Lenny

My Favorite Painting in Washington, DC

Watson and the Shark
Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley at the National Gallery of Art.

This spectacular painting seeks to depict an event that took place in Havana, Cuba, in 1749.

The naked guy in the water is fourteen-year-old Brook Watson, who was attacked by a shark while swimming alone in Havana harbor. Lucky for Watson, some of his mates were already at sea waiting to escort their captain ashore, and were able to fight the shark and rescue Watson, although the shark bit one of his legs off.

On his return to England, he got his fifteen minutes of fame and Copley painted this work.

If you study the painting carefully, you will realize that Copley probably had never seen a shark in his life, and his depiction of the great white in Havana harbor yields one of the most ungainly and ugliest non-sharks fish things ever painted.

I love to sit in front of this painting and watch people as they walk by and get mesmerized by the brutal event taking place and kids making fun of the shark.

What is your favorite work of art? Not just DC, but from wherever you [reader] hail from? Leave your favorite in the comments.

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Bill

Tale of a Lost Leger

It’s a tragic story, one that institutions everywhere should heed now that remodeling, renovation and rebuilding seem to be a nationwide phenomenon.

According to WCVB’s website, Wellesley College seems to have lost a painting by Fernand Leger.

Here’s how this unfortunate event appears to have unfolded:

Painted in 1921, “Woman and Child” had been on loan to an exhibit at the Oklahoma Museum of Art. When it was returned to Wellesley, the college’s museum was in the midst of a construction project. So the crate sat around someplace, apparently. The sense one gets from the article is that it was just chucked in a corner, more or less. I realize that sounds harsh, but so, to all of us, is the loss of an artwork by an acknowledged master.

Finally, with construction complete, it came time to assess where things were. And no one knew where the Leger was. Talk is that it might even have been thrown away with a bunch of similar, empty crates.

Ladies and gents, the facts are clear: had this multi-million-dollar treasure of an artwork been stored in a high-tech art storage facility such as Mind’s Eye, it would continue to bring pleasure and inspiration to future generations. And at what cost, anything even remotely comparable to the loss sustained by Wellesley College? I think not.

As these museum reconstruction programs continue, I hope that those in charge are giving serious consideration to the temporary storage of their works of art. This is no task for interns or do-it-yourselfers.

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Lenny

Plein Air Easton, Part III

Scroll down for part I and II or click here and here.

Day Three, Saturday, July 26

Started the day with another spectacular gourmet breakfast at our “Buckingham Palace of Inns,” and then headed out to the streets to observe the “Quick Draw” event.

Note to self: Next year bring art supplies and sign up for the “Quick Draw.” It looked to be a load of fun!

To recap: The Quick Draw is quite a novel event to bring the art of plein air painting directly to the art lover. In Easton more than 130 artists, competition painters, professionals, amateurs, etc. had pre-registered and participated. These artists were then given two hours to complete their works within a three block area of the town.

During this short time, all registered Quick Draw participants set up their supplies and paint, draw, or sculpt “en plein air” in downtown Easton, while hundreds of people stroll around and look in and ask questions.

There were artists everywhere in this small Maryland jewel of a town! And they were not just painting the streets and beautiful houses and spaces around them! Painter Scott Powers, a young Chicago artist, was mesmerizing the crowd by delivering a portrait of a gentleman reading a paper in the shade of an Easton cafe. The crowd was hypnotized as Powers delivered a remarkable piece that not only captured the subject’s likeness, but also that key ingredient of great portraiture: the subject’s unique sense of individuality and self. How he managed to do that in two hours was a spectacular feat.

We walked around for the two hours (I got a mean sunburn) and admired both the multitude of artists of all kinds of artistic skill, and also the multitudes of people admiring them.

When the “finish” horn sounded at high noon, artists began filing down to Harrison Street, where they began to set up their easels to display (and sell) their just finished work. The paintings were then judged by Plein Air-Easton! Competition Judge Gay Faulkenberry and awards were presented at 1:30pm. By 2:00pm the exhibit and all of its paintings were gone from the streets of Easton.

Once again I witnessed a near feeding frenzy as paintings were bought almost as soon as they were up on their easels. I would say that within the first five minutes about 50% of all the works had been sold, with works ranging in price from $250 to $2,000. By 2pm nearly all pieces were gone and heading to the home of a new collector.
Quick Draw at Plein Air Easton

Larry Moore from Florida won the top prize at the competition and it was a well-deserved award - he was also my pick for the best piece in the show. I also quite liked Joe Meyer’s light-filled house (it also won an award), and Ken DeWaard’s piece.

