Jim Sienkiewicz's Blog

Jim Sienkiewicz's thoughts on his own and others' photography

“Religion & Conflict” conference at Florida State University

I recently traveled to Tallahassee to deliver a paper for a graduate conference on “Religion & Conflict”.  Here is a link to my discussion of the event as posted on the Center for Art and Religion at the Graduate Theological Union’s blog.

CARE blog/”Religion & Conflict”

“Thoughtful Dog” magazine, Derrick Jensen

“Thoughtful Dog”-Jim Sienkiewicz, Derrick Jensen

Some of my photography was just featured in an online literary magazine. Check it out if you have the chance.

Jim

Brown Bag Lecture at the Doug Adams Gallery

I will be delivering an informal lecture on Friday, November 4, 2016 at the Doug Adams Gallery on the campus of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.  The lecture begins at noon and will be focused on aesthetic iconography and its relationship to death in contemporary artworks, and in particular the exhibition by Anne Tait that I reviewed last year.  Hope you can make it.

Jim

http://www.care-gtu.org/events

“The Papyrus in the Crocodile: 150 Years of Exploration, Excavation, Collection & Stewardship at Berkeley”

The year-long course I have been a student in at UC Berkeley is having its curated exhibition open next Thursday, May 5. Subject areas ranging from Ancient Egypt to Asia to the Americas and the Western Natural landscape are featured in our exhibition that will be on display until July 29 at the Bancroft Gallery on the UC campus.

Here is a link to some information about it on UC Berkeley’s website.

Jim

2015 CARE Writing Prize awarded to Jim Sienkiewicz

I was recently notified that an exhibition review I wrote was awarded the CARE (Center for Arts, Religion & Education) writing prize for Fall 2015. Here is the link to my discussion of artist Anne Tait and her work on view at the Doug Adams Gallery at the Graduate Theological Union.

https://carepackagegtu.wordpress.com/2015/10/28/fall-2015-writing-prize-recipient-jim-sienkiewicz/

Robert Williams at the Sonoma County Art Museum

“Slang Aesthetics: The Art of Robert Williams”
June 5 – September 20, 2015

How about we start with a scenario that seems reminiscent of the classic lead-in to a joke: “three guys walk into a…” (in this case) art museum. Said three gentleman come from different backgrounds and walks of life and upon entering the exhibition space each man reacts differently to the art he sees before him. There are three possible responses these men will have to the large collection of work created by Robert Williams, former artist for Zap comics and the founder of Juxtapoz magazine. The first chap, your average middle class suburbanite out for a little dash of culture, may find himself taken aback by the subject matter at hand. While he might be able to understand the imagery and its representational quality more easily than the seemingly unintelligible series of lines and paint splashes characteristic of the “high art” he has previously been exposed to, he still comes to the determination that the gaudy color schemes, depictions of nude females and general references to the low brow are in poor taste and perhaps obnoxious in their lack of subtlety. The second museum-goer is young, hip(ster), and open to the experience. He confronts these same icons with a sense of humor and finds many of the pictures quite funny and sarcastic in their less than tongue in cheek suggestions. Refreshed by an artist who in his 70’s still manages to seem relevant and tuned into the world around him, this attendee walks away with a strong appreciation of William’s approach. The third and undoubtedly most troublesome of these exhibit goers is that of the informed and art educated personage ready to pounce on the assault of cultural aesthetics he came to the gallery to witness first hand. Prone to flamboyant confabulation on subjects of this ill-reputed ilk, he readies to launch his wellspring of academic criticisms on the paintings but ultimately finds himself unable to utter any tirades with an honest tongue. It seems as if the pulp imagery confronting him is visually alluring and witty in its parade of tropes and societal taboos. The man, now thoroughly nonplussed, manages to eke out a reluctant grin, as if to say to the artist “well done, well done”. With this signal of surrender the gentleman proceeds through the gallery and continues to glance behind the dark veil he has found pulled back before him.

The 52 paintings, works on paper, and sculptures on view in “Slang Aesthetics” provide a chronological sweep of the last thirty years of Robert Williams’ artistic output. The three-dimnesional objects in particular demand a great deal of attention, especially the two large fiberglass pieces that occupy the central and furthest reaches of the gallery. “The Rapacious Wheel” is a cartoon behemoth come to life, conjuring up imagery from Little Shop of Horrors. After having recently read “The Langoliers” I can also imagine this static yet fearsome pop creature as a representation of the earth swallowing monstrosities that populate the alternate reality created by that story’s author Stephen King. Another sculpture on a grand scale entitled “Errant Levity” similarly calls to mind other media references, in this case Ren & Stimpy and Beetlejuice, and hybridizes the forms of an ecstatic jockey with that of his steed, the tongue of the rider merging into the corpus of the horse generating a 21st century centaur of ignoble birth. Curiously a small puff of dust rests behind the figure (suggesting movement), repeating the motif found in “The Rapacious Wheel”, which also emerges from a cloud of torrential activity.

