An Alluring Woman with Fries and McDonaldization in Art

Nadine Robbins, Mrs. McDonald, oil on linen board, 18 x 24 inches

When I first glanced at Nadine Robbins' painting Mrs. McDonald a paradoxical quote from the late anthropologist Margaret Mead popped into my head:

Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.

The canvas locked me into a Lacanian gaze with a naked woman - a rust-haired model named Kaitlin - who the artist has portrayed in a way that highlights her sultry mood and unique beauty. Then again Kaitlin isn't entirely shown as unique: she likes some McDonald's fries now and then, so she can't be all that different from the rest of us can she?

Those thin yellow pillars of starch, fried golden, sprinkled with a revelatory tang of salt and presented in an apple-red carton are a contemporary image of temptation that transcends all boundaries of gender, culture and belief. The image of Kaitlin's finger reaching for a fry has a teasing sensuality that would make even the most ascetic nutritionist salivate.

A detail of Mrs. McDonald

Mrs. McDonald naturally invites comparisons to an earlier narrative involving food and female nudity: In Medieval and Renaissance paintings innumerable Eves tempt Adam with appealing apples. As the shopworn myth goes, after one bite of that piece of fruit Adam and Eve find themselves expelled from the Garden of Eden into the wider world where they become aware of good and evil, of maleness and femaleness and of all opposites. They will go on to raise a family, and their sons will invent fratricide, war and tribalism when Cain murders Abel.

We call what follows civilization and culture. In other words, it is a very powerful and central myth. I think that one of the things the Eve story tells us is that if you control the food you control the culture. Would it be fair to say that in the 21st century the corporation is the snake?

Detail of a 16th century Eve by Lucas Cranach

Veering back towards contemporaneity, Mrs. McDonald strikes me as a self-consciously powerful woman who makes her viewers complicit: she is keeping her fries to herself knowing that we are judging her for indulging in a guilty pleasure. "You have caught me," her raised eyebrow seems to say, "but you are just like me because you love them too, even though you know they are bad for you." Mrs. McDonald is an Eve for our contemporary situation, one in which we insist on our individuality and difference while both craving and fearing commonality. We know that we can't go back to the garden of innocence, but our shared cravings - which corporations apparently understand better than any individual - can at least remind us of the human urges that bind us across nations and faiths.

A survey conducted by Sponsorship International discovered that far more of the people it surveyed worldwide could recognize that McDonald's golden arches (88% of respondents) than could recognize the Christian cross (54% of respondents). The word logo is derived from logos which originally meant "the word of God" and apparently the religion of capitalism - a polytheistic faith with hundreds of prominent Gods/Corporations - does a better job of knowing how to connect humanity than any faith or political party or leader. French fries are now the most popular vegetable in America, a favored food of Republicans and Democrats, gays and straights, Christians and Muslims: if they didn't make us fat we could think of them as a positive social force, right?

Then again those of us who like our culture highbrow regularly express our fears over the McDonaldization of culture; a process in which an emphasis on efficiency leads to predictable, controllable outcomes. The sociologist George Ritzer is credited with inventing the term and theorizing that McDonaldization is an extreme form of "rationalizing" in which logically consistent rules are substituted for traditional, illogical ones. As many of the world's current economic and social problems make painfully clear, the quest for efficiency works against individuality and spawns de-humanization, a dynamic that has increasingly plagued civilization and culture since the Industrial Revolution.

Visual Artists have been split on how to adapt to modernity's embrace of efficiency at the expense of craft and variety. Marcel Duchamp celebrated factory-made (readymade) objects as "art" and Andy Warhol, an extreme pragmatist and canny social observer, adopted mass production and mass imagery as the keystones of his art. Beginning with the Arts and Crafts movement, other innumerable artists - those who continued to assert their individuality and channel their ideas through their limbs - have resisted McDonaldization while running the risk of being called conservative because their artistic habits are the same as those of Medieval monks not artist/CEOs who let other's multiply their products and ideas for them. By choosing to paint representationally in a style that demands mastery of traditional skills Nadine Robbins is one of the former.

The contemporary artists that I most admire are distinctive individuals whose commitment to individual expression seems to defy and deflect predictability and McDonaldization. I like artists who are inefficient and whose motivations are human, fallible, and even unpredictable to the point of being quixotic. Like so many of my liberal, educated friends I fear corporations and corporate products since I worry that their ability to create commodities that I might actually crave collectivizes my acquisitive and therefore evil impulses. My fears are of course hypocritical as my entire lifestyle is an ocean of corporate products. Liking art allows me to point to one tiny island of culture and say "Look, individualistic and hand-made objects are still being made: Hallefreakinlujah!"

In searching the internet to find other contemporary works of art that involve McDonalds and/or McDonaldization I found myself very entertained by this vignette of a mass crucifixion of Ronald McDonalds from the vast diorama The Sum of All Evil created by Jake and Dinos Chapman.

Detail of The Sum of All Evil 2013 by Jake and Dinos Chapman
Image Courtesy PinchukArtCentre
Photo © Sergey Illin

I don't know that this scene has any precise meaning, but it struck me as suggesting a kind of revenge fantasy that the artists had concocted as an imaginative antidote to fast-food cultural totalitarianism. It might also be said that the Chapman diorama falls in line something sociologists have predicted in regards to McDonaldization: it predicts an unintended extreme that is the end-point of a over-rationalized culture taken to extremes. As the website explains:
It turns out that over-rationalizing a process in this manner has an unexpected side effect. It's called irrationality. In a sociological context that simply means that a rationalized system may result in events or outcomes that were neither anticipated or desired, and in fact, may not be so good.
Jake and Dinos Chapman are moralists who have taken advantage of artistic free speech to make a point that is hyperbolic. Their thinking is imaginative breathtaking but also sensationalistic. I don't have as much angst - or as many fears - about the potential horrors of extreme McDonaldized culture as they apparently do. The fact that they can make and display their work in a major museum (The Tate) actually contradicts what they appear to be saying.

