Aug 25, 2012

Art Thieves Steal $300K Worth Of Thomas Kinkade Paintings

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Art thieves in Fresno, California unsuspectingly stumbled upon a Thomas Kinkade goldmine when they broke into a former shop owners's property on Tuesday night. Initially digging for valuable copper wire to steal, the intruders ending up leaving with a whopping $300,000 worth of work by the "Painter of Light" himself, reports a local ABC news outlet.

According to the coverage, the intrepid kitsch-art thieves broke into the building of former Old Town Clovis shop owner Patrick Patterson, nabbing at least 40 Kinkade paintings and lithograms as well as a collection of porcelain Hummel figurines, amounting to what must be the most the most wholesome bounty ever looted. The thieves also ran off with more "unusual art" -- though in comparison to Kinkade that could be virtually anything -- as well as a safe that they attempted to burn their way into before settling on lifting the entire thing.

How Patterson amassed his hefty collection of bucolic kitsch was not revealed in the report, though we're sure that as a fan of both porcelain tchotchkes and idyllic paintings, his means of acquiring the art was pure. It's also unclear as to how the price of the collection was calculated, but compared to a $95,000 price tag on one a Kinkade paintings following his death, we guess the 40 works are, erm, fairly priced.

Patterson, presumably in the anger stage after his Kinkade grief, had a thing or two to say about the moral integrity of his heisters. "Look at that. That's not a Kinkade. It's a Chinese painting and they left that. So evidently they had some discrimination," he remarked to the ABC local news in Fresno. "It appears to me the thieves have a free rein. They can come through and victimize honest, hard-working citizens," he added. 

As a former police officer, Patterson is not only attempting a criminal profile of his uninvited guests, he's also stated to ABC's local outlet that he's helping to compile evidence in hopes of solving the crime, including an energy drink he found in the building. Beyond the shop owner's detective work, Fresno police say they are also keen to locate the stolen goods, listing art dealers, traffickers of stolen property, and Craigslist as their potential leads. 

In other words, save for the hope that the newfound Kinkade fans would post their fresh collection on a social networking site or would be stupid enough to go to an art dealer, it could be a while before the burgled lot is recovered.

Let us know what you think of this surprising heist in the comments section. And for those Kinkade fans mourning the loss of this treasure trove of art, check out this story of the painter's last known works being revealed in New Jersey to lift your spirits.


Thomas Kinkade Paintings 



Artist Samuel Silva's Incredible Photorealistic Ballpoint Pen Drawings

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Look closely... it may be hard to hard to believe but the images below are actually drawings made by Portugal-based attorney, Samuel Silva. Silva, who describes his art as a “hobby," uses standard ballpoint pens for many of his drawings, sometimes working on a piece for over 45 hours. 

For his “Redhead Girl,” based on the photograph by Russian photographer Kristina Taraina, he used seven different colored ballpoint pens which took some 30 hours to finish. To create such vibrant colors, Silva “cross hatches” in layers to give off the illusion of additional hues and depth.

L: Silva's drawing; R: Taraina's photo

For Silva, ballpoint pens are just one of the many mediums he is attempting to master. However, he writes on his DeviantArt page: ““It’s not about what you use, it’s about how you use it.”

His work bears a resemblance to Paul Cadden's astonishing drawings; both artists display incredible attention to detail which challenges even those images captured by the click of a camera. 

Below are some of Silva's unbelievable drawings. 

"Girl With A Pearl Earring"
"Girl With A Pearl Earring" - Ballpoint pen
original size: 15" x 10"

"Baby Girl" - BIC ballpoint pen
Original size: 60 % of an A4 paper sheet



Five Minutes with painter Terry Brennan

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Terry Brennan helped shape the visual arts community in the Lowcountry. He's a former president of the Art League of Hilton Head and the Society of Bluffton Artists. 

Now, he's taking more time to shape his own art.

The Bluffton resident's latest exhibit, "Lowcountry Splendor" runs Monday through Sept. 22. He retired on Hilton Head Island about 20 years ago after a career as an engineer in Chicago and picked up painting. 

