Tuesday, August 30, 2011

To a kiss

There is this large tree outside my window.

Fat, with leaves, it breathes compulsively

Like a beating lung.

The leaves they flap from light to dark,

In the folds in my stomach and the ball of my eye.

The moon is tipped tonight,

A little drunk, a shade too yellow. It appears especially

Distant. My head knocked back, like a fallen thing to the ground,

Too far thrown that I couldn’t possible make it back up.

A petal perhaps, no smaller or thinner or less perfumed.

It seems this tree comes closer; it’ll lean into the window,

Using its leafy hands against the white-chipped-frame

To pull itself in for a small shuffle of leaves,

For a soft blow of wind just close enough to my face

For a kiss.

Monday, August 29, 2011

david hockney: inside his reality

Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1972)

Pearblossom Highway (1986)

Mulholland Drive: the Road to the Studio (1980)

A Lawn Being Sprinkled (1967)

A Bigger Splash (1967)

California Art Collector (1964)

Flight into Italy – Swiss Landscape (1962)

David Hockney has always been a hyperactive artist, exploring the potentials of painting, drawing, and photography. However, within his seemingly ever-changing body of work, persists a desire to capture reality, and not in a necessarily naturalistic manner. Geldzahler has said that “he [Hockney] has become increasingly fascinated by exactly how things look.”[1] Hockney has also claimed, “People who look hardest in the end will be good artists.”[2] I will discuss a few of the many ways in which Hockey has manifested this desire, with a particular emphasis on his paintings. Firstly, in a significant portion of his work, there is a tendency to extract and dissect as much visual information as he can from an image or scene. As has been noted by Clothier and acknowledged by Hockney himself, there is in his work a prevalent cubist approach to break up single images into multi-faceted ones. It is also important to observe that much of his work centers on human experiences. Hockney, in his frequent multi-perspective approach, presents challenging interpretations of reality; at the same time, the approachable subject matter and his clever use of space are user-friendly, inviting the viewer into the picture plane, inspiring them to look at reality from a fresh outlook.

Hockney has frequently criticized photography, claiming that “it’s a view that’s too mechanical, too devoid of life.”[3] Indeed, Hockney’s intention is to convey a sense of life in movement. He wants us to be in the picture, to feel around and inside the space of his work. In order to do so, there can be no firm edges or single perspectives. We do not live in narrow, boxed-up planes; we always have space to move in and are constantly observing the world from various angles. This is why Hockney claims to “break” or “alter” the edges of the picture plane and tends to employ multiple perspectives within a single image.[4]

These qualities are prevalent in one of his earlier paintings, from 1962, Flight into Italy – Swiss Landscape. It conveys a strong sense of movement that prevents the scene from becoming contained or restrained by edges. Streaks of pale blue brush past the bodies, suggesting speed while stretching off their skin in the process. Our eye imagines a continuation to this journey, a destination beyond the edges of the plane. The colorful waves that make up the mountains are cut off mid-wave, lending the illusion of a continuous flow. The word ‘Paris’ with an arrow pointing outside to the left of the picture plane likewise signals that there is a path and a place that has already been left. The unusual use of perspective also expands the spectator’s viewpoint. The people depicted are at once outside and inside the car: their bodies are not fully covered by the car’s exterior. However, one of the figures handles a wheel that by contrast is clearly inside the car. The figure in the back also desperately grabs the figure in front of him, as if he was about to fly off - but are they not inside the car? This ambiguity of location in space continues with the rendering of the house and trees. Though both are placed in close proximity to the human figures on the picture plane, their scales are completely nonsensical: the house is practically the same size as the human figures. Perhaps Hockney wants to indicate that the house is far from the figures; but, at the same time, the shadows that wrap around the house in a ghostly manner are the same transparent blacks and reds that cover the car. The foreground and background at once separate and merge. Finally, we observe the house from a bird’s eye perspective, while we see the human figures and the car from the side. We are not confined to one view. Indeed, our perception expands the harder we look. The process of looking at this painting is like looking at something in real life: what we see changes from one moment to the next.

This close dialogue with reality is made further possible by the large scale of the works, which allows us to scan and relate to the images on a near-human scale, to enter and become part of it. The scale also requires us to spend time scanning the image and to sense the passage of time within the depicted moment. Hockney claims that the perception of time prevents a work from becoming static and lifeless. To him, time is always present in a painting “because a hand moving across it means time is involved.”[5] Thus the act of painting mimics a moment in real life: it is built in physical stages. There are various ways to feel time within his work: the appreciation that each image within one plane was born at a different moment in time; the presence of movement; and finally, the connection of the depicted moment to life itself. Hockney has claimed that his work is autobiographical, that all of his images were extracted from human experiences.[6] Thereby, the images themselves have once existed in a specific moment in time.

On the other hand, quite often in his paintings, as in his Los Angeles series, life is completely still. However, their very stillness makes us look at them even harder, as they create their own reality. Just as in Flight into Italy – Swiss Landscape, where Hockney aimed to value motion and perspective, in several of his still images he places every object with equal importance on a frozen plane. Hockney offers alternative ways of seeing, playing with perpetual and simultaneous motion and utter stillness.

