July 2016

A week ago, I found it nearly impossibly to look away from C-SPAN’s coverage of the Republican National Convention. The rowdy fanfare of the RNC appears more like a circus than a political conference. No matter how one aligns themselves politically, most people can agree that the upcoming election has been prime material for art and entertainment. Throughout history, politics have seeped their way into the art world. Often artists sneak subtle political statements into their work, or will directly address contentious political issues in very explicit ways. In the world of contemporary art, Swedish artist Johan Wahlstrom is continuing this tradition of politically themed artwork with his harrowing and provocative acrylic and ink paintings. Although Wahlstrom started out as a musician, he always painted as a hobby and after touring with a rock band for many years, he moved from Stockholm to a small village in France to pursue painting full time.

Johan Wahlstrom, Heil Trump

Johan Wahlstrom, Heil Trump

Today, Wahlstrom is based in Spain and continues to paint pieces that explore the dark underbelly of modern society and politics. Wahlstrom paints in a neo-expressionist style and cites a diverse range of artists that include Paul Klee, Jean Michel Basquiat, and Jackson Pollack as his influences. His dark inky colors and thick brushwork create portraits of modern life that are simultaneously hazy and abstract and frighteningly realistic. As a former rock musician, Wahlstrom is not afraid to provoke and rile up his audience. His paintings are dark, confrontational, and frighteningly resonant. Upon viewing his painting “Heil Trump,” I was reminded of a similar politically themed work by the German Dadaist John Heartfield, entitled “Adolf the Super Man: Swallows Gold and Spits Tin,” which is an explicit critique of Adolf Hitler. Wahlstrom’s “Vote for Me,” another portrait of Donald Trump, features the presidential candidate’s head surrounded by terrifying abstract figures, representing his loyal followers. “Punch them Hard,” an acrylic work by Wahlstrom is equally disturbing and shows Trump giving a thumbs up while chaos ensues in the background. This is a visual representation of Trump’s verbal encouragement of his followers to attack protesters. This series of Trump portraits evokes the mob mentality and frenzy of Trump’s rallies. Wahlstrom attacks other issues such as immigration in his “Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities” series, which poignantly captures the plight of immigrants and refugees.

Johan Wahlstrom, Punch Them Hard

Johan Wahlstrom, Punch Them Hard

As a former rock musician, Johan Wahlstrom is not afraid to provoke and rile up his audience. His paintings are dark, confrontational, and frighteningly resonant. His piece “Too Much Trump” in particular is an apt depiction of Trump’s pervasive presence in the media, his angry scowl taunting the viewer. Wahlstrom’s favorite piece from his body of work is “You Can’t Trust” from 2011, which he refuses to sell and hangs in his living room. Wahlstrom was so satisfied with the piece, that he took a 2 month hiatus from painting. This particular painting is his favorite because he associates it with the catharsis and satisfaction he experienced while working on it. The experience was “magical” for Wahlstrom, he felt like he was inside of his own work and not slaving away in a studio.

Johan Wahlstrom, Aliens With Extraordinary Abilities Part 6

Johan Wahlstrom, Aliens With Extraordinary Abilities Part 6

Despite Wahlstrom’s sinister aesthetic and disturbing subject matter, he paints with a profound passion and love for his craft. His favorite part of the creative process is conceiving the title or theme behind his work, which eventually determines what will end up on the canvas. For Wahlstrom technique is not the most crucial aspect of great art, but rather “the feeling and messages” behind the work in question.

Wahlstrom’s artist’s’ statement reads:

“I paint to keep myself insane.

I paint anxiety to be calm.

I paint war to have peace.

I paint sadness to be happy.

I paint the dark to be in the light.

I paint death to be alive.

I paint a story so that I don’t have to tell a story.”

In the future, Wahlstrom hopes “to be able to do stronger paintings with political statements, social criticism, to be part of making the world a better place for future generations.”