My wife and I then went biking around Easton (biking with my wife, who used to be a world-class triathlete before she retired from competition a few years ago, is like playing chess with Bobby Fisher) and then back to the Inn to get ready for my talk at the museum at 7PM.

My talk had been advertised as a “new signature event that will embody Plein Air-Easton’s slogan ‘Art for Everyone.’ Campello, a respected artist and art critic with a flair for engaging his audiences with humor, will give a short history of art and discuss the knack of art collecting. This event will not be boring. Cocktails will be served and attendees can mingle and view the competition galleries. Seating is limited but Campello’s wit and wisdom can be heard throughout the Academy” and sort of like Richard Pryor once said, I thought to myself as I walked to the museum: “I better be funny.”

The room was packed, with maybe 150-200 people, and I had expected to talk for about an hour as I gave them a little background on art history and then discussed collecting art and other associated issues.

The audience was really good and I didn’t notice anyone falling asleep or leaving, and so when I glanced at my watch, and noticed that I had been talking for nearly two hours I was dumbfounded by both my ability to just talk and talk about art and by the audience’s resistance!

So I ended it (I could have talked another hour, but I took pity on them), and surprisingly quite a few people came over and started asking questions and I spent another 20 minutes or so answering them… so I think that it went OK.

My apologies for those who were late for other things because of my Castro-like performance.

Next: the last day at Easton, with Winners Paint-Out and Brunch at Rich Neck Manor.

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Lenny

Plein Air Easton - Part I

Day One, July 24, 2008
Sometimes writers are challenged on how best to begin to describe an event, in this case Plein Air Easton, which at first seems just focused on the re-emerging art of painting outside of the studio, but when examined in depth has grown to become not only very good at that, but also - on a wider scale - very good for art, for artists, for collectors, and for a picturesque little town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

I had never been to Easton, Maryland before our arrival on a Thursday, July 24, as I had been invited to be a guest speaker as part of the 2008 Plein Air Easton festival. We decided to arrive a couple of days early, to soak in the whole experience of a little town taken over by a bunch of artists painting out in its streets and countryside.

Our hosts had put us in at the Inn at 202 Dover, and I must admit that even for an experienced traveler such as I am, I was floored by the beauty, authenticity and elegance of this gorgeous 19th century historical house, recently refurbished and brought to spectacular modern glory by owners Shelby and Ron Mitchell.

The place is breath-taking and the love of the Mitchell’s for their inn is apparent in the care and expense that they took to restore it.

Restoration began in 2005, not only under the watchful eyes of the owners, but also of Historic Easton, the State of Maryland, the Easton’s Historic Commission, and the Department of Interior. Today the beautiful colonial revval building and gardens boasts four elegant suites and one luxury en suite bedroom, each themed and decorated accordingly. The Mitchells like the Victorian approach to decor, and invoking the Victorian era, the suites have an international flavor in keeping with the Victorian concept of what was exotic to them. Arrivals can expect to choose among France, Asia, England and Africa (Safari) suites or, the Victorian bedroom.

We were given the Asian suite, which was larger than most New York apartments — in fact I think it was larger than the Brooklyn apartment in which I was raised. In addition to a beautiful huge bamboo canopy bed and Asian furniture, I loved the antique puppets and the original Ukiyo-e woodblocks on the walls.
inn at 202 dover
And the steam shower, and the cool air jet tub with the golden dragon spitting high pressure water, the fireplace, and the high definition flat screen TV with satellite TV - located… ahem… in the sitting room within our room.

And free high speed internet access.

But enough about this gorgeous place; suffice it to say that if you visit Easton, and want it to be a super special visit, this is the only place in town that will be a memorable stay! It gets a hundred stars and a thousand thumbs up from my wife and I.

At 5:30PM on our first day we hung around for happy hour at the inn… and it didn’t disappoint, as Jorge Alvarez, the Inn’s Cuban-born chef popped in with some tasty food, which included what can be best described as my first exposure of the delicious results what happens when Southern cooking (let’s say fritters) meets Cuban food (let’s say WOW!).