In California Art Collector, one imagines that Hockney was at first looking at a larger scene, then selected certain elements from it and compressed them all into an apparently still new plane. The female figure seems to be under an awning outdoors; however, she sits on a living room chair that is placed on carpeting. Is she outside, or are we looking into an interior? A rainbow invades this space as a supportive architectural element. There is likewise a white form on the back wall that resembles a small cloud. This overlapping of scenes engenders a sense of displacement and simultaneity, and thus a degree of movement. Indeed, to Hockney, what lends the most movement and life to a picture is not necessarily what the subject is doing, but rather how the shapes and objects interact with the space. In his book The Way I See It, Hockney claims he does not like to excessively use horizontal shapes in his work for it engenders too much visual stillness (52). California Art Collector and other works from the same period (the early sixties) may appear entirely still at first glance, but they are not altogether static. They possess those essential elements previously discussed – large scale, a lack of confining edges, odd perspectives, and a profusion of shapes – all of which prevent the images from becoming entirely tight and frozen, giving them room to breathe.

The subject matter likewise grounds the work in reality since it consistently stresses the human experience. Even in those scenes with no human figures, the human presence is often implied through the setting or the work’s title. In A Bigger Splash, the solitary chair, the pool board, and the splash point to the event that a person has just jumped into the pool. In A Lawn Being Sprinkled, somebody obviously turned the sprinkler on; it is a domestic task, emphasized by the depiction of a house in the background. Even in some of his landscapes, such as Mulholland Drive: the Road to the Studio, not only does the title refer to a destination, Hockney’s own ‘studio,’ but also the mountains themselves are punctured with roads and structures. In some areas of the painting there even appears to be some ambiguity as to what is a structure and what is nature: in the bottom left there is a level plane that resembles a flattened house with windows. Thus, Hockney’s work is about interactions among people or about their interaction with the environment.

Importantly, the human perspective itself is a central theme. In Hockney’s photomontages, as spectators we are led to question and merge three ways of seeing: what we see through our own eyes, the photographic perspective, and Hockney’s unusual composition. In Pearblossom Highway, Hockney has expanded the perception of the highway by breaking the image up into squares that are in turn rotated, zoomed and overlapped. He thus breaks the flatness and one-point perspective of photography by creating a new reality that is much closer to the actual perception of the human eye – we are at once hovering from one place to another and absorbing the whole. As Clothier puts it, Hockney’s photomontages are “a truer layering of space and time.”

In Hockney’s works we are not merely spectators. We always interact with them, even when we feel, as Melia has stressed, like “voyeurs,” such as in his paintings of nude boys emerging from the pool, or in Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), where one of the figures is immersed under water while the other stares with downcast eyes in an absorbed manner. Thus the figures instigate reactions from us as if we were situated in a real scene. Hockney has said, “we do not look at the world from a distance, we are in it.”[7] By pushing the limits of perspective and including us in his multiple points of view, Hockney ensures that, as spectators, we are there, in his images.

[1] Hockney, David. Hockney by Hockney (p.9)

[2] Hockney, David. Hockney by Hockney (p.130)

[3] Clothier, Peter. Hockney (p.130)

[4] Hockney, David. That’s the Way I see It (p.103)

[5] Hockney, David. That’s the Way I see It (p.104)

[6] Hockeny, David. Hockney by Hockney (p.9)

[7] Hockney, David That’s the Way I See It (p.102)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Hirst Pulls a Trigger

Damien Hirst’s diamond-covered skull, For the Love of God, is at once grotesque and beautiful, superficial and meaningful. However, before elaborating on these curious contradictions, it is paramount to stress Hirst’s ultimate goal with this piece; as he puts it, “I want people to see it and be astounded. I want them to gasp.” He relishes in the shock factor and aims to make a scene. Importantly, what astounds most of the viewers is the preposterous sum of money involved in the making and selling of the skull. The monetary aspect of the work becomes its main “raison d’être”. Thus, any meaningful interpretation of the piece is obscured amidst the commercial commotion, insinuating that the artwork itself is, lamentably, less impressive than its cost.

One could contend that the commercial aspect is significant and should rightly be the chief interest of the piece. It does, after all, explicitly illustrate the capitalist age we live in. Hirst spent an overwhelming sum on something seemingly trivial, as many others do in private. Only he did it boldly, shamelessly, and loudly. The audience’s response, in itself, reveals a consumerist society. We look at a skull, covered in 8,601 diamonds, and what primarily resonates is the cost. Although the skull functions primarily as a symbol and embracement of the capitalist art market, it possesses mocking- though not necessarily condemning- undertones towards consumerist society.

For the Love of God engages with superficial notions of beauty and their ironic relationship to death. To paraphrase a quote, before the making of the skull, in I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, With Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now, Hirst criticizes humans for excessively caring about their complexions since they are ultimately destined to decompose into skulls. This futile preoccupation with appearance can readily be applied to his piece. The symbol of our death stares straight at us, yet due to the striking diamonds that adorn it, the violent image of death is instantly appeased. The diamonds function as a mask, a farce that embodies the shallowness that Hirst cites earlier- we stride through life embellishing ourselves only to reach our doom. Indeed, as one observes the skull and its unsettling smile, the diamonds shine in all their glory; they deepen into the crevices of the skull’s sockets as if in two eternal chambers, mocking our death, for we will perish, those polished teeth will eventually rot, and the diamonds will live forever.