Brennan (not to be confused with the Beaufort found object artist of the same name) explains how he came to love the Lowcountry. 

Question. You've been working on this show for about year. What's in it?

Answer. It's called "Lowcountry Splendor" because it's mostly paintings from around here. It's a lot of beach scenes, marsh scenes, shrimp boats. There's going to be a variety for everybody.

Q. How do you get inspiration for your paintings?

A. I've gone around the Lowcountry from Cumberland Island in Georgia up to Charleston, and I carry my camera. I take pictures. I'll get home and take the sky from one and the marsh view from another. There's a lot of beautiful marshes between here and Beaufort. The same with the beach. I'll go to the beach in the morning with a camera then go back and paint the scene. 

Q. Have you always painted the Lowcountry?

A. When I was in the Midwest I'd paint lots of barns. But nobody down here buys barns. People seem to like Lowcountry scenes more, and as it so happens I enjoy painting them. 

Q. Did you paint much before you retired?

A. I did very few paintings before I came down here. I've been down here 19 years. As soon as I came here I joined the art league. 

Q. How did you learn to paint?

A. I've taken classes from some of their very accomplished teachers. I knew when I retired I wanted to paint. This turned out to be a perfect area with the scenery and the arts community here. 



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Jodi Colella, Fiber Artist

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As a child of the 1980s growing up in Michigan, I thought of macrame, embroidery and crochet as tedious tasks for homemakers. But a decade later, in my MFA program, I gained a new found appreciation for fiber arts as high-art feminist pursuits. Flush with grad school inspiration, I got my needle and colored floss, and cross-stitched an array of misogynistic terms that have been used against women in a puzzle-like grid on a hot mitt. I had been pulling the thread too tight, causing my grid to turn into a lumpy trapezoid. When I proudly displayed my effort to a feminist faculty member at Yale School of art, she said, "Oh Hilary, leave this kind of art to people who really do it. You're a painter." This was good advice, and "Hot Mitt for an Ice Bitch" hit the trash. 

Recently, I connected with a fiber artist who "really does it." As a painter who mixes shades of oil paint from a limited palette of colors, I'm amazed at the skill required to select complementary yarns from an unlimited array of colors. But Somerville artist Jodi Colella does just that, mixing colors of wool together using the ancient technology of carding. 

Jodi Colella "Blast"

Colella wasn't always a fiber artist: "Traditional handiwork techniques were part of my childhood, and then I abandoned them for painting and printmaking. After some time, I realized I wasn't feeling as though I was able to express myself as much with those mediums. On a whim, I started using fiber in nontraditional ways and found I had more of a voice in what I could create."

Colella's materials go far beyond just raw wool. On one side of her studio, she has a wall of bins containing materials that she has processed and organized for upcoming artworks. "I've created fibers on a spinning wheel with steel wire. I've torn up hand-me-downs from the Salvation Army." She opens a bin where a more complex form is beginning to emerge from a mass of magenta yarn. "I'm adapting traditional Irish crochet technique as an experimental way to create sculptures," she says.

Colella has a degree in biology, and her artworks often resemble natural forms. A piece in progress on a wall has gnarly twigs suspended by and interconnected with tendrils of pale skeins of fiber. She says, "I'm fascinated with biological forms as metaphors for life. Here I've taken found ropes and am incorporating them to make dendrites," which are extensions of nerve cells.

Jodi Colella "Elephant"

Using a process called "needle felting," Colella makes lichen-like protrusions emerge from crevices in anthropomorphic driftwood. At close range, you can see she has blended many shades of wool to create the fungus. "I sculpt with the needle," she says. "The wool has been felted to the wood with a barbed needle. What it does is contract large pieces of wool into small compact structures and I like to mix my color and layer it much like a painter would do."



Aug 24, 2012

The Pop Surrealists...

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10 artists whose work has helped define the local lowbrow movement


“Find Your Happy Place” by Matt Stallings

A flash of diverse imagery shoots across the inside of my eyelids when I think back on the last decade of art in San Diego. Multimedia, conceptual, performance, plein-air, realism, surrealism, abstract—it’s all happening here if you know where to look.

