Friday, March 27, 2009

art (or 'why you hate art')

three comments about art that i stumbled across this morning. the first from the website 'new math' by craig damrauer (via ffffound)...

the second is from the website 'but does it float' curated by folkert & atley, a statement which reads...

"The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery"

the third from an article about the psychology of why creationism is attractive (via aaron). the article isn't about art at all but provides a quote which fits rather nicely with the question of why people, in general, struggle with contemporary art and poetry:

"According to [University of Michigan psychologist Margaret] Evans and other psychologists, including Deborah Kelemen from Boston University, there’s a very specific cognitive glitch that invades our rationalist thought whenever we’re pondering the subject of life’s origins, something those who do research in this area refer to as “teleo-functional thinking” (reasoning about the functional purpose of an entity or object in question). When scratching our heads over an artifact—with the end product before us, asking ourselves how it came to be—these scientists find that we tend to start off by trying to deduce what it’s meant for."

while this tendency might actually have the potential to make a person study the art piece until they find meaning, combine that tendency with a short attention-span (and the fact that much art evades one specific meaning), and the viewer quickly gives up or disregards the piece rather than investigating it more deeply.

on the headphones: 'part 12' by rhian sheehan, from the album 'standing in silence'.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

standing in silence

i rush to write this even before i've finished listening to all the tracks - nz electronic musician rhian sheehan's new album 'standing in silence' is a triumph.

i've long been a fan of ambient electronic music probably since it subliminally forced its way into my young subconscious via endless hours of my brother playing the likes of tangerine dream, vangelis, jean michel jarre and other synth geniuses.

anyway, in recent years i've developed a distinct taste for artists like m83, mogwai, sigur ros, mum etc often from the chilly climes of the northern hemisphere. i've always liked rhian sheehan too, but not this much...

his new release channels a whole lot of great stuff, and i can hear a bit of mum in there and sigur ros, maybe a touch of vangelis. it also reminds me of the soundtrack for the aussie film 'somersault' by decoder ring.

to make it that much more tempting, you'll find it on itunes for NZ$11.99 in a non-drm high bitrate form (also on emusic). 14 tracks of absolute goodness for 12 bucks!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

HSR safelittleworld remix

the second piece in my remix project.

some comments about the piece: The 'cut-up' methodology for this piece was more extreme than it was for the Kinkade piece, and the 'remixing' more extensive. I read through the Steiner Rice volume and wrote down individual lines that appealed to me - extracting words from their rhyming couplet context. The role of personal aesthetic was even more evident here than in the Kinkade - as lines that resonated for me may not resonate for another reader. Having written a fair bit of poetry myself, I couldn't help feeling slightly guilty about removing the lines from where Steiner Rice had placed them. But I came across an interesting footnote in the collection I was reading: "This poem combines favorite lines from several other Helen Steiner Rice poems, a practice Mrs Rice sometimes used when pressured to produce new verse on demand."

Using some of the lines I had selected, I reworked them into a new poem, placing lines together with a kind of conceptual flow, and thereby creating meaning by placing concepts side by side. Graphical treatment of the resulting poem had a lot to do with typography. I further fragmented the lines by placing them as broken parts across the page. I liked the idea of having certain parts of the text blocked out. There is a mystery to blocked out, crossed out, twinked out text - it sparks a kind of desire in the reader as you look for hidden words and meaning. Working with the Steiner Rice material and reading her biography, I couldn't help feeling there was powerful subtext operating in her poetry, hidding behind the greeting card rhymes and sentimentality.

In an urban context, graffiti is also blocked out by city officials - as can be seen, in fact, in the photograph I chose for this piece.

To create the text to be blocked out in the poem I used 'latin' place-holder text and then crossed it out with a very heavy typographic line. In the event I actually quite liked the poem with it's 'nonsense' 'latin' interjections, for example "all my dreams were built around you dui te dunt / alit lobor augait iure i send a loving dart" - but kept with the blocked out text concept instead.

The final visable text reads:

but it is also my cathedral

all my dreams were built around you
i send a loving dart
built on ideals of
girls and boys
in lovely rapturous surprise
grant rebirth to man’s slumbering soul
a mere interlude of inflamed fascination
i’d like to be your shadow
across the years, we’ve met in dreams
but to keep the peace we must conquer the soul
become a seething sea of faces
the life he’s dreaming of
it’s the why and wherefore of infinite living
Christ is more than just a figure wrapped in ethereal glow
the comfort of transformation
so rest and relax and grow stronger
life is forever! death is a dream!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

TK safelittleworld remix

so here's the first piece of the thomas kinkade and helen steiner rice remix project. see this post for a wider discussion about the two artists. the text down the side of this piece reads: "kinkade morning light safe little world remix 09".

some comments about this piece: Having searched through the Thomas Kinkade coffee-table book that I got from the library, I found a few pictures which I thought might work for the project. I tried out a few of these on photographs I'd taken of back alley walls - an 'urban setting'. At this point it was clear that personal aesthetics were going to play a part. I was choosing my source material for what looked good (to my eye). My piece would be a remix or collage where my personal taste would come to bear. The Kinkade component that I chose is from a painting called 'Morning Light'. Kinkade's caption for the piece reads, "In 'Morning Light', a flower garden becomes a fabulous canvas onto which the morning sun paints a glowing picture. Suffused through the mist, the light dazzles with subtle flashes of color."

I liked the juxtaposition of the brick wall with the urban alley wall, and the vivid colours with the muted tones of the photograph. Where others have subverted Kinkade, I tried to treat the material with more positivity, genuinely aiming to make the Kinkade element look its best in the context. I wasn't trying to make fun of it.

I overlaid the Kinkade part and 'degraded' it a bit and wrapped it around the window to make it blend and appear more like it was applied to the wall by some very talented urban artist. At the bottom of the picture though, the Kinkade part overlaps the curb so that in some ways it is still distinct from the wall itself.

tomorrow: the steiner rice piece.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

the painter of light, the ambassador of sunshine vs safe little world, pt 1

Two of the most commercially successful artists of the American 20th century also happened to be Christians. Poet Helen Steiner Rice and painter Thomas Kinkade 'captured the hearts' of the American middleclass with a commercially viable artistic style that could be called something like 'Christian Romanticism' - a warm view of the world and humanity laced with Christian concepts.

Burgeois, trite, chocolate-box, sentimental, kitsch in the view of people that appreciate art and literature on the cutting edge, what Steiner Rice and Kinkade have produced is undeniably 'successful' in terms of sheer popularity.

I grew up surrounded by Christian pop culture, albeit removed from the USA. Our Sunday School and Bible-in-Schools classes were illustrated by flannelgraph and soft-focus poster images of woodlands overlaid by uplifting scripture verses. These illustrations were indicative of a machine that was (in the early 80s) already in full swing manufacturing product for a lucrative Christian market.

My first awareness of Helen Steiner Rice comes in the form of a memory of Mum buying greeting cards at the local news agent stationery shop. As a four year old (or so) I helpfully select a floral card from the rack for my mother's consideration. She looks inside, and with a definite air of something on the spectrum of repulsion says, "No, that's a Helen Steiner Rice card." My mother is clearly queasy about a type of poetry which I would later come to label 'doggeral', overly sentimental, and perhaps penned under the influence of Christianity tainted by humanism (that concept came from Mum). We did, however, have a collection of HSR's poems on our bookshelf at home - a gift, as I recall it - from a well-meaning friend of my mother's.

My concious awareness of Kinkade came later, after I had already grown up and been to university, after I had turned my back with disgust on Christian cliché and had gone off seeking after artforms that I felt engaged with Christian concepts in a more meaningful, grittier, cutting edge way; before then returning to kitsch Christian commercialism with a kind of curiosity touched with affection. In hindsight, I had probably seen his work before, but my attention was drawn to him sharply by a book called Making Contemporary Art: How Today's Artists Think and Work by Linda Weintraub. In this wide-ranging book, Weintraub had clearly decided that America's top-selling artist should be considered along with all the other artists more readily acceptable to the tastes of the art establishment. My interest was piqued.

In my own art, I had been looking for opportunities to critique the product of Christian commercialism that I had grown up with. I decided that a way to do this was to attempt a blending of the two bastions of Christian commercial art - Steiner Rice and Kinkade - with a style that I was personally working with - a gritty urban context. I wanted to see what would become of their work if I took it, 'remixed' it, and reimagined it a context removed from the comfortable living rooms of Bible Belt America.

