Click on photos to enlarge.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Makings of a Blockbuster

The seed that grew the Star Wars money tree.
In looking down over several lists of the top one-hundred films ever made, I was dismayed to realize I'd already written on most of the top twenty. I noticed that number 15 on the American Film Institute (AFI) list was Star Wars: Episode IV--A New Hope. It struck me that, for some unknown reason, I'd avoided this "one of a nine" blockbuster (number VIII is due for release in December, 2016, while the final episode is due out in 2019). So, I spent a good hour or more researching it then decided to check my archives after finding some of what I read sounded disturbingly familiar (this has happened before). To my dismay I found I'd already covered the Star Wars Saga (as a whole), Star Wars Art, as well as a biographical piece on director, George Lucas himself, not to mention his groundbreaking classic, American Graffiti. Okay, so I'd not neglected either the man, nor his art, after all. Moreover, if anything, my admiration for this American creative icon verged on outright overexposure.

The opening sequence, Star Wars. Notice that the voice of
Darth Vader is not that of James Earl Jones.
That being the case, this is not so much about a single film, which successfully "kicked off" a multi-billion-dollar cinematic franchise, as it is about one of the exceedingly rare times when a million small points of creative genius happily came together to form a cinematic masterpiece, using Star Wars IV as a classic example and point of departure. As individual film blockbuster masterpieces go, I could just as easily cite Gone With the Wind, Citizen Kane, or The Godfather, only the latter of which has spawned a series. By the same token, only Citizen Kane was the conceptual work of a single writer/producer/director/actor (Orson Welles) while the others were based upon successful novels. Star Wars IV can claim both of these distinctions. Lucas not only conceived the storyline and the characters, he saw the entire effort through to completion, not just once, but six times. The final three episodes of the saga are in Disney's hands (they're even building a separate, Star Wars theme park at Disney World, Orlando).
George Lucas, ca. 1976--cut from the same cloth as Orson Welles
The entire process of making a movie is sometimes compared to raising a child. The baby is conceived (ideas coalesce, the project is sold to backers, and a script is hammered out); a pregnancy takes place (casting and filming ensues); the baby is born (the promotion and a premier); whereupon the child grows to adulthood enjoying some degree of financial success and critical acclaim. In the case of George Lucas (above) and Star Wars, however, this whole, complex, complicated analogy is more on the order of planting a seed, nurturing a seedling, growing it into a sapling, which becomes an entire grove of money trees. No one, not Spielberg, not Welles, not Selznick, nor Woody Allen, not even Coppola, has ever come close to pulling off such a feat, and doing it so one.
An autographed final script.
Using the baby analogy, the whole Star Wars conception element breaks down immediately. With most films there is one mother and perhaps a whole host of seminal inputs (novelists, playwrights, cinematographers, producers, directors, etc.). Not so with Star Wars IV. From the very beginning, Star Wars was Lucas' baby. That's not to say there weren't outside influences, most notably the Flash Gordon sci-fi series in the 1940s and 50s, but also including the popular cowboy westerns of the same era, Kubrick's 2001: a Space Odyssey, Tarzan, Jules Verne, and even Gulliver's Travels. Lucas began pulling all these diverse influences together in January 1973, working eight hours a day, five days a week, writing, taking notes, inventing weird names, and developing characterizations. He would discard most of these by the time the final script was written, but many names and places eventually made it into the movie or its sequels. Others were revived decades later when he wrote his prequel trilogy. All this Lucas used to compile a two-page synopsis titled Journal of the Whills, which told of the training of apprentice, CJ Thorpe, as a "Jedi-Bendu" space commando. The problem was, condensed to two pages, the whole story was almost beyond comprehension.

