Sunday, January 31, 2016

Book notes: “Naked. The nude in America” by Bram Dijkstra

I’m very interested in some theoretical aspects of art, especially concerning representation of sexuality and imaginary creatures, so I try to collect any book on such topics which seems interesting. This one was a great read and even though I don’t fully agree with the author’s reading of some of the artwork it has given me a lot of things to reflect upon, so I expect I’ll be referring to it in future posts. But first an overview.

“Naked” describes how nudity has been dealt with in North American visual arts from the XVIII century down to our days. I bought it mostly because of its extensive coverage of XIX and XX century nude art, which is often dismissed by the art critics still hellbent on selling modernism and conceptual art as the only worthwhile products of that period. As stated on the front flap of the book though Djikstra is a cultural historian rather than an art critic, and it shows in a positive way in his rational, sequential, analytical approach. Many of the artists and works mentioned in the book are new to me and it helped me fill knowledge gaps between more famous names, as well as actually explaining some of the contempt for XIX century art and XX century figurative art.

The main thesis of the book is that much Western nude art was (and in some cases still is) built on symbolism which stemmed from oppressive, sexist, racist, or even outright insane sociopolitical theories about sexuality. Such theories were popular at the time the paintings were created and most of them have been discredited or forgotten, but contemporary figurative art and illustration still happens to draw upon the old symbolism, sometimes willingly, sometimes out of ignorance of the original meaning of certain symbols and clichès. There is fairly convincing evidence for this thesis coming both from visual analysis of the artwork and from explicit statements by artists, writers, critics and censors of the past.

Franz von Stuck, Il peccato (Die Sünde), 1893

An example of outdated symbolism is the predatory sorceress/temptress/amazon clichè which is still relatively common in fantasy art but used to be common in highbrow art too up to the early XX century. This is a concept I’m especially interested in given the half-human half-animal nature of my subjects. It is very ancient symbolism going all the way back to sirens, harpies, the sphynx of Oedipus and other mythological figures. The depiction of naked, sexually intimidating women with animal traits or accompanied by dangerous animals such as snakes used to be a commentary on how women’s wild, beastly sexual urges were supposedly dangerous and destructive.

Keeping all due differences in mind, erotic furry/anthro art is at its core a subversion of that symbolism. Being part wild animal is not a liability but as an asset - something humorous and even appealing.

BHawk, Her Own Personal Space Heater, 2013

Only time will tell whether this is just an aesthetic preference of few people or a symptom of deeper cultural changes in the perceived relationship of humans with nature. We are animals after all and I believe we need to seriously come to terms with the "uncivilized" parts of our mind, so to speak, if we want to keep our sanity in an increasingly complex, manufactured world. But regardless of personal philosophy I think erotic furry art is a very logical progress in the historical process described in the book. I'm fairly sure one day it will deserve its own chapter (or at least a mention) in a similar essay.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Reusable frame

Just retrieved this painting from the local Fine Arts Society exhibit and thought I'd share a couple photos of how I adapt frames to be reusable. I often paint on hardboard stricking to standard sizes (25x35 cm, 30x40 cm, 35x50 cm) so I bought some matted frames which could be reused easily for group shows where I only need to bring one or two paintings.

It's actually very simple: I mount on the back of the matte four tiny small plates pivoting on the smallest screws I can find in the hardware store (size 1,9x8). Carboard scraps provide extra thickness to keep the hardboard in place. I usually block them in place with packaging tape.

I've also placed sawtooth hangers on both the longer and shorter side. This is not a good practice in general, a lot of people don't like this kind of hangers as they prevent the painting from being parallel to the wall. But so far I haven't had any problem with them in the smaller shows these frames are for.

Adapting a canvas frame is more complicated... I don't have a good example of that but I'll be working on one soon.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

To frame or not to frame?

Before the last exhibit I held in my city last year the curator advised me to bring the paintings unframed. I was quite surprised by the advice since I have several reusable frames which I had used for previous exhibits and I can get very obsessive when trying to determine which frame is the best fit for a painting. My previous experiences though were all group exhibits in which each artist brought four or five paintings at most and it was expected that there would be no overall visual consistency (but the show usually has a theme which connects the wildly different works), but this one was a two artists exhibit to which I brought nine paintings and it was held in an estabilished gallery so the situation was different.

