I recently went to the Baltimore Museum of Art’s exhibition, Generations: A History of Black Abstract Art, which is on view until this January 19, 2020. I highly recommend you go! There are over 28 artists featured, and here are just a few artists that I liked.
Mark Bradford. He uses collage and decollage taking imagery, text, materials and experiences from his home in South Los Angeles. This work has been described as a type of “sacred geometry” that visual represents and celebrates his grandmother’s divine wisdom.
Jack Whitten. I like this piece because it actually reminds me of two of my classmates active brushstrokes. Though influenced by Willem de Kooning, whom he knew, Whitten defined his own dynamic brand of hallucinatory abstract painting. Active in the 60s, his early juxtapose abstraction with surreal figurative imagery.
Charles Gaines. It’s fascinating how many visual artists are influenced by Buddhism, meditation, and Buddhist art, which relies heavily upon a grid system. In an interview on Artforum, he says:
“Through reading—first Henri Focillon’s The Life of Forms in Art and then volumes on Tantric and Buddhist art—I discovered art practices in the world beyond this. I wanted to deal with ideas intellectually and rationally, but from my own perspective as a Westerner. So I looked for tropes, like mathematics, that do not privilege the creative unconscious…. The ego is limiting; we gravitate toward things we know and can’t imagine things we don’t know. Through “systems” I could go where the imagination couldn’t and bring things that otherwise would not be thought about to light. Out of this I began using the grid.
Melvin Edwards. I really liked this sculptural piece because it depicts two sculptures – one that rocks and has “it’s mouth always open,” and one that is more closed and stable. The artist says in an interview of his retrospective at the Nasher Museum of Art: “It’s called A Conversation with Norman Lewis. That’s based on something he used to say: ‘You can’t hear with your mouth open.'” It makes me consider the artists role in both conversing and listening…
As I mentioned in my last post, my next project is to complete at least 3 paintings on a series of my choice. At my meditation class tonight, I was inspired to make a painting(s) that is also an offering. In Buddhism, making offerings to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha (the 3 jewels in Buddhism) can be mental or physical, but ultimately it is a *practice* that helps create vast positive energy, or merit, in the mind of the practitioner, and helps us let go of miserly, or selfish tendencies. With this intention, I figured it would make sense to investigate contemporary 2D artists who work with themes of offerings and Buddhism.
Youdhi Maharjan is a New Hampshire based collage artist. His installations and prints are made from repurposed texts, which he strips of their legible content. Maharjan has cited the Buddhist Thangka (painting on cotton textile) as one source of inspiration. His art also reflects his military training to be a doctor in his native Nepal, before he decided to become an artist. He uses rigid, mathematical repetition as a source of meditation when creating his pieces. I find his work interesting because of his meditative flow states that is integral to his artistic process, as well as his use / destruction of words.
“I am interested in the idea of Sisyphean eternity, monotonous repetition of the same labor over and over again, with no hope or expectation for an end. In the process, I experience different kind of eternity, the sweet kind, that lasts for few material moments, but feels like forever, where the time stops, and with it, stops all my questions and worries, where I am free from my existential burden and get a little closer to myself.” – Youdhi Maharjan
Charwei Tsai is a visual artist born in Taiwan who currently lives and works in Taipei and Paris. Her works range from performance to drawing, and are highly personal, portraying a sense of her Taiwanese identity and the consequent implications, like her practice of Buddhism. Her work, We Came Whirling from Nothingness (2014), is a series of drawings where various forms of spiral were created by watercolor on rice paper and inscribed with Heart Sutra, a seminal Buddhist teaching on the nature of reality, or emptiness. The texts gradually disperse in the outer sphere into the void in contemplation of the essence of emptiness even when applied to dharma (or Buddhist teaching) itself.