Making my way up 22nd Street in Long Island City towards UOVO Fine Art Storage, the midday sun soaked the pavement in shimmering heat which wrapped around my ankles in heavy tendrils. The vast, 280,000 square foot minimalist building loomed closer, its front dosed in cobalt blue with Queensboro Bridge stretching beyond, disappearing into the city—I imagined the stifling streets of Manhattan, choked by humidity. Half of a song later, I was standing before UOVO’s glass entrance. After two attempts at tugging open the door, I realized the small doorbell to my right. Pausing for a moment, and hearing nothing, I gave another wholehearted tug, and almost tripped backwards as the door happily obliged, swinging open effortlessly and breathing a sigh of cool air.

The reception area is reminiscent of the lobby of a chic, boutique hotel one may find in Chelsea or SoHo, sleek and minimalist while remaining warm and hospitable. However, the space also retained a certain sense of a gallery setting: absolutely pristine, from the perfectly buffed concrete floors to the polite, hushed greeting from the two, well-dressed receptionists. The walls play host to artworks from UOVO’s founder, art collector Steve Guttman’s personal collection. A few guests relax on the mid-century modern furniture, sipping cold brew out of blue, UOVO marked glasses and chatting quietly. I suddenly found myself wondering if I had somehow stumbled into the wrong place.

Reception room. Courtesy of UOVO.

Reception room. Courtesy of UOVO.

It’s safe to say that already my experience of UOVO is not what one expects, nor what one normally finds, when they visit a storage facility. From my observations alone, storage facilities, even ones used by gallerists or collectors to safeguard artworks, are usually dark and dingy. They consist of a gruff guard behind thick glass who shoves a clipboard under your nose, and grumpily takes you up a grated industrial elevator to a cold and damp floor where they leave you to wander until you find your unit. This, of course, doesn’t take into consideration the fact that you must then attempt to remember the exact location of the piece you need, which usually ends in having to pull out half of the unit’s contents to access the art, and then—Tetris style—putting everything back. One can extrapolate that Guttman had an experience similar to  the one I have described above, for UOVO’s facility boasts something of quite the opposite nature.

My musings were interrupted by the introduction of my tour-guide, UOVO’s Marketing and Communications Associate, Hannah Schmidt. After a short exchange and the light touch of a keycard, I was brought into a wide, curving hallway that bent out of site. Upon inquiring about the card access system, Hannah informed me that the keycard is the kernel of UOVO’s custom-designed, UL rated security system. It is programmed with specific electronic pathways for individual holders, and tracks a person’s movements throughout the facility. During my time at UOVO, she would use her card to access all of the public spaces in the building, including the elevators.

Courtesy of UOVO.

Pieter Vermeersch Installation. Courtesy of UOVO.

As we walked down the hall deeper into the building, the gradient of the wall slowly deepened into a royal blue, beckoning the viewer forward. After commenting, Hannah informs me that it is a site-specific installation by Belgian artist Pieter Vermeersch. Drawing my attention away from the artwork, she points to a large, closed overhead door on the opposite wall. With enthusiasm, she tells me that recently, the space, one of six large viewing rooms on site, was used by a client to host a month-long public exhibition of their collection. Continuing on, we encountered two extremely fashionable women hurriedly pushing a rack of beautiful garments, their hands encased in short, wrist-length silk gloves, skirts flitting around their ankles. Before I could further investigate their outfits, they disappeared into another of the viewing rooms, the large, bright space enveloped in billowing fabrics and haute couture. The scene dissipated, swallowed by the curving wall.

Viewing room. Courtesy of UOVO.

Viewing room. Courtesy of UOVO.

Before exploring the upper floors of the facility, Hannah led me to the loading docks, nine in total. Passing through an airlock door, we entered the loading docks. The hangar-like space reminded me of something out of a sci-fi movie, and despite the sterility of the docks, fully enclosed for climate control, it was bright and airy. When entering the facility, artworks pass through two covered loading docks and an airlock chamber to provide the proper protection against environmental factors. While surveying the space, she described UOVO’s electronic barcoding system. Artwork is scanned into the facility using an iPhone integrated digital barcode system. As the art is moved, it is scanned into its new location, providing for convenient retrieval of a work.

Courtesy of UOVO.

Courtesy of UOVO.