Robert Williams, "The Rapacious Wheel", 2013

Robert Williams, “The Rapacious Wheel”, 2013

There were many interesting paintings in this show and they benefited from the substantial number of captions written by Williams himself. A 1985 painting of a nude female poised next to a skeleton exposing himself (the reveal being his intestines rather than his genitals) cleverly pokes fun at the sanctity of both the subject matters of death and artistic nudes as well as the mock seriousness often accompanying discussions of art. Williams has offered up three titles for the piece. The actual name of the oil on canvas is “A Star-Crossed Liaison Punctuated By The Display Of Each Other’s Best Parts”. An alternate “academic title” is given as “Pamela Mistakes The Geometric Dance of Death For The Aztec Mummy Salute” and additionally a common/everyman’s epigram of “Mooning The Dead”.

While Williams’ pictorial references to surrealism are abound, an attack against abstract art in general and Abstract Expressionism in particular is also communicated through the narrative sequences and captions accompanying the iconography. An audio interview with Williams provided on the museum’s website features the artist’s discussion of how his early art school education of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s held up the Abstract Expressionists as the ultimate paradigm of modern painting. The realism and craftsmanship evident in Williams’ work led to his becoming an object of derision from his teachers and peers, calling Williams “the Illustrator” and debasing his technique as commercial and mundane. A touch of poetic justice/revenge is discernible in many pieces but in 2013’s “The Decline of Sophistication” perhaps the artist sets up his most biting visual and linguistic counterblow. This tableau bases its central theme around good taste and the various symbols of it, or against it: the university facade with the carnival tent exterior, the salacious depiction of the entwined couple, the white trash junkyard set against a virtual “desert of the mind”. The evolutionary nod to the scholarly monkey being the current manifestation of old world civility and the specific dates listed on the tombstone even reference the founding of Williams’ own publication Juxtapoz in 1994. The clever caption for the image never approaches the sardonic, even if the painting does. One great line amongst many in this title card is the parting shot at the end of the statement, delivering a punchy summation of Williams’ larger body of work’s own mélange of classic craft and materials with the common and trite subjects of his own time. This phrase also serves as a fitting end piece to the experience of seeing this exhibit and the thoughts that are generated in viewing it: “Let he who has not seen the ram mate with the sow stand omnipotently above us, for he shall never know the taste of mutton bacon”.

Robert Williams, "The Decline of Sophistication", 2013

Robert Williams, “The Decline of Sophistication”, 2013

Pop Art at the Sonoma County Museum

“Andy Warhol to Kara Walker: Picturing the Iconic”
Sonoma County Museum, Santa Rosa, CA
April 12-May 24, 2015

Now that my teaching duties have wrapped up for the spring semester I took the opportunity this past week to view the current exhibit at the Sonoma County Museum. I was lucky to see this show in its final days as many of the artists and pieces are difficult to view in any one place at one time outside of a major collection such as the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art or the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For a small venue like the Sonoma County Museum to put on a show of this scope (thanks to the loaned artwork of the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation) is quite a coup and the body of work amassed is impressive.

While the show is not quoted as such, this is ostensibly a “Pop Art” collection of imagery. While a few of the more recent artists such as Kara Walker float outside of that categorization, the themes and lineup of artists are strictly within the milieu of said genre. The entire original band was represented: Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, Ruscha and Oldenburg amongst others. While I myself am not an acolyte of the late Andy Warhol I did enjoy his series of classic soup cans as I had never before had the opportunity to see more than one of them displayed together in a single showing. The quality of the silkscreening is superb and the metallic luster of the tops of the cans is a feature that grants these seemingly generic typological objects a presence in the gallery that is lost in media such as the book or online.

Andy Warhol, "Campbell's Soup Cans"

Another pairing of graphic works that I found curious were architectural blueprints created by Mark Bennett in 1997. These lithographs detailed the floor plans of the fictional homes of Genie from I Dream of Genie and The Flintstones respectively. The Genie diagram included both an overhead layout and an exterior elevation of the lamp that houses the single chamber dwelling within. I was bemused that while there are several couches and areas where one might relax and lounge away the long periods of inactivity that accompany the genie lifestyle, there was no inclusion of a sink or any “toilette”. I guess we are not meant to go that deep as casual viewers. The abode of the Flintstones was more detailed and complex in its mapping of the famous cartoon’s living quarters. I thought these pieces rather clever in how they appropriated the traditional pop culture subject matters of the larger movement but also added more of a witty commentary and personal flare than the often cold and objective treatment granted by artists such as Jeff Koons or Richard Prince. Speaking of Prince, who has recently been selling enlarged screen shots of Instagram user’s postings in galleries for upwards of six figures, one can trace how the evolution of Pop Art blended with the conceptual priorities of the late 1960’s/early 1970’s American art scene and led to, along with other more fertile territories, the intellectual and cultural wasteland represented by millionaire garbage artists such as Koons, Prince, Richard Pettibone and British contemporaries like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emins. These individuals are the unfortunate afterbirth of an unctuous system of reciprocal art world fellatio that has seen record prices commanded for artifacts of increasingly poor and sophomoric tastes. It was my specific displeasure to spy a photographic representation of Koon’s infamous Michael Jackson and Bubbles sculpture included in the show. I dared not linger too long in viewing it as I could sense my brain cells cannibalizing themselves in response to the optical stimuli I had unintentionally inflicted upon them.

Mark Bennett, "Home of Fred and Wilma Flinstone", 1997

Ending on a brighter (yet topically more serious) note, the exhibit culminated in works by more recent artists such as David Levinthal and Kara Walker. While Walker’s oeuvre is stylistically appropriate to the company it finds itself in, her silhouetted stage plays related to the history of slavery and racism in the United States are by far the strongest social commentaries featured in the show. The great majority of the exhibition relies on strictly aesthetic or tongue in cheek references to the image and media culture we have become so saturated by over the past half century, but Walker’s pictures harken back to not only an older period (antebellum America) but also utilize the stark convention of her silhouetted figures to force the audience into a confrontation with its nation’s history and morality. This is a fitting finale to a collection of images that at first aim to only aestheticize the residue of mass media and entertainment and progress towards art as an intervention of social conscience and contemplation.

Kara Walker, "The Means to an End...A Shadow Drama in Five Acts", 1995

The Historical Inaccuracy of Fredric Miller

Fredric Miller

Perhaps you have seen the commercials for “Ancestry.com”, a website designed to help people trace their family tree and unearth details about their ancestors and their accomplishments. One of the company’s most recent television spots features Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address in 1863 with the advertisement depicting the president delivering his speech in front of a large crowd. All the while the camera pans across the scene before fixing on the figure of a photographer who is documenting the event. The individual later identified as Fredric Miller is shown working underneath the dark cloth of his 8 x 10″ view camera and then repositioning to remove the lens cap in advance of taking a picture of Lincoln and the assembly. While there are in fact two known photographs of the address being delivered, there are a few problems with the accuracy of the fictitious photographer presented to us by Ancestry.

Here is a link to the spot: http://www.ispot.tv/share/7ryD

First off the available light is all wrong. In this mid-nineteenth century era of wet-plate collodion photography even midday exposures would have necessitated an average of 3 seconds for sharp pictures, with subjects needing to remain deathly still during the process. This fact would cause the non-posed people in the commercial to undoubtedly be rendered as blurred in any resulting photograph. The artificial reality of the weak backlighting from the November sunset is also something that would have increased the capture time dramatically and additionally led to no figure appearing crisp in the final picture. Look closely when Miller is under the dark cloth behind the camera. What is he doing? He certainly isn’t loading the film holder and if he is focusing the image on the ground glass then how come the lens cap is on? No matter what the circumstances, once the photographer emerges from his shadowed chamber he proceeds to free the lens of its felted encumbrance, but to what end? He hasn’t pulled the slide out of the holder and therefore there is no possibility of creating an image.

I know, I know. This might seem picayune and trivial, but if physicists like Neil Degrasse Tyson can deconstruct the scientific errors in films such as Gravity then I feel justified in doing the same in the case of Ancestry.com. Similar to Dr. Tyson who enjoyed the film he picked apart, I also liked the Ancestry commercial and its focus on a historical type of picture-making. The ad is shot wonderfully and the music is quite lovely as well.

For an idea of what one of the authentic photographs of Lincoln’s address looks like consult the picture at the end of this writing. This image was made at high noon with the fastest possible exposure time and still the figures appear extremely soft. Even the president who is visible two heads left of the gentleman with the top hat in the center of the frame is noticeably fuzzy in depiction.

unknown photographer, "Gettsyburg Address", 1863

unknown photographer, “Gettysburg Address”, 1863

Lumen Prints

These are Lumen Prints, a photographic process that generates a unique and experimental image created entirely through “solar development”. An object is placed on gelatin-silver photographic paper for an extended period of time and then placed in fixer in the darkroom. The color is unpredictable and immediately changes once the image touches the fix. (This can be witnessed in the color variation in the image of the laurel leaves versus its eventual final result.) All of these prints were exposed to the sun between 45 and 90 minutes. Enjoy!

P.S. I am hoping to feature more darkroom processes on this blog in the future with this being one of the first besides the traditional black & white prints I have previously posted.

Stream Violet

Sword Fern

Laurel

Lumen Print technique

Reminiscing about Arizona

Alicia and I will be off to Arizona in a few weeks and a recent print in the darkroom has me anxiously awaiting a return to the desert. I made this picture a few years ago but only recently printed it this past month. I used to always drive back to visit my father in AZ, but alas this coming trip will be via air. Still, while we may get there quicker, there is something to be said about the call of the open road and sights less seen.

Arizona-2010