Carrie Fisher never looked so good.
In frustration, Lucas then began writing a 13-page treatment called The Star Wars in April of 1973. Lucas went looking for money. United Artist said thanks, but no thanks. Universal, who had fin-anced his American Graffiti, did likewise. Sci-fi just wasn't that big a deal in the mid-1970s. Even Kubrick's landmark 2001: A Space Odyssey had trouble gain-ing financial traction until later. Hollywood has always been more interested in endlessly repeating past successes than in planning future ones. Beyond that, Star Wars IV was unlike any sci-fi film ever made in the past. It was not about the future, but a space adventure having taken place "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away." It was a frightening de-parture from the norm. Moreover, the budget for such a picture was frightening as well. Lucas wanted eight-million. The final budget ev-entually bloomed to eleven-mil-lion. Walt Disney also rejected the project (and has now paid through the nose to the tune of $4-billion for their shortsightedness). Finally, in June, 1973, Lucas was able to pursued Alan Ladd, Jr., then head of 20th Century Fox, to underwrite the project. A deal was completed for Lucas to write and direct the film. Although Ladd did not have much understanding of the technical side, he believed in Lucas. The deal gave George Lucas $150,000 to write and direct Star Wars.
The Death Star came relatively late in the Star Wars conceptual process.
An idea for a film that began taking shape in January 1973, had already gone through various rewrites. Lucas would write four different screenplays for Star Wars, in search of just the right ingredients, characters and storyline. By May 1974, he had expanded the film treatment into the rough draft of a screenplay, adding elements such as the Sith, the Death Star, and a general by the name of Annikin Starkiller. In the process, Lucas changed Starkiller to an adolescent boy, and he shifted the general into a supporting role as a member of a family of dwarfs. Lucas envisioned Han Solo, as a large, green-skinned monster with gills. He based Chewbacca on his Malamute dog. A full year after he'd first begun, Lucas completed a second draft of The Star Wars in which he made a number of important simplifications including the introduction of the young hero, Luke Starkiller. Annikin became Luke's father, a wise Jedi knight. "The Force" was also introduced as a mystical energy field. This second draft still had some differences from the final version as to characters and relationships. But the film, and indeed, the entire saga, was starting to take shape.

The Star Wars IV cast with Lucas and producer, Gary Kurtz.
A third draft, dated August, 1975, was titled The Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Starkiller. The third draft featured only minor differences as to characters and settings from the fourth and final plot. The third draft characterized Luke as an only child (he'd had brothers, earlier), with his father already dead, to be replaced by a substitute father named Ben Kenobi. The fourth and final draft was dated January, 1976, with a title of The Adventures of Luke Starkiller as taken from the Journal of the Whills, Saga I: The Star Wars. Obviously an abbreviated title was needed. Fox approved a budget of $8.25-million largely on the basis of American Graffiti's positive reception. which afforded Lucas the leverage necessary to demand the sequel rights to the film. For Lucas, it was a most fortunate arrangement in that it protected Star Wars unwritten segments and most of the merchandising profits. Fox owned only Episode IV. Lucas grew rich from all the others.

Alec Guinness (Obi-wan Kenobi) and director, George Lucas
on location, of Star Wars: Episode IV--A New Hope, 1976.
Lucas finished writing his script in March of 1976, just before the crew started filming. What finally emerged through the many drafts of the script was obviously influenced by science-fiction and action-adventure with all the other influences working together in surprising harmony. While much of this new sci-fi genre was, indeed, unprecedented, there were also certain traditional aspects which have helped perpetuate the Star Wars saga. During production, Lucas changed Luke's name from Starkiller to Skywalker, and fortunately, the title was altered to The Star Wars, and later just Star Wars. The film debuted on May 25, 1977, in fewer than 32 theaters. Eight more came aboard two days later. Immediately box office records began to fall, causing Fox to quickly broaden its release. The film was a huge success for 20th Century Fox. Within three weeks it had more than doubled the studio's stock price and raised the company's annual profits from $37-million in 1977 to $79-million the following year. In total receipts, the film has earned over $775-million worldwide. Adjusted for inflation, Star Wars IVhas earned over $2.5 billion worldwide at 2011 prices, making it the most successful franchise film of all time.
The people who made it all possible--the Star Wars fans.


Monday, September 26, 2016

Manfredi Beninati

Self-portrait? Manfredi Beninati

Untitled, 2005, Manfredi Beninati
It's long been a debatable topic: how far can an artist depart from reality before his or her work becomes non-representational? The Surrealists pondered this debate as did the Cubists, and of course, the Abstract Expres-sionists a generation later. The line is "fuzzy," to say the least. The only way to answer such a nearly rhetorical question is to venture quite near or over the line, or better still, meander back and forth across the line. The Italian painter and installation artist, Manfredi Beninati, does just that, and quite often. Just when you think you see some hint of recognizable content in his work, it slips away. Then, when least expected, as you study what appears to be non-representational piece...whoa, what's this? A human figure?
Beninati creates art tableau installations, sculpture, and
collages, well as painting in oils, watercolors.
Manfredi Beninati is a contemporary figurative painter, though his work also covers installations, drawings, sculpture, and collage. He was born in Palermo, Sicily, in 1970. Beninati first began by studying law, then switched to film courses in the early 1990s while working as an assistant director in the Italian film industry. Having dropped out of both law school and film school, Beninati began working as an artist, devoting himself to drawing. He spent some time in Spain and England then in 2002, went back to Italy, where he began to make sculptural figures and figurative paintings, drawing directly on real and imaginary childhood memories. Beninati's big break came In 2005 when he was selected as one of four artists to represent his country at the 51st Venice Biennale. There his Taking Notes for a Dream That Begins in the Afternoon and Continues through the Night (below), won the Audience Award for the Italian pavilion. In 2006 he received a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome.