Exiting the loading docks, I was informed that I was stepping into a separate building, passing over the 8-inch seismic gap that ensures the structure can move relatively free from the ground should an earthquake occur, preventing damage. She also noted that the building is a post-Hurricane Sandy structure, comprised of concrete and steel, and resting 16 feet above sea level, whereas FEMA only recommends structures to be 7 feet above sea level to be out of the flood zone. It seems that the $200 million worth of artwork destroyed by Sandy has not been forgotten by art dealers and collectors alike.

In the elevator on our way upstairs, Hannah informed me that the airflow throughout the building was designed by William Lull, who has worked with both MoMA and The Met in the past. Stepping out of the elevator, white storage units, or rather, private rooms, sprawl out across the expansive space. Like the loading docks, the area doesn’t feel stifling but rather very spacious. Some clients have their doors open, exposing rooms that blend together the luxury of a private office with the functionality of storage—a man, deep in concentration, bends over a desk placed in the center of the space surrounded by racks of paintings. Noticing my curiosity, Hannah comments that clients frequently use their storage rooms as workspaces. A few units down, a UOVO employee gives a tour to a potential client. As I pass the pair, I overhear the employee describe UOVO’s ability to customize a private room to each client’s specific needs with the help of the in-house spatial planners.

Courtesy of UOVO.

Courtesy of UOVO.

However, as Hannah tells me, not all clients need frequent, active access to their art, nor do they require substantial storage space—this is where UOVO’s concierge storage comes into play. Artwork is stored in a large, co-mingled space only accessible to UOVO’s art technicians while still affording the client all of UOVO’s core services, such as collection management, packing and crating, and transportation. Also, a shared work space and a private room for collection-related services is available to those with works in concierge storage.

Courtesy of UOVO.

Courtesy of UOVO.

Making our way up to the 8th floor, Hannah quickly checks to see if any meeting rooms are available: “you have to see the view,” she tells me. Luckily, the conference room was open. Like other common areas throughout UOVO, artworks and furniture from Guttman’s collection decorated the room. A large wooden screen with mirrors by Phillip Powell complements the dark wood table and Vilhelm Lauritzen chairs. However, the room’s best feature is the large window that provides a spectacular view of Manhattan, with Midtown East seeming to be only a stone’s throw away. The prospect was a reminder of how close Long Island City is to the city, easily accessible by car, as well as the multitude of trains that converge in the area.

Pulling myself away from the view and surveying the conference room, I concluded that the convenience provided by UOVO’s facility would be difficult to ignore. A client can host viewings and showcase work, hold meetings, and store their artwork all in the same location, without needing to schlep works back and forth between a storage unit and a viewing space. Also, no more inexperienced interns lugging poorly packaged pieces down 10th Avenue, everything is handled by the UOVO technicians.

Courtesy of UOVO.

Courtesy of UOVO.

On our way back to the reception area, Hannah took a circuitous route, pausing to show me what could be described as the epicenter of UOVO’s cultural community, the client café. As UOVO’s clientele is comprised of individuals from all different sectors of the art world, the café is a place for clients to converge over coffee or lunch. Moreover, the communal area contributes to UOVO’s all-in-one, community and culturally-oriented space.

UOVO’s Long Island City facility is akin to a members-only collective—they are extremely protective of their clients’ privacy—paired with the hospitality of a 5-star hotel. With elements of today’s shared workspaces, UOVO is defined by its versatility and its promotion of innovation; beyond simply storage, the facility provides collectors, dealers, and advisors with the opportunity to interact with their art in new and creative ways, hassle-free. As my tour ended, I realized that at the heart of UOVO is a desire, a need, to care for and preserve our shared cultural legacy.

On my way out, I stop to enjoy a cold brew in the reception area—they even know how to do coffee right.

China’s recent history is one full of social and political chaos. Chairman Mao Zedong resided as the country’s communist leader for nearly thirty years, responsible for the founding the People’s Republic of China, sending China into a deep economic crisis, and infamously inciting the riotous Cultural Revolution. Chairman Mao had set out to purge the country of what he called “impure elements.” The youth of China backed Mao as they flooded across the country murdering teachers, closing schools, denouncing family members, burning books, and destroying China’s history.  Artist were cast out of society and only those who attended nationalized art schools and produced works in a factory-like manner with politically expedient content, were permitted. Today, we see how Chinese artists critique the Cultural Revolution and the Communist Party, shedding light on China’s societal issues, through their creative individuality.

