Exhibition Review: Feng Zhengjie

This was written for a school assignment.

We visited this exhibition of Feng Zhengjie’s works last year. The question was asking about the intepretation of the artist’s works.

I agree with the interpretation that the artist’s works portray the “excesses of contemporary China, treading uncomfortably between Communism and capitalism”. I feel that several of his paintings depict an uneasy juxtaposition of traditional Chinese (“Communism” in the above interpretation) and new Western ideals (“capitalism”), and place great emphasis on the commercialization and consumer culture of China.

For example, the painting Happiness No. 02, 1998, shows a newly wed couple dressed in Western-style clothes, set against a backdrop of billboards and candy-colored balls. The background of the painting is reminiscent of today’s commercial culture, with neon billboards and icons of the West (the Statue of Liberty, the Sphinx etc) in it. However, the painting is framed by a very traditional Chinese setting for a wedding, accompanied by Chinese scrolls complete with elaborate Chinese “embroidery” and carvings on either side. The painting uses almost garishly bright, bold and unnatural colors, and this coupled with the expressions on the main subjects’ faces create a sense of unease. They are plump (once again, “excesses of contemporary China”) and seem to be looking directly at the viewer, but with greatly exaggerated smiles which seem insincere. The artist may be trying to show how despite the superficial attempts to be Western, with an expensive “Western-style” wedding ceremony and a Western backdrop, the people of modern China are still very much rooted in their Chinese culture at heart.

I also agree that the series of large-scale glamour portraits create a sense of unease and raise questions about the definition of beauty and its relationship to surface and vanity. The paintings are painted with almost airbrush-like precision and no brushstrokes are visible, creating the appearance of a photograph. However, the exclusive use of shades and tints of red and green (and white for highlights) create an effect of the paintings being internally conflicting due to the highly complementary and clashing color scheme. The models in the portraits all have diverging eyes with small pupils, which lend a sense of emptiness and a disturbing feel to an otherwise typical glamour portrait, and some might say detract from the beauty of the women. The lips of the women are painted in a bright crimson and show little or no modeling of form, as contrasted with the rest of the paintings which are rendered with airbrush-like precision. This may be to show how beauty is ‘flat’ and two-dimensional, presenting only one side of a person.

This leads us to ponder, what exactly defines beauty? Do small, superficial features like diverging eyes cause a woman lose her beauty? Can one be beautiful without having runway looks?

The fact that the models all look like typical magazine models, and the common features of diverging eyes and similar color scheme that runs throughout the series makes the paintings have a sense of uniformity. Thus, I also agree that the “portraits suggest the contradictions of an emotionally complex, individual existence” as the portraits – although individually unique – look identical at the same time.

There is exaggeration present in almost every work at the exhibition – mostly in terms of color (the artist often chooses colors that are not naturalistic, for example in the “Romantic Trip” series, where the skin color of the subjects are unnatural). The artist probably intended to bring across his critique of contemporary Chinese society strongly in this way.

Piet Mondrian and Mark Rothko

This was written for a school assignment.

Mondrian and Rothko both painted more naturalistic subject matter in their earlier days. Piet Mondrian was earlier influenced by Impressionism and the Impressionistic artist Seurat, and his paintings followed a neo-impressionistic style in 1900s. This can be seen from earlier works such as “Mill in Sunlight” (1908) which reflect quie clearly Impresssionistic influences of using complementary dabs of color side by side. Rothko too painted naturalistic scenes due to the great influence of Milton Avery’s work on his early paintings. Avery’s paintings often addressed stylized and natural scenes, with rich usage of form and color. Soon after meeting Avery, Rothko’s paintings began to address similar subject matter and colors, as can be seen in “Bathers” (1933/4) which has a similar naturalistic feel to it.

Both artists utilized bold blocks of solid color in their mature work. Rothko’s work used large rectangular shapes of contrasting colors placed one above another, overlaid on a colored background. For example “No. 3/No. 13” (1949) shows dark gray, black, purple, green and white bands of color overlaid on an orange background. Many of Mondrian’s works, such as “Composition with Blue, Yellow, Black and Red” (1922) show a canvas regularly divided into geometrical shapes with strong black lines, and some of these cells are colored in with one of the primary colors. This is an example of how often he used primary colors in his work. For example, “Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow” (1927) featured striking red, yellow, blue, white and black, all of which were colors which contrasted highly with each other and made the painting visually impactful. The tsame goes for Rothko’s art, where the colors he chose for the rectangles/bands were often contrasting with the background as well as sometimes complementary to each other. This gave both their paintings a striking vibrancy.

The two artists were also similar in terms of the scale of their paintings. Both favored large canvases in order to overwhelm the viewer. For example, “Broadway Boogie Woogies” (1942/3) by Mondrian was 127 by 127 cm in size, and the Rothko Chapel murals which Rothko was commissioned to do were very large.

However, the artists are different in that Mondrian was influenced earlier by the Cubist style of Picasso and Braque. This is evident in “The Sea” (1912) and his tree studies from that same year. THey often contained the geometric shapes and interlocking planes which were representative of Cubism. Mondrian was later influenced by the artist Theo van Doesburg, and his use of only primary colors in his art greatly influenced Mondrian. These two influences showed themselves in his mature work, the geometric shapes of Cubism reflected in his highly geometrical Neo-Plasticisit works like “Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue” (1937-42) and the use of primary colors also evidenced in these works.

