Category Archives: review

Art and Activism (book review)

The textbook for the Art Appreciation class I taught last year offered a chapter on protest art, an umbrella term encompassing artwork related to contestation – from caricatures of the 18th and 19th century to Pussy Riot performances. I asked students: why do the first examples of protest art – according to the textbook, at least – came into existence only a couple of centuries ago? Was conflict not there before, or perhaps it didn’t employ art? While this depends on the definition we choose for conflict and for art, what is normally conserved and transmitted through time is institutionally sponsored art; if it expresses conflict, that will be with other institutions and it would definitely not be considered protest art today. This led to an interesting discussion on how conflict and art intersect and how protest can be even identified in past cultural phenomena.
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Fashion photography in a new light (Bruce Weber at the Dallas Contemporary)

 

bruceweber2

Lonneke Engel for Versus, 1996, gracefully shot by Bruce Weber

Bruce Weber, a noted fashion photographer with a long and distinguished career, is having a retrospective exhibition at the Dallas Contemporary. It is fascinating for many reasons, but first of all because an exhibition venue known mainly for installations and projections has dedicated almost its entire gigantic space to a solo show of this kind of “traditional” photography. But also – and especially – because it offers an unusual view of fashion photography as it is.
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The Floating Piers by Christo as a quasi religious experience

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It was a privilege to walk  Christo’s Floating Piers on the first day of the project. They are the ultimate sensorial experience: all about touch, vision, and whole body mobilization: it felt so light yet the day after everything feels sore. Continue reading

Clotheslines

Untitled, New York, 1930 PDNB Acc # 0085

John Albok, Untitled, New York, 1930
PDNB Acc # 0085

This is about clotheslines.  The feel of serenity, the association with the lifegiving powers of the sun, the metaphors for human connections. I miss them so much and their simple graphic beauty that everything that looks like rectangles on a line, e.g. traditional Mexican papel picado banners, gives me the joy of laundry art associations. Because I also see them as a serendipitous art form in itself – along with being a meaningful social phenomenon.

The inspiration for all this is John Albok’s photographs at the Photographs Do Not Bend Gallery in Dallas. They surely present the full panopticum of clotheslines symbolism and motifs you can find in a city. There’s the  loneliness of the isolated human figure, suspended in space, in the shape of an empty dress. Or the connections between people housed in the grey buildings of a dense urban space. The intimacy of our inner thoughts that we unwittingly display in public, to air them. The festivity of small laundered items that look like flag pennants on a ship. The comforting beauty of criss-crossing lines that connect everything.  Continue reading

China Through the Lens of John Thomson at the Crow Collection of Asian Art

John Thompson: Manchu Bride, Peking, Penchilie province, China Photo Courtesy of Wellcome Library, London

John Thompson: Manchu Bride, Peking, Penchilie province, China Photo Courtesy of Wellcome Library, London

At a time when neither Leicas nor iPhones existed yet and photography was quite a serious affair involving assistants, coolies and fragile heavy equipment, you’d think photojournalism would be impossible. Yet it was in those early years when a Scottish photographer – John Thomson (1837-1921) – laid the foundations of photojournalism with the social documentary work he did in China in the 1860s. His photographs from those years can be now seen in their first exhibition ever at the Crow Collection of Asian Art in Dallas.

It is an exceptional exhibition on so many levels. Of course, the first appeal is the chance to see what China was really like in an era when cameras didn’t roam its lands – the great diversity of peoples, life and traditions, many of which are now extinct. And Thomson pointed his camera to street porters and high-rank officials, rejected ethnic minorities and respected monks alike.

The most compelling feature of his photography  though was his cultural sensitivity and his poignantly humanistic approach as an observer and a photographer at a time of which we are used to expect cultural paternalism and a focus on the exotic. While looking at a reality and people so different from his own, he saw not just types but their distinct personalities. When witnessing social phenomena dramatically different from what he knew, he didn’t point at their weirdness but found parallels with those at home. And he did it through photographic means. Continue reading

Frida Kahlo: Her Photos

Book cover of Frida Kahlo: Her Photos. The cover image is of Frida at age 20, taken by her father

If perusing someone’s personal library is a way to understand their inner world, browsing the photo archive of one of 20th century’s most important artistic figures is a bonanza for understanding the visual world from which their art came. Surprisingly enough, we didn’t have access privileges to Frida Kahlo’s visual archive until recently. The book Frida Kahlo: Her Photos  shows it for the first time. Divided in several sections (“Mother”, “Father”, “Casa Azul”, “The Broken Body”, “Political Action”, etc), it encompasses family pictures, photographs taken of her, by her, given to her. For someone who so carefully crafted her image in so many ways, who made herself into a character of a larger story that is only partially contained in her art, the archive is an indispensable tool for understanding Frida as a work of art herself. Continue reading

Che Guevara the photographer

Photography, or at least this famous picture ,  has been crucial for the spread of Che Guevara’s image worldwide – and perhaps for the creation of his cult as well. But few people know that he was an avid photographer himself.  In fact, he’s said that before becoming a comandante he was a photographer. Continue reading