'Hubert Vos: Court Painter to the Empress Dowager Cixi' by John Seed is featured in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of 'Arts of Asia'

Now, really, I was struck very strongly by her appearance…Erect with a tremendous will power, more than I have ever seen in a human being. Hard, firm will and thinking lines, and with all that a brow full of kindness and love for the beautiful. I fell straight in love with her.

- Hubert Vos, writing about the Empress Dowager Cixi from Peking, June 28, 1905

Hubert Vos (1855-1935)

Hubert Vos: The Dowager Empress Cixi (Tzu Hsi), 1906 
Collection of the Summer Palace, Beijing 

Read the complete article in the Jan-Feb 2015 issue of "Arts of Asia"

Holiday Reads: Ten Recent Books on Art and Culture

Ten Recent Books on Art and Culture

One of the joys of being a art writer is that over time I getting to know many other writers in my field. In the case of Britta Erickson, I have actually known her for over 35 years (we attended college together) and I really had no idea that she was writing until I re-connected with her on Facebook. As I have recently learned, Britta is an independent curator and scholar who lives for part of the year in Northern California, but who also spends a fair amount of time in China: she is the Artistic Director of a contemporary art gallery and experimental space called The Ink Studio in Beijing. It was Britta who introduced both the sponsor and organizer of the Ai Weiwei exhibit now on view at Alcatraz to the artist several years ago.

Ai Weiwei with Britta Erickson

As becoming re-aquainted with Britta has reminded me, each writer I know offers me an open door into their extended world, full of their most treasured ideas and images. Writers share what they find most valuable. In that spirit, I'm sharing ten great books with you and "paying it forward" for the writers -- and artists -- who have created them. With each book I'm offering you a few lines of information and opinion in the form of a description and a micro-review. If you find something you just have to have, most of these books are available on Amazon.com and when they are not I have provided links that will take you to sites where you can order them.

Zheng Chongbin: Impulse, Matter, Form (Contemporary Chinese Ink)
By Britta Erickson and Zheng Chongbin
Softcover, 192 pages, Published by Ink Studio


 Zheng Chongbin is an artist who works with traditional Chinese brushes, black ink and white acrylic on xuan paper. Shaped by the bicultural experience of studying and living in both the United States and China, his works fuse the language of traditional ink painting with the philosophical and practical concerns of Western Modernism. In the books featured essay, Establishing Spirit in a Sea of Ink, Britta Erickson credits Chongbin with finding "a new direction for art, with a new way forward for both abstraction and for ink." This book also includes essays by Kenneth Wayne, Craig Yee, Amjad Majid and the artist.


A strikingly beautiful book that opens up a new set of possibilities for contemporary abstraction and for the continued dialogue between Eastern and Western aesthetic traditions.

River of Ink: [An Illustrated History of Literacy]
By Thomas Christensen
Hardcover, 320 pages, Published by Counterpoint


A wide-ranging series of essays that are loosely connected by the theme of literacy: the book's title refers to the sacking of Baghdad in 1258 when the Tigris ran black with the ink of books flung into the water by Mongol invaders. Its essays traverse the world and time, from Prehistoric China to contemporary America. Its author views culture as a mirror and asserts that "To explore other times and other cultures is really to explore our own time and our own culture..."

Micro-Review: An eclectic and sporadically brilliant book in which an erudite writer takes his readers on a set of historical and cultural birdwalks. The essay Journeys of an Iron Man, which tells the story of a 19th century Benin iron sculpture of the god "Gu" -- the god of ironworking and warfare -- is a particularly informative and engaging read.

Art Deco Hawai'i
By Theresa Papanikolas and DeSoto Brown
Softcover, 138 pages, Published by The Honolulu Museum of Art


Art Deco Hawai'i is the catalog for an exhibition at the Honolulu Museum of Art that will remain on view through January 11, 2015. Included in this book are paintings and sculpture by such artists as Don Blanding, Marguerite Blasingame, Robert Lee Eskridge, Isamu Noguchi, Agnes Lawrence Pelton, Gene Pressler, Lloyd Sexton, and Madge Tennent, and, at the center of them all, the six-mural cycle that Eugene Savage created for Matson in 1940.

Micro-Review: A gorgeous and engaging book that documents the enchanting hybrid style that emerged when Parisian-born Art Deco came to dominate the fields of architecture, design and visual arts in Hawai'i in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. The catalog's main essays The Exotics of Leisure: Art Deco in Hawai'i by Theresa Papanikolas and Art Deco in Hawai'i Modernity and Tradition in Commercial Art by DeSoto Brown are superb.

