Has the Art Market Gone Medieval?

"The Museum of Relics," Photocollage by John Seed via Photofunia.com
On the 26th of March, several news sources reported that casino magnate Steve Wynn had sold Picasso's 1932 painting "Le Rêve" to hedge fund owner Steven Cohen for $155 million dollars. Mr. Cohen apparently felt like doing some art shopping and image burnishing after having paid a fine of $614 million to settle accusations of insider trading without any admission of guilt. Cohen had been coveting "Le Rêve" for some time, but a previous sale agreement had fallen through after Steve Wynn, who suffers from the degenerative eye disease retinitis pigmentosa, accidentally tore a small hole in the work with his elbow in 2006.

Mr. Wynn, who has a reputation as boss who treats his employees generously, said something quite remarkable a few hours after the painting was damaged:  

"My feeling was, it's a picture, it's my picture, we'll fix it. Nobody got sick or died."

Those seem like the words of a man who values people more than he values art. His sentiments - if sincere - mark him as exceptional in an era when blue chip works of art are commanding stratospheric prices that serve as reminders of economic inequality. He is right that even an especially fine Picasso is just a picture.

Just what can you say about a society in which a picture is worth so much when so many are facing poverty? It boggles my mind that one of the four existing versions of Edvard Munch's painting "The Scream" sold last year for $119.9 million. Such a vast sum of money could do so much to relieve suffering, but instead it was spent on a painting of suffering. As the prices of famous works of art rise, are we in some way going backwards in history?

There is something Medieval about the collecting habits of today's super-rich. It goes without saying that the rich have always been the most avid collectors of art, but frenzy at the top of the current art market that suggests that today's collectors are motivated less by the aesthetic value of their purchases than they are by a kind of religious fervor and supernatural faith in the transformative power of their purchases.

Blue chip works of art are now being bought and sold as relics.

Relics were bits and pieces of items that were directly connected to saints and their miraculous lives. During the medieval period splinters from the alleged true cross, finger bones of St. John the Baptist, and even alleged bits of Christ's foreskin -- the Holy Prepuce -- were avidly collected. Huge prices were paid, especially around the time of the crusades, and the market for relics was flooded with fakes. The situation got so bad that in 1287 the pope was given final authority in disputes over the authenticity of relics.

Owning a relic made Medieval collectors feel directly connected to the much venerated saints of the period. Relics also served as guarantees of political prestige and spiritual authority. Encased in lavish gem encrusted containers known as reliquaries, relics made their owners feel holier-than-thou regardless of their actual piety. Relics also were -- and still are -- major attractions for cathedrals, drawing visiting pilgrims by the score and stimulating local economies through tourism. Opposition to the cult of relics was most often treated as heresy.

As you can see, it isn't to hard to draw some comparisons between the way relics were collected and displayed and the way high end art is collected and displayed. Famous artists -- living and dead -- achieve the status of "saints" and collectors transcend their sins by acquiring and displaying physical manifestations of miraculous creativity. Art museums are cathedrals, curators are priests and museum visitors are pilgrims seeking contact with the supernatural in the physical form of works of art.

F. Scott Hess, "Procession," 1988, oil on shaped canvas, 84 x 114 inches
If it strikes you that my comparison is a bit facile, keep in mind that works of art really should be appreciated in a very different way than relics. Works of art are meant to use aesthetic means to move us, speak to us, and to inspire us. Great works of art appeal to our senses and to our intellects.

The finest works of art can speak directly to you in a transcendent language, and the dialogue you can have with them benefits from education and maturity. In other words, great works of art say the most to those who take them in with the greatest receptivity and consideration. There is a reason that works made during and after the Italian Renaissance appeal to us in different ways than Medieval works of art: they come from a tradition that was opened up and enriched by Humanist thinking and the rich philosophical and mythical content of Greco-Roman civilization.

Relics appeal to something else: our need to project piety and to advertise our connection to those who apparently have or had extraordinary powers. Relics can serve the wealthy as a way of cleansing their reputations and deflecting criticism of their actual deeds and actions. It doesn't require education to appreciate a relic: their holiness doesn't require aesthetic appreciation which is replaced by superstition and a humble sense of awe. All you have to do to get the full effect of a relic is to be in its presence.