Mondrian’s works were also generally more geometric than Rothko’s. Although both used large blocks of solid color, Rothko’s bands were more organic in shape than Mondrian’s. This can be seen in “Untitled” (1949) where the edges of the bands are actually painted with not a straight line but many brushstrokes which form a somewhat jagged edge. Mondrian’s “Victory Boogie Woogie” (1942-44) again makes use of cleanly defined, straight edges in the blocks of color. The same reasoning can be applied to say that Mondrian’s work was more analytical and mechanical than Rothko. His use of primary colors and clean-cut lines gave his artwork a somewhat clincal feel, while Rothko’s use of less clear and sometimes diffused edges made the works seem more soft. This is seen in “Earth and Green”, where the edges of the blocks are a bit blurred and the color scheme of muted blues, greens and maroon creates a triad which makes it less harsh than the contrasting primary colors of Mondrian’s work.

Block Test 2: Escher, Gormley, Moore

These are answers from one of my Study of Visual Arts examination papers.

Block Test 2 (2008)

1) One major concept in Escher’s work was that of optical illusions, space and dimensions. For example, “Fountain” depicts a seemingly ordinary waterfall, but upon closer inspection the top and bottom are actually on the same plane. This shows the manipulation of dimensions and planes which he was fond of doing in his work, which created optical illusions. The work was also fairly realistic with lifelike renderings of light and shade, thus creating the illusion of a 3D object coming out of a 2D plane. This use of realistic modelling of form was employed to the same effect in many of his other works – coming out of the 2D plane and becoming three-dimensional.

Another concept in his work was that of using repetition. For example, in “Regular Division of a Plane”, the concept of tessellation is evident. His work utilized the concepts of repetition of a symbol or symbols. In the earliest “Regular Division” work, the pictures showed 8 human heads repeated over and over in a constant and highly geometric fashion. Again there is a sense of manipulation of space and dimensions. Although strictly two-dimensional and confined to one flat plane, the strong contrast between the black ink and the white of the paper led to figures seeming to come closer or recede, again creating the illusion of three dimensions on a 2D plane.

His work was highly geometric and mathematical. Like stated above, his art utilized the concept of tessellation and the shapes were very graphic and geometrical. Even in “Fountain” the lines and shapes of the fountain and building are straight and geometric, and the fountain itself is a play on mathematics, a slight variation of the Penrose stairs.

2a) “Field for the British Isles” shows about 40 000 little terracotta figures. They are vaguely humanoid in shape and each figure has a pair of eyes on it, which makes it seem as though they are looking at the viewer. They are irregular in shape, every one unique, but are all arranged in orderly, neat rows. They are all brownish red in color, a warm color, which contrasts with the cool whites and grays of the gallery, causing them to appear to come forward towards the viewer. The sheer number of figures causes the interior of a whole gallery to be filled by them, as far as the eye can see. This effect is enhanced by the vantage point of the viewer – viewing the sculpture from a threshold, the edges of the work are partially obscured by two columns, which makes it seem as though there is a limitless number of figures.

“Recumbent Figure” is a sculpture made of stone. It resembles a somewhat deformed female reclining nude, with a crude but recognizable face and legs and arms which seem distorted in an unnatural way. It seems to be looking directly at the viewer with a frank and direct gaze. The arms of the figure seem to be embracing a void in the body located around the middle of the torso. The arms curve about the void, and join together at the area where the legs and hips begin, forming an unbroken circle. From here its legs extend seamlessly from the body, almost blending into the arms as one continuous form. The legs are bent at the knee but are not as clearly defined as one would expect human legs to look, joined and fused at places like the thighs and calves. The figure has an organic and continuous shape, the body one seamless element. The sculpture also has a rough and earthy texture.

b) The artist’s intention in “Field for the British Isles” was probably to make the viewer feel as though they were being overwhelmed by the figures, and to involve the viewer in this way. The sheer number of figures creates an artwork that overwhelms the viewer due to sheer scale. They are also positioned in a way such that they are looking directly at the viewer, which involves the viewer in the artwork and makes them feel as though they are an integral part of the work as they are subject to the gaze of the figures. The artist could be trying to make a statement about the power of the populace in numbers, as it rather resembles people turning up in hordes at a political rally or protest march.

The intention of “Recumbent Figure” could be to remind the viewer of the earthiness and how primitive humans really are despite of the technology around us. The material of stone and the earthy colors, as well as the crudeness and primal feeling of the peace evoke this reaction. The artist might also be trying to show the primal love that a mother has for her child. This is because the arms are positioned as though embracing someone, though there is only a blank space there, almost inviting the viewer to step in and fill the void. The use of a female figure suggests a mother embracing her child.

c) Installations involve the viewer more than sculptures do. For example, in Gormley’s installation “Total Strangers” casts of his body are placed about a gallery. As the viewer walks into the space he feels as though he is being silently observed by them and feels more involved than, say, when viewing a sculpture like “Object C” by Han Sai Port. In this scenario the sculpture would be in a gallery setting, perched atop a stand, gallery etiquette forbidding the viewer to step forward and involve himself more with the work. All he can do is admire from a distance, as opposed to wandering around and exploring the space – becoming part of the artwork – in an installation. Another example of this is in “FIeld for the British Isles”. Like mentioned in (b) the eyes of the figures are trained on the viewer, making him feel like he has a part to play in the work. Compare to “Recumbent Figure” where he is just another viewer, regarded coolly by the sculpture’s impassive gaze.