Taking Notes for a Dream That Begins in the Afternoon and Continues through the Night, 2005, Manfredi Beninati, Venice Biennale.
Whether abstract or figurative; sculptural or painterly; two or three dimensional, Beninati's completed works seem to remain in a state of incompletion. Some might go so far as to deem them over-completed, bearing not just pictorial suggestion, but a constant shifting between formal identities. This uncertainty is seen in both his sculpture and art installations. Beninati's sculptural forms are in white plaster, their pristine surfaces are of classical statuary daubed and pigmented with whole range of candy colors. Some of Beninati's more elaborate installations are often inaccessible, viewable only through cracks in a wall or dark glass appearing to be flattened much like a photograph, as seen in his Carrying Case installation (below) from 2008.

Carrying Case, 2008, Manfredi Beninati.
Beninati's paintings often seem smudged, as if by rain, with striations of color partially obscuring his scenes plucked from memory. Others are adaptations of grand classical themes as in his vanitas still-lifes. Various layers become a single visual plane. His strips of obfuscation are reminiscent of Gerhard Richter's vigorously smeared abstractions. In some ways Beninati's style seems an assault on the academic representation with which his works are initially created, as he questions the validity, and strength to adequately represent his content. However, since his over-painting is only partial, the resulting abstract and figurative elements hint at a state of flux between opposing forms.

Surrealism with an overlay of Expressionism. Most of Beninati's
paintings are untitled, bearing only the year painted.
Sand Castle-4, Manfredi Beninati.

Untitled 2003, Manfredi Beninati.


Sunday, September 25, 2016

Edward Ben Avram

Jerusalem, Edward Ben Avram
Over the years, I've written about quite a few Jewish painters (I'm not sure there are any Jewish sculptors). However, in nearly every case they have mostly been what I call "hyphenated" Jews. That means they were Russian or Polish or German, Dutch, Swiss, or Americans first and only incidentally Jewish--some very incidentally--perhaps more accidentally Jewish, in fact. Seldom have I written about Israeli artists. Despite the centuries-long artistic tradition of diaspora Jews (those having fled to Europe after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD), Israel, as we know it today, is a very young country. It dates back only to 1948. And, as with other such countries, the fine arts are among the last cultural elements to develop. In fact, were it not for tourists (many of them Jewish, of course), even today Israel might not have much in the way of an art market. In any case, one of the internationally known stars of that market is the Bombay, India-born painter, Edward Ben Avram.
Kotel (the Wailing Wall Plaza), Edward Ben Avram.
It's hard to say what part tourism plays in terms of art purchases and their impact on the Israeli art market. Despite the constant threat of international terrorism (and nowhere is it more constant than in Israel), tourism reached a peak of about 3.5-million visitors in 2013. However, since then, the numbers have gone downhill to an alarming degree. Having said that, Israel takes its own security and that of one of its major sources of income very seriously. Israel is a small country with a negligible domestic art market. To enjoy much in the way of success, Israeli artists must rise to a certain level of international acclaim, allowing them to market their work in major Jewish population centers overseas. Few ever reach that level. Thus, Israel's periodic little wars in Gaza and elsewhere inevitably have an impact on the tourist economy. And even though he sells his paintings and prints in galleries around the world, local conflicts are not good for artists like Ben Avram.

Noah's Ark, Edward Ben Avram
Edward Ben Avram
Edward Ben Avram was born in 1941. He came to Israel as a teenager, graduating from the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. The vast majority of Avram’s oil paintings and watercolors depict present-day Israeli cities, religious festivals, and familiar Old Testament Jewish lore such as his expressionist view of Noah's Ark (above). He paints in creamy sensual tones involving traditional Jewish symbols such as doves, menorahs, and Shabbat candles. In other words, he paints what tourists come to expect in buying Israeli art. And what tourists come to see most, therefore what they yearn to take home with them, is the city of Jerusalem. Perhaps as much as half of Ben Avram's work involves various views of the city (below). The various ancient gates and the Western Wall (of the original Jewish Temple) better known as the "Wailing" Wall appear prominently in his work. (The wall doesn't wail and neither do most of those visiting it).

