The Contemporary Figure: Past Presence
Hats Off: Sally Egan & Amy Bystedt
I pity the fool2
September 6 - November 24, 2012
Artifacts of Desire in Decay: Gregory Martin
Although most easily categorized as landscapes, Gregory Martin's paintings can be thought of as contemplative spaces in which to experience dualities and polarities within human nature, the natural world and the practice of painting. For instance; growth and decay, the illusion of depth and flatness, the "truth" of photography and the "fiction" of painting, the differences between our ideals and our actions.
The Contemporary Figure: Past Presence Exhibition Statement
To embark on a journey through contemporary figurative art is to dive into a rich history of image making as a fundamental means for understanding and interpreting our world in the image of ourselves. In this history, from Paleolithic times to the mid 19th century, the depiction of the human form is plentiful, yet went largely unchanged in both artistic approach and intent until the modern era. From the 30,000-year-old fertility figurines unearthed at Çatalhöyük of Southern Anatolia to the height of the Italian and French Renaissance, art making was primarily focused on the skillful, realistic depiction of the human figure in an attempt to reconcile the place of humans in the world, both physically and spiritually. During the Middle Ages, for example, artists learned their skills through craft guilds and in monasteries—the academy of the time—by creating highly representational and illuminated manuscripts in the service of the church. Similarly, through the height of the Renaissance, an artist underwent rigorous technical training as an apprentice to a master, copying the masterworks until their skills were exquisitely refined. These skills were essential for creating high liturgical art and the finest of paintings, portraiture, frescoes and sculpture for the wealthy. From around 1850 C.E. through the late 1960’s, however, a sea change occurred: the artistic representation of the figure and the means by which creative skills were developed and employed shifted dramatically, ultimately ushering in the new era of Modern Art (1860’s – 1970’s).
This remarkable shift transpired at the hands of the avant-garde: a small group of artists who gradually abandoned their rigorously acquired skills and rejected the master-apprentice approach of mimicking historical masterworks in favor of experimentation. Invention and the individual artist’s idea came to the forefront, providing the art world with especially pioneering periods from the mid 19th century in the works of Claude Monet (1840-1926), Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) and the Impressionists. Building upon the Impressionist’s momentum, an increase in creative risk-taking and experimentation occurred from 1900 to the 1920’s when the art of Georges Braque (1882-1963), Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and Georgia O’Keefe (1887- 1986) emerged. These artists replaced the norms of representation, composition, color, and light with pure form and structure, emotion and intuition, dream imagery and expression, and ultimately pure abstraction. In equal measure, they sought to examine the human form—and the human condition—as a pursuit of the artist’s idea outside a defined set of socially acceptable consumables. These trajectories eventually lead to the wide-spread making of non-representational imagery which remains a popular force in contemporary art today.
The Contemporary Figure: Past Presence showcases a group of Southern California figurative artists at the forefront of an equally important development in contemporary art. First and foremost, the works herein depict a shift away from the dominance of non-representational image making in contemporary art. By employing the figure in their work, these artists present an immediate and accessible line of connection to the viewer through the imagery, often affording us the opportunity to identify ourselves within the work. Equally rich are the opportunities to understand the questions these artists are asking—through representational form—about the greater human condition. Like their predecessors working over one-hundred and fifty years ago, many of these artists have undergone rigorous training in traditional drawing and painting techniques through the academy. During a time when such a traditional curriculum is often viewed as passé or considered relevant only to the pre-modern era, these artists have intentionally honed their drawing and painting skills in order to deftly execute their ideas. Once again the artist’s skill and craft is revealed in the work. Finally, the depth of inquiry into the artist’s idea is often expressed through intelligent historical references that question currently established norms inside the art world, academia and the greater society. In doing so, these artists are revitalizing the figurative movement, harkening back to the early days of Modern Art when artists were highly trained, superbly expressive and keenly knowledgeable of the art history canon. By utilizing a more traditional form of academic training in figure and portraiture as a springboard to unleash their contemporary ideas, the artists in The Contemporary Figure: Past Presence honor and acknowledge the past while inviting you to explore skillfully executed works at the edge of a revolution in figurative art.
Hats Off: Sally Egan & Amy Bystedt
In this series, Bystedt and Egan give reverence to icons of photography that have influenced and inspired them throughout the years, playing the role of both photographer and subject in these emulations. The attention to detail in these recognizable photos was just as significant as choosing which photographer and image to replicate. Hats Off is a salute in the highest form to those who have come before them, whose trail blazing in the arts have paved the way for some of the most progressive images in photography.
Mercedes Helnwein: Drawing from the Figure Exhibition Statement
Mercedes Helnwein is an Austrian born visual artist and writer based in Ireland and Los Angeles. As a self taught artist, drawing and literature have been the focus of her creative life for as long as she can remember. Although of European descent, Helnwein’s many influences are distinctly American, crossing artistic genres and places including a fascination with the culture and values of the American Midwest and Bible belt, the music of the Delta blues and the literary works of John Steinbeck, Mark Twain and Charles Bukowski.