With the Tibetan diaspora, a wide range of perspectives on Buddhism has found their way into contemporary art. Tenzing Rigdol is a Tibetan artist that address Buddhist themes, ideas, and traditional texts but considers his global audience when making his art. In his work below, Tenzing Rigdol’s abstracted figure of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of compassion, so that it has no face, thus denying the viewer of any direct or emotionally charged devotional contact. By omitting the eyes, Tenzing removes the image from a traditional devotional function and casts it as an independent work of art. I like this work because of the visual language he both employs and disobeys to communicate Buddhism, meditation, and reflection to create new meanings.
The last artists for this entry is Gonkar Gyatso, a Tibetan Buddhist artist who principally works in collage. His massive collage, Dissected Buddha, also references a traditional image of Buddha reaching down to touch the earth at the moment of his enlightenment, but it also breaks from tradition with the Buddha’s body dissolving into a cacophony of stickers and blurbs. A central theme of Gonkar’s work for the past twenty years is his questioning of the image of a Buddhas as a symbol of enlightenment in the twenty-first century. I appreciate this work because it is a question that I would like to explore as well: how do we define holiness and enlightenment? How do we visually communicate it in a way that allows both the artist and the viewer to arrive at deeper insights of wisdom and compassion? I also appreciate his intense details that pull you into his work, enticing the viewer to investigate while simultaneously reminding you to look for the bigger picture that is often right in front of us…
I don’t know if it’s because I’m an art student studying to be a teacher, or because I’m an artist, but it seems like art education these days is so fast – as soon as you finish a project, you reflect, and it’s time fore 3 more assignments! The final project for my Painting for Meaning class is to develop a series of at least 3 paintings that accumulate to 40 hours of work. The theme and subject, process and methods, are entirely up to me. So much freedom! I’m hoping I can find some artists in this research journal to inspire me.
If you’re an art educator, there are some awesome artist and thematic investigations to inspire you on Art21.org. I remember my high school art teacher, Jack Watson, first introducing the platform to me through our lessons.
The first artist is John Baldessari. He is an American conceptual artist known for his work with found photography and appropriated images. He combines photomontage, painting, and words to create strong visual juxtapositions with words to illuminate, confound, and challenge meaning. He breaks traditional functions of an image by instead focusing on small details, negative spaces, etc. His work creates both humor and dissonance within the viewer. I really like the collaged and juxtaposition in his work, although I would be interested in how it creates conceptual meaning beyond just contradicting formal visual standards.
Stephanie Syjuco is up next. She is a US conceptual artist and educator. . She was born in Manila, Philippines, in 1974 and currently lives and works in San Francisco. I appreciate how Syjuco works in photography, sculpture, and installation, moving from handmade to digital editing to explore the tension between the authentic and the counterfeit, challenging deep-seated assumptions about history, race, and labor. Her work is very much activism in my mind, and serves a function to change culture of consumerism. Check out her website here.
Here is a description of the artist’s work – “Cargo Cults (Cover-Up),” 20″ x 15 – in her own words: “This photographic series revisits historical ethnographic studio portraiture via fictional display: using mass-manufactured goods purchased from American shopping malls and restyled to highlight popular fantasies associated with “ethnic” patterning and costume. Purchased on credit cards and returned for full refund after the photo shoots, the cheap garments hail from the distant lands of Forever21, H&M, American Apparel, Urban Outfitters, Target, The Gap, and more.”
Next we have Thomas Hirschhorn. As an artist he is interested creating art that serves in public discourse in political discontent. As an artist he rejects elitist aesthetic criteria by posing questions about aesthetic value, moral responsibility, political agency, consumerism, and media spectacle. Again, I appreciate his overt rejection of aesthetic norms to challenge power structures. He has described his decision to use everyday materials as “political” as these materials “don’t intimidate, they are universal, economic, inclusive, and don’t bear any plus-value”.
Last but not least we have Elliott Hundley, who is a painter and collage artist from Greensboro, North Carolina. His multi-panel tableaus, with family and friends, found images are anchored to bulletin-board-like surfaces, and built up with materials such as cutup magazines, string, plastic, gold leaf. He recycles leftover scraps from one work and uses images of completed paintings as substructures for new projects, creating continuity between old and new. I appreciate his effort to collage layers of materials, meaning, and time into his work.