Maybe the reason that I was so struck by the painting Mrs. McDonald is that it transmits the idea that it suggests an individual can manage or even take control of the considerable power of corporate products corporatized culture. The current Renaissance of representational art and artists strikes me as being well-positioned to counterbalance and comment on the cultural influence of McDonaldization. Humanist values in art and culture have always been the powerful weapons against the excessive influence of powerful organizations.

If our culture can value, recognize and support the work of artists who can reflect both our individuality and our collective needs in meaningful works of art we can all enjoy and indulge in a Happy Meal now and then without fear. I understand that there is now a McDonalds at the Louvre and the museum is doing just fine.

Digital collage by John Seed via Photofunia

Ten Memorable Paintings from 2013

Artist Brenda Goodman in front of her painting Not a Leg to Stand On
Photo: David Hornung
So, just what makes a painting memorable? I guess if I knew I would be painting some memorable paintings myself but as a writer/blogger who rarely paints any more I have done my best to sort through the many submissions that have landed in my e-mail box in the past few weeks and single out some paintings that I think have real staying power and memorability. One way I chose these paintings was to look at a number of them before bed and then see which ones I remembered in the morning. A simple method, I know; but it works.

Eight of the artists chosen are new to me and their work has never before appeared in my blog. Eight are North American, but I am pleased to include Susannah Martin (Germany) and Martin Llamedo (Argentina) to add some international flavor. Five of the artists are women and five are men: I didn't plan that, it just worked out that way.

It also appears that I tend to favor mature artists who have been working hard for a long time. I really like what writer Malcom Gladwell says about effort as I think it applies very well to art-making:

If you work hard enough and assert yourself, and use your mind and imagination, you can shape the world to your desires.

When I interviewed him in July, the artist Bo Bartlett told me that "To be earnest is the greatest taboo in contemporary art." I must have very taboo taste, because I have found myself attracted to very earnest paintings. I'm into sincerity, meaning, skill and catharsis and I apparently am leaning towards representation, which looks fresher and fresher to me each day. This is a sincere and large-hearted group of paintings that has a lot to say about the human situation. The human figure remains hugely compelling to me as it will always carry such a variety of meanings with infinite flexibility. Female figures seem to dominate this year's selection.

With each of the paintings below I am including some remarks by its creator to help support the visual elements. Of course, words are always second best: with or without the comments I have provided these paintings make powerful visual statements on their own. These are great paintings, and all of them are fresh off the easel: they give me hope for the future of painting.

Jason Bard Yarmosky, Sleepwalking, oil on canvas, 83 x 73 inches
JY: The idea of this painting is that my grandfather wakes up in the night to find my grandmother sleepwalking on the wall. The concept of them being on separate planes is a metaphor. Her shadow, which is behind her, represents the past and is cast over their wedding picture on the wall. This signifies the time gap between when they met and now. Beside the shadow is an oval mirror. The mirror reflects my shadow on the wall opposite of my grandparents, which turns this piece into a self portrait in a way: I am there watching them.
Mark Dutcher, Meaningful Life, oil and tinted gesso on canvas, 54 1/2 x 43 inches
MD: The painting Meaningful Life is about losing my older sister this last year. I have had an ongoing interest in memory and memorial: in how we remember events and people and how paintings are like monuments that way, that they contain something transferred by the artist into the object. I know it is a pretty old fashioned notion but when I sit in front of a Rothko I can feel the presence of the artist: I can feel something emanating from the painting.

So, I painted five paintings for my sister Laurie, sometimes just incorporating the letters from her name, sometimes using words and fragments from songs. Sometimes the word death appears and then disappears. The paintings then became a meditation not so much on loss but on "LIFE" about how beautiful and fragile this all is..
Ann Gale, Peter Turning, oil on masonite, 14 x 11 inches
Photo by: Richard Nichols
AG: I work from observation, over extended periods, accumulating marks of color, trying to document the sensations flesh, light and space. In Peter Turning, I focused on the fragile and momentary nature of Peter's gesture.

Ann Gale on Tumblr
Martin Llamedo, Tea, oil on linen, 120 x 85 cm. 
ML: The ritual of drinking tea is universal and historical, and that is why I chose it as my subject. Although the act of preparing and drinking tea might appear ordinary or banal -- especially in Western culture -- in some situations and cultures it carries enormous depth and meaning.

In the painting Tea an illusory female figure pours tea over a European style tea table. Frivolity and irony are manifested in the way that the ritual has been modified to include the image of a woman preparing tea on herself. This table -- set for tea -- with its fabric elements, forms the woman's bed covered by sheets that envelop her. Her clothes are like centerpieces (woven lacework) demonstrating that this ritual is deeply embedded in her.

Sitting down to tea often mean time spent communicating with others: hence the four cups. But in this work one sees an illusory figure incarnated for just a moment, perhaps a memory that is about to be lost. Dressed in memories perhaps the figure is prepared to accept her destiny: her eyes, hands and body tell us about this. However, we also discern another person who completes this moment, and that person is herself, with her face hidden outside the painting, perhaps deceiving herself.

This single act of drinking tea manifests a simple truth: that we have just ourselves in life.