Afterwards we walked over to a local Easton restaurant called … ah… Restaurant Local, where we had some good happy hour vittles (Shrimp Fajitas and Calamari) on their sidewalk tables, listening to a local dude play the guitar, and you won’t believe this: a $5 pitcher of beer in a fancy restaurant! It was great, although we did have to teach our young Russian waiter what “seltzer water” was.

We walked around town and saw several artists painting out on the streets, although it seems most of the 2008 artists were out in the gorgeous countryside. We also scoped out a couple of the town’s art galleries - more on that later, but overall the first afternoon and night was just an opportunity to walk around Easton, see a few galleries and a few artists here and there.

Tomorrow the judging begins!

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Bill

Delia Brown: Precious — at D’Amelio Terras

Delia Brown -- Story Time -- 2008 -- 12 x 16 inches -- oil on wood panel

Delia Brown — Story Time — 2008 — 12 x 16 inches — oil on wood panel — from D’Amelio-Terras’ website

As an artist who’s spent a lot of time in galleries, I’ve thought much about the need dealers have to position artists in relation to art collectors, and the effect this has on dealer and artist success. This leads me to consider collectors, their backgrounds, motivations, interests, tastes. They’re not a homogeneous block, obviously, so it only makes sense that an artist who’s seriously intent on commercial success should, like any conscientious marketing professional, consider a specific segment within that block and target their work toward that segment as sharply and specifically as possible, using any and all means.

This came to mind, with quite a chuckle, when I visited D’Amelio-Terras late in June and pondered Delia Brown’s show, aptly titled Precious.

Viewing these small panels from a distance, I felt as though I’d stepped out of Chelsea and into JC Penney’s home furnishings department, sans furnishings. The literature accompanying this show speaks of “the delicate decadence of the Rococo painters” and “Balthusian tension where innocence teeters on the cusp of naughtiness,” but I’m not buying it. With an MFA from UCLA, I have to believe Ms. Brown knows precisely what she’s doing here. These artworks are, in my opinion quite intentionally, executed in the slick, glowing and vacuous style of the manufactured oil paintings sold in shopping malls to people who neither know nor care about art, the crowd that’s made Thomas Kincade a ridiculously wealthy, powerful and Pooh-defiling man.

But whereas Kincade’s work is designed for a decidedly middle-class, even Southern and Christian, crowd — see for example his painting NASCAR Thunder- The 50th Running of the Daytona 500 — Brown has targeted the upper middle-class and wealthy collector, obviously the kind more likely to amble into a Chelsea gallery.

Much to my amusement, her marketing is even more refined than that; these are images of mothers and daughters, or images of young girls, but all designed to appeal to wealthy mothers.

In every image, girls and their moms luxuriate in a world of satin sheets, high fashion (for the most part), pearls, pricey bathroom fixtures, primpy lapdogs and chi-chi bistros. It’s as if Ms. Brown has tapped into a market of wealthy mothers with absolutely no art sophistication whatsoever, who want mall-quality honey-dripping oil paintings that relate to their self-important, Mabelline lives.

For me Brown’s project comes off as a brilliant ploy by a masterful artist with a broad, sophisticated understanding of art and society. Its conceptual component is heavily salted with the smiling sort of contempt that steams from the disenfranchised, and Brown’s feeding of these images to this market sounds more than a little like Tyler Durden’s “Fight Club” formula of selling wealthy women soap made from their own lyposuctioned fat.

In the past, artists devised strategies to avoid commodification, often effacing and even removing aesthetic considerations in the process. It fascinates me to find an artist who makes commodification her plaything, and, aided by manifestly manipulative aesthetics, integrates it into a sweet yet caustic body of work.

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Lenny

Artomatic

It takes an empty building, anywhere from 600 to 1,000 visual artists, actors, bartenders, and art lovers; a lot of hard work, very few rules, and you get Artomatic.

Held irregularly every couple of years or so since 1999, Artomatic is the Greater Washington, DC region’s free-for-all, non juried, all open, democratic visual arts extravaganza and the closest art event that our nation’s capital has to an open art biennial.

Back in 1999 a handful of enterprising and hardworking DC area artists convinced the management of an empty historical building to let them use the building for an open art show. Within a month, three hundred and fifty artists had cleaned, installed lights, painted and gallerized the 100,000 square feet building which once hosted a massive laundry and dry cleaning business. That year over 20,000 visitors attended the first Artomatic, held over six weeks, by far the largest art event held in DC that year.