Take a minute to peer into the painting. What do you see?
Portrait of the artist as a little girl, wearing a white collared shirt
Words in the background that wrap around to the next line (racism, racial profiles, white privilege, fear, oppression, bias) some of the words are hidden by the portrait
A white film cover the portrait in certain spots
Pink outlined words that spell – “White Memor”that allow the portrait underneath shine through
Circled words – “Racism”; “I”; “See”; “U”
These visual tools and techniques are employed in an attempt to comment on the way that racism has been woven into the matrix or fabric of our American society, so much so that it becomes hard to read unless we look closely. White privilege, racism, etc. are taught to youth, we are not born with these ideologies. To unlearn them as adults, we must look closely, peer through the white washed veil that protects that narrative and white washes white people. White memory has been privileged as the voice of truth, but the word falls to the bottom of the canvas before it’s even complete. Memory is fallible, it quickly changes, and it can be manipulated to oppress.
As I was once a white girl, and now a white woman, this confrontation is an important reclamation of my identity. This painting is sad. I didn’t want to literally white wash a very colorful and joyful smiling image of myself – but that is what racism does: it kills the humanity in all of us. However, I stare through that veil in defiance and challenge the viewer by gazing at them, hoping that they too can examine how white privilege has been painted over their reality.
“As a white girl, and now a white woman, this confrontation is an important reclamation of my identity.”
This is an incredible important conversation to have if we want racial equality in the United States. We need to remember and confront the past harm and evil that racism has created, as well as the insidious ways it continues to benefit white people. As an art educator, I am not only thinking about how I visually create this dialogue, but also how I can incorporate it into my art classes as a potential unit or lesson plan. Teaching Tolerance is an awesome resource for radical pedagogy for any core curriculum. Here is a link to a unit specifically unpacking white privilege: https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/fall-2018/what-is-white-privilege-really
Although recognizing white privilege is an important step to dismantling it, here are some ideas from Teaching Tolerance that we can do:
Do not take it personally or use discomfort as an excuse to disengage. The point of talking about white privilege is NOT to make you feel guilty; this is NOT a personal attack on you; and no one is calling you, as an individual racist. So while feelings of guilt or defensiveness may arise, to make those feelings the center of the conversation instead of confronting the main issue of dismantling racism actually perpetuates the problem. Rather than centering your own feelings of discomfort, center the feelings of people of color in evaluating what to do with this information. Be proactive and think, What actions can I take to help?
Educate yourself. One way to help is to educate yourself! It is not just the job of people of color to dismantle racism, it’s all of our responsibility because it harms all of us. Evil and harm feeds off of ignorance, so educating yourself is a powerful method of social change. There are so so many books and articles on the topic written by people of color – take advantage of the resources out there and avoid burdening friends or coworkers of color with constant questions about their experiences.
Educate fellow white people. Share what you’ve learned. Push through discomfort and demand courageous conversations in your circles. Do not let peers get away with problematic remarks without making a serious effort to engage them.
Risk your unearned benefits to benefit others. There are other ways to do this in our daily lives: intervening if you see a boss or fellow educator treating someone differently because of their racial identity; being an active witness (filming) when you see people of color confronted by law enforcement or harassed by bigots and letting them know you are there to support them and record the interaction if necessary. And of course most through direct anti-bias work, like building inclusive practices at your school or business or working with people committed anti-racist activism, such as SURJ.
If you know of resources – books, websites, magazines, free online courses, etc. – that have helped you, please comment them below! Thanks for reading ❤
As I mentioned last post, I have two new painting assignments that deal with memory. The first, which I will call Project A, I am challenged to use memory as content and for the second, Project B, to use memory as a strategy (i.e. I can only paint from memory). There are a million and one directions I could go with these projects, and at the end of the day, I need to deeply consider how my paintings’ themes and techniques contribute to this contemporary art dialogue.
