Friday, August 31, 2012

Finally, a pen for ladies!

Bic has released a new pen for women: Bic Cristal For Her Ball Pens.

I'll let that sink in for a second.

The Amazon reviews for this product are the funniest thing I've read in a while. Really, check it out! HappyPlace has curated some of the best, and this may be my favorite:
"I bought this pen (in error evidently) to write my reports of each day's tree felling activities in my job as a lumberjack. It is no good. It slips from between my calloused, gnarly fingers like a gossamer thread gently descending to earth between two giant redwood trunks."
While the suggested retail is $5.99, you can purchase them at Amazon for an amazing $3.68. [Image: a package Bic Cristal For Her pens in an array of pastel colors. The ordinary yellow Bic packaging fades to lavender with flowers and a glowing effect around the pens. "For Her" and "Sleek Design" are written in splashy lavender cursive.]

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Mask, by Wangechi Mutu

Wangechi Mutu, Mask, 2006. [Image: A collage involving two photographic images, roughly the same size. If they're both the size of notebook paper, one is pasted over the other an inch below and to the right, making a 3-D stacked effect. The image underneath is a greyish ceramic or stone African mask or sculpture, not sure what type. The image on top is of a sexy black woman with naked arms and legs, wearing bracelets. She's in some sort of glamorous photo studio with what looks like a gilded chair, paneled wall and hot pink marabou feather boa in the background. Her torso (where a leotard would be) is cut out to reveal half an eye, nose and spiked chompers, the latter near her pelvis. The cut out area extends up her neck to just below her eyes, like a turtleneck pulled all the way up or a bandit's or surgeon's mask. Long snakey pieces are affixed to the image mimicking hair (locks).]

Monday, August 27, 2012

Olga Orlova, by Valentin Serov.

Go check out this post on Gurney Journey about portrait artist Valentin Serov. Quoth the Ruskie,
"For my part, each time I appraise a person’s face, I am inspired—you might even say carried away—not by his or her outer aspect, which is often trivial, but by the characterization it can be given on canvas. That is why I am accused sometimes of having my portraits look like caricatures."
Detail, Portrait of Princess Olga Orlova by Valentin Serov. 1911. [Image: head, shoulders and torso of a middle aged white woman wearing an enormous Gilded Age / My Fair Lady black hat with an off-the-shoulder brown fur stole, a strand of pearls and some rings. She is pictured in profile with her face turned three quarters toward the viewer, leaning slightly forward and clasping the fur stole languidly to her chest. The hat and its translucent bits contrast lusciously with the pale pinkish background, the wall of an elegant paneled room. A painting in a big gold frame is in the top right corner. She leans from the bottom left hand corner to the center of the cropped image, her face marking slightly above center. The dark fur stole, tilted hat and dark painting create a diagonal thick dark line from bottom left to upper right. The oil painting is realistic and fluidly applied.]
Gurney's post reminded me of a remark I've been wanting to make but is too inconvenient and involved to say in passing in real life (but luckily I have a blog!). People at the Farmer's Market sometimes ask me about portraiture, often aspiring artists who are just starting out. Unfortunately I don't have any helpful advice to offer in a 20-second window to a complete stranger who is interested in learning portraiture, except for this:

If you're trying to learn about portraits by questioning a portrait artist, you're barking up the wrong tree. Pay attention to cartoons, animation, illustration, dance, acting, anatomy, the anthropomorphism of animals, fashion, literature*, graphic design and psychology. That will teach you a lot more about portraiture.

*Especially recommended for portrait-reckoning: anything by Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters; The Hours by Michael Cunningham; any story by Flannery O'Connor.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Jesus Fresco Restoration

A church lady picks up some brushes and attempts to "restore" a 19th century fresco of Jesus. Hijinks ensue.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Secretaries Of The Cabinet, by Sir John Stanton Ward

Secretaries Of The Cabinet, by Sir John Stanton Ward. National Portrait Gallery, Britain. Something about this portrait is really humorous to me and I cannot put my finger on what it is. Any ideas? [Image: A scattered group of old white men in dark suits in a lavish neoclassical room with high ceilings and mahogany brown walls. Some sit, some stand; they appear to be debating something.]
ETA: Thanks to prodding from "lkspr," I realized that they look like serious little statesmen in an aquarium, which is what had appealed to my sense of humor.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Some portraits by Lucien Freud

Double portrait by Lucien Freud

Eli and David by Lucien Freud

The Artist's Mother by Lucien Freud. [Image: Head and shoulders of an elderly white woman viewed at three quarters from slightly above. She wears a blue-black sweater and has short silver hair combed back from her worried-looking face. She stares straight in front of her, her lips slightly pursed. Plain pinkish-beige background. The brushstrokes in this piece, and all of his work, are highly sculptural, sometimes exaggerated so much that the person looks contorted, like they've been ever so slightly smashed between two plates of glass. The skin is always a mishmash of putty colors that is harsh and unforgiving to the subject.]

