If you’ve been looking at trends, trying to get a sense of what in the heck is going through the minds of contemporary artists, here is a list of five things that they just can’t resist.
1. Their own damn self
What, are you the only one who takes selfies? Nope. Artists do it too. The quintessential photorealist Chuck Close hasn’t let his disability or confinement to a wheelchair keep him from creating this nearly nine-foot high painting of his own damn self! Uh, notice that he’s ever so slightly above our horizon? That’s how he communicates his superiority. He’s making eye contact too, in case you wanted to ignore that fact, he’s gonna make you acknowledge it.
2. Cool People
Again. Do you think you’re the only one obsessed with cool people on Instagram? Nope. Just so you know, I think Barkley L. Hendricks started the whole thing. He made his entire career out of painting coolness itself. I mean, will you look at this painting of Steve? You WANT to be him! What I love about Hendricks is that he made black cool, even in the face of art world racism. Yeah!
3. A little skin…or a lot
Jenny Saville redefines nude figuration AND the female form in her work, no question about it. And boy, does she show some skin. This particular piece topped records in 2016 by fetching close to 9 million dollars at a Sotheby’s auction. Hmmm, cut off, recumbent female nudity, it’s not just for porn.
4. Life’s absurdities
Okay, so this is kind of a two-for…because Yue Minjun’s laughing men not only rub our faces in the absurdities of contemporary life, but they also happen to be self-portraits of sorts. On the forefront of Cynical Realism, Minjun’s work will make you simultaneously wince and giggle. Don’t you just feel like this piece could accompany every single headline about rising sea levels you have ever read? Cuz I do.
5. Big pretty patterns and colors
Oh, you thought contemporary painting is all about real subjects? Actually, quite a great deal is just about formal picture making concerns. Read abstraction. Beatriz Milhazes has made an incredible career painting bold beautiful colors and shapes, some geometric, some flowery.
I think if you look around at the art that is hanging on many people’s walls, you’ll realize that big pretty patterns and colors should really start off the list! It’s the kind of thing artists and art collectors can’t seem to get enough of. Sugar, for sure, eye candy indeed.
Carl Jung interpreted the process of alchemy to that of individuation towards the Self, and the Alchemical Bride series takes a look at this alchemy through a feminist lens.
Maybe it’s the weather, maybe it’s just the transition from teaching to time off, I haven’t much felt like painting in oils. Instead, I have been really enjoying the immediacy of making marks. To me that inevitably leads to drawing and printmaking.
Drawing with a brush, like in the three pieces above is a nice bridge between the layering of marks and medium that oil painting entails. This is different from engraving, where I take a sharp burin and gouge out the lines that will hold ink.
The speed of the mark as well as how hard I press determines the darkness and character of the mark.
Other factors that impact the resulting image include the color of ink and the paper used. For example, Alchemical Bride engraving 1 is printed in Lampblack on a rice paper that while very strong, appears fragile due to its thinness and translucency. By contrast, the bright red ink on the warm white paper of ALchemical Bride engraving 2 lends a sense of heat and pressure to the image.
In Alchemical Bride engraving 3, I mixed my own red and decided to push the heat of the image further by printing on a yellow/tan paper. I wanted the weight and temperature of the inks and paper to increase the squeezing effect on the smiling bride created by the dark marks of the hair above left and the refractions below right. Squeeze!
In this last image, I mixed red and green inks to create a chromatic neutral grey that left a plate tone in each chroma. This way you feel the green and red but don’t really see them creating a tension that alludes to the chemical processes in alchemy.
In this three panel painting, Wet Foot Dry Foot Dancer, I wanted to revisit the immigration exception that privileges Cubans seeking asylum in the USA. Just this week, the captain of Cuba’s soccer team defected to the USA, but is unlikely to end up inside one of the inhumane detention camps that caused the deaths of five children last year.
I don’t use the term asylum loosely when referring to Yasmani Lopez’s defection. While many will look at Cuba’s dire economic status to explain why 54,000 Cubans sought and obtained permanent residency, anyone willing to look past the Castro charm with public relations and revolutionary branding (frankly, I fail to see what is so revolutionary about a dictatorship), will recognize that Cuban citizens are still persecuted for their dissent.
Don’t take my word for it…just Google Tania Bruguera and read about how the Cuban government has detained, interrogated, jailed, and unlawfully seized her passport numerous times, simply for speaking, or inviting others to speak as part of her artwork.
My point, however, is that refugees and immigrants are desperate in their search for freedom, and in their search for a sustainable life. I had a student from Eritrea who routinely went without any food whatsoever for 3-5 days. Week in week out. That was (and continues to be the norm) in a land wracked by famine. When his family won the immigration lottery and was given entry to the USA, he was shocked. He was shocked when he went to school and saw that ALL the children ate lunch. Every. Single. Day. He couldn’t wrap his head around it. I can’t either. How is that kind of crushing suffering not considered an oppression?
