Thursday, 7 November 2013

Kim Cogan

Local artist Kim Cogan’s solo exhibition in San Francisco’s Hespe gallery takes its inspiration from the natural and man-made environments of his native area. Entitled ‘Flotsam’, this collection of paintings feature brooding melancholy explorations of the desolate and left over remnants of coastal structures.
Scenes of lighthouses, old boat houses,  piers and boats are portrayed in dark greys and blacks, the built objects melting into their natural surroundings with the artists choppy brushstroke technique. Most of the works aim towards anonymity, and successfully retain a sense of other worldliness that make them universal. There are a few that are more recognizable as local edifices, Surfside Eleven is betrayed by the tell take steep hill and architectural style to be found in San Francisco’s sunset district.
Fleischhacker Pool  Ruins, is an obvious giveaway according to its title, although the painting itself could be any abandoned building in Americas vast countryside. Fleichhaker also stands out as being one of the few painting to contain a different palette of colours, the mood here is overall grey and dystopian. This is carried through to the wave painting, small studies of waves set in oval frames that reference at once both contemporary surf photography and more traditional renaissance landscapes. 
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Cogan’s paintings are noticeable for their lack of life, set in an uninhabited dystopian landscape they remind me of the post-apocalyptic world of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. 

Kim Cogan’s Flotsam on view in Hespe gallery. 251 Post street, Suite 420, San Francisco, CA 94108

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Diebenkorn at the de Young

Richard Diebenkorn is an artist with strong ties to the Bay Area, having attended both Stanford and UC Berkeley and teaching at what is today the San Francisco Art Institute. Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966 exhibition at the de Young museum focuses on the later period of his work, when he resided in Berkeley for 13 years and produced some of his most wide-ranging, complex work.
This period encompasses a huge array of subject matter, from abstract and figurative work to landscapes, interiors and still-life. A leading abstract expressionist on the west coast, his palette is heavily influenced by the surrounding landscape, with large areas of green, panels of yellows and orange reflecting the mellow Californian sunshine. He works largely in square blocks of colour which flatten the picture plane into a series of abstract shapes, his more fluid figurative work is also broken up into these expansive areas of color which are steeped in rich colors of the hills and water of the Bay Area. Even his interiors are engaged with the local landscape, his strong brushstrokes softening the geometric shapes and giving the areas of such extreme light and shade a human touch. Few artists can move from abstraction to figurative to landscape with such ease, and it is Diebenkorn’s strong style that allows such movement.

Figure on a Porch features a lone woman facing an expanse of water. The yellow field in which she stands is indistinguishable as manmade architecture from the green landscape spread out before her. As with the two folding chairs in front and behind her, she is made up of several geometric blocks of color that mimic the blocks of the landscape around her. Rather than becoming subsumed by the strength of the landscape, the figure is instead harmonious with its surroundings. This is the power of Diebenkorn’s work, figures, objects and nature are all a part of the world of colour, building blocks of the nature that we are steeped in. 

The exhibition is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, in collaboration with the Palm Springs Art Museum.
Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966, de Young museum, San Francisco through September 29, 2013.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Painting vs Photography

I have always thought that if I were more practical, or arty, or talented or just had the time or inclination to draw more, that I would like to find a way of merging painting and photography in a complete coherent piece. I find it surprising that so few artists have attempted this, this blurring of boundaries between the two mediums. Particularly in this day and age when so many art works in contemporary galleries deny all attempts to try and describe exactly what it is they are- materially that is- and go instead for the ubiquitous classification of “mixed media”. Or give a lengthy list of all the undefinable ingredients that runs longer the description of the artwork itself and bears no obvious relation to the intriguing colorful and visceral object before you. 

I remember getting really excited the first time I say Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines. Their layering of postcards, photographs, collaged images from newspapers, and the thick tactile persistence of oil paint. Even more so, when those flat surfaced canvases that always appear so multidimensional, as if you could climb up inside them, gave way to the actual 3D objects, the multiple sections of Interview divided up like a child’s treasure chest, the sheep trapped in his white stripped tire standing atop a canvas in Monogram, or the eagle wings emerging from the vertical surface of Canyon
 While the books argued over whether these pieces were autobiographical, a hint at his affair with Jaspar Johns, the coining of the term “flatbed picture plane” and the narratives or their art historical context in the reproductions of old classics, I was just disappointed that all the images and photographs included were reproduced, penny postcards and cut outs from magazines. 
I was entirely uninterested as to whether Untitled (Man with White Shoes) held secret references to his family and past, in fact, when the artworks came off the wall and onto the floor they started losing my attention. For me, the more successful works were the ones that blurred the visual boundaries between the collaged elements and painted ones, where photographs, three dimensional objects and those beautiful tactile globs of paint overlapped into one glorious prismatic attack. Still though, not the photographs were being treated as objects to be inserted, a democratic playing field for all elements where a wooden chair is as much a brushstroke as a spot of oil paint. 

