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Archives for February, 2007

Artists I Like: Gerry Bergstein

Do You Come Here Often?, 2004-2006, oil on canvas
What Should I Paint?, 2004-2006, oil on canvas
What Should I Paint? (detail)

Gerry Bergstein—as some of you may already know—is one of my favorite living artists. I wrote an excitable (if not altogether approving) review of his recent show This Is Your Brain on Art at Boston’s Gallery NAGA. I’ve learned a lot of things from him, although not so much from taking his painting class at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (also in Boston). Rather, I’ve learned by absorbing his thoughtful and intoxicating images over the last eight or so years.

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Steal this idea


Karl asked me last week: What am I trying to say with my Patina photographs of old paint on old cars? Within the context of what I had just been doing — starting to work with strong color and abstract patterns — I quite honestly answered that I didn’t know. But to work with the images, I had to retrieve them from a computer directory “Junkyard cars” that was paired with another one, both under the rubric “Patina-Altered Surfaces.” It wasn’t until browsing later that I was reminded of that second directory called “Rocks.”

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Art and Isolation

plein air landscape painting
Painting From Life vs. From Photos


The art world of today is not evil, it is simply inadequate.

If the art of today is lacking, it’s not only the dealer’s and collector’s fault…it’s everyone’s. –Edward Winkleman

If Painting A Day is the most important art movement of our time, then I think it’s safe to say there aren’t any important art movements at present. –David Palmer

Art is and has always been only one thing: the representation of what people find important. In the distant past, Western art portrayed religion. The artist was a craftsman employed for this purpose. Some artists did their job so well that the work became important in itself, quite apart from the subject of the work.

This progression of artwork gaining importance in its own right (separate from the subject of the work) eventually led to the point where art itself became a form of religion — and of course, a worthy subject of art.

As in any religion where there are not rules against it, artists attempted to portray their new god. But what does the art god look like? Art is of course an abstract concept, not a god created in the image of man.

The portrait of art as a god is most explicit in so-called “abstract art” — an attempt to represent art itself. That is why the question, “is it art?” is so important and far more literal than we normally realize. The question “is it art?” is important when, if the answer is “no”, the work has no claim to value — like a mediocre portrait that is not even a good likeness of the subject. If Jackson Pollock’s work is not art, it is nothing but rubbish, little different from a house painter’s drop cloth.

The art world, if one can apply the term retroactively to the past, was once a world of idealism and wonder. Today, the art world today is a world of anomie. Anomie is, at the social level, instability resulting from a breakdown of standards and values. At the personal level, it is unrest, alienation, and uncertainty that comes from a lack of purpose or ideals.

Why should the art world be a world of anomie? The answer is simple: no one believes in the art world anymore, the religion of art has been discredited. Imagine Christian art made by people with no belief in Christianity. That is much like what our art world is today. Yes, there is money to pay the actors, there are the museums which are the temples, but the religion is dead.

The reaction of the different actors in the drama is of course different. The dealers and curators, priests of the dead religion, continue with their empty rituals and try to pretend that nothing is amiss. For the artist, the reaction is the retreat into private spirituality — the only escape from anomie. You can read the same statement again and again from artists: “I make my work for myself.” For whom else should the artist work?

As Ed says above, this is not the failure of one group of people. We can’t blame the dealers for our problems. We are facing a failure at a broad cultural level, a failure of the entire religion of art. I don’t mourn the loss — “art for the sake of art” was always an absurd notion. But until art is applied to another purpose than glorifying itself, artwork will be nothing more than the separate longings of isolated individuals.

A Debt Of Gratitude To The Subject

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An admirer of my photography recently praised my clever ability to capture the spirit of the great Dutch painter Piet Mondrian in my work.  I was quite taken aback by this and without diminishing the genius of Mondrian, I felt obliged to explain to my admirer that he was putting the proverbial cart before the horse.  The only relationship I can claim to Mondrian is that our work benefits from the same model, the same muse.

In one sense, Mondrian did not create Broadway Boogie Woogie, rather the boogie woogie of Broadway inspired Mondrian.  Mondrian recorded and interpreted with his brush what I record and interpret with my camera: a unique energy fueled by verticals, horizontals and colors that is the visual signature of Manhattan and it’s relentless boogie woogie.

As a young man off on his first world adventures I was stunned by the revelation that many of the great artists I admired did not invent their mysterious landscapes, colors and visual signatures of China, Japan, Tuscany and Provence. Rather they were brilliantly capturing the unique moods, colors, light and shapes that nature had already chosen to create.  I remember gazing over the hills of Tuscany for the first time and thinking, “Oh!  So that’s where Leonardo got that.”  And I remember the day I realized the Van Gogh was “photographing” (through his unusual lens) the unique palette and landscapes of Provence.

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How useful is semiotics as a method for analysing works of art?

‘What one must paint is the image of resemblance—if thought is to become visible in the world. ‘        —Rene Magritte

Semiotics is the study of works of art signs and symbols, either individually or grouped in sign systems that can give us more insight from the work source and meaning. All painters work in a pictorial language by following a set of standards, basics and rules of picture-making. There is a big resemblance between pictorial image making and the creation of written language, the study of this nature of what consists and the individual components of pictorial and written language is known as Semiotics.

Semiotics can translate a picture from an image into words. Visual communication terms and theories come from linguistics, the study of language, and from semiotics, the science of signs. Signs take the form of words, images, sounds, odours, flavours, acts or objects, but such things have no natural meaning and become signs only when we provide them with meaning.

The semiotic theories are not definite but constantly being reviewed, extended and developed to become more precise and improve the significance of the information gathered when these theories are applied to works of art.

Visual Art consumers have become highly sophisticated readers of signs and signals, decoding subconsciously art work compositions. Everything surrounding us human beings today, including our own identities are all moulded and manipulated by signs, words, images and our visual language.