But during the last 10 years in our city and the rest of Southern California, the most pervasive genre has, without a doubt, been pop surrealism or “lowbrow” art. Los Angeles has managed to do the whole doe-eyed-characters-set-against-chaotic-surrealistic-urban-settings thing to the point of oversaturation. But I still dig a great pop-surrealism painting when I see one, and San Diego has plenty of artists who’ve added to the genre rather than regurgitating the same shit you see splattered across canvases everywhere else.

A lot of the artists on this list have had their work featured on CityBeat’s cover, and I’ve had fun covering them over the last 10 years (OK, I wasn’t with CityBeat the whole time, but I’m rounding up). I look forward to seeing how they continue to evolve over the next decade, and how CityBeat evolves along with them.

And before you send an angry email asking why your favorite San Diego pop surrealist wasn’t on the list, just know that I’m a huge fan of folks like Ricardo Islas, Jason Sherry, Kevin Peterson, James and Lindy Ivey, Dion Terry, Scott Saw, Dark Vomit, David Gough, Shay Davis, Kelly Vivanco and countless others. I promise to include them on the list when CityBeat turns 20.

1. Saratoga Sake:  

He recently put up a killer piece at Writerz Blok celebrating his 30 years as a graffiti artist. While he cut his teeth on the streets as one of the region’s first and most prolific urban artists, he eventually stopped the illegal stuff and began producing what I think is one of the most beautiful bodies of work in the city. Oil paint has been good to this man. Now, if he’d just pick it up a little more often.

2. Kelsey Brookes:  

Brookes has certainly blossomed (read: blown up) and moved beyond the constraints of pop surrealism during the last few years. His neon patterns pop off the canvas, and collectors and galleries around the world continue to take note.

"Hiding Behind You" by Tim McCormick

3. Tim McCormick:  

He doesn’t call San Diego home anymore, but since McCormick was probably one the first local pop surrealists to come across my radar, he’s got a permanent spot on my list of artists to watch and follow, no matter where he sets up shop. His weird, kinda creepy work continues to captivate the masses because of the narratives he communicates with paint.

4. Pamela Jaeger:  

She’s still at it, churning out technically proficient, alluring pop-surrealism paintings in her chosen palette of mostly cool blues, greens, pinks and maroons. And, yes, it’s hard not to bring up the pioneering-woman thing, but there are still so few women working in the genre that it simply has to be said.

5. Joshua Krause:

Krause doesn’t even come close to falling into the pop-surrealism category anymore, but back in the day, he painted the kind of soulful characters that stole people’s hearts. Krause has moved on to bigger and better things in terms of genre, but he’s earned himself a permanent spot on this list for the path he helped pave—he reminded people they didn’t have to drive to L.A. to find quality work.

6. Matt Stallings: 

 Stallings’ paintings put pop culture on display in interesting, strange and whimsical ways. His bright colors collide to bring people the story of a world filled with consumerism, war, mass marketing and the humanity that’s stuck somewhere inside.

7. N.C. Winters:  

Every time I see a new piece by Winters pop up on my computer screen—whether on Facebook, Twitter or any of the other social networks he’s active on—I’m stunned at how detailed his work is and how amazingly productive he seems to be. While all of his work is good, the artist is at his best when he paints faces of obscure icons and relics from the past (I love his portrayal of Tik-Tok from Return to Oz).
Tik Tok of Oz by N.C. Winters

"The Game" by Pamela Jaeger

8. Jen Trute: 

 Trute was truly a master painter. She died last year, but her largescale works, which often told dark tales of environmental degradation, are truly stunning when you see them in person. She spent months on each piece, and her dedication to the tedious painting process shows in her final products, which often flirt with perfection.

9. Bret Barrett:  

Barrett’s paintings are rad and obsessively polished, but it’s his kinetic sculptures that really set him apart from the rest. His brain goes off in all kinds of fascinating directions, and it’s always exciting to see what weird creature he brings to life.

