Art of the Day: ‘untitled (Prime Ordeal)’, Roberto Matta, 1946, and ‘Three Studies for a Crucifixion’, Bacon, 1962

  November 22nd, 2014

 
 
 
 
     Matta was born Roberto Antonio Sebastián Matta Echaurren on November 11, 1911 in Santiago, Chile. He studied architecture and interior design at Sacré Coeur Jesuit College in Chile, and a few years after graduation worked in Paris with the famous modernist architect & theorist Le Corbusier. 1934 saw him taking a momentous trip to Spain which would greatly impact the course of his life. While there, he visited the great Spanish poet Federico Garciá Lorca, who introduced him to Dalí. Dalí in turn encouraged Matta to share his drawings with André Breton — writer, poet, erstwhile communist and founder of the Surrealist movement — and the next thing you know Matta joins the movement in ’37.
      As a student I thought of Matta as an interesting satellite figure in the constellation of Surrealist actors, but was largely unmoved by his busy, dense, expressive works. There was a great deal there that momentarily piqued me — themes of sexual unrest, emotional intensity, biomorphic excess & frantic activity. But there was something about his work that was hard to latch onto emotionally, and I wouldn’t really find myself dwelling on, exploring, sticking to his canvases.
      Revisiting him now — especially his post-war works, which can be found here — I feel much the same way, except now a new dimension has been added: I’m genuinely troubled by some of these pieces. He was apparently very prolific during this period, depicting alien, vaguely bipedal ganglionic noodle-beings posing dramatically or interacting, stationed in detailed welters of cables and shelves and partitions that flit in and out of recognizability. You see in these pieces his schooling come out in the geometrically sophisticated layouts, the attention to spaces and depth, the harmonies of color. There’s a lot technically to be blown away be here.
     But there’s a kind figurative instability (in the weird tentacly jumble of faces & limbs, in the ordered-chaos of the alien interiors) and detachment emotionally that unsettles me. A figurative instability which, more importantly, I’d argue is often mis-managed aesthetically. Put another way, the pieces occupy this rare territory between figurativeness & abstraction that, when managed right, make for an experience that’s weird+stirring, but when not, leaves the work merely weird+repellant. Now, one might say, “If it destabilizes us, that’s a way of moving us, that’s a way of exerting power, that’s a way of being art that works.” Right?
     Well, yes and no. It depends on degree, it depends on what else the painting has to offer. I’m reminded here of some of Bacon’s work, where anatomy, and especially facial features, are presented in this weird mushy cubistic fog, which in a soft blurry way, hints at great violence and chaos, either in the artist’s psyche, or worldview, or both. Now, in Bacon’s case, this instability of real-world signifier — the anatomical chaos, the facial feature scramble, the clutter of organism and setting that feels random but isn’t, that is meant — and meant powerfully — and in a language we sort of speak and sort of don’t — this instability often works to the paintings’ advantage, and is part and parcel of the works’ success. And that’s because Bacon more often than not manages the rest of the works’ elements carefully to frame & support that instability in a way that alienates the viewer while fixing him still and stirring him. Example: Bacon’s “Three Studies for a Crucifixion” (1962). This painting stirs in part because its instabilities — anatomical chief among them — are offset by stable (compositionally) backgrounds and interiors. Check that flat pared-down red cold luxury of some bureaucrat’s expensive suite in hell: 
 
 
     (click to zoom)
Bacon 
 
      Francis Bacon
       Three Studies for a Crucifixion, 1962
       Oil with sand on canvas, three panels

 
 
 
 
 
     The title (people never pay enough attention to the power of the title in visual arts!) also helps ground it: we are witnessing slow torture — & biblically speaking, the pivotal state-sponsored torture of Jesus — & three views of it. Now the terror becomes something we can sit with, and want to understand, because we are given just enough to hold on to other than the viscera-chaos & deformation. A lot could have gone wrong with this painting had the right delicate balance of text, context & technique not been achieved — which leads me to my thesis, which is that the more the artist tries to operate within that narrow territory bridging the known/figurative/recognizable with the unknown/subjective/alien, the greater the margin of error; the more perilous his or her task is to make the work not just de-stabilizing, but successful as an object that human beings want to get to know after the initial shock has worn off. The easier it is to fail and merely be creepy. The greater the artist has to be.
     Because if all you’re offering me is the alien-that’s-not-quite-alien, I’m going to feel strange, maybe focus on your brush-work and intricate details, but eventually walk away and not come back, & not want to know you further. Not because I’m scared — but because I’m unmoved. Now, if you offer me all that stuff PLUS something more I can use to bridge your world to mine, I’ll not only feel unsettled, & admire your technique, but I’ll wonder about you. I’ll stick around your works, and try & communicate with you, the artist, about what you are doing, what you are trying to show and say and mean (whether you think you are trying to show/say/mean or not). Really communicate. (Of course without felt communication art is still art, but of a babbly & gibbering sort. Of fuzzy alien faces huddled in the corner, backs turned to the world.)

     Now back to Matta. Here’s an example of one of his pieces that gets it right (click to zoom): 
 
 
 
Matta 
 
      Roberto Matta (Chilean, 1911-2002)
       untitled (Prime Ordeal), 1946
       Oil on canvas

 
 
 
 
     Why does this work for me? After all, I’m disoriented trying to figure out its arrangement; I don’t know whether to look at this piece sideways or vertically. There are carcass-like hunks & dead meat flaps hanging in bacon-esque contortion & confusion inside a kind of vast Duchamp-ecru airport terminal space. There’s a bladder sac in the bottom leaking white fluid. The canvas soaks in and out of figurativeness, like a scrambled television show occasionally righting to clarity & focus. There’s a suggestion of machinery, process, protocol, alembic, maybe experiment. It’s an unwholesome, arresting work. And I stick with it. And I try and learn from it. But why?
     The title, mostly. It’s that simple. “Ordeal” connotes suffering, some living thing under duress. “Prime” suggests beef. Right there we’re offered common ground. A few ropes to grasp. Associations your average human viewer can latch onto: that this may or may not have to do with industrialized animal slaughter for human consumption. Just that little “may or may not” suddenly flowers out entire dimensions of possibility in the viewer’s aesthetic valuation (which is never just about form, color and composition, but always about how those elements work in the viewer to engage spirit, heart and mind). With this grounding in language, with this common ground established, the painting can still retain its instability; again, soak in and out of figurativeness — like a ruined moldy halloween mask bobbing up and down in a scummy swamp-pond — but it now can roam farther in the mind given its establishment of a possible real-world frame of reference.
     In this way, a painting can enjoy maximum freedom & play in the mind. With just this little verbal suggestion of an intellectual constraint to pure freedom of meaning. (Note: other elements of the painting function in much the same way: the carcasses for example, & the blood: fairly unambiguously themselves, title or no.)
     A deftly-executed, unsettling painting — already an achievement — now becomes something more, & more enduring: a stirring, connectable, powerful artwork. Something you want to spend time in and explore. I’m not saying Matta’s postwar paintings don’t have merit — they’re striking, elaborate, eerie, highly technical pieces that deserve attention. But they don’t fix my attention & stir me like “untitled (Prime Ordeal)” does, for complicated reasons I hope I’ve at least semi-explained. Cheers y’all.
 
 
 
 
 

MORE INFO:

For more examples of Matta’s work & for more information about his life, please check out www.matta-art.com.

For more examples of Bacon’s art & for more information about his life, try www.francis-bacon.com.



[Posted by SnailCrow on November 22, 2014]

Comments

[file under: ART OF THE DAY ||| paintings/drawings ]







Art of the Day: ‘In Search of the Supernatural, Series 2′ (2012), Ge Yi

  November 18th, 2014

 
 
 
 
ge yi 
 
      Ge Yi (Chinese)
       In Search of the Supernatural, series 2 (2012)
       Oil on canvas

 
 
 
 
     Everything I know about Chinese artist Ge Yi — which ain’t much — comes from artnet.com, where I first stumbled upon his?/her? paintings. They were mostly similar to the one above: tumescent fruit-flesh masses hovering in different-colored skies — some green, some blood-red –, each red-tipped as if bug-bitten or flushed + erogenous. Sedate brush work, coloring and style. In some of the paintings, the meat-fruit planets are being explored by little figures in spacesuits, while some are bereft of visitors, as in the example above.
     That premise in and of itsels is rather banal. Tits/ass as fruit shapes, gasp!, etc. But there’s something about the flat, matter-of-fact way Yi represents his ideas that hits me. Key here is that the sexuality isn’t loud, isn’t garish, it’s just there in a relaxed and not overly-titillating way. It’s a trio of cleft, red-tinged masses drifting softly around the atmosphere. The nipply bits could easily be geysers, volcanoes. The clefts could be mouths. Or the aureola could be seen as eye or mouth organs for these living planets, allowing them to commune and cluster & whisper.
     The title asks us to wonder “what is mystical”, even “what is divine”, and then: “where do I find these things?” So many associations co-exist in this painting: sex, fruit, planets, disease, flower, blood, the extraterrestrial, geology, eruption, small-scale vs. celestial. If a nexus really existed connecting all these things, that wouldn’t be a bad place to start looking.
 
 
 
 
 
 

MORE INFO:

For more of Ge Yi’s paintings, please check out www.artnet.com.



[Posted by SnailCrow on November 18, 2014]

Comments

[file under: paintings/drawings ]







Twin Dog Ghost Howl’s song “Only Holy” (2014)

  November 16th, 2014

 
 
I’ve been loving this yearning prayer
by NYC-based singer & songwriter Twin Ghost Dog Howl
called “Only Holy”
 
A soft, simple urgent diptych of a song
Alternating between two modes:
     Assured, vibrato-laden & throaty
     and plaintive, higher-pitched, w/ vox notes held out to the moonlight
 
The transition is effective, economical, and seems to me
to capture well two of the ways
we deal with the vast beyond –
sometimes at the same time–:
 
with the courage + the hunger,
   & with the vulnerability + the fear
 

Here’s the song clip, in warm golden butter-glow:
 
 
 

 
       Twin Dog Ghost Howl, “Only Holy”, 2014
 
 
 

Please check out more of Twin Dog Host Howl’s haunting, expressive soulfolk music at her bandcamp: twinghostdoghowl.bandcamp.com.



[Posted by SnailCrow on November 16, 2014]

Comments

[file under: Music ]







Art of the Day: Octavio Paz’ “Salamander” (Trans. Denise Levertov)

  September 20th, 2014

 
 
 
Today I just want to post, sans commentary (for once), this visionary, beautiful poem sent to me by my friend over at mosssleeper.tumblr.com:
 
 


Salamander
by Octavio Paz

 

Salamander
(the fire wears
black armor)
a slow-burning stove
between the jaws
-marble or brick-
of the chimney it is
an ecstatic tortoise, a crouched
Japanese warrior:
whatever it is, martyrdom
is repose
impassive under torture

 
Salamander
ancient name of fire
and ancient
antidote to fire
flayed sole of the foot
on hot coals
amianthus amante amianthus

 
Salamander
in the abstract city between
dizzy geometries
-glass cement stone iron-
formidable chimeras appear
raised up by calculus
multiplies by profit
by the side of the anonymous wall
sudden poppy

 
Salamander
Yellow claw a scrawl
of red letters on a
wall of salt
Claw of sunlight
on a heap of bones

 
Salamander
fallen star
in the endlessness of bloodstained opal
ensepulchred
beneath eyelids of quartz
lost girl
in tunnels of onyx
in the circles of basalt
buried seed
grain of energy
in the marrow of granite

 
Salamander, you who lay dynamite in iron’s
black and blue breast
you explode like a sun
you open yourself like a wound
you speak
as a fountain speaks

 
Salamander
blade of wheat
daughter of fire
spirit of fire
condensation of blood
sublimation of blood
evaporation of blood

 
Salamander of air
the rock is flame
the flame is smoke
red vapor
straight-rising prayer
lofty word of praise
exclamation
crown
of fire on the head of the psalm
scarlet queen
(and girl with purple stockings
running disheveled through the woods)

 
Salamander, you are
silent, the
black consoler of sulfur tears
(One wet summer I heard
the vibration of your
cylindrical tail
between lose tiles of a
dead-calm moonlit patio)

 
Caucasian salamander
in the rock’s
cindery shoulder appears
and disappears
a brief black tongue
flecked with saffron

 
Black and brilliant creature
the moss
quivers
you devour
insects
diminutive herald of the rain-shower
familiar spirit of the lightning
(Internal fecundation
oviparious reproduction
the young live in the water
once adult they swim sluggishly)

 
Salamander
Hanging bridge between eras
bridge of cold blood
axis of movement
(The changes in the alpine species
the most slender of all
take place in the mother’s womb
Of all the tiny eggs no more than two mature
and until they hatch
the embryos are nourished on a broth
composed of the doughy mass of their aborted brother-eggs)

 
The Spanish Salamander
black and red mountaineer

 
The sun nailed to the sky’s center does not throb
does not breathe
life does not commence with out blood
without the embers of sacrifice
the wheel of days does not revolve
Xolotl refuses to consume himself
he hid himself in the corn but they found him
he hid himself in the maguey but they found him
he fell into the water and became the fish axolotl
the Double-Being
‘and then they killed him’
Movement began, the world was set in motion
the procession of dates and names
Xolotl the dog, guide to Hell
he who dug up the bones of the fathers
he who cooked the bones in a pot
he who lit the fire of the years
the maker of men
Xolotl the penitent
the burst eye that weeps for us
Xolotl
larva of the butterfly
double of the Star
sea-shell
other face of the Lord of Dawn
Xolotl the axolotl

 
Salamander
solar arrow
lamp of the moon
column of noonday
name of woman
scales of night
(The infinite weight of light
a half-drachm on your eyelashes)

 
Salamander
back flame
sunflower
you yourself in the sun
the moon
turning for ever around you
pomegranate that bursts itself open each night
fixed star on the brow of the sky
and beat of the sea and the stilled light
open mind above the
two-and-fro of the sea

 
The star-lizard, salamandria
saurian scarcely eight centimeters long
lives in crevices and is the color of dust

 
Salamander of earth and water
green stone in the mouth of the dead
stone of incarnation
stone of fire
sweat of the earth
salt flaming and scorching
salt of destruction and
mask of lime that consumes the face

 
Salamander of air and fire
wasp’s nest of suns
red word of beginning

 
The salamander
a lizard
her tongue ends in a dart
her tail ends in a dart
She is unhissable She is unsayable
she rests upon hot coals
queens it over firebrands
If she carves herself in the flame
she burns her monument
Fire is her passion, her patience

 
Salamander Salamater

(Translated by Denise Levertov)
 
 
 
 
 
 

MORE INFO:

For more information about Octavio Paz, please check out poetryfoundation.org’s bio of him.

For more about salamanders, I can’t seem to find anything as comprehensive as this wikipedia page.



[Posted by SnailCrow on September 20, 2014]

Comments

[file under: ART ||| ART OF THE DAY ||| Literary Arts ]