Mercedes Helnwein: Drawing from the Figure showcases a selection of recent works from 2006-2010 including several from her internationally acclaimed series “Whistling Past the Graveyard”, “Temptation to Be Good” and “East of Eden.” These expertly drawn images depict women engaged in quiet, yet unsettling dramas often holding a child’s toy or occupying a vaguely domestic context. Helnwein presents the viewer with the mystery of her character’s circumstance. The artist explains: “Judging by their expressions I’d say there’s probably something the girls in these drawings would rather not talk about – something they’d prefer to sit on. And they’re keeping it in, but it’s kind of leaking out of their faces.” While her figures are drawn with meticulous attention to detail and rendered with the precision and technique of a classically trained artist, Helnwein often bathes her subjects in a harsh, raking light. This tension provides the viewer with an unseen antagonist operating outside of the frame’s edge. Art critic Peter Frank (ArtLtd, January 2010) writes of her work:
“A writer as well as visual artist, Mercedes Helnwein does not so much tell stories or even capture moments in her drawings as she triggers possibilities—the possibilities being vaguely unlikely, vaguely unsavory, and not-so-vaguely menacing, rather like inverse Magrittes. Helnwein’s basic ingredient is the fully, fashionably, clothed human figure, more often than not regarding the viewer or about to; occupying a peculiarly lit, but familiar space, they are shown engaged in a solipsistic soliloquy— self-absorbed and drenched in an almost urgent ennui—with someone and/or something else…”
Equally mysterious are Helnwein’s short films. Included here are “Whistling Past the Graveyard” and “Temptation to Be Good” where the figures from the drawings jump off the page into film. Like the drawings, her subjects are inundated with a ruthless combination of light and dark yet animated in segmented, slow motion sequences across the screen. Although they are engaged in a kind of indiscernible struggle, the characters are laden with clues: dressed in period clothing, accompanied by purposefully placed objects and moving within a stark, domestic context. Additional clues may be found in the musical scores, which are composed by the artist’s brother Ali Helnwein. Helnwein began paring her drawings with film in 2008 with her debut of “Temptation to Be Good”. Mercedes Helnwein: Drawing from the Figure presents a selection of figurative works set in a series of vaguely defined narratives where someone is missing or something is awry. MOAH invites you, the viewer to engage this work and ask –as art critic Peter Frank suggests—what that someone and/or something else may be.
The Lakes and Valleys Art Guild: The Western Figure
As part of our continuing local artist series, The Vault Gallery showcases work from the Lakes and Valleys Art Guild celebrating the figure in western themed paintings. The Lakes and Valley Art Guild is located in the nearby hamlet of Lake Hughes, California. This group of artists have dedicated themselves to the traditional painting techniques of watercolour, oil on canvas and representational imagery as well as mixed media compositions.
Jennifer Glass: Cyanotypes
Cyanotype Greek: kyano (blue; dark blue) + Greek: typos (type or form; print) English 1835-1845
Jennifer Glass captures moments in the life of women through her cyanotypes of vintage gowns. Selected from her private collection, these gowns are reproduced as cyanotypes through a process that the artist sees as a deeply metaphorical statement on the roles of women, politics, power, and fashion. Specifically, this body of work emphasizes the artist’s affinity for fashion as a polarized narrative. The large-scale reproductions are strong in their Prussian blue impressions while fragile in their ghost-like translucency. Glass explains that her connection to the world of fashion elicits a “strong emotional response to how [fashion] may either empower or constrain a woman depending on how she uses it”…she continues: “fashion has been used as a tool by women for years and although it has confined them in many ways, it also has liberated them…these garments belonged to someone.” Glass notes that although the women who wore these garments are now gone, in their time they danced, brought about new life, felt pleasure and pain, and likely changed policy, leaving their own imprint on the world however large or small. Glass’ prints are created through the deceptively basic methods of light exposure and chemical preparation on fabrics.
The cyanotype was pioneered in 1842 by Sir John Herschel as a photographic method to quickly duplicate technical drawings that are normally time-consuming to draw and reproduce. Herschel discovered that when iron salts react with sunlight they leave a permanent blue imprint. When paper or porous fabric is treated with a solution of ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide, almost any image may be reproduced if it is drawn on a transparent surface, placed over the photosensitive paper in a darkroom and then exposed to sunlight. The areas of the photosensitive paper (or canvas/fabric) that are concealed by the lines of the drawing remain white while the exposed areas turn into an insoluble blue, resulting in a reverse silhouette. In 1843, shortly after Herschel developed the cyanotype, his friend and colleague Anna Atkins, a recognized botanist, utilized the cyanotype method to catalogue her extensive botanical collection. By placing her algae specimens on the photosensitized paper, she created the first known volume of cyanotype photograms. Atkins went on to self-publish her cyanotypes in her book: Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. Atkins published three volumes and only seventeen copies were reproduced. As a photographer, Jennifer Glass is carrying on this tradition in contemporary times, a method that has gone underutilized since the advent of digital reproductions.
A Florida native, Jennifer Glass earned a Bachelor of Art degree in Social and Political Science from Florida State University. Glass went on to study photography at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale along with taking workshops in New York with well-regarded photographers Debbie Fleming Caffery and Mary Ellen Mark. Glass currently resides in Copenhagen, Denmark.