Hung Liu

Hung Liu was born shortly after the Chinese Civil War in 1948. She was a prolific student and studied at the best private schools China had to offer. As the Cultural Revolution began, Liu was sent to be “re-educated” in a rural village. Before leaving Beijing, she borrowed a camera from a friend. She used this camera to take photos of villagers, their families, and their day to day struggles. At this point in time, the Cultural Revolution was in full bloom and Chinese culture was being threatened to extinction. Hung Liu’s photographs of those villagers served as a preservation of those individuals and to their culture.

      

Hung Liu, Village Photograph IV, c. 1969–1975; Courtesy of The Artist.

Hung Liu, Village Photograph IV, c. 1969–1975; Courtesy of The Artist.

After the Revolution, Liu went on to study fine arts and earned a her graduate degree in Muralist Painting. For three years she painted political propaganda in the Soviet Realist style, all the while secretly painting landscapes with miniature tools and paints she herself had made. Hung Liu desperately wanted artistic freedom and was granted just that when she was given permission to attend the University of California San Diego in 1983.

Hung Liu, Pullman, 2004. Photographed at the Hunter Museum of American Art by Taylor Vance

Hung Liu, Pullman, 2004. Photographed at the Hunter Museum of American Art by Taylor Vance

Liu often paints from photographs of Chinese social outcasts: prostitutes, laborers, and prisoners. The realistic nature and size of her characters reflect her practice in Soviet Realism and Muralism. However, she manipulates the image by running paint down the canvas, which gives the effect of a photograph faded by time. The characters in each piece look as though they are disintegrating right before our eyes; a possible commentary on the lives lost and forgotten during the Cultural Revolution.

Hung Liu, Winter Blossom, 2011. Courtesy of Magnolia Editions

Hung Liu, Winter Blossom, 2011. Courtesy of Magnolia Editions

Hung Liu recently retired from her position as a professor at Mills College, but she continues to paint and has worldwide exhibitions.

Ma Desheng

Ma Desheng was a self taught artist, mainly because he was deemed unfit to be trained in fine arts at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Desheng worked as an industrial draftsman and woodblock print artist, using traditional Chinese ink.

Desheng produced a series of images of rock-like figures and portrayals of China’s working class. These images were stark contradictions to the suppressive propaganda that Mao and the Chinese Communist Party were feeding the people.

Ma Desheng, Untitled 19, 1980. Courtesy of Rossi & Rossi and The Artist.

Ma Desheng, Untitled 19, 1980. Courtesy of Rossi & Rossi and The Artist.

His early productions were un-romanticized images that displayed the realities of what was happening to China. The dark rigid lines evoke a sense of inner turmoil, similar to that of the artwork of the German artists, Käthe Kollwitz or Edvard Munch.

In 1970, Ma Desheng was influential in the founding of Star Group ( or Xing Xing). This group consisted of self taught, Western-influenced artists who fought for individualism and liberation against the Cultural Revolution. Ma Desheng and the Star Group bravely defied the government when they put on an exhibition of their own work across the street from the National Art Museum in Beijing. It was, of course, shut down by authorities and Ma was arrested for his involvement in organizing such an exhibit.The Star Group went on to lead a rally against the authorities and were successful in opening a second show; some say it was this rally that helped Chinese society become more culturally open.

Ma Desheng, ROCKS 1, 2012. Courtesy of Rossi & Rossi and The Artist.

Ma Desheng, ROCKS 1, 2012. Courtesy of Rossi & Rossi and The Artist.

Not long after Star Group’s second show, Ma Desheng moved to Europe, as did many of the other members. He continues to live and work in Paris, but there is no doubt that his passionate commitment to freedom of expression helped pave the way for future Chinese artists.   

