Category Archives: Art Meditation

Thursday Thoughts: Looking at Julie Mehretu’s “Mogamma II”

Mogamma II, Julie Mehretu, 2012, 180"x144"

Mogamma II, Julie Mehretu, 2012, 180″x144″ (Be sure to click on image and scroll through the amazing complexity of the marks)

The above image is the second of Julie Mehretu’s Mogamma, A Painting in Four Parts. These four paintings were created around the time of the Arab Spring and consist of a complex web of gestural marks and vector lines overlaying technical wireframe drawings of Al-Mogamma (a government building in Tahir Square, Cairo). Mogamma is also the Arab word for “collective.”

All four paintings hung together to give you an idea of scale.

All four paintings hung together to give you an idea of scale.

Like most art, Mehretu’s paintings diminish when not seen in person. Much of the meaning of her work lies in experiencing these complex images at their massive scale and being unable to take in their entirety at once. They read one way from a distance, but as the viewer approaches they must select a portion of the image to examine more closely. Because it is physically impossible to see everything at once, the viewer must slow down and allow their eye to explore and discover the painting. Each person will see something slightly different as no two people will examine it in quite the same way. As Mark Godfrey said, “viewers have to abandon the desire to fully master what they see.”

Mogamma II, detail

Mogamma II, detail

In writing about Mehretu’s work Richard Shiff said, “The culture is complex, contradictory, and commodious; for better or worse, it tolerates extremes of opposition, assimilating diverse impulses, nevertheless avoiding collapse. To navigate a hyperculture of this sort requires a hyperimage, a perspective far more complex than a map of eighteenth-century trade routes…” I think what I find so fascinating about Mehretu’s work is the way in which her paintings function as hyperimages that juxtapose our perspective of chaotic experience with the suggestion of an underlying order. Her paintings are models and metaphors for a way of thinking about culture and reality.

Mogamma II, detail.

Mogamma II, detail.

“I think architecture reflects the machinations of politics, and that’s why I am interested in it as a metaphor for those institutions. I don’t think of architectural language as just a metaphor about space, but about spaces of power, about ideas of power.” – Julie Mehretu

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The Spiritual in Abstract Art

Wassily Kandinsky is commonly credited with being the first painter to venture wholly into the realm of abstract art. However, Swedish artist Helga af Klint was making abstract paintings in 1906, while Kandinsky did not abandon recognizable imagery until 1910. [1] Her abstract works were not shown until twenty years after her death, as stipulated in her will. She did not believe her contemporaries were ready to appreciate their full meaning.

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John 1:1-5 Illuminated by Makoto Fujimura

In the Beginning

In the Beginning by Makoto Fujimura

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

I was reading from the Four Holy Gospels this morning and was utterly captivated by this painting. I can’t think of a work of art that more beautifully suggests the pre-creation void and the theology of Christ being the physical manifestation of God through which creation was made. When I look at this painting I feel like I am looking into the depths of a void swirling with the raw matter of the universe, waiting to be solidified by the Word of God. Even in that formless void there is beauty, light, glory, and the promise of blood to be spent for our salvation.

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The Tate Modern

The Tate Modern

The Tate Modern

I recently had the opportunity to visit the Tate Modern in London. I didn’t have as much time to wander around and contemplate the art as I would have liked, but I was able to make several observations:

I. I discovered the “missing link” between realism and abstraction-Monet’s paintings. 

Monet: Water-Lilies. If one saw this painting without knowing who it was by or the typical subject matter of Money they could easily assume it was simply an abstract painting.

Monet: Water-Lilies. On a screen the subject matter of this painting becomes more obvious. However, stand in front of it as it stretches from wall to wall and it becomes easy to forget that it’s a painting of Monet’s water-lilies and to get lost in the abstract texture, color and form.

Some abstract artists work in a way that highlights the beauty of texture, color, and form without obviously referencing the visual world we are familiar with. This becomes a stumbling block to many viewers who have difficulty seeing the craft or level of care put into such paintings because they are looking for the world they know. However, paintings like the above serve as a reminder that the beauty of nature is abstract. Trees, mountains, sunsets, etc. are not beautiful because they look like themselves, but because of their forms, colors, and textures. Monet and the other impressionists began paving the way for abstraction by seeking to depict the beauty of the world in a way that would help their audience see with fresh eyes.

II. The Tate used a combination of past and modern art to help viewers understand what they were seeing and to show them how to approach the art. 

Understanding art requires an understanding of each movement’s place in art history. Art works derive some of their significance from their location in history. In several exhibits the Tate would provide examples of past art that influenced modern artists to help viewers better understand some of the artistic decisions the artists had made.

Rothko greatly admired Turner's work, particularly his later paintings, which are pared back to be almost pure evocations of light and mood.

Mark Rothko greatly admired the work J.M.W. Turner’s. Particularly his later paintings which are pared back to be almost pure evocations of light and mood.

No. 8 by Mark Rothko

No. 8 by Mark Rothko

Black on Maroon by Mark Rothko

Black on Maroon by Mark Rothko

III. My favorite painting at the Tate, and the one I felt was the most visually striking, was Max Ernst’s “The Entire City.”

