Friday, September 17, 2010

Arcimboldo, Part III: A Surrealist Before his Time

I have often thought the Mannerist style of late Renaissance art had a lot in common with the Surrealism of the 20th century. After viewing the National Gallery's Arcimboldo exhibition, this analogy seems stronger. Arcimboldo was a Mannerist from Milan who worked for the Court of Maximilian II in Vienna, and for his son, Rudolf II, in Vienna and in Prague. It is interesting that his reputation went down for a number of years until the Surrealists of the 20th Century revived the interest in his art.

"Librarian," 1566, could easily be mistaken for an early 20th century Surrealist painting, at first glance. Arcimboldo painted various professions. "The Jurist," also on display at the National Gallery, is a scathing portrayal of the legal profession.

Mannerism came after the High Renaissance style of Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael, which had lasted only about 20 years. The idealism of their style seemed to perish as Europe descended into the wars and devastation that occurred after the Reformation began. Much of life may have seemed surreal, or like a very bad dream. In the same vein, Dadaism and Surrealism resulted from the irrationality of World War I, when a Europe that had supposedly reached a high level of civilization was torn asunder by senseless war.

Arcimboldo, the keen observer of nature, introduces the still life, a new genre
of painting. His vegetable harvest is bountiful BUT......

Mannerist artists enjoyed clever, disguised subjects. Surrealists loved to play tricks, too, often playing pranks on each other.

Arcimboldo was every bit the jokester. The Vegetable Gardener, above and below, is full of onions, carrots, mushrooms, etc., but it can be turned over. (The National Gallery uses mirrors to show the reversal. )
"The Vegetable Gardener" is one of three reversible food images in
the exhibition which uses mirrors to show the illusion.

In Arcimboldo's world, plants, flowers and fruits metamorphose into human heads. Also there are lizards, bats and hideous creatures that make up human beings. While Surrealism had the goal to make the subconscious visible, Mannerism may have been doing much the same, accidentally, or subconsciously, but four centuries earlier.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Kerry James Marshall

In My Mother's Home There are Many Mansions, 1994, by Kerry James Marshall, Denver Museum of Art

Kerry James Marshall, a preeminent artist of today, presents a strong voice of an identity for a middle-aged African
American who has witnessed changes in his lifetime. He addresses issues of race and culture in a Post-Modern style that recognizes past, current and other issues that his generation has faced. He was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1955, but moved to the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1963, a fact not lost on the subjects of his paintings.

Marshall paints large acrylic canvas and plexi-glass images with wit and irony. Sometimes he's influenced by comic books and in other ways he commands the authority of histo
rical paintings, using a structure he says is inspired by artists like Gericault. In his Post-Modern style of art, it's easy to see the inspiration of many twentieth century movements, such as the collage effects of Cubism and splashes like an Abstract Expressionist painting. One would guess he is great admirer of Romare Bearden, too. But he combines these historical styles with realism and most of all he presents an urban, black culture without taking himself, or life, too seriously. In a series of large paintings from 1994, he portrayed life in various public housing complexes, particularly in Chicago, where he currently lives. He hints at both undesirable aspects of these complexes, and certain joys that can come through community, such as the planting flowers and Easter baskets. In his own words, he believed that moments of happiness and finding the goodness of life can still be present. Marshall's titles cleverly make us think about things with references to larger society. One example: "Better Homes, Better Gardens." However, the housing projects are just one of the many themes that Marshall has been exploring in his art.

The Stile, 1993, a view inside the barbershop, is now in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Marshall grew up primarily in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.

All of Marshall's paintings relate to his identity as an African American. The people he paints are indeed very black, the deepness of their color being the theme of his presentatio
n. One painting called Black Painting is black on black, with many variations of black. He was inspired by Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, recognizing how it was so possible to be present yet invisible in American life.

A recent series is of vignettes, romances meant to be a footnote to a larger story. In these illustrations, he flirts with kitsch, the type of art that is supposed to make you the viewer feel good and good about yourself for liking it. He makes these paintings primarily monochromatic; specifically they are almost exclusively painted in shades of black, white and gray. In contrast to these neutral tones, pink hearts accent the sky, reminding us of the fun of romance.

Vignette #6, 2005

Marshall often portrays couples and seems to like the balance of male and fema
le in his large, major paintings as well as those paintings presented in pairs. Love seems to be a recurring theme in his art, but so is the home, whether it is outside in an urban setting, or an interior where groups of unrelated people can meet and congregate in a domestic setting. He is witty but never trite.

Souvenir III, 1998, is in a series of memorializing paintings, this one in the collection of MoMA, New York

In a group of paintings dedicated to deceased heroes of African American achievement and the Civil Rights movement, he always includes a living woman with glittered angel wings in the composition, a so-called living angel. Those who are above in a heavenl
y enclave also have wings. These interior settings resemble a living room, and Marshall hints that feelings of tranquility in the present life are possible because others have gone beforehand and made things better. He leaves the viewer with a lot to contemplate, without making his message too obtuse or complex. Even if a subject, like romance, seems commonplace, we always must take Marshall seriously and stop to observe what he is communicating.

Marshall decided to become an artist at age five, when his kindergarten teacher brought out a scrapbook of pictures.....Thankfully, he never changed his mind and he continues to show us a diverse display of the ideas and pictures that have shaped a colorful life.