Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Form, Function, and Beyond

In 1940 Pablo Picasso was one of the first dignitaries to be invited to tour the recently discovered caves in Lascaux, France. His critique of the artwork of the ice age artists that covered the rocky surfaces of the caverns, "We have discovered nothing".   He knew perfectly well what we should all know, that the lack of illusionist representation in artwork does not equate with the idea that an artist lacks imagination and creativity.  

All artwork in this posting is from collections housed in the de Young Museum in San Francisco.  

Artwork found in museums, literature, and in commercial galleries is frequently grouped by culture.  According to art historian, Deborah Root, in her book, Cannibal Culture (1996): "When ethnology constituted itself as a science in the 19th century, it appropriated as its object of study traditional, generally land-based people living outside of European and North American cities--in other words, people classified as nonwhite, defined as un- or semicivilized, and incidentally subject to European colonial authority..."

Over eighty years ago, anthropologist, Franz Boas, pointed out that the differences between art of "primitive artists" and "western artists" were due to constraints by culture rather than lack of ability, "...each culture can be understood only as an historical growth determined by the social and geographic environment in which each people is placed and by the way in which it develops the cultural material that comes into its possession from the outside or through its own creativeness."

In his seminal work, Primitive Art, Boaz refers to the work of Ernst Grosse, among others, who felt that the work of tribal groups "...is by origin and by its fundamental nature not intended as decorative but as a practically significant mark or symbol, that is to say as expressive...this practical significance implies some kind of meaning inherent in the form."

Sometimes the end use of an art object determines the form. Often, too, the works relate to religious or other ceremonial rituals.  The stylistic elements of an artwork extend beyond its aesthetic effects.  Susanne Langer, wrote in Problems in Art (1957) "...I think every work of art expresses, more or less purely, more or less subtly, not feelings and emotions which the artist has, but feelings and emotions which the artist knows; his insight into the nature and sentience, his picture of vital experience, physical and emotive and fantastic."

Seated Figures, 2nd century
Earthenware, pigment
34.9 x 19.7 x 14.6 cm (13 3/4 x 7 3/4 x 5 3/4 in.)
Gift of Lewis K. and Elizabeth M. Land

Artists from all societies are able to create work that evolve as they produce them.  How can we help students construct knowledge based on the work artists from the global visual culture?

Sydney R. Walker outlines B. Stephen Carpenter, II guidelines for teaching performance arts in Teaching Meaning in Artmaking, 2001.  His suggested seven steps include using the body and representing ideas in a respectful way. Students will need to  research knowledge about the culture in order to use symbols, movements and words authentically and substantively.   Performance pieces need to be planned with preparatory sketches and scripts that are reviewed with the teacher.  The work should be timed and rehearsed with a defined beginning and end. 

If I were to teach high school art programs today I would introduce students to the costume and performance work of Chicago-based artist Nick Cave.  His response to materials around him and also movement would be exciting to adolescents, and I am supposing that this would be a fabulous way to introduce performance based work.

"As we manipulate, we touch and feel, as we look, we see; as we listen, we hear."  John Dewey, Art as Experience

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Pursuit of Color

Helen Frankenthaler, Mountains and Sea, 1952

Note: this was posted sometime ago and I am changing the title from pursuit of pleasure to pursuit of color.  I think too many people were coming to this site for the wrong reasons!

Here goes another posting on teaching color. Why do I love it so much? I think that it is one art element that everyone needs to understand and that everyone can utilize. I forged a unit using the standard art education components- art history, aesthetics, studio practice, critical response - into several units on color for the painting and printmaking class at the private high school where I taught for four years.

It was important to me that the students experience the visceral thrill of working with color, not just memorizing the basic organization principles of this complex art element. We went on a field trip to the National Gallery of Art where we were able to see the Helen Frankenthaler painting that started it all, as well as other types of abstract and color field paintings.

student water color diptych

Washington, DC has only hit the top of the charts, art history-wise, once. The apocryphal story of the birth of the Washington Color School goes something like this: DC painters, Morris Lewis and Kenneth Noland, using an introduction from the critic, Clement Greenberg, visit the young Helen Frankenthaler in her studio in NYC in 1953. They are stunned to see the stain painting techniques that she has developed by bypassing primed canvas in favor of raw canvas. They were so in awe of her painting, "Mountains and Sea", that they scurried back to Washington and began unfurling canvas literally everywhere and inventing new ways to spread color.

When we returned from the museum we were able to work with watercolor on paper, pouring colors, using sponges as well as brushes, and also salt crystals to achieve different textural results. Later we worked on small unprimed canvases off the stretcher, again working directly with the paint. When the canvases dried, they learned to stretch them onto stretcher bars. I am sorry that I do not have photographs of these works.

We then studied the hard edge painting of the Californians know for their post-painterly abstractions. At this stage of the game the students really understood that painting could be about color relationships. While our art materials were not on the scale of the works of that era, they managed to make some powerful images with very poor brushes and student grade paints.

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Along the way we reviewed aspects of color: saturation, hue, temperature, color wheel relationships, etc., etc. Students also had to write about their work and the work of other artists.

Using pre-stretched and primed canvas panels and various drawing tools such as French curves allowed students to develop compositions quickly.

They also were mindful of how color could be utilized with formal art principles to achieve a unified vision. The final project was silk screening. I am sorry that I do not have any photographs of those images. They were really into achieving "flat" surfaces and enjoying the concept of minimalism by that time.