However, it is important to note that skulls have become an icon in the fashion world and that diamonds are prominent symbols of conspicuous consumerism. Although Hirst claims that he was inspired by Aztec skulls, he evidently borrowed two popular items from mass culture that in turn make the criticism detailed above uphold little effect upon the viewers. Considering that the skull image has been obsessively used in contemporary fashion, we have accordingly become indifferent to its inherent pathos.

For the Love of God manipulates the skull with diamonds like a fashion item, so that it appears more as a commodity and less as an actual human remnant. Ironically, for someone so invested in the theme of death, Hirst employs the one symbol that no longer strikes his audiences with the idea of death. In some of Hirst’s other works he conveys the subject of death more effectively. In the past he has explained, “you have to find that universal trigger. Everyone’s scared of glass, everyone’s scared of sharks. Everyone loves butterflies.”[1] If the skull is to function as a “universal trigger,” it triggers the face of consumerism. But maybe that was his intention, after all.

[1] Hirst, Damien. I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, With Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


I've been doing watercolors based on photographs that I've taken of friends and of myself. This is one I did while still living in Paris.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

In August

It's the not-seeing through hot eyes.
It's an August large cloud that dries bitter-white,
Heavily, in the cheeks.

If I look only to the sky
I can clear my sight along with it.

My dark woozy shadow scuttles beneath the skin

And splits, thick, from my sugary throat
(The warmth, the silk, and ice-cream)

And lays still, holding onto swollen ankles.

Off I say, off. I enjoy being unforgiving

Because I’m hungry for something


I'm all slippery skin, ballooning eyes,
Murmuring mmmm yellow.

I turn to blank to white. A skeleton

Presses up against me, bony and hard,

Questioning me for what I have done.

It’s the spatter of rain, the old sick

Man outside. It’s the heat

That snakes into me and murmurs

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The British Word concluded : Banksy

British Museum, London

Tate Gallery, London

Of all the artists discussed, the graffiti artist Banksy is the least explicitly personal in his work. His language is not confessional. However, by publicly branding his own “name,” Banksy makes his own identity a monument. Thus there exists that tension seen in the previous artists’ work where the artist claims to be more anonymous and detached from his/her words than s/he actually is.

However different, Banksy’s language is as violently blunt, accusatory and tortured as the other artists in its outcries against social oppression and corruption. In one piece he depicts a man being brutally attacked by police officers. Behind them one reads: “I fought the law and I w…” – the words drip like blood and are cut off right where it would spell ‘won,’ an aesthetic that heightens the suppression, the fight.

Banksy likewise often attacks publicity companies. One of his pieces consists of a starved, poor child surrounded by flies wearing a Burger King paper hat. As Wright puts it, “many of Banksy’s pieces…thumb their noses at authority and urge us not to swallow the usual lines fed us by politicians and big business” (51). Banksy’s work explicitly denounces public authorities that pierce the landscape with their messages, that manipulate our visual associations. Thus, he reveals a consciousness of our semiotic reading as he implies his belief that those “who control sign systems control the construction of reality” (Chandler).

With Banksy, we see again the importance of the aesthetics of the word, of its role as a visual element. His words often resemble that of billboards, public signs, subvertisers and political activists. Thus he draws on public signage, “taking something [that is] accessible to all” (Wright, 52). However, his images supply the viewer with contrary content, as with the Burger King image. Indeed, Banksy has compiled a witty semiotic body of work, where he lends a new “signified” to each “signifier.”

A lot of Banksy’s critique is done in a tongue-in-cheek and ironic language. An ideal example of this is his work targeted towards the pretensions of the art gallery and museum. In the past he has stenciled “Mind the Crap” on the entrance steps of the Tate Modern. He has likewise once put up on the walls of the British museum “a hoax cave painting of a stone age man” with an explication in the style of a museum label (Guardian). He critiques the exhibition culture when he ends his placard with: “The majority [of this art] is destroyed by zealous municipal officials who fail to recognise the artistic merit and historical value of daubing on walls.” Characteristically British in its satirical language, this piece, like Perry’s, calls into question the limits defined by the art establishment. Banky’s work thus exemplifies the British artistic desire to communicate in plain, direct language that breaks the boundaries defined by social authorities.

Banksy, Grayson Perry, R.B. Kitaj, Tracey Emin and David Hockney thereby all resemble Hogarth in their choice to deliver their personal views through words, which are in turn used to interpret or twist images. Both are in dialogue with one another, the words generally providing the content and the images providing the context. However, importantly, without the context (the images), the words would be largely drained of their meaning. Thus these artists’ work relies on a semiotic reading.