Ben Avram's style varies with his subject matter and media from nearly non-representational to Expressionism, even flirting with Impressionism at times.
The themes Ben Avram employs deal mainly with urban landscapes of his much-loved Jerusalem, depicting arched alleyways, steep, narrow streets, spires, citadels, and gates in the walls of the ancient city. Ben Avram's seascapes, are delicate watercolors, near Jaffa and Acre, having a minimal regard for nature's laws, instead reflecting the light and rhythm of the Mediterranean coast. If I had to compare Ben Avram's work with that of any other Jewish painter it would be Marc Chagall, as seen it the two examples of their work below.

Nearly as many similarities as differences.
As many painters native to the Mediterranean region claim regarding their local light, Ben Avram considers there to be something special about the sunlight and the local scale of colors in the Land of Israel. His work tends to reflect an understanding of this environmental element. Usually his subjects are "suggested" rather than explicit, with few details clearly presented. More than anything else, Edward Ben Avram stimulates our imagination while not imposing a detailed narrative. His art does not preach, but arrives at the heart of his subjects through allusions, as seen in his Jewish Wedding (below) and Jacob's Dream (bottom).

Jewish Wedding, Edward Ben Avram

Jacob's Dream,
Edward Ben Avram


Saturday, September 24, 2016

Domino Art

15,000 tiles, as beautiful as it is amazing
(quite modest by some standards).

In writing about art every day for over seven years now (since August 10, 2010), I've often felt the need and curiosity to go in search of the newest, weirdest, strangest, funniest, biggest, smallest, or most obnoxious types of art known to man. This ongoing quest more often centers around unusual art materials so common in everyday use most people would never even consider them as an expressive or creative item associated with art. Alternatively, maybe they've seen such materials used in such a manner but never considered as art. Yet, I wouldn't be exaggerating too much to say that there's hardly a day goes by in which some creative genius doesn't "invent" a new type of art; then popularize it over the Internet; the photos or video goes viral; records are set; others try breaking those records; while others see in it a profitable venture. Sometimes, within a matter of months, we are "blessed" with another fascinating type of art.

Spirals have the advantage of not requiring any camera movement.
You'd better watch this one sitting down.

There's likely very few of us who haven't viewed a video of several thousand "dominos" carefully arranged in such a manner so that tipping just one, sets off a spectacular chair reaction, sometimes lasting for several minutes. We've even applied such a spectacle to political, social, and military thinking, what we term the "domino theory," in which one, perhaps relatively minor event, triggers a host of others, which may escalate into something cataclysmic. Civil disturbances often demonstrate this phenomena. On a global scale, the U.S. fought the Vietnam War based in part of such a unsubstantiated fear, that every nation on the Indochina peninsula would fall to Communism if South Vietnam was reunited with North Vietnam.

Dominoland - 3 Guinness World Records.
Notice the unexpected halt in the chain reaction and
the underwater smile face,
As with toppling countries, for dominos to become a part of a chain reaction, conditions and their arrangement must be near perfect. One might think that those who create such works of art would worry most about their hours of work being accidentally destroyed by one wrong move. But in fact, when all is said and done, the countdown ends, the tiles begin to tumble, their biggest concern tends to be that some miscalculation will suddenly bring an unexpected halt to the chain of tiny, tipping, timely, tumbling events--their toppling tiles won't all fall over as planned. If it all works, there is applause from the audience. If it doesn't, there may arise an embarrassing, sympathetic moan for the patient protagonists. In any case, the whole act is seen mostly as entertainment rather than as an art form.