Martin Llamedo
Timothy Robert Smith, Revised Maps of the Present (aka: 7th and Main)
oil on canvas, 60 x 108 inches
TRS: This is one of my first multi-dimensional paintings that study the difference between personal and collective experience. Three kids are looking at a wrinkled map, in a world where the rules of time and space wrinkle. Angles intersect, becoming more disjointed towards the outer regions of the canvas, creating kaleidoscopic landscapes that pull viewers into the vortex. They appear to be lost, but without fear; like explorers of dimensions beyond what we accept as physical reality.

Timothy Robert Smith
Susanah Martin, Gorge, oil on canvas, 130 x 130 cm. 
SM: A few years ago I turned my attention toward contemporizing a very classical subject in art: the bather. While an 18th or even 19th century painting of a bather could still be accepted as representing a realistic situation, the absurdity of the 21st century bather fascinated me. For me this shift in attitude toward the figure in landscape, points to a much larger and more disturbing anthropological crisis: namely our extreme estrangement from nature.

With these nudes I am attempting both to challenge the traditional role of the nude in art, that is to provide an aesthetically pleasing object of visual/sexual consumption, and to poke a finger in the open wound of our current human displacement. So doing, I hope to trigger contemplation on the causes and effects of the treasonous abuse and subsequent loss of our eco-system home.

Gorge is a particularly confrontational representation of man in nature. The painting focuses on the existential experience of a young woman at the moment of enlightened awareness of her unity with the life force. This is an experience which I provoke with my models outdoors and which I attempt to record or describe in my work.
Jeremy Lipking, Sophie at Dusk, oil on linen, 24 x 16 inches 
JL: This might sound like a weird answer to some people but I usually don't have a message I'm trying to communicate through my art. I usually do a painting just for the joy of creating.

- Jeremy Lipking, quoted in The Art of the Portrait, The Journal of the Portrait Society of America (volume XI, Issue 46)
Nadine Robbins, Mrs. McDonald, oil on linen board, 18 x 24 inches
Text by by Nadine Roberts and Nancy-Jo Hereford

NR & NH: When Plan A goes awry and by design - or default - you resort to Plan B. In letting go, you discover precisely what you wanted to find. Has that happened to you? It did to me and the serendipitous outcome is a new nude: Mrs. McDonald.

Her unexpected evolution happened as I was photographing a model named Kaitlin on a steamy summer day. The warehouse where we were shooting was sweltering. Her flame-colored hair was frizzing wildly and we were both sizzling. Postponing for a cooler day wasn't an option, so I took a run to the local golden arches for more water. On a lark, I ordered a happy meal. I soon learned that Kaitlin, enviously thin, loved her fries. The misery of the heat and humidity evaporated as she savored the salty spuds. And all my preconceived ideas about what I wanted to capture with Kaitlin also evaporated as we went with the moment prompted by an opportune treat.
Jennifer Pochinski, The Twelve Year Old, oil on canvas, 48 x 48 inches
JP: This painting came off during one of those losing streaks of painting where nothing good was happening for awhile. Something happened when i went against my instincts to base a painting on Eric Fischl's Bayonne... well just the little girl in white skirt on white background part.

Jennifer Pochinski at John Natsoluas Gallery
Brenda Goodman, Not a Leg to Stand On, oil on wood, 72 x 80 inches
BG: As with so many of my paintings I started with marks all over the surface such as those on top and the right sides. The smaller figure emerged first and the painting just evolved from there.

What was amazing about this painting was that while looking at it when it was done I said: "Wow, this was my childhood." My mother was very dominating and overwhelming and throughout my life I have often felt that if i didn't have a leg to stand on she would devour me (emotionally) and there it was in front of me with only one leg and my mother demanding the whole space. A meaning as strong and clear as that doesn't always reveal itself but it did in this painting, and when that happens it's so fulfilling and significant.

Robert Davidson: Abstract Impulse at the Seattle Art Museum

Installation View of Robert Davidson: Abstract Impulse
Photo by Nathaniel Willson

When artist Robert Davidson -- a Canadian artist of Haida heritage -- talks about his reverence for the Old Masters he isn't referring to Rembrandt or Titian: he is referring to Haida masters and to the carvings and ceremonial images they made prior to any contact with European culture. The roots of his art run very, very deep and connect to a tradition that had been neglected and nearly lost by the time Davidson began carving as a teenager in the early 1960s.

Since raising the first totem pole on Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands) in over 90 years at the age of 22 he has become a leading figure in the Haida Renaissance, creating jewelry, sculpture, drums, paintings, totem poles and wood carvings, and also co-founding a dance troupe with his brother Reg. Davidson -- whose Haida name is Guud San Glans which means Eagle of the Dawn -- is also very interested in expanding the circle of his own culture to intersect and join with the larger circle of international culture.

Davidson's recent acrylic on canvas paintings represent his attempt to bring imagery rooted in the Haida past towards contemporaneity, a project that Barbara Brotherton -- the curator of Robert Davidson: Abstract Impulse -- acknowledges and supports.

As Brotherton explains: "We purposely placed the exhibition within our modern and contemporary galleries -- not the native American galleries -- in order to communicate the message that this work is contemporary. One of the challenges is revealing how First Nations art can have elements of tradition but still be modern." In particular, Davidson's recent acrylic on canvas paintings display glyphic elements that are simultaneously Haida-inpsired and personal to the artist. Boldly conceived, graphically crisp and strikingly inventive, Davidson's paintings have entered a new phase, initiating a conversation with contemporary abstraction.

"I want my images to have their own strength," Davidson recently told writer Mark Follman, "so that a person does not have to have any knowledge about Northwest Coast art to appreciate them."

