Friday, May 25, 2018

The Backest Black

My previous blog reminded me of a piece I published several years ago, adapted here.

In the sometimes rarified world of art and artists, there has emerged a controversy that I think serves to illustrate a greater truth, that of artistic freedom and the power of the artist to illuminate injustice and spur social change.
World-famous artist Sir Anish Kapoor has acquired the exclusive rights to a type of carbon-based pigment called Vantablack, “the blackest shade of black ever made,” according to numerous articles published in Smithsonian Magazine, the Daily Mail, Artnet News, The Huffington Post, etc.

Without trying to explain the arcane science behind this pigment (which is actually not exactly paint, but tiny tubes of carbon that need to be applied wearing a gas mask), suffice it to say that the substance is so light-absorbing that the human eye cannot look at it and distinguish the kind of shadows which help the brain to interpret shapes. The example shown in all the reports is that of a crumpled piece of tin foil covered with a layer of the pigment. You cannot see any shapes—the foil appears flat. Addressing the furor regarding Kapoor’s exclusive rights to Vantablack, artist Christain Furr commented “This black is like dynamite in the art world. We should be able to use it. It isn't right that it belongs to one man.”

For a little art-historical perspective (before we get to the social justice part of this commentary) artists throughout the centuries have tried to monopolize or be associated with particular colors.
A blue pigment made from lapis lazuli, only found in Afghanistan, was highly prized and exorbitantly priced.  Eighteenth century painters like Joshua Reynolds paid enormous fees to use a deep black paint called “Titian’s shade.” In 1960 the French artist Yves Klein patented a vibrant blue called “International Klein Blue,” but did not keep it for his exclusive use.*

Current events remind me of an exhibition I held a few years ago. Forbidden Colors asked artists to consider the use of color both objectively as a way of arousing certain feelings in both artist and observer, and metaphorically exploring artists’ responses to various forms of censorship or political pressure.

The show takes its name from a 1980 Israeli law forbidding art of "political significance," which banned artwork composed of the four colors of the Palestinian flag: red, green, white and black. Palestinians were arrested for displaying such artwork.  The ban was lifted after the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.

The significance of this ban is enormous. I am often reminded of Picasso’s words,” Art is not made to decorate rooms. It is an offensive weapon in the defense against the enemy.”   Red, green, white, black. Colors that exist in the world, independent of human intervention, possessing such power that an authoritarian government seeks to ban their display!  Color possessing such power that the mere sight of red, green, white, black, could incite riot, rebellion, demands for justice, hope, despair, nationalism, pride, love.

Great artists instinctively understand this power. They are willing to pay any price, make any sacrifice, to be able to penetrate the gaze and touch the soul with a dab of cerulean blue or the deepest black.

Art is a strong weapon in the fight for justice, for the rights of patrimony, peace, freedom.  
Art continues to hold our gaze; it forces us to look, and hopefully, to see.

Colors cannot be forbidden.  My hope is that not only Anish Kapoor but repressive regimes everywhere will look into that blackest black and see not the depths of despair but the infinite freedom that is the birthright of all humanity.

*(For more on this subject, read Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay or
Blue: The History of a Color by Michel Pastoureau.)

The Red and the Black (with apologies to Stendhal)

The latest iteration of the red wall, with paintings by Zahi Khamis.

