Sunday, April 23, 2017

Escape at the New Orleans Museum of Art

Japonism is the term used to describe Japanese influence on European art. It flourished in the mid-nineteenth century due to a renewed trade between Japan and the continent following the seclusion era. Artists like Claude Monet with his famous painting The Water Lily-Pond, 1899Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh who collected Japanese prints with his brother Theo, and other Impressionist painters , were inspired by Japanese art.
The New Orleans Museum of Art just opened an exhibition: Regina Scully | Japanese Painting: Inner Journeys featuring works of the local artist presented along selected pieces of the museum's Japanese collection.
At the entrance of the dimly lit Japanese gallery, a red monochrome painting from Regina Scully, The Origins of Dreams, 2017, draws the attention under the title of the show. A wall text introduces the exhibition's brainchild along Mindscape 4, 2017, one of the artist's latest work. The display features Scully's contemporary paintings embedded among Japanese landscapes from the 17th to the 19th century. Scully's "intuitive connection with Asian art" started early in her career as seen in Providence Sketches, 1995, oils on chipboard. Upon reaching the main gallery the visitor is met by a line up of bright paintings, monochromes like Passage, 2012 and Excavation 11, 2009, or with a dominant background color for Mindscape 2 and 3, 2017, blue, orange, yellow, according to emotions and moods. From afar, they share a calligraphic abstract language, spread throughout the canvas without a focal point, allowing the eye to wander. The display which does not follow a chronological order includes Delos, 2012 and Channels, 2013, then three black and brown monochrome paintings from the Navigation series, 2009. According to Rotondo-McCord, curator of the exhibition, these inspired the project due to the analogies found between Scully's techniques, use of perspectives, space, colors, and Japanese art. Across, three paintings are in striking contrast with their vivid colors. From the Mindscape series, they were composed following Scully's exposure to hundreds of works from the Japanese collection. With the same graphic qualities than earlier paintings, they integrate new techniques like paint applied directly on the canvas with the fingertips and experiment with horizontal formats influenced by handscrolls. Near the exit, Cosmographia, 2015, a multicolored composition on a white background which could be qualified as semi-abstract, belongs to the museum's permanent collection. 

A disclaimer in the introductory wall text makes it clear: the exhibition is not about comparing Scully's paintings and Japanese landscapes. Van Gogh's direct inspiration from Japanese prints, especially Hiroshige's, was the subject of a didactic exhibition at the Pinacotheque in Paris in 2013. Each of his paintings was matched with a Japanese scene. Here, Scully's paintings are displayed in the gallery to present the contemporary artist's work in light of traditional Eastern art, allowing the visitor to wander back and forth, following the path of a quiet Japanese garden to the top of a mountain or meandering in one of Scully's busy compositions. She characterizes the different scenes as "puzzles" put together to create a journey which becomes a personal adventure for each viewer. Of course, one cannot avoid comparing the works. Scully's medium, acrylic on canvas or board, brings a different texture sometimes difficult to appreciate behind the glass. Her compositions which appear abstract at first veer to figurative when looked at closer as opposed to the idealized figurative Japanese scenery turning into abstract, but the tension between abstract and figurative is more palpable in Scully's works. Japanese landscapes are restful, quiet, serene and Scully's "scapes" are restless, chaotic, reflecting a different world. The subdued fragile colors of Japanese paintings are replaced by yellows, oranges, reds, greens,..., becoming brighter in her Mindscapes series. Moving on from her monochrome series, she now favors multicolored compositions. Just a reminder, monochrome was born from calligraphy in the East, centuries ago as described in the introduction of the book Monochromes: from Malevich to the Present written by Barbara Rose. If  human subjects appear secondary in the Japanese scenes, Scully's are filled with life, telling myriads of stories. Both are about our relationship with nature.
The exhibition generates an ongoing conversation.  

photographs by the author:

Mindscape 5, 2017
Mindscape 3, 2017 (detail)
Mindscape 2, 2017

Thursday, April 6, 2017

In Search of Beauty and Happiness

A random encounter with a work from Agnes Martin at the occasion of a gallery or museum visit can be a lost opportunity. Time and background knowledge about the artist and her body of work are essential to appreciate the austere compositions. In the spirit, my latest reading is Agnes Martin, a book published at the occasion of the retrospective exhibition of her work at the Tate Modern in 2015. It includes abundant photographs, excerpts from the artist's writings and thirteen essays scattered throughout the monograph edited by the co-curators Frances Morris and Tiffany Bell.

Following the introduction which defines the breadth of the exhibition, assembling works from the early to the late period of Agnes Martin's career, a biography also written by Tiffany Bell provides a concurrent history of  the artist's life and of the evolution of her art, on a background of poverty and mental illness. Frances Morris  introduces the artist's work in light of the abstract expressionist movement and of her interaction with her peers. Christina Bryan Rosenberger who wrote "Drawing the Line", a book concentrating on the early works from Martin, contributes a short piece about Islands No.4, 1961, while historian and art critic Richard Tobin explores the whole series. Rachel Barker, Tate's Paintings Conservator, presents a detailed technical analysis of Morning, 1965 and Marion Ackermann comments on Untitled #5, 1998. In her essay "In Pursuit of the Neutral: Agnes Martin's Shimmering Line", Anna Lovatt discusses the contribution of Agnes Martin to the Graphic Art and Briony Fer, her use of geometric shapes in "Who's Afraid of Triangles?". The slow discovery of Martin's works in Europe is described by Maria Mȕller-Schareck, starting with a first painting shown in Zurick in 1960. A collection of portraits selected by Lena Fritsch accompanied by informative comments, sheds some light on the artist's personal life. It includes photographs by  Diane ArbusAnnie Leibovitz and Hans Namuth. Agnes Martin's spiritual influences are approached by Jacquelynn Baas, author of Smile of the Buddha and the German artist Rosemarie Trockel contributes a short poem.
Agnes Martin's writings provide a glimpse into her inner life and the sources of her inspiration. Selected excerpts enrich the reproductions of her works. For example, On a Clear Day, 1973, a Portfolio of 30 screenprints, is introduced by a short quote:
"Art work that is completely abstract - free from any expression of the environment is like music and can be responded to in the same way. Our response to line and tone and color is the same as our response to sounds. And like music abstract art is thematic. It holds meaning for us that is beyond expression in words."... Agnes Martin, (October 15, 1975)
She also expresses her thoughts about art in the essay "Beauty is the Mystery of Life", 1989.
More quotes are found in the book:
"When you find out what you like, you're really finding about yourself... people who look at my painting say that it makes them feel happy like the feeling when you wake up in the morning - And happiness is the goal isn't it?"
" My paintings have neither objects, nor space, nor time, nor anything - no forms"
And to conclude, on the back of the book's jacket: "Beauty is the mystery of life. It is not in the eye, it is in my mind."
Through the essays from scholars, the book offers different perspectives on Agnes Martin's sometimes esoteric work. Ultimately, the artist herself provides the key to her legacy, result of a lifelong search for beauty and happiness.

illustrations: photographs from Tate's website copyright Estate of Agnes Martin 

"Morning", 1965
"Happy Holiday", 1999
"Untitled", 1965