I recently spoke to Robert Davidson and asked him about his beginnings, his imagery and his artistic practice.

John Seed Interviews Robert Davidson

Robert Davidson
Photo by Jason Shafto

How does it feel to have your work on view at the Seattle Art Museum?

It feels timely right now. There is also a show of Charles Edenshaw (1839-1920) at the Vancouver Art Gallery and his work echoes all the centuries of development of the Haida art form. He expanded on the Haida tradition - that great art form that existed prior to European contact - and then it declined.

Bird In The Air, Acrylic on canvas, 40" x 60"

How did you get your start as an artist? 

My dad pushed me into carving: he was adamant that I begin carving at age 13. When I first started in 1959 there were just a handful of carvers: we didn't label them artists.

Green Tri Neg, Acrylic on canvas, 30" x 40"

Have you always been able to support yourself as an artist? 

Yes, I have. I left home in 1965 and had one job for two days in a cannery, but that is it. There were a lot of lean days in the early years. I learned one of the great lessons from my grandfather: when you don't have orders (commissions) just keep working. That was the best advice ever. The paintings that I am doing now are not commissioned.

Canoe Breaker, Acrylic on canvas, 40" x 60"

What did it take for you to absorb the Haida artistic traditions?

It took me a long time to understand Haida art and culture. There are two surviving Haida villages and photos taken in the 1880s show them lined with totem poles: there were no less than 50 of them in Massett. When I came around there was nothing. There wasn't much talk about culture or dances because potlatches -- public events hosted by chiefs to make declarations and offer gifts -- were then prohibited by law.

Our traditional names were given to us at a potlatch. When I would visit home as a young man I found that people were not being given Haida names. I hosted a potlatch in 1981 and encouraged people to give Haida names to their children and grandchildren. I had realized that an artist could help fill the cultural void. Works of art were not the only mediums: the potlatch was also a medium.

It took me time to realize that there is more to the art: art and ceremony are the only languages we have. The designs (abstractions) that I get really excited about are those that are drawn from the lessons from the old masters of Haida art.

U And Eye, Acrylic on canvas, 30" x 40"

What can you tell me about the imagery of your painting U and Eye?

In Haida art there are two main alphabet forms: ovoid and u-shaped: this painting includes a U form. At the very bottom left - inside the U - the green slits are the negative space between the forms of teeth. The top right is part of the oval "being" and there is an eye in there. I don't know what the being is. I like to think of my creations on one of two levels: conscious or sub-conscious. After you have put in twenty thousand hours of work into your art eventually everything is intuitive and comes from the subconscious. That is where my inspiration comes from.

There is Light In Darkness, Acrylic on canvas, 30" x 60"

Do you like seeing your work shown in the context of contemporary works of art?

I really appreciate that. We were not being recognized as artists per say: we have never been in a contemporary setting. That is slowly changing today in Vancouver.

How do you feel about your paintings at this point in your life and career?

I guess I am really excited: it has taken me this long to feel free. When my daughter was three or four she was in the studio painting with me too. She asked: "How come you don't paint for fun?" Now I am having fun.

Photos of Robert Davidson's artwork by Kenji Nagai 

Robert Davidson: Abstract Impulse 
The Seattle Art Museum
1300 First Avenue Seattle, WA 98101-2003
November 16, 2013-February 16, 2014

The European Museum of Modern Art -- MEAM -- Promoting Contemporary Representational Art

A few months ago I posted a blog suggesting that MOCA in Los Angeles should show more representational paintings. The blog touched a nerve and I heard from many, many artists and also from one museum: The European Museum of Modern Art -- MEAM. I had never heard of the MEAM, but I have been looking over its website and corresponding with artist friends to learn more about its ambitious programs and historic building.

The MEAM is housed in the Gomis Palace, a renovated 18th century Neoclassical building in Barcelona, and is owned and operated by The Fundació de les Arts i els Artistes which was established in 2005 by the architect José Manuel Infiesta. The Foundation and the MEAM share a dual mission: both were established to exhibit and promote figurative art of the 20th and 21st Centuries. The Foundation maintains a website which presents contemporary representational works -- Figurativas en Red -- and also organizes an annual award in painting and sculpture.

Interior view of the MEAM
The Museum exhibits selections from the Foundation's three permanent collections: Contemporary Figurative Art, Modern Sculpture and Catalan Sculpture. A number of American-born artists are represented in the MEAM's collection including John Nava, and David Jon Kassan.

Works on view at the MEAM including "C. Standing" (center) by John Nava
Photo: John Nava
I have been able to interview three artists who have recently visited the MEAM: I asked them their impressions of the collection, the building, and about the MEAM's importance in promoting representational art. My interviews with Jordan Sokol, John Nava and Richard Greathouse will follow...

Installation view: The The European Museum of Modern Art (MEAM), Barcelona
Jordan Sokol:

I visited the MEAM last October for the opening of their 2013 Figurativas competition exhibition. Its an annual painting and sculpture competition sponsored by the Foundation for Art and Artists; the organization behind the MEAM. Being a painter myself, and having just relocated to Madrid I thought I would take advantage of the opportunity to visit the Museum as well as offer support to some colleagues who were selected for the exhibition.

The Museum's collection is housed in a renovated 18th century palace in the heart of the labyrinthine city center. I wasn't quite prepared for the grandeur of the space. Its been beautifully preserved to evoke the charm of its former decadence, with its richly textured walls that serve as the perfect backdrop and compliment to its collection of contemporary figurative paintings and sculptures; the term figurative, in this case, refers not just to work representing the human figure, but more broadly referring to representational work.