10. Mike Maxwell: 

 His blue-faced, facialhaired historical figures are his most recognizable work, but, lately, he’s allowed himself to venture into wackier territory, and the results have been good. 



Great art needs a few restoration disasters

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Thanks to an inadvertent iconoclast, a second-rate fresco is now a 'masterpiece'. Turn her loose on artists that deserve attention 

Ecce Homo restoration
The painting Ecce Homo (L) by 19th-century painter Elias Garcia Martinez, the painting in a damaged state (C) and the 'restored' version by a woman in Spain (R).

It's all over the internet, it's trending, tweeting, the funniest art joke of all time. You must know it by now. "Masterpiece of Jesus is destroyed after old lady's attempt to restore damage is a less-than-divine intervention", Worst painting restoration work in history", "Elderly woman destroys 19th century fresco with DIY restoration".

A woman said to be in her 80s in Borjanos in Spain took it upon herself to "restore" a fresco in the Sanctuary of Mercy church there. The original painting is an Ecce Homo by Elias Garcia Martinez and dates from the 19th century. But this triptych of photographs shows how totally it has been ruined. It's hilarious to see how the would-be restorer's efforts resulted in a complete reinvention of the painting as a crude image with a face like a neanderthal man's self-portrait. Oh dear. This pious art lover could have a career in slapstick if she wants, for her comic destruction of a work of art bears comparison with Rowan Atkinson giving Whistler's Mother a badly drawn cartoon face in the film Bean.

How did it happen? What was the well-meaning vandal thinking? Reports differ on the meaning of the middle picture in the before-and-after triptych: was this the result of water damage or the self-appointed artist's early effort to prepare the picture for restoration? Picturing how it happened is even funnier than seeing the contrasting versions themselves. Did she, like the Marx Brothers trimming a moustache in Monkey Business, try to fix one bit and then had to do another bit and then another until the whole thing was gone? Was it like Father Ted in the episode of the much-loved clerical comedy where he attempts to mend a car's bodywork with a hammer?

There is only one problem with this story. It doesn't really matter. Martinez is not a great artist and his painting Ecce Homo is not a "masterpiece". It is a minor painting in the dregs of an academic tradition. When it was painted, a boy called Pablo in another Spanish town was learning to paint in this same exhausted 19th-century style. Soon he would shake off the influence of his father the provincial artist Don Jose Ruizy Picasso and start to reinvent art.

Google Martinez and you will find many, many references that have appeared in the last 24 hours to the botched restoration – and not much else. A previously obscure artist has become famous overnight because of the amateur restorer's exploit. A forgotten painting is now known around the world as a "masterpiece", because it was wrecked.

Perhaps this offers a new strategy for those who seek to popularise the Old Masters. What if even older, but far greater, paintings were to get the Mr Bean treatment?

After Rowan Atkinson gave a show-stopping Mr Bean performance as a keyboard player upstaging a Simon Rattle-conducted performance of Chariots of Fire in the Olympic opening ceremony, the composer Michael Nyman took exception to orchestral music being mocked in this way. Where did his sense of humour go? Surely he can see that classical music should use this strategy to popularise itself. We need Mr Bean disrupting performances of Monteverdi and Mahler. That will get the kids into the concert halls.

Similarly, the well-meaning restorer of this obscure Spanish painting should be turned loose on a couple of works that actually matter. Many true masterpieces are starved of the global attention this second-rate Ecce Homo has now got. She could be sent to Italy to see what she can do with the frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara. Revered by art historians, these paintings of the months of the year have never quite made it into popular culture. There are 12 paintings, one for every month, so one could be sacrificed for the good of the whole. A hideously repainted face on one of the lesser months might make their creator the 15th-century genius Francesco del Cossa as famous as the 19th century mediocrity Elias Garcia Martinez has now become.



Leonardo and the Last Supper by Ross King: review

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Mark Hudson is immersed in a Renaissance world of warlords and genius, Leonardo and the Last Supper by Ross King. 