One more thing about relics: although they were often displayed beautifully, relics themselves are not beautiful because they didn't have to be. Finger bones, bits of skull, and scraps of holy shrouds generally aren't much to look at. Neither are the innumerable giclée prints of Thomas Kinkade, but his "DNA Matrix™" was added to the mechanical signatures on his works to gives his works the vibe of relics. Unfortunately, the observation that cult followings can boost the price of works of art isn't just a feature of the Kinkade market.

Thirty years ago when I briefly worked for art dealer Larry Gagosian -- who was a young dealer just starting his career -- one of his clients said something to me that I have never forgotten. "Larry," he commented, "doesn't have a great eye for art. He has a great ear for art." I have thought about that remark for a long time. The way I have come to understand it is to acknowledge that it wasn't necessary for an aspiring art dealer to have a keen visual or aesthetic sense. What mattered was an "ear" for names and market trends.

Collectors all around the world want "names" because fame sells and because works by famous artists seem to keep their value in an increasingly superstitious and brand-conscious culture. Interestingly, as the super-rich around the globe pay vast sums for works by the art world's saints, artist's foundations and estates are scrambling to get out of the business of authenticating works: both the Basquiat and Warhol estate have ceased giving authentications due to an excess of contentious lawsuits. Perhaps the new pope could step in and help.

I want to make it clear that when the market treats great works of art as "relics" they may still be great works of art. I have a high regard for the works of Picasso, Rothko, Bacon and others whose works have recently brought supernatural prices. What concerns me is that their works -- as Steven Wynn would point out -- are just pictures, not people. Mr. Wynn's Picasso was apparently pretty easy for a good conservator to patch up: human beings aren't nearly so easy to fix.

Fatemeh Burnes: Living in the Present

 Fatemeh Burnes in her studio: photo courtesy of the artist
If you are fortunate enough to see Fatemeh Burnes' exhibition at Mt. San Antonio College -- "Imprints of Nature and Human Nature" -- the variety and quality of the work will likely knock you out. "How is it," you may wonder, "that one artist can do so many things so well?" Part of the answer must be that Burnes, who is a painter/photographer/printmaker, puts herself completely into everything she does. "There are no categories for me, only experiences," she comments, and each of her varied works of art emanates Burnes' phenomenal curiosity and passion for life.

Her works are full of every kind of sensation, and her approach ranges from naturalism to abstraction. Always adventurous -- in life and in art -- Burnes has been astonishingly productive during a period in life that has presented her with tremendous joy and sobering challenges: her much adored first grandchild was born a year and a half ago at the same time that she was enduring radiation treatments for a stubborn tumor. "I have had a very dramatic life," Burnes acknowledges. Her ability to channel the drama of her own experience into works of art, and to inter-relate it with the drama she observes in nature, has resulted in a compelling and varied body of work.  

John Seed Interviews Fatemeh Burnes
In her short essay, Shana Nys Dambrot says that you have a "polyamorous" artistic practice that presents your total consciousness. Have you always been so wide-ranging in your creativity?

I've always been very responsive to the moment and therefore very spontaneous and hungry for what surrounds me both conceptually and perceptually. The primary interest for me is to be able to communicate that state of being or what I experience at the time on a larger scale. Sometimes what I want to do is above and beyond what I'm capable of, but what my passion requires of me is to not be restricted by my ability -- I'm not intimidated by what I don't know. I don't look for experimentation, but when the opportunity comes that I find something stimulating I grab onto it. This is also true with the process of art-making, I take chances.

Fatemeh Burnes, "Shattered Mosque," (Blue Revolution Series) 2009-11
Oil on canvas, 60 x 72 inches
Your work seems to come from your memories, but it doesn't come across as nostalgic. Is it fair to say that when you are making art you are very much in the present?

My work is not autobiographical and I'm not the direct source of my art making. I get inspired by what exists outside of me which ultimately comes to be what's inside of me. There's an famous poem by Saadi Shirazi which basically says that we are all parts of the same body. It states,
"Human beings are members of a whole / In creation of one essence and soul / If one member is afflicted with pain / Other members uneasy will remain / If you've no sympathy for human pain / The name of human you cannot retain!"
I live in the present, and my work is about cause and effect, the human condition. Time is a non-element for me because the concept is not just about history. History simply repeats itself and we are a part of it, contained in its capsule of energy. I don't dwell on the past, but I can't ignore the effect of it, and my work is about how our nature has been impacted by events in human history, and essentially what our nature is about. It's not a slice of time, it's what always continues. Time is evidence of what has always taken place, but for me, it's not about storytelling.

