Thursday, October 28, 2010

Artist of the Week - Ray Villafane

My art teacher friend forwarded images of Ray Villafane's carved pumpkins and I was hooked on several levels. Definitely blog worthy, but also art class lesson worthy!

1. I gave 6 weeks exams to all of my 170 students yesterday and it was grueling work! You think test day would be an easy, quiet day, but au contraire! We needed some fun today. I'll just leave it at that.
2. Halloween is Sunday, so there is a definite timely, holiday theme to the art.
3. We had a pep rally at school this morning which meant the kids were all hyped up and we would have shortened classes from 50 minutes - what to do to engage the kids?
4. It falls into my blog category of "food art" which I love, think is fun and is a popular category on my blog (especially with my students).
5. We are getting ready to do a clay relief sculpture in my sculpture classes, so it's an excellent lead in before designing and executing their projects. Lots of juicy ideas.
6. We are also getting ready to start contour drawing in Art I - his work uses lots of line and would be really fun to draw using any number of contour drawing techniques. Another great lead in.
7. It looked like a fun thing to do today for them and for me! We all needed some fun!

So that was the lesson - a review of the body of his work, the television interview (linked in the post title) and the great tutorial on his website about his sculpture process. They enjoyed it. So.......I'm challenging my students and the reader to go carve a pumpkin! You probably won't be able to compete with his 15 or more years of pumpkin carving expertise, but you might get a new idea or two to try. Go for it! Halloween cometh!

Saturday, October 09, 2010

The Business of Art: Forgery

The drawing known as La Bella Principessa - by Leonardo da Vinci?

What's the big deal about forgery? Only tons of money! And think of the reputations great art collectors and museums have at stake when being duped into buying a fake. Check out the link in this post headline to read about 11 of the most controversial art forgery stories.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

10/11 Academic Decathlon The Great Depression Art Selection #2 - Aspects of Negro Life: Song of the Towers

Aaron Douglas. Aspects of Negro Life: Song of the Towers. Mural series comprised of four panels: Song of the Towers, From Slavery Through Reconstruction, An Idyll of the Deep South, and The Negro in an African Setting. Oil on canvas, 1934.
The New York Public Library, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Art and Artifacts Division.

I have a special connection to this work. When I went back to college (at the age of 47!) to finish my bachelor's and become certified to teach art, I had the privilege of taking some Art History classes (which I went on to teach and love with a passion). The last class I took was an African American Art class, taught by Dr. Jennifer Way at the University of North Texas. The reading list was long. The course had a sizable focus on the Harlem Renaissance which I knew NOTHING about! How was that possible? Such a fantastic flowering of artistic expression born in the United States, and I had never even heard about it. Dr. Way gave us a challenge - go to our comprehensive art history textbooks and search for African American art in them. Nada. Nothing - or next to nothing. The tome of Art History (unnamed but easily guessed at), out of over 1,000 pages of art history, had two paragraphs about the Harlem Renaissance and a pitiful representation of modern and contemporary African American artists. I was appalled and it left a lasting impression for me. This period of artistic expression should be taught and celebrated! Aaron Douglas' work excites me so because of not only the formal qualities of his paintings, but the modern expression, the passion and the soul of the African American that he depicts. I just love his work.

The Harlem Renaissance was an incredible explosion of intellectual and artistic talent between 1910-1940 in Harlem, New York. The neighborhood was largely black, impacted by the Great Migration in which over one million and a half African Americans left rural areas across the U.S. to find work and new opportunity in urban centers like New York City. The new demographics spawned a search for new expressions of black cultural identity from their African heritage and ancestry. The artists of this time were looking for ways to come to terms with the duality of their African roots and their American birth rite. Sadly, the Depression hit the movement hard in the 1930s and it withered, but it spawned incredible talent: writers W.E.B. DuBois and Alan Locke, poets Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, visual artists Aaron Douglas and Jacob Lawrence, and jazz musicians Billie Holiday, Count Basie and Charlie Parker.

Douglas was born in Topeka, Kansas, studied art at the University of Nebraska and taught art in Kansas City. He went to Harlem in 1925 and started working as an illustrator for books for Cullen and Hughes as well as African American magazines Crisis and Opportunity. His work was critically acclaimed and eventually he was commissioned to paint a four-panel series for a branch of the New York Public Library - Aspects of Negro Life.