Beginning with Hogarth, there has been a trend in subject matter in British art– authority and social suppression, the self and society. Such subject matter not only endures, but is also intensified in artists’ work today. Over time, as British artists have gained more liberty in their expression, their language has become increasingly forthright and cheeky.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The British Word continued : Grayson Perry

The Names of Flowers (1994)

Saint, Satin, Satan (1999)

Childhood Trauma Manifesting Itself in Later Life (1992)

Mad Kid’s Bedroom Wall (1996)

We’ve Found the Body of Your Child (2000)

Driven Man (2000)

Sunset through Net Curtains

Like Kitaj, Grayson Perry belongs to that trend of English picturing that tells stories, that contains a narrative weave. He uses the word as a way to reveal social and personal truths; the word brutally strips down reality, revealing a world of violent and insecure human beings. In another common trend, Grayson Perry’s narratives involve a slow and changing reading. Their often-bright colors and gleaming glaze have the power to deceive. Sunset through Net Curtains has the very palette of a lovely sunset in all its rosy and yellow shades. One is drawn to the swelling flowers and the organic forms. However, as one looks closer, one begins to decode a plethora of disturbing references: the book that an old man reads is entitled ‘slave owner’; the words that a man types on the computer include ‘torture me to death.’ Though Perry’s figures can sometimes speak for themselves simply in their tortured demeanor, at other times, words are transformative in their labels.

Perry’s work is likewise deceiving in its choice of form; like Emin’s quilts, there is an explicit irony in his choice of pottery for disturbing subject matter. Pottery is generally viewed as something modest, delicate and “innocent” (Wilson, 75). Perry’s work partially arises from a desire to challenge the art establishment’s influence in such associations, and its essential “control” of artistic “sign systems” (Chandler). As Boot explains, “a strict distinction is drawn in England between ceramics – as one of the crafts – and the fine arts. The two fields are treated… very differently there, and the distinction is deeply rooted in English art education and the world of the galleries and museums” (71). Perry perceives such distinctions as pretentious, and mocks them. He manifests these views when he ironically writes on his pot, Peasant Ware (1990): ‘Seek not great wisdom for this is but simple peasant ware, there is no great art here.’ He likewise amusingly and satirically places “stamps on his pots in accordance with the artistic rules [that look] like the stamp of some old porcelain factory” but that really spell out ‘wanker.’” (Boot, 72). Indeed, Perry approaches the art establishment as another “accepted [hierarchy] [that he must call] into question” (Wilson, 85, 86).

This distinctly British, ironic, tongue-in-cheek character extends itself when Perry appropriates comical devices and pop culture imagery to make violent, accusatory commentary. He encourages a semiotic reading, for the viewer is forced to engender new associations among rather disparate elements. Driven Man (2000), as several other pots, gives voice to the female, showing how her image is put on display and is abused of. The woman appears to be trapped within the popular imagery (such as the large billboards of women) and the men and their cars that surround them. Thus what at first may appear as playful, colorful imagery of pop culture, cars and attractive lettering of magazines and newspapers is entirely transformed. The same clash in aesthetics is seen in We’ve Found the Body of Your Child (2000), which is scattered with bubbles of words – such as ‘you fucking little shit’ and ‘all men are bastards’ – which resemble comic book speech bubbles done in child-like handwriting. Here, the infantile aesthetics of the lettering adds another layer of meaning as it suggests a corruption of innocence. Interestingly, “his manner of drawing…has been described by Perry as that of an adolescent sixth former: both direct and illustrational” (Wilson, 85). We see again that old British desire to communicate “directly,” which is in turn accomplished through a bold outpour of words, illustrations and a carefully meditated style.

Importantly, Perry, as evidenced, draws on the signage of popular culture and familiar contexts, like other artists have, as subjects for his critique. His pots have a social conscience as they address male dominance, war, class distinctions, murder cases and the corruption in social values. Boot rightly articulates, “Perry holds up a mirror to his contemporaries as Hogarth had done to those of his time” (74).

Much of Perry’s work, however, employs the personal and confessional language characteristic of British art today. Mad Kid’s Bedroom Wall (1996), for example, has phrases written in the first person, which appear to refer to Perry’s own life: “I was a mad kid and now I ain’t. I got out ’coz I could paint.” Relevantly, however, much of his work previously discussed, which addressed wider social concerns, are clearly affected by Perry’s personal topics of childhood trauma and transvestitism. Thus, in a way, Perry, as Emin, Kitaj and Hockney, transforms personal experience into a greater monument, as something applied to society at large.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The British Word continued : R.B. Kitaj

The Wedding (1989-93)

If Not, Not (1975-76)

R.B. Kitaj’s work similarly exposes the artist as we look at the world through his tortured lens. Like Emin’s quilts and prints, it is an exposure done “in favour of vividness of feeling” (Morphet, 31). Kitaj is different from the other contemporary British artists discussed in that he does not always literally incorporate words into the visual compositions of his artwork. However, words, as with Turner, have such an influential effect on the way that he constructs his images that one cannot fail to acknowledge him in the British tradition of the word.

