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Photo: Abelardo Morell.
“2016–Flowers for Lisa #30” (2016) at Edwynn Houk Gallery.

Lauren Moya Ford at Hyperallergic asks, “Can photographers capture the vitality of flowers compellingly, innovatively, and beautifully?” She reviews a new book that answers the question in the affirmative.

“In the late 1830s,” writes Ford, “the Welsh botanist John Dillwyn Llewelyn began making photographs of orchids he’d grown at his home near Swansea. Llewelyn’s pictures are thought to be among the first to use the photographic process to identify plant specimens, though he himself found them lacking. ‘I have amused myself with making Daguerreotype [sic] portraits [of several flowers], and from their exact accuracy they are interesting,’ he wrote in an 1842 letter to the director of London’s Kew Gardens, ‘though the want of color prevents them from being beautiful as pictures.’ …

Flora Photographica: The Flower in Contemporary Photography by William A. Ewing and Danaé Panchaud (Thames & Hudson, 2022), features 200 photos taken over the past 30 years. The lavishly illustrated book follows its 1991 predecessor, which covered the period from 1835 to 1990. The newest edition features more than 120 artists from 30 countries working with digital and analog photography in a variety of modes, including performance, collage, and textiles. 

“Some of the most provocative images come from artists who use flowers to take on today’s pressing political and social issues.

In the book’s first photo, taken at the 2020 Belarus protests by the Polish photojournalist Jędrzej Nowicki, we see the hand of a demonstrator gripping a small bouquet of white flowers tied with white ribbon, the color of the opposition.

“ ‘The Pansy Project’ by Paul Harfleet documents single pansies that the artist plants at the site of homophobic abuse. And Thirza Schaap’s brightly-colored, modern-day vanitas ‘Plastic Ocean Series’ features floral still lifes made of discarded waste. …

“Other photos are personal, documentary, and playful. Some of Ewing and Panchaud’s selections riff on the way flowers have been depicted in the past, while others push in new directions. Flowers are a well-worn subject matter in the history of art, appearing in human production well before Llewelyn’s snaps in the 19th century. This book shows that they remain a powerful springboard for visual experimentation and meaning.”

I have chosen to illustrate this post with Abelardo Morell‘s photo both because I like it and because Abe and his wife were friends of my late sister. Nell knew them decades ago at Columbia University, when as a relatively recent immigrant from Cuba, Abe was doing menial jobs and thinking he might like to take up photography. The rest is history. Now his photographs are collected in museums.

More at Hyperallergic, here. Read about Abe here. He’s an interesting guy.

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Photo: Mrs.
Luke O’Halloran‘s “Eeeeeeeeeee” (2022).

Are you a cat person or a dog person? Both? I’m not sure that I have a preference, but over the years, I’ve cohabited with more cats than dogs mainly because they are so independent and relatively easy to care for.

I know from YouTube that there’s a large segment of the population that can’t get enough of videos featuring cats, and as the gallery in today’s post notes, cats have been subjects of awe throughout history.

“Since ancient Egypt,” the Mrs. gallery’s website notes, “cats have maintained a ubiquitous presence in art. Originally symbolic of an Egyptian idol and guide in the afterlife, during the Middle Ages cats became synonymous with superstition, witchcraft, and paganism — associations that linger to this day. It wasn’t until the 1600s that they became the domestic companions they are known as today. Featuring artists from multiple generations, this exhibition depicts cats in all of their glory, as loving companions, fierce protectors, stubborn rebels, shadows in the dark, mythical shapeshifters, and as vehicles of unabashed comic relief.” 

Today I must apologize to readers who might have been able to get to the Mrs. art gallery in Queens, New York: the cat-art show has ended. Fortunately, you can still enjoy it online at Hyperallergic.

Elaine Velie wrote about it there: “Cats have descended upon Maspeth, Queens, where Mrs. gallery is featuring the work of 39 artists focused on a single theme: furry felines. Cats have been an art historical focus for thousands of years, and the gallery’s latest exhibition, titled ‘Even a Cat Can Look at the Queen,’ suggests they are here to stay.

“From Cait Porter’s loving rendering of a fuzzy tabby’s paw to a Philip Hinge chair sculpture made out of scratching posts, the exhibition includes works by longtime artists of Mrs.’s program as well as some who have never before shown with the gallery.

“Almost all of the works are by living artists, with a few exceptions, including an Andy Warhol print that presents perhaps the exhibition’s most straightforward depiction of a cat. A painting by Renate Druks — movie star, director, and avid painter of cats — titled ‘Male Cat Club’ (1980) evokes the visual language of the Hollywood Golden Age she lived through. … The setting looks like a movie or stage set and the outdoor views visible in the background evoke the dreary exteriors of film noir.

“Other works in the show are decidedly more modern, such as Sophie Vallance’s ‘Tiger Diner’ (2022), which features the checkerboard pattern and rounded aesthetic that has become popularized on social media over the last few years. But like Druks, Vallance places cats in a surprising setting; namely, sitting in a diner.

“In both paintings — and in almost every work in the exhibition — cats display the utmost confidence, a holier-than-thou attitude that any cat parent will likely recognize in their own beloved pet. The animals take up space with dignity, suggesting that the oddity is not their presence but that of a human being.

“Other highlights include Katharine Kuharic’s ‘Long Wait’ (1990), an oil painting with such fine lines it looks like a tapestry. … Elbert Joseph Perez’s ‘Pierrot Greatest Performance’ (2022) is a highly detailed portrayal of a cat presenting an ominous paw toward his toy likeness as an audience of creepy, obscured cats watches the animal from the dark. …

“Johanna Strobel’s sculpture commemorates feline hero Félicette, the first cat in space, and Abby Lloyd’s ‘Enchanted Cat Girl’ (2019), a pink anthropomorphic foam figure, assumes different facial expressions depending on where the viewer stands. Lloyd has impressively managed to keep the sculpture upright despite the figure’s enormous head.

“The show’s title, Even a Cat Can Look at the Queen, comes from an old English proverb implying that even people of the lowest status — as low as a cat — have rights. After gazing at the works in the exhibition, however, the proverb seems too on-the-nose. With their distinguished attitudes and regal postures, it’s quite evident cats can ‘look at the queen.’ As Anna Stothart notes in her essay for the show, perhaps the ancient Egyptians were right: Dogs may be man’s best friends, but cats are humans’ idols, and although they may bless us with companionship, we exist only to serve them.’ “

Do you have a favorite piece of art from the show? For me, it was hard to pick. Click at Hyperallergic, here, to choose from some great pictures. The gallery’s site is here.

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Covid Murals

Photos: John.

John was in Malden yesterday and saw the Covid murals on the bike path. He was stunned. I tried to find a descriptive article about them online but ended up having to copy lines of poems from the photos on Flickr. I hope I got all the punctuation right. Poets care about such things.

How soon we forget what it was like to be deep in the midst of this! When we thought protecting ourselves meant wiping down the groceries with bleach. When doctors and nurses were having to reuse masks and were sending out pleas for people to find old masks in their garage workshops and take them to emergency rooms. When there were few test kits and no vaccines. How soon we forget it was all about breath and breathing!

The memorial to lost lives in Malden features both art and written words. These are excerpts from the poems.