Fatemeh Burnes, "Untitled," (Transluminants Series) digital print suspended in resin
In your current show you are displaying your "Transluminants," which are altered digital images that are protected by resin. How long have you been working with this medium?

For the past few years, I have been trying to find a way to display these photographs non-traditionally. I wanted to make them one unit. I started looking at all different options including researching light boxes, experimenting with encaustic, and eventually I ended up with resin. My primary goal is to protect the effect of light because these photographs are palettes of light and movement and secondarily to make them as archival as possible. Each medium has a different effect and interacts with light differently. At this point, what interests me with resin is its accessibility and it's also very sensuous to touch. I love the tactility and the temperature. I also think that conceptually, working with toxins and turning them into beautiful objects that are no longer toxic is a very playful idea.

Fatemeh Burnes, detail of a bird image from "Stripes," 2012
Graphite, oil, emulsion, carving and acid on panel, 48 x 72 inches (complete image)
The last time I saw your work -- many years ago -- birds were an important image, and they are still appearing in your current work. Can you tell me why they continue to appeal to you?

My last bird painting was called "Stripes." It's ironic that I have to think about the fact that birds have actually left my compositions since last march in my exhibition at Municipal, and I still can't believe it's been a year. The use of birds is probably connected to my childhood and mythology.

At age 8, my cousin and I, with my encouragement, believed we could fly without any wings of wax and jumped off a two-story building. It resulted in broken ribs and more. I've always had interest in birds and what they can do... they sing, dance, fly, they are painterly, musical, tactile, in the air, on the water, or on the rocks. I envy them. I find them strong with a very delicate anatomy, and their evolution interests me as well. This is only on a biological level.

Birds have had a great placement in Persian culture, particularly poetry and mythology. I see people as different birds, even done portraits of people as different birds and most of these birds are made up the way I think of them. Now I think the bird finally is dissolving in my paintings and I'm open to it if it comes back.

Fatemeh Burnes, "Untitled," (Dachau Series) 2010-11
Oil, natural pigment and acid on copper, 16 x 32 inches
You allude to some of the twentieth centuries most tragic cities -- Hiroshima and Dachau -- in a recent works. Tell me about your decision to deal with cataclysmic subject matter.

And also Islamic Revolution. I don't use these subjects to make any statement, I am just very much affected by the imprints of these tragedies on our daily existence. I study history, genetics, geology, etc. with the curiosity of what role do we take as human beings and how do "we" affect "us," meaning nature? I don't see man as separate from nature, I see man as nature. Our genetics, psychology, and behavior interest me tremendously. By studying these tragedies, I learn everyday more and more of our nature and what we are capable of. I don't make portraits of tragedies, I'm eager to learn and know in a scholarly sense, and then I process what I have learned spontaneously by what I do best, which is make art. I'm like a conduit, and my art-making echoes my curiosity and compassion for us, nature.

Fatemeh Burnes, "Hiroshima," 2012
Oil, acid and natural pigment on copper, 36 x 72 inches
When I visited your exhibition we talked about how your artistic practice has given you a "safe" place while you have dealt with health issues. Could you say a bit more about that?

When I am working is when I feel most connected to nature -- a nature that I think of and believe in on many levels. During the process of creativity I feel no fears and I'm free and fluid. There are no boundaries, there are no diseases, and it's all about light. It's a place of light and hope.

Fatemeh Burnes, detail of "Nest," 2012
Oil and emulsion on copper and hand-carved panel, 44 x 48 inches (complete image)
What matters most to you at this point in your life?

The extent of my love for my children and grandchild is unexplainable. I felt the same emotions at Dachau when I sensed the presence of existence and life, or when I would visit an orphanage, or mentor a homeless teenager. What I find different is the energies, how I respond to my grandchild very differently than to my adolescent and my adult children. It's hard to categorize this sensation as just my biological connection -- it's just the opportunity of being intimate, being able to give, to love them and be with them more. What is the most important to me is to continue having this opportunity to love and give through friendship, motherhood, teaching, whatever is possible for me.

