Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Faces of Work

John Sonsini, Luis, Nelson, Adolfo, Geovani, Ramiro, 2005, oil on canvas 82 x 120 inches.

Given the hot-button issue of immigration and politics these days, I wanted to mention an excellent article in the December 2005 issue of Art in America by Michael Duncan: "The Faces of Work." Duncan's essay is a review of paintings by Los Angeles artist John Sonsini.

From the article:

Seemingly coming from left field, Los Angeles artist John Sonsini has given new vigor to the traditional practice of painting portraits from the model. His subjects are not political leaders, celebrities or affluent families but Latino day laborers, whom he quickly, skillfully renders in exuberant strokes of oil paint. Stoked by intuition, as well as by insights gained from conversations with his subjects, Sonsini acknowledges his sitters' individuality. Never reductive or invasive, he captures body language and highlights details of clothing and appearance that hint at the emotional lives of immigrant workers who remain largely invisible in the economic and social currents of the city.

How did Sonsini select his subjects? Here is one anecdote:

For six days a week throughout February 2005, Sonsini painted portraits in the outdoor parking lot of the Hollywood Community Job Center, home to an agency that helps laborers find employment. Each day, after the construction jobs had been assigned, one man among those left behind was selected by lottery and paid $60 to sit for a portrait. That painting would be completed in one marathon session lasting three to five hours.

The act of painting, start to finish, right there in the community had a profound impact on Sonsini:

In the studio, the painting has the authority of a 'work of art.' But under the awning, with fifteen men watching and commenting as I paint their friend, with an auto shop behind me, a little weight training going on in the other corner, sometimes a barbeque, and dozens of men milling about, well ... the painting loses all that authority. It is, without a doubt, 'a painting,' and could not be mistaken for anything else. It was terrific to find that happening.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Heirloom, jug donated to museum

Wayne Ford's article in yesterday's "Living" section of the Athens Banner-Herald:

Cheever Meaders, who died in 1967, helped establish the Meaders name as folk potters in North Georgia. He is a distant kin of Dr. Roy Ward of Watkinsville, who owns a face jug made by Meaders that was handed down through his family.

The face jug recently was donated to the University of Georgia Museum of Art.

The following is an excerpt from an essay Ward wrote on the jug.

"When young Cheever Meaders in North Georgia gave his syrup jug joke to his young cousins, Clyde and Bonnie Meaders in Watkinsville, none of them expected it would ever become valued art in a prestigious museum. But the little jug that sat for over 50 years on a mantel piece and was laughed at, was the prototype for other face jugs, turned out by Cheever's descendants and, in time, most of the other folk potters in the area.

"This whimsical early jug is different from all the later ones. Cheever took his ordinary jug, still wet from the potter's wheel, and altered it. It is a true jug. The face part is secondary. For its eyes and teeth he broke up pieces of white quartz. He set pieces of molded clay for eyelids, nose and ears; the ears being identical to the shapes used for handles on churns.

"The other jugs made much later have been primarily faces, and only incidentally jugs. They are in a fashion to be collected, very different from Cheever's little private joke.

"This prototype jug was made in the 1920s and was never out of the family until it was donated to the Georgia Museum of Art."

In Charles Mack's book, "Talking with the Turners," Cheever Meader's son, Lanier, said his father probably made less than a dozen face jugs during his lifetime. Lanier Meaders made large quantities of the jugs.

Mr. Ford also ran a story on/review of Prof. Charles Mack's book Talking with the Turners: Conversations with Southern Folk Potters.

Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery Set to Re-Open

Two Smithsonian museums re-open this weekend after a 6-1/2-year renovation. They will now each be a part of the "Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture." The website is [here]. Celebration details for the re-opening are [here].

The New York Times coverage [here]. Washington Post coverage [here] and [here].

The National Portrait Gallery will feature the re-installation of "America's Presidents": "The nation’s only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House, this exhibition lies at the heart of the Portrait Gallery’s mission to tell the American story through the individuals who have shaped it. Visitors will see an enhanced and extended display of multiple images of 42 presidents of the United States, including Gilbert Stuart’s 'Lansdowne' portrait of George Washington, the famous 'cracked plate' photograph of Abraham Lincoln and whimsical sculptures of Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush by noted caricaturist Pat Oliphant. Presidents Washington, Andrew Jackson, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt will be given expanded attention because of their significant impact on the office."