I know some artists and critics who balk at the idea of picking a favorite work of art after visiting a museum. My art education helps me to appreciate and understand art that I may not like, but I still gravitate towards work that I find beautiful or attractive. It is human nature to categorize things based on our personal preference, and there’s nothing wrong with that as long as one can move past that and see the merit in work they may not like.

The Entire City by Max Ernst. Ernst used a technique called Grattage in which we would place a canvas over a rough surface and scrape paint across it to create rich textures.

The Entire City by Max Ernst. Ernst used a technique called Grattage in which we would place a canvas over a rough surface and scrape paint across it to create rich textures.

IV. The more contemporary the art, the less information or explanation accompanies it. 

One thing that frustrated me was the lack of information on contemporary art pieces. This was all the more irritating because most of the art from more than twenty years ago had a paragraph or two to help viewers understand the work better. Famous paintings which many viewers likely would have learned about in school were still accompanied by basic explanations. Yet the more contemporary work, which the average viewer would likely have no familiarity with, would frequently lack any kind of conceptual framework or title.

V. Art that illuminates music- Gerhard Richter’s Cage paintings. (Description taken from Tate exhibit)

“Richter’s monumental Cage paintings were completed in 2006 and first exhibited at the 2007 Venice Biennale. Like his earlier squeegee abstractions, they are the outcome of several layers of painting and erasure. Their surfaces are animated by lines where the squeegee has paused, by brushstrokes, other scrapings, and areas where the skin of oil paint has dried and rippled. Cage 1 with its soft lateral striations evokes the surface of a gently running river; in Cage 2 a veil of grey covers autumnal yellows like a thin mist; in Cage 3 grey paint seems much more material recalling the coarse surface of a concrete wall. Deep reds dominate the upper and lower section of Cage 4 and are more concealed in Cage 5Cage 6has the greatest chromatic range but there is still a sense of understatement and muted light.

Richter was listening to the music of John Cage while he worked on these paintings and titled them after the composer. He has long been interested in Cage’s ideas about ambient sound and silence, and has approvingly quoted his statement ‘I have nothing to say and I am saying it’. Richter is also drawn to Cage’s rejection of intuition as well as total randomness, planning his compositions through structures and chance procedures. While there are no direct links between any particular work in this series and any composition by Cage, some critics have suggested affinities between the two figures’ approaches and between the constant flux in Cage’s music and the space created by Richter’s paintings.”

Cage 4 by Gerhard Richter

Cage 4 by Gerhard Richter

V. Whenever I visit at museum or gallery I make a list of artists I want to research later. 

The Corridor by  Maria Helena Vieira da Silva

The Corridor by Maria Helena Vieira da Silva

Crucifixion by F.N. Souza

Crucifixion by F.N. Souza

Lee Ufan. I found this painting quite striking and evocative. Ufan's process was mechanically precise. He would load a paintbrush and run it down the canvas until it ran out of paint. He would repeat this process until reaching the edge of his surface.   Yet despite the simple approach this painting has a great deal of depth and suggestive power.

Lee Ufan. I found this painting quite striking and evocative. Ufan’s process was mechanically precise; he would load a paintbrush and run it down the canvas until it ran out of paint, repeating this process until reaching the edge of his surface. Despite the simple approach , this painting has a great deal of depth, interesting form, and suggestive power.

Moment by Barnett Newman. This was one of his first paintings to incorporate the zip.

Moment by Barnett Newman. This was one of his first paintings to include the famous “zip”.

Ibrahim El-Salahi

Ibrahim El-Salahi

Lares by Paul Nash

Lares by Paul Nash

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Jacob Rowan- “Choruses from the Rock” Series: Japan

"O miserable cities of designing men."

“O miserable cities of designing men.”

"They constantly try to escape from the darkness outside and within by dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good."

“They constantly try to escape from the darkness outside and within by dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.”

I. “O miserable cities of designing men.”

II. “They constantly try to escape from the darkness outside and within by dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.”

These two pieces are part of my “Choruses from the Rock” series and both titles are lines from the poem. However, they are not meant to illuminate T.S. Eliot’s work, rather they serve as a response to the six months I spent in Tokyo. By alluding to the poem and referencing my own experiences, I hope to both deepen the meaning of Eliot’s poem and to communicate my impressions of Japan by creating a dialogue between his work and the Japanese culture. In some ways the pieces are a critique of Japan, but one made with the highest respect for Japanese culture and an awareness of my own limited knowledge on the subject.

Both drawings’ measurements correspond directly to the proportions of the Japanese flag and mirror the design of a circle in a flat color field. The first drawing is reminiscent of a computer chip with all its elements homogenized and separated into clear and precise squares. The second drawing also alludes to a computer chip, but the darkness outside and within is seeping through the paths created by the carefully planned order, seeking out fault lines. The darkness will shatter man’s systems as surely as the terrible earthquake on 3/11 shattered the land.