At the time of my visit, the first floor housed examples of its permanent collection while the second floor was filled with the work of the selected competition winners and finalists. The amount of work on display managed to dwarf the over 18,000 square foot space, which I think, in itself, is a testament to the rapidly growing community of contemporary figurative artists that the Foundation for Arts and Artists has been proactive in promoting and supporting.

On the second day of the opening the museum hosted a discussion free to the public, and screened an hour-long documentary they made during the judging process of the competition. The judges consisted of Odd Nerdrum, Jacob Collins, Antonio Lopez Garcia, and Gottfried Helnwein among others. It was one of the highlights of the event, as we were able to witness candid moments of the jurors discussing their philosophies and often in disagreement.

A big topic was the use of photography in representational painting, which is its own can of worms. Jacob Collins played a particularly interesting role in the film as he raised questions with the other jurors as to the standards for qualifying art and the importance of discussing artistic philosophies in order to come to a greater understanding as to the criteria for judging works.

Ultimately, MEAM has proven to be a great resource for figurative artists, through its competitions, sponsorship, and engaging public events. I most look forward, though, to seeing how the artists will make use of their new champion.

I think its interesting to have a space dedicated to contemporary figurative art after almost a century of self-described displaced and disregarded representational artists who couldn't get the time of day from an art world that rejected them as the remnants of an oppressively narrow, hierarchical, and irrelevant tradition. However much inevitable is the natural evolution of culture and its aesthetic philosophies, its unquestionable that we're now seeing a growing resurgence and acceptance of representational art.

Harold Speed said, "There is, strictly speaking, no modern art any more than there is modern truth. There is just art and truth. There is good art and bad art, as there is truth and untruth."

I agree with Harold Speed and like to think whether a work of art is representational or not is irrelevant and I would hope the quality of a work is judged on its own merits without bias towards its pictorial language. But the art world is still not a level playing field in that respect and until representational art can shake its stigma its pivotal that places like MEAM exist to support and promote contemporary representational art, treat it with equal significance and educate the public to its relevance.

On the other hand, the new generation of representational artists also have the responsibility to investigate their own intellectual and technical criteria towards work that can stand on its own integrity. It remains to be seen how the artists will continue to handle this responsibility now that they have such a prominent venue.

Installation view: The The European Museum of Modern Art (MEAM), Barcelona
John Nava:

I was struck at this sort of Spanish "school" of representational painting. It seems to me that the most famous exponent of the attitude is Antonio Lopez Garcia. His success has clearly been hugely influential in Spain, but perhaps less obviously his essential humanism along with a liberal openness and lack of pretense is also reflected at the MEAM. By that I mean that one sees right away that the work displayed is, in one sense, all over the place. It isn't particularly programmatic.

John Nava, "C. Standing," 2013, Oil on panel, 60 x 60 inches
Collection of the European Museum of Modern Art (MEAM)
There is a sense, instead, of greater comfort with modernity - a willingness to include a very wide variety of approaches. In this sense it is reflective of Antonio Lopez himself who paints with enormous sensitivity and scrutiny and yet can speak so admiringly of, say, Giacometti and also Wyeth. His interest in sincerity and true feeling allows him to have these wide ranging interests and not to be threatened by work that may violate some canon or other or that might seem to be too close to contemporary art world fashions. This contrasts with the seemingly more stringent polemics you encounter in many of the "ateliers" that have arisen in recent years. The MEAM celebrates figuration but is not so narrowly "one note."

Installation view: The The European Museum of Modern Art (MEAM), Barcelona
Richard Greathouse:

Regarding my impressions of the MEAM's collections: there are some impressive works there, but in general what I like about their collection of representational work is the breadth of what all could be called "figurative" work. I think that it speaks to the variety of imagery capable in what otherwise might be considered a narrow field.

The space is beautiful. I think that it serves the work well, in that there is a certain aesthetic even in the colors of the walls and the lighting, that makes the museum experience feel familiar and comfortable. You can tell a lot of care went into making the building what it is. The location in the old city of Barcelona is also a great plus.

I think what Infiesta is doing is admirable simply because of the resistance representational art faces in the contemporary art world. I think it's also important because there seems to be a great imbalance between those who are interested in making representational art these days, versus those who are willing to partake in it (i.e., view it, purchase it, show it, support it in any way).

I can speak to that as an artist myself, as I've witnessed a growing number of people interested in learning and committing themselves to a classical training in recent years. So having more museums like the MEAM serves as a good outlet to the rest of the world for what this growing group of young artists is doing. Questions of relevance aside, it is hard to ignore the increase in interest towards a representational training among young art students.

Going back to the impression of the MEAM's collections, I think it's important to note the breadth of subject matter and imagery that the collection boasts, in that whether these young artists go on to continue painting representational pictures or not, remaining within that so-called camp of representationalism is not limiting to the possibilities of their work.

Installation view: The The European Museum of Modern Art (MEAM), Barcelona

The European Museum of Modern Art
Barra de Ferro, 5

Discussing the Art Boom on HuffPost Live

I was recently invited to discuss the recent boom in art prices on a segment of HuffPost Live. During the 20 minute segment I only had a few minutes to air my views and the end result was less than perfect. Still, taking part in the discussion was a positive experience.

Directly below is an edited clip of the segment highlighting my comments.


Or you can watch the full 20 minute segment below:

In Santa Barbara: A Masterfully Presented Delacroix Exhibition

The Santa Barbara Museum of Art is currently presenting Delacroix and the Matter of Finish featuring 27 paintings and 18 works on paper: it is the first exhibition of works by Eugène Delacroix in the U.S. in over a decade. At its heart is a previously unknown version of the artist's dramatic rendering of The Last Words of Marcus Aurelius, a canvas from a Santa Barbara private collection which has recently been authenticated by the museum's Assistant Director and Chief Curator, Eik Kahng.