Art in America 1945–-1970: Writings from the Age of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Minimalism
Edited by Jed Perl
Hardcover, 886 pages, Published by The Library of America


This book is a compendium of primary source materials on American art. It includes major critical essays by Clement Greenberg, Susan Sontag, Hilton Kramer, and other influential figures. There are also responses to art by poets and novelists, including John Ashbery on Andy Warhol, James Agee on Helen Levitt, James Baldwin on Beauford Delaney, Truman Capote on Richard Avedon, Tennessee Williams on Hans Hofmann, Jack Kerouac on Robert Frank. Add to that, a selection of memoirs, diaries, and journalism by Peggy Guggenheim, Dwight Macdonald, Calvin Trillin, and others.

Micro-Review: Jed Perl has done a major favor for those of us with a deep interest in American art. This book combines a lovingly selected cross-section of historically significant writings with helpful headnotes. Perl's scholarship is, to put it succinctly, awe-inspiring.

Leonardo's Brain: Understanding Da Vinci's Creative Genius
By Leonard Shlain
Hardcover, 240 pages, Published by Lyons Press


Leonardo's Brain opens with two interwoven strands of exposition: one deals with the life and works of Da Vinci while the other the evolution of the human brain. The book's final section then goes on to both explore the role of brain anatomy on creativity and to offer some notions about the evolutionary future of human neuro-anatomy. In total, it offers an ambitious conflation of biography, art history, and neuroscience layered with scientific and sociological conjecture.

Micro-Review: Leonardo's Brain, published posthumously through the efforts of the author's three children -- Kimberly Brooks, Tiffany Shlain and Jordan Shlain -- is the magnum opus of prodigiously curious man with a larger-than-life intellect. It is rare and stimulating to find a book that locates so many profound and unexplored connections between art and science.

Creating the Future: Art and Los Angeles in the 1970s
By Michael Fallon
Hardcover, 400 pages, Published by Counterpoint


Creating the Future is a work of social history/cultural criticism that examines the premise that the progress of art in Los Angeles ceased during the 1970s and didn't resume until sometime around 1984. Fallon takes a particular interest in the sheer variety of approaches and voices that appeared in the 1970s. Arranged into twelve themed chapters, it tells the stories of artists and their communities.

Micro-Review: This book is a valuable record that captures the beginnings of a number of movements that later became tremendously influential including Feminist Art, Chicano Art and Lowbrow. Read it and and plan on finishing with a more nuanced and insightful view of Los Angeles culture.

Reading Basquiat: Exploring Ambivalence in American Art
By Jordana Moore Saggese
Hardcover, 268 pages, Published by the University of California Press


Reading Basquiat offers a carefully constructed approach to Basquiat's themes and the impact of his practice. It does so by discussing his work in relationship to important aesthetic concerns including identity, appropriation and expressionism.

Micro-Review: A deep and decidedly academic book that takes itself and its subject seriously. Its first chapter -- The Black Picasso: Jean-Michel Basquiat and Questions of Race -- offers insightful and overdue analyses of the complex "black experiences" that the artist's works both broadcast and embody.
Behind the Easel: The Unique Voices of 20 Contemporary Representational Painters
by Robert C. Jackson
Hardcover, 264 pages, Published by Schiffer Publishing Ltd.


Artist Robert C. Jackson interview 20 contemporary representational artists (himself included) and showcases there work. The artists are Steven Assael, Bo Bartlett, Debra Bermingham, Margaret Bowland, Paul Fenniak, Scott Fraser, Woody Gwyn, F. Scott Hess, Laurie Hogin, Robert C. Jackson, Alan Magee, Janet Monafo, John Moore, Charles Pfahl, Scott Prior, Stone Roberts, Sandra Mendelsohn Rubin, Daniel Sprick, Will Wilson, and Jerome Witkin.

Micro-Review: Beautifully produced: the interviews are wonderful, but it is the high-quality plates that make this book a knockout. Prepare to be WOWED.

Lawrence Gipe: Century of Progress
by Lawrence Gipe
Hardcover, 80 pages, Published by Zero+ Publishing


A selection of works by Lawrence Gipe, who is fascinated by the romanticism of early images of industry and technology and their evocations of power and politics. The book includes an interview with Gipe by Marshall Price and contains containing 49 color plates and featuring Gipe's paintings from the '80s and 90s.

Micro-Review: Gipe's work blends critical intelligence with a strong feeling for atmosphere. A great coffee table book for those who feel the nostalgic pull of the "Cult of Progress."