There are good reasons to avoid frames in an exhibit like that:
  • It keeps the cost in check. Even employing reusable frames (which I do ) having ten or twenty paintings framed at the same time would be crazy expensive.
  • It makes the exhibit more consistent. The painting styles may be very different but that’s not as distracting as very different framing choices.
  • The frame doesn’t steal attention from the painting. A well chosen frame can make even a mediocre painting look good, but obviously that’s not something the artist himself should do. The painting should hold well on its own merit.
  • Choosing a proper frame is difficult and the artist might be no good at it. In fact I have made some pretty terrible framing choices in the past. Sometimes you can’t tell for sure until you actually see the painting inside the frame.
  • Some art galleries (like the one in which I had the exhibit) have a very barebone style and a painting with an elaborate frame would look gaudy and out of place there, even though the same painting with the same frame might look great in a living room.
  • The other artist holding the exhibit with me has a minimalist style and works with huge canvas sizes. The kind of frames I like the most (see the photo above) would not work for that style and size.

On the other hand the idea of exhibiting my paintings unframed bothers me a bit. My style is rooted in traditional realism and elaborate frames are an integral part of the aesthetic I pursue, down to the fact that some rules of classical composition almost assume the presence of a frame neatly separating the painting from the surrounding space and stressing the rectangular shape of the canvas.

So far my customers have made framing choices which I like a lot, as shown in the photos above and below. Frames like these are fitting choices for much “imaginative realist” art (as James Gurney dubbed it).

This blog post by Petar Meseldžija shows photos of some impressive private collections:
(Many similar examples can be found by googling for Illuxcon photos.)
Of course it could be argued that the arrangement of those collections reflects the owner’s taste or the way those paintings are marketed rather than the artist’s vision. To me the most convincing among the points I listed above is that a painting should ideally “work” on its own merit, even in a physical vacuum. Yet I do think about possible framing when I make a painting, so that is part of my vision for the picture too.

In the end I’ll follow the advice when it comes to art gallery shows, but I think that in other venues such as conventions I’ll keep employing and suggesting frames for my work. After all they are different venues with different audience and different goals.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Three good art blogs

Wow, I haven’t posted here in a while! This blog started as a sort of studio journal as I was getting serious about learning the basics of paintings, but now that I’ve made some progress I think there are better uses to it than documenting errors and work-in-progress stuff. There is a lot of stuff I’m interested into (books, art theory, other artists’ works, etc.) and a lot of material I’ve gathered while learning painting which I think is worth reviewing. So that’s the blog’s new goal. I’ll be posting WIPs too from time to time but they won’t be the main focus any more, also because I already post them on my Tumblr when they are worth showing.

I've also changed the blog rating to NSFW so I can safely post and discuss erotic art, one of the topics I'm most interested in.

I’ll start simply by mentioning the three other art blogs which have taught me the most about art in the last few years. Hopefully they may be helpful to other self-taught artists and painting enthusiasts.

Gurney Journey
This one is very famous but it can’t be recommended enough. It’s the blog of James Gurney, one of the best realist illustrators in the world and author of excellent books about the basics of painting. The books draw heavily from his blog posts so a wealth of complementary information can be found browsing past posts. Plus it’s updated almost daily and there’s always something interesting being discussed. If I had to name a single must-read art blog it would be this one.

Stapleton Kearns
Blog of the eponymous landscape painter. No longer updated but well worth reading from the start if you’re interested in oil painting. It discusses in depth many painting materials and techniques which I couldn’t find discussed anywhere else on the web, in addition to giving clues for beginners, explaining basic principles of composition and commenting on great landscape painters of the past.

John K. Stuff
Blog of animator John Kricfalusi of “Ren & Stimpy” fame. This one needs to be taken with a grain of salt. The author is quirky to say the least and has some very strong opinions against modern animation which I don’t always find agreeable. Nevertheless he knows his stuff from a technical standpoint and makes a lot of interesting points when criticizing the design of 80s cartoons and CG characters. The blog revolves mostly around the topic of composition in comics and cartoons, often analyzing Disney, Warner Bros and Hanna & Barbera classics. It’s still updated although now it’s just a WIPs blog and promotion tool for the author’s new projects, the streak of educational posts ended somewhere in 2012. Still the first six years or so of archives are worth browsing. A few links to images and Youtube videos are broken but that doesn’t hurt the explanations too much.

There are several other blogs I followed and follow but I’ll leave them for future posts. I always appreciate good art blogs, so if you are reading this, please feel free to suggest me any that you find interesting! Thank you.