28 September 2021

Hans Memling: The Naughty Priest

Something to think about when you look at old portraits is that they were usually the product of several sittings, providing the artist ample time to consider the nature of his subject. The conventions of Renaissance portraiture were naturalistic in some respects but truth-to-life watts-and-all was not what either sitters or patrons waned.  In Hans Memling's portrait of the cleric Gilles Joye there is no hint of Joye's worldliness and vanity. The artist gives us a conventional priestly  image: hands clasped piously as if in prayer, a face full of solemnity above a modest clerical robe. 

The Canon Gilles Joye lived in what is now Belgium but he is usually described as  Franco-Flemish, having been born in the city of Kortrijk in West Flanders and then migrating to Bruges.   

Gilles Joye was appointed a singer at the Burgundian court chapel in Bruges in 1462. Unsurprisingly for one so irreverent, his vocal compositions were secular,. How this man became a rector is curious; his hobbies were street brawling, patronizing brothels, and even making a prostitute named Rosabella his mistress. \He was notorious for skipping out on his singing duties but was apparently forgiven because his music was so melodic and lyrical. Admonished to renounce his girlfriend, teh wag wrote her a Mass. (O rosa bella). Notwithstanding his transgressions, when Joye died he was buried in the church of St. Donation.

Hans Memling painted in the style known as Flemish Primitive; his portraits  simplified versions of his sitters' features. Born in the Rhine region he moved around northern Europe in search of commissions. After a stint in the Brussels workshop of Rogier van der Weyden he arrived in Bruges where he  was made a citizen in 1465. There he  became a leading painter with his own workshop. and it was there he met the cleric Gilles Joye. 

Image: Hans Memling (circa 1430-1494) - The Canon Gilles Joye, no date given but probably after 1465, tempura and oil on wood panel, Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

21 September 2021

Fred Wilson: The Museum Is The Message

"I trust the visual to communicate my ideas. I try to unlock the meaning of objects and eliciting a conversation by juxtaposing between them that creates an unexpected, but essential, thought." - Fred Wilson

"I get everything that satisfies my soul from bringing together objects in the world, manipulating them, working with spatial arrangements, and having them presented in the way I want to see them." - Fred Wilson

Five busts of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti that question what we think we know about the ancient world. The original bust by an anonymous artist has long been a  staple of art history texts. Grey Area (above) by the American artist Fred Wilson makes visible our changing understanding of who historical figures actually were.

Born in the Bronx in 1954, Fred Wilson describes himself as African, Native American, Amerindian, and European, a background ....While studying for his Fine Arts degree at SUNY Purchase, he worked as a guard at the Neuberger Museum on campus.  As I know from talking with museum guards, they spend enough time with works of art to make astute comments about how art is presented and how that shapes the viewer's reception.  From that experience Wilson drew a lesson: change the context and you change the meaning.  So it was that he made a version of the mythological character Atlas weighed down by art history books with a book on black artists at the bottom of the pile.

After stints at the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Natural History (on opposite sides of Central Park) Wilson realized that the two institutions presented similar objects in widely divergent ways. He has come to  specialize in presenting objects based on considerations that may be unimportant to most curators or that have gone unnoticed until Wilson put things together.  Mining the Museum he called it when he restaged galleries at the Maryland Historical Society in 1991. In a technique he has often used, Wilson renamed a painting Country Life that showed a plantation family at leisured Frederick Serving Fruit  for a young black slave boy in the picture. This  In a nearby vitrine, Wilson paired a stark set of slave shackles surrounded by  an .... adorned silver tea service, the embodiment of wealth produced by slave labor.

Fred Wilson was the first black artist to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale in 2003. with  the exhibit Speak Of Me As I Am (a reference to Shakespeare's character Othello, the Moor of Venice). So popular was Wilson's exhibition thatt there were waiting lins outside the American pavilion.  For Venice, a city where black people had been present for centuries, Wilson created a project that included an awareness of the city surroundings.

A last minute addition, Wanderer was a black-face courtier figure Wilson saw in the lobby of the hotel he was staying at. He replaced the face with a globe whose black oceans were crisscrossed by by white dotted lines that trace the routes of ships used in the slave trade.

Simone Leigh will be the first black American woman to represent the U.S. at the Venice Biennale in 2022.

For more about Fred Wilson


 1. Fred Wilson - Grey Area - pant, plaster, and wood, 1998, Brooklyn Museum.  2. Fred Wilson - Atlas, 1992, paint, plaster, and wood, Denver Museum of Art.  3. Fred Wilson - Wanderer, 2003, painted wood and printed paper, Berkeley Art Museum, Berkeley, CA.

10 September 2021

For Eighty Cents!: Angelo Morbelli

 "Italy is made.  We have still to make the Italians."

     -  Massimo D'Azeglio (1798-1866).  D'Azeglio did not live to see Rome designated as the capitol of new Italian state in 1871 but the Risorgimento (Resurgence) was almost complete when  the statesman/ novelist/painter died.