Song of the Towers is the last panel and the only one that has an urban context. The central figure is playing a saxophone (symbolic of the jazz movement) in the midst of the New York City skyline. The emotion displayed is not clear, is could be celebratory or defiant. Far in the distance is the Statue of Liberty, an icon of freedom, in the center of concentric circles that radiate out in the composition. The figures are in silhouette against the jutting, rectilinear buildings thrusting skyward. This style of portraying the men in this abstracted way became known as "Egyptian form" style because they are shown in profile. The lower part of the painting show men with industrial imagery - cogs and smokestacks. The figures are tense and struggling juxtaposed with the central figure which speaks of equality for African Americans in this new time and place. The colors are warm and throbbing. This is not a calm image. There is visual tension with the use of the complimentary colors of red and green. The green is not the color associated with growth, but has an ominous feel.

Aspects of Negro Life depicts the development of African American culture from the village in Africa, through the crisis of slavery and racial oppression, ending in the glimpse of the Harlem Renaissance in the Song of the Towers. The series has visual unity compositionally, repeating the elements of the silhouette, concentric circles and bold color. The power of the silhouette is its ability to represent a group without individuality, making it more powerful visually. This celebration of the African culture was an important step to illuminate the accomplishments of African Americans, though it would be decades before they would begin to gain rights and freedoms and not be treated as second-class citizens. This modern imagery was important as a sign of progress for men and women who had much to give to America.

Aspects of Negro Life: The Negro in an African Setting

Aspects of Negro Life: Idyll of the Deep South

Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery to Reconstruction

Saturday, October 02, 2010

10/11 Academic Decathlon The Great Depression Art Selection #1 - Detroit Industry, South Wall

Detroit Industry, South Wall, Fresco, Diego Rivera, 1932-1933, Detroit Institute of Art (Thanks to Daniel at DemiDec for providing me with their Art Resource for my blog work - DemiDec rocks!!)

The link in the post headline takes you to the Detroit Institute of Art's website. The image has a rolling magnification feature to it which gives you a more close up view of the work. I highly recommend it!

Diego Rivera is on of the most important artists from Mexico. Diego Rivera's training as an artist was grounded in the traditions of European art traditions - he received a scholarship to study in Europe at 21. This training heavily influenced his own aesthetics. He lived during a politically tumultuous time - the rise of both the Communist Party (of which he was a member) and the continued rise of capitalism in the United States (important patrons for him in his career). He struggled to walk a line between them both, but was not entirely successful in negotiating between these two disparate ideologies Some of the commissioned works by US capitalists such as JP Morgan, angered the Communist Party members and Rivera was expelled from the Party. The communists believed in the abolition of private property and social hierarchy in favor of a classless society with government ownership and regulation of resources. Accepting art commissions (and the money paid!) from US capitalists angered the Communist Party. But that wasn't his only problem! His artwork and the imagery in some of his frescoes was grounded in not only portraying the political ideals of Communism, but also included their political leaders. This did not make his US capitalist patrons happy either. He spent a good part of his illustrious career caught between a rock and a hard place!

The Detroit Industry frescoes were true, or buon frescoes. Rivera was known as the leader of the Mexican Renaissance because fresco painting was very popular during the European High Renaissance (remember Michelangelo & the Sistine Chapel?) and because by 1930 Rivera had painted over 17,000 square feet of buon fresco -he became a master. Just like Michelangelo, Rivera had to paint his mural around the architecture of the building, the Garden Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The work we are looking at was on the South wall and is integrated around the doors and colonnades.

The fresco illustrates the process of assembling a Ford car in the assembly plant. You see pipes, pumps, wheels, and an assembly line of workers showing the process of building a car from beginning to end. The wall is divided in sections - notice the bottom panels that are painted in shades of grey paint - this technique also comes from a Northern Renaissance tradition and is called "grisaille". You see Henry Ford teaching a class in these grisaille panels. Just like in Northern Renaissance altarpieces that represent the patrons of the work; this work shows Edsel Ford (the president of Ford) and William Valentine (the head of the Art Institute) in these grisaille panels. The allegorical top panel represent the universal concept of man in people of different races. The entire wall is symmetrical in balance and changes scale, from the large panels on top to the smaller, more intimate imagery in the panels on the bottom.

Rivera's preparation for this project was intense - he photographed and studied the Ford Motor Plant for months in order to capture the true spirit of the manufacturing process. He made sure to include the people and businesses of Detroit into his imagery, but it included a stylized imagery that would appeal and relate to anyone who viewed it. This allowed the artist to portray an Ideal vision of Detroit which produced abundance and harmony. Because the Great Depression had crippled the city and slowed it's production, this public work of art was meant to help heal the spirit of the people and the city. His work was intended to satisfy the patron who commissioned it, but it was also meant to touch the spirit and souls of the people of Detroit.