Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Obama Official Portraits—and Their Artists

On Monday, the Obamas' official contributions to the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery were unveiled. I saw them on Facebook (of course) and thought they were striking, interesting, unusual—especially for official presidential portraits—and kept scrolling. Until I got to Garrison Keillor's pronouncement:
It's a tough assignment, but still. The portraits of Barack and Michelle were such a disappointment. The leafy background was like a department-store ad, not art but decor. And that vast dress with a woman trapped in it who did not resemble the First Lady --- Michelle without the smile is somebody else. The problem with bad art is storage. Bad poems you can recycle; enormous bad paintings require a warehouse. These things cannot ever be thrown out the door. Washington is awash in official art. There ought to be a Bonfire Day, maybe July 4, when it's okay to destroy the stuff.
Well, okay, Garrison: you don't like them. But this attitude rubbed me very much the wrong way. I responded (amid a stream of comments both supporting his statement and pushing back), "When it comes to art, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Whether that makes a work of art good or not is a different matter. I rather enjoy fresh takes on portraiture, especially when seen within the body of the artist's work." Not to mention, Barack and Michelle surely made very (very) careful choices when they selected their official portraitists. They knew the artists, and they knew what sort of legacy they wanted to leave. "Bad" art? I think not.

Anyway, that got me wondering about those "bodies of work" and the artists behind them. I had never heard of Kehinde Wiley (b. 1977) or Amy Sherald (b. 1973). As always, a quick Google search got me an array of colorful examples of their work and plenty of information. Here's a couple of statements by the artists about their portraits (clipped from the Huff Post):
Sherald describe[s] her painting practice as a conceptual one, founded not upon accuracy but imagination. “Once my paintings are complete, the models no longer live in the paintings as themselves,” she told the crowd [at the National Portrait Gallery]. “I see something bigger in them, something more symbolic, an archetype. I paint things I want to see. I paint as a way of looking for myself in the world.” 
And Wiley, who painted a thoughtful-looking Obama against a wall of lush plants—blue lilies for Kenya, jasmine for Hawaii, and chrysanthemums for Chicago:
“There’s a fight going on between him and the plants in the foreground that are trying to announce themselves,” Wiley said of the work. “Who gets to be the star of the show? The story or the man who inhabits the story?” In other words, who will history remember, the man or the myth? The subject or the painting?
(Fuller accounts of Wiley and Sherald, both from the New Yorker, can be found here and here. See also below, following the images, for a statement that Wiley sent to Obama supporters by email.)

There's plenty of commentary out there on the Obama portraits. So I'll leave you with other examples of the artists' work, interleaved. You'll be able to tell who's who. (The Wiley titles, needless to say, are parodic.) I am left feeling impressed both by the artistry and by the deeper metaphors, meanings, and feelings informing these artists' work. I'm glad I now know a little more about them. (Click on the images to view them large on black.)

Willem van Heythuysen (2005)

“Painting is about the world we live in.
Black people live in the world.
My choice is to include them.
This is my way of saying yes to us.” —Kehinde Wiley
Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance) (2016)

“I’m depicting the many people who existed in history
but whose presence was never documented.” —Amy Sherald
Jean de Carondellet III (2013)
Puppet Master (2008)
Mrs. Waldorf Astoria (2012)
Fact was she knew more about them than she knew about herself,
having never had the map to discover what she was like
Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (2016)
The Boy with the Big Fish (2016)
Venus at Paphos (The World Stage: Haiti) (2014)
Pilgrimage of the Chameleon (2016)
Triple Portrait of Charles I (2007)
The Make Believer (Monet's Garden) (2016)
A few days after the unveiling, I received the following statement from Kehinde Wiley (by email via about his portrait. I thought I'd share it.

Over the course of the past year, I have had the life-changing honor of painting President Obama's portrait for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

On Monday, we unveiled it to the world.

I'd like to tell you a bit about it.