The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci
The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci

Looking back on what went on during the Renaissance, it can seem amazing that anything of artistic value was produced at all, let alone the masterpieces we think of as embodying the era. While scientific inquiry and the pursuit of visual harmony preoccupied a privileged few, the 15th and 16th centuries were typified by endemic brutality, all-pervading corruption, superstition and futile wars of aggrandisement. 

That the same tangle of feuding potentates – the Hapsburgs, Medici and their ilk – were causing the wars and commissioning the masterpieces is well known. But until recently this apparent paradox was seen as a colourful anomaly, as though genius inevitably stands outside history; in the case of Michelangelo’s stormy relationship with Pope Julius II it was seen as evidence of the “heroic” nature of the times. 

Recently, however, commentators have taken a more integrated view of the Renaissance, with the result that its artistic achievements have come to appear much less heroic than they did. 

Ross King has made a speciality of pacy accounts of great Renaissance artistic projects. Here, following on from Brunelleschi’s Dome and Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, he looks at a painting everybody knows and its creator, an artist who, judging from the National Gallery’s recent exhibition, is more popular now than ever. 

Alongside a meticulous telling of the genesis of Leonardo’s great fresco, King presents a hell-for-leather account of the rise and fall of the man who commissioned it, Lodovico Sforza “il Moro”, Duke of Milan.
The grandson of a woodcutter-turned-mercenary, Lodovico acquired his dukedom through a mixture of tactical alliances and naked aggression. Yet by inviting the French into Italy to counter the claims of the King of Naples on his possessions, Lodovico plunged Italy into turmoil, bringing the wrath of the country, and ultimately all Europe on his head. 

King is a deft storyteller, and the fact that we know almost from the first sentence that the creation of Leonardo’s masterpiece will be counterpointed by Lodovico’s descent into disaster only adds spice to the proceedings. 

The surreal brutalities of Lodovico’s story are detailed with almost lascivious relish – the “pimps and wenches” following the French army stripping the corpses after the Battle of Fornovo. The moment when the bronze effortfully amassed to create one of Leonardo’s statues is carted away to make cannon is laugh-out-loud funny. 

In contrast, the more reflective narrative of the creation of the painting often struggles to keep up, despite the wealth of intriguing detail. We wait in vain for Leonardo, the mysterious Renaissance Man of popular legend, to appear, as King restricts himself almost entirely to contemporary accounts. 

Rather than indulge in spurious psychologising, he offers us the contents of Leonardo’s wardrobe with its purple cloaks and crimson tights, and describes the drawing methods by which he captured the Florentines who formed the basis for the Apostles in The Last Supper

The result is a very Renaissance view of an artist who impressed all whom he met with his beauty and brilliance, but who hardly looked likely to change the world – as he began The Last Supper he still appeared something of a dilettante. 

Leonardo’s principle interest was in becoming a military architect, and far from immersing himself in the painting he was endlessly distracted – planning elaborate masques and designing his own flying machines which, like most of his ideas, came to nothing. “As so often with Leonardo,” King comments, “all was uncertainty and equivocation.” 

It is difficult to make the evolution of a work of art the driving force of a book when the artist appears far from passionate about the project. But King valiantly pursues every line of inquiry, from Leonardo’s innovative, but ultimately unsatisfactory mingling of oil paint and fresco to the identity of the models for the Apostles. 

King indulges in some speculation on the genesis of this ambivalent masterpiece, which began to disintegrate within 20 years, but the strength of his account lies in its mass of absorbing detail, which builds into a truly immersive portrait of an era. 

Leonardo and the Last Supper
by Ross King 



Artist follows her calling

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At the back of Sofia Minson's Glen Innes studio there's a three-metre-high oil painting of Travis Rapana, a descendant of Hone Heke. 

There must be countless layers of paint on that canvas - she's been working on it for at least a year. 

She tried it in black and white, but thought it made him a bit too fearsome. 

"It's important to get the effect right. I don't want it to be completely overwhelming," she says. 

She's reworked the portrait in softer sepia tones. While he looks like an ancient warrior, Mr Rapana is very much a modern day figure and a friend of the artist. In his portrait he wears a feather cloak, holds a pounamu war club above his head and could be mistaken for a historical chief if it weren't for the lion tattooed on his chest. 