Terry E. Carter wrote a poem about his mother called “Ventilation.”

“She wouldn’t wear a mask.
“I couldn’t even ask. …
“Said her freedom meant more than anything —
“wasn’t gonna let the liberals win.”

Ten-year-old Elliana J. Shahan’s poem “Because of You” honors farmers, shopkeepers, postal workers, doctors, teachers, and all who kept the world running in the dark times.

Jessica Frazier Vasquez’s is poem about the beep beep beep of her dad’s ventilator showing he was at least still alive: “It tells me that you’re still fighting/Battling to come back.” At least for a while.

Sharon Briner Santillo’s poem noted how one never used to know what was going on behind a neighbor’s windows and how one may feel more connected now.

“I know you
“Your sorrowful heart
“Your beautiful resilience …
“I know you
“And you know me.”

There is another by Dina Stander called “Breath”: “May her memory be for a blessing.” And one by Denise Keating called “A Slow Goodbye” about her father, who had already been paralyzed by a stroke for 10 years.

“We hovered by the window
“Moths fluttering for your voice
“We went away.
“You slipped away.
“And now.
“Guilt-stricken.
“Paralyzed.
“We let you go.
“We didn’t want you to fight.
“But we still struggle
“To remember
“To breathe.

More at MaldenArts, here. Be sure to look at the Flickr pictures, here: you can zoom in to read the words. Most of the poems are not literary, but all are heartfelt.

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Photo: Sean Hudson, Aaron Zulpo, and Johnny Defeo via Hyperallergic.
Art making at Bandelier National Monument, January 2021.  

I’ve sometimes wondered how landscape painters over the years have dealt with extremes of weather. Think Hudson River School, think storms in the mountains. Even an ordinary person needs a lot of paraphernalia to go outside in bad conditions, let alone someone bringing along an easel, paints, palette, stool …

Susannah Abbey writes at Hyperallergic that in New Mexico, “the rule of the outdoors is that it changes constantly and consistently: sun angles, wind direction and speed, cloud formations, humidity. It is what makes painting outside, en plein air, so maddening and fun.

Johnny DeFeo, co-founder of the Guild of Adventure Painters, has been painting outside since he was a teenager. The challenge of rendering color and light often determines his subjects when he is on the road with his partner in painting, Brooklyn-based artist Aaron Zulpo. Since 2018 they have taken friends on mobile ‘Residency Programs’ and shorter ‘Excursions’ — driving DeFeo’s box truck to Banff, Yosemite, even Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, where they led a community painting day. 

“Landscape painting has gone through different iterations in Western art since Claude Lorrain began painting the Italian countryside in the 17th century, yet has remained popular. … Maybe due to COVID lockdowns, or perhaps to a growing fear of losing the natural world, plein air (like other outdoor activities) is enjoying a small resurgence. Being outside, whether in an urban or wild landscape affords benefits; it’s a way to be fully immersed in and aware of the world.

“While its attractions transcend intellectualizing, at the end of a long day on a residency, the Adventure Painters convene to discuss process. ‘We’ll talk about, say, a waterfall — why is a waterfall so hard to paint?’ says DeFeo.

“DeFeo and Zulpo invite a rotating party of like-minded artists to accompany them. In January 2021, they organized a two-week excursion with Raychael StineBeau Carey, and Sean Hudson, then followed it up with a group exhibition at The Valley gallery in Taos, New Mexico.

“Stine teaches, among other courses, Wilderness Studio at the University of New Mexico, an art class in which students make their own pochade boxes and then go camping for two weeks to experiment with working beyond the confines of the Fine Art Department. Painting outside allows her to distill her outdoor observations into new and sometimes surprising palettes. 

“For Sean Hudson, a former student of Stine’s, the attraction to plein air started with the New Mexico sky. ‘I found these ethereal, transcendent spaces for my work in the bright sunsets, gradients, landscape as this whole idea of change, beauty, origin,’”’ he says.

“Beau Carey, also a Wilderness Studio alum, sometimes joins them. … Carey favors remote, icy corners of the world: the mountains of Longervin, Norway, and Denali National Park. He believes that working in the field is a great way to engage with a space, to record a subject with as much accuracy as possible under changing conditions before reinterpreting it in the controlled conditions of the studio. …

“This transformation of total immersion into a two-dimensional picture is rooted in paradox. The word ‘landscape’ in Western culture has been informed by the traditions of painting. It has come to connote, for instance, a sweeping seascape or desert vista, whose details are carefully curated or embellished by the artist’s perceiving eye. But landscapes are complex systems that resist the framing and blocking of two-dimensional composition. … In any given prospect we may choose to interpret on paper, thousands of creatures are born, live and die, rocks and mountains are eroding, forests growing and dying and rotting, rivers meandering, springs drying up. Every moment subtly changes the reality before, behind, above and below us.

“The impossible charge of a plein air painter is to distill this sensory and intuitive knowledge into a single snapshot. …

“ ‘I love it because it’s a game you can’t win,’ says DeFeo. ‘You get locked on a perfect shadow. A few minutes later you turn your brain into recorder mode and [because the light has changed] paint right through that shadow. It’s right on the edge of glory and annihilation.’ “

Some beautiful examples of the art at Hyperallergic, here. No firewall.

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Art: John James Audubon.
“Lutra Canadensis, Canada Otter” (New York Public Library).

Hyperallergic is an online art magazine with a wide variety of stories that you just want to share. You can read it without paying, but of course, they need contributors as well as readers.

Today’s inspiration from Hyperallergic is about otters.

Sarah Rose Sharp writes, “Though seals are probably the gateway to aquatic mammal fandom, connoisseurs of the genre all agree that otters are best in class. These furry powerhouses are not only capable of tender intimacy and novel tool usage, they often just seem to be having the best time ever. So it’s no wonder that they have been a recurring motif throughout art history. …

“Though better known for his bird illustrations, John James Audubon’s last major work was The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, produced in collaboration with his friend, the Reverend John Bachman, who wrote the text that accompanies his illustrations. On his final drawing expedition in 1843, Audubon traveled with his son up the Missouri River to document and depict the four-legged mammals of North America — including, of course, otters.

“But the love of these little water scamps goes back much further than a couple of centuries. On view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is just one example of otters as a common motif during the Late Period and Ptolemaic times.

“ ‘The pose of raised paws signifies the otter’s adoration of the sun god when he rises in the morning,’ reads the label on this Ancient Egyptian bronze statuette, dating to between 664 and 30 BCE.

‘In myth otters were attached to the goddess Wadjet of Lower Egypt, whose cult was centered in Buto, in the northern Delta.’ …

“For high otter drama, you can hardly do better than the standoff in Pieter Boel’s painting ‘Otter Harassed by Dogs‘ (c. 1600) currently in the collection of El Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain. … Otters could mess you up at any time, so try to stay on their good side.