In choosing the composition and colors for this painting, I sought to create an allegorical index to President Obama's life story—using key botanicals that reference his personal presence in the world. Jasmine from Hawaii. Chrysanthemums from Chicago. Blue African Lilies from Kenya.

And the nature of the president's pose is not sword-wielding or swashbuckling. It's contemplative. Humble. Open to the world in its possibilities. A man of the people.

As an artist, my practice is the contemporary reinterpretation of painting. I'm inspired by its history, by its mechanical act, and the human stories that can unfold on a physical plane. And what drives me is this notion of a history that is at once welcoming of those human stories—while being dismissive of those that don't correspond to some accepted notion of respectability.

And my aim was to use the universal language of painting to arrive at a much more inclusive commentary of our own collective potential.

The particular honor of being the first African-American painter to paint the first African-American president has been, for me, beyond any individual recognition.

It is bigger than me, and anything I could gain out of this. It presents a whole field of potential for young people—particularly young black and brown kids who might see these paintings on museum walls and see their own potential.

Art can function in practical, descriptive ways—but it can also inspire in so many resounding multiplicities.

That is my hope for this painting.

Thank you.

—Kehinde Wiley

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Tragedy of the Commons

I'm thinking today about the tragedy of the commons, a term coined in 1833 by a Victorian economist, William Forster Lloyd, in reference to unregulated grazing on common lands, and further developed in a 1968 paper by American ecologist and philosopher Garrett Hardin. The abstract for Hardin's paper (available here) goes like this: "The population problem has no technical solution; it requires a fundamental extension in morality." Hear blinking hear. (He is also known for Hardin's First Law of Human Ecology: "We can never do merely one thing. Any intrusion into nature has numerous effects, many of which are unpredictable." Amen.)

I'm thinking about this because on April 16 of this year (or maybe May 11), some 4 million people in the West Cape (think Capetown), South Africa—75 percent of the local population—will no longer receive piped-in water, but instead will have to queue up each day to receive water (25 liters guaranteed—about one-twelfth of what the average American uses) from any of 200 collection points around the area. You can bet that those people are already praying, hard, that the rainy season, which typically begins in May and runs to September, will be a healthy one. But there are no guarantees, especially after three years, so far, of protracted drought. It's a complicated story, which I invite you to read about in the Guardian or National Geographic.

This is NOT the tragedy of the commons:
this is me-me-me ideology
(I found it on a right-wing Austrian website)
Part of the problem has been that for decades water (up to 6,000 liters a month per person) in Capetown was free, so there was no real incentive to use less. Even once the drought hit and the reservoirs started shrinking. That is the tragedy of the commons. As Wikipedia puts it, it is "an economic theory of a situation within a shared-resource system where individual users acting independently according to their own self-interest behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting or spoiling that resource through their collective action." Call it hubris, short-sightedness, greed. Call it human nature. Sadly. And yes, often tragically.

I googled for other examples of the tragedy of the commons, and here's what I came up with (from 

Grand Banks Fisheries

For centuries, these fishing grounds off the coast of Newfoundland were home to an "endless" supply of cod fish. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, advances in fishing technology allowed huge catches. This in turn caused fish populations to drop, forcing fishermen each season to sail ever farther offshore to maintain their large catch sizes. By the 1990s, the Grand Banks fishing industry had collapsed. And by then, it was too late for regulation and management. Today, some scientists doubt the ecosystem will ever recover.

Bluefin Tuna

The bluefin tuna populations in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean today face a similar fate as that of the Grand Banks cod (and of bluefin tuna in the Black and Caspian seas, which have already been fished to extinction). In the 1960s, fishermen realized the tuna populations were in danger, and an International Convention for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) was formed in an effort to manage fish harvesting more sustainably. However, not every nation is a member of the ICCAT or follows the convention’s guidelines; many nations continue to seek profit from large bluefin tuna catches every year without regard for conservation.

