Sunday, July 15, 2018

Kehinde Wiley and Hermetical Friendship.

Kehinde Wiley came to the public eye in 2004. His first public exhibition was at the Brooklyn Museum. Here he exhibited a series of 18 large-scale paintings and introduced what has since become a familiar way working process. For Passing/Posing, young black males were asked to view copies of European portraits, select their favourite, then model the pose. From photographs, Kehinde Wiley then created canvasses which projected urban images into historical masterpieces. In essence, Kehinde Wiley’s art is an art of transgression, one that re-colonises space for the Black male image.

This method has had its critics. The methodology has been seen as a trick, nothing more. And the paintings have been describes as stiff and lacking expressive brushwork. In recent exhibitions, however, the play between artist and model, has brought new depths to the paintings. And the imagery has become less about urban hip-hop as complex questions of identity. The trick has revealed an artist who is a subtle trickster, a master of double imagery. In the Down exhibition of 2008, new resonances appeared as images from modern European sculpture were converted into contemporary images. Not only did male to male transmutations take place, but works figuring females were transformed into male forms. This crossing of gender, placing images at the crossroads, was done with skill and wit. Also new was the way in which the large-scale paintings spoke to one another, creating a hidden text about the visual image and musical image, about the relationship between sound, sight and death.

Curiously, The World Stage Africa, Lagos-Dakar, has been viewed as something different in the art of Kehinde Wiley. Critics have spoken of this as authentic, arguing that a Renaissance occurs because the artist has returned to origins and the Black African male offers a palette that is rich in tones: such deepens the portraiture element of Kehinde Wiley’s work. Such is nonsense. All that has happened in The World Stage Africa is that critics have become able to see the transmutations. The changes across gender and culture are clear. The artist references them, as in Dogon Couple where the Male-Female cosmic duality is replaced by a Male-Male image. And what is interesting is that Kehinde Wiley stays away from any sentimentalisation of Africa: his male figures wear street gear, not the ethnic tribal costumes so idolised by Western society (though, of course, street wear has its own tribal connections). The Africa paintings are in no way a departure from what has gone previously. They are a perfecting of the method.

In the latest work, Black Light, a series of photographs, Kehinde Wiley takes on another element of White male Western art: the photo portrait. Wonderful inversions occur as oil portrait (Van Dyck) becomes photographic portrait (Mapplethorpe/Platt-Lynes/Van Vechten) and floralisation is used to complicate the male image. Also, in Black Light two other elements collide: a wide knowledge of art history and contemporary story-telling. So, in one photograph, Pontormo’s Two Men with a Letter by Cicero (1524), a symbol of Italian society at its height, Kehinde Wiley re-creates this double masterpiece. In the Pontormo, the two men are reflections of one another. They visually re-create the Humanistic ideal of two in one, of perfect friendship. This Neo-Platonic ideal (with its “gay” over-tones) is developed by Kehinde Wiley. The faces of his two models echo the Pontormo. But whereas Pontormo uses the letter (and Cicero’s text) as a gloss, Kehinde Wiley forces it upon the viewing eye. The letter becomes a symbol of brotherhood and solidarity. The subtle tones of Pontormo are transformed into a dazzling ground of blood-red flowers. Kehinde Wiley has been an outspoken critic of how the urban musical image has lost its connection to messages…the first breakthrough hip-hop track was The Message…and the finger of Kehinde Wiley’s first figure, as in the Pontormo, points to the rubric, the message:

“When a person thinks of a true friend, he sees a reflection in the mirror. Even an absent friend is always present in the mind of a friend.”

Cicero, Laelius.