“Obviously, otters are a common motif in ancient and contemporary animal fetish carvings, such as [one] example of an ‘otter toy‘ from Cape Prince Of Wales, Alaska, part of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History collection. According to the Toh-Atin Gallery, otters as a fetish animal represent ‘balanced femininity.’ …

“For the painfully literal seeking out otters in museum collections, nothing can hold a candle to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York, whose permanent River Otter installation and background mural in the Hall of North American Mammals was captured by AMNH photographer Denis Finnin. ‘As morning mist veils a lake in Algonquin Provincial Park, a young female river otter comes ashore and inspects a spider web,’ reads the AMNH image description. …

“Speaking of meditative otters, a beautiful painting on silk from the Meiji period, the work of Japanese artist Seki Shūkō, is sure to meet all your needs for minimalist marine mammals. You can practically hear the noise of the rushing river. …

“But otters need not only be social animals, they can also be voices for animal welfare, as a woodcut by South Korean artist Shumu demonstrates.

“ ‘Animals are different from humans in language and appearance,’ the artist said in a message to Hyperallergic. ‘But animals feel the same or similar pain as humans, and they have emotions. Species discrimination against animals must stop. I hope that by continuing to work and share the life of veganism, it can become a small but resonant message.’ “

Nice examples of otter art through the ages at Hyperallergic, here. No firewall. Do you have favorite otter stories or images? Please share them.

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GPS Art

Photo: GPSArt.
A new fad: using the mapping function on your phone to create art.

At the New York Times, Claire Fahy has a report on a hobby generating the kind of puzzled glances that Pokémon enthusiasts wandering through traffic used to elicit.

“In 1665,” she begins, “Johannes Vermeer dabbed the last drop of paint onto a canvas in his Dutch studio, completing his masterpiece ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring.’

“On an April day 357 years later, Janine Strong slowed her bike to stop, paused her fitness app, and watched as the snaking line of her cycling route drew the shape of Vermeer’s masterpiece over the streets of Brooklyn.

“Ms. Strong creates what has come to be known as ‘GPS art’ — a practice that uses the Global Positioning System mapping capabilities of modern phone apps like Strava to create digital drawings using an athlete’s route across the landscape.

“Instead of biking on a straight path or in circles around a park, Ms. Strong plans her rides in the shapes of birthday cakes, stars, birds, lions — and the occasional Vermeer.

“The hobby has grown with the widespread availability of satellite tracking for use by ordinary people, in fitness apps like Nike Run Club or MapMyRide. It is particularly popular on Strava and often referred to as ‘Strava art.’

“Strava art has existed since that app’s release in 2009, but it experienced a surge in use during the pandemic. According to Michael Joseph, a senior communications manager at the company, more than three billion activities have been uploaded to Strava since the beginning of 2020.

“To complete her digital vision of ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring,’ Ms. Strong biked almost 50 miles around southern Brooklyn, carefully checking Strava to make sure each turn, circle, and straightaway was achieving the iconic earring and head covering of Vermeer’s original.

‘I always have a big smile on my face when it works out and I upload it and it’s done,’ she said. ‘It’s a very satisfying feeling.’ …

“In 2003, the New York Times Magazine ‘Year in Ideas‘ issue told of how Jeremy Wood and Hugh Pryor used Garmin GPS devices that looked like walkie-talkies to trace routes resembling butterflies and fish on walks through the English countryside.

” ‘It’s not just walking; you’ve got to be looking at this device,’ Mr. Pryor said in a recent interview. ‘People always wonder what you’re doing.’

“Mr. Wood said he got the idea for GPS art while he was using a GPS tracker on a flight and the plane flew in a holding pattern above Heathrow Airport. He was captivated by the pattern appearing on his Garmin.

“ ‘It formed this most beautiful oval shape, and it was better than I could draw by hand,’ Mr. Wood said. ‘That’s when I made a connection: You could use one’s movements to make marks in space.’

“Mr. Pryor, a classmate of Mr. Wood’s, had to develop software to get the GPS points off the Garmin and onto a computer, turning the data into drawings. In the years since, technology has advanced enough to create visual maps in real time using a phone or smart watch. …

“The practice has spread from the fields of Oxfordshire in England to the sand dunes of Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil. Gustavo Lyra has run around Rio Grande in the image of John Lennon’s face and spent almost nine hours running a route for his daughter’s fifth birthday. It was an image of Elsa from Disney’s Frozen. …

“Gene Lu, who lives in New Jersey, started creating GPS art when he became a fan of the Game of Thrones TV series in 2013. He ran the shape of the family crests from the program. …

“Lenny Maughan, who refers to himself as a ‘human Etch A Sketch,’ also started out making map art tied to pop culture. Leonard Nimoy — Mr. Spock in the original Star Trek — had just died in 2015, and Mr. Maughan decided to pay him tribute. … ‘I thought, OK, I’m going to do the Vulcan salute.’

“The art form even has its own Guinness World Records categories. The Guardian profiled a couple who completed a 4,500-mile bike ride across Europe (while blogging the journey) that resulted in a 600-mile-wide GPS drawing of a bicycle — the largest such drawing on record, according to the Guardian. …

“For Mr. Lu, the unexpected is part of the beauty.

“ ‘The crazy thing is that you sort of don’t know where the map takes you; you just go with it,’ Mr. Lu said. ‘I always end up with what I’m looking for.’ “

More at the Times, here.

Photo: Daniel Rayneau-Kirkhope/Arianna Casiraghi.
The virtual bicycle drawn by Daniel Rayneau-Kirkhope and Arianna Casiraghi is 600 miles across and covers seven countries. See the article at the Guardian.

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Art: Elsie Driggs, Pittsburgh, 1927, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
“Beauty is everywhere if you know how to look for it.”

You don’t have to love pollution to love industrial monstrosities transfigured by art. In fact, the tension between what you know smokestack flames are spewing and the beauty of the fire against the blue sky is part of the appeal. Which is not to say I wouldn’t happily give it up.

Still, I was interested in this article on the general topic at the Millions. Bill Morris writes, “In the early years of the twentieth century, an eight-year-old girl named Elsie Driggs was traveling by train with her parents from Sharon, Pennsylvania, to New York. She had dozed off by the time the train reached Pittsburgh, but as the writer John Loughery would recount years later in Woman’s Art Journal, her sleep was interrupted: ‘She was awakened by her father to witness the drama of the black night-sky over Pittsburgh ablaze with soaring flames from the steel plants. It was a memorable sight.’

“So memorable that 20 years later, with her artistic career beginning to flourish, Driggs returned to Pittsburgh hoping to recapture the scene in paint. But the fiery Bessemer steel-making process had been abandoned by then, so there were no longer any flames spurting into the night sky. Worse, the local mill’s managers insisted that a steel mill was no place for a young lady—and they were suspicious that she was a union organizer or industrial spy. But Driggs did not give up. ‘Walking up Squirrel Hill to my boarding house one night, I found my view,’ she told Loughery. ‘It was such a steep hill. You looked right down on the Jones and Laughlin mills. You were right there. The forms were so close.

And I stared at it and told myself, ‘This shouldn’t be beautiful. But it is.’ And it was all I had. So I drew it.

“And then she made a painting from her sketches. And then, nearly a century later, while viewing an exhibition of the Whitney Museum’s permanent collection, my eye was drawn to a smallish black-and-white painting — just 34 by 40 inches — that from a distance appeared to be abstract. … As I got closer I realized it was a stark depiction of cylindrical industrial smokestacks bound by wires at the top left and a gush of smoke at the bottom right. The smokestacks are black and gray, the only color coming from a hint of sulfur in the pale sky. And that’s it: smokestacks, wires, smoke, sky. No flames, no human beings. How did this unremarkable image manage to be so otherworldly beautiful?

