Tag Archives: paintings

Artists I Like- On Kawara

Perhaps because I am currently working on a project that utilizes photographs that I have made on a daily, monthly, and yearly basis, I am intrigued by artists who have taken that approach in their own work, regardless of medium. On Kawara (1932-2014), a conceptual artist born in Japan, certainly fits that mode.  For 48 years, he would spend a part of each day making a painting that had at its center the date on which he was painting it (his “Today” series). Other creative methods he used were mapping the places he’d been, and  keeping daily lists of people he met. Between 1970 and 2000, he sent his friends more than 900 telegrams just to tell them that he was still alive.On Kawara

In the pre-social networked age that we live in today, that kind of thing would perhaps have labeled him as eccentric. Today it makes him seem to have been far ahead of his time. It’s possible that, if he were a young artist today, he would have been posting a daily Instagram of each meal, sending weekly selfies on Snapchat (without showing his face, as he was obsessively private), and tweeting his whereabouts on Twitter. Taken together, his work creates an archive of his life.

In an article on Artnet.com, critic Ben Davis wrote that Kawara not only anticipated our data-obsessed age, “he offers an alternative way of thinking about it, a possible model for how to stay human amid it all.”

That brings up the issue of the culture of sharing (oversharing?) of personal information in today’s world. For me, the most effective kind of personal sharing through one’s artwork is that in which an artist reveals just enough for the viewer to engage with, but which only hints at the deeper currents beyond. I like artists whose work makes me feel like I know them, at the same time that I realize I don’t know them at all.

On Kawara’s work does that for me. He tells us so much about himself and his life, but ultimately preserves his privacy and seems completely unknowable.  For his art wasn’t solely about him per se, it was about the passage of time. By focusing on how that passage is built from incremental steps day-to-day, month-to-month, year-to-year, Kawara make us aware of our own inexorable movement towards the future, as well as of the past we have left behind.947-am

The Importance of Taking Time to Look

While the advent of 35mm roll film cameras heralded a whole new era in photography, the emergence of digital photography has done the same. One casualty of the ever-increasing ease in picture-taking is the time we spend looking at the scene in front of us before we press the shutter. This hurry-up approach was as true when 35mm cameras were first introduced to the marketplace as it is today. Put a digital camera in my hands, and I’ll click away quickly and thoughtlessly with the best of them. (Burst mode, anyone?!)

However the benefits of slowing down, of first spending time just looking at what is in front of us before we shoot, should not be ignored. This was brought home to me when I read “The Most Powerful Artwork I Have Ever Seen”, an article about cave paintings by art critic Jerry Saltz. Saltz and his wife visited the Niaux Caves in France in 2008, and the experience  became a seminal moment for him in his understanding of art. The part of the article that spoke to me about the importance of spending time looking, though, was the following excerpt:

“…we came to what felt like a large, irregularly shaped cavern. I can still feel cool currents on my face. We were in the “Salon noir.” Everything remained silent; our guide pointed her light to the ground so our eyes could adjust. After a moment, she wordlessly shined the beam upward. A never-ending clap of thunder sounded inside me; one reality was replaced by another…th-1

Nothing [in the paintings I was looking at] seemed only imagined; everything felt observed, studied, thought about, recorded.

These are the paintings of people who looked at mammals for over 30,000 years – far longer than all of recorded history combined. I was seeing visual wisdom, the hard work of looking and taking the time and trouble to make exact renditions of what one watched. Looking at these images, I began to know things we don’t know anymore but still know in our bones. These astounding levels of visual intelligence tell me that had these people wanted to make only symbolic images of their mysticism and magic, they could have…The clap of thunder that sounded for me in the caves was that the world outside and around these people was the same as the world that was inside them.”th-2

How odd it seems that today’s art students need to be taught to “learn to see”, when this was a fundamental requirement for survival for the earliest humans. Observing the color and shape of things, the ebb and flow of weather and tides, the behavior of prey, tasting unfamiliar plants and animals to see if they were edible- doing all of this built up a body of knowledge that enabled Homo sapiens to thrive. They thus gained the kind of innate understanding about their world that most of us sorely lack in the 21st century.

One of the reasons I like working with large- and medium-format cameras is that they require me to slow down. I simply can’t work quickly with them. They demand that I consider carefully the scene in front of me, which is not something that happens with smaller, lighter cameras. Sometimes I will spend long hours looking for a shot that eludes me, and I won’t make any exposures. But that time is not wasted, for it gives me practice in looking, and, hopefully, seeing. Taking the time to be fully present in the world around me is something I should be doing on a daily basis. And slowing down, regardless of the type of camera I have in my hands, would benefit my work greatly.

Artists I Like- J. M. W. Turner

I first became aware of the power of art when I was in my early twenties. Prior to that, I of course had seen art before, but I had never thought much about it. But when I started taking art and music history classes, I began to realize that a sculpture wasn’t just an inanimate 3D object, a building wasn’t just a form that provided shelter, a musical piece wasn’t just a bunch of notes strung together, and a painting wasn’t just a canvas with paint on it. The idea that an artwork could contain an entire universe of thought and meaning was a revelation to me, and I dove with great enthusiasm into exploring as many different types and eras of art as I could in order to learn more.

It’s been interesting to see which artists have risen to the top of my own personal list of favorites over the years. One of the painters who rocketed to the top and has stayed there is 19th Century English landscape painter and printmaker J. M. W. Turner. Looking at his seascapes, in particular, is like listening to a Beethoven symphony.

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps

No one else used paint the way he did at that time. Very few painters saw and conveyed light in the way he did. His paintings exude energy and vibrancy- they are almost alive in their shimmering atmospheric presence. Many of his paintings contain historical references, both ancient and contemporary to his time, but in ways that are visually atypical for a 19th Century painter.

Rain, Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway

Rain, Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway

I have been thinking a lot about his work recently because a film, “Mr. Turner”, has come out that has Turner as its main character and which has been recommended to me by many friends. (Note to self: Put that on my list of films to see when it comes to town…)

The New York Times published a review of the film by critic A. O. Scott, the last three sentences of which perfectly sum up one of the reasons that I make art:

“By the end [of the film], we may not be able to summarize Turner’s life, explain his paintings or pass a midterm on British history. But we may find that our knowledge of all those things has deepened, and the compass by which we measure our own experience has grown wider. Only art can do that, and it may be all that art can do.”

And isn’t that amazing??!! That an art object can lead to that kind of self-knowledge??!! It’s that kind of knowledge that not only enriches us, but that can lead us to act, and therefore live more meaningful lives. Any artist whose work can do that for others is worth knowing about. And because your work has done that for me, I thank you, Mr. Turner.

Death on a Pale Horse

Death on a Pale Horse