In the later works of Kehinde Wiley, he literally translates “diaspora”. His work is a spilling of seed, of multiple meanings that enrich the mind with intellectual and erotic associations.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye at British Art Show 8

British Art Show 8 recently premiered in Leeds. This quinquennial touring exhibition includes 42 artists this year and its purpose, as ever, is to bring up- and-coming artists into the public eye. By intention, the exhibition curated by Anna Colin and Lydia Yee is a mixed-bag. "A central concern of British Art Show 8 is the changing role and status of the object at a time of increasing convergence between the real and the virtual." One exhibit that clearly shows this focal point is by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: an octave of 8 "portraits"

Yiadom-Boakye was born in London, in 1977. She studied at Falmouth and the Royal Academy Schools. In 2013, she was short-listed for the Turner Prize. Her heritage links to the UK and Ghana and her work draws upon French Impressionism (Degas and Manet). Though she does not see her work as political, it is almost impossible not to read it as such: here is a female painter defining herself in relation to a male tradition of portraiture and painting Black male and female figures within a history of painting that largely excludes Blackness. The revolutionary act for Yiadom-Boakye, however, is her approach to painting and portraiture. A portrait, by definition, is a representation of a person within a period in time, but the portraits of Yiadom-Boakye are not copies of real people or contexts. Just as history fixes the Black image by race or class--consider the title "Negro slave" and recent desires to re-name such paintings-- Yiadom-Boakye gives her work imaginative titles that "suggest a narrative" and free her work from specificity. Also, portraits are linked to time and sittings and laborious corrections, yet the octave of portraits assembled in British Art Show 8 reveal speed and lightness of touch. A "portrait" for Yiadom-Boakye is a representation of many people, physical details are selected from reality and combined into a virtual portrait at speed (no more than a day of painting) with emphasis falling on elements of technique, such that the result is a deliberate fabrication. The canvases are confidently flat, not built in layers, and representations of what exists in the artist's mind and the mind's eye.

There is a paradox at work in the "portraits". A portrait is usually linked to a person. The purpose of a portrait is to preserve that person in paint and memorialise a likeness. The history of portraiture is bound up with celebrity and continuity. But what does a viewer do with a portrait of someone known to the artist, though unknown to the viewer, like this? What is a reality for the artist, here, is make-believe for the viewer. How do you read an unknown?

For a viewer, this can only be a composite of people they have known. The person represented means nothing to them. In a sense, Yiadom-Boakye paints like a minor artist creating images of ordinariness. Yet, the moment those images appear on art gallery walls, they are lifted into a different conversation, claiming space and debating about the history of Black imagery and the fictional lives that have been led or might be led...

The "portraits" of Yiadom-Boakye endow their Black representations with vivacity and this is done through incredible skill. By not being studied masterpieces, they liberate their subjects rather than enslave them to single interpretations.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

Jared French. Artist and Hermeticist.

Jared French was born on February 4th, 1905, in Ossining, New York. Aquarian by birth. He studied music, visual art and literature at Amherst College from 1921-1925. The Amherst motto Terras Irradient would stand as a sign for his life as a painter, "Bring light to the Earth" as would his birth image. French's paintings in egg tempera are lit by radiance and the flux of water is a key archetypal symbol in his visual language. French became the lover and friend of Paul Cadmus and it is Cadmus' small and intimate portrait of him, in 1931, that introduces French to the world. 

In this portrait much is coded. The viewer is placed in the lover's position, gazing down at a rumpled bed, suggesting rest after activity. The flowing, rotating hands intimate fluid energy in balance. And the fingers are bookmarks in an early edition of James Joyce's Ulysses, a book which was smuggled into the USA for the literary minded French. The illegal novel stands for another illegality: the love of two men.

French protected his work avidly. He made few written statements about his art and said little about his life. His life and art was hermetically sealed, consciously so, and he remains an important artist who is mainly mis-understood. As Nancy Grimes has pointed out in Jared French's Myths (1993), French is mistakenly seen as a Magic Realist, an error that goes entirely in the wrong direction as regards his work. Magic Realism sought to present realistic views that had opened up to moments of magic. There is an objectivity underneath Magic Realism. French's main work, from 'Washing the White Blood from Daniel Boone" onwards (1939) woke up to a subjective, hermetical symbolism that told mythological narratives. The paintings awake magic/imagination with reality through emblematic symbolism.

