Saturday, December 31, 2011

Mutlu Yillar; The Tabula Rasa

As New Year’s bells ring out across the globe and firecrackers disguised as rockets scatter their pyrotechnic blaze of colour into the night sky in announcement of the passing time, people everywhere will contemplate the past and look to the future with anticipation. It is only another moment in life, yet it signifies more than a mark on the calendar; when the clock strikes midnight and the world enters 2012 people will turn the page to write a new chapter filled with hope, or wipe the slate clean in attempt to paint a healthier, more honest vision of our changing reality on the blank canvas that is tomorrow.

We proceed into the future with joy in our hearts and the expectation that somehow humanity, with all its flaws and failings can create a more promising opportunity for the present from the lessons of yesterday. I welcome this New Year as a present waiting to be opened; a personal opportunity to initiate plans for new projects with happiness as the measure of success and an imminent future that holds promise for the revelation of truth.

If truth is indisputable fact, there is no one truth that encompasses all culture and time; history has become a relative position. Human beings in certain places through different ages must determine an agreed set of understandings that can be operated within to form an ordered universe of expectations, what we generally call the rules of socialisation, the paradigm of the age. We create matrices of worlds within the spheres of politics and emotion, spirituality and economy and our use of language and all the aspects of interaction that we term the public, and then look to the creative community to share this notional concept of thought through the finest art, as an authentic experience of the contemporary culture of each civilisation.

Not all painting or sculpture or music or poetry or any of the skills and talents we associate with ‘the arts’ is truly art, for art, though it can often entertain and amuse, is of the highest calibre and most likely to pass the test of time when it reveals, enlightens, informs and teaches us about ourselves in any given period of history. History, and even time itself, is a fluid concept and perspective determines the importance of events in the past.

Artists in previous centuries seeking a return to the natural revived the primitivism of the art of Cro-Magnon cave dwellers with its ochre and red dyes and two-dimensional portrayal of animals, while by contrast early Christian icons, although using colour and gild with regularity, can appear static and unnaturally posed. However, each style communicates intent and was created for a reason.

Renaissance painters excelled at capturing deep, rich tones and shades in fabric accentuated with detailed folds in garments and dimension of matter so that there is a perfection of realism in presentation, however many of these fine works are filled with symbolism and the juxtaposition of context of bizarre objects that are entirely unreal in the situation of the subject; parrots and pears swirl in the air with scrolls and orbs.

Islamic artists in the latter centuries of the first millennium utilised magnificently complex calligraphic techniques to portray various elements of the natural world whereas 20th century cubists attempted to capture the inner person through a reordering of the human form in geometric shapes. More recently the abstract expressionists, pop art lithograph creators, urban primitivism and stencilled graffiti has captured the imagination of the world. All these methods can have equal value in the eye of an audience seeking revelation and/or awareness of the social environment through visual experience.

In the past couple weeks a few of the most widely-known American artists of the late 20th century passed away into the annals of art history, and only time will tell whether the work they leave behind continues to be valued as the generations shift toward new methods and techniques and an evolved understanding of what it is to be human in the age to come.

John Chamberlain, the ‘son of a saloon-keeper’, began turning scrap metal into sculpture back in the 50s. He was a native of Indiana who served in WW2 and using his grant became a hairdresser initially, then after becoming inspired by DeKooning, Giacometti and Van Gogh attended university in Illinois. He dropped out of the Art Institute of Chicago after 18 months but continued at college in North Carolina and went on to have work exhibited all over the world. Aluminum foil, Plexiglas and foam rubber as well as metal torn from wrecked cars were among the common materials he worked with to create his pieces, which consisted of joining together existing forms to reference historical sculpture in contemporary terms. His monolithic twisted designs with their kinetic energy exuding modernist theories of non-linear literature quickly attracted attention from avant-garde galleries and he represented the US at the Venice Biennale in 1964. A retrospective of his work will be on display from February at New York's Guggenheim Museum, where his first retrospective was held in 1971.

Helen Frankenthaler, though highly considered in certain circles, and reviewed with much praise in the media over the past week, leaves me cold. As an abstract expressionist known for splashing colour thinly and randomly onto untreated canvas her art says very little, although that is merely my subjective aesthetic opinion. Her work has been compared to Jackson Pollack, though I really don’t see the similarity other than they both painted on the floor. Pollack’s work, though appearing to the untrained eye as dribbles and splashes of paint reveals something more, as beneath the patterns and swirls we see form and substance, the contours of dancers and revellers, the staged procession of life, whereas Frankenthaler’s work appears as blotches of faded dye seemingly purposeless on a landscape of nothing, commonly referred to as ‘color-field painting’. As the daughter of a New York supreme court justice her background allowed easy access to those in a position to encourage progress into the art world; as she attended only the ‘best schools’ it was perhaps inevitable people would pay attention. However, maybe this helps explain why her work is bland, without intent or connection to a state of mind that requires realisation of deeper connotation.

James Rizzi is by contrast a 3-dimensional painter of jumbled and seemingly chaotic scenes of a style that was been termed ‘urban primitivism’ by Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads fame after he completed the cover for the first album of her offshoot band The Tom-Tom Club. His paintings are filled with images of people and buildings surrounded by stars and palm trees and radiant suns all bursting with activity and colour to create mesmerising panoplies of gratuitous excitement. His unique approach includes raising a number of the figures in each painting away from the canvas by gluing identical copies of the component onto the surface using wire, producing an interesting caricature effect of depth. In 1996, he became the first official artist for the Summer Olympics in Atlanta and the following year the Montreux Jazz Festival. In 1998, he made the official posters for the Football World Cup in France. I had the opportunity to purchase one of his fabulously energetic paintings in the late 80s, although at the time it was already out of my financial reach and I can only suppose that they will now extend far beyond my modest budget – however, I look forward to the coming retrospectives.

So, when the New Year rolls around again, when the midnight chimes wake you to the reality of the blank canvas of life, that tabula rasa that awaits a brushstroke in the form of paint or pencil, spatula or fingertip, remember that what you portray is a reflection of the sweat or tears or blood or laughter and love you represent as an individual. We are all the canvas that is filled with images and memories of the emotions and actions of existence, and every day is an opportunity to shine the light of truth across the empty space of tomorrow.

We are merely travellers through the pages of a book that has many characters and plots. This grand story of life that fills our world with dreams and hopes, sadness and mirth, pain and ecstasy, is neither pre-determined nor exclusive, but it does follow a narrative. The story is our perception of the knowledge we gain on the trip, though those events may not adhere to traditional chronological rules. There are hints of the levels of realities that we inhabit in every organism and molecule of life and light that surround us and it is up to us to reach out to touch the esoteric form, to connect with the human situation, allowing faith in the fragmentation of shape and structure to redefine us as we continually imagine new ways to create the future in hope and dreams and the art we bring into being that informs the journey. Make the memories and dreams you create worth the trouble of the adventure and activity.

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