In the event, the conceptual side of the project has probably outweighed the artistic merit and weight of the finished product. The more I thought about the project the more it formed a conceptual grid of ideas in my mind - most of them probably impossible to make explicit in the art itself without some kind of accompanying document.

I started out by doing some research to learn a bit more about the artists and also find the material that I would 'sample' for my remix. A coffee-table biography of Kinkade, illustrated with large colour reproductions, was easy to find at the local library, as was the collected works of Steiner Rice.

Thomas Kinkade is self-styled and promoted as 'the painter of light' - interesting when compared with the fact that Helen Steiner Rice was known as 'the ambassador of sunshine'. The research lent some interesting insights into each artist.

Steiner Rice

Steiner Rice was born in 1900 and died in 1981 - a life and career span that takes in all the turmoil of the 20th century. Her work was in marketing for an electric light company and then later for Gibson Art - a greeting card manufacturer. When the greeting card editor at Gibson died suddenly in the mid-1930s, Steiner Rice took over the job, and so the mass output of her verse began. When the stock market crashed in 1929, her husband (a banker) descended into depression and never recovered - taking his own life in 1932. Having been touched by this event and some of the other dramatic events of the 1900s, one thing that is noticeable about her poetry when it is read in collected form is that her subject matter is not always light and airy. She writes about grief, death and winter, but nearly always with a hopeful twist appropriate for a greeting card. What is also notable is that regardless of her subject matter, her style is always the same.

An advertising poem she wrote to promote the use of electricity in the home:

The Happiness of Housekeeping

Your room shines out in splendour,
No dirt or dust is seen,
Because the rugs within your house
Are bright and Hoover-clean.

A poem that deals with her own death:

When I Must Leave You

When I must leave you for a little while,
Please go on bravely with a gallant smile
And for my sake and in my name,
Live on and do all things, the same -
Spend not your life in empty days,
But fill each waking hour in useful ways -
Reach out your hand in comfort and in cheer,
And I in turn will comfort you and hold you near.

Helen Steiner Rice’s books of inspirational poetry have sold nearly seven million copies.

Thomas Kinkade

Kinkade was born in 1958. Having started as an art student at University of California at Berkeley, he dropped out after two years and eventually published a guide to sketching which sold well. He hit upon a popular style of painting which sold extremely well in galleries across California and he eventually formed his own company, Media Arts Group Inc. The paintings are sold through mail-order and dedicated franchises, and are available in formats ranging from 'originals' (hand painted copies signed by Kinkade) to posters and calendars.

Meanwhile, from 1994-1997, Russian artists Alex Melamid and Vitaly Komar hired a research company as part of a fascinating conceptual art project to conduct interviews to find out what ordinary people most want to see in a painting. The research was conducted across several nations, and then Melamid and Komar painted the pictures that people most wanted to see (according to the resulting statistics). To summarise their findings, people most want to see landscapes, hills, a tree, a big lake, they like the colour blue, they want to see deer, families and George Washington (I assume that last one is influenced by American data). 88% of Americans surveyed favour outdoor scenes over any other representation.

Interestingly, quite separately to Kinkade, they have arrived at a rather fitting description of Kinkade's work (although I've never seen this fact mentioned elsewhere). The genius of Kinkade was hitting on the formula without the research. And so, it is estimated (by Kinkade's own company) that 1 in 20 American homes have a Kinkade print. Kinkade is reported to have earned $53 million for his artistic work in the period 1997 to May 2005.

Melamid & Komar:


In rough form here are some of the things that I wanted to experiment with in my project:
  • commercial art tested out in a non-commercial space
  • idealised sentiments tested out in an unideal context
  • 'Christian Romanticism' remixed into an 'unromantic' context
  • a test of Christian culture in the 'marketplace' - the commercial marketplace and the 'marketplace' in the sense that evangelicals talk about it as the place we live and work
  • if the work of these two artists is in fact 'beautiful' then they are being given a chance to 'beautify' an 'unbeautiful' space
  • testing work designed for a refined suburban context in the back alleys of an urban / suburban setting
  • contrasting the aesthetics of urban / street art with the aesthetics of popular art - both are 'art of the people'
That's the background, next up my pictures...