"Washing the White Blood from Daniel Boone" describes a moment in USA history: it is 1778 and Boone has been abducted by the Shawnee and inducted into their life. 

But the historical moment is transfigured by French into an archetypal narrative. Boone, like Pierro della Francesca's Christ, awaits to be baptised. The native figure who holds the cup above Boone's head is modelled on John the Baptist. Piero della Francesca's asexual angels have become masculine warriors. With a touch of humour, an implicit connection is made between French and Francesca, the "French-man" such that the new painting becomes a moment of spiritual crisis in French's personal mind and the American psyche. Two of the attendants, like Greek caryatids support the body of Boone and support his weight easily. Whereas the Renaissance French-man depicted Christ in a moment of prayer, awaiting the Holy Ghost, French's Boone adopts a stature that echoes The Crucifixion. This is a cross-roads moment for the adventurer. There has been a tendency to read the painting as one of "service" in which the black figures serve the needs of the white. Nancy Grimes rightly reads against this view, seeing that the physical Shawnee figures are in control and in the process of awakening Boone. But she possibly goes astray in jumping too quickly into Jungian terms and seeing this as a painting about how the white man/white history must enter the black underworld of the unconscious (as typefied by the black attendants) to be cleansed. There is nothing dark about this painting -- it is a well-lit day -- and there is no hint of the psychic disunity that comes with subconscious immersion. For French, Boone's whiteness alludes to a body clothed from sunlight, but here open to to it. The alchemical ablutio washes away his accumulated psychic dirt and presents him with a new solar consciousness. Boone's uncomfortable pink, fleshly, infant innocence is faced with a mature sexuality, one that he has not yet learnt to face: his gaze looks straight on and does not engage with his attendants, though they all observe him. 

If the figures are read from left to right, the eye starts with the figure holding the towel, passes along the arms of Boone, turns at the figure holding the material towards the figure who washes, then to the figure who pours and the figure who kneels and holds the bowl of water. This kneeling figure begins an upward journey of energy back to the starting point. Hermetically, this movement is the ritual pentagram that invokes water and fits with the painting's focus on psychic and cultural cleansing. In her preface to Jared French's Myths, Nancy Grimes notes that though he was a talented figurative artist like the others in his circle of artists, Cadmus, Perlin and Tooker, French drew his figures according to Renaissance proportions inspired by Leon Battista Alberti. 

Mid-career, 1940s-1950s, French began a categorisation of his symbolical world. He envisaged 7 categories (rather like the 7 Liberal Arts of the Medieval and Renaissance World). Each of these categories sub-divided into 7 functions giving 49 contents all in all. This hermetical framework, with echoes of the Red Rose of the Rosy Cross and its 49 petals, was a grid of references, some of which became paintings. The category "Creation" was split into Chaos, Decoration, Painting, Prose, Poetry, Music and Sculpture. 

It is unfortunate that French's paintings are largely unknown today and surface only superficially in the world of imagery. The re-creation of "The Double" as a fashion campaign by Dolce and Gabbana is an act of profanity and stupidity.

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

The Trickster and Creativity.

Lewis Hyde’s probing work makes an interesting read. His style of writing, though it lacks the alchemical/poetic precision of Bachelard, is rich and provocative. It was Blake, almost 200 years ago, who imagined a world beyond good and evil and simple binary oppositions. He was able to dream beyond God, Ratio, Reason and Urizen. The other side of the equation was always needed. In one sense, Hyde’s work takes off from this point. He argues for “disruptive imagination” as a balance to order. His survey of the trickster gods shows the dark side of culture: a vital side of culture.

Jung and Kerenyi, in the middle of the last century, wrote telling studies of mythology. Powerful, imaginative works. But there world was invariably a classical one. Hyde’s achievement is that he investigates and includes a wider view of mythology. His heroes are Hermes and Mercury, but also Coyote, Loki, and Eshu (of course!)

