January 29, 2011

Of human ambition

I don’t usually do hilarious, but this is irresistible. A Henry Moore book from 1973 called Energy In Space. If you’re not immediately sure what the above image does to you, let me read you the front flap: “All at once the beholder grasps, in a truly elemental way, the aims of one of the greatest artists of our century and becomes aware of those parallels and affinities which fuse the sculptures with their environment.” All at once, so quit brooding and immerse. See what strength the female figure gains (symbolized by the very determined block of a right forearm) from the mammary dome rising behind her. It mimicks a desert landscape, and immediately the parched skin of the sculpture begins to crack under the dry heat.

The premise of the book actually makes sense. Art in public space seldom gets to fuse with the sublime. See to the right the Moore I’ve grown up with (I took this recent image from wikimedia, I couldn’t find a historical one which shows where it reclined when I was little, it had a spot of grass to itself). Isn’t it sad how inevitably, humorlessly it is displayed now for one-way aesthetic consumption? Which of course works very well, she’s a pro, and she has aged in dignity, growing verdigris wrinkles—but she might as well sit in a cage. When instead she should have a coastline for a Recamier.

There is something I haven’t told you yet. “The photographs included in this volume are the fruits of several years of collaboration between Henry Moore and John Hedgecoe, Head of the Photography Department at the Royal College of Art in London.” Well. Several years of collaboration. Fruits. Hm, at least I guess I can say I had safely filed Moore away and might never have spent a thought on him again if it weren’t for these “photos.” I usually like Moore, because his sculpture engages the eye and mind in a way that makes traditional values of the medium come alive. When I look at the image to my left, I see the challenge of a problem of form. I become part sculptor myself and try to balance the figure over the cliff a little more comfortably. In contrast to the brutalism of, say, Serra and the school of rust, the scope of Moore’s sculpture seems so very human, and the ambition also seems human. At least I thought so . . .

Imagine the frustration eating up the 75-year old shared greatest artist of the century, mother of all art in public space with a reason for existence. He has strategically occupied every district in the world, mankind learns aesthetics through coping with his problems of form, recreation parks are defined by their ability to picturesquely backdrop a Moore. Still, he needs a rough pair of scissors to effectively fuse his works with nature. How sad must it be to be able to envision an artwork that’s on an equal footing with nature, to be able to deliver that work, and then to have to live with the fact that the best habitat it can hope for is a few shrubs on a trampled spot of green where the dogs do their business. Is it any wonder, then, that there is a secret desire he harbors in his cooling heart: to rape a lakeside with two oval shapeshifters in nazi dimensions, two giant golden needle eyes through which a rich man can drive his tanker truck over the dead body of the landscape?

Here’s the image at the heart of Energy In Space which tells it all. If it helps you read it: the work the artist pushes around is Two-Piece Knife-Edge. I think the central light must be in allusion to Moore’s atom pieces. Other than that, I give up.

January 17, 2011

The most representational monochrome abstractions in human history

The artist Rudolf Reiber (remember, he of the Caromboat) has now put everything he ever did or has heard rumored about him into a comprehensive website, as artists should today, because its plain boring when a name that comes up is not immediately exhaustible at a click of the mouse.

Anyway, Rudolf’s site is eminently visitable, and best of all he has his catalogs for grabs as free pdfs, so if you click Words and then Books on the left, you can download German Skies from 2010 and, should you read German or French, follow my instructions on how to approach the pieces step by step. After that, of course you will want to go to the distributor and purchase a physical copy, since the color plates have been tipped in by the artist’s shaky own hand. (If you do not read German or French, there is still Blast of Silence, the first book we did together.)

Above are German Skies in front of the studio before an extra sanding session. One can see at a glimpse that they’re the most representational monochrome abstractions in human history ever delivered to an artist’s doorstep . . .

January 3, 2011

Some degree of beauty

This is something special. A pietà from 1774 by Ignaz Günther in a chapel on the village graveyard of Nenningen in the Swabian countryside. You’re standing in the back of the small room a little to the right of center. It’s amazing how much the picture changes when you shuffle a few feet sideways. The postcard view is from dead center, more harmonious but also sort of undecided around where the figures grow out of the base. From where you now stand the construction lays bare, and the statics of the load that Mary has to bear become tangible (take the load off her, will you). This is the spot from where you can draw the nicest compositional diagram—there are four cavities: the two mouths, opened in pain past and present, Jesus’ gaping wound, and the hands barely holding each other. Together these four form a cross standing on its head. Some limbs of Jesus are sagging mightily, but part of his body seems to work at keeping upright, exploiting the support that rigor mortis offers and the magnetism of bodily affection. Again, shuffle sideways by a few feet and his left hand which rests in his mother’s in a sort of resigned trust becomes a claw frozen in a final cramp.

Wood is the material to strike this balance, rigid with a hint of flexibility, with a weightiness that seems in relation to the human body. The color mounting fits like a tight skin in a perfect shade of pale, and it’s not like in stone sculpture where a successful impression of something soft and vulnerable always is a virtuosic miracle against nature (and this is not at all meant as a nod to the dead boulder that is Michelangelo’s pièta), but somehow warm and human . . . read Michael Baxandall’s wonderful book on the German limewood sculptors of an earlier epoch to learn how humanism lay in their medium of choice already.

Jesus is worn down by exhaustion from insufferable pain and the exertion of saving our souls; Mary’s grief is dynamic, she has ergonomically followed his body’s contortions to always ease the suffering. Their opened mouths bring to mind that Lessing had published his Laocoön only a few years before, in 1766. You have heard this before: “There are passions and degrees of passion whose expression produces the most hideous contortions of the face, and throws the whole body into such unnatural positions as to destroy all the beautiful lines that mark it when in a state of greater repose. These passions the old artists either refrained altogether from representing, or softened into emotions which were capable of being expressed with some degree of beauty.” It’s highly improbable that Günther had read these words, their two worlds were far apart—the first German freelance writer in Berlin (thanks for the introduction of this form of drudgery, dude) and the leading sculptor of catholic Bavarian “rococo”. But they both were concerned with the same issues, and the sculptor clearly took a lot from classicism in his last years to deepen the emotional impact of his work (which is the opposite direction to the schematizing tendencies of high classicism).

Googling the chapel to verify that I didn’t dream it up, I see that it has suffered a prize-winning restoration three years ago and will now work as a distancing instrument between viewer and art. So read me as a voice from the past.