The two lines of poetry which serve as the titles came to my mind shortly after my arrival in Tokyo and returned during almost every conversation I had about Japan. They began to represent all the struggles of life in Tokyo and helped me to understand and empathize with the desires and hardships of the people. I use these two lines, not because I believe Tokyo to be any more miserable or dark than any other city, but because in many ways they have worked the hardest to “develop systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.” I was and still am dazzled by Tokyo. I’ve been to cities like New York and Washington D.C. and none of them compare to the beauty, safety, or efficiency of Tokyo. It has exasperating quirks like every other place, but it truly is an incredible city. However the culture that creates such a city is a grinding one. Depression, mental illness, and high suicide rates lurk beneath the glistening exterior. The drive to be perfect, to fit into the group, and to maintain appearances is killing the Japanese people. Beneath the veneer is a miserable city of designing men frantically trying to create a system of rules that will protect them from the evil without and within their own hearts.

I love Japan, and I enjoyed living in Tokyo. There are many things America could learn from Japan; a greater appreciation for beauty, a focus on needs of the group rather than of the individual, and an impressive work ethic to name a few. I empathize with the struggles and sins of these people. If I were to design a city, it would strive towards the same areas of excellence as Tokyo and yet would also be shot through with a similar darkness born in my own heart.

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Bruce Herman-QU4RTETS: The four seasons of life

Spring/Earth/Childhood

Spring/Earth/Childhood

These four paintings, created as part of the QU4RTETS project to illuminate T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, have many layers of meaning and nuance and are meant to be viewed in conjunction with the entire project. However, they also stand alone as a profound visual meditation on the seasons of life. Bruce Herman uses repeating motifs, such as figures, a grid, and a tree, to give his paintings a greater conceptual depth than the standard seasonal metaphor for life. The first painting, Childhood, is bubbling with green and gold. The composition shoots upward, drawing the viewer’s eye to the young boy who stares right back. This paintings has the most clearly defined light source, which filters through the branches as a series of squares. The boy could either be seen as frightened as he rides the crest of growth exploding upward from the earth or as audaciously curious as he looks down from his high vantage point, or perhaps some combination of both.

Summer/Fire/Youth

Summer/Fire/Youth

In the next painting, Youth, a young and attractive woman stands with arms outstretched, seeming to bask in the heat radiating from the bonfire of a tree before her. The composition is a riot of reds, oranges, and golds that seem to flicker upward like sparks. The woman has no interest in what is going on outside of the canvas; she is wholly transfixed by the energy before her. A grid, barely visible, emerges from between the twisting branches. This painting contains all the zest and passion of youthful vision. The woman can be seen as a symbol for youth, but she also functions as a representation of the desire for the possibilities that seem just one step away. Her intensity mirrors the single-minded optimism and focus of one set on making their way in the world. At this stage of life the grid, the big picture or the reason for things, is obscured by the chaos of possibilities. Before the woman is the element of fire which has risen from the earth and is waiting for her to shape and be shaped by it.

Autumn/Water/Adulthood

Autumn/Water/Adulthood

In Adulthood a woman stands waist deep in water beneath a tree shedding its leaves. Her shirt mirrors the ripples spreading out from her. Her posture is slightly bent under the weight of life and the whole composition presses down and flows outward through the ripples. The woman has turned from her all-consuming focus of the tree and is looking outward with a somber expression. Perhaps the tree, as a symbol for her life or her work, didn’t turn out the way she planned. It seems to be dying or changing, and its leaves drift away from her on the ripples made by her presence. The brown of dead branches only appears where the silver grid has descended, as if her increasing understanding is putting to death everything in which she was so confident. In many ways this painting feels more somber than the following Old Age. The optimism of her youth has been tempered by an awareness of her own fleetingness and inability to control life.

Winter/Air/Old Age

Winter/Air/Old Age

While seemingly bleak and mono-chromatic, Old Age is full of quiet hope and peace. An old man with a silvery halo gazes contemplatively at the viewer. Behind him, a full-grown tree is visible through a silver veil-like grid. The old man’s gray hairs are his “crown of glory” and the halo is a traditional art symbol of those who are holy or righteous. He stands as a sage or prophet beneath the tree and seems to be ready to answer any question. The tree is full grown and its trunk reaches higher than the trees in the other three paintings. It is a tree that has been “planted by streams of water.” The grid in this painting is complete, suggesting that the old man is beginning to see something of the structure of his life and the world. Discovering one’s self is not something that can be accomplished with an internet questionnaire. It is only when one has reached the end of their life and can look back at all the decisions, events, and places that constituted their existence that they can truly know what kind of person they were.

Bruce Herman’s paintings, like T.S. Eliot’s poetry, are made up of symbolism, nuance, experience, and allusion. Given that these paintings were made in response to the Four Quartets and in conjunction with the other art and music of the QU4RTETS project, it is entirely possible that their chief concept is not the seasons of life as I have described them. However, like all great paintings, their ambiguity arises not from muddled or unclear meaning, but rather layers of suggestive and conceptually connected meanings.

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