Jim Sienkiewicz's Blog

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

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/

Advertisements

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

Recent Prints

Here are some of the recent prints I have been making in my darkroom.

Buck

Alicia, Eel River

Waterfall, Yelapa, Mexico

Two Bullriders, Bakersfield Rodeo

Georgia O’Keefe at the deYoung

Georgia O'Keefe-Storm Cloud, Lake George-1923

Exhibition dates: February 15-May 11, 2014

I recently visited the deYoung Museum to see the Georgia O’Keefe “Lake George” retrospective and walked away having enjoyed much of the work. There were a few pieces that seem included but for their reference to the stated theme alone, but in general the exhibition was strong and insightful with concern to the seeds of natural exploration that had been sown during O’Keefe’s time in New York and later brought to fruition in the artist’s best known paintings of the New Mexico years.

Coming off of the massive David Hockney show that had previously been on display at the museum, it was hard not to conceive of the O’Keefe exhibit as intimate in scale. There were essentially five rooms of various sizes that displayed the artist’s Lake George paintings as well as contemporary photographs and images by other artists that shed light on the themes and intellectual currents present in the canvases of O’Keefe. I must say that while most museums and the deYoung in particular always pay great attention to the arrangement of the artworks and their lighting, the quality of light present in this exhibition is quite beautiful and produced an effect akin to a glowing window in many of the pictures. The watercolors especially seemed to radiate light and generated an impression of transparency.

I was happy to see towards the finale of the exhibition that some of O’Keefe’s early “Precisionist” style work was included. This period is probably the least known of the artist’s oeuvre, but one look at classic New York moodscapes like “Radiator Building” and other urban abstractions enhances the reputation and range of this great painter. I have chosen to include two specific landscape paintings in this blog entry as they are the two images from the show that struck me with the greatest intensity. The dramatic tonalities and subdued color palette of “Storm Cloud, Lake George” (1923) functions similar to a warmtone Romantic style Western landscape in its gravity and emotion while the quiet sunset (or sunrise) depicted in “The Chestnut Grey” (1924) reminds me of my own quiet reverence for the simpler daily recurrences of the natural world and the complimentary play of cyan and peach hues lends an aesthetic aura to an otherwise seemingly cold and distanced formal design.

Georgia O'Keefe-The Chectnut Grey-1924

Cabin Creek

This is some footage of the creek on our property up here in the redwoods. The creek is normally dry but after five days (and counting) of heavy rain the stream is now going full force. Hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Jim

David Hockney-“A Bigger Exhibition”

de Young Museum of San Francisco
October 26, 2013-January 20, 2014

Both in scale and quantity of imagery, “A Bigger Exhibition” lives up to its title in this massive survey of painter David Hockney’s work of the past two decades. Outside of a few examples from earlier periods that establish context, this exhibition program almost exclusively features work from the 2000’s and displays the diversity of the artist’s range in several media in his continuing evolution of style as well as engagement of contemporary technology. Hockney’s investigations and adaptation of photographic techniques and principles dates back to the death throes of Pop Art and Modernism, but the ways in which the painter turned conceptual photographer has embraced such novel platforms as the iPad and digital video are stunningly refreshing and also a promising sign of technology not signaling an inherent end to creativity, but rather a chronological extension of it.

David Hockney-%22More Felled Trees on Woldgate%22-2008

David Hockney-“More Felled Trees on Woldgate” (2008)

While the exhibition press releases and catalog make continued mention of Hockney’s consummate virtuosity of “draftsmanship”, I found this statement to be an unfit description considering the often purposefully rough and slightly unfinished qualities of the works included in the exhibition. This is not to say that Hockney isn’t gifted in his ability to manipulate line and paint, just that the emphasis on this aspect of the artist’s practice seem at odds with the lack of pictorial delineation the painter so often employs to thoroughly evoke texture and atmosphere. One may argue that these are in deed attributes of impeccable drafting, but when a large part of both the show as well as Hockney’s oeuvre concentrate on painting’s relationship to photography, this argument gets lost in some of the points the artist has repeatedly broached over the course of his career.