As a curator, I am sensitive to color, as the red wall in my gallery (even mentioned in The Washington Post) attests. In my personal life, I go with black most of the time, but when asked, I always say my favorite color is red.
I’ve often wondered why most people seem to have a “favorite.” 
A 2011 article by R. Douglas Fields Ph.D. in Psychology Today suggests “Color preferences are deeply rooted emotional responses that seem to lack any rational basis.” “But is …color preference hard-wired by evolution or learned?   Interestingly, the researchers found that Japanese color preferences were different from American preferences, suggesting a cultural influence on color preference.” 
Choice of color can be seen as an aggressive act, wearing all black is sometimes interpreted as sinister, the choice of a rebel (black motorcycle jackets being an emblem of “rebel cool” in American culture).  Others see it as simply chic (the famous “black uniform” of New York women).  It can also be practical, as is mentioned in a book about poor women living in Cairo.  Women of all classes in the neighborhood chose to wear black garments (sometimes covering a more colorful one underneath).  This makes it possible to “level the playing field” of fashion, as cheaper materials can be perceived to be as chic as expensive fabrics, at least from a distance.  Economically, black is a leveler in other ways, as a soiled black garment is less noticeable than a soiled light one, helpful to those with limited laundry options.
Me, I see both black and red as neutrals, providing background to the statement I wish to make, both in my personal choices and as a curator.  I’ve had the red wall for four years now. Originally, I painted it to showcase a particular set of paintings about the Arab Spring. Since then, every painting I have installed there looks as if   it were made for the wall.  (Admission: I’ve unearthed my old school textbooks on color theory just to be sure.)
But in many ways, the background becomes the foreground, in art and in life.  We all make choices in how to present ourselves to the world, whether in clothing or in art. Color provides non-verbal cues to our emotions, or sense of self, and the messages we wish to impart.  So, if black is your happy place, good for you. And if you choose to splatter rainbow hues like Jackson Pollack, hurrah.  The philosopher Marshal Macluhan (anyone remember him?) famously said, “The medium is the message.”  So, artists, loud and proud, full spectrum, or black or red (or maybe black with red socks—the choice of one of my favorite artists. And the inspiration for this piece).

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Activist Expressionist

Now in Exile  by Zahi Khamis

Watching the first two episodes of Genius: Picasso on the National Geographic channel (first episode a somewhat overheated exposition of the creation of Guernica), I was reminded of a quotation I have on my office door, attributed to Picasso, “Art is not made to decorate rooms. It is an offensive weapon in the defense against the enemy.”
The artist Zahi Khamis, whose work I am showing in my gallery in May, holds the same philosophy. His jagged style and startling colors remind me of a similar moment in Picasso’s practice, along with painting as a statement against injustice.
He, and many artists, are on the offense in their work. Which makes me think about the secondary meaning of the word “offensive.”
According to some dictionaries the first listed meaning is “causing someone to feel deeply hurt, upset, or angry,” “giving painful or unpleasant sensations,” and “causing displeasure or resentment.” 
The second is “actively aggressive; attacking.” Interestingly, in some of the older dictionaries, the order of these definitions is reversed.
Can art be offensive without being “offensive?” Do we want it to be? Is the message stronger when the work gives “unpleasant sensations?” Does “causing displeasure or resentment” increase or dilute the power of the artwork?
I have often said “you must look before you can see” in defense of work with powerful messages that are deemed too “pretty.” I’m not sure how I feel about that now. I dislike shock for its own sake, but sometimes viewers need to be shaken out of their complacency; thus, weaponized art.
But I’m still going with the idea that beauty can be “offensive.”

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Art of the Dog

I was doing my usual weekend gallery walk-a-thon when I started thinking about dogs.  Thinking about dogs in DC, even if you haven’t got a dog of your own to think about, is pretty much ubiquitous.  Because the dogs are. Ubiquitous.  And because I see art in everything, I am acutely aware of the role dogs play in the urban streetscape. In his sociological treatise, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Erving Goffman talks about the “maintenance of front,” a concept Italians call “bella figura.”  DC dogs take the art of self-presentation seriously. They trot, prance, lope, wearing their scarves, bow ties, and headgear with a seriousness of mien and aplomb that belies the somewhat unorthodox choices of apparel in which they appear.   Like the ID badges sported by the seriously connected (read: everybody) dogs confer identity to their owners/caregivers. They hang around WeWork offices.  Judiciously partake of water and treats left for them by fawning businesses.  Patrol happy hour hotspots.  And confer upon their owners the status so necessary for DC happiness.  We in the art world are proud to acknowledge that one of our own has made it to the top: Cross MacKenzie’s beloved gallery dog, Zeke, who belongs to gallery owner and artist Rebecca Cross, was named Best Gallery Dog by the Washington City Paper.

The Backest Black

My previous blog reminded me of a piece I published several years ago, adapted here. In the sometimes rarified world of art and ...