“The card on the wall told me that the picture was called ‘Pittsburgh 1927’ and it was painted by Elsie Driggs. She soon followed it with an equally stark painting of silos and ducts and smokestacks called ‘Blast Furnace,’ and then a monumental, faceted painting called ‘The Queensborough Bridge.’ These paintings gained Driggs entry into a group dubbed the Precisionists, an informal movement of mostly young artists who in the 1920s were drawn to America’s emerging industrial landscape of factories and skyscrapers and bridges, which they rendered with both a geometric precision that echoed Cubism and a sparseness that sometimes bordered on abstraction, typified by ‘Pittsburgh 1927.’

“There were other Precisionists on the walls of the Whitney the day I discovered Elsie Driggs, most notably Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth. While Driggs was in Pittsburgh, Sheeler was in Detroit on a commission to photograph Henry Ford’s sprawling River Rouge complex, the workplace of 75,000 people, then the largest factory in the world. Sheeler’s assignment was part of the corporation’s publicity campaign for the Model A, which was about to replace Ford’s obsolete Model T. Sheeler spent six weeks roaming the complex with his camera, producing 32 prints that the company used for publicity and that are now regarded as high art. Possibly his most memorable image is ‘Criss-Crossed Conveyors, River Rouge Plant, Ford Motor Company,’ a picture of two conveyors making an X over a tangled netherworld of fences and buildings and ironwork, all of it topped by eight slender smokestacks that reach into the heavens. …

“One of Sheeler’s works from the Rouge was in the Whitney show — a painting made five years later called simply ‘River Rouge Plant,’ an oddly serene depiction of the factory’s coal processing and storage facility. The exterior walls of the buildings are creamy or tan, the foreground waters of a boat slip are glassy and calm, the sky is blue. There are no workers, no smoke or sparks or grease or slag heaps. The only hint of the repetitive, soul-crushing work that was done there is the nose of a freighter visible on the right. Part of Henry Ford’s genius was to make everything he needed to produce cars — what’s known as vertical integration, the cutting out of all middlemen — and so to make steel he had coal brought up by train from Appalachia, while his fleet of freighters brought iron ore down from Duluth, Minnesota. You would not know this by looking at Sheeler’s stately photographs or serene paintings, nor would you know that Ford was a union-busting anti-Semite who ruthlessly policed the morals of his captive work force. Sheeler was not concerned with such unpleasant facts. For him, all that mattered was that the Rouge was a visual gold mine. ‘The subject matter, he wrote to his friend Walter Arensberg, ‘is undeniably the most thrilling I have ever worked with.’ American factories, he added, were ‘our substitute for the religious experience.’

“Hanging on a wall near ‘River Rouge Plant’ was Charles Demuth’s painting ‘My Egypt’ from 1930, a depiction of a grain elevator in his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The gray structure, topped by exhaust ducts and flanked by a smokestack, is seen from a low angle, giving it a monumental, nearly monstrous presence. Diagonal lines hint at stained glass — and at the notion, widespread at the time among Sheeler and others, that industrial structures were the cathedrals of the machine age. …

“By depicting industrial architecture and machinery but not the humans who built and operated it, the Precisionists left themselves open to the charge [of] glorifying the machine while minimizing or simply ignoring its human costs. …

“What was behind the Precisionists’ tendency to focus on machines rather than their operators, on the mechanical rather than the human? Was it a way of condemning the pulverizing power of the industrial age? Or was it a way of glorifying these monuments to human ingenuity and will? Or could it be that it was not one or the other, but a bit of both? Or neither? 

“One possible answer comes from Elsie Driggs. The year she painted ‘Pittsburgh 1927,’ Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. A year later, Driggs experienced her first flight, aboard a Ford Tri-Motor that carried her from Cleveland to Detroit. It was an ethereal experience, judging by the painting she executed that year, ‘Aeroplane,’ which was included in ‘Cult of the Machine.’ It shows a curvaceous, silvery plane floating through the heavens. Black diagonal lines suggest the whirring of propellers — and identify it as the work of a Precisionist. It’s a lovely, loving homage, clearly a way of glorifying this airborne monument to human ingenuity and will.”

More at the Millions, here. Wonderful pictures. No firewall.

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Habibi Bazaar

Photo: Bianca Velasquez.
A rug called “Evil Eye,” by Pamela El Gergi.

Today’s story about beautiful craft rugs is reminding me of a college friend who was really into interior decorating. As a hobby. She got so enthusiastic about Scandinavian rya rugs that she began designing and selling her own. Nowadays, when I’m supposed to be replacing rugs with floor coverings that older people won’t trip on, I’m wishing that I had bought one one of her ryas. I could at least hang it on the wall if I was afraid of tripping. Like other crafts, rugs can hold a lot of meaning.

Bianca Velasquez reports at Hyperallergic about Utah-based Lebanese American artist Pamela El Gergi who “modernizes traditional rug-making as a way to stay connected to her heritage.

“A sweeping reclamation of traditional craftsmanship is taking place around the world,” Velasquez says, “with artists forming communities around their uses of stained glass, jewelry, beading, and textiles. Seemingly unapproachable crafts (because of restricted access to supplies or apprenticeship), such as rug-making and stained glass, have benefited from modernized and simplified techniques and technologies that make practicing these trades more accessible, creating a surge of independent creators who work at their own pace and through their own lens. …

“Among the new voices is Lebanese rug maker Pamela El Gergi, who creates her works under her business name Habibi Bazaar.

“Having relocated to Salt Lake City, Utah, from Beirut, Lebanon, in 2018, El Gergi felt an urge to keep an open connection to her hometown, which she found through the traditional craft of rug-making. … ‘Habibi Bazaar uses my own personal style, which is Oriental rugs, evil eyes (Nazar), patterns that you would see in churches and mosques in Lebanon,’ she told Hyperallergic in an interview.

“And while she applies her voice and background to rug-making in the US, El Gergi creates a new dialogue within traditional rug-making in Lebanon. ‘I’ve taken these vintage, older styles of Oriental rugs, and now I’m trying to make them more centered around Lebanese culture,’ she said. ‘We don’t have much Lebanese representation within Oriental rugs.’ …

“After finalizing her design, El Gergi projects and traces the outline onto her canvas, then uses the tufting gun to apply the yarn accordingly. After applying the carpet glue and backing to the other side of the fabric, she moves on to the final step. ‘I spend hours on each rug, shaving it properly and carving out the designs (or “sculpting” the rug). I finish it all with vacuuming, lint rolling, and doing one last quality check,’ she said.

“El Gergi is currently working on a rug collection in collaboration with her peer Samantha Nader who has created seven Oriental designs based on El Gergi’s concepts. ‘What makes this collection significant to me is the specific flower that is included in the design. This flower is printed on Lebanese coffee cups, and when you drink Arabic coffee, the grounds are collected at the bottom,’ El Gergi said. ‘Then you flip the cup over, and you let the grounds fall along the sides. After letting it sit for five minutes, it reveals a pattern that tells your fortune.’ …

“El Gergi’s pieces tend to use this medium to shed light on her experience as a Lebanese woman, as well as pay homage to and honor the cultural symbolism that has been passed down through her family for generations. 