One of the first few ideas that came to mind for Project A is the fact that white people’s memories have been believed for hundreds of years, over, and to the detriment and oppression of, people of color. AND OFTEN THOSE MEMORIES WERE COMPLETELY MADE UP, either intentionally or unintentionally. I recently watched a Netflix limited series called, The Mind Explained, and one of the episodes is one memory (link here). The episode points out that memories, especially fine details like faces, degrade incredibly quickly, and are very unreliable. There have been countless examples where DNA testing later exonerated people of color from crimes, often falsely accused by white people who “witnessed” them committing the crime. Take for example, Malcolm Alexander (pictured below) who in 1980, was arrested for rape as a result of an uncertain identification from the victim. He was exonerated in 2019 with the help of the Innocence Project. But the fact remains, that he spent time in prison, is life stolen from an unreliable memory of a white person. How much better would it be if white people’s biases and unreliable memories could be challenged earlier?
In addition to the unreliability of memory, the fact remains that I am a white woman in art school and have the incredible privilege to explore any of my memories via art. As an art educator and activist, this is a perfect opportunity to use my privilege to explore but also condemn this historical and present day implicit bias to believe white women’s memories. Exactly how I talk about this visually in an oil painting is still a work in progress. My teacher recommended I research different artists who have explored themes of white privilege – both successfully and unsuccessfully.
Dana Shutz is the first artist in this post, and I am intentionally not including her oil painting in this post. She is a white American artist, who only recently gained more renown via her painting entitled, “Open Casket” which was in the 2017 Whitney Bienniel. The oil painting sparked outrage – it is an abstracted portrait of Emmett Till in his casket. The disgusting irony here is that in the death of Emmett Till, it was a white girl’s lie that led to him being brutally tortured and murdered in the first place. (For more in-depth research, read about civil right’s history here). There have been many opinions about Dana Shutz work, one of which you can read in this article, but since this is my research journal you have to listen to my opinion: the fact that this white woman is profiting from black and pain and suffering is exactly why many people of color don’t trust white women. Time and time again, white women have repeatedly participated in exploiting the pain of people of color for personal gain while simultaneously claiming good intention and innocence. This is NOT what my painting would hope to achieve. Rather, my painting would be to condemn this white ignorance and call out this harm so white people could seriously reflect on how their actions, biases, and beliefs are harming others.
The next artist is Sanford Biggers and again I am not including the work because it is another example of the glorification of black murder. His infamous Laocoön was part of a solo exhibition at the David Castillo Gallery in Miami Beach. His work depicts an inflatable Fat Albert, whose body is lying facedown on the museum floor. As it inflated and deflated slowly the viewer easily makes the connection between people like Michael Brown or Eric Gardner, who in their last moments, had trouble breathing. Although Sandford Biggers is an African American artist, the work did not comment or critique the violence, but rather made it into a spectacle. Read an article about the work here.
I am honestly shocked that I am having such a hard time finding white artists who talk about white privilege in their work. Why are there so few white artists talking about this topic? Okay, well let’s move in the direction of artists who deal with the unreliability of memory…
Let’s start withSunni Fornier. At a young age, Sunni dealt with unexpected circumstances that have caused her to realize the fragility of life. Her work reflects these experiences through her themes of impermanence, time, and memory examining personal histories. Her series of work entitled October 1916, is an assemblage of photopolymer intaglio prints made from copper plate etchings revolves around her grandfather’s rapid decline with dementia.
Okay last artist for this post – Erin Carty. As a bi-racial artist, she seeks to explore with the concept of in-between space — a liminal space — the middle ground between two objects, and the comfort thats she feels there. She takes aerial photos from planes, and combining them with photos her parents took when they were younger to create these new places and new memories.