I am super and forever grateful to have been granted asylum in the USA. To be a citizen. But this privilege doesn’t blind me to the fact that dehumanizing poverty is every bit as oppressive as a communist dictatorship like Cuba. I don’t think you can put a value of one kind of suffering over another, to say, one kind of immigrant is better than another.
Two Lane Reveries Mixed media on clayboard 10” x 8” from Puer series
Inspiring me today, this quote from Anthony Stevens book, The Two Million Year Old Self, “…in our dreams we speak to the species, and the species answers back.”
According to Jung, our physical biology expresses that which is intangible, archetypal material, that in my mind, is his term for transcendental truths. Jung’s theories of archetypes and the collective unconscious mean that the deep, ancient structures of our brain house not just our personal experiences but also connects us all. Like Freud, he believed dreams also represent aspects of our waking life. We’ve all had these dreams, they’re like mental laundry. But then there are the other dreams…what Jung calls Big Dreams.
Many many years ago I had an amazing dream, I saw a rush of the most pristine water, so beautiful it took my breath away, flowing right in front of me with Orca and dolphins following the salmon. The Old Woman who showed me these marvels told me water used to flow through Olive Street, and I realized this was an intersection I walked past every day. A couple of years ago I found out that the Duwamish believe that this area was all under water. I could not have had this dream without that deep structure in the brain, our collective unconscious, which connects us all. But the nature of that connection…that is still a juicy question I don’t think has been thoroughly answered.
Have you ever had an eery, numinous dream, what Jung would call a big dream? What was it about? Do you keep a dream journal?
I used to, but at one point I stopped. I have always been deeply moved by dreams– I am Cuban after all, with a spiritualism and Santeria background. That I’m a Buddhist now doesn’t change things. I have in my time been bullied about all three histories. American and Western cultures only sanction certain myths and privilege Cartesian rationalism- above everything. Big dreams, spiritual connections, no.
So, I’m reading The Two Million Year Old Self, enjoying every sentence, stopping often to think through the text, agree or disagree as prompted by my mental meanderings.
Something the author isn’t including in his research is the fact that birds, not just mammals dream. Corvidae and Psittacine cognitive research already confirm these species are highly intelligent. Research on zebra finches proves these little birds dream, and anecdotal observations of parrots and cockatiels in captivity show that they also have REM. I think it’s a significant oversight to not consider this fact in exploring the phenomenology of the collective unconscious. In other words, our individual experiences of shared organs of the collective unconscious.
Stevens relates that because our physical brain structures house the reptilian, old mammalian, and neomammalian brains that we share archetypal dreams, structural memories with ancient reptiles and mammals. He explains our recurring dreams of falling, for example, with the experiences of our ancestral mammalian experience of living in the trees and falling. But what about our bird brain? Do we have one? It’s my understanding we have different evolutionaty paths than birds do.
So if we don’t share a bird brain, what about our recurring dreams of flying? Every single person I know has at one time or another dreamt about flight. And I don’t buy Freud’s offhand interpretation that these are mere avoidance mechanisms, though some dreams of flying certainly qualify.
Why? Because I have on many occasions from earliest childhood had dreams of not just flying, but of having to run first to get enough loft under my wings. Dreams where I actually think through the steps, just as I had to think through the steps when I first learned to ride a bike, or to swim. Learning an action is a very specific kind of thinking and experience. So why would I have dreams of learning how to handle my body to get aloft? That’s not an avoidance mechanism. That’s an archetypal code.
Think back on your own dreams about flying…were any of them learning to fly dreams?
What am I getting at? What if the collective unconscious isn’t solely an organic biological structure in the brain, the structures we share with members of our species and it’s evolutionary ancestors? What if it is also a structure that allows us to tune into the unconscious brainwaves of other animals, for example, birds? Like a biological EEG?
What if all the myths of shapeshifting stem from this primal dream experience? What if we bounce around evolutionary memories in the deep structures of the collective unconscious and during sleep catch random brain waves from the animal life around us? I can see an evolutionary advantage to such an ability. Rational observation is fine but doesn’t feed the imagination the way a phenomenological understanding of embodiment does. Didn’t our ancestors need that imagination to be able to rise to the top of the food chain, to mold nature to their needs?
When I get stuck in my painting, I can usually find my way back into a creative space by either drawing or its closely related cousin, printmaking. I’ve been working out ideas through engraving, a technique of directly scribing an image onto a plate. The beauty of engraving is the act of drawing at its most physical and direct. And then, you get to create variances through ink, paper, wipes, etc. The Migrations series isn’t done with me, though I had hoped I could move on, and so I have been spending time in the print studio working.
I pulled a proof today, black ink on chine colle. The colle is a pixilated antique map of Santiago de Cuba. Can you see the body against the map in the print?