It's one of a dozen new works Ms Minson will exhibit at Parnell Gallery from September 4 to 18. She's spending 12 to 14 hours a day in her studio applying the finishing touches and will do "a few all-nighters" before the exhibition opens. 

Ms Minson is of Maori, Irish and Swedish descent and began exploring her Maori heritage through her paintings as a teenager at Macleans College. 

After trying a science degree and then studying spatial design, Ms Minson says she couldn't ignore her calling any longer. 

"I denied it for years because of all the bad press about artists being poor. But I've been making a living out of this for eight years now. Of course it has its ups and downs, but I think I'm quite business savvy and also lucky." 

Her first solo show in 2004 was a sell-out and has been exhibiting and selling ever since. 

In 2011 the economist Brian Easton was given the task of curating a portrait exhibition of well-known New Zealanders at the National Portrait Gallery. He struggled to find good paintings of Maori figures such as Sir Apirana Ngata. 

"There is no tradition of Maori portraiture since Lindauer and Goldie," he told Radio New Zealand at the time. In that interview Mr Easton mentioned Sofia Minson as an example of the young generation of Maori artists who are trying to change that. 

"I think there's a story in their faces that needs to be shown," she says. 

Having spent her childhood in Samoa, Sri Lanka and China, it wasn't until her family returned to New Zealand that the young artist had the chance to learn about her Maori heritage. 

"The Maori side of my ancestry became important to me because I was separated from it while growing up. As a teenager I started by painting Maori myths, learning the creation stories. 

"This is a journey to get to know the New Zealand landscape and keep it in my own psyche - both the mythological side and the historical side," she says. 



Aug 23, 2012

Fringe Festival Report: ‘The Art of Painting’

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Mark Chrisler in "The Art of Painting."
Dixie SheridanMark Chrisler in “The Art of Painting.”

If “The Art of Painting” were a real art history lecture, it would be a sophomore’s dream. The instructor (Mark Chrisler) is cute, and he makes the lives of long-dead white European men entertaining.

In this case, the chief artist is Johannes Vermeer and the major work under discussion is one of Vermeer’s personal favorites, “The Art of Painting,” made in 1675, the year he died. In it, an artist with his back to us sits in a room with a chandelier and marble tile floors and works on a portrait of Clio, the muse of history.

But the fun of this 50-minute Found Objects Theater Group solo show — written by Mr. Chrisler, ably directed by Tim Racine and having its New York premiere at the Fringe — is in the human details. Vermeer’s father, we learn, beat up a man in a pub fight (the man later died). The artist was so obscure in his lifetime that he left his widow and children in “monstrous debt.” Generations later, Hermann Goering ended up with what he thought was a Vermeer (it was declared a forgery).

The forger, Han Van Meegeren (1889-1947), took advantage of Vermeer’s rediscovery but ended up accused of selling Dutch national treasures to Nazis. A good bit more “decay and decadence” is salted into the lecture, too.

As a performer and as a playwright, Mr. Chrisler has presence and a way with words. He also has a lot to work against, in a minuscule basement theater with an electric fan circulating warm air. His real accomplishment is not just keeping the audience awake, though. Near the end, he shows us a series of painting images and asks us to judge which are forgeries and which are the real thing. It turns out that his class has actually learned something.



Adventures in Mormon Art History

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In a recent piece on the history and meanings of Mormonism, Adam Gopnik points out a felicitous resemblance between Presidential candidate Mitt Romney and a figure in a painting by the twentieth-century artist Arnold Friberg. The figure, Nephi, who narrates the first sections of the Book of Mormon, stands on a rock and, according to Friberg’s title, subdues his wicked brothers with a forceful outstretching of his hand. (Judging by the pair of tongs he holds in the other hand and the hammer between his feet, we may surmise that the brothers have malevolently interrupted Nephi’s otherwise agreeable day job as a blacksmith.) From the square jaw and broadshoulders to the low-set eyebrows and buoyant puff of dark hair over his head, this early-sixties depiction of an ancient Mormon leader is a dead ringer for the Mormon man who now hopes to lead the free world. 