Ocean Gyres

"The ocean is an excellent example of a shared resource that can easily be abused and degraded because it’s shared by many different nations. No single authority has the power to pass laws that protect the entire ocean. Instead, each nation manages and protects the ocean resources along its coastlines, leaving the shared common space beyond any particular jurisdiction vulnerable to pollution.
  "Throughout the world’s oceans, garbage has begun to accumulate in the center of circular currents, or gyres. . . . Destruction of ocean ecosystems because of garbage, especially plastic pollutants, is likely to affect every person on the planet as these pollutants cycle through the food chain."

Earth's Atmosphere

"Earth’s atmosphere is another resource that everyone on the planet uses and abuses. Air pollution and greenhouse gases from various industries and transportation increasingly damage this valuable, shared resource.
  "As an example of a tragedy of the commons, the atmosphere offers some hope for a solution: More than once, international agreements have recognized the importance of taking care of the atmosphere. One example is the [1992] Kyoto Protocol, which attempted to bring nations together in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and slowing global climate warming. [And yeah, no, the U.S. never ratified.]

Population Growth

Estimates of population evolution on
different continents between 1950 and 2050
according to the United Nations.
The vertical axis is logarithmic and is
in millions of people.
"Some scientists consider the exponential growth of the human population to be an example of a tragedy of the commons. In this case, the common resource is the planet Earth and all its shared resources. The world’s population has reached a whopping 7 billion individuals.
  "Examining population growth as a tragedy of the commons illustrates that the depletion of common resources isn’t always the result of greed. Just by existing, each person uses water, air, land, and food resources [these qualify as the 'global commons']; splitting those resources among 7 billion people (and counting) tends to stretch them pretty thin."

The rest of the Dummies top ten are
  • the Gulf of Mexico dead zone
  • traffic congestion
  • passenger pigeons
  • groundwater in Los Angeles
  • unregulated logging
Here's that link again, if you'd like to read about them.

As I think about these various problems, I once again condemn our current administration—so-called "government"—for slashing regulations and commitments that protect all of us. We 7 billion earthlings—or even we 325 million Americans—aren't going to be able to make for a healthy planet/country individually: it requires collective intelligence, moral deliberation, action, oversight, and ever ongoing care. Instead, currently, we seem to have a free-for-all based mainly on greed and power. I can't stand it . . .

In any case, I wish all best to Capetown as May 11 approaches. And I wish for a drenching good rainy season. I wish that, metaphorically, for all of us on this earth. But I also, to the depths of my heart, wish for good leadership.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Maori Portraits

Today I went to the De Young Museum in San Francisco, where I saw a stellar exhibition of art—frescoes, figurines, pottery, shell necklaces, carvings—from Teotihuacan (1st century–6th century) and a collection of thirty-one portraits of Māori painted by the Bohemian artist Gottfried Lindauer (1839–1926). There's an excellent website devoted to Lindauer, who worked strictly from photographs, but with imaginative variations when it came to detail.

The portraits, which were often painted after the subject had died, are variously interpreted today. As the above website puts it, "How Lindauer's portraits have been seen, understood and evaluated has . . . varied enormously, depending on their viewers' and owners' views, knowledge and needs, and on the different socio-cultural contexts of use. For many colonial Europeans, the portraits, besides representing supposedly vanishing Māori culture, functioned as ethnographic documents, providing an inventory of Māori physiognomy, moko [skin decoration, or tattoos], dress, artifacts and ornaments. For some settler colonists the portraits may well have been experienced too as kinds of trophy: emblems of settler colonial power over Māori. And subsequently Lindauer's Māori portraits have become valuable commercial commodities, financial instruments that can be profitably bought and sold. . . . For many Māori, especially the families and descendants of the portrayed, the paintings have very different values and meanings. They were and are experienced as embodiments of the presence, spirit and mana [authority, influence] of the person, as links between the past and present, and as taonga [any highly prized thing] that need to be protected, and which also protect people and culture. As the man who made the portraits, Lindauer too was held in high regard."