I think of this figure as an archetypal hero, arms raised to banish false freedoms. Santiago has always been central to Cuban independence and freedom. The birthplace of El Titan de Bronze, the home of Frank Pais, and it was from a balcony in Santiago that Fidel Castro declared the revolution a success on January 1, 1959. Santiago de Cuba is also where La Trampa was sited, the camp for political dissidents I was carted off to at the age of 6 with my family. My brother was 8. We must have been so dangerous to Cuba’s freedom and revolution!
When I think of my catastrophic experience of Cuba’s “freedom” I’m overwhelmed with gratitude to be here, in the USA as an American citizen. It’s true that I have found freedom here, that it is here that I fell in love with my California sunshine– my husband Scott– as red-blooded American homegrown as they get. In my heart and mind, I think of the USA as the land of the free and the brave. How tragic that now I can’t help but also think of the young Latinx children incarcerated at the border…they must be very dangerous to the American way of life, to the USA. Like my brother and I were to the Cuban government?
I thought I was done with the Migrations series, of wrestling with the Hanged Man archetype, but it seems like I am not. This week I learned that I didn’t get the funding for a project which merges the symbolism of borders, disenfranchisement, and political punishment with that of the archetype of the Union of Opposites, or the Lovers.
That’s okay. I’ll keep knocking til they let me in.
In conversation with a student this past week over identity politics, the vulnerabilities we face when traveling abroad as an American and coming back home as a person of color…what scrutinies do we face in our privilege on the one hand, and our disenfranchisement on the other?
To what extent are we our social status and history, are we our biology? The young artist I was speaking to wants to visit his ancestral home of Iran. Like me, he has fair skin and dark hair. Those that are bent on projecting the racial binarism of the USA onto all others would call him white. As they have me on occasion.
They don’t care that my family was kicked out of a restaurant because “No dogs, no Cubans, no N-word allowed.” Or the times I was told to swim home. Or the times I have been yelled at to speak English or American when I’ve been on the phone speaking Spanish. Or how my bank of over 25 years called to ask me if I was an American citizen shortly after Trump was elected president. I’m not the only one either!
Were they hoping they could report me to ICE and seize my accounts and property? I know Trump lost the popular vote, but not by a statistically significant majority. With a couple of neighbors that flaunt Confederacy flags I would have to be Pollyannaish to feel like my citizenship insulates me. It didn’t insulate Japanese-Americans during WWII. Even those born here.
It’s part of the reason why deracinating the Latinx body is a micro-aggressive act that feels like my very bones are being beaten out of my skin. What’s purpose anyway? There’s no triage for our hurt, our disenfranchisement, for the systemic exclusions of entrenched racisms? Everyone bleeds from deep cuts.
Identity and embodiment go hand in hand. And embodiment is serious business.
This young artist, he thinks that being an American citizen will insulate him from political malice when he travels abroad. I don’t think Trump would blink if something were to happen to him.
He was born here…but he’s a hyphen. Couldn’t we all write a whole tome about what that means?!
The questions of individual-social, or biology-identity are complex. Such rich territory for phenomenological and creative exploration…in any media, in any discipline! And it all begins with our embodiment.
I can’t for the life of me understand academics and artists who think figuration is somehow a lesser creative endeavor. They must have taken the biggest gulp of Cartesian Cool-aid!
I took my students to the Seattle Art Museum today, in preparation for the drawing Final. In conversation with one of the emerging artists in class, I found out that she had taught high school for five years before the system broke her.
Like me, she’s uncomfortable speaking in front of a class, so she marveled at how personable I am, despite introversion. Being personable is easy for me because though introverted I honest to goodness like people. All different kinds of people– they don’t have to agree with my politics or like what I like for me to enjoy their stories and points of view. I know that in our highly polarized world that’s unusual. But I was fortunate enough to have a socialist father and fascist mother who fell in love and married just 12 days after their initial meeting. From them, I learned that hearts don’t have to be defined or constrained by isms of any kind.
What’s always hard for me is the return to the classroom, standing at the front, with all eyes on me. It usually gives me insomnia the first week of each term, due to the anxiety of meeting so many new people all at once. I can feel sorry for myself when I’m tired like that. And then I remember that being a studio artist, being a public artist, being a teaching artist– these are all blessings that grace my life with opportunities to contribute to our larger cultural and art ecology.
Surrounded by the artworks and objects created by countless fine and crafts artists throughout the centuries, I was filled with a sense of responsibility and gratitude. Grateful to Seattle Art Museum for always welcoming my students. Grateful to all the hands that fashioned the works that engage us across time, unbound by the confines of nation, culture, gender. Like I do in the studio, as my students do in our classroom, each of these artists once upon a time touched this material world with their hearts their hands their minds leaving behind an indelible trace, a contribution to that great legacy to which we are all heirs.
I’ll spend quiet, reflective time in the studio over the summer. The easel is my home sweet home, but certainly, not my only opportunity to contribute.