Category Archives: Art

“Material Polyphony” at Pratt Institute’s Schafler Gallery

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I’m pleased that two of my recent paintings will be on display at Schafler Gallery, located on the Brooklyn campus of Pratt Institute.

“Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, February 15–May 15, 2016

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Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Self-portrait (1790), oil on canvas, 39-3/8 x 31-7/8″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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“Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France” is a fascinating exhibition for reasons made plain by its title. Gender and context shouldn’t be the ultimate arbiters for why we value an artist, but they are inescapable factors when considering Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842). Much like Artemisia Gentileschi, another figure beloved by those who view the history of art through the lens of political correctness, Vigée Le Brun is an anomaly: a painter—and a successful one, at that—working at a time when women weren’t encouraged to pursue a career in the arts. It helped that Vigée Le Brun was to the studio born: her father, Louis Vigée, was a society portraitist and provided lessons at home. “You will be a painter, my child, or never will there be one” may be a statement indicative of paternal bias, but Vigée Le Brun’s talent was evident early on. Jeanne Maissin, the artist’s mother, pushed Vigée Le Brun to undertake more formal studies as a means of combating the depression she underwent upon the death of her father in 1767. Trips to the Louvre were supplemented by guidance from Gabriel François Doyen and Joseph Vernet, painters of considerable repute.

Maissin provided working space at home as well as financial support. But Vigée Le Brun achieved significant notice even as a teenager and helped supplement the family’s income through portrait commissions. After the studio was shut down by authorities in 1774—Vigée Le Brun had been operating without a license—the artist gained admittance to the Académie de Saint-Luc, an association guaranteeing a level of prestige, as well as that the studio remained open. Two years later she married Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, a distant cousin who had studied with François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard, and earned his keep as an art dealer. It was a difficult union. Vigée Le Brun realized fairly quickly that her husband’s appetite for collecting superseded the niceties of the bottom line. Le Brun couldn’t hold on to money. In recompense, he attempted to boost his wife’s reputation, hiking the prices of the work above those of her contemporaries. But Le Brun’s sway paled next to that of Marie Antoinette. How could it not? The young queen had a decisive if, ultimately, tumultuous effect on Vigée Le Brun’s art and life.

Marie Antoinette in Court Dress (1778) isn’t the first painting viewers encounter upon entering the exhibition, but its impact makes swift work of the surrounding pictures. Commissioned as a gift for the queen’s mother, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, this monumental showpiece codifies the requisite hauteur but, more so, evinces an ambitious artist eager to please. And please Vigée Le Brun most certainly did. The Empress was delighted with the canvas, and Marie Antoinette, having run through a disappointing series of portraitists, finally found a painter who did not “drive me to despair.” Marie Antoinette in Court Dress isn’t very good—its elision of pictorial space is vague when it isn’t flat-footed, and the attention to texture inconsistent—but as a piece of theater, it’s a tour-de-force, particularly for an artist who was all of twenty-two years of age. Indeed, one of the pleasures of “Woman Artist in Revolutionary France” is watching Vigée Le Brun develop while on the job, gaining surety in her rendering of the human form and pulling off portraits that are, in their attention to detail and character, more than documents of a doomed aristocracy.

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Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Marie Antoinette and Her Children (1787), oil on canvas, 108-1/4 x 85-1/4″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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By the time we reach Marie Antoinette and Her Children (1787) at the show’s midpoint, Vigée Le Brun has become a deeper artist in terms of skill and mood. A greater intimacy with her subjects, particularly the queen, accounts for the air of tender sobriety suffusing its portrayal of a mother and her three children. Here, Marie Antoinette is less a coquettish figurine seemingly molded from porcelain than a flesh-and-blood woman humbled by motherhood. (An empty bassinet at the right of the composition signifies the death of a fourth child.) Though the children are too moppet-like by half, Vigée Le Brun brought an unnerving degree of self-awareness and introspection to the gaze of Marie Antoinette. Vigée Le Brun would never altogether shed a brittleness of affect—the conventionality of her settings is a nagging constant—but the painterly approach became more fluid and precise. Rubens was a pivotal influence, and one can intuit his sensuality and esprit in the silky brushwork of Comtesse de la Châtre (1789) and the comic eroticism of Madame Dugazon in the Role of “Nina” (1787). Vigée Le Brun doesn’t achieve the heights set by the Flemish Master, but neither does she suffer from the comparison—at least, that is, in her finest efforts.