 Perhaps the problem is that Rauschenberg was not a photographer, that photography never became a central feature of his art practice. Gerhard Richter is perhaps more directly engaged with the object of the photograph. His earliest photo paintings come from a variety of sources, newspapers books, landscapes, portraits. Starting with a photograph which he has often taken himself he uses a projector to trace the image onto the canvas replicating the look of the original with his distinctive “blur”. These are still oil paintings and his use of photography is encyclopedic as a means for denying any artistic choice in subject matter, rather than an interest in the medium of the photograph itself. His overpainted photos such as the series Firenze merge the two mediums, creating new images from photographs of a variety of subjects by dragging wet paint across the surface. This is more to do with blotting out than creating something new, the triumph of the paint over the mechanically produced image, and the photographs themselves seem to be more taken to serve the purpose of the paint, than intended as finished aesthetic works in themselves. 

I once went to an exhibition that included large pieces of exposed photo paper, mounted on walls, curled up in glass cases, the physicality of the photograph as an object prioritized over the image it contains on its surface. I thought it was Richter exhibition, but only have a vague memory, and my goggle searching isn’t producing any clues. 

Aliki Braine is a trained sculptor, but uses photographs to “seek out the archetypal landscape” she is one of a long line of photographers including most famously Man ray, who manipulate the negative. Braine paints directly onto the negative, inserting her artistic mark in the image production chain. By marking the negative directly, rather than the image, she is showing an awareness of the process of image production in photography,  also working with pin holes and hole punchers to render the negative abstract, rather than as a medium for representation. They still retain their ability to be reproduced, the hallmark of the photograph. Although we are getting a long way from paint here. 

Charlotte Caron takes classical portraits of people and then paints animal heads over them, blurring the lines between the two mediums and making them exist in the same representational function. She creates a duality between the two mediums, photography is the human, mechanical, rational medium used for the cool calm depiction of people, while paint is the instinctual animalistic side, represented by the drips and splatter the wildness that invades the neatness of the photograph and threatens disintegration. By imposing animal faces onto humans she is supposedly humanizing them showing us as bestial in nature, and them as rational, or more so that we would like to think. This si not what is happening for me, rather she is reinforcing the separate natures of the two mediums. While I am not a fan of photorealism which simply apes the skill of detail of photography, after all what makes paint ot visually pleasing is the elements that escape  
representation, the blobs and splatters, the drips and stains. I don’t feel that the identity of her sitters is compromised, as they were photographed for the express purpose of overpainting. That it is their faces that are masked is irrelevant, they are given new ones, new identities. What interests me is the setting up of a binary between painting and photography. Again they sit one on top of the other, their incompatibility emphasized by the struggle for dominance.
I came across another rather neat attempt to merge photography seamlessly into the medium of painting in the art of Jim McManus. Sometimes clumsily, sometimes imperceptibly, he cuts out and collages photographs into his seascapes, creating a picture postcard effect that plays with our sight lines. The photographs are in scale, and often are interchangeable with the painted elements. He is not quite offering an answer to the question of what photography can do that paint can’t (and vice versa), and not all of his attempts work out, but it is one of the more successful merging of the two that I have seen: that fits so comfortably sharing the same space, and neither medium competing for dominance.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

I have started contributing reviews to the excellent new contemporary art magazine Droste Effect based in Bolgona, Italy. You can read my first contribution here: Review of Beyond Belief at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

Saturday, 3 August 2013

In the Darkroom

In the digital age, of instagram, phone photography and the near infinite memory capacity of most digital cameras the art of film seems antiquated. 

In his little history of photography, Walter Benjamin recognizes something new and strange in the photograph, speaking of an early portrait of a fishwife he describes it as “something that cannot be silenced, that fills you with an unruly desire to know what her name  was, the woman who was alive there, who even now is still real and will never consent to be wholly absorbed in art”.  