The show is accompanied by a catalogue that features essays by Dr. Kahng; Marc Gotlieb, Director of the Graduate Program and Class of 1955 Memorial Professor of Art, Williams College; and Michèle Hannoosh, Professor of French, University of Michigan.

Eugène Delacroix, The Last Words of Marcus Aurelius, n.d.
Oil on canvas, 25 5/8 x 31 3/4 in.
Collection: The van Asch van Wyck Trust.

In her role as a curator, Eik Kahng has been deeply involved in the design and installation of the exhibition. Since it is extremely difficult to do a Delacroix show in the United States -- his monumental works are in Europe and rarely travel -- Kahng sought ways to maximize the impact of the intimate selection of works on view and give them a rich context. "We wanted to maximize the potential for visitors to interpret the show on their own terms," Kahng explains. In the final installation design a variety of elements -- including texts, images, wall colors, music and digital technology -- all make significant contributions.

Installation View: A Brief History of the Life of Delacroix

Near the entrance to the exhibition visitors are greeted by a chronological history of the artist's life which is interspersed with key images of his art. It provides a sense of historical and personal context and also provides an introduction to the evolution of the artist's subjects and ideas over time.

As the show's title suggests the issue of finish is extremely important in experiencing Delacroix's oil paintings. Delacroix and the Matter of Finish is the first exhibition to invite side-by-side comparison between Delacroix's paintings and the so-called "sketch-copies" by his closest students, Pierre Andrieu (1849-1935) and Louis de Planet (1814-1876). Delacroix's oils tend to be executed with a certain roughness and his use of impasto caused him to be derided as a "pastry cook" painter during his lifetime.

The artist, who felt that his execution allowed viewers to complete his images and ideas in their own imaginations, has a distinctive hand that Eik Kahng wanted to be apparent and available in a variety of scales and contexts. To give visitors a sense of the monumentality and dynamism of Delacroix's large works, the museum has installed digitally printed scale facsimiles adjacent to his actual works.

Scale facsimiles: Delacroix's Massacre at Chios (left)
Delacroix's The Sultan of Morocco and his Entourage (right)

As a counterpoint, a group of tethered iPads available in the exhibition area are equipped with a specially developed "Delacroix" app which allows close inspection of the master's surfaces which range from relatively tight to explosively abstract. The app also facilitates comparisons to paintings in the exhibition -- including those of Delacroix's students -- and related works of art in other museums throughout the world.

An exhibition visitor tries out SBMA's Delacroix iPad app

The exhibition marks the first time rugs have been included in an SBMA exhibition. "They offer a sense of intimacy," Eik Kahng explains, "and they help with acoustical issues presented by the high ceilings of our gallery." As visitors peruse the show they hear Romantic music played at low levels via SONOS wireless speakers.

Installation view: Delacroix and the Matter of Finish

Delacroix and the Matter of Finish has been presented with a sense of generosity and invention: it provides visitors with every tool they need to experience Delacroix's works in their imaginative intensity. The exhibition's thoughtful installation appeals both the the mind and the senses and lets every visitor feel welcomed, informed and engaged.

Installation view: Delacroix and the Matter of Finish

Delacroix and the Matter of Finish
October 27, 2013 - January 26, 2014
Santa Barbara Museum of Art
1130 State Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93101
Museum Hours: Tues-Sun
11AM-5PM, Thursdays 5-8PM

Wayne Thiebaud: Memory Mountains

Veteran artist Wayne Thiebaud -- who will turn 93 on November 15th -- isn't slowing down a bit. His current one-man show at the Paul Thiebaud Gallery, Memory Mountains, consists of 31 paintings and 17 works on paper and fills both floors of the gallery. The exhibition is, among other things, a tribute to Thiebaud's dedication to his craft: several of the canvases on view have been heavily worked and re-worked for periods of up to ten years and some of the works date back to the 1960s.

Gallery Director Kelly Purcell chats with Wayne Thiebaud
Photo by Morgan Schlauffler

In a 2010 New York Times interview Thiebaud acknowledged that he often paints outdoors -- to "fortify his focus" -- while admitting that plein air painting did not allow him the flexibility that his imaginative approach to subject matter requires. "But with me," he noted, "it's about remembrance -- sketching certain types of reflected patterns, different kinds of lighting, then conjuring it up with your memory and imagination."

The Memory Mountains are a varied lot: towering ridges, city-topped buttes, and sandstone mesas, and all of them glow with the artist's characteristic palette of rich complimentary colors. Even though each emanates from some kind of memory, the mountains have been stylized into hybrid forms that fuse the ridiculous with the sublime. When I recently spoke with him by telephone, Thiebaud told me that he thinks of memory as "one of nature's pleasures" and the pleasure he took in conjuring up the various crags, boulders and cliffs in this exhibition is clearly evident in every image.

During my phone conversation with Mr. Thiebaud we spoke about his mountains, his artistic intentions and his work ethic.

John Seed in conversation with Wayne Thiebaud:

Wayne Thiebaud
Photo by Matt Gonzalez

What can you tell me about the ideas behind your Memory Mountains?

The Memory Mountains offered me the opportunity to mix abstraction and representation: that is the origin of my main idea. The other idea was that the mountains came from some actual experience or place some time back in my life: from Arizona where I was born, from my time growing up in Utah and Southern California or from my later life in Northern California. Those places are the main sources of the memory material I worked with.