“By bringing the past and present together, I create these non-accessible places. The viewer will never be able to access them, because those moments were only available at that time. However, I want my viewers to experience that same sense of familiarity in unknown places that I feel. This series evokes my feelings into an actual image, rather than just me dealing with my feelings internally. Sometimes it feels that I’m all over the place, but I feel really secure in that middle ground, and I hope people get a sense of that space and comfort.” – Erin Carty
All of the artists in this visual research journal are contemporary. Why does that matter? Studying contemporary art allows allows me as a student to broaden my understanding of myself, my community, and the world as part of a part of a cultural dialogue. Because contemporary artists are still alive and making art, this dialogue allows for deeper critical thinking and exchange of artistic ideas within the context of both historical and current ideas and issues.
Up first is Kerry James Marshall. His work challenges the authority of Renaissance painting in art history and seeks to “reclaim the image of blackness.” This article in Even Magazine said it best: “As if to emphasize the literal truth of that statement, and to articulate the sheer and willful inaccuracy of the everyday language we rely on to sort others and ourselves into abstract color categories that carry real social consequences, Marshall paints his subjects not brown, not even dark brown, but inhumanly black.” I love the way the figure in this painting is staring straight at the viewer, challenging the gaze. I’m not sure what the image framed glass behind her is of… can you tell? Comment below!
Keltie Ferris is an American artist working in New York by combing her love of Impressionism, abstract painting, Pop art, and graffiti into huge paintings produced through intensive layering. In her latest process, she presses her oil-covered body against the canvas surface, and then brushes or sprays color onto it. Supposedly this processes is hailed as a juxtaposition of simultaneous concealing and exposing, but to me it just seems odd and a kitche way of exploring body’s role in art.
Running with the theme of painters inspired by graffiti, next we have Eddie Martinez. He is a self-taught American artist of Puerto Rican ancestry working in New York. Many of his teenage years were spent making graffiti, and his paintings on canvas reflect that rough, expressionistic lines and bold colors seen in street art and drawings. I like his art because his modality of mark making directly reinforces his intention.
Finally we have Basim Magdy who is an Egyptian artist now living in Basel, Switzerland and Cairo, Egypt. His work primarily explores themes of the unconscious and memory on n paper, film, photography, and installation. I have two upcoming painting projects that deal with memory as both subject/content and method – the next entries will focus on artists who deal with the theme as memory more! Stay tuned ❤ Thanks for reading!
I recently stumbled upon a bunch of artists through online research and via recommendation by other artists. Some of these names I had heard before, but didn’t realize they were contemporary – aka still alive!
Jeff Koons. He is known for working with popular culture subjects and his massive sculptures of everyday objects, most commonly balloon animals, in stainless steel that have mirror-finish surface. I didn’t realize how controversial he is in the art world; as a former Wall Street trader, Koons does not create the artworks himself but has a studio of assistant who works on them. He recently unveiled a sculpture commemorating the victims of the Paris terrorist attack. Read the NY Times article here.
Ai Weiwei. Perhaps one of my favorite artists for his political activism. He is a champion for human’s rights, and openly opposed to the Chinese government. I was actually blessed to go to his Hirshorn exhibit back in 2017 when I was living in Washington, D.C., which focused on portraits of famous political activists in exile and graphic patterns of surveillance.
David Hockney. He is an English painter, printmaker, and an important figure the pop art movement of the 1960s. Today he is considered one of the most influential British artists of the 20th century. He is still alive at 82 years old and still working on art! I’m intrigued by this celestial garden and perspectives that invite the viewer into the painting.
Jenny Saville. She is known for her large-scale painted depictions of nude and voluptuous women. In 2018 she became the world’s most expensive woman artist after her painting Propped sold for $12.4 million at a Sotheby’s sale. When Propped was first shown in 1997 in Charles Saatchi’s infamous exhibition, Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Gallery at the Royal Academy of Art, it had a huge mirror hung opposite it so that the viewer could turn away from the picture, read the text in work , and implicate themselves in the artwork. The words are a french quote from acclaimed French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray that explores the interactions of men and women. It translates to: “If we continue to speak in this sameness–speak as men have spoken for centuries, we will fail each other. Again, words will pass through our bodies, above our heads and make us disappear.” Read this interesting 2016 interview with the artist where she explains her art here.