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Braids, by Andrew Wyeth

Braids [portrait of Helga Testorf] by Andrew Wyeth, 1979. Tempera. [Image: head and shoulders of a young white woman turned to the left at three quarters. Her reddish light brownish hair is parted in the center and worn in two plain pigtails that fall just past her collar bone. She wears a medium grey-brown loose turtleneck sweater and sits in front of a dark black-brown empty background. Her eyes look straight in front of her and slightly down toward the left of the painting. The piece is horizontal and her face is centered, her body slightly to the right; an extremely simple composition that complements the plain beauty of the subject. The brushstrokes are so small and layered they are not visible; indeed the piece is more photorealistic than a photo, but unlike other photorealism it doesn't look like it was painted from a photograph; it was clearly painted in person. Each hair on her head is crisply and delicately painted. The extreme uniform crispness gives a stark serious feeling that matches the subject who, while classically beautiful, is portrayed so straightforwardly as to be harshly beautiful. She looks very Scandinavian.]

Detail, Braids by Andrew Wyath.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

My rote copies of John Singer Sargent portraits

A few months ago I sketched these copies of Sargent portraits while working at the Farmer's Market. They took an hour or so each. I frequently draw while I'm waiting for people to get portraits in order to demonstrate why I'm there in that tent because the Market is such a sensory overload that if I'm not actually in the act of drawing a person using an easel, no one notices I'm doing portraits at all, despite the signs and finished portraits hanging everywhere. That's why I need to draw something that catches people's attention. Ideally I sketch it out quickly then get to the visually impressive stuff, spending a lot of time on showy details and high contrast that you can see from far away. And I have to draw the eyes first because no one pays attention if it doesn't have eyes. It's rather the opposite of how I usually draw, focusing on shapes and areas, textures and abstract things until the very end, constantly erasing and making changes. But hey, it's business. Had I drawn these they way I usually draw they'd probably have turned out better but I'd have fewer customers.

My charcoal copy of Sargent's Henry James. His left eye is too close to the center, head too close to the top of the page because I always draw the head comfortably close to the top and then need to go bigger once the rest of the face develops. Oh well, that's what happens when you sketch in public and foolishly don't step back to look at the drawing from far away. But I do like the shadows on his jowls and the bulbous part of his forehead.
Henry James by John Singer Sargent, 1913. [Image: realistic formal oil painting of a portly, oldish balding white man wearing a black suit jacket, black pin-striped vest, black bow tie and Gladstone collar. He leans back and looks slightly down at the viewer with a well-worn skeptical expression, his thumb hooked confidently into his vest pocket. The figure forms a blackish pyramid in front of a shadowy brown background, the only points of light being the hand, face and collar, lit with soft natural light from the top right.]
Henry James by John Singer Sargent; what is, I assume, a preparatory sketch for the painting. [Image is a charcoal sketch exactly the same as the painting but with James facing the other direction and his lower torso cropped out.]
A photo of the actual Henry James around a decade before  Sargent's portrait.
My charcoal copy of Sargent's Rodin. His torso is cropped below the neck and his beard disintegrates into loose hatch-marks. Blank background. The face is too wide, nose crooked and too short, mouth too high up, ear too small, eyes not in line with each other, hair too round and helmety instead of floppy, sideburns too far back and not enough depth on the middle-grey shadows so his face looks oddly porky. I also needed to raise the shadow between his eyes so he doesn't look so cartoonishly angry. It sounds silly but I wonder if the proportions are so distorted in these partially because I held the book on my lap and thus saw an image skewed by perspective. I also tend to draw people with too-short chins because my own chin is short and I think artists tend to learn from their own features. Other things-- too large eyes, too large irises and pupils that make people look like they're on ecstasy, too large heads, too big hair-- are probably influenced by cartooning, which is itself influenced by the psychological importance people place on these features resulting in portraying them as physically larger than they should be. Anyhow, I liked how the beard turned out, especially since it reminds me of Rodin's sculpting style.
Aguste Rodin by John Singer Sargent. [Image is a loose oil portrait of a middle aged white man with brown hair and a long bushy brown beard and mustache wearing a black utilitarian coat. He leans back into the frame as he looks at the viewer, appearing to be caught in the middle of a task. Though he looks at the viewer he appears distracted. The painting is dark, his face the only point of light in the top-middle of the canvas. The brushstrokes are looser in this painting than the others.]
My charcoal copy of Sargent's Mrs. Edward D. Boyt (Mary Louisa Cushing). Her face is too short, her neck too thick, her nose too short, right eye too far out, and hair too flat on top or wide on the side. People kept asking if it was a portrait of Aunt Bee from the Andy Griffith Show. Image is the same as the painting described below but in black & white with a blank background, cropped at her chest.
Aunt Bee and Barney Fife.
Mrs. Edward D. Boyt (Mary Louisa Cushing) by John Singer Sargent. [Image: A formal oil painting of a middle aged white woman sitting on a fancy settee with her fingers interlaced and one elbow on the armrest. She wears a gown with a black v-neck bodice and elbow-length sleeves, a skirt made of pale pink satin with a black net overlay with black polka-dots and some sort of tall pink hat or feather. The background is black and the ochre settee is shadowy, the lightest points being the face and feather and arms, followed by the light-ish skirt, creating a pinkish fleshy swoop from a thin feather point at the top middle-right to the thick hem of her skirt at the bottom left, which is intersected by the warm brown of the couch which goes from middle-left to lower right, creating a warm/cool X shape against black.] 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Atlanta: Richard Misrach at the High Museum