Biggest Spiral Ever Made! (84,790 Dominoes, a world's record)

Yet, as I've mentioned a few times before with regards to such art forms as fireworks, fountains, landscaping, topiary, bonsai, and several other more obscure types of art, it's when art and science work together hand-in-hand, guided by a gifted artist, that some of our most spectacular art takes place. This is especially true when there is added the fourth dimensional element of time to such works. What would a movie be, even given this merging of art and science, if it consisted of only one image? Domino art is all about the science (engineering) having to do with gravity, friction, placement, angles, and probably some other more obscure physics lessons all spread out over a period of time. Anyone want to venture a guess as to how long it takes 50,000 dominos to fall over?
At around $300, the ideal gift for the Domino player who has everything.
Dominos may be a relatively recent development in the realm of art but they've been around as a game for centuries. The oldest mention of dominoes was written during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) by an author who listed pupai (gambling plaques or dominoes), as well as dice as items sold by peddlers during the reign of Emperor Xiaozong of Song, 1162–1189. Sailors on trading ships found them to be an ideal means of killing time while on long ocean voyages, gradually spreading the game first to Italy then the rest of Europe and around the world. Today a decent set of 28 dominos can be purchases for as little as $14, or a luxury set (above) for around $300. Neither would be ideal for toppling. There's no record as to who may have been the first to do so, but the International Domino Day exhibition in the Netherlands dates back only to 1986. The record number for a single installation (now destroyed) is 4,345,028.

The Rube Goldberg Incredible Science Machine
--200,000 dominoes. First a word from their sponsors.
Set back and relax, this one takes a while.

Domino artists, even when they set world records, are seldom famous. Often they work as a team. They do, however, sometimes turn a profit from sponsors of their artistic stunts. Who would have imagined that knocking over dominos could become an advertising medium? And, as if spending several fourteen-hour days setting up such international art events weren't demanding enough, each setup requires many more hours of thought, design, and experimentation to make sure it all "works." Add to that the fact that some such domino artists have a "Rube Goldberg" streak inherent in their psyche, and what starts out as a work of art, begins to assume the qualities of a science experiment involving chemistry, centrifugal force, mathematics, weights, balances, mass, and magic (or so it might seem, anyway).
Don't forget, you'll also need a good deal of floor space too.
Toppling tiles, from the
tiny to the titanic.
If all of this seems to "heavy" for our artist's minds, there are shortcuts in the form of domino kits on the market (Domino Rally and Domino Express, above) ranging in price from $19 to $25 containing up to ninety pieces including items similar or identical to some of the accessories seen in these videos. Speaking of money, the "dominos" (really just blank tiles usually made of wood or plastic), come at a cost of around $75 per thousand for multi-colored plastic to a mere $30 per thousand for the standard black variety made of wood. More exotic items such as plastic tiles of a single color (virtually any color) cost around $14 per hundred. It might also surprise you (it did me) that competition dominos come in five sizes as seen at left. Also, if you plan to indulge in Domino Art, be aware that one of the most vital items in your "art bin" are what's known as a "fall walls" (bottom). They are simply a breaker in-stalled at various intervals along the line during setup as a means to limit any damage due to an accidental triggering of a premature presentation of your art work.

Spectacular Domino Rally Stunt

The size and height depend
upon the size tiles being used.


Friday, September 23, 2016

Abraham van Beijeren

Banquet Still Life, 1635-55, Abraham van Beijeren
The various forms of art, in fact, most of all the endeavors of mankind, have had had their highs and lows. In architecture, we might cite the spectacular Baroque period of the 1600s as opposed to the overly ornate Victorian era of the 1800s in this context. In painting we'd have to view the Renaissance as a high point and perhaps French Academicism as something of a nadir. I'm not enough of a music historian or a literary expert to project a similar high-low wave into those areas. However, I suspect the same "wave" applies there too. I do know something about painting, however, and I recognize that in this art form the high points and low points conform to the wave pattern I just mentioned. Certainly another high point as to painting, and probably second only to the Renaissance, would be the Dutch Golden Age. Another could reasonably be French Impressionism of the late 19th-century, followed by a deep plunge into the nihilism of Dada a few years later. Some highs and lows are not as distinct or radical, but are, nonetheless, notable and useful in the study of art history.
Young Painter in his Studio,
1655-60, Barent Fabriticus
In discussing the Dutch Golden Age, I almost invariably mention the sophistication of the financial model governing the art market, which developed during that period. Re-markably, something very similar remains a potent fact of life in the modern day "fame game" of today, determining in large part those artists who "starve" and the few who grow "fat and happy." An outgrowth of this model also resulted in a degree of spec-ialization as to content never seen before and, in fact, not seen since. There was a general hierarchy of course, with history painters at the top and still-life or genre painters relegated to the bottom. Portrait and landscape artists found notches somewhere in between. But the specialization went be-yond that as artists practicing in each area sometimes carried it to what amounted to ridiculous extremes. In the area of history painting, for instance, there was ancient history, and "modern" history with separate side niches for Greek and Roman mythology. Closely associated, or arguably a part of history painting, were religious works, which, of course, were divided as to artists painting scenes from the Old and New Testaments.
As a marine painter, especially as compared to his more
accomplished peers, van Beijeren was mediocre at best.
As a Dutch Golden Age painter, Abraham van Beijeren was a participant (some might also say victim) of this social and financial model. Born around 1620, probably in the Hague, from the age of sixteen, he trained with Tyman Arentsz Cracht, an artist nearly as inconsequential as his student. We do have a small drawing of Cracht while no likeness at all remains in van Beijeren's case. From all indications van Beijeren studied with Cracht, a history and portrait painter, for little more than a year before moving to Leiden. It's unlikely he could have come close to his instructor's modest level of expertise in such a short time. He married in 1639 then moved back to The Hague the following year. During this time and for the next few years van Beijeren appears to have taken up marine painting--lots of imaginary rough water and bobbling ships (above).

Still-life with Fish, Abraham van Beijeren

Still Life of Fish, ca. 1655,
Abraham van Beijeren
Following the death of his wife in 1647, van Beijeren was left with three daughters to support and an art career floundering in seawater. He moved to Delft around 1657 where he married a second time and joined the local Guild of Saint Luke. His second wife, Anna, was the daughter of the painter Crispijn van den Queborn. Anna's aunt was married to Pieter de Putter, a painter of fish still lifes. De Putter may have been the source of van Beijeren’s initial interest in the genre of fish still lifes (above) as well as his tutor. In any case, van Beijeren moved his family back to The Hague in 1663 where he remained until 1669, be-fore moving once more, this time to Amsterdam. That same year Bei-jeren moved to Alkmaar, then to Gouda in 1675, and finally Rot-terdam in 1677, where he lived until his death in 1690.

An example of "pronkstillevens," that is, a still-life composed of luxurious objects, though in van Beijeren's case, not without fish.
Even a brief look at Van Beijeren’s fish still-life paintings would suggest such works were not very appealing, even for a nation whose daily diet depended heavily on seafood. Van Beijeren's frequent moves from one place to another appears to indicate that these works were not very well paid at the time leaving him and his family to cope with relative poverty. As a result, In the 1650s and 1660s van Beijeren started to focus on pronkstillevens, which is to say still-lifes with fine silverware, Chinese porcelain, glass and selections of fruit. He also painted a number of floral still life paintings, dead bird paintings, and vanitas paintings (having to do with the brevity of life).

Still-life, Abraham van Beijeren
Van Beijeren apparently did better financially in switching from fish to elegant silver and fine china (above). In his later years van Beijeren was able to buy a house in Overschie for 1,000 guilders, of which 600 was covered by a mortgage. The move to painting pronkstillevens was apparently motivated by economic necessity as they could be sold to a wealthier clientele. These still lifes are quite elaborate displays reflecting the influence of Jan Davidsz de Heem. His Banquet Still-life (top) from sometime between 1635 and 1655, is one of his best. Personally, I have a degree of sympathy for van Beijeren's plight. Several years ago I painted a still-life I called Seafood Buffet (below). Several years later, It remains unsold. Maybe I should have played on the novelty of it and simply titled the painting, Dead Fish.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Seafood Buffet, Jim Lane


Thursday, September 22, 2016

Paintings I've not Done Yet--Abstracts

I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, 1928, Charles Demuth
One of the hallmarks of abstract art is that the work's design--composition, color, texture, shapes, and spatial relationships--are more important than the content of the work. They, in fact, become the content of the work. The two of the most persistent misunderstandings in art have to do with the term "abstract." The first is its use as a shorthand designation for Abstract Expressionism (not all abstract art is expressionistic). The second being the false notion that both Abstract art and Abstract Expressionism are synonymous with non-representational art. Though some (but certainly not all) non-representation art is abstract, by the same token not all abstract art is non-representational. As an example, the painting by Charles Demuth I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold (above), from 1928, is abstract, yet it is not expressionistic, nor is it non-representational.
Copyright, Jim Lane
I Saw the Figure 15 in Gold.
Photo from Deck 15, Oasis of the Seas.
In a similar vein, photography has long been associated with Realism, almost to the point of being synonymous. Early on, that probably was the case as photographer's took on the onus of accurately recording the "real" world faster, easier, and better than could a painter. However, as photography developed more and more into just another art form, it began to follow painting into expressionism and abstraction (notice, I did not link the two). As I mentioned above, they are two different entities. Although I seldom paint abstract images and almost never in an expressionist manner, I am always on the lookout for "photo-ops" which suggest one or the other. The photo I have labeled I Saw the Figure 15 in Gold (above) is in the Demuth context, neither Expressionist nor non-representational, but it is abstract in that it represents an abstract numerical concept. Today, in keeping with my newfound spirit of sharing photos which I've taken, but not used, with other artists more likely to do so, I want to offer my "abstract photography." At the same time I'd like to demonstrate that the use of the two words together is not oxymoronic.