The Nostalgia Post

This was the first assignment Mr Lim Kok Boon got us to do upon joining the Art Elective Programme – the state of my art criticism at age 12.

Oh gosh it’s really funny to see my noobish Sec 1 handwriting now. This was done in March of 2006.

(Title Unknown), Eleen Khoo Wei Ting, Pastel, 2005.

The artwork has images of a child blowing bubbles. The bubbles contain the child’s dreams and fantasies. On the other side there is a girl smiling at a frog. The colors used in the artwork are mostly cool colors and are complementary. The lines of the subjects of the painting are not very distinct. The way which the bubbles are arranged on the wall makes it seem like they are floating. The shape of the bubbles (circle) is used constantly throughout the work.

The composition of the artwork is useful in emphasizing the movement of the bubbles. The complementary colors help give a sense of harmony to the artwork.

I think it is reflecting the happiness and how carefree a child’s life is. Inside the bubbles there are pictures of the Superman logo and Peter Pan, among others. I think they are the dreams and idols of the child.

I like this work because it reminds us of our happy childhood days anda tells us to always follow our dreams.

Modern Art

Modern art.

The phrase conjures up visions of splats of unknown substances on walls, or sculptures that look suspiciously like scrap metal bought from the karang guni man. All done under the pretext of “art with a deeper message”, or perhaps “art that spurs a higher level of thinking”. It’s art, perhaps, but I don’t think that it’s good art. Most would agree (if they weren’t afraid of being labeled cultural Neanderthals, that is). But why? I believe the problem lies with understanding.

Take a fistful of peas, randomly flung off a table by a baby in a fit of colicky rage. Proponents of the hard-to-understand-art movement will no doubt answer with a resounding “yes”. Look, they say, can’t you see how subversive it is? This is clearly an expression of the artist’s desire to move beyond the restrictions that society imposes on him. People like me, however, would reply “no, I don’t see how this mess is artistic. Now stop babbling and help me pick the peas up.”

It’s perfectly fine to do whatever you want and call it art if you create art only for yourself. However, in most cases the art has an audience. After all, a word cannot be defined by one person only: To be called ‘art’, the work must be accepted by a substantial amount of people as such. But therein lies the problem with a lot of modern art: It’s impossible to understsand!

The first step in getting others to recognize your work as art is by letting them understand what it means. Take these two pieces:

image  image

Most would immediately classify the Mona Lisa as art, while Lavender Mist might take a while before shuffling over to join the Mona Lisa.

Why is this so? Both images are famous (the Mona Lisa far more so, but still…) and both are most definitely great artworks. But to the man-on-the-street the realization that Lavender Mist is a piece of art might take some time. Upon seeing the Mona Lisa one thinks “I see a woman smiling at me”. Lavender Mist [or at least a scaled-down printout of it; the actual work is another matter] produces a rather different response: “Er, okay, I see a lot of paint splotches.”

Understanding is the key difference between Pollock’s Lavender Mist and something a bored kindergartener would do on a Monday afternoon. Viewing the actual work would stir something within me – perhaps because of the grand scale, or the sheer energy contained within it. This communication with the viewer on the most basic level is required for something to be considered art. Whereas if I were looking at a twisted clothes-hanger on the ground I wouldn’t feel much other than perhaps “who’s the idiot going around littering in museums?”.

Modern art has a bad reputation as being abstract and difficult to understand. People shy away from it simply because it has no meaning for them. Why waste my time looking at dead animals on the ground that “experts” deem art when I can go visit an exhibition on da Vinci instead? At least there I’ll be able to appreciate what I’m seeing.

This problem is amplified by bad wall text. We often look to the wall text for information about the artwork, seeking something that will allow us to establish this connection with the piece. But in today’s modern art scene it would seem as though the era of easy-to-understand wall text is behind us for good.

Part of the wall text for this artwork says that it is “a representation of a palatial post-mortal mansion”. I’m sorry,could I have that again in plain English?

I’m sorry if I lost you halfway through this post. I leave you with this extract:

As Ong Sor Fen succinctly summarized in her 2008 Straits Times column Why I prefer David over spacemen:

[…] art is about communicating. If a work fails to even draw in a viewer, how can it hope to challenge him? And contemporary art, with its intellectual posturings, more often than not, fails to engage on the most basic level. It has become solipsistic, a world governed by its own set of rules and a language incomprehensible to anyone beyond a privileged few clued into the lingo.

If we don’t understand the art, how are we supposed to appreciate and enjoy it? This is something that seems ridiculously simple – yet many artists seem to not understand the idea.