“Creating cultural ties between Lebanon and the US does not stop at rug-making for El Gergi. Habibi Bazaar also kicked off a pronoun shirt campaign in collaboration with Mexican artist Alethia Lunares, who designed the t-shirt graphic. … She produced three different shirts saying ‘She, Her, Habibi,’ ‘They, Them, Habibi,’ and ‘He, Him, Habibi.’ El Gergi’s decision to include the term ‘Habibi,’ which translates into a non-gendered way of saying ‘my love,’ allows her to incorporate a little bit of her culture into the campaign.

“This year, Habibi Bazaar has been accepted to the 14th Annual Craft Lake City DIY Festival Utah’s ‘largest local-centric art, music, science, and technology festival.’ Not only has she been accepted as a vendor, she was also chosen to be sponsored through the Craft Lake City Artisan Scholarship Mentor Program, allowing her to be mentored by a more tenured local business owner through the entire process of tabling at a large event. 

‘[Her booth] will include her rugs, pottery, stickers, wall hanging, mirrors, and more. … Most importantly, El Gergi hopes to continue finding contemporary ways to pass down traditional Lebanese crafts to future generations.”

More at Hyperallergic, here.

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Art: Anna Kronick.
Anna Kronick is one of very few Judaic paper cutters practicing today.

Every time you think an artistic tradition is dying out, some free spirit reinvents it for a new age. Consider the art of sacred paper cutting and its long history in Jewish communities.

Isabella Segalovich reports at Hyperallergic, “Few today know that the walls of many Jewish homes used to be covered with intricate papercuts. Bursting with detailed ornamentation and religious symbolism, these artworks decorated Jewish homes in Eastern Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia for centuries. While some homes today may have a paper-cut marriage certificate or ketubah, the tradition has mostly evaporated. Much of the fragile paper archive was lost to the fires of the Holocaust, or has disintegrated over timeAnna Kronick is one of very few Judaic paper cutters practicing today, with a highly contemporary body of work that breathes new life into the sacred tradition. 

“After graduating from the New York Academy of Art as a sculptor in the ’90s, Kronick was working as a conservator when she came across a richly illustrated book, Traditional Jewish Papercuts by Joseph and Yehudit Shadur. ‘When you come across paper cutting, it’s usually Chinese or Polish. So when I came across Shadur’s book, I was amazed to find that Jews had been doing it too,’ she told Hyperallergic. …

“Some 25 years of practice later, Kronick has earned a place as a master artisan who not only continues this little-known craft but brings a fresh approach that allows the tradition to live on and evolve. 

“Traditional Judaic papercuts are made by slicing through a folded piece of paper, which is then unfolded to reveal a perfectly symmetrical design. While Kronick fell in love with their intricacy, she found this strict symmetry too confining. Instead, her pieces are defined by movement: Her compositions curve as if being blown by the wind. Stunningly, she rarely sketches out her designs. Kronick often draws with the knife itself, allowing her visions to guide her as she cuts through thin silkscreen paper.

‘In the beginning, I drew more,’ she said. ‘But the more I cut the less I drew.’ 

“Some of her papercuts bring life to old Yiddish songs. A navy blue paper rendition of ‘Belz, mayn shtetele Belz’ (Belz, my shtetl belz) lovingly depicts a group of Klezmer musicians — appropriate for a song about longing to return to a life of Jewish community. But while her Yiddish illustrations often contain English lettering, she prefers the graceful lines of Hebrew. ‘I don’t really do a lot of English text, because it stops the eye. It prevents movement,’ she says. ‘But Hebrew just flows.’ 

“Hebrew lettering is woven into her visions of passages from the Bible, like the story of Joseph. … This piece is dense with lush palm trees, bending piles of grain, and billowing patterned textiles. Look closely and you can find tiny cattle, brick walls, and a vast array of plant life swirling together in a dazzling vortex of religious symbolism. 

“The earliest recording of Jewish paper cutting comes from a whimsical 1345 treatise titled The War of the Pen Against the Scissors. The Spanish Rabbi Shem-Tov ben Yitzhak Ardutie describes how he resorted to cutting letters out of his parchment when his ink froze on a cold winter night. Since paper is so delicate, there is little physical evidence to trace the history of papercuts,. … Expert Joseph Shadur has written that the ‘more we learn about Jewish papercuts in one form or another, the more reason we have to believe that they were once exceedingly common.’ 

“While ritual art like spice boxes and Torah crowns were made out of expensive materials, paper was cheap and plentiful in many Jewish homes. Anyone could take up a small blade and develop their own masterpieces at home for very little money, thus fulfilling the Jewish principle of creating beautiful spiritual art known as hiddur mitzvah.

“Papercuts were hung from walls and windows as decorations for holidays like Sukkot and Shavuot, as calendars, and even as protective amulets to ward off the evil eye. We often imagine life in the shtetl as cold, gray, and dull. Rather, it was bursting with color and life. ‘Of all Jewish ritual and folk art, papercuts … lent themselves to the freest expression of religious spirit,’ Shadur wrote. 

“ ‘I think in pictures. When I listen to a Yiddish song, I just see it,’ said Kronick. ‘Maybe that’s why I don’t need drawing — I just cut it.’ But it’s nothing compared with how she sees passages from the Torah: ‘For me, the [Yiddish songs] don’t flow as much, even though it’s music.’ When she reads the texts, ‘it just moves differently. I can see the letters interwoven with the pattern.’ In work that keeps a beautiful craft from being forgotten, the results are deeply spiritual pieces, where we can witness Jewish joy and ancestral memories with our own eyes.”

Lots papercuts at Hyperallergic, here. No firewall, but subscriptions encouraged.

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Lydia Ricci, “I’m Not Sure They Need to Do That Now” (2020), scrap materials, 3 x 5 x 1 1/2 inches

The world is full of big wonders that people want to see before Covid or some other misfortune grounds them. As for me, I’m almost more interested in not missing some small, important thing close to home. I keep thinking there might be magic in the ordinary. No wonder I enjoy art that uplifts everyday items!

Sarah Rose Sharp writes at Hyperallergic about artist Lydia Ricci and the endless possibilities she finds in everyday objects.

“As the saying goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and no one embodies this sentiment more acutely than sculptor and filmmaker Lydia Ricci. From a pile of scraps and everyday detritus accumulated over the last 30 years, Ricci makes imperfectly perfect replicas of quotidian moments and objects.

“ ‘I have been collecting my family’s scraps for over 25 years,’ wrote the artist in a confessional essay on her website, ‘but I have to admit, I also steal some too.’ These purloined scraps include a reusable BINGO card from a family function at the local elementary school (‘fancy … with red plastic windows that cover the numbers’), dusty electrical tape (‘nobody needs three rolls’), a lightbulb box from a neighbor’s garage (‘the bulb probably didn’t even work’). …

“If you leave Ricci alone in a waiting room, she considers your paper clips fair game.

” ‘I treasure an electric bill from 1984 like others would covet their family jewels,’ Ricci told Hyperallergic by email.

The results are mementos that do not so much mirror their real-world counterparts as deeply evoke a sense of life as it is remembered — a little wonky, a little irregular, very detailed in places but highly abstract in others.

“Ricci poses and photographs her tiny sculptures in tableaux in which the objects are often out of proportion, giving them the surreal quality of dreams and memory. A tiny aquarium makes tight quarters for a peeled cocktail shrimp. A ramshackle miniature couch struggles to conceal life-sized keys and Cheerios and hairballs. A teensy dishwasher is slowly buried in a drift of life-sized detergent flakes.

“As if creating these scenes out of multiple media isn’t enough, Ricci then recasts them in multimedia productions, adding single-sentence text snippets that seem to voice over the images or serve as narration to short films. Her three-minute film I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU (2021) made the rounds this past spring at film festivals in Arizona and Washington, DC, and tells the story of an evolving relationship through its everyday dramas: the wait for a diner booth, the politics of toothbrush-sharing, the request (or lack thereof) for help reaching a high shelf, the need (or not) for company on a grocery run.

“ ‘There is absolutely nothing precious or precise about what I am constructing,’ Ricci added. ‘The sculptures are messy and imperfect just like our memories.’ …

“Ricci was part of a four-person show that ran through April at James Oliver Gallery in Philadelphia, with another show slated to open on August 23 at the Kohler Art Museum in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. She’s also hoping to publish a book of her images, titled Don’t You Forget About Me.” More at Hyperallergic, here.

You might also be interested in a book by Richard Deming called The Art of the Ordinary, of which Cornell University Press says: “Cutting across literature, film, art, and philosophy, Art of the Ordinary is a trailblazing, cross-disciplinary engagement with the ordinary and the everyday. Because, writes Richard Deming, the ordinary is always at hand, it is, in fact, too familiar for us to perceive it and become fully aware of it. The ordinary he argues, is what most needs to be discovered and yet is something that can never be approached, since to do so is to immediately change it.”

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Photo: Marc Domage/© Private collection.
A detail from one of Picasso’s sketchbooks for his daughter. 

I have read things about Picasso over the years that have made me think that he might not have been a person I would enjoy knowing. Then he goes and does something like this, and I have to remind myself that people are complicated: almost everyone weaves the good with the not good.

Dalya Alberge has a charming story about Picasso at the Guardian.

“They are the ultimate ‘how to draw’ books for a young child,” Alberge writes, “created by a doting dad who just happened to be one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. The granddaughter of Pablo Picasso has discovered an extraordinary collection of sketchbooks used by the artist to teach his eldest daughter to draw and color.

“Picasso filled the pages with playful scenes – animals, birds, clowns, acrobats, horses and doves. … He created them for Maya Ruiz-Picasso when she was aged between five and seven. On some pages, the little girl made impressive attempts to imitate the master. She also graded her father’s work, scribbling the number ’10’ on a circus scene, to show her approval.

“He drew two charming images of a fox longing for grapes – inspired by the 17th-century fabulist Jean de La Fontaine’s sour grapes fable, The Fox and the Grapes – and Maya colored in one of them. He also drew simple but beautiful eagles in a single movement, without raising the pencil from the paper, conveying his love of form and pure line to her.

“The previously unseen collection includes exquisite origami sculptures of birds that he brought to life for Maya from exhibition invitation cards.

“His granddaughter, Diana Widmaier-Ruiz-Picasso, found the works by chance while looking through family material in storage. Intrigued, she showed them to her mother, now 86, for whom memories came flooding back.

“Widmaier-Ruiz-Picasso told the Observer: ‘She said, “Of course, those are my sketchbooks when I was little.” ‘ …

“Picasso, who died in 1973, had been taught to draw by his father, a professor of drawing, ‘so that was something natural for him to do’ with Maya, his granddaughter said: ‘There’s a beautiful page where he’s drawing a bowl and she’s drawing a bowl.

“ ‘Sometimes she’s making an image and he’s doing another, showing her the right way to do it. Sometimes they would depict different scenes. Other times, he would draw a dog or a hat. Sometimes he’s using the whole page to draw one particular thing. Other times, he’s depicting certain scenes, scenes of the circus.’ …

“Maya particularly remembers that, during the second world war, color pencils and notebooks were in short supply: ‘That’s probably why my father wrote in my exercise books and colored with my pencils. I still have fond memories of those moments when we met up in the kitchen to draw together. It was the only place in the apartment where it was warm.’

“Widmaier-Ruiz-Picasso is an art historian, curator and jewelry designer, who has just published her latest book, Picasso Sorcier, exploring his superstitions and belief in magic.

“She described the discovery of the sketchbooks as ‘fortuitous’ because she was co-curating a major exhibition for the Musée Picasso-Paris on his close bond with his first daughter. … The exhibition, Maya Ruiz-Picasso, daughter of Pablo, runs until 31 December and includes his many portraits of Maya, personal possessions and photographs, along with the sketchbooks and origami sculptures, which are being shown for the first time. …

“In the exhibition’s accompanying book, [his granddaughter] writes: ‘Who has never heard it said when looking at a canvas by Picasso, “A child could have done that!” Many of the artistic revolutions of the 20th century were greeted with mockery and scandal, it is true, but in Picasso’s case there is a hint of truth in that judgment. As Maya, his first daughter, recalls, “the mystery of life, and therefore of childhood, always filled that father of mine with interest.” …

” ‘Picasso borrowed extensively from the unruly lines of children’s drawings. Where Van Gogh, Gauguin and Matisse concentrated on the graphic and pictorial naivety with which children draw, Picasso emphasized more the elements that upset figurative traditions, that is to say, distortion and deformity.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

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In my last batch of photos, I showed a piece from an Art League of Rhode Island exhibit to which my friend Ann Ribbens had contributed. The show, “Below the Surface,” had a humanity-versus-water theme, and the quilt I shared in that post featured a warning about toxins in fish. Today I’m displaying Ann’s lovely “Undersea Tapestry” and two other pictures from “Below the Surface.”

Now I’m wondering if there’s something in the water that New England artists are drinking. The next group of photos is from a recent exhibit at a Massachusetts gallery, and the subject is “Undercurrents: Water and Human Impact.” If artists are to be believed (and they are), things are not looking good for water and it’s all our fault.

At “Undercurrents,” I especially liked Henry Horenstein’s photograph “Cownose ray” and Joan Hall’s “The New Normal,” which hints at manmade items that wash in with the tide.

Still on the subject of art, I want to mention that yesterday I checked out the new mural on the Boston Greenway, where I used to love walking when I worked downtown. There are many post-Covid changes in the area (I felt like Rip Van Winkle gazing around in wonder after a long nap), but the Greenway is still hiring artists to paint the wall of the giant Air-Intake building over the Big Dig. The latest painting, of a little boy with a boombox, has a wistful feeling about it.

The mural photos are followed by several local scenes, including a look at the bright cherries next to John’s front porch.

I end with a picture that Ann took last month while traveling in France. I couldn’t resist. It looks so utterly French to me.

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Piñatas as Art

Photo: Henry Gass/Christian Science Monitor.
Piñata sculptor Alfonso Hernandez in his garage studio in Dallas. He is one of a growing group of piñata makers hoping to transform the industry and get recognition for the piñata as an art form.

When you think of piñatas, what do you picture? Kids’ birthday parties? Long cudgels? Here’s an article about people who want you to know that piñatas can be a serious art form.

Henry Gass asks at the Christian Science Monitor, “Would you take a sledgehammer to the David? A flamethrower to the Mona Lisa? A shredder to the latest Banksy? (Actually, scratch that last one.)

“Why then, some people are beginning to ask, would you want to pulverize a piñata? Alfonso Hernandez, for one, wants you to lower the bat and take off the blindfold and appreciate the artistry of a form that dates back hundreds of years.

“The Dallas-based artist has crafted life-size piñata sculptures of Mexican singer Vicente Fernández and Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas. He wants the public to help turn an industry into art.

“ ‘Piñata makers never treated it like an art form,’ he says. ‘They’re taught to make it fast. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, just hurry up because they’re going to break it.’

“Unsatisfied with the generic mass production that has characterized their discipline for decades, piñata makers are pushing the artistic limits of the party pieces. These piñatas, bigger and more detailed, are made out of wood, foam, wire, and clay, and sculpted to look like beloved icons and life-size low-riders. Some move, some are political, and some even talk. Rihanna is a fan, as are, increasingly, art galleries.

“For generations, the real cost of bargain piñatas has typically been borne by the piñata makers themselves working long, arduous hours for less than minimum wage. By proving that piñatas can be more than just clubbable party pieces, people like Mr. Hernandez hope they can both create art and bring a wider respect and dignity to a craft long viewed as cheap and disposable.

“ ‘It’s been an underappreciated art form,’ says Emily Zaiden, director and lead curator of the Craft in America Center in Los Angeles. ‘Piñatas are so accessible. They speak to everybody,’ she adds. But there’s also a flip side. Piñatas ‘can be about appropriation, can be about, I think, the trivialization of a cultural tradition.’

“A new generation of Hispanic artists, she continues, ‘see how much metaphorical potential piñatas have, and how deeply it reflects their identities.’ …

“There are lots of questions around where piñatas come from. They may have emerged in Europe, or China, or the Aztec era – or in all three independently. There are few preserved, written historical records on the origins of piñatas – another sign of how underappreciated the craft has been, Ms. Zaiden believes.

“ ‘A lot of this work probably hasn’t been collected or preserved in ways that other types of art have been,’ she says. ‘It’s all speculation and oral history really,’ she adds, ‘but that goes hand in hand with the idea that these are ephemeral objects.’

“For centuries, piñatas were used for religious ceremonies in Mexico. Typically built to resemble a seven-pointed star, symbolizing the seven deadly sins, they would decorate homes – and be smashed – during the Christmas season.

“Their religious significance faded over time, and they became the popular children’s birthday party feature. But as the piñata industry commercialized, quality and craftsmanship became secondary to quantity.

“Yesenia Prieto grew up in that world. A third-generation piñata maker, she watched her mother and grandmother create in her grandmother’s house in south central Los Angeles, and when she was 19 she started helping herself. It was a constant struggle to survive, she says.

“ ‘I was tired of seeing how poor we were,’ she adds. ‘My grandma was about to lose her house. And we just needed to make more money. We needed to survive.’

“She describes a week in the life of a typical piñata maker. A four-person crew makes about 60 units out of paper, water, and glue a week. Selling wholesale, they make $600 and split it between the four of them. That’s about $150 for a full week of work. …

“ ‘What you’re seeing is an art form having to be mass produced and rushed because they’re getting sweatshop wages,’ she adds. …

“In 2012, Ms. Prieto went independent from her family, and independent from the mainstream piñata industry. She founded Piñata Design Studio and set to making custom, complex pieces that reflect the artistic potential of the craft.

“They’ve created pterodactyls and stormtroopers. They’ve made a giant Nike sneaker, and an 8-foot-tall donkey for the 2019 Coachella music festival. They made a piñata of singer Rihanna for her birthday. …

“But the need to hustle hasn’t abated, according to Ms. Prieto. They work longer on their piñatas than most makers do – up to 16 hours in some cases – but still struggle to sell them for more than $1 an hour. They’ve been leveraging the internet and social media – posting pictures of pieces as they’re being made, to illustrate the labor that’s involved – and they’re slowly raising their price point. …

“She’s also now reaching out to other piñata makers about forming a co-op. By working together, she hopes, piñata makers can get paid fairly, at least. Artistic quality could also improve. And as people see elaborate, custom piñatas more often, she believes, demand will grow, and pay will grow with it. …

“ ‘There is a shift taking place,’ she adds. She’s seeing piñatas in galleries more often. But ‘there’s [still] a need for us to push hard to survive.’ ”

More at the Monitor, here.

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Photo: via Wikimedia Commons and Hyperallergic.
Unknown artist, “Mummy portrait of a young woman named Eirene from Egypt” (c. 1st century BCE), encaustic on wood panel.

Isabella Segalovich at Hyperallergic recently had a lot of fun surveying women’s eyebrows in art.

“Being a public persona on the internet means that my face is looked at almost constantly by strangers,” she writes, “leading to uninvited comments about one feature in particular: my eyebrows. On TikTok, the more viral my video, the more ‘feedback’ my bushier-than-average, Ashkenazic brows receive. Reactions range from applause to truly unhinged amounts of anger and disgust. 

“I started wondering: Have people always been this weird about eyebrows? … Let’s take a quick tour of how [eyebrow] ideals have shown up in art across civilizations throughout history: from bushy, to bold, to completely bare. 

“Ancient Egypt: No matter the gender, many people in Ancient Egypt took special care to bolden their eyebrows with kohl or mesdemet. Like other Northern African and Asian cultures, the face was understood to be sacred, and thus, it required protection: kohl and mesdemet both served to guard against infections around the eyes. Kohl is used by many to this day around the eyes, both for adornment and for spiritual protection or devotion. This preference for strong eyebrows combined with traditions of carved reliefs resulted in highly defined, expressive arches in many Ancient Egyptian portraits. [Check Hyperallergic to see that the] wooden Inner Coffin of the Singer for Amun-Re is a beautiful expression of this high-contrast aesthetic. …

“Nigeria: From 1500 BCE to about 500 CE, a culture in Nok, Nigeria left behind now-famous terracotta sculptures with particularly detailed faces. Researchers Peter Breunig and James Ameje observed Nigerian craftsman Audu Washi, who showed them how to make these terracotta features using traditional methods.

A sharpened, sanded-down piece of wood is gently pushed into the clay to create fine details including the very distinct, graphic [Nok] eyebrows.

“The arched outlines of the eyebrows in these sculptures are similar across the portraits, but subtle tweaks in their shape and the space between them conjure vastly different personalities.

“Ancient Greece and Rome: While it’s hard to imagine with today’s inaccurate images of pristine white sculptures, many women in Ancient Greece and Rome were also unibrow fans! In some settings, a hairy unibrow was not just considered beautiful, but viewed as a sign of wisdom. Victoria Sherrow’s Encyclopedia of Hair recounts how Ancient Greek women used powdered antimony (also known as kohl) or even patches made of goat hair glued onto the forehead to achieve this look. A fresco of Terentius Neo and his (unfortunately anonymous) wife was a unique find in Pompeii because they are displayed as having equal status. Many may have been envious of her pair of prominent eyebrows — or really, just the one. …

“China: Women of the Tang Dynasty in China (618–907 CE) painted their eyebrows in dozens of different fashions, long, short, thick, thin, and wavy, depending on what was in style that year. Well-off women would use qingdai, a blue-ish pigment made from indigo. The woman in the portrait [here] has her face painted with additional decoration on her forehead — huadianor plum makeup. In 5000 Years of Chinese Costume, Xun Zhou writes that women would even decorate between their brows with luminous materials like ‘specks of gold, silver, and emerald feather.’ 