Kitaj paints vivid narratives through the tense, elaborate atmospheres that he creates. Indeed, his images not only show, but also tell a scene. Many a time Kitaj has accompanying texts to his work. His texts often function as narratives to the paintings, and are written in the style of a short story. He incorporated the word out of a “concern for clarity” and a “particularity about the content of a given work” (Morphet, 16). Indeed, Kitaj, as other artists, valued the word for its directness in articulating both his personal feelings and his commentary on social oppression. Such commentaries largely focus on the Holocaust, “references to texts written by victims of persecution” and sexual violence (Morphet, 13). Thus one sees the common pairing of the personal with the universal, which in turn often conflate. As Morphet articulates, he “respond[s] to the crisis of our century by means of works combining a sense of the tragic with unusual exposure of the self” (27). Indeed, Kitaj inevitably revealed his own torment in the often agitated forms and trembling paint that he used to depict his grim characters.

His images are in themselves wordy. Once again, they are in dialogue with Turner’s in that they are largely about their “aura” (Ashbery, quoted by Morphet, 28). This is greatly accomplished through the excess or absence of movement. For example, in Sighs from Hell (1979), one captures the tense, dreadful atmosphere in the women’s static gazes that appear to freeze the space they inhabit. This affinity for narrative picturing is in part due to an “obsession with the book,” out of which Kitaj pulls both imagery and text for his work (Morphet, 13). His painting If Not, Not, for instance, was done as an illustration to T.S. Eliot’s poem ‘The Wasteland.’ Once again, we see that British eagerness to lend a vision to a poem. In 2007 a book was compiled using this image to accompany the poem. “Like the poem, the painting can be taken apart” (Hoyem). And so, just as the poem is divided from page to page, the painting is isolated into several parts, only to be entirely “reproduced at the end of the poem” (Hoyem). Indeed, Kitaj’s painting is as layered in narrative and image as the poem itself, placing importance on the reading of the work. He treated images as he treated his words; he expected the viewer to decode the images as signs, to find a message in their aesthetics.

Kitaj encouraged what can be interpreted as a semiotic reading of his work, which he in turn facilitated with the use of plain language – both visually and literally. His subject matter is accessible: portraits, nudes, landscapes, urban streets, sports and domestic scenes. However, like a semiotician, he often manipulated such subjects: “ he include[d] the creation of new contexts for motifs originally of specific origin, [he adapted] pre-existing images by often disturbing distortion and [he invented] faces and figures” (Morphet, 10). In The Wedding, for instance, one is drawn to the grotesque, ghostly and trembling faces of the people surrounding the much smaller, hidden bride. Absorbed in a chaos of grim color and movement, celebration does not come to mind.

His texts take on a similar atmosphere. Morphet describes them as “unusual among serious art-related writing in the degree to which they are pervaded by the idioms of the speech of street, bar, workshop and sport stadium, as well as by those of mid-century film” (18-19). Kitaj’s use of language, as with the other artists, breaks from the more formal readings found in art criticism and the museum; indeed, he uses the word for plain communication.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The British Word continued...Tracey Emin

Terrebly wrong, 1997 (monoprint)

Terminal 1 (2000)

I do not expect to be a mother (2002)

Tracey Emin, to a similar effect, ironically employs a medium – the quilt – that appears to contradict its content – feminist and fierce remarks. In I do not expect to be a mother, confessional phrases in shouting capitals such as ‘i do not expect to be a mother but i expect to die alone’ and ‘it doesn’t have to be like this’ pierce the quilt. The painstaking process of sewing conveys the purposefulness of thought put into the messages. Yet the angry and pessimistic undertones belie the gentle and domestic connotations of sewing. Indeed, in Emin’s quilts, the words are the center of attention; they are valued for their directness, for their ability to forcefully deliver messages. Importantly though, it is the pairing of the words with the quilt image – the semiotic link of content to context – that creates the feminist and provocative tone of her works.

As with Hockney and other artists, Emin’s language is deeply personal, as she frequently draws on her own sexual experiences. However, in keep with another British trend, she includes a universal, socially critical aspect to her work: the commentary on male dominance and spectatorship. Her work gives a powerful voice to the female. Her use of the quilt alludes to the Suffragettes, who used “appliquéd texts and banners…in women’s…protests” (Betterton, 38). Thus even though Emin inscribes personal remarks, she appears to be making a larger gesture for her gender when she uses a form that is symbolically significant of both female subservience and defiance. This is made especially obvious in her piece, Terminal 1, which begins with several personal references to a relationship but ends on the firm note: ‘i am international woman.’

Emin’s monoprints likewise gain their meaning from the combination of aesthetics, medium and language. In a contemporary tradition, a close reading of the words’ aesthetics heightens the words’ literal message. In the monoprints, unlike the quilts, the words and images have a sketch-like, nearly illegible quality. The spectator struggles to make out the inversed lettering and crossed out words, and in so doing inevitably feels the frustration and difficulty in communication. As in sewing, the trace on the monoprint is difficult to remove and thus requires a conscious construction of words. However, Emin exposes her mistakes to a greater extent in the monoprints, leaving the spectator to feel “the apparent immediacy” in her words (Townsend, 82). Indeed, she aims for “people to see what was there before”; thus not only is there a sense of self-exposure, but there is also that British desire to be honest, and the more recent desire to be blunt with the viewer (Emin quoted by Wainwright, 202).

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The British Word continued : David Hockney

The gospel singing (good people) Madison Square garden (1961-3)

Meeting the good people (Washington) (1961-63)

The drinking scene (1961-3)

Tea Painting in an Illusionistic Style (1961)

We Two Boys Together Clinging (1961)

Doll Boy (1961)

David Hockney’s work from the early sixties combines accessible, informal and sketchy graffiti marks with highly personal, layered and confessional content. The paintings visually mimic lavatorial graffiti– a space cluttered in energetic, messy imagery and words that require close reading. This graffiti aesthetic in turn enhances Hockney’s use of confessional language. In a semiotic lens, the words (or the “signifiers”) are given a greater meaning (“the signified”) once related to their context (the graffiti).

The language in these works often has the bluntness and crudeness characteristic of contemporary British art. As in the past, the words address social oppression, specifically as experienced by homosexuals. In Hockney’s piece Doll Boy, the words ‘doll boy’ appear to horizontally run into a male figure’s frail, tilted neck that precariously balances on his body, and may likely be decapitated by these derogatory words. Here, word and image importantly work to reinforce one another.

What makes these paintings different from actual graffiti, however, is that they have a uniform quality, an underlying narrative in their repeating themes of love, sexuality and oppression. One senses a singular personality in these works, which seemingly contradicts the fact that they mimic a public and anonymous form (graffiti). Thus, in a way, Hockney resembles the Romantics and other artists to be discussed in that he uses language in a self-expressive and introspective manner while, on some level, presenting the language as self-detached. Interestingly, Hockney often borrows segments from Wordsworth’s poems or poem titles, such as We Two Boys Together Clinging. The phrase crawls in between two embracing figures, giving verbal expression to their bond. Here, Hockney shows that British artistic desire to give vision to a poet’s words.

Though Hockney’s work has a critical and a torturous self-reflective quality, it nonetheless maintains the ironic, satirical humor characteristic of British art. Tea Painting in an Illusionistic Style uses the image of a ‘Typhoo Tea’ carton to ironically box up a figure seated on a toilet seat. Hockney, as past artists, in drawing from popular culture, makes his critique more accessible for and engages in dialogue with the public. He likewise maintains the roughness and sketchiness seen in his other works, furthering the distortion of a traditionally bright Pop art image. As Clothier puts it, there is here “a blend of high melodrama and absurdist humor” (20).

Hockney’s version of A Rake’s Progress uses Hogarth’s Rake series as a model, blending word and image in a similar satirical fashion to make social criticisms. However, while Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress is clearly not a “progress,” the same cannot be assumed of Hockney’s. As Heffernan puts it, “Hockney’s picture playfully asks if homosexuality… means the end of England” (Cultivating Picturacy, 239). Hockney’s own answer to this question is an ironic ‘no.’ The rake is placed within situations that could be considered immoral or irresponsible, such as indulging in drinking, partying, frequenting gay venues and overspending. The series is thus about “the individual’s defining and redefining this self in time” (Joachim, 39). As Hogarth, Hockney incorporates the signage of the times in his depictions of public hangouts such as pubs and familiar references to music (gospel), public monuments (the capital) and campaign imagery.

At the end of the series, “unlike Hogarth’s rake, who is nearly prostrate in the final plate, Hockney’s rake ends up standing at attention” (Heffernan, 252). Thus Hockney ironically uses Hogarth’s plates to serve a contrary purpose – to show that so-called “immoral” attitudes are not so detrimental after all.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The British Word continued...

Though language in art is no longer monitored or dictated by an authority as in the past, it is nonetheless largely dominated by the museum and/or the critic. In his book Cultivating Picturacy, Heffernan, when referring to works that only deal with images, posits that images are not always “universally intelligible” and that they thus require the aid of words (16). This is partly why museums and art critics become “the verbal representative[s] of visual art,” for an “interpretive” language is used “[rhetorically]” to help tell viewers how and what to see (Heffernan, 44).

One observes – as in the work of David Hockney, Tracey Emin, R.B. Kitaj, Grayson Perry and Banksy– that British artists today have in part incorporated words into their artwork so that they can speak for themselves and can attempt to become “the verbal representative” of their own art. Whereas before artists rebelled against the language of the aristocracy, today artists battle with the language of the museum and the critic. Indeed, in discussing such language, Hockney describes it as largely estranging and inaccessible to the greater public, claiming that it likely sounds “a little like scholasticism…of no great relevance to [the public’s] own interest” (That’s the Way I See It, 150). Hockney withholds that in order to make art speak to the public (and not just a selective audience), one must at times reach out of the art world into a more plain language that describes art in a manner that “a person sees” (150).

Artists today, like Hogarth, frequently draw from popular culture and signage to both criticize it and to make their work relevant to the public. This is one of many instances where artists use plain, colloquial language in order to communicate more directly and honestly with their viewers – a trend traced back to artists and writers in the late eighteenth century.

Today, however, unlike in the past, the viewer, more often than not, has to struggle before making out the messages in the artworks. This is largely due to a trend to inscribe letters in a sketchy manner or in a style that suggests instantaneity. This way, the viewer has the impression that the words were not overwrought, that they flowed right off the artist’s hand in an honest, blunt and intimate manner. Alternatively, the words are deliberately constructed in a way that makes it difficult to read – the viewer understands it as a conscious effort, a deliberate obscuration. Or, as with Banksy, the words are sneakily blended into the environment. Thus, in all these cases, there is an initial moment of doubt; the viewer is not warned of the disturbing content that the words may withhold. Rather, the viewer must first pause and break through the works’ layers, a quality that again testifies to the semiotic nature of these artists’ work.

British art history reveals a common belief that the word helps bring accuracy and immediacy to narrative and self-expression. Whereas the word was first used in art as an authoritative tool, now it is used to speak against authority. Likewise, as the word became appropriated by the artist, it developed a satirical and increasingly accessible and personal character. Over time, the word has become more intertwined with the image so that the words themselves have become visual elements in the works; their aesthetics are just as powerful as their actual denotations. However, unlike in the past, the words today have a gutsy and informal visual quality, which in turn complements their content. The language of British art today, though in dialogue with the past, has taken on a distinctly more tortured and aggressive character.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The British Word continued...

British art underwent a change during the Victorian period by turning to moral narratives, realism and a fear of introspection. According to Graham-Dixon, “the rise to eminence of the art critic” coincides with a time when people wanted “to have [artworks’] narratives explicated and their moral meaning teased out” (Graham-Dixon, 166). Victorian art criticism likewise developed “the argument of ‘ut picture poesis,’” where the art critic approached a picture by translating it into prose (295, Hewison). The image in itself, without poetical explication, was considered less valuable. Furthermore, it was not the actual pictorial detailing or the technique that was explored; rather, several critics “[concentrated] upon an explanation of [the] subject” (Althoz). Thus the word was considered a higher art for its poetical ability and a more direct art in its efficacy in delivering a subject. Though images are no longer disregarded as such, we shall later see that the language in art criticism and in museums is still in large part considered to dictate artworks.

During the same period, there arose an interest in structuralist semiotics, which paid attention to the organization of words. Ferdinand de Saussure, the great figure of this semiotic line of thought, introduced the notion of the “signifier” (the word) and the “signified” (the concept). He claimed that a word could only gain its concept or meaning when related to its context or to the other words that it modifies. Saussure realized that words’ meanings are an automatic, instinctual process, which he justified with the claim that “each [linguistic sign] is recognized over and over again to be the ‘same’ sign because it has the same set of relations to other signs” (Bredin, 68). What Saussure, and other semioticians, aimed to do was to slow down our instincts by breaking down linguistic signs. Words became interpretative forms, and with this came a consciousness of the weaving of words and what they are made to do.

Moving into the twentieth century to this day, modern semiotics further elaborates on the role of the reader in its analyses. It asks why we make the immediate associations that we do with certain words. It tends to answer such questions around the belief that “signs are related to their signifieds by social conventions which we learn” (Chandler). In inspecting these social conventions, semioticians emphasize the fabricated nature of linguistic signs. Their goal is to often “denaturalize signs, texts and codes [to] demonstrate that ‘reality’ can be challenged” (Chandler). Thus modern semiotics interrogates the contexts out of which words’ concepts arise, as opposed to simply acknowledging them.

Several British artists today incorporate language in their work with the same consciousness of a semiotician. In the Victorian period, words were valued for their ability to explicate moral messages. Today, artists similarly take advantage of the word’s directness; however, they explore further by giving importance to the process of the reading of an artwork, of how the words are visually organized. Like a semiotician, artists today have developed a layered reading to their work.

This concern for close reading, however, can be traced back to the very work of Hogarth, where one must delve into the prints to find the copious messages and ironic pairings of images and words before fully comprehending the criticism. Like Hogarth, these artists make it so that their words interact with, and are not necessarily superior to, other visual elements within the overall oeuvre. The artists’ words, the “signifiers,” develop a richer meaning once related to their neighboring visual elements, or their context, the “signified.”

In the contemporary artwork that will be discussed, some artists place words within contexts where they would usually belong so as to enrich and facilitate the viewer’s understanding of the language. Other artists, though, may challenge the way in which we are accustomed to reading by placing words within new or unusual contexts. They explore the social constructs of what is considered ‘allowed’ language and ‘not allowed’ language. The reader is forced to rearrange his/her visual and verbal associations. Several artists, particularly Grayson Perry and Banksy, further respond to a notion implied in the study of semiotics: “If signs do not merely reflect reality but are involved in its construction then those who control the sign systems control the construction of reality” (Chandler). These artists attempt to debunk such associations, attacking those who construct reality, which include the tabloids, media, government and art establishments.

Thus, as in the past, contemporary artists still make social commentary, particularly in regard to authorities and social oppression. Importantly, most of the artists’ criticism, though serious, maintains the satirical and humorous undertones that have been the historical trademarks in British art.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The British Word continued...