A few weeks ago, having reached a point of constant irritation and general stagnation, I decided to stop haunting the comments sections of blogs and leave town for a bit. I went to the most metropolitan place around here-- Atlanta-- in order to stay with my sister for a few days and see some freaking art.

So I went to the High Museum of Art and spent about six hours shuffling around with poor posture on solid concrete, concentrating so hard I felt a little psychotic by the time I left-- but it was certainly worth it. I'm pretty sure the reason no one really suggests the High is that it's $19 damn dollars to get in, because they're surely not scoffing at the collection itself.

Writing about what I saw would be just as grueling as seeing it if I didn't break it into separate posts, so today I'm going to write the first in a series, about Richard Misrach's photographs. From the High's website:

"In 1998, the High commissioned California-based photographer Richard Misrach to create a body of work as part of the Museum’s Picturing the South series.

Misrach studied the ecological degradation of a passage of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. This is an area where a number of petro-chemical industries are based and which is sometimes referred to as Cancer Alley.  Like the Western landscapes for which Misrach is best known, these photographs challenge viewers with environmental and political concerns while seducing them with evocative and lyrically beautiful large scale prints.  In focusing on the delicate state of the Mississippi River, Misrach’s work signals not just the environmental challenges facing the South but also the larger costs of our modern world at the dawn of the twenty first century. 

To mark the culmination and publication of this body of work in 2012, more than a decade after the project was initiated, a group of twenty-one large scale prints are presented here.  This is the first time that many of these important photographs have been shown to a broad public."

I am prohibited from reproducing the images here, unfortunately, but you can also see many of the images at the link above (though be advised that seeing them smaller and online is nothing like seeing them in person). I was able to find this image of a similar Misrach exhibit that will give you a feel for the size and presence of the photos:

A similar Misrach exhibit showing two people in a room with a large photo on each wall.
There were 19 about this size, 2 large ones (maybe 10 x 12 ft.) and 10-12 small contact prints (maybe 11 x 14 or 8 x 10 in.). Misrach left the black edge of the film showing neatly in his prints, revealing  through the markings a type of Kodak negative so large that even as an image decomposed into mist, the mechanics of the camera remain utterly crisp-- I couldn't see any film grain at all.

The prints themselves were seamless, richly colored ink-jets on gargantuan paper; the largest images were made of 2 mended together with a nearly undetectable seam. Each was framed in plain thin ebony behind glass which, because of its size, acted as a mirror that overlaid a reflection of the viewer and the gallery, making the viewer acutely aware that he or she is viewing images of heinous environmental destruction and the devastating impotence of poverty in the face of inhumane governmental and corporate disregard-- all from the safety and comfort of a pristine air-conditioned museum to which one has just forked over $19.

Far from appearing crowded, as the images do in small format online, the details were engaging and enveloping. Each photo had a presence that confronted the viewer with a quiet, mythic gravity.

The first room one enters features depictions of cities and communities-- some inhabited, some pathetic abandoned shells-- dominated by the overbearing presence of the petrochemical industry. The second room shows scenes of wilderness-- or what should be wilderness but is instead a series of obvious environmental disasters-in-progress that leave a sick feeling in the pit of one's stomach. The second room also features the double row of small contact prints.

The cover of Richard Misrach and Kate Orff's book Petrochemical America, which features one of the images from the High Museum of an oil pipeline running through a devastated body of water in LA. [Image: Horizontal color photograph of a dreary grey-green swamp or wetland with an oil pipe forming a perfect horizontal line across the bottom quadrant and an empty grey sky forming the top half. Leafless trees, many of them broken stumps, stand in grimy opaque slate-colored water.]