“Europe: Women in late medieval art display a very distinct hairstyle; that is, no hair at all! John Block Friedman writes that ‘misogynistic scientific writing had made female body hair a psychic and physical danger to men.’ So when it came to eyebrows, some women would pluck them until they were almost nonexistent. This plucking extended to thinning out hairlines to reveal large, bald foreheads. Petrus Christus’s 1449 painting ‘A Goldsmith in His Shop’ shows a wealthy woman bedecked in sumptuous fabric. She may have even used harsh chemicals to help rid herself of unsightly hairs. …

“Japan: Eyebrow fashion had an especially unique moment in the Heian period of Japan (794–1185 CE) where, in a manner similar to Chinese trends, both men and women would pluck out their eyebrow hairs completely, drawing new ones an inch above the natural browline. One of these styles was known as hikimayu (引眉) in which both thumbs were dipped in black makeup pigment and then used to create mirroring prints far up on the forehead. This print actually comes from many centuries later in 1876, and is a part of Toyohara Kunichika’s dazzling print series titled Thirty-six Good and Evil Beauties, which are portraits of ‘good and evil’ women throughout Japanese history. …

“Iran: At the beginning of the Qajar dynasty in Persia (1785–1925), male and female ideals of beauty grew closer and closer together, and so did the eyebrows! [Scholar] Afsaneh Najmabadi has shown that women would darken their eyebrows and even decorate their upper lips with mascara to show a faint mustache. Men often took on stereotypically feminine features, sometimes appearing beardless with slim waists in paintings.”

For fabulous pictures from those locales/eras and others, click at Hyperallergic, here. There is even a lovely eyebrow photo of a robot called Kismet. No firewall at Hyperallergic; donations encouraged. PS. Check out the author’s eyebrows here.

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Photo: Erin L. Thompson/ Hyperallergic.
Paubhā painting of Vishnu surrounded by other major Hindu deities, based on various historical paintings from the Malla era.

Around the world, artists are finding unique ways to blend ancient and contemporary, taking the most meaningful aspects of tradition and interpreting it for new generations.

Erin L. Thompson has a story about Nepal artists at Hyperallergic.

“The Vietnamese monks said they wanted a river. So Lok Chitrakar, one of Nepal’s most prominent painters, wrote ‘need river’ amid the folds of a landscape on a preparatory sketch for the gateways of a Buddhist monastery in Vietnam.

“These drawings stretched across the wall of a room in Chitrakar’s studio when I visited Nepal late last year. I was there to see the reinstallation of a 10th-century sculpture of a deity into the shrine it had been stolen from in 1984 … but I couldn’t help being drawn into Nepal’s vibrant contemporary art scene. …

“The Chitrakars have long followed their name’s Sanskrit meaning: ‘image maker.’ But Chitrakar’s father tried to persuade him to follow a different career path, believing that it had become impossible to make a living creating paubhā, the devotional paintings used in Newar Buddhism. …

“But Chitrakar, born in 1961, persevered. His paubhās, painted following the exacting dictates of traditional form and subject matter in hand-ground mineral pigments bound with buffalo-hide glue, are now in collections and Buddhist sites across the globe. Chitrakar also receives commissions, like the one from the Vietnamese monastery. …

“Chitrakar correctly anticipated that the lull during his youth was temporary. Now, the streets around the major Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the Kathmandu Valley are lined with artists’ shops selling deities in paint, limestone, wood, and copper. Ordinary tourists take some home, but the most magnificent examples are commissioned by Tibetan Buddhists eager to establish new sanctuaries outside their homeland.         

“The Valley’s sought-after artists used the pandemic to catch up on these orders, often placed years ahead of time. Chitrakar also finished an enormous painting of the elephant-headed deity Ganesha, who is worshipped in both of Nepal’s major religions, Newar Buddhism and Hinduism. The artist had to climb a ladder to unveil the painting to me. Its intricate details took him 20 years to complete. Ganesha, worshipped as a remover of obstacles, is usually shown as a peaceful deity sampling a bowl of sweets. Chitrakar’s magnum opus depicts his wrathful side. Holding a skull cup and flourishing a variety of weapons, Ganesha dances, symbolizing the strength necessary to protect his devotees.

“Chitrakar was easy to find, but it took me much longer to track down another artist I wanted to meet. … I especially admired a mural with saddhus — Hindu ascetic sages — meditating on heaps of coals, intertwined with bouncy figures wielding spray-paint cans, wittily squirting out the traditional scroll-shaped depictions of clouds.

“I finally spoke to Sadhu X, who created the mural in collaboration with the illustrator Nica Harrison. Today, Sadhu X’s works blend traditional iconography and modern influences into his own distinct style. But when he was growing up, the only street art in Nepal was made by visiting foreign artists. In 2010, as he was completing his undergraduate degree, a teacher suggested he use the stencils he was creating on walls outside those of his art school. He followed the advice, soon met others interested in creating street art, and helped found the art space and community Kaalo.101.

“Helena Aryal, who also joined the video call, is another of Kaalo.101’s founders. She expressed her frustration at the perception, both inside and outside Nepal, that street art is a Western phenomenon. Aryal insisted that although the medium might be foreign, the form is deeply rooted in Nepal’s history. The hand-painted paper illustrations of snakes (nagas), pasted on many homes and buildings in the Valley during the annual rainy season festival, confirm that paste-ups are nothing new in Nepal. And the concept of creating art by modifying the public landscape also fits in well with the interactive, multisensory nature of devotion in Nepal, where worshippers in open street-corner shrines leave fingerprint marks in vermillion powder on deities’ foreheads and offer them marigolds, perfumes, food, and even music, by ringing bells. Some shrines are covered in names written in marker — not casual graffiti, but reminders to the gods about who has prayed for what.

Sadhu X told me that he’s never seen a rigid distinction between the style of traditional paubhās and the work of street artists he admires from other parts of the world. …

“Sometimes he thinks that his work is helping traditional Nepali art to evolve, but more often he’s just mixing together his influences and inspirations because he wants to tell stories using a visual language that he hopes his audience will understand. …

“I also had long discussions about this question with Birat Raj Bajracharya, a scholar of Newar Buddhism and part owner of a gallery selling the works of artists intent on both preserving and transforming paubhā painting. …

“Like Sadhu X, Bajracharya does not see a fundamental distinction between traditional Newar style and classical European models. For example, he pointed out to me that the texts describe paintings as portraying deities with emotionally expressive faces. But such expressions are difficult to render in the linear style of traditional paubhās. Bajracharya thus believes that the more complex shadings of emotion captured by artists who use European Renaissance techniques and the full range of colors of modern pigments may better approximate the ancient texts than the older paubhās. …

“Bajracharya advises the artists associated with his gallery about details like the color, attributes, and hand positions of deities in their paintings, making sure they follow the standards passed down in Buddhist and Hindu texts. He wants art to transform without ‘letting go of its core sense.’ “

More at Hyperallergic, here. No firewall.

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