in the 1920's, and lasted well into the 1940's, even after Adolph Hitler’s government banned his work. He publicly made anti-Semitic statements and considered Expressionism as a purely Germanic style.

Nolde's politics and personal beliefs should (obviously) be questioned, but the fact remains that his art has no relation to his politics.

The poet Ezra Pound (1885-1972) and his output follow along these lines as well. Pound's writing is arguably the foundation of the modernist tradition, influencing a generation of later writers.

He moved to Italy in 1924 and later became a propagandist for Benito Mussolini's fascist government. He was also an anti-Semite who spoke publicly against Jews.
But, like Nolde, his work doesn't reflect these views.

I believe that the art and the artist should be considered separately from one another, unless of course, the work reflects their vitriolic personal views or a political agenda, in which case the baby should be thrown out with the bathwater.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The fantastic in the work of JMW Turner

Joseph Mallord William Turner, the early 19th century British painter famous for his landscapes, also worked in another vein less talked about. Some of his work deals with the fantastic, from images of death riding a pale horse to sea monsters. Also falling into this category are his imagined landscapes of Biblical and historical scenes, such as the Deluge and Rome burning.

The fantastic can be defined as work that deals with the inner life of the artist, including visions, the grotesque and dream states. Artists considered squarely in this genre would include Hieronymus Bosch and William Blake.

Parallels can be drawn between Turner’s fantastical works and those of his contemporary Blake. The main difference between the two is in execution and style. Blake looked back towards the simplified, flat forms found in early Christian illuminated texts, while Turner worked in a more realistic and academic style.

Art historians have generally ignored Turner’s visionary work and focused instead on his role as a precursor to modernism, exemplified by his later paintings that forgo the classic landscape for a technique that borders on the abstract.

This work was an exploration of the atmospheric as shown in such pieces as 1842’s Snow Storm—Steam-boat off a Harbour’s Mouth and Rain, Steam and Speed from 1844.

Turner believed that light was the emanation of God’s spirit and in his later years his work focused almost exclusively on the effects of light. His work that presages later art movements comes directly from a mystical belief system that he tried to convey through paint. On his deathbed he supposedly uttered the words “The sun is God.”

Turner’s fascination with the fantastic isn’t strange considering the time and place he lived in. London at the turn of the 18th Century was experiencing a surge in new forms of Christian mysticism and spiritualist beliefs, from the Swedenborgians to Mesmerism.

In “Sunrise with Sea Monsters,” a late work by Turner, a strange fish-like creature sits upon a hazy yellow sea. This painting brings together Turner’s mystical exploration of light and his fascination with the imaginary. The title is a 20th century invention, but never the less Turner’s “sea monster” is an amalgamation of different fish and therefore a creature that came squarely from his fevered imagination.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The longest suicide note in the world: The music of Scott Andrew Poole

In the song “The King of Nothingness,” from the album of the same name, Scott Andrew Poole sings “I’m writing the world’s longest suicide note, but don’t worry I’m not even half done yet.”

This lyric seems to epitomize Poole’s music, which swings from despair to a glimmering hopefulness, underpinned by a dark humor.The music always matches the lyrical content.

In the song “Amarillo” from his 2002 eponymous album, a mournful acoustic guitar echoes the words of this country ballad that Johnny Cash would have killed to have sung.

The song is about a man riding the range during a cattle drive in Texas with a band of miscreants “who always spoke of innocence” but whose bodies “wreaked of sin.” When the men get lost they turn on each other, but at the 11th hour an “angel from Abilene” in the form of a train arrives. “With their faces turned toward the sky, they shout hallelujah today our souls have been saved,” sings Poole. “But I could not share that sentiment so I shot them where they prayed.”

Born in North Carolina Poole’s wander lust has given him the chance to live in almost every region in the country.

Since moving to New York in 2002 he has put out a number of recordings including a self-titled album, The Gospel of New York, The Vice of Life, and The King of Nothingness.