Look at these women cultivating rice: they are the 'essential workers' of 19th century Italy. Just for clarification, the title For Eighty Cents! indicates the anger of the painter Angelo Morbelli at the wage paid to rice farmers in the Po Valley circa 1890.  Indeed, working conditions for the women who worked the fields of the Piedmont region were so shameful that a name was coined for them - the mondine. We know there is a sky above from its reflection in the water the women stand in but the artist allows us no more respite from the prospect of their back-breaking toil than their overlords permitted. By using the broad horizontal canvas typical of landscape painting, we can almost feel the weight pressing down on the hunched figures.

The path fir Italian artists in the 19th century was not the triumphal march that historians ascribe to the French Impressionists. Stylistically, the Italians were all over the place and, on this account, art historians have not been kind to their works. Yet these artists made lively and daring experiments, more so than the Italian peninsula had witnessed in a long time. Together painters as varied as Silevstro Lega, Emilio Longoni, Plinio Nominelli, an Aneglo Morbelli were dubbed I Macchiaiolli (meaning painters of patches of light). 

Morbelli and his fellow artists were berated from all sides, for choosing ugly and unpleasant subjects rather pleasing ones that the bourgeoisie could hang in their parlors and, at the same time, for imbuing ugly realities with dignity and even nobility.  The Roman poet Horace had that art's purpose was to "instruct and delight" but the Macchiaioli would have none of that.

Full of idealism, they found their inspiration in the economic upheavals that accompanied political unification. Like their painterly styles, their politics were all over the  ran a gamut from progressivism to anarchy. The early 1890s were a period of strikes and protests in  northern cities where workers labored for impoverishing wages, under poor working conditions, if they could find work at all. Conditions were no better for the poor in rural areas where new industrial workers had migrated from.

Image - Angelo Morbelli- For Eighty Cents!, 1895, oil on canvas, Civico Museo, Borgogna.


01 September 2021

Kiki Kogelnik: "The Cyborgs Are Irreverent"

"The Cyborgs are irreverent." - Donna Harraway, The Cyborg Manifesto, 1985.

"Art comes from artificial." - Kiki Kogelnik

Kogelnik's figures are often bent, broken, or damaged in some way but not Superwoman.

It is an oversight  that smacks of injustice as well as forgetfulness that Kiki Kogelnik is not better known in North America.  Although Kogelnik was born in Bleiburg, Austria and studied art the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, after a visit to New York City in 1961, she determined to move there, settling in downtown Manhattan, two blocks from the Chelsea Hotel, a favorite haunt of writers and artists.   She could not but compare the lively and vivid art world of New York with te drabness of post-War Europe. The middle child and only girl of an accountant and a teacher, Kogelnik's given name was Sigrid but her older brother Herwig nicknamed her and it stuck. 

Downtwn Manhattan was home to emerging Pop artists Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenberg, and Larry Rivers; as a European Kogelnik was more skeptical of  mechanization's impact on culture. Yet the idea of cyborgs, beings both organic and biomechanic hovers around many of Kogelnik's works, rendering them sui generis.  In Americans' infatuation with space exploration she perceived an adolescent phallic fixation and with all things commercial. "I'm not involved with Coca Cola.

Her big, bright canvases were made at a time when Kogelnik was also tracing human figures on paper and then transferring the cutouts to colored vinyl.  Her yellow Robert Rauschenberg, for example, was exhibited on a gallery wall neatly folded on a metal hanger. She re-purposed the Pop Art vocabulary throughout her career. Kogelnik reasoned that identity is constructed from fragments through her experience of a female body in a world of images in the fashion press, leading for her to the question and meaning of masks, returning at last to an original fragmented identity. 

Kogelnik made her first ceramic pieces in 1974 at the urging of Renate Fuhry, a potter she knew in Vienna. With her initial training in applied arts, Kogelnik had no prejudice against ceramics, a common view at that time. Although she never learned to turn pottery on the wheel, she  put stencils to use in making slab ceramics, a technique by which the potter uses a rolling pin to flatten a mound of clay - hence the term slab pottery. Using a knife to cut around her stenciled shapes, Kogelnik would coat them with a variety of colorful glazes. the resulting pieces are more like masks than portraits. 

A few thoughts on cyborgs and Donna Harraway: The term cyborg originated in science fiction as  a paradigm for the confusion of boundaries between the organic and the mechanical.  It has been used in the domain of science for storytelling rather than with the usual claims of rigor and objectivity.

Visit Kiki Kogelnik Foundation, New York & Los Angeles.

1. Kiki Kogelnik - Superwoman, 1973, oil and acrylic on canvas, national museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC.
2. - 3. - 4. - Kiki Kogelnik - slab ceramic pieces, photographs courtesy of Mostyn Galley, Llandono, Wales.