Race is a major theme that surprisingly goes unmentioned in the Museum's main wall text. However the only two people pictured are Black and several of Misrach's wall text that accompany the photos tell stories of African American communities that have been bullied, poisoned, abandoned or destroyed by Shell, Dow and other Cancer Alley companies and their government backing:

"Community Remains, Former Morrisonville Settlement, Dow Chemical Corporation, Plaquemine, Louisiana, negative 1998, print 2012

A rural African American community established since 1870 at a riverside settlement called Australia Point was displaced by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1932 in order to build a levee and relocated to Morrisonville. In the 1950s Dow Chemical expanded into the area, bringing widespread pollution in its wake. Later, the company installed special radios in homes so that the plant could inform people of highway evacuation routes in the event of a spill or accident. By 1989 Dow had decided to buy out most of the residents in the area, dispersing what was left of the original community in order to establish a ‘green’ buffer zone.” —Richard Misrach"
Though racism is certainly a national and international problem, Misrach's insistence on examining the issue situates the series explicitly and inextricably in Southern culture and its particularly substantial history of racial injustice. As the Mississippi River flows south it travels through a more typically stifled interracial culture that is similar to the rural area around The High's own Atlanta; then it flows south into coastal Louisiana where nearly every major war and massacre of the 18th and 19th centuries left its mark on the obviously complex culture and ethnic mix; and finally it empties into the Gulf of Mexico where the Caribbean islands lay bare the brutality of capitalism and white oppression, a stark and barbaric foundation of slave trade upon which US racial history is built. As one travels through the exhibit the nightmarish impact of social exploitation becomes increasingly clear until one enters the second room featuring the environmental devastation and a deeper foundation is exposed, that of the human nature of exploitation itself, the stripping of natural resources which enables the entire system to function. Though only two people are pictured in the entire exhibit, the echo of society and the human race in Misrach's work is deafening.

In fact the photos explicitly show the structure of society and nature of Southern culture through the conglomerate we've built to serve them. The work, such as Home, Destrehan, Louisiana, and Holy Rosary Cemetery and Dow Chemical Corporation (Union Carbide Complex), Taft, Louisiana, gives the distinct visual representation of exploitative industry as solid, orderly, huge, Godly and impenetrable, while what we would recognize as "humanity"-- schools, cemeteries, homes, basketball courts, front yards with ridiculous cast concrete decorations-- as tiny disorganized trash strewn around it, eking by and barely able to exist at all.

Illustrative of the poor in capitalist consumer culture is a photo of an abandoned shopping cart in an empty parking lot under hazy halogen lights that obliterate the background or any sense of location. The cart appears as a pathetic dot lost on a massive Cartesian Coordinate System, a symbol both of procuring the stuff people need to survive and of retail as a much-advertised but ultimately empty pastime.

Still other photos show roads that lead from petrochemical plants, quite literally to oblivion.

Misrach giving a lecture in front of his work. I'm not sure if these were the photos at the High or different work, but this is how the back wall of the second room appeared, with two rows of contact prints. [Image: Man who appears Caucasian and middle aged speaks into a microphone in front of his images, smiling]

The ugliness of the subject-matter and lack of people suggests an objective or perfunctory approach similar to some photojournalism. The visible Kodak markings also evoke a photojournalist's raw work. However Misrach also captures a lyrical haziness that turns Cancer Alley into some dark enchanted fairy tale. Also, unlike most photojournalism, the photos are obviously meant to be enormous and viewed behind glass. The sheer size lends itself particularly well to the rural photos in the second room, as it suggests the unknowable size and ultimate reach of each pictured catastrophe.

The very lack of people that makes the photos seem objective also creates a chilling narrative of the lack of humanity. It also makes the viewer focus on the incomprehensibly huge scale of the industrial situation. Misrach is toying with something I heard discussed in relation to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: people psychologically cannot handle large scale empathy and concern. After becoming aware of more than a handful of individuals who are suffering, empathy begins to shut down as a person becomes overwhelmed. For exactly this reason most non-profits ask for donations by portraying two or three very personalized victims, yet the nonprofit itself must shift its focus away from individual stories and toward the entirety of the situation and begin crunching the numbers to make any large-scale difference. What action can make the most amount of difference to the largest amount of people?

In this work Misrach successfully evokes a concern that is about the entire scale of the situation, about enormous populations of residents and vast regions of the environment. He presents viewers with problems they definitely do not want to see by easing them in with a physically beautiful narrative that works slowly but unflinchingly, refusing to play down the horror or the blame. