Artists, Collectors, and the Art World, Oh My!

This past year I tried to watch movies about artists, the collectors who purchase their work, and the art world (gallery dealers, museum curators, restorers, insurers, etc). The following represents a synopsis of my viewing history + pithy observations.

Artists

It is very difficult to make a balanced film or documentary about a currently living artist. If the artist (or the artist’s estate) is going to cooperate with the filmmaker, then usually the film dips into hagiography. On the plus side, you get to see the artist’s original work in the film. The downside is the sugar-coated story leaves a lot of unexplained questions because the answers might damage the legacy that is so stridently being preserved. The better artist films are typically those where the artist has been long dead and there is no estate to contend with. Unfortunately, most of these artists had a huge factory of workers and assistants helping them with their work, and you never see these people being mentioned, which I find frustrating. Nevertheless, the artist bio films do provide a good introduction to many artists I had never heard of before.

  1. Goya’s Ghosts (2006) Drama. Points out Goya’s importance in the transition from the traditional age into modern. Unfortunately, film gets bogged down on the soap-opera-esque side stories.
  2. Bomb It (2007) Documentary. History of graffiti art (using spray cans) in USA and around the world. Interesting to see how culture affects presentation (ie. NYC vs. Berlin vs. Cape Town vs. Barcelona)
  3. The Time Being (2012) Drama. Artist does commissioned work to gather source material for dying artist.
  4. Cutie and the Boxer (2013) Documentary. The complex and competitive world of two artists married to one another.
  5. My Kid Could Paint That (2007) Documentary. Art fraud or child prodigy? You be the judge.
  6. Beautiful Losers (2008) Documentary. Street artists and graphic designers of the 1990s, the importance of having a sympathetic gallery for artistic synergy
  7. The Universe of Keith Haring (2008) Documentary. Mostly hagiography, but lots of his original art. I found it interesting that they wanted him to paint LESS so that his art would increase in value!
  8. Little Ashes (2008) Drama. The early years of Federico Garcia Lorca, Salvador Dali, and Luis Brunel and their complex relationships- not much art work shown.
  9. The Mill and the Cross (2011) Drama. Multiple re-enactments of Bruegel’s most famous works- nearly no talking.
  10. Love is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon (1998) Drama. The life of Francis Bacon, not flattering, NONE of his original artwork shown, although models and inspirational reflections are in abundance.
  11. Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World (2014) Documentary. Giger looks very frail throughout, lots of his artwork and domicile shown.
  12. Big Eyes (2014) Drama. Tim Burton’s tribute to one of his favorite artists, Margaret Keane and her bug eyed waifs.
  13. Our City Dreams (2008 ) Documentary. Mini bios of five different women artists (Caledonia Curry, Ghadee Amer, Kiki Smith, Marina Abramovic, and Nancy Spero) at very different points in their lives.
  14. One Bad Cat: The Reverend Albert Wagner Story (2008 ) Documentary. Life of Albert Wagner, but like Giger, he is very frail and old in the movie in contrast to the majority of his controversial working life.
  15. Turner (2014 ) Drama. Life of the British father of impressionism.
  16. In the Realms of the Unreal (2004) Documentary. Chicago recluse Henry Darger provides the definition of “outsider art”, but fortunately for him, his landlord had connections to the art world.
  17. Rivers and Tides (2001) Documentary. A look at the environmentally ephemeral art of Andy Goldsworthy. Absolutely beautiful, with interesting observations on the impact of sheep on the environment.
  18. Manufactured Landscapes (2006) Documentary. A look at the locales (mostly Asia) and philosophy of photographer Edward Burtynsky.
  19. Here is Always Somewhere Else (2007) Documentary. The enigmatic life of conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader. Also a good lesson on ‘curating’ someone else’s work.
  20. Guest of Cindy Sherman (2008) Documentary. Cindy Sherman’s boyfriend comes to grips with the housewife’s reality of being the person in the room no one wants to talk to. Features the celebrated photographer’s many shows.
  21. Helvetica (2007) Documentary. The birth of a type face in excruciating detail. With critique, also excruciating.
  22. Ai Weiwei Never Sorry (2012) Documentary. The controversial Chinese artist, his shows, and his run-ins with Chinese political leaders and police chiefs.
  23. Finding Vivian Maier (2013) Documentary. Chicago recluse photographer Vivian Maier who spent her life snapping photos while earning a living as a nanny. “Discovered” after she died. Had me wondering about the nature of art- she herself never edited her work- she just hoarded it and her ‘discoverer’ was the one who decided what’s what.

Collectors

Who are the people who purchase (or steal) art? Well, they are an unusual bunch. In watching these movies, I began to seriously question the dogma that viewing art makes you a “better” person.

  1. The Best Offer (2013) Drama. An art auctioneer has his own way of amassing a collection of female portraiture until he meets his match.
  2. Herb & Dorothy (2008) Documentary. DIY collecting- he is a postal worker and she is a teacher. One salary is for living expenses, the other salary is for collecting art. Wait until you see how they store their collection.
  3. Art of the Steal (2009) Documentary. Despite the best laid legal documents of collector Dr. Albert C. Barnes, he could not control the destiny of his post-impressionist and modern art masterpieces after his demise.
  4. Woman in Gold (2015) Drama. What happens when a country steals your family art collection and markets it as a national treasure/tourist attraction?
  5. Rape of Europa (2006) Documentary. How the Nazis collected art, particularly Goering.

 

Art World

The movies about the museums are ok, but most movies about the art world generally portray the major players as unsavory, money-grubbing, unscrupulous, immoral manipulators. Sigh.

  1. Boogie Woogie (2009) Drama. Highly disturbing view of London art scene complete with gallery owners, collectors, and artists.
  2. Mickey Blue Eyes (1999) Comedy. This is a great comedy which features a mob intrusion into the art auction market. Hilarious- watch for the Chinese restaurant scene!
  3. Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock (2006) Documentary. A truck driver buys a painting from a thrift store and tries to prove it was painted by Jackson Pollock.
  4. Russian Ark (2002) Drama. If you have ever wondered what these European palaces turned into art galleries might have looked like in their heyday as actual working spaces, then this is the movie for you. Filmed in the Winter Palace of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersberg.
  5. National Gallery (2014) Documentary. Behind the scenes look at the National Gallery in London- but it is 3 HOURS LONG!

A Ride Across the Desert

I am reading through Quran, trying to find inspiration, and I find Jacob’s response to his sons, when they bring the bloodied shirt of their brother Joseph to him. They tell their father Joseph has been killed by wolves. Jacob replies that he will have faith in God and have “sabr-en jamil”, which translates as “beautiful patience” or “graceful patience”. I’m a bit puzzled by the word choice- “jamil”? Typical me in these circumstance, I run to my Quranic vocabulary book to search for the vowel roots “jim-mim-la”.

The first word with this root is “camel”. Camel?

Then I start to think about how important a camel would be to someone on the Arabian Peninsula.

I tell my kids that now is the time to have “patience like the camel”- and by that I mean that they have to cling to patience just as a Bedouin would cling to his camel in the wide open desert. You just have to pray that that camel is going to get you to water, to safety, to where you need to be in order to survive. You have to have faith that the camel will get you there, no matter how bad that desert may seem.

Rewards of Speaking Your Truth

The day after the election I went to paint with my friends in the southern suburbs. I felt awful, like I had been beat up with a baseball bat- but I thought it would be better to be around people than hole up in some cave.

My friend Corrie has founded a painting group. We are nine women of different ages, background and faiths, but what we all have in common is we are artists. We meet each Wednesday and paint together. And yes- we are even diverse in our approach to art. Some are realistic still life oil painters,a few do pastel, watercolor, collage, and abstract acrylic. I really love these women. Corrie has created a supportive atmosphere where one is free to make art. Even though I know that Corrie and her whole family are ardent Republicans and Trump voters, I know that Corrie is my friend and I love her dearly.

The day after the election, we weren’t talking much politics. It was still too raw for most of us. Corrie turned our attention to a potential venue for a show. She really wants all of us to put on a show together.

Corrie started talking about this beautiful church she had found in La Grange and how the programs director was enthusiastic about our group exhibiting there. I didn’t say anything, but a warning flag came up in my mind. This was a church. I listened closely. Corrie said that our work would be exhibited in the central sanctuary (where they pray) for everyone to see. She said the venue was beautiful: the church was built of gray stone with imported dark wood carvings from Italy. They exhibit shows regularly, so the lighting is really good. A lot of people would be seeing our work, and that’s what artists want, right? As many people as possible looking at their work.

I felt my stomach go into knots. She was so enthusiastic and hopeful- who was I to rain on her parade? Is quashing my friend’s hope sufficient reason for me to smother my truth? I decided that I had better get used to speaking up and suffering the consequences because I might be having to do a lot of that over the next four years. In my head I repeated to myself, “Never ask a question where you are afraid to hear the answer.” I would be testing my friends.

I said, “This sounds like a beautiful venue, but to be perfectly honest, I don’t feel comfortable exhibiting my work there.”

Corrie looked at me in shocked disbelief.

“It’s just that I’m Muslim. And the people you spoke with at the church, they are assuming that all of us are Christian. There are some people in that church who may not be comfortable having Muslim paintings in their sanctuary. This sounds like a great opportunity for all of you to exhibit, so you go for it. Don’t let me stop you. I’ll do another show with you.”

Corrie said, “Well, I don’t think they would object.”

I replied, “I don’t think you understand the political climate right now.” She stared at me in disbelief. “I think you at least have to tell the people in charge the situation. They’ll know their parish better than you, they’ll know how people will feel about it.”

Corrie looked thoughtful. Then she said, “We’re not doing this show without you. We are going to show together, all of us. That is what this group is about. And if this church doesn’t want your work there because you are Muslim, then I don’t want my work there either. It is against my Christian principles to have this kind of discrimination.”

I thanked her. Tears welled up in my eyes. Although I had initially been afraid to speak up, after I found the courage to do so, I was rewarded with a demonstration of my friend’s love and solidarity.

Sometimes it is ok to rain on someone’s parade. Those puddles can give off beautiful reflections.

As a postscript, I’m sharing the paintings I made that day in Corrie’s workshop. Not my best effort, but considering the emotional circumstances, I’m ok with them.

I recently read of one meditation technique whereby you keep focused one image for a full minute, trying very hard to not think of anything else, blocking out all other competing thoughts. Looks like I am going to be doing a lot of still lives in the days to come….

 

Nudge Out the Vote

“There is no good in worrying, you have to do something,” my father told me. He chewed on his lower lip, then said, “Why don’t you help me fill up the bathtub with ice cubes?” When my brother was three he was unable to control his body temperature when he got a cold. Eventually he outgrew this, but at the onset of inflammation, my brother would slip out of consciousness and start having seizures. I have persistent memories of my mother holding my brother helplessly as his whole body convulsed and twitched. The partial solution was to put him in an ice cold bath in order to bring down his body temperature.  In the face of this uncontrollable chaos, my father tried to instill in me the importance of doing SOMETHING. Even if what you do can’t directly help the situation at hand, perhaps  it can help in some small way. As I got older, I learned that the ‘some small way’ could actually be a substantial contribution to my peace of mind.

Fast forward from ten year old self to much older self 2016. I am totally stressed out about the USA elections, worried that the train wreck who is Donald Trump will be the 45th president of the USA. There is very little I can do about this situation. I am only one voter. What can I do for my poor country?

Then I think about it: one hundred years ago women could not vote in this country. Less than 100 years later we have a woman running for president, and in my state, a woman running for US Senator as well as state comptroller. I owe it to my suffragette ancestors to do something!

I decide that I will get out the vote. Encourage as many people as I can to vote, because I truly believe that Republicans only do well when voter turn out if low. Also, if the Trumpster turns this country into a fascist state, telling my grandchildren about how I used to “knock on people’s doors to get them to vote” will be something of a novelty.

I decide to volunteer at a phone bank as well as the traditional canvassing- going door to door encouraging people to vote. Why do this? Because despite all the technological advances, the most effective way to get people nudged into voting is one voter talking to another voter. The more personal and humane the interaction, the more likely a person is to vote. We all just need a little encouragement to do the right thing. I know this is effective because I myself have been influenced to vote. Nowadays, I like to think of myself as convincing people that they have something very valuable- their vote. How valuable is it? This is hard to measure. In some cases, perhaps not very much. But is a close race, it can make all the difference. Will you ever know that it was your vote that made the difference? No, you won’t. It is a matter of faith, and faith is in short supply in this country, despite our professed religiousity.

I did it. I manned the phone bank (mostly nobody was home). I went door to door in neighborhoods ( a beautiful neighborhood in Westmont on a gorgeous sunny, fall day). I only called people who were registered Democrats, I wasn’t trying to convince some Trump supporter to vote for Hillary. I overcame my fear of dogs, actually appreciated them because if they were barking up a storm then obviously no one was home and I could move onto the next house. For the most part, people were polite or curt. No one screamed at me. I wasn’t murdered by a serial killer when I knocked on doors. And more importantly, at the end of the day, I felt good. Maybe it is a crazy system, but at least I had the opportunity to participate, to contribute, to honor my ancestry, to perhaps help in some small way.

Perhaps the happiest moment I had was talking to an elderly gentleman at his front door. After I finished my spiel about “do you have a voting plan?” he smiled and said, “You know, when I was younger, I used to do what your doing. Canvassing the neighborhood.” As I walked away from the house, I could tell he felt relieved- glad that the next generation cared, the next generation could follow in his footsteps.

All apologies

Sorry I haven’t written in a long time.

I’ve just been really busy which means that I have all this stuff to do, WAY too much driving around to do, and by the time I get home my brain is fried and I just want to SLEEP.  And this whole shortening of the day length and rainy weather doesn’t help matters. Feels like the atmosphere is conspiring to have me remain in my bed.

But yes, I have actually been painting (with friends + one class- helps to have some peer pressure) and once I have a sunny day I will take photos and post my work. Don’t get too excited, I am struggling. I read recently that a painter must paint a mile of canvases before she gets into her own style/good. I am no where near that, more like to the end of my driveway. Maybe as far as I can hit a golf ball.

 

Getting out of the box

Early 21st century American executive types like to expound on “thinking outside the box”.  Their sermons run something along the lines of “all our problems could be solved if someone could just think outside the box.”

Implicit in this statement is an idea that a problem will somehow disappear if we just can think up the right solution. However, I would argue that sometimes the ‘solution’ is to take a different perspective of the problem. The problem may be unsolvable, for example you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Sometimes there is only a ‘less bad’ choice. Regardless of the levels solvability, the problem does give us the opportunity to examine our own reactions to the problem, our own machinations as we run around the box, slam against the walls, tear our hair in frustration at being stuck in the box.

So how does one get out of the box? There are many tools for doing this, but it takes time and the more tools you have, the more likely you are to get out of the box. These are some tools I have found useful over the years to escape the box.

  1. Ask for help.
  2. Ask for support
  3. Know that you have support
  4. Examine your ideal of perfection
  5. Examine your need to please other people
  6. Examine your need to control things
  7. Take a walk in nature
  8. Calm your brain- anxiety is a marker of the problem, but anxiety is only good as a marker. Anxiety marks the boundaries of the box, but anxiety will never help you escape the box.
  9. Pray to God -not to solve your problem- but to give you a different perspective on your problem.
  10. Try to find the underlying causes that built this box in the first place.

 

Good luck!

 

Depends on how you look at it

Last summer I was standing on a bridge going to an island in a lake. When I looked to the east, I saw a brilliant sunny day with sunlight glancing off the water.

BodenseeEast
Bodensee East                                                           oil                                       11 x 14

When I looked to the west, I saw ominous storm clouds, the water a gray-green prediction of trouble to come.

BodenseeWest
Bodensee West                                                            oil                                          11 x 14

Both of these contrary views depict the lake, both seem to offer their own version of ‘truth’. What is the ‘truth’ about this particular summer day?

 

A Shift in Priorities

Had to drop off my husband at work for an early meeting. As I am headed back home on the freeway, I notice that the usual Hooters billboard (cutesy blond in a tight t-shirt with a ‘come hither’ look in her eye) has been replaced. Now all you see are long, pink and white snow crab legs with a small tub of melted butter for dipping. No blonds, just seafood.

Could this be the influence of Ramadan?

How Cameras Lie

It’s actually a relativity question- the camera doesn’t lie to itself, it just lies in comparison to the human eye. Cameras and human eyes process images differently. However, cameras can be adjusted (with aperture settings, lenses, PhotoShop, etc) so that they capture an image closer to what the human eye sees.

What cameras do to an image (not comprehensive, just what I have observed):

  1. flatten (especially with a flash). This is probably why they say a camera adds ten pounds to your face, the shadows that indicate curvature are eliminated.
  2. do not capture color accurately: digitized images have less color range than the old emulsion film.
  3. do not capture darks/shadow accurately: human eye is better at distinguishing what is in the shadows.
  4. curve straight lines- due to curvature of lens, objects will bow inwards
  5. create light ‘bubbles’ when exposed to direct sunlight.
  6. the illusion of the present moment-  everything a camera has ever captured is an image uploaded from the past.

If you have any more you would like to add, please do so by leaving a comment.