Communication can be a form of mind control; the one that has the power to speak higher and have the right speech can have a power over others in a certain way by making the individual point stand above all. The same happens with artworks with a conceptual meaning that stand and activate other people’s minds.

Different media carries different meanings despite the message content. Each form of media explores these meanings in the way the subject is represented and the context in which it appears. Visual language covers a whole range of different social mediums from low culture advertising, comic books and television to high culture like galleries and theatres. Visual signs look for the possibility of a language that already exists and is used already by a large amount of people connected or not with the arts and the media. The linguistic sign consists of content like sense and meaning of an expression like letters or sounds. Language is ruled by strong codes or rules and becomes complicated when we look at it in the form of visual artworks. It becomes a translation from linguistic to visual expression and the forms are as random as in linguistic signs.

Icons as a form of semiotics are all kinds of pictures representing an object like photos, drawings and paintings. Most pictures have a double meaning; visual and symbolic, conventional and arbitrary. Everyone knows, for example, that a picture of an old woman with a broom it is just a picture of an old woman but it can be perceived as a picture of a witch. Modern advertising is filled with this type of signage that holds double meanings.

Normally it is thought of as language in relation to pictures, very straight forward and clear where the visual language is an expression of emotional, deeper thoughts or even ambiguous ideas. It is then that visual expression needs the linguistic explanation to clear up the superfluous meaning. For example, in advertising, a linguistic message always comes attached to the advertisement in order to help establish the picture being shown.

So this form of anchorage of meaning opens us up to not only one, but several meanings without unsettling the main indented meaning; it forces the mind to interpret the media in a most complex and accurate way.

Pictorial Semiotics is often concerned with the study of pictures into a more constructive verbal description while maintaining confidence in the objectivity of the practice. A linguistic community that speaks the same language is a group of people making verbal agreements, speaking similarly as long the community lasts. Small changes are easily adopted and taken positively and are adjustable. The idea of representation by chance, where things do not follow rules but are used as signs is however very explored in the visual arts. This is where the principles of semiotics come in use; to map out and decode as a discipline.

The paintings of Rene Magritte for example in his series called ‘ The key of dreams (1930)’ show a collection of objects illustrated and labelled just like in a child’s learning picture book. They are all incorrectly described except for one of them. the As another example he paints a standard side view of a head of a horse against a black background with white writings and labels it ‘a door’, all of this with a primary aesthetic. These violations of representation are playing up with our early impingement teaching of associating names with the correct class objects that are part of our visual culture since childhood. Of course we grow up taking this for granted but Magritte with this illustration is showing us in a great way how resemblance, symbols and signs are often just representations of the real things.

Magritte in ‘The Betrayal of Images‘(1929) makes a painting of a simple pipe, a side view well illustrated with the phrase underneath saying’ This is not a pipe’. This text is neither true nor false and explores a new science of representation and signing. Is the painting a pipe or a depiction of a pipe? Yes, it is not the physical reality of a pipe, it is a representation of a pipe, a painting of it, a signifier for it but not the real thing. Would that still make it a pipe or should we call it something else?

Magritte had a special talent to make objects look mysterious and magical, and his objects are carefully chosen and depicted in a school textbook way. The ‘Pipe’ painting is a good example of how conventional imagery often betrays us all by making everyone realize that it is just a convention and not a real object. In my opinion I think Magritte was trying to make us all aware of the signs and symbols we often take for granted in our everyday lives.

This is a classical association for artists to make out the difference between the signifiers and the signified. A sign is something that stands for something other than itself; we interpret things as signs naturally by relating them to familiar systems or conventions.

The Critical Eye

It is fitting, I think, to follow a post on vanity with a self portrait.

Self Portrait, February 2007, Charcoal on Paper, 9×12

This is no vanity picture, however.
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Everything you ever wanted to know about the art world, but didn’t know where to ask

guest post by Lisa Hunter


Why does a museum curator choose one artist’s work over another’s? What themes or subject matter are dealers so sick of that they won’t even consider your slides?


From responses to my book The Intrepid Art Collector and discussion on my blog, I have learned that artists often don’t know the answers to these types of questions. Instead, there is widespread confusion about the inner workings of the art world. This is unfortunate because, if you are an artist, what you don’t know can hurt you.

Where should artists go to learn more about how the art world works? A contemporary art museum recently asked me to consult on how they can make their website more popular. It occurred to me that what would make a museum site interesting is if it were a place not simply to learn what art is in the museum, but why that art is the museum. To explain the “why,” I want to interview curators and ask them to explain how they picked a particular work of art for their museum (where they heard of it, what made it stand out from the others). I want to interview the artists whose work gets into the contemporary museums to find out how they “made it,” how they broke out of the pack of artists with the same goal.

Can you imagine visiting a museum website to find out how the art world really works?

Here are some other topics I could write about in depth for the museum’s site. Which of these would interest you the most?

  • Should artists donate their art to museums, and if so, will the museum actually exhibit it?
  • Are some artists better off outside of major art centers, where “locals” get more attention from museums?
  • What are the options for artists whose work is out of fashion at the moment?
  • Does being an assistant to a major artist lead to career opportunities, or does it tar you as a “fabricator”?
  • How important is an artist’s personality? (I can already answer this one — it’s critical. One curator I know won’t even consider showing someone who’s “difficult” to work with). How can you avoid making enemies without being a phony?
  • Why do curators seem to favor young artists? And how can a mid- career artist break out? Is it too late?
  • What type of paid-gallery rip-offs do artists need to beware of?
  • Which prizes and competitions actually mean something to major curators and dealers?

Please let me know what you think. At this early stage in thinking about the museum’s website, your feedback would be extremely valuable.