Fatemeh Burnes, "Flourish," (Transluminants Series) digital print suspended in resin
Is there anything important you would like my readers to know about your life and art?

I have had a very dramatic life from childhood through adolescence and adulthood. I can't help it, and it's kind of entertaining. I don't entertain myself with it because I don't want to even think of it, but sometimes people want to know and it will suddenly occur to me that I am the subject. I am very distant from myself and it requires other people to help remind me of my stories. Beyond memory and nostalgia, what you experience always lives within you, one way or another. I neither fight it nor celebrate it.

Fatemeh Burnes:
Imprints of Nature and Human Nature
March 14-April 21, 2013
Mt. San Antonio College Art Gallery
1100 N. Grand Avenue, Walnut, CA 91789
Gallery Hours:
Tuesday - Thursday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday Evenings 5 to 7:30 p.m.

Suhas Bhujbal: Peace and Quiet

Sujas Bhujbal, "Hanging Out," 2012, oil on canvas, 60" x 42"
During a 2011 trip to Cat Island in the central Bahamas, artist Suhas Bhujbal found something he craved: peace and quiet. The island's lifestyle -- one in which people gather on the beach and enjoy each other's company -- reminded him of his childhood in India. "I appreciate the simplicity in life," he comments. "I paint what I see, experience, and feel. It is really about falling in love in that moment and bringing that on the canvas in a visual form."

Sujas Bhujbal, "A Quiet Town 123," 2012, oil on canvas, 50" x 65"
Bhujbal, who has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area since 2001, is well known for his semi-abstract images of urban environments, many of them suggestive of his native India. He is a keen observer of what architecture has to say about a town's inhabitants, to the point that his buildings sometimes seem at least a bit human. "When I see a building that strikes me," Bhujbal notes, " I suddenly stop and find myself standing and staring. Sometimes I feel something is happening. Even though the building cannot talk, I feel it is saying something to me."

Sujas Bhujbal, "Getting Ready for the Day," 2012, oil on canvas, 42" x 60"
Besides providing a new setting for his work, the Bahamas revitalized Bhujbal's interest in painting the human figure. The artist's handling of the figure overlaps nicely with his approach to architecture: he treats them both with a searching, process-oriented approach to his materials that allows him to improvise. Interestingly, this figures sometimes have a hint of architecture about them, and his buildings are distinctly organic.

In the paintings inspired by his trip to Cat Island, there are some particularly elegant figure ground relationships in which clearly delineated human forms are set against broadly brushed color fields and more than a few drips. The Bahamas paintings also demonstrate that Bhujbal is able to render the feeling of light with considerable confidence.

Sujas Bhujbal, "Had a Good Day," 2012, oil on canvas, 48" x 48"
In his painting "Had a Good Day," Bhujbal gives us a single figure engaging in a simple act: repairing a net while a freshly caught fish glistens on his table. The image has a vitalizing freshness and its colors -- silvery greys, cool blue and a burst of fresh green -- perfectly compliment the umber silhouette of the solitary fisherman. Although he has been drawing figures for some time, including portraits of riders on the Muni train he takes to his studio, Bhujbal says that his vacation in the Bahamas was an "amazing experience" that gave him a new impetus to develop figural compositions.

On Cat Island Bhujbal found something he had lost touch with: a simpler life more connected with nature and less in touch with modern distractions and temptations. Since his return home the positive energy of the experience of the trip has continued to resonate in a his work, which includes a new series of paintings of single figures observed from life. Like the fisherman in "Had a Good Day" Suhas Bhujbal enjoys his work and is at peace with his surroundings.  

Suhas Bhujbal: "Dialogues"
April 4 -- 27, 2013
Dolby Chadwick Gallery
10 Post Street San Francisco, CA 94108

Group Figurative Exhibition Featuring Suhas Bhujbal, Gloria Gaddis, Kathy Jones, Marianne Kolb and Craig Mooney
April 4 -- 30, 2013
Sue Greenwood Fine Art
330 N. Coast highway,
Laguna Beach, CA 92651