Trickster makes the World is divided into 12 chapters, a sort of anti-Homer. Of particular interest are “The God of the Crossroads”, “Speechless Shame and Shameless Speech”, “Trickster Arts and Works of Artus”, and a fascinating section on the racial perceptions of Frederick Douglass: “Frederick Douglass and Eshu’s Hat”.

In “Trickster Arts and the works of Artus”, Hyde summarises the “disruptive imagination as this:

“Attacking the joints to actually destroy something, or attacking the joints so as to change the shape of things: these are the first two senses in which tricksters are artus-workers and their creations works of artus.”

Art is art-iculation, a joining of bones, as it were, and tricksters work to re-arrange the skeleton of the body-politic, to show its darker and deeper realities. Tricksters (especially as artists) work with moving joints, joints that can slip in and out of place. Trickster novelists are those that dislocate the novel or poem to create a different awareness of place. It’s a pity that Hyde (as a creative writing professor) did not pursue these theme into details, but perhaps that is for others to do. Hyde’s conception of artist-trickster is an important image for the study of Marechera. As an artist, he was well aware of the trickster in African mythology—how art is rooted in dirt—and what modern critics have described as “carnival” in Marechera’s work really ought to be viewed as the trickster at work. Marechera’s constant disclocation of the modern novel is not an act of madness, but an example of the “disruptive imagination” at work.

Very interesting is Hyde’s belief that the Trickster and the Shaman stand as poles. Both are marginal figures. Yet they are very different in nature. The Shaman, though operating in an ambiguous world, must show single-minded purpose. The ambiguous trickster operates in a single-minded world so as to open that world to double-sided contradictions. The story of Eshu disturbing the peace of mind shared by devoted friends exemplifies this distinction. Eshu does not tolerate single-minded simplicity. Humour, for Hyde, identifies the trickster: with humour the world begins to slide. (Think of Joyce in Finnegan's Wake or Rushdie in Haroun and the Sea of Stories).

Trickster makes this World is a penetrating survey of discontinuity, a great source of disruptive ideas.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Isaac Julien: the hermetical attendant.

The Attendant: Isaac Julien . The film opens with a view of Biard’s Slaves on the West Coast (1833). In a mid-ground between natural light and darkness, the evils of slavery unfold—it is a scene in which Black slave traders participate in White colonial trade and a laid-back White civilisation controls with active violence.

From here, the film moves to a shot of an art gallery. Not the Wilberforce Museum, but the Tate Gallery, London, whose white classical pillars represent an empire built on slavery and Greek, Platonic thought, the ideal love of White male for White male: Jamaican sugar paid for its creation. The fear that haunted slavery is then transposed into a single image, the Attendant’s black glove, and the connection between Black skin and Black leather, how high art turns Blackness into a fetish.

Inside the hermetic space of an art gallery, visitors come to spectate the pictures. For these observers, they are stable images, but in the mind of The Attendant they take personal resonances, coming into full-colour after the closing of the museum, when The Attendant is left alone with his fantasies.

A visual narrative begins as The Attendant and The Visitor meet. Two angel figures circulate the heads of each figure. White Eros circles the Visitor and Black Eros circles The Attendant. The figures resemble the so-called Statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus, London—correctly, a version of the Angel of Charity/Love. The charity that The Attendant and The Visitor offer each other is bound up (literally) with sadomasochistic desire.

It was a condition of filming for Time CodeThe Attendant was created for a series called Double Lives—that there should be no spoken dialogue in the film. This requirement fits well with the hermetical silence of an art gallery where the world is pursued in muted tones. The silence of the art gallery appears as a conspiratorial silence as the The Attendant and The Visitor meet. Only once is sound heard in the film. Not a conversation, but a series of groans heard through the wall by The Attendant’s wife, The Conservator. The sealed kiss between husband and wife operates, as Julien puts it, as an “alibi”. The Attendant’s world exists because the The Conservator conserves it just as they both exist because the high art world employs them. They exist in a bound relationship (enslaved) to the history of high art and White culture and heterosexism.