Zhang Xiaogang

One of China’s most well known and successful artists, Zhang Xiaogang, was also a witness to China’s Cultural Revolution. His parents were government officials but were sent away to be “re-educated” at the height of the Revolution—an event that greatly affects his work.

He studied at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts after the Cultural Revolution ended, but his professors were persistent in teaching the style of Soviet Realism. Zhang resisted this style and any philosophy that had to do with collectiveness in society. He founded a group focused on the importance of individualism in philosophy and art called the Southwest Art Group. Though somewhat successful with nearly eighty artists in the group, the Tiananmen Square incident happened not long after and the era of liberal reform ceased completely.

Zhang Xiaogang, Bloodline: The Big Family No. 3; Image courtesy of Zhang Xiaogang / Pace Beijing

Zhang Xiaogang, Bloodline: The Big Family No. 3; Image courtesy of Zhang Xiaogang / Pace Beijing

It wasn’t until 1992 when Zhang returned from Germany after 3 months that he knew exactly what he wanted to paint. He stated that he “could see a way to paint the contradictions between the individual and the collective.” His portrayals of those contradictions are what make his paintings so eerily captivating. Most of his work is themed after family photographs but there is always some sort of strange mark or difference in color that makes them unique to one another. The child, who is typically centered, is the most defined. This can be taken as Zhang’s commentary on the youth of the Cultural Revolution and their willingness to disown their families and personal histories.

Zhang Xiaogang, Bloodline: Big Family No.1; Courtesy of Zhang Xiaogang and Studio/Daegu Art Museum

Zhang Xiaogang, Bloodline: Big Family No.1; Courtesy of Zhang Xiaogang and Studio/Daegu Art Museum

Zhang Xiaogang’s artwork has shown world wide and he is easily one of the most prominent Chinese contemporary artist of today.

Yue Minjun

Beijing-based artist, Yue Minjun, also captures that theme of contradiction that Zhang Xiaogang displays. Yue Minjun was born in 1962 and studied oil painting at the Hebei Normal University in 1985. His work is done in a style that has been coined as “Cynical Realism,” and they are iconically uncomfortable. Most of the paintings are self-portraits of the artist with pink skin, laughing maniacally in surreal backgrounds while bent over in an attempt to cover an exposed body, vulnerable in only underwear.

Yue Minjun, Blue Sky and White Clouds, 2013; Courtesy Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris — Pace Beijing

Yue Minjun, Blue Sky and White Clouds, 2013; Courtesy Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris — Pace Beijing

These cartoon like images are politically pointed at the Cultural Revolution and China today. Minjun states that “…laughter is a representation of a state of helplessness, lack of strength and participation, with the absence of our rights that society has imposed on us.” This laughter evokes a strange feeling to the viewer. You feel as if you were looking at someone that had just gone through a mental breakdown and had experienced an intense amount of pain, dehumanized, but has an odd instinct to laugh. It wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to say that, this is how Minjun see’s the China today; as society that has been through so much within recent years but does not know how to deal appropriately with the pain.

Xu Bing

The now world renowned artist, Xu Bing, was in high school when the Cultural Revolution broke out. Determined to stay in Beijing and continue his studies, he agreed to use his talents in calligraphy to create political propaganda. After he graduated, he was sent to the countryside to work in the fields and was not able to return until the death of Chairman Mao in 1976. Xu was accepted into Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts the following year to study printmaking.

Xu Bing, Book from the Sky; Courtesy of Blanton Museum of Art

Xu Bing, Book from the Sky; Courtesy of Blanton Museum of Art

The relationship between words and interpretation seems to be the core theme in Xu Bing’s work. In his grandiose installation, “Book from the Sky,” large scrolls hang from the ceiling and traditionally bound books and newspapers line the floor and walls, all stamped with woodblocks carved with made-up, nonsensical Chinese characters. The fact that nothing is literally being said in this piece results in many different interpretations. Is the installation a focus on Chinese tradition versus modern art? Is it a questioning of how different cultures perceive one another? Is it a commentary on the manipulation of words to achieve power, like in Mao’s case? Or is it a meaningless study of form and repetition? There are grounds for each of these questions within the piece and its intriguing quality is one of the reasons “Book from Sky” is such an international hit within the art world.  

