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