Laguna Rise, 2003-2012, oil on canvas, 24 x 35 7/8 in.

Were any of them painted outdoors, or do you conjure them entirely from memory? 

That is exactly what I do. I have worked a lot from direct experience, but these were designed to try and do something else.

Essentially there were sort of three characteristics or aspects that I wanted to focus on: maybe I can explain them to you without boring you.

One was the idea of humor: how I can find a seriousness in mountains -- which can be as sublime an idea as anything -- but then go all the way to a kind of silliness or ridiculousness. I find it ridiculous how we name them: oh, things like "The Devil's Woodpile." Or we decide that we're going to carve 40 and 50-foot high pictures of our presidents into them. And the other things that we do to the poor mountains: how we sort of cut our way through them or arbitrarily cut their tops off. Or how we mine them, cut all the trees off them; all these kinds of semi-ridiculous things.

Detail of Laguna Rise

There was the sort of opposite aspect of venerating them and having them be spiritual sources. That extreme -- from the sublime to the silly -- was something that interested me.

Another idea was the idea of position of mountains. We mostly see them -- and almost have to see them -- from afar, unless we are walking in them or hiking in them or driving in them. There is this tendency to see mountains pretty much in the distance and I just wondered what would happen if you tried to get them as close as possible. It seems that they are almost coming to overwhelm you: or that they seem somewhat ominous in their character.

Big Rock Mountain, 2004-12, oil on canvas, 54 x 54 in.

Yes, I noticed that some of the mountains are distinctly flattened: they are sort of in your face

It is the loss of horizon which I think gives them a peculiar position. That interested me essentially because it was a sort of oppositional research that was helpful in establishing a more abstract potential.

The third aspect was that I had to have a kind of naïve omnipotence about making my own mountains. Not just painting mountains, but to really actually believe that I was forming the rocks, the sediments that the wind had blown, or other aspects of it. I was interested in that sense of a bas relief in addition to the painting. Those are some of the things that I tried my best to see if I could get some results from.

Yosemite Rock Ridge, 1975-1987, 2011-2013, oil on canvas, 36 x 36 in.

There are paintings in the show that go back to the 60s. You have been painting mountains for quite a while

Yeah, I'm an old guy…

I feel very privileged to be however tiny a part of that great tradition of being a painter. It's been very special to me in addition to being very interested in teaching.

Green Hill Farms, 2008-2011, oil on canvas, 36 x 48 in.

What is your daily painting schedule like? You seem to have tremendous self-discipline. 

You know, I didn't go to art school John. I came up through the ranks of cartooning and illustration and graphic design: I have a lot of respect for the artists in those fields. I had that kind of apprenticeship where you are supposed to just work and you are obliged to not ignoble those traditions: the great traditions of the design and typography and decorative arts, the ideas of design and drawing.

Mountain Layers, 2010-11, oil on canvas, 36 x 24 in.

It must sometimes feel surprising to find yourself defined as a fine artist, having come from that kind of commercial art and design background.

And while it has been diminished somewhat that tradition is going to have to maintain itself and to re-invent itself continuously. There are very basic things that are not to be ignored, in my opinion.

Night Mesa, 2011-2013, oil on board, 24 x 24 in.

I need to pass that kind of thinking on to my students… 

They (students) have a rather naïve idea about creativity and self-expression. Even though they don't have a "self" yet they have these difficulties in coming to grips with the idea that they are going to have to work harder than they have even imagined in order to really distinguish themselves or to be sure not to insult the great tradition of something like painting.

Peak, 2013, oil on canvas, 35 7/8 x 48 in.

Have you read Nancy Boas' book: David Park: A Painter's Life? She tells a wonderful story about how as a young man Park attended a 1930 luncheon for the artist Henri Matisse. Matisse told the young artists attending the event: "Talk less. Work more."

There is certainly is a lot of talk today.

Yes I have read it, and she interviewed me: we own some works by David. He was a great influence on people here -- particularly Diebenkorn -- who in turn influenced me. I'm obviously a very influenced painter and I delight in being so.

Rock Mesa, 2010, oil on board, 24 x 24 in.

When someone walks into your show, what do you hope they will grasp or enjoy about the paintings? 

Well I hope first of all that they will smile quite a bit at the ridiculousness of some of the images and get some sort of pleasure out of it. That would be rewarding to me. Also I hope particularly that young painters and other artists would not feel that I have insulted the tradition.

 Wayne Thiebaud: Memory Mountains
October 29 - December 21, 2013
Paul Thiebaud Gallery
645 Chestnut St., San Francisco

Hearne Pardee and Gina Werfel: [ he said, she said...] at Adler and Co.

Hearne Pardee and Gina Werfel - both of whom are painters that teach at UC Davis - are the subjects of a double solo show at Adler and Co. in San Francisco: [ he said, she said...] As a married couple who have developed their parallel careers over four decades of partnership, Hearne and Gina have developed complimentary artistic practices that overlap into a kind of ongoing conversation.

[ he said, she said...] Installation View

Pardee's plein-air paintings of suburban dwellings are disrupted and enriched by boldly applied collage elements that create a pleasing and challenging sense of visual complication. One of his stated aesthetic goals is to use color to provide a connection to memories and unconscious associations. Werfel has a feeling for gesture, and uses it to conjure up both spatial references to the landscape and the human body. "Space," she asserts, "is created through the vestiges of gestures left embedded in the process of painting itself."

I recently interviewed both artists to ask about their backgrounds and interconnections.

John Seed Interviews Hearne Pardee and Gina Werfel

Hearne Pardee and Gina Werfel: Photo by Mary Fong

How did the two of you meet and develop your concurrent artistic practices? 