The finest of them all is the justifiably iconic Self-Portrait (1790). Political turmoil at home caused Vigée Le Brun to flee France in 1789; close association with the recently imprisoned queen did not, to put it mildly, put her in good stead with the revolution. Setting up shop in Rome, Vigée Le Brun was asked by the Uffizi to contribute a canvas to its gallery of self- portraits. The result earned plaudits from the top down: “All of Rome,” wrote the museum’s director, “is in awe of her talent.” It’s hard not to fall a little bit in love with the painting. Turning to the viewer as she daubs at a portrait of her deposed patron, Vigée Le Brun is fresh-faced, confident and without guile; beautiful, too. Though she went on to achieve fame and fortune throughout Europe and Russia, Vigée Le Brun never topped it and the work turned spotty and slick. Her subsequent portraiture traded too easily in mannerisms; particularly cloying are the kewpie-doll eyes and standard-issue pursed lips bequeathed to sundry courtesans, princesses, and queens. Flattery might elicit commissions, but it’s hell on art. Vigée Le Brun cruised on her mastery rather than expanding its parameters. Still, any show that includes a painting as winning as Self-Portrait, not to mention twenty or so additional pictures that are almost as good, deserves must-see status. And so it is with “Woman Artist in Revolutionary France.”

© 2016 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the May 2016 edition of The New Criterion.

“Thru the Rabbit Hole”

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It’s that time of year: Sideshow Gallery will be mounting its annual exercise in inclusivity. Can there really be too much art? Apparently not. A recent painting of mine will be included amongst the myriad pieces on display. Hope to see you at the opening–that is, if you can navigate the maddening crowd. There’s also an attendant exhibition at Bushwick’s Life on Mars Gallery, Sideshow’s new partner in artistic abundance.

The More The Merrier

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The Cultured and Huddled Masses at Sideshow Gallery

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I’m pleased to announce that a painting of mine will be included in Sideshow Nation II; At The Alamo, Rich Timperio’s annual extravaganza at Sideshow Gallery in Williamsburg.

The opening will, if history tells us anything, be swamped with art-lovers of all stripes.

This time around the opening takes place on Saturday, January 4th, from 6:00-9:00 p.m. The exhibition runs until March 3rd. Additional information can be found here.

Ho, Ho, Ho

Holiday Delights* * *

I’m pleased to announce that a painting of mine will be on display in Holiday Delights, a group exhibition at Elizabeth Harris Gallery. You’ll find all the pertinent information above. Hope to see you at the opening/holiday party on December 7th.

Art in Brooklyn. Who Knew?

Ivan Albright, Marie Walsh Sharpe (1921), oil on canvas, 25″ x 17″; courtesy The Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation

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Few events in recent memory have been as heartening as a visit to this week’s open studios at The Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation.

I’d heard of the Sharpe Foundation’s Space Program–no, nothing NASA about it; the Foundation provides a year of free studio space for selected artists–but I had never visited the DUMBO facility. Now that I’ve have all I can say is:  Wow. The studios are the stuff of a workaday artist’s wet dream–high ceilings, ample square footage and, for a lucky few, stunning views of lower Manhattan–and the art on view was of a consistently high quality.

I’ll admit that my aesthetic barometer may have been clouded by one too many plastic cupfuls of red wine and enriched by the company of friends and colleagues. But even the work that wasn’t to my taste evinced meticulous craft and the better stuff was unembarrassed by the attention paid to what meets the eye. Visual art that’s actually visual in nature. Can you imagine such a thing?

Particularly noteworthy was the work of Amy Bennett, Thomas Bangsted, Gary Petersen, Martha Clippinger, Vince Contarino, Harry Leigh, Kirk Stoller and Gelah Penn, through whose kind offices I was invited to the Sharpe Foundation (and who’s currently showing here).

© 2011 Mario Naves

Getting From There To Here

Most of the terms that bring people to this blog are straight forward–names of artists, titles of paintings, things like that. But once in a while, a phrase pops up that raises a smile or an eyebrow. Some are vaguely poetic, like lines of haiku that have strayed from home. One or two would be a great name for a punk rock band.  (“Ladies and gentleman, let’s give it up for . . . Russian Locker Room Voyeur!!!”)

Below is a list of some of these quizzical or cryptic items, most of which do lead to something or other in the archive. I reiterate: most of which. What Kandinsky is doing in “Black’s Grave”, I can’t tell you. As for the winsome question ending the list: would that this were that kind of blog.  I’d be making a lot more money.