The Figure: Painting, Drawing, and Sculpture
Edited by Margaret McCann
Hardcover, 240 pages, Published by Skira/Rizzoli


The Figure: Painting Drawing and Sculpture, Contemporary Perspectives has the look of a high-end coffee table decoration, but don't judge this book just by its Martha Mayer Erlebacher cover. Inside, you will find it crammed not only with striking images but also with essays by critics, artists, and other thinkers that air out thematically related historical, philosophical, theoretical, and technical issues. The Figure is an ambitious and overdue tome that fills a void: if you haven't noticed, contemporary representation is coming on strong. It is is also a celebration of the burgeoning influence of the New York Academy of Art (NYAA), a singular institution that has come into its own more than three decades after its establishment.

Click here for my full review

Micro-Review: If there ever was an art book that needed to become a major exhibition -- or a maybe a salon -- The Figure is it.

'Pupils of Apelles' at Copro Gallery: One Cult, Two Masters

"The time which I have been thrown into does not interest me." - Odd Nerdrum

 Pupils of Apelles, a four person exhibition now on view at Copro Gallery, is about reaching far back in time for inspiration and connection. Although the Norwegian artist and mentor Odd Nerdum appears in the largest font on the show's roster, it is the 4th century Greek artist Apelles of Kos who is presented as the presiding master of its cult.

The invoking of Apelles may strike some as a kind of smokescreen, as show's star attraction is Nerdrum, an aesthetic refusenik who once painted himself in a custom-sewn golden robe as The Savior of Painting. Whatever you may think of Nerdrum's art -- and his ego -- you have to grant him this: no living "master" has magnetized more ambitious and talented young representational painters than he has. Yes, offering up his own art as a model is part of what Nerdrum does, but to be fair, Nerdrum's approach has also involved asking his students to look far outside the perimeters of current tastes in art: that is where Apelles enters into things.

Odd Nerdrum: Photo by John Seed
"Rather than dialogue and cooperatively compete with contemporaries," explains painter David Molesky, "Nerdrum has taught us the benefit of ignoring the packaging of time and to strive with masters of the past as if they were our peers." Striving to create an artistic dialogue with Apelles involves both research and considerable imagination since none of his works have survived, except in copies and descriptions. Molesky, who studied with Odd Nerdrum between 2006 and 2008 says that the legend of Apelles came up as they looked over a book of Pompeian frescoes: Nerdrum told him that the paintings preserved by the ashes of Vesuvius were "copies upon copies" that echoed the original great works of Apelles.

A lyrical painter whose works are recorded as having employed elaborate allegories and personifications, Apelles made a number of portraits of Alexander the Great including one of the young ruler wielding a thunderbolt. History has noted Apelles as being an early advocate of a tetrachrome (four color) palette consisting of white, yellow ochre, red ochre and black: from this basic set of pigments a wide range of tints including flesh tones could be mixed. Apelles' technique also presages European oil painting methods: in his Natural History Pliny the Elder says that Apelles used a varnish on his paintings that "caused a radiance in the brightness of all the colours and protected the painting from dust and dirt." The "rough technique" of Apelles — in combination with his limited palette — was adopted by Titian in his late works and also by Rembrandt and Velasquez. Odd Nerdrum's son, Öde Spildo Nerdrum, notes that Apelles' methods also had an esoteric aspect: "The understanding of the limited palette also goes further than just an idea of mixing color," he comments: "It is an alchemistic tradition."

"It really triggered my imagination," Molesky recounts, "to think about what these paintings must have looked like, these invisible paintings -- all destroyed 1200 years ago -- that were esteemed by Rembrandt, Titian, Botticelli and others as the greatest works ever, even though they had never seen them." Raphael, another admirer, portrayed himself as Apelles in his fresco The School of Athens which graces the Vatican's Apostolic Palace. In a sense, striving to emulate Apelles offers up the fantasy of joining what Molesky describes as "a secret bloodline of painters whose imaginations were ignited into fierce striving when the imagination was set to try and create something worthy of the Greek master."

Odd Nerdrum, Maenads, 2014, oil on canvas, 75 x 106 inches
What would Apelles have thought of the rivetingly strange Maenads, the largest of six Nerdrum canvases on view at Copro? The subject is classical: maenads were women who resisted the worship of Dionysius and were driven mad by being forced to participate in rituals against their wills. Its seven nude figures, who rise from an ashen scrim of water, glower accusingly toward the viewer offering variations on the theme of refusal. One of them, second from the right, is androgynous or even masculine: in fact she/he resembles Nerdrum. Just what are these unwilling Northern bacchants accusing us of? I'm guessing fatuousness and inanity: their resistance and suffering are the emblems of their character. Like the asylum inmates that Gericault painted, Nerdrum's Maenads are to be both pitied and admired.