Another aspect of the painting, however, might smack of déjà vu for art historians more than for followers of contemporary politics: Nephi’s hand. Hand gestures can import a lot of figurative meaning in paintings, especially religious ones. When Christ holds up two fingers, as he often did while sitting for holy icons from the sixth century onward, he probably meant to convey his twin natures, human and divine. When John the Baptist points up with just one finger, it’s to let us know the Christ is coming. Nephi’s gesture—palm down with the fingers slightly spread—may reflect a more secular but no less cosmological subject.


“The School of Athens,” Raphael’s sixteenth-century fresco, depicts a scene out of an antiquarian’s fever dream. 
The room is full of Western history’s favorite ancient figures, at times variously identified, drawing on the floor, fondling globes, or penning the texts which would later burn to ash in the fire that consumed the Library of Alexandria. Walking through an archway, in the center of the fresco, we see Plato and his pupil Aristotle, each gesturing with their hands. Plato, like John the Baptist, has aimed his finger heavenward while Aristotle has his palm out, facing the earth, fingers apart, just like—bear with me—the Mormon forefather Nephi in Friberg’s painting. 


The resemblance may be more than physical. Many art historians say that the difference between Plato and Aristotle’s gestures has to do with the difference in their metaphysical interests. Plato talked a lot about the abstract world of forms and used earthly objects as metaphors for extra-material truths. Aristotle, on the other hand, was far more empirical; he was obsessed with categorizing and finding truth in the realm of palpable things. 

To put it in philosopher Leonard Peikoff’s terms, Aristotle was interested in worldliness, Plato in other worldliness.
Gopnik makes a similar observation about the Mormon doctrine espoused by Joseph Smith and later molded by his disciple Brigham Young:

One element latent in Smith’s theology that Young brought forward was a kind of sanctified materialism. His brand of Mormonism might at times have been extra-planetary, but it was scarcely otherworldly. Right here on earth, he insisted, men became saints and even approached godliness.

Like Aristotle and unlike the visionaries of many other Christian sects, Smith and Young looked for truth, as Gopnik explains, not in the unimaginable world of the heavens, but all around them, in their own backyards, in their own country. The connection between the tilt and spread of Nephi and Aristotle’s hands may be as tenuous as the one between the faces of Nephi and Romney—who knows if Friberg had Raphael’s mural in mind. 

Nevertheless, the similarity persists, and it cannot be denied that these influential thinkers were fascinated by the world that lay everywhere around them, spreading outward under their palms in the direction of their extended fingers. Politicians have their emblematic gestures, too. Many will remember the speeches that Bill Clinton punctuated with a protruding thumb. It’s enough to make one wonder what truths and gestures will define Romney as the November elections approach.

(Arnold Friberg painting courtesy More Good Foundation)


Philip Guston: The hand that rocked the art establishment

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He was one of America's foremost abstract artists when he switched to a figurative style. Critics and fans were merciless at the time, but an exhibition of his work is proving them wrong, argues Adrian Hamilton

Courtesy of the Estate of Philip Guston

In 1967, after a two-year absence from painting and at the age of 54, one of America's leading abstract expressionists, Philip Guston, shocked the art world and disgusted his fans by an abrupt return to figuration.

Not only that, the figurative art he produced was of a crude, cartoon-like quality that seemed to belie all the emotional intensity and purity of his abstract work. Like Bob Dylan embracing rock, Guston's sudden change of course was regarded not just an aberration but a betrayal of principle, beliefs and modernism. Yet today his so-called "late" paintings are regarded not just as a developmental part of the output of one of the major figures of the post-war American scene but among his finest paintings. Save for a grumbling few, who still regard them as "silly" if brave, the art world has hailed them as masterpieces.

You can decide yourself which side you take in a brilliant show of these late works at Inverleith House in Edinburgh. The exhibition is trumpeted as the first show of the artist in Scotland. There's no reason for special justification, however. Inverleith House, which has run a series of exhibitions of works of Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly and other Americans in recent years, has given Guston a display that exactly suits his works.