HP: We both studied at the New York Studio School in the 70s, where we were influenced by Leland Bell and Mercedes Matter. Both emphasized work from observation, with Mercedes coming out of the Hofmann tradition, which took spatial relationships observed from the model into abstraction. I began painting outdoors while there, and Gina came along a couple of years later.

  GW: While still in graduate school at Columbia, I won an award from the Artists for the Environment to be a resident artist at Bear Mountain with several other artists who used nature in diverse ways: Melissa Meyer, Ned Smyth among others. I discovered during my stay that painting rocky stream beds served as metaphors for Renaissance and Mannerist figure compositions that I had studied as a student in Italy and moved my work closer to abstract rhythms.

Hearne Pardee, Night, oil on canvas, 54 x 66 inches, 1973

How did you each find your artistic directions over time? 

HP: I worked with Philip Guston, who was teaching at the Studio School then, and under his influence I produced the "Night" painting. He told me then that I wouldn't ever go back to work outside after having that experience, but I was never totally convinced, and began keeping both work from observation and more abstract work going at the same time. Gina kept painting outdoors but became much more involved with gestures and painterly marks when she started painting outside the city. I kept looking for right angles in the woods and Gina found a connection to organic forms to construct space.

Gena Werfel, Rushing By, oil on canvas, 28 x 52 inches (diptych), 2012

GW: I painted outdoors from observation for many years, using the landscape to generate active and gestural compositions. After the move to California in 2001, I transformed my search for abstraction in landscape into large paintings that were mostly about the mark and sensuality of paint, but still retained some semblance of landscape elements and/or the human figure.

Hearne Pardee, Birch Lane, acrylic and collage on panel, 19 x 25 inches, 2012

Can you tell me about how each of you became involved in collage?

HP: I began doing small collages based on the outdoor paintings in 1980, trying to get more involved with color. When we moved to California in 2001, we both painted outdoors for several years, but then began to change. Gina began making abstractions in the studio and I began making large collages in acrylics; the colors I added became less about enhancing the colors in the subject and more about making new relationships emerge from the field - in this sense I see myself going back to the way I worked in "Night", although now including work from observation (I start the collages with painting outdoors).

Gina Werfel, Divided Light, oil on canvas, 24 x18 inches, 2013 

GW: More recently, my work has started from fragmented mash-ups of old dolls and our son's childhood drawings to generate dynamic compositions. My practice also incorporates collage and acrylic on paper and panel, with irregular bits of collage functioning as resting points in energized spaces. A range of high-key and neutral colors is combined with a fluid geometry in the paintings and mixed media works.

Hearne Pardee, Suburban Landscape, acrylic on canvas, 54 x 66 inches, 1978 

Where do your practices intersect and where do they diverge?

GW: Our practices intersect through our common artistic training at the New York Studio School. We were both trained in the legacy of Hofmann's teaching of "push-pull" planes in space and how abstraction underlies even the most realistic rendering of forms. I look to Hearne's work for its architectural solidity and its careful demarcation of color relationships coming out of his training at Yale under Sewell Sillman, a student of Albers. My work deals more with the chaos of marks and unresolved forms, and yet, an underlying architecture of forms in space is what holds my paintings together.

Where our practices diverge? Hearne's is architecturally based, mine more organic and intuitive, bordering on all over chaos. However, at the same time, we both relish the risk taking of process based work, such as gluing down a piece of collage, only to cover it up with a corrected notation.

HP: I see the main intersection in the way we both work with overall space, which includes both work from observation and abstraction - the way forms emerge from the field. I think the big change in modern art comes with the idea that creation is more a way of organizing the field rather than depicting a model. I go much more into the way this idea involves the grid and frame, and ground myself in direct observation, where Gina gets more into gestures and spontaneous marks. I'm more concerned with a sort of ethnographic approach to the everyday environment, more documentary.

Gina Werfel, Slant Steps, acrylic and mixed media, 48 x 48 inches, 2012 

What does it feel like to see your works hung together in a single show? 

GW: We have shown together in the past, however, in different contexts, where our work tended to be treated as solo shows side by side. The Adlers have hung this show differently, where the show's title (he said, she said) truly speaks to the differences/similarities in each of our works, and yet our works are investigating similar issues, such as a figure in space, a set of abstract colors and forms jostling for space. My works fracture space and form, whereas Hearne's hold forms together in a solid envelope of space. I love what a painter friend said about the show tonight, that it is a call and response kind of pairing. It is hung densely, challenging the viewer to contemplate convergences and diversity in the works side by side. Does our partnership (both personal and artistic) reveal itself in the works on view?

Hearne Pardee, Home, acrylic and collage on panel, 25 x 38 inches, 2012

HP: It sounds corny, but to me they reinforce one another and I'm pleased by the way we each hold our own. We've provided a context for one another as we've developed in our own directions, and of course as we've both responded to other artists' work - that's been especially true with our move West, where a lot of this development took place, where we relied on one another in a new environment and dealt much more directly with artists we'd always looked at from the East Coast - Thiebaud, Diebenkorn and David Park in particular. But it's also sobering to look at this overview of our work, for me encompassing 40 years, and to think about where we go from here.

Gina Werfel, Gateway, oil on canvas, 48 x 40 inches, 2013

Hearne Pardee and Gina Werfel: [ he said, she said…]
November 7-December 4, 2013
Adler and Co. 
77 Geary Street, Suite 201
San Francisco, CA
Gallery Hours: Tuesday-Friday, 10:30 to 5:30, Saturdays, 11 to 5