His sound has changed over the years—from post-punk roots rock with his Austin, Texas band The Relafords, through stripped down Anti-folk to a highly layered and complex sound achieved with producer Jason Kronick.

Poole is a revisionist. Throughout his career he has constantly reinterpreted his own music. Each successive version of a song reflects not just his current fascination, but what he considers to be a better and truer interpretation. The possibility exists that his idea of “better” changes with his current fascination, but never the less, refinement of style and lyrical content lies at the root of his reasoning.

“Snowman in the Summer,” first heard on the Vice of Life as a muscular rock song with a guitar part that both shimmers and hangs on the edge of breaking apart, later appears on Poole’s newest album, The King of Nothingness, in a completely new form. In its current incarnation, Poole reshapes it into a song as fragile as a lullaby sung in a falsetto with deeply layered elements that come close to overwhelming his words. The lyrics are truncated in his newer version, which works within the new framework.

Poole’s sound continues to change, but according to him his next album will be a return to the stripped down acoustic sound of his early recordings. Through each transformation Poole manages to retain something of his past sound, building upon his experiences. So it may be safe to say that even though he may be returning to his roots the sound will continue to evolve.

To hear Scott Andrew Poole's music go to:

Sunday, August 31, 2008

A Coney Island thrill ride

Coney Island Aesthetics

When Carol Albert sold Astroland, the largest amusement park on Coney Island, to developer Thor Equities in 2006 it sounded the death knell for a singular aesthetic style.

The Coney Island aesthetic is both organic and completely artificial. It hovers between eras, arching backwards towards the dawn of electric light when Luna Park’s thousands of bulbs were an attraction unto itself, and into the 1970’s when New York City helped give birth to a new urban art called graffiti.

This riot of styles, colors, sights and sounds retains a cohesiveness that marks it as a unique aesthetic, different from other amusement parks in America. Coney Island isn’t a well-planned and minutely detailed corporate entity such as Disneyland or Six Flags. It has come about in fits and starts and has taken over a century to become what it is today.

It also differs greatly from the midways of state and county fairs. I recently spent time at both the Dutchess and Columbia County Fairs where temporary midways are put up each year. Besides a sense of impermanence that you won’t find at Coney Island, the art that decorates the facades of the various rides is strikingly different from that found at Astroland and the other parks.

The airbrushed images of the thrill rides at the fairs I visited had a cleaner, more comic-book graphics edge to them. On closer inspection I found that many of the artists were from California.

At Coney Island the designs seem slightly denser with more detail and imagery condensed into the available space.

The Coney Island aesthetic extends to the characters that inhabit it. The summer before I moved to New York, in 2001, I spent a long lazy afternoon drinking at Ruby’s Bar on the boardwalk. I spoke with the barkers and carnies discussing everything from Cajun music to the history of the Island. Many had lived the lives of itinerant workers, moving from the oil fields of the South to various other jobs around the country before finding a semi-permanent home at Coney Island.

I drank with a man named “Shorty” that day, who I still occasionally see when I go to Coney Island. He is originally from Nova Scotia and came from Acadian stock, the same people who settled the part of Louisiana where I’m from. He was a good representative of the carnie breed. He had a restless energy that seemed to have found its match in the bright lights and endless motion of the carnival. After a life of movement he had found a place that matched his temperament. With the demise of Astroland the old time carnies will probably have to move on, like the artists, cranks, thinkers and blue-collar workers have had to do from successive NYC neighborhoods.

Coney Island may have been the last real place left in New York. Times Square was stripped of any local color and history with its "revitalization" in the 1990's. The Bowery, a working class entertainment haven lined with theaters and bars in the 19th century, later gave rise to the youth oriented Punk scene in the 1970’s. Now it is home to trendy boutiques and a Whole Foods Market.

The question now remains: what will the future hold? Equities’ firm has proposed a multi-billion dollar entertainment complex with hotels, an in-door water park and lots of shopping opportunities. Based on their other projects, I believe the new park will be clean, well integrated and bland—the perfect post-modern American structure.