Take for example the room which displays Hockney’s own camera lucida drawings juxtaposed against a large multi-wall mural of reproductions that depict the evolution of the painted portrait over the course of eight centuries: “The Great Wall”. Beginning with the pre-Renaissance work of Cimabue and cycling through an ever-greater sense of photographic realism in the masters of the following epochs, both the accompanying text statement and the organization of the imagery suggest the potential use of aids to draftsmanship that may have produced the realistic fidelity of painting throughout art history. Hockney ushered in a controversial debate a decade ago with the publication of his “Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters” and its suggestion that artists from Van Eyck to Vermeer utilized camera obscuras and lucidas in order to master perspective and perfect verisimilitude of their subjects. For those unaware, the camera obscura is the forerunner of the contemporary camera and is either an opaque room or box that projects an image from the outside world into the dark interior through a small aperture (without or without glass). This basic principal of optical physics would allow an artist to construct a tent in the landscape or utilize a smaller apparatus and then project and trace an image onto a mounted canvas or support. These techniques date to the Renaissance and the smaller and more portable camera lucida was first introduced in 1807. While Hockney does have strong evidence for his claims that many artists have made use of such tools as aids to their artistic practice, the over-simplified account detailed in the exhibition makes too broad of an assumption. Renaissance figures such as Paolo Uccello created incredibly complex spatial studies that relied heavily on mathematical formula and spatial observation, not the use of a camera obscura. Jan Van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Wedding” (1434) signals a massive breakthrough in the life-like delineation of the human form not only for its photographic perspective and clarity, but also for that master painter’s landmark introduction of oil paint rather than tempera and the resulting vivid colors and textures that render greater illusionistic depth. Even the statement’s assertion that the great Frenchman Ingres was exploiting the camera lucida bears little consequence upon close examination of his famous odalisques and the obvious ways in which the painter has elongated the female form and “mannerized” the human body. Even in the 20th century abstract artist Willem de Kooning was able to so faithfully render a portrait that both his sitters and contemporaries were amazed by his gifts of draftsmanship, often comparing him to Ingres in his absolute mastery of line. While one is less apt to take issue with the claim that many artists have incorporated photographic aids into their work over the centuries, it becomes a specious argument the way in which the exhibition states it, and one that is especially speculative and perhaps politically motivated given the 20th and 21st century painterly practice of using grids (see Chuck Close), slide projectors (see Richard Estes) and even computers and Photoshop (see the scores of realists of the past 20 years) as means of making paintings appear photo-realistic.

David Hockney-%22The Great Wall%22

David Hockney-“The Great Wall” (detail)

On a less contentious note, let us take into consideration the beauty of David Hockney’s recent large-scale landscape paintings in oil and the gorgeous plays of color that make them successful. Hockney is truly a master of color, and this is a feature of the work that should have been played up more than the quality of his draftsmanship. In several canvases the medleys of chroma remind one of Gauguin or Van Gogh and this kinship bears out further likeness in the linear movements created in several pieces. The 2008 painting “More Felled Trees on Woldgate” seems especially reminiscent of some of Van Gogh’s canvases both in their sense of color contrasts and implied spatial dimensions. Many of the charcoal studies and works on paper also evoke similar sensations of texture in the style of Charles Burchfield. The implication of tactility was marvelous and the ways in which Hockney has allowed the negative space and lack of defined contours to create a greater suggestion of substance shows his aptitude for knowing how to utilize a minimal rendition for maximal effect.

Burchfield-Hockney

Comparison of Charles Burchfield’s “Pine Tree and Oriental Poppies” (1955-60) and David Hockney’s “Kilham to Rudston” (2008)

I was also very pleasantly surprised by Hockney’s iPad drawings/paintings which proved to be some of the most interesting work in the show. Both the portraits and landscapes were successful in their manipulation of this new technology (which the artist has used since its inception in 2010) and these pieces seem to glow with a wonderful sense of interior illumination. It is almost as if the backlit projection of the mobile device has been embedded into the reflective surface of the physical prints on dibond that were mounted for the exhibition.

In my opinion the “cubist movies” which Hockney has recently created really stole the show. These pieces were crafted using several digital video cameras mounted to an armature so that a larger scene was captured with multiple perspectives. Calling to mind Paul Cezanne’s disintegration of one-point perspective as well as the Cubist movement in general, these multi-screen installations were stimulating in their off-kilter registration of the same scene as well as their inherent emphasis on perception. A piece with jugglers throwing their implements across a panoramic space was perhaps most dramatic in displaying this re-organization of spatial realities but the landscape pieces were breathtaking for their immersion of the viewer into the space(s) as well as their conceptual structuring. In the same downstairs galleries as the artist’s largest works on canvas, there is one room which exhibits the same East Yorkshire bucolic locale in all four of the distinct seasons. Each piece occupies its own individual wall and all the videos are synchronized as to generate an enveloping encounter with time and weather creating an almost sublime experience. Even with other museum attendees present the pieces create an intimate space for the viewer to become a part of. These digital videos serve as a fitting compliment not only to the nearby painted landscapes but also to the continuing fascination that David Hockney has had with photographic media over the course of his career and his desire to both adapt and go beyond this medium as a counterpart to his oeuvre in painting.