The debates have begun about content, meaning, inclusion and exclusion in both museums. I'll watch as those debates play out. But I did like the comment by Elizabeth Broun, director of the American Art Museum, in the Times article: "Art is not always about pretty things. It's about who we are, what happened to us and how our lives are affected."

Photograph: Andrew Councill for The New York Times.
The National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum, home to Thomas Hart Benton's "Achelous and Hercules," reopen on Saturday in Washington.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Books on American art

Frequently, museum staff gets asked by students and museum docents for book recommendations ... "I want to read more about American art. What should I go and buy?"

Most curators possess very long, extensive reading lists, but that can be overwhelming for the person with interest but who tries not to live American art 24/7. They really want me to suggest a book, not 200-plus.

This brief list focuses on 19th century American art.

Here are three books that are likely on the shelves of American art scholars, but are written in ways that make them easily accessible to a person with just an interest in art topics. They make good, entertaining reading ...

Sarah Burns, Painting the Dark Side: Art and the Gothic Imagination in Nineteenth-Century America
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004)

A book about alcoholism, murder, grave-robbing, slave revolt, drugs, sex, family secrets, female temptresses/monsters and … art. Professor Sarah Burns discusses the gothic pattern in American paintings and its parallels to the gothic strain in American literature. She presents the biographies of landscape painter Thomas Cole and genre painter/outsider David Gilmour Blythe and their images of nature and urban spaces, respectively. Other chapters deal with the racial fears and fantasies of Washington Allston, John Quidor, and William Rimmer. Burns then presents the imaginative, gothic realism of Thomas Eakins, and fantasies of Albert Pinkham Ryder and Elihu Vedder.

John Davis, The Landscape of Belief: Encountering the Holy Land in Nineteenth-Century American Art and Culture
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996)

John Davis focuses on the nineteenth-century American painters – especially James Fairman and Frederic Church - who, along with archaeologists, evangelists, photographers, tourists, and writers, visited in biblical Holy Land. Using biblical associations, American painters (as part of the larger culture) and other visitors looked at the landscape of the Holy Land as an extension of American identity.

Elizabeth Johns, American Genre Painting: The Politics of Everyday Life
(New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1991)

Elizabeth Johns studies American genre painting – scenes of “everyday life” … rustic dances, horse trading, farmers resting, cider making, etc. – and reads the images in terms of pre-Civil War American politics. Paintings by George Caleb Bingham, William Sidney Mount, Lilly Martin Spencer, and others reflect the social, religious, ethnic and political issues of antebellum America.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Picasso and War

In an article where some of the themes relate to our George Bellows exhibition at the Georgia Museum of Art, Alan Riding in the New York Times reviews "Picasso: Tradition and Avant-Garde." The Picasso exhibition runs through early September, and is uniquely installed in two major spaces: the Prado and the Reina Sofía Museum, Madrid's principal gallery for modern and contemporary art.

This section of Mr. Riding's Picasso review is especially relevant for the themes in our Bellows show:

In the Reina Sofía, which recently added a modern annex designed by Jean Nouvel to its 18th-century quarters in a former hospital, it is "Guernica" that holds court. This vast oil was painted in Paris in May and June 1937, immediately after the April 27 bombing of the Spanish Basque city of Guernica by the German Luftwaffe caused widespread destruction and death.

A fierce denunciation of Nazi Germany's support for Franco's forces in the Spanish Civil War, the painting was displayed in the Spanish Republic's pavilion at the 1937 World's Fair in Paris and was sent on tour to raise funds for the Republican cause. When Germany occupied France in 1940, "Guernica" was in the United States. Because Picasso decreed that it could go to Spain only after Franco's death, it remained — except for some trips to Europe — at the Museum of Modern Art in New York until 1981.

Accompanying the Reina Sofía's show are some 50 preparatory drawings for "Guernica," many of them depicting Picasso's famous weeping women (although no weeping woman actually appears in "Guernica"). But at the heart of this display, in what almost resembles a shrine, are four major works: "Guernica" faces Goya's "Third of May 1808 in Madrid: The Executions on Príncipe Pío," and Manet's "Execution of Emperor Maximilian" looks out at Picasso's "Massacre in Korea."

Picasso's protest against American killings of civilians in the Korean War borrows its composition from Manet's large painting, while the central figure in Goya's work — a man in a white shirt throwing his arms in the air in despair — also appears in a stylized form in "Guernica." Yet these considerations seems less important than the emotional impact of bringing these paintings together.

They are art, but they speak about humanity.

images: Musée Picasso, Paris, top; Kunsthalle Mannheim, bottom.
At top, in a Spanish retrospective of Picasso, his "Massacre at Korea" is being shown at the Reina Sofía with "Guernica" and other antiwar works, including, above, Manet's "Execution of Emperor Maximilian."

Thursday, June 08, 2006

PodGuide: George Bellows

In trying to keep up with the "Big, Big Museums," the Georgia Museum of Art has entered the 21st Century.

We have a podguide.

This podguide is a 17-minute tour of the exhibition - Let Loose Upon Innocence: George Bellows and World War - here at the museum.

Ideally, you download the audio tour to your iPod or your mp3 player, bring it into the museum and listen to a curator give you a tour while you visit the galleries. Feel free to listen to it anywhere.

The museum is very, very thankful the University of Georgia's New Media Institute agreed to assist with the technology and to host the podguide.

The museum's web page for podguides is [here].

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The American Scene and O Brother, Where Art Thou?

In "O Brother Where Art Thou?," set in rural Mississippi of the 1930s, Joel and Ethan Coen build upon Southern mythology, traditions and culture for their movie. But American artists of the 1930s and 1940s themselves created images based upon the history, landscape, and people of the American South. These painters focused on many of the Southern themes central to the Coen's development of those same ideas in "O Brother": poverty, the chain gang, the blues, floods, baptisms, lynching and many others.

Today, the term “Regionalist” or “American scene” painter includes artists “loyal” to their respective regions, including the South. These painters studied art in the major metropolitan areas of the United States, typically New York City or Chicago, or went abroad, most often to Paris, and then returned to their “homes.” Artists active in the Midwest (most famously, Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton), the Northeast and the South inclined toward strong identification with their home locales. The South also held particular interest for "traveling" artists from other regions or on projects from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal.

Regionalism is strongly associated with the ideals of the New Deal and the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Artists like Benton, Wood and John Steuart Curry became nationally-known through their images of rural, local culture and its traditional values ... concerns now commonly associated with the Regionalist movement. The backing of powerful art critics like Peyton Boswell Jr. and Thomas Craven, the interest of magazines like Time, Life and The Art Digest and the support of federal art programs aided the success of regionalist painters during the era. Seen in retrospect, regionalist painters emerged in all sections of the country, painted a broad range of subjects and used a wide range of aesthetic styles. Hence, regionalism refers to an art, created in the era of the Great Depression, which imparts personal responses to a given region, yet transcends regional boundaries to comment on the nation as a whole.

The postbellum South, still largely agricultural (with cotton as its major crop), was beset by poverty and poor health conditions in rural areas. These issues were then simply magnified by the Great Depression. Segments of the South's culture and its communities became prime subjects for social documentation and artistic expression. Many artists also confronted the random and wanton lynching of blacks - the subject of an "O Brother" scene - via shocking paintings and prints.

The 1930s artists fashioned politically-charged images designed to protest against the unlawful activity. The Coens, using the wicked witch from The Wizard of Oz, instead poke fun at the racists:

Homer Stokes: [as Grand Kleagle at a KKK rally] And our women, let's not forget those ladies, y'all. Looking to us for protection! From darkies, from Jews, from papists, and from all those smart-ass folks say we come descended from monkeys!