Maenads, (Detail)
The characters in Nerdrum's paintings have some pretty weird circuses going on in their heads, and to like his paintings you have to buy into the lugubrious strangeness, which not everyone does. Jenny Dubnau, a realist painter who earned her MFA at Yale, argues that Nerdrum's imagery is "...like a parody of a Wagner opera or something: it feels like a very false, silly mythology that has no relevance to anything real in our culture. He himself describes his work as kitsch, but there's zero humor to it, so it's intensely unlikable." In contrast, the late critic Hilton Kramer (1928-2012) found Nerdrum's works valuable as cautionary tales: "They reject the present and exploit the past in favor of pictorial fable, allegory and myth that offers the viewer a grim symbolic account of the human condition in extremes."

For the past few decades, young artists interested in classical training -- exactly the "wrong" approach in an era dominated by postmodern theory -- have looked to Nerdrum as a beacon. His Road Warrior meets Rembrandt imagery and his considerable facility have made him a figure of considerable adulation. Luke Hillestad came to study at Nerdrum's farm after an art school put-down helped him clarify his sense of difference:
At 22 I made a picture of two lovers for an Art University. The teacher's only comment was that I "should get a job making covers for romance novels," which sparked chuckles in the classroom. I would have happily taken that job, as I would have been equally glad to make pictures for video games, if only I had those connections. While the University upheld Kant's call for disinterestedness, I was on an earnest search for beauty which pleasures and drama that delights. Odd's farm was a place that facilitated these desires.
A detail of Luke Hillestad's Abyss

Hillestad's melodramatic painting Abyss which depicts couple kissing in a water-filled cavern shows the tenderness and luminosity that was encouraged under Nerdrum's tutelage. Migration, Hillestad's image of a nomadic clan seems to be located in the precise mythological zone that Nerdum has invented, but its figures and surface are more carefully burnished. There is a hint of Pre-Raphaelite grace in Hillestad's female figures that gives his work its distinctive mood.

Luke Hillestad at work on his painting Migration in Norway, 2013
Caleb Knodell, who is represented by three oils including his glowering Self-Portrait as Possessed, found that his studies with Nerdrum offered both a sense of belonging and the support he needed to attempt challenging subject matter:
Working with Odd really isn't work. While it can be strenuous at times, it usually involves small things. He will say things like "we will do this, and then we will have a nice time."Whenever there was some big chore it was always followed by great food, relaxation, always coffee. He tends to always look at the other side of things. Not necessarily playing devil's advocate, but more so a sense that whatever the majority believes is probably wrong.
Caleb Knodell, Self-Portrait as Possessed, oil on linen, 49 x 50 inches
David Molesky, who first worked as an apprentice and model for Nerdrum at his studio in Iceland, found that his best moments with Nerdrum mainly consisted of watching Nerdrum paint and listening to his cultural anecdotes. Studying painting with Nerdrum -- in Paris, Reykjavik or Memorosa -- is rather like studying architecture with Frank Lloyd Wright at Talesin: just being in the presence of the master can be the most important aspect. Rose Freymuth-Frazier, who studied with Nerdrum in 2005 says: "Odd's very compelling, generous etc. A lot of people looking for that influence in their lives find that, even temporarily in him. He's bigger than life and he has the artistic mastery to back it up."

David Molesky painting at Odd Nerdrum's farm in Norway. 
Of course, the adulation of masters is something that has to come to an end at a certain point. When asked why had had left the studio of the sculptor Rodin, Constantin Brancusi famously replied: "No other tree can grow in the shadow of a great oak." For that reason, David Molesky's paintings, which have moved from Nerdrum's Nordic mythological zone into a contemporary world filled with depictions of fiery confrontations and conflagrations, offer a welcome indication of artistic separation and maturation.

David Molesky, Surface to Air, oil on canvas, 18 x 20 inches
From Odd Nerdrum, his first master, Molesky learned the importance of drama and atmosphere. Apelles, his second master, helped him realize that the imagination is a much broader field than any one person could ever show you. Artists who never walk away from the shadows of their masters risk being what the Greeks called epigones: less distinguished followers or imitators.

Pupils of Apelles
Odd Nerdrum, Luke Hillestad, Caleb Knodell, David Molesky
Through January 2nd, 2015
Copro Gallery
Bergamot Arts Complex, 2525 Michigan Ave T5
Santa Monica, CA 90404