Here are a few of the portraits, which document "peacemakers and warriors, politicians and diplomats, tour guides and landholders, entrepreneurs and global traders painted between 1874 and 1903." The exhibition had good, thorough write-ups of each individual and the originary photograph when available. I was struck over and over by the deep humanity and spirit of the subjects, as portrayed by Lindauer. (Click on the images to view them large on black.)

Mrs Mihiterina Takamoana, Napier, NZ (1887)
Whetoi Pomare (1896)
Heta Te Haara (1896)
Rangi Topeora (n.d.)
Paora Tuhaere (1895)
Te Paea Hinerangi (1896)

Monday, January 29, 2018

Book Report: The Girl with All the Gifts

1. M. R. Carey, The Girl with All the Gifts (1/28/18)

I have not been reading. I keep picking up books, starting them, and then getting distracted. My pile of half-attempted books is about two feet high. The last book report I made was at the end of September! That is serious not-reading.

But not long ago a friend in my writing group recommended a dystopian futuristic novel, so I dutifully bought it. And the other day, I picked it up. It drew me right in, and before I knew it I was closing the book, all done.

It's also a zombie novel, which I had no clue of when I started. The packaging makes no reference to this detail. You don't really realize it until you're a ways in, and by then I was hooked. I'm not sure I would have attempted it had I known, so I'm just as glad I didn't know. It's a good book: fast paced, well written, with a cluster of (mostly) sympathetic characters.

The story revolves especially around Melanie, a special girl in a special school who, it turns out, is a somewhat arrested zombie (or "hungry," as they are known in this book): she does go into a frenzy when she smells humans, but she is also very intelligent, which true hungries are not—they're just hungry. Melanie is able to use reason, plus such tools as a metal muzzle and handcuffs, to battle this instinctive drive. She is especially motivated by the strong feelings she holds for her teacher, Miss Justineau.

About a third of the way into the story, it becomes one of cross-country flight as Melanie and Miss Justineau, plus a gruff sergeant, a fearful private, and a driven scientist (played by Glenn Close in the upcoming movie, which seems like perfect casting), try to make their way to a haven called Beacon, dodging hungries and feral humans along the way. Plus, they encounter the fungus that caused the zombie disease—itself a beautifully creative imagining.

What I especially enjoyed about the story was the exploration of relationship, as well as the occasional ontological musing. For example: "And then like Pandora [the original 'girl with all the gifts'], opening the great big box of the world and not being afraid, not even caring whether what’s inside is good or bad. Because it's both. Everything is always both. But you have to open it to find that out."

And now that I remember what a pleasure it is to sit with a book, I hereby am launching my Fifty Books project. To be finished by the end of January 2019.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Artist Robert Rauschenberg

Retroactive II (1964)
I've seen Robert Rauschenberg's work before—I know I have. I think of silkscreened photos of astronauts and JFK, overlain by rectangular blocks of solid paint, artistic-political statements evoking the adventurousness and turmoil of the 1960s. But when I scroll through Google images, no single painting jumps out, as in, "Aha, yes, I have seen that one before!" And indeed, there's way (way) more variety in his imagery than I had ever imagined. Maybe I just know his name, and lump him in with those post-expressionist/pop artists like Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Jackson Pollock, Roy Liechtenstein, and leave it at that? Who knows.

At Gemini G.E.L.,
Los Angeles,1969
In any event, today I was schooled in the genius of Robert Rauschenberg (1925– 2008)—the first American artist to win the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale, in 1964—through a fabulous show called "Erasing the Rules" at SFMOMA, which brings together 170 of his works from early in his career in the early 1950s until the end of his life. A pivotal figure in the history of American art, he pushed back at the abstract expressionists and helped give rise to pop art.

One thing that marked his career was a negotiation between the "retinal"—the visual pleasures of tone, color, and subtle detail, which the abstract expressionists spurned—and the conceptual. Another is his exuberant experimentation with the material bases of art, whether paint or pencil, metal or silkscreen; fabric in the form of printers' rags, bedsheets, socks and t-shirts, or beautiful blocks of silk; or the stuff of the cultural world, such as newspapers and magazine photos, which he collaged into multi-layered works of both personal and social commentary.

