Sunday, December 25, 2016

Expose Yourself to Art and See What Happens

by Drew Martin
New Tate Modern: Switched On is a slick and upbeat BBC Documentary from 2016 about the Tate Modern, which draws more than five million visitors each year. It is a behind the scenes look at the new Switch House (a ten-story twisted ziggurat) and is hosted by Scottish journalist Andrew Marr and BBC arts, culture, and entertainment correspondent Brenda Emmanus. In a rendezvous introduction, Marr and Emmanus approach the museum from river and street; old and new entrances. Marr dramatically sets the stage while cruising down the Thames,

In the year 2000 a building reopened on the south bank of the Thames, which created a kind of buzz around the world, and may have changed the way we in Britain think about the art of our own times. It certainly became one of the most visited places in Britain. And some people think it turned dirty, commercial old London into the most cultural, vibrant city on the planet. It was, of course, the old bankside powerstation; better known today as Tate Modern.

Brenda Emmanus continues the duet,

And now, Herzog & de Meuron, the architect behind this powerhouse of modern and contemporary art have added a new extension: the Switch House, which promises to electrify our understanding of culture and our place in it all over again. 

When Marr asks British sculptor Anthony Gormley during a tour of the galleries what he would say to people who might find contemporary art off-putting, Gormley responds,

Don't let your prejudices win. Expose yourself to art and see what happens.


Turning The Art World Inside Out

by Drew Martin
Turning The Art World Inside Out is a BBC arts documentary from 2013 hosted by Alan Yentob as part of its Imagine series. It serves to explain what is Outsider Art. I became particularly interested in Outsider Art in the late 1980s when I went to school and started to officially study art history as part of my art studio curriculum. Western art history was all fine and good but the formality of it made me switch to African art studies because I was interested in art that was more part of day-to-day celebrations and rituals. But then I found out about Outsider Art and how all-consuming it is for the artists. While the total immersion of this kind of art for its creator is often associated with debilitating mental issues and histories of childhood sexual abuse, the idea of living in one's own creative landscape is a romanticized notion for many trained artists; it certainly was for me. One of the artists featured in this documentary, Ionel Talpazan (a Romanian artist based in Harlem who only paints  and sculpts UFOs), expands the scope of an imagined world,

The artist is like an astronaut. With the mind you can travel the entire universe. 

I was first exposed to Grandma Prisbrey and her Bottle Village in Simi Valley, California, and then a visit to Simon Rodia's Watts Towers in Los Angeles made me even more interested, especially when I learned that his eclectic scrap material towers were visited more by people living outside the United States than by Americans. [Unfortunately, neither of them are mentioned in this film.]

The real turning point for me, however, was when I got to see dozens of work by the Swiss outsider artist 
Adolf Wölfli in a show at my campus art gallery at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Wölfli, was one of the first outsider artists to put this kind of work on the map. He even created his own system of musical notation, which was embedded in his densely packed drawings.

The professional French artist 
Jean Debuffet is credited with bringing this kind of work out of the asylums and into the art world in the 1940s. He loved that it was a stranger to culture and innocent of calculated trappings. He gave Outsider Art its first name, l'Art Brut, a term he borrowed from the wine industry, meaning raw and without sugar. The term Outsider Art was coined by art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972 as an English synonym for l'Art Brut.

While I certainly did not need an introduction to this type of art, I really liked this BBC production because it showed me the work of many artists and centers I did not know about, and Yentob is a patient and thoughtful host.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap

by Drew Martin
Another great documentary I saw this weekend is the 2012 Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap. Directed and hosted by Ice-T the documentary takes you across America to hear from the masters of rap about their personal introduction to hip-hop and their unique anecdotes. When Ice-T puts everyone from Eminem to Salt of Salt-N-Pepa on the spot to rap something that influenced them, they all seamlessly jump into verse committed to memory. My favorite part was hearing how they work. Immortal Technique makes himself physically hungry first or gets pumps up at the gym. Rakim starts with a piece of paper where he draws 16 dots for a 16-bar rhyme so he knows "what he is dealing with." Ras Kass used to "go to school" at a desk he stole from his junior high school and brought home in order to have a focused place to write. Everyone has different approaches but they all acknowledged the hard work it took to become great, the embarrassing failures they endured in the beginning, and the importance of creativity.

Buddhist Art: A Fragile Inheritance

by Drew Martin
Last night I watched an interesting documentary called Buddhist Art: A Fragile Inheritance, which is about the state of Buddhist wall paintings around Asia. The documentary focuses on China, Bhutan, and India, and the conservation efforts to minimize the damage from humidity, earthquakes, floods, tourists and other factors that jeopardize a multitude of hundreds-of-years-old works of art. Some of the worst damage is even done by poorly-trained teams of restorers who have patched cracks with incompatible materials, painted over the artwork with modern pigments, and varnished the walls in an attempt to make them look better. One cultural difference is that in many places the imagery is part of the religious concept of reincarnation and cycles of life; so repainting the originals has been a tradition. But now the residents of these places understand the importance their paintings have on a world stage and are willing to preserve them. The Courtauld Institute of Art in London has been involved in recent years to help determine the best way to maintain the paintings with the least amount of restoration. The documentary scratches the surface of the vast number of wall paintings that are in disrepair but gives a pretty good overview about what is being done to conserve them, especially the various techniques to analyze the damage, and the materials used to prevent them from crumbling such as special adhesives and grouts based on the composition of earthen walls. At the Mogao Caves in Jiuquan, China, also known as the Thousand Buddha Grottoes, the 492 cave temple paintings can have 18,000 visitors a day so the national park has handled the influx of tourists and the damage their presence brings by building a massive center complete with exact replicas of the temples. The feeling I had at the end of the documentary was that it is remarkable that on one hand we have a group of people dedicated to preserving art that is crumbling while there are also people in the world determined to destroy such works. The more recent destruction of the architectural heritage of Palmyra, Syria by ISIS brought back the bad memories of the destruction of the 4th- and 5th-century carved Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan by the Taliban. Even if the efforts of the art restorers can never be complete, the hope behind their actions is even more important than what they physically save.