Realism

Discovering Hyman Bloom by Jeannine Cook

Whether it is depicting a “Still Life with Squashes”, a synagogue chandelier, rocks or stones, dissected cadavers, fishes, brides, wrestlers or elderly women, Hyman Bloom is a masterly painter and draughtsman who achieved a high level of success in his adopted home of Boston. He has been “overlooked” in recent years, but his work is well worth seeking out - you will marvel at it.

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No Boundaries for Art by Jeannine Cook

As I spent a magical morning in the Ridola Archaeological Museum in Matera, South Italy, last summer, I was enthralled by the freshness and complexity of many of the images on the Greek ceramic vessels on display. Since the Greeks had been coming to Southern Italy since the 10th century BC, huge numbers of ceramics have been found, often totally intact, in different archaeological digs in the area. Some of the pieces were imported from Greece, but many were created in Italy. 

 Detail from a Greek vase, Apulia, Italy, 4th century BC

 Detail from a Greek vase, Apulia, Italy, 4th century BC

Red figure Greek pottery, Matera

Red figure Greek pottery, Matera

As I wandered, entranced, I remembered reading that many ancient Greeks, such as art critic and writer Philostatus, thought of art as a continuation of our world, the space within which we live and breathe. There were no boundaries between art and the world; the figures existing in contemporary art or on the pottery surfaces  might have been imaginary, but they were as real to the Greeks as film characters are real and believable to us today as we watch a film. In other words, art was viewed as an extension of reality. No wonder so many of the figures, fish, birds and other creatures in dynamic movement around those red-figure vessels I was seeing in Matera seemed so arresting.

Three sea-perch and three limpets. Apulian red-figured fish-plate, ca. 340–320 BC.

Three sea-perch and three limpets. Apulian red-figured fish-plate, ca. 340–320 BC.

That long heritage, from the Greeks and from earlier artists working on cave walls, rock faces, in Mesopotamia, China, India or Egypt, has always involved realism in some fashion. Art has blurred the boundaries between the  imagined world, the depicted world and the real world; man has always expected the viewer to have "leaps of faith".  Today, artists grapple with the same issues. What a visual artist sees and experiences gets distilled and translated into images that go beyond the range of verbal description.

Noted artist Michael Klein was quoted as saying, "Painting realistically is a means to an end." What he is interested in creating is the visual image that was the basis for the feelings he wants to express - the boundaries of reality and art flow through the artist's brain and hand in seamless fashion. Developing a visual language implies that an artist looks hard and learns to see things for what they really are.  

In the same way, according to sculptor and artist, Lee Ufan of Korea,  boundaries between art and reality can be eliminated by "allowing the relationship among the viewer, the materials and the site to stand in for the experience of art" (Alexandra Munroe, Guggenheim curator, writing in Art & Auction, May 2010). Ufan  makes the art object "disappear" so that the art becomes "a fluid and dynamic event occurring in real time and space".

Ufan talks of "the art of encounter". Mankind has been blurring the lines between reality and the art encountered since time immemorial.

"Crossed Gazes" by Jeannine Cook

Obra Social "La Caixa", the cultural foundationbelonging to the Spanish bank, La Caixa, offers wonderful, often thought-provoking art exhibitions in its different venues throughout Spain.  In CaixaForum Palma, in the Balearic Islands, there is an interesting exhibition currently on display, "Crossed Gazes".

It is a selection of works owned by La Caixa Foundation and the MACBA Foundation from Barcelona. Realistic art from the 1950s and 60s is juxtaposed with abstract work from the 1980s and 90s. Theshow uses paintings, some sculpture and photographs to examine how artists saw the world during those decades and how they chose to express what they felt about their realities. There are works by artists as varied as Sigmund Polke and Anselm Kiefer, Joan Miro, Henri Michaux, Antoni Tapies or Philip Guston, Jean Dubuffet or Edouardo Chillida.Many photographs were included, often black and white (Brassai, Robert Frank or Xavier Miserachs for the earlier decades) and in colour, usually of huge format for the later decades (Andreas Gursky, Hiroshi Sugimoto or Thomas Struth amongst others).

I personally found the title of the exhibition a little ironic, as my reactions to the art, as I walked through the rooms, were those of someone with a personal set of "crossed gazes".  It so happened that the previous day, I had spent a magical day by myself in the countryside, working plein air, drawing and marvelling at the complex, expansive beauty of the countryside and the amazing abstractions within the natural world around me.  Abstractions of form in trees and their bark, the lay of the land, types of stones and their patterns – things which I found fascinating to observe.

Consequently, when I walked into the CaixaForum exhibition the following day and began to look hard at the works of art on display, I found myself getting almost claustrophobic.  The massive paintings of the  80s and 90s, the Kiefer, the Miquel Barcelo or the one by Juan Usle, bore down on me in a way I had not expected - they seemed airless and pretentious.  This surprised me as I usually find that particularly Barcelo's and Anselm Kiefer's work interest and often move me.  My reaction made me realise afresh that large paintings are not my favourite format - I relate far more comfortably to work of "human" size, works that are more intimate and draw one in to a closer look.  I think that we have been, and still are, living in an era when public spaces have required huge works of art, and somehow the intensity of such work is diluted and lost. My personal gaze finds that art on a smaller scale is often a far greater test of quality and veracity - bombast can cover a lot of sins, verbally or in art.

My disappointment - at myself especially - continued when I went on to the rooms covering the 50s and 60s.  There, the art was indeed of a more human scale, often quite small in size.  The photographs were full of impact, and also of historic interest, of course.  Nonetheless, the abstract art seemed a little disassociated from anything that I could relate to today; gone - thankfully - is the angst that the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War generated in artists who were striving to distance themselves from those particular awful realities.  There was, nonetheless, a feeling of almost desperate creativity in the work that seemed almost forced, a "we have got to do something totally different from anything done before" feeling.  In a way, that is always a sub-text of each decade in the art world - we all strive to be different and innovative.  However, the overall effect of my "crossed gazes" was somewhat depressing in that all these talented artists' works were just not "talking to me" that day!  

Philip Guston,  Untitled  (1968). and  Tower  (1968)

Philip Guston, Untitled (1968). and Tower (1968)

Philip Guston,

Yet there were truths in some of the work that resonate constantly.  One commentary, of three 1967 ink on paper drawings by Philip Guston - Mark, Edge and Horizon, interested me. They were very minimalist lines on paper, like the ones illustrated above, to some extent. However, the curator's commentary for them ran as follows (in Spanish and a mixture with my English translation):

La materia misma de la pintura - su pigmento y su espacio - se resiste mucho a la voluntad, se siente muy poco inclinado a reafirmar su plano y permanecer inmovil.  La pintura parece una imposibilidad, solamente con un signo de su propria luz de vez en cuando.  Lo cual seguramente se debe al estrecho pasaje entre el diagramar y ese otro estado, la corporeidad.  En este sentido, pintar es poseer, mas que imaginar.

The very essence of painting - its pigment and space - is so resistant to the will, so inclined to assert its plane and remain still.  Painting seems an impossibility, with only a sign now and then of its own light.  Which must be because of the short passage from being a diagram to that other state - taking physical shape. In this sense, to paint is to possess rather than to imagine. 

Concepts to ponder as I sort out my gaze from the "Crossed Gazes" of the exhibition.  Perhaps it means a return visit to the CaixaForum!