Untitled (Hotel Bilbao),
ca. 1952
The fact that so much of his work is collage means that you have to see it in person. Sure, that's true of any work of art. But collage holds surprises. He started with simple assemblages from travels in Europe with fellow artist (and, for a time, lover) Cy Twombly. And he continued to experiment, becoming ever more exuberant, irreverent, and radiant.

Monogram, 1959
And then there's the stuffed Angora goat that he encircled with a car tire, which stands on top of reinterpreted Life magazine photographs. 

Rauschenberg studied with Josef Albers at Black Mountain College, where he met composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham and other early innovators, with whom he continued to collaborate and share ideas. Jasper Johns, another lover, was also a close influence.

I won't outline his entire life, but let's just say, I was very moved and inspired by the various turns he took in his approach to his art, by his wild inventiveness, by his productivity and the diversity of his pieces. This man did not stand still, but constantly challenged the very identity of "art" and his own relationship to it.

Here are a few photos I took today. There are probably better images online, but... these are handy. And mine. With some of them, I even took note of their titles and a few details... (As always, click on the images to see them large on black.)

One of the Red paintings, 1953–54 (detail)
Untitled, 1958
Handkerchief, safety pins, chain necklaces,
paint, and pants

Gift for Apollo, 1959
Oil, fragments of pants, necktie, wood, fabric, newspaper, printed
paper, and printed reproductions on wood with metal bucket,
chain, doorknob, L-brackets, metal washer, nail, cement, and
rubber wheels with metal spokes.
This would be an example of what he called "combines"
Autobiography, 1968
16.5 feet high x 4 feet wide
Rosalie/Red Cheek/Temporary Letter/Stock (Cardboard), 1971
One of the earliest works of the Cardboard series, this piece embodies
Rauschenberg's transition from NYC to Captiva Island, Forida. The
use of cardboard, which he described as "a materials of waste and
softness," marked both a radical departure from the glass, metal,
and electronics of his preceding, technological works and a
continuation of his long-held interest in impermanence, variability,
and the subversive potential of mundane materials.

On the far wall are dirty printers' rags that RR placed
between two pieces of printing paper and passed through a
press. Below is a close-up. I loved the way the end of the
rag is outlined in the pressed paper (below).

Mirage (Jammer), 1975
Part of a series of what he called "jammers," employing
silk he brought from India, thread, sometimes some
wood, or even metal teapots
Hiccups, 1978
Solvent transfer and fabric with metal zippers on
handmade paper
"Here snippets of ribbon and fabric intermingle with transfer
images from popular magazines featuring maps, animals,
landscapes, and athletes. The string of colors and pictures
that reels out across the wall is playful and endlessly variable,
as the ninety-seven panels can be unzipped and recombined in any
order each time they are installed. Expansive, improvisational,
and calling for time to view and absorb, Hiccups can be seen as
an extension of Rauschenberg's early interest in
I loved these images, so I'm going to bore you with a few
semi–close-ups. I'd like to go back and spend more
time with this piece.

Alas, I did not record the names of the pieces shown
here and in the next photo.
Except for Untitled (Spread), 1963 (detail below)

Drawing for Dante's 700th Birthday, 1965
Watercolor and gouache on board with silkscreen ink
"This later tribute to Dante [following a set of illustrations of
the Inferno] boils with images of civil unrest, racist posters,
Holocaust victims, and war-ravaged landscapes.... Life
published them under the title 'A Modern Inferno,' calling
out the two astronaut figures that 'stand apart from the earth
like detached witnesses, observing the accelerating force
of dehumanizing machines and the bestiality that threatens
to destroy man.'"
I found this piece incredibly moving, considering that now,
a little over fifty years later, so little seems to have changed...