The Attendant and The Visitor relate, not through cost (as in Looking for Langston) but through costume. In the film shot where they stand side-by-side, almost as 3D cut-outs from the drawings of Tom of Finland, they stand as the opposite of each other. The White Visitor wears the Black leather uniform of sexual desire. The Black Attendant wears the White Wool Uniform desired by society. If leather suggests the fetishism of Black skin, so wool intimates the heritage of slavery. Both are held, through costume, to a history of bondage.

In “Confessions of a Snow Queen”, Julien problematically attaches a positive reading of this seemingly negative image. He asks if the Black male playing a slave role in an s/m fantasy might not be seen as parody, as a creative act against cultural domination. (This is part of what Mercer asked about Mapplethorpe. Are the Black figures in his photographs creative as well as being created? Do they not create a space for their desires? Interestingly, Doy attempted to answer that question by finding the viewpoints of Mapplethorpe’s models: the result, like the art gallery, was silence. A neat thought, but there is not much evidence that being photographed by Mapplethorpe was a liberating experience). At this point in the film, where the shot is head-on and challenging, Julien is posing questions about inter-racial desire and if it fits in with mainstream culture.

The closing of The Attendant, finally, recedes into black and white and then returns to colour. Two visual narratives are juxtaposed. They seem to be separate, but really flow into one another. To begin this sequence, The Attendant is seen as an opera singer performing Purcell. The image of The Attendant finding a voice concentrates many allusions (high art echoes). The tradition of young men singing female parts in seventeenth century opera is opened out: a deception becomes obvious…in Julien’s film the singer is openly male…and openly Black. There is a kind of transparency. By aligning The Attendant with Dido, however, Julien also brings in two historical echoes: Dido was a traditional name for a female Black slave; Dido’s death—because of Aeneas’ rejection— led to the founding of Rome and empire. Black and white histories collide around the question of imperialism, oppression and silence. Yes, The Attendant finds voice, but only as an attendant who waits upon language and expression. (Julien’s Young Soul Rebels (1991) pleased few, partly because it relied upon a received narrative film style and the inter-racial element delighted neither Black nor White gay men: the White mainstream did not want a film about a Black gay man and the Black current did not want to see a literally mixed storyline that denied Black containment, what Julien termed the “Black is, Black ain’t” box.

Furthermore, The Attendant sings “Thy hand Belinda”, a prelude to death. This brings to mind the hand of The Attendant which opened the film. And doesn’t an Attendant give a helping-hand? The hand image is also repeated openly in the hand-clapping of The Conservator, whose slow hand beat mimes the deliberate stroke of The Visitor’s whip, who, like a queen herself, is the audience to The Attendant’s performance (just as she was the voyeur to his sexual performance in the art gallery). The Attendant’s “Remember me” is an operatic climax that in the context of the film sounds like a Black lover’s request to his White partner. One doubts, however, that this transaction has much to do with remembering names. In Dido and Aeneas, the queen’s death is followed by the entrance of Cupids. They come to attend and watch over her. In The Attendant, the chorus of Cupids is replaced by a gay Black Queen (Roy Brown) who is surrounded by White angels. The closing of the film is deliberately voyeuristic towards the central Black image, caressing the body’s golden cloth and pectoral jewel as it contrasts the power of the Black male with the obedient white angels. Black Dido turns into Black Eros—whose beauty is attended by white cupids.