J.M.W. Turner, The Slave Ship (1840)

J.M.W. Turner, a contemporary of Wordsworth, greatly drew from Romantic poetry in his artwork. Turner particularly appreciated the manner in which words captured atmosphere, such as in Scottish poet James Thomsons’s “The Seasons.” Turner is said to have depicted “the sunrise…such as he imagined was in the poet’s eye” (Timbs, 365). Not only did he use Romantics’ poetry but he also used his own poetry to accompany his paintings. His writing was something personally significant that helped him to refine his vision and emotions on nature and the sublime (Nadaner). Words, however, by no means took precedent over his images; rather, much like the British art today, each complemented and enriched the other. In 1812, Turner addressed the Royal Academy in a lecture: “Painting and poetry flow from the same fount mutually by vision, …[and] reciprocally…heighten each other’s beauties like…mirrors” (Nadaner, 32). Turner’s paintings and poetry work together to grasp and convey that which cannot be seen but that is inexplicably felt in a setting’s atmosphere.

In expressing his subliminal emotions and visions, Turner placed value on individual experience, as Wordsworth and other Romantic poets did. During this period, the emphasis on the individual in turn inspired a concern for political and social causes. Turner extended his work from personal reflections to “sublime or awesome aspects of contemporary life” in general, such as in his work on the terrifying travels of slave ships (Barker). Thus the early nineteenth century saw trends that resemble today’s. Both periods have artists intertwine images with words to express emotion to its fullest, to connect to one’s inner self. Yet these artists also reach out of themselves to address universal concerns, particularly in regard to social oppression.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The British Word from Hogarth to Today: A Desire to Tell, Not Show

William Hogarth, A Rake's Progress, Plate 3, 1735 (taken from the BBC)

It's been a while since I haven't posted any of my art-related essays, and I recently got inspired to rummage through my old essays. During my sophomore year at Barnard I took a great seminar with Simon Schama on Contemporary British Art. In that seminar, I wrote a paper on the relationship of words and images in British art throughout history. Since it's a bit on the longer side, I'll post this one day by day, and hopefully I'll keep you interested! :

The history of British art reveals an affinity for incorporating words in artworks, particularly in the form of narrative. Beginning with the Reformation period, there prevailed what Graham-Dixon terms a sense of “anti-art,” where the image was thought to deceive, while the word had the virtue of introducing a clear narrative or message (218). These beliefs sprung from a Protestant perspective, which feared that “the supernatural can never be made manifest in the likeness of a figure” (42). The essential belief behind this statement – that words can communicate more directly than images – remains relevant to this day in British art.

As Graham-Dixon describes it, in the Post-Reformation period, “words did not replace images, they incorporated them in a different way. Language was to summon up all the pictures that had been destroyed” (53). With this, there developed a trend in British art where images became often verbal, and literature, likewise, pictorial. Over time, words shifted from being solely tools employed by religious and political authorities to a significant mode of artistic expression.

This shift becomes most obvious when moving into the eighteenth century, where words and images are twisted in an ironic and satirical fashion to make social commentary and attack authorities, as in the work of Hogarth. Known as “the guilty conscience of the British eighteenth century,” Hogarth’s work is one of the first to reach out of the aristocratic mindset into the public realm and to express a personal view (Graham-Dixon, 95). By delving into wider social and largely middle class concerns, he “[revised] the aesthetic discourse for art with its rejection of low and inappropriate subject matter” (Paulson). Indeed, he insisted on incorporating the imagery and language – the signage – of his time. He depicts the street, which appears as it would have been then with salesmen and women, pub signs, placards and public spots. This way, Hogarth’s work communicated with the public; it facilitated the important process of drawing associations among the images and the words. Indeed, whereas words had previously been about instruction, now the words were more open to “interpretation” and aimed for “the interplay of artist and spectator” (Paulson, 24). With this in mind, “Hogarth brought works of art into the lives of men and women who had never owned or purchased images before…He was the chief pioneer of…a genuinely popular visual art form” (Graham-Dixon, 99).

Hogarth has been a model for many British artists to this day. Of the contemporary British artists that will be discussed, all of them have taken after Hogarth in that they have incorporated language that is accessible, critical of authority and artistic conventions, and frequently satirical. Graham-Dixon claims that “the history of British art after Hogarth cannot be told in quite the same way …It must take account of a growing sense of duty felt by artists to themselves…The lives and struggles of individual British artists will necessarily form a greater part of the story from now on” (103).

Indeed, following the French Revolution, British art and literature took on a more self-expressive form. “The restrictive taste of the aristocracy” was regarded “as a kind of tyranny” and artists “would write in the plain language of plain men,” a desire that still persists today (Graham-Dixon, 104, 130).

The early nineteenth century saw an establishment of ‘the self’ as the main subject among writers and artists. William Wordsworth’s writing attests to this self-centered vision in its sentimental and introspective quality. However, as Graham-Dixon puts it, “Wordsworth’s desire…was to armour his own frail subjectivity by making it appear a monument” (137). We shall later see that artists today likewise verbally express highly personal matters while making their work simultaneously stand for universal concerns.