Cai Guo-Qiang

Cai Guo-Qiang is probably best known around the world for his firework show at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but Cai’s artistry goes far beyond his pyrotechnic displays. He studied stage design at the Shanghai Theatre Academy from 1981 through 1985, which is evident in the spatial rendering seen in his large installations, paintings and performance pieces.

Cai Guo-Qiang, Venice’s Rent Collection Courtyard; 1999; Photo by Elio Montanari

Cai Guo-Qiang, Venice’s Rent Collection Courtyard; 1999; Photo by Elio Montanari

One of his most famous pieces was an installation he was commissioned to do for the 48th Venice Biennale, entitled, “Venice’s Rent Collection Courtyard.” The installation consisted of 114 clay sculptures of peasants and laborers interspersed within the gallery’s setting.The piece created quite the stir amongst the art world as it closely resembled the famous Social Realist sculpture “Rent Collection Courtyard”: a highly political series of sculptures created during the Cultural Revolution. The stir wasn’t only because of Cai’s replica of the Chinese classic, but because he choose a material that would cause the sculptures to disintegrate as the show went on; a possible statement on Mao’s promises to the Chinese people and the ephemerality of their political and social structures.

Cai Guo-Qiang, Carnival Rehearsal, 2013; Photo by Joana França

Cai Guo-Qiang, Carnival Rehearsal, 2013; Photo by Joana França

Many of Cai Guo-Qiang works seem to embody a theme of unforeseen fate. In many of his paintings, he will scatter gunpowder on an already painted canvas, and ignite it. The result displays a combination of the controlled color of the actual paint, and the sporadic, random markings of the burnt gunpowder. This theme is also evident in his installation “Head On” where sculptures of wolves take off running and soaring through the air. The momentum of the piece is brutally interrupted as the wolves run, “head on,” into a wall a plexi glass and fall gracelessly to the floor.

Cai Guo-Qiang, Head On, 2006; Photo by Hiro Ihara

Cai Guo-Qiang, Head On, 2006; Photo by Hiro Ihara

It is often said that an artist’s role in society is to be instrument of the time; to reflect society back to itself, to be a catalyst of change, and to articulate culture. It is fair to say that these artists, and many other Chinese artists, are doing just that.  

The groundbreaking exhibition of Degas’s monotypes, “Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty,” which is currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, presents Edgar Degas to the public in a new light. This incredible exhibition, the first comprehensive show of Degas monotypes in over half a century, characterizes one of the most well known artists in the history of art as an innovator and experimenter.

In two short periods from the mid-1870s through the mid-1880s, Degas produced over 300 of these exceptional works on paper. Hundreds more are thought to have existed but were destroyed by Degas’s brother after his death. Although these works are numerous, the majority of them were never exhibited during the artist’s lifetime. Therefore, these unique works are somewhat shrouded in mystery. Perhaps deemed too personal, scandalous, or experimental to be viewed by a 19th century audience, two centuries later they still retain their ability to both shock and intrigue viewers. The subjects explored by Degas in this experimental medium are wide ranging, from singers at café-concerts to prostitutes and smoke stacks; however, like his more famous paintings and pastels, the subjects which attracted Degas the most are those which capture elements of modern life in Paris.

Edgar Degas, Fireside

Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917). The Fireside (Le Foyer [La Cheminée]), c. 1880–85. Monotype on paper. Plate: 16 3/4 x 23 1/16 in. (42.5 x 58.6 cm), sheet: 19 3/4 x 25 1/2 in. (50.2 x 64.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, and C. Douglas Dillon Gift, 1968 (68.670). Courtesy of MoMA.

While some of the subjects are scandalous, the medium Degas employs, monotype, is equally surprising. Although Degas himself explained the process of monotype simply as “drawing made with greasy ink and put through a press,” monotype is in fact a complex and contradictory medium.1 Essentially, a monotype is a print. However, the fact that it is mono, or singular, inherently defies the supposed purpose of printmaking, which is to make many copies to be distributed or reproduced. The process of creating a monotype is also very different from other printmaking processes in that the image transferred from the plate to the page is not carved into a woodblock or etched into a copper plate, but simply painted on the surface using ink, or in some of Degas’s later monotypes, oil paint, allowing the image to be changed up until it is fed into the press. This aspect of the monotype process lends the medium to more spontaneous production, perfectly in sync with the spontaneity that Degas hoped to capture in his images.