Copyright, Jim Lane
At the Orsay--the abstract concept of time.
Along the same line of thinking comes a photo I shot from the historic Orsay Museum in Paris (above). The museum was once a train station. The giant window clock is actually one of two built into the northern facade of the building. It measured and represented the passage of time. It wasn't until the development of rail transportation that time became such an important factor in daily life. Relatively rapid transportation demanded both accuracy and consistency. Around the world, time zones were established to cope with the fact that, for the first time, man could now "race the sun."

Copyright, Jim Lane
Balconies of the Seas, aboard the cruise ship Oasis of the Seas.
Abstraction can also involve visual elements as well as a intellectual concepts. For the photographer, one of the surest ways in which to demonstrate this fact is to shoot a large number of items of roughly the same size, shape, color, and visual texture grouped (or cropped) in such a way as to mostly eliminate any obvious or immediate association with familiar content. In the photo I call Balconies of the Seas (above) some, but not all, the units are Identical, differing mostly in the placement of the round table and cabin draperies. Only in two or three cases can be seen the intrusion of any human presence which, in effect, grounds the image in reality.

Copyright, Jim Lane
High in the Hyatt, Atlanta, Georgia, abstract design of a
more complex nature without a clue as to context.
The photo I call High in the Hyatt (above) takes the same content as Balconies of the Seas but presents it in a more complex form with little or no contextual clues as to scale or content. Even the one-point perspective or the sharp diagonal of the elevator housing (far right) doesn't help much. The futuristic Hyatt Regency Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia, with its 22-story atrium, opened in 1967--hard to believe this groundbreaking architectural wonder is almost fifty years old.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Bluish Blooms Basking in a Field of Greens.
Even when shooting nature, the repetitious visual element, though usually not as tightly bound as in manmade examples, still presents many opportunities for abstract photography as seen in the photo I call Bluish Blooms Basking in a Field of Greens (above). I think this title suggest an abstract painting rather than a landscape or a floral arrangement. The key to good abstract photography is consistency as to shapes, color, and content.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Hearst's Ceiling, San Simeon, California
With the exception of certain carefully chosen elements of nature, abstract design tends to be of human origin. Even as applied to nature, the human factor is passively present with regard to the way the photographer chooses the content, as well as in the framing, lighting, and cropping of his or her shots. On the other hand, when dealing with manmade abstract fields, very often, in shooting repetitious elements of art or architecture, the photographer is, in fact, making art from art. An example can be seen in the photo, Hearst's Ceiling (above), from the living room of the Hearst Castle at San Simeon, California. The ornate, coffered, tessellation once more makes use of one-point perspective as the overriding compositional element coupled with stark, dramatic natural light. Thus the photographer, far from copying or simply recording the original work of art, is adding compositional and environmental elements in creating a new (though derivative) work of art.


As with the other photos in this series, these are available free of charge for use by painters as source material for their own work on an individual basis. Simply e-mail me with a request to do so at and indicate which photo you would like to use as well as your full name (no nicknames) and geographical location. If you have a website, include the URL, and please, when finished, e-mail me a photo of your painting. These images are not for publication as photos (except on a royalty basis) nor are they in the public domain.

Cecilienhof Palace, Potsdam, Germany.
I'm not sure if this falls under the heading of
abstract photography but I was at a loss for
any other classification.


Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Speed Painting

Speed Painter, D. Westry, Takes the stage in
Anderson's Viewers Got Talent.

Despite what the wise old King Solomon claimed in the Bible's book of Ecclesiastes about there being "nothing new under the sun," my thinking is that he was more than a little shortsighted. Perhaps that was the case some three-thousand years ago during Old Testament times, but it's doubtful, were he living today, that Solomon would find little that is not new (under the sun or otherwise). Even if he was speaking figuratively, rather than literally, there's little doubt King Solomon would find any number of items having to do with human nature that could be considered "new." The world today thrives on newness while at the same time also viewing it with some trepidation, or at least, many people do. Nowhere is newness embraced more wholeheartedly than in the world of art. The very definition of art has to do with creativity (originality) and thus, newness. In fact, we refer to art that isn't new with one of the worst epithets an artist might face--trite.