In the early days of its inception, photography was lauded as offering a new reality or truth that could not be perceived by the eye, a window into the optical unconscious. Photography had yet to become the common currency of our everyday lives, used on television, in print and on the internet as well as for our own private recording of events and memories. Those first photographs were incapable of capturing human images, who moved to quickly for the camera’s long exposure times. Daguerres’ Boulevard du Temple from 1838 is eerily empty, the traffic and pedestrian’s moved too quickly to be recorded, on the lower are the only people still long enough to be recorded – a man getting his boots polished.  This aspect of time in photography, meant that there was a stillness, a drawn out aura to the photograph that has been lost to efficiency and speed of today’s technology. As Benjamin puts it, the length of time of the exposure mean that the subject grew into in the picture, in contrast the snapshot. There seems to be a permanence to the photograph that has been lost, also reflected in the physicality of the medium, early daguerreotypes were heavy metal plates encased in velvet-lined books, they were cumbersome one off objects meant to be treasured and preserved.
With the development of photographic technology came the reproducibility of images, challenging the aura of the traditional art object. Benjamin defines aura as “A strange weave of Space and time: the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close the object may be.” 

Whereas the first introduction of photography seemed to challenge the aura of the artwork, present day digital photography invests those earlier chemical processes with a new aura all of their own. The photograph created in the darkroom, through the stages or processing and printing is closer to the skill and learned craft of painting now than to the simple point and click (although even that is done away with in phone photography) of a digital camera. Even though you can in theory make an infinite number of prints from one negative, as I have learned through my own practices in the darkroom, each individual print has some slight difference, this one has a water mark, that one is develop da few seconds longer, another has a slight scratching on the negative that can’t be wiped out. It is this physicality that is lost in digital processes. Not that I am advocating a complete rejection of digital, I use instagram myself. But it is interesting to watch how the old tensions that sprung up between painting and photography upon its invention now apply more to the analog vs. digital technique.  Unfortunately unlike painting, which does not look like it will become extinct any time soon, darkroom developing is more likely to die out as an obsolete technology, going the same way as the cassette tape and the cd.

Part of what I love about developing my own photographs, is the extreme slowness of the process, unlike with a digital image, that you can so quickly shoot, upload to a computer and then edit or adjust to wipe out any flaws or to bright, sharpen or crop, with darkroom developing, first you have to develop the film. I lack the patience to be really fiddly and a lot of my images come out crooked, with watermarks or scratches on the negatives, but even before you get to the printing stage, its necessary to get the development process right. I recently developed a roll of film and thought I had completely messed it up, the developer was too high a temperature and when I pulled the negatives out of the wash, they appeared almost two-tone, completely black and white with very little gradiations of tones. I was really upset – a whole roll of film wasted! But when I got them into the darkroom to begin printing, I discovered that the extreme contrast actually made for much more interesting pictures. I am a complete newbie at all of this, and have been teaching myself from books and just from playing around, and even when I am offered advice by the others in the photo center, I rarely pay much attention. For me it is the getting my hands dirty, the playing with chemicals in a dark room, that has the same joys or making art when I was a kid. The results are not very technically correct, but I am less interested in producing a perfect picture then in just playing around. While I watch the other more experienced members of the photo center go back and forth between enlarger and developing trays, over and over again printing the same image until they have it just right, I tend to toss out print after print from different negative, the blurry ones, the ones with too much contrast, with people’s heads cropped off, or with too much exposure. You can probably tell that I take photographs this way too, ignoring the light meter and often just clicking away aimlessly, all the more delighted when I get a random really good shot.  

While these mechanical processes seemed artificial and mechanical to early critics such as Benjamin, and mastery as a photographer required a mastery of technique rather than artistry, so too now the darkroom is more aligned with the patience and skill of a painter, the hours spent learning to render the shape of an eye or how to capture light and shade, so the photographer in the darkroom spends hours laboring over achieving just the right degree of light, the right temperature of the chemicals and handles it all as gingerly as if they were painting a delicate watercolour. As I’ve learned myself, those chemicals are no joke, they require patience and respect when handling them. 

I’ve included some of my better results below, so you can see the differences between prints and the physicality of them. I’m afraid the RC paper I use doesn’t scan very well, but all the better to pick out the scratches and light leaks, and occasional watermarks.

Samita, printed at different exposure times.

Kevin, with scratches on the right side of the negative.
The issue here was with the extreme light when taking the photo, had to do some doging and burning to get Mike on the right to show up at all.

Jenn, a little blurry when printed at 8x10

Karina, came out nicely first time!

Dilia, had a lot of trouble with the exposure as the negative was so grey

I really like the gradiation from white to black in this one

From the ruined negatives, too much contrast but I kind of like it!