Most of the works in the exhibition are the first version, however, some are “cognates,” rare second prints made from the original plate. These second images are much lighter than the first, since most of the ink went into the first image. While the cognates are essentially the same image, Degas edited them using pastel, gouache, or event sometimes oil paint to make them entirely new compositions.

cafesinger

Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917). Café Singer, c.1877‑78. Monotype on paper. Plate: 4 3/4 × 6 3/8 in. (12 × 16.2 cm). Private collection.

This dynamic between originality and reproduction that defines Degas monotypes can be best seen in a pair of works from the exhibition, which, taken from the same plate, depict the same subject and composition; however, they have almost nothing in common. Both plates show a singer at a café-concert, the first in black and white, characterized by this juxtaposition of light and shadow, emphasized by the five bright orbs of electric lights behind the singer. These lights, which illuminate the scene, also distort it, rendering the singer’s face almost in caricature as her arm bends unnaturally into the hazy, incomprehensible space of the café-concert. In the second version, which Degas has altered using pastel, both the figures and forms of the composition are much more solidly defined. Here, both women are clearly rendered in much more detail than in the hazy original. The five light orbs have been traded in for one fancy electric light on the back wall, immediately elevating the level of the establishment from the mysterious original. When looking at these works side by side in the gallery one would never suspect that they are in fact the same work; however, that paradox between originality and reproduction seems to be at the heart of what Degas is trying to achieve with his monotypes.

Three Women in a Brothel

Edgar Degas, Three Women in a Brothel, Seen from Behind (Trois filles assises de dos), c. 1877–79. Pastel over monotype on paper. 6 5/16 x 8 7/16 in. (16.1 x 21.4 cm). Musée Picasso, Paris.

The brothel monotypes have become infamous within Degas’s oeuvre amongst scholars and, now that they have again been exhibited to the public, they have become a controversial highlight of the exhibition. They present the viewer with a true conundrum as to how to approach the style and subject matter. Some argue that they provide a sympathetic look into the realities of 19th century prostitution, a widespread industry in Paris at the time, while others have seen these works as voyeuristic and “creepy.” Of the dozen or so of the brothel monotypes on view in this exhibition, one of the most striking is The Name day of the Madam (La fête de la patronne). This work shows a group of prostitutes celebrating the birthday of the madam. The women, who are shown in various states of undress, present the madam with flowers. It is these moments that depict the behind the scenes lives of such women, rather than the ones which illustrate them at work, which make them something truly unique.

Edgar Degas, Waiting for a Client, 1879. Charcoal and pastel over monotype on paper. Plate: 6 3/8 × 4 3/4 in. (16.2 × 12.1 cm). Private Collection.

Like many of his contemporaries, as well as many artists working today, one of Degas main aims was to create works which engaged with and reflected the society in which he lived. His monotypes clearly reflect modernity not only in the subjects, but also the medium of monotype itself, and the techniques he used to achieve such varied and incredible effects relate directly to the larger idea of capturing modern life in 19th century Paris. “His loose brushwork turned out to be the perfect vehicle for capturing both ballerinas in motion and the bustle of city life—and the relaxed linearity was well-suited for his foray into caricature, including suggesting the financial exchange at the heart of prostitution. Degas’s method of incising into the greasy pigment offered a way to render the artificial lighting that was not only illuminating Paris in new and exciting ways but changing vision itself.”2

Edgar Degas, Factory Smoke (Fumées d’usines), 1877–79. Monotype on paper. Plate: 4 11/16 x 6 5/16 in. (11.9 x 16.1 cm), sheet: 5 13/16 x 6 13/16 in. (14.7 x 17.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1982.

These haunting works present the often romanticized, but gritty reality of life in 19th century Paris and paint Degas as a technical innovator and experimenter in the art of printmaking.

“Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art through July 24th.

Notes:

  1. Buchberg, Karl, and Laura Neufeld, “Indelible Ink: Degas’s Methods and Materials,” Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty. Ed. Jodi Hauptman. Museum of Modern Art, New York. 2016. Print. P. 47.
  2. Hauptman, Jodi, “Introduction,” Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty. Ed. Jodi Hauptman. P. 17. Museum of Modern Art, New York. 2016. Print.

Earlier this year Ai Weiwei released his new project in Berlin which involved wrapping the columns of the Konzerthaus in 14,000 salvaged refugee life jackets to raise awareness of the plight of displaced people all over the world. With life jackets taken from those who arrived on the Greek Island of Lesbos after facing the dangers of the treacherous Mediterranean sea, Weiwei has created a piece that both the world and Berlin cannot ignore. The sheer scale of the installation highlights the sheer amount of suffering that these people face and as the blaring orange of the lifejackets has captured the attention of the world, we can only hope that these people will try to do something to change the situation of those in need.

This is not the first time that Weiwei has been seen in the headlines for his art this year. In January, Weiwei revealed he would be withdrawing his work from a show he was currently involved in within Copenhagen after new legislation was implemented by Denmark’s parliament which would delay families from being reunited and gave the authorities the right to confiscate the possessions of migrants in order to dissuade them from seeking asylum. The law provoked international outrage from many people including an array of human rights groups and Weiwei himself released a statement saying The way I can protest is that I can withdraw my works from that country. It is very simple, very symbolic – I cannot co-exist, I cannot stand in front of these people, and see these policies. It is a personal act, very simple; an artist trying not just to watch events but to act, and I made this decision spontaneously.’

Photo by Rohit Chawla

Photo by Rohit Chawla

Through his actions, it is clear to see that Weiwei is a hugely important figure in showcasing that art is political and that it is not merely an aesthetic form. Art is not shallow or meaningless and when it is put into the hands of someone like Ai Weiwei it can bring political issues to a range of people. Weiwei himself is no stranger to political turmoil and disruption with it featuring throughout his life from being beaten by police officials to being held in jail for extended amounts of time with no official charges. Both Weiwei’s life and career has been shaped by political authority who have not only impinged on his right to freedom but on his creativity as well with the demolition of his studio in 2011 by officials showing how this is an artist who knows how it feels to persecuted. Weiwei has suffered at the hands of tyrannical regimes just like the ones that refugees are fleeing from everyday and therefore there is an affinity between the artist and the people who provide inspiration for his work, there is a shared suffering between the creator and the subject.

Interestingly, the artist has not only chosen to explore these important issues through large scale projects, he is also utilising platforms within the social media world and particularly through Instagram. The artist posts videos and photographs documenting his time spent with refugees which includes anything from images of the people he encounters to the conditions they have to live with. These digital expressions act as a juxtaposition from the work people usually associated with Weiwei but they relay instant and important messages. Through this platform, the artist can posts daily and continual images that highlight the struggle these people are facing, meaning that the issue can never fade out of sight. It would be impossible for Weiwei to erect one of his large scale sculptures everyday or have an exhibition in every city in the world, but through the Internet he can spread his political and artistic message and people are able to interact with it almost instantly with Weiwei’s Instagram page having over two hundred thousand followers.  You don’t need to be an art buff to recognise and acknowledge the suffering that the people in these images are facing and therefore by utilising social media, the artist can speak to a brand new audience and spread the message of their plight even further.

AiWeiWeiFinger

Ai Weiwei

The refugee crisis is important and it should not be ignored, and with figures like Weiwei the world is waking up and the permeation of this political crisis into the world of art shows that this issue cannot and should not be ignored. Throughout history, art has been there to express some of the most important moments that define the world that we live in and I think Weiwei’s work is no exception. Art and culture can hold so much power and through these sculptures, photographs and videos, this power is being harnessed and I believe it can go a lot further. Ai Weiwei is an artist who has taken on both his own suffering and the suffering of others and has managed to take a stand through his work, and if you enjoy Weiwei’s piece perhaps you should consider stepping up and trying to make a difference too. 

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