BeyoncĂ©, S. Macguire, Time-lapse Speed Painting using Photoshop

However, most of that which is new in our world today is driven, not by art, but by science and technology. This has been the case ever since prehistoric painters began using sharpened bronze chisels (employing the science of metallurgy) to flatten and smooth rocks before painting on them. It continues to this very day as digital artists create amazing works without even touching a brush or dirtying their hands with errant pigments (above). If the artist makes a mistake, that's what the "back" key is for. In fact, the creative hardware and software today is powerful enough to "remember" virtually every step in even the longest creative process, and can be forced back step-by-step to a blank "canvas." As convenient as this feature may be, it goes far beyond the ease of correcting errors. In fact, it allows the "painting" process to be recorded and replayed in a sped up version to the point that the creation of a work of art taking dozens of hours can be recreated in a matter of minutes. Quite apart from the novelty, the entertainment value, or the training benefits such a feature provides, the result is, in fact, a new art form. It has come to be called "speed painting."

Denis Dent - Portrait Michael Jackson
Although there may be a great deal that's "new, under the sun," there is very little "newness" that is without precedence. Art history recalls that as early as 1980, a California painter named Denny Dent (above) billed himself as the first "speed painter." Indeed, he once painted a portrait of President Gerald Ford from life in just eight minutes. In terms of traditional paint on canvas that might seem unprecedented.

 Bob Ross - A Walk in the Woods (Season 1 Episode 1) 

However I contend that speed painting goes back still farther than that. Remember Bob Ross and his mentor, Bill Alexander? (The latter goes back as far as 1974.) Both used the science and technology of color television to teach (or inspired) thousands of amateur artists to paint landscapes in as little as a half-hour (with time out for commercials). Above is Bob Ross's first TV "speed painting" ca. 1984.
 Time Lapse Paintings (Lost Treasure)  Marc Doiron
A few short years later painters discovered time-lapse photography and found that, with some judicious film editing, they could beat old Bob and Bill by at least half the time. The advent of video made the process still easier and cheaper while digital "painting" aided and abetted the newly emerging art form still more. Marc Doiron (above) has it down to a little over five minutes. Compare this to the months and (some say) years Leonardo da Vinci spent on the Mona Lisa.

 UPSIDE DOWN - Speed Painter entertainer.
Jackson Pollock would have loved this guy. 
Speed painting, especially as seen today using traditional paint, brushes, and canvas, usually on a grand scale, unavoidably blurs the line between painting and crowd-pleasing entertainment. Is it, or should , such painting be considered a performance? Some might question whether speed painting is, indeed, art, or simply a dazzling "nightclub" act set to music as seen in Dent's portrait of Michael Jackson accompanied by the singer's Billie Jean. There's little question that such work, regardless of the manner and speed with which it is created, fits the definition of art. BUT (and this is a might big but) it is art only in the sense that singers, dancers, musicians, actors, and the like are performance artists and what they do is also considered art, though endlessly rehearsed and highly staged. It takes DG (above) just three to five minutes to create a speed portrait of a famous person or a company's CEO. (It helps to be ambidextrous.) Such artists often paint their images upside down to prolong the theatrical suspense and provide the obligatory "big finish" when the canvas it inverted at the end. DG's publicity material also notes the possibility including dancers and musicians.


Speed painting Portrait tutorial in oil paint
-- time-lapse demonstration by Lachri
On a more serious note, and harkening back to the original Bob Ross form of speed painting, many artists have employed time-lapse video as a teaching tool in an attempt to speed up the learning process, as well as making it more fun to watch. Moreover, with a few basic pieces of video equipment (mostly just a camcorder, lights, and tripod) along with a computer loaded with video editing software, virtually any painter, no matter how slowly they're accustomed to working, or how complex their artwork may be, can produce a speed painting tutorial. Having an assistant helps, especially if he or she knows more about video production than the artist. An instructional narrative can be added in the editing process, thus avoiding the high-pitched, hyperactive instructions of Lachri's video above.

A Walk in the Rain, Step by Step Acrylic Painting
on Canvas for Beginners  Painting with Jane.