Meanwhile, baptism and flood imagery were related for artists of the Great Depression, and the Coens touch on the same motifs as well in "O Brother":

Pete: The Preacher said it absolved us.
Ulysses Everett McGill: For him, not for the law. I'm surprised at you, Pete, I gave you credit for more brains than Delmar.
Delmar O'Donnell: But they was witnesses that seen us redeemed.
Ulysses Everett McGill: That's not the issue Delmar. Even if that did put you square with the Lord, the State of Mississippi's a little more hard-nosed.

The theme of maintaining faith despite seemingly insurmountable odds serves as an underpinning for images about floods - with all their biblical and classical associations - during the 1930s. For the Coens in "O Brother," as for these 1930s painters of the rural Midwest and South, water operates as a symbol of cataclysmic change and redemption. Self-taught (folk) artists, like Clementine Hunter, continued the Southern interest in baptismal images and the importance of religion via their mid-to-late 20th century images.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Exhibit of works by Bellows shows atrocities of war

An article, by Julie Phillips in the Athens Banner-Herald, on our summer exhibitions.

Exhibit of works by Bellows shows atrocities of war
By Julie Phillips
Sunday, May 28, 2006

'Let Loose Upon Innocence" is, as its title suggests, an exhibition whose work has little mercy on its viewers - an echo of the senseless way in which war has little mercy on its victims.

We see civilians, naked and helpless, used by soldiers as human barricades; evil-faced men reaching toward a young woman as she cowers in terror, her family dead at her feet; the horror on faces of people in a small village as they fall in the midst of a massacre.

Somewhat unlike the footage we've become accustomed to, there is, in this collection of works by American artist George Bellows (1882-1925) currently on display at the Georgia Museum of Art, an unexpected sense of immediacy and intensity that shakes us as viewers.

The works - five oil paintings (two are not included in this exhibit) and 15 lithographs, along with two other paintings - were created by Bellows in a single astonishingly prolific year, 1918. They represent the artist's reaction to true accounts of German atrocities committed against Belgian civilians during World War I as detailed in the New York Times' 1915 publication of the "Bryce Committee's Report on Deliberate Slaughter of Belgian Non-Combatants."

Exhibit curator Paul Manoguerra notes Bellows, whose political leanings were evident throughout his career, was a professed socialist, but in a stance that went against his peers - and indeed would seem nearly contradictory regarding his depictions of the seeming senselessness of battle - advocated the United States' involvement in the war.

It was, Manoguerra says, a case of justifiable war for Bellows, considering the atrocious acts committed against innocent people.

"Up until the British began area bombing in World War II, the idea of waging war on civilians was against the rules of warfare," Manoguerra says. "And the shocking nature of these stories coming out of Belgium was what inspired Bellows enough to create these works."

The exhibit is the result of a loan to the museum of a particularly stunning painting by Bellows, "The Return of the Useless," described by GMOA director William Eiland in the exhibition catalog as "a work of genius." It depicts Belgians, used as slave labor, being returned by Germans to their hometowns, broken, sickened, weak and useless - essentially left to die.

Manoguerra put together the rest of the show around this piece, with the other works coming from the museum's own collection or lent from other museums.

While it's easy to draw comparisons to contemporary events - indeed to any war - Manoguerra says the intent of the show was simply to contextualize "The Return of the Useless" in Bellows' career.

And, despite the grim nature of the exhibit, there is some hope for its viewers. Presiding over the gallery are two paintings created by Bellows shortly after the close of WWI at the end of 1918. Each grand-scale piece depicts a nurse, bathed in luminous rays that shine down from the heavens as doves hover overhead. In each case she clasps the hands of a soldier. In the same way the rest of the show is Bellows' indictment of war, these works would seem the artist's indictment - or at least preference for - peace.

But the mission of the exhibit is clear, as Manoguerra says, referencing the show's title.

"As viewers, people are coming into the exhibit with a level of innocence, and the expectation that art is (always) beautiful ... this lets loose Bellows on you and shocks you out of the idea that art is always pleasant."

Photograph: George Bellows, The Return of the Useless, 1918. Oil on canvas, 59 inches x 66 inches. On loan from a charitable foundation.