How Much Art In A Room Is Too Much

Abstract Bitch

Art Is Too Much Money

Photos of Buck-Toothed Women

De Kooning’s Woman-Eating Females

This Painting Has Been Found

Morandi’s Palette? Morandi’s Palette!

Zaftig Figurative Nude Art

Pictures of Fawn Hall

Sauna Outfit

Parent Haircut

Scrabble Board Love

Apocalyptic Kitsch

Kandinsky in Black’s Grave

Erotic Draw Down

Russian Locker Room Voyeur

Artists Paint Things That Scare Themselves

Average Blowjob Time?

© 2011 Mario Naves

Tara Donovan at Pace Gallery

Drawing (Pins)

Tara Donovan, Drawing (Pins) (2010), gatorboard, paint and nickel-plated steel pins, 72″ x 72″ x 2-1/2″; courtesy Pace Gallery

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Tara Donovan–like, wow. Zillions of pins, man. Did she, you know, pin every one? The things, they’re kind of big bang. Spacey and light and all. Cosmic. From far away they look like pictures made with a pencil or something. When you get close: those pins–buttloads of them! Must’ve been a pain to do. Maybe she hired some people to do the grunt work, like Rubens, that old guy, or the soup can dude with the wig. That’s cool. Heard a guy at the gallery tell some other guy at the gallery that the stuff is “ecological” and that, um, Tara “repositions perceptual experience . . . ‘in a practice that has appeared until now largely materially driven and in the service of organic allusion'”. Something about computer screens, I think. Technology and shit. Deep.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Eating Bananas In Silent Anger

David Cross as Dr. Tobias Fünke; courtesy Fox Broadcasting Company

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The heading for this post is taken from I Drink For A Reason, a compilation of musings, rants and (hilariously) profane lists by David Cross, the comedian and actor best known for his turn as Dr. Tobias Fünke on the television series Arrested Development. I was reminded of the line after reading ArtVent, the blog of artist and critic Carol Diehl. Cross’s finely honed quip best encapsulates the range of feelings–a melange of exasperation, disbelief and quiet consternation–engendered by Diehl’s recent post on Plan B.

What, you might ask, is Plan B? That would be some kind of provision taken by artists in order to sustain their day-to-day livelihood–paying the rent, putting food on the table, having health insurance, buying supplies, like that.  In other words: an operating principle that allows an artist to afford his creative pursuits.

Diehl doesn’t like the idea. At a meeting with art students, she was asked if “a strong emphasis on minor studies . . . [would contribute] in a significant way to their artistic pursuits” or should such practicality be chalked off as “Plan B”? The question elicited this response:

“I am SO opposed to ‘Plan B’.

“How successful can you be at anything, when you’re simultaneously planning for failure . . . it seems like a waste to spend time (and considerable money) on anything you’re not passionate about.”

Is planning for the future inherently an admission of failure? Seems like a necessity to me, particularly in a field where regular financial remuneration is unlikely. Besides, why can’t Plan B entail responsibilities that are, in their own way, rewarding? Not every day job has to be onerous, unpleasant or, in Diehl’s estimation, unpassionate.

(For the record: My various Plan B’s have included teaching, art writing, sheet-rocking, wall-papering, faux-finish painting, working as a gallery assistant and making artificial rocks at the Central Park Zoo, where the trick was to sculpt geological fissures, crags and toeholds in such a way that the spider monkeys could frolic but not escape.)

Keywords: art galleries, boys, children, children's art classes, exhibitions, fashions, girls, Glasgow Photographic Survey 1955, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, museums, Nerston Child Guidance Residential School, painting, paintingsWith dreams of Dakis Joannou at the door; photo courtesy of The Patrick Camera Club

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Diehl recalls how her parents wanted to channel their daughter’s artistic interests into a career as a fashion illustrator; my parents pined for a certified public accountant. Diehl and I decided otherwise. We all make choices–good, bad, regrettable and indifferent. But some of those choices have to involve mundane matters like having the means to pay for, say, internet service.

Diehl and I are doing well enough to spend significant chunks of time looking at and writing about art. And most students have an idea what they’re in for. God be with them:  Every young artist should graduate with a line of collectors, blank checks in hand, knocking on the studio door. But encouraging go-for-broke romanticism is doing them a disservice and potentially fostering disillusion, if not outright harm. Best to take Plan B, Plan C–hell, Plan D–into consideration and bring at least one of them to sustainable fruition.

The earlier artists realize this the better able they’ll be to navigate their creative lives outside the academic environment and to build upon that elusive thing known as Plan A.

© 2011 Mario Naves