And it continued to grow and expand as empty buildings were made available to Artomatic artists by developers.

By 2000 music and performances of all kinds became part of the event, and in that second year 665 artists exhibited and 200 performed as thousands of visitors flocked to the show.

In 2002 more than 1,000 artists and performers took part in the event and even more joined in 2004 at the old Capitol Children’s Museum. By then over 40,000 people were visiting the show and also by then the Washington main stream media was savaging the show, aiming its criticism at the lack of a curatorial hand and ignoring the key core of the event: a free and open exhibition for all.

Blake Gopnik, the erudite and Oxford-educated Chief Art Critic for the Washington Post wrote:

Here’s a fine idea. Let’s find an abandoned school and then invite local dentists to ply their trade, free of charge, in its crumbling classrooms, peeling corridors and dripping toilets. Okay, so maybe we won’t get practicing dentists to come, but we might get some dental students, hygienists and retirees to join in our Happy Tooth festival. What the heck, let’s not be elitists here: Why don’t we just invite anyone with a yen for tooth work or some skill with drills to give it a go. Then we can all line up, open wide and see what happens.

I’ll be at the front of the line.

After all, it could hardly be more excruciating than this year’s Artomatic, the fourth edition of the District’s creative free-for-all, which opens tomorrow. Organizers have gotten about 600 local “artists” — anyone who could ante up the $60 fee and 15 hours of his or her time, in fact — to display their creations. They’re on show in the sprawling, scruffy building in north Capitol Hill that once housed the Capital Children’s Museum and several charter schools.

The result is the second-worst display of art I’ve ever seen. The only one to beat it out, by the thinnest of split hairs, was the 2002 Artomatic, which was worse only by virtue of being even bigger and in an even more atrocious space, down by the waterfront in a vacant modern office building.

I won’t dwell on the art. And I certainly won’t name names. No one needs to know who made the wallfuls of amateur watercolors, yards of incompetent oil paintings, acres of trite street photography and square miles of naive installation art that will be polluting this innocent old building for the next three weeks. There’s something for everyone to hate. The rest are works only a mother could love.

But art lovers, art dealers seeking new talent, art collectors looking for new art, and artists looking to exhibit their work, continued to love the event, and Artomatic made a stop in neighboring Virginia for the first time last year, occupying the former Patent and Trademark building in nearby Crystal City right across the Potomac River. In spite of even more hostile critical reviews from the press, it drew over 40,000 visitors.

What Gopnik and other harsh art critics of AOM miss, is that the event is not just about the art. Take any 1,000 artist-event, even a curated one, and you’ll be astounded by the degree of “bad art” that gets included. Do the last 2-3 Whitney Biennials come to mind?

Artomatic (or AOM as the locals call it) is also about delivering spectacular re-charging of artistic batteries for a city often dominated by poisonous partisan politics, world class museums that ignore local artists, powerful media presences that focus on politics and ignore a vibrant regional art scene, and one of the highest concentrations of individual wealth in the world with apparent little interest in acquiring original art.

At AOM, artists mingle with each other, learn from each other, party with each other, and – and this is a really important and – exhibit and show their work to 40,000 people who otherwise would be blissfully ignorant of the healthy and vibrant art scene in the Greater DC region.

And it pays off for the few who rise above the masses.

Just this year Gopnik wrote glowingly of the very talented Dumbacher brothers artistic team; one of their first DC appearances was the 1999 AOM. The second AOM saw the debut of Tim Tate. At that AOM you could purchase an original Tate glass sculpture for $300. I discovered Tate there and we gave him his first gallery solo show in my former gallery in Georgetown. A few weeks ago, two Tate pieces were auctioned off for $41,000 each.

If you are reading this blog, chances are that you are familiar with the Postsecret phenomenon. Its brilliant creative mind, Frank Warren, started his amazing worldwide art project at the third AOM.

Those are some of the big name success stories of this amazing arts extravaganza; there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other success stories associated with the event, which keeps growing, showing and recharging our artistic spirit, in spite of those who simply see bad art in front of them.

The current version of Artomatic opened on May 9 and runs through June 15, 2008. It is located at the Capitol Plaza I building (located at 1200 First Street, NE in Washington, DC). All the events and details that you need to know are at www.artomatic.org.

Later: a review of the 2008 Artomatic.

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