The finale of The Attendant does not deny Black beauty (as shown by Beauty in Looking for Langston). It intimates rather that the power of Black Eros is more than closeted dreams. Silencing the dialogue of Black essentialism and White essentialism in the film, allows another thought to emerge. White culture has sought its own narcissistic image and watched it fade away. Black desire has become a loud echo in the mountainous halls of high art. Julien is facing the shadow of the Harlem Renaissance in The Attendant: how White patrons created by manipulating the Black image. In this sense, his short film of 1993 carries on from his position in 1989. But there is a change of approach. The secrecy of Black desire produced an unhealthy state for creativity. By opening Black desire, Julien wants to free creativity from notions of disease, so much so that inter-racial relationships are seen creatively as signs of life. A Black male desiring a White male need not be a surrender to White imperialism, just as a White male desiring a Black male does not have to be an expression of White domination, if the diseased discourse of slave-master is abandoned for something healthier.

The problem here is that Art does not always mirror Life and the idealism of Julien belongs more to the world of high art than life. The Attendant is a thought provoking piece of film making, yet it probably only has a currency in a salacious world that will mis-read it (as with Mapplethorpe) as shock art.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

"The Hermetic Double" by Jared French.

"The Double" by Jared French: is its imagery racist?

Jared French was born in New York, 1905. Like many artists who followed European thought, he left the USA and died, in seclusion, in Rome, 1988. French was fascinated by mystery, but moved beyond Magical Realism into a world view that accepted Jungian trains of thought and mythology. Part of the mystery, in French’s work, comes from realism (quality figure drawing) and the surreal. “The Double” c1950 shows this exactly.

“The Double” operates like a piece of music without a key signature…only at the end of the piece, in the Black figure, does the key become clear.

Seemingly, “The Double” begins in its background. From an industrial background a Victorian matriarch emerges. Dressed in black, with a blood red wreath and crowned with a phallic feather, she stands (literally in the painting) for the linking of Eros and Thanatos, sex and death. She carries a shadowy parasol, but its relevance is not clear as yet. (The 8 pointed parasol points to arachnida and spider webs-- the matriarch is envisaged as a Black Widow, a women in Victorian mourning with the ability to poison male lovers). Out of the grave, a White male rises. As Grimes rightly observes, this is a resurrection scenario. If the oppressive matriarch represents how cultural deathliness drives generations on—a forward backwardness—so the transfigured youth, born out of death into life, seems to stand for life coming from the dark/deathly subconscious. The third youthful male (some critics see the figure as female, though this makes no real sense in a painting about Oedipal conflict and son-mother bonding) beckons towards the rising figure, as if the figure is a projection of his nature. Dressed in green and red, full of bloody innocence, this figure kneels. He is alive to the vision, but unable to fully participate. He is swaddled in clothes, at once entranced but bound up, quite simply: over-protected. French’s final figure is a physical Black male. For French, this figure represents solar consciousness. He is a medial figure, neither entirely clothed nor entirely naked. His nature “sits on the fence” between the conscious and the sub-conscious. The vigorous Black male is not shaded from the sun. French is responding to the lumination of black skin (almost as a fetishist) and seeing the Black male as a figure entirely possessed by consciousness. This stands in opposition to the White resurrection figure whose paleness comes from a dark subconscious life without solar consciousness. The Black figure allows a re-reading now of the other two figures. The sallow young man’s hat shows a life screened off from consciousness. The black parasol of the elderly female reveals that she is a symbol which shuns consciousness: she is not the life-giving Anima, but a death force that merely gives animation.

“The Double” is a mystery that uses the Black male figure as its key. It works through an unsettling mythology, however, which reflects the psychology of race in the 1950s. The White male is the cultured self, full of inner life, too much so, and is overwhelmed consequently by sub-conscious drives from the past. The Black male is the natural self, without an inner life, and is a being therefore grounded in consciousness and the present. French does not allow his symbolism to resort to Primitivism and its deification of the Black male. He rather keeps the Black male at a distance, on the edge of his canvas and thought, as a convenient symbol. By taking up the racist imagery within Jungian/alchemical thought, French has created his own mythology, a mythology that creates a startling mystery and an unsettling revelation.