There are only nine paintings but each is given its own space on the whitewashed walls of the rooms of this 18th-century mansion in the middle of the city's botanical gardens. Encountering them as you move through the domestic space is an experience at once surprising, challenging but in its own odd way, very real. For once you can engage with contemporary art not as a monumental statement set on the bare walls of some industrial building, but in the intimacy of confined quarters. It makes a huge difference, at least for these paintings.

What makes them so compulsive? Even today you can see why his contemporaries and supporters were so appalled by Guston's new turn. The characters are childlike. The imagery of Ku Klux Klan hoods, cigars and cyclopic eyes is crude. The palette is limited to the colours of flesh and earth, pink, ochre and greys. The brushwork is broad to the point of slapdash. And yet you are drawn in to the conversation of an artist talking to himself and then looking up at you with an ironic and despairing grin.

Part of the compulsion comes from the outrageous courage of the enterprise. Just as Guston put himself and his emotion into abstract expressionism, so he is giving you himself in the figurative paintings. They are not naïve. 

Although largely self-taught, Guston had all the learning of the auto-didact, with a broad knowledge of art, especially the Italian masters as well as the surrealists. The best-known painting on display, The Line, takes Michelangelo's image of God's fingertip act of creation and gives it to you face-on as the hand of the artist inscribing a line with a piece of charcoal held between two monumental fingers. The symbolism is obvious but the power, along with the humanity, comes from the veins pressing down along the hand against a light-blue pastel background that seems to highlight their rawness.

An early vision of The City (1969) takes the image of Babel and Babylon from Flemish Renaissance and painting but gives it a soullessness, as the pink buildings with their black dashes for windows replicate themselves on and on into the horizon. In a remarkable early picture, Black Sea (1977), a solid shape imposes itself on the dark waters, emphatically there but ambiguously imaged. The heel of a shoe? An arched building? Or something not solid at all but organic?

It is this deliberate counter-point between ambition and self-effacement, between solid mass and soft colour, between knowingness and innocence that makes Guston's work so intriguing. You can elaborate an awful lot of interpretations from his imagery, talk of his "language" and "alphabet" as curators do. But then the artist himself looks at you with an ironic smile and a shrug of self-deprecation. The angst is real, very real. Guston's father committed suicide in full view of his small son, and his brother died of gangrene after being run over by his own car. In his own act of denial, he had changed his name from Goldstein to Guston to disguise his Jewishness. This is the art, like that of Edvard Munch, of a man who has not resolved his demons but is determined to release them in paint.

In the most important and self-defining work in the exhibition, The Studio (1969), the artist in trademark hood paints himself at work in the manner of Velazquez, Rembrandt and the great masters. The hands are gigantic, one holds a cigar between two fingers, the other the paintbrush. The clock on the wall only has one hand, the self-portrait starts with the seams of the hood not its outline. The smoke appears to be coming from the paintbrush not the cigar. The whole scene is illuminated by a naked light bulb, an image of interrogation, while a sudden splash of green marks the blind of a window that appears to cast no light. It's a composition at once jovial and disconcerting.

David Hockney, at least, should approve of the frequent insertion of the cigarette and cigar. It appears in an oddly squidgy portrait of himself lying smoking on his bed in Smoking I (1973) and, more aggressively in Riding Around (1969), which sees three hooded figures driving in an open-topped car, the two on the outside holding cigarettes, the figure inbetween pointing forward. The grey tobacco smoke puffs up against the white clouds, making them an intrusive and threatening presence. Guston had started as a social realist and never lost his sense of political anger. The Meeting (1969) introduces the hooded KKK figures, the naked light bulb and the window with the blind as symbols of fear and alienation. They, like the cigarette, keep reappearing in his later works.

You can view the return to the childlike, as in late Picasso, as a desire to find the root of art and the most basic expression of feeling. But the irony and the self-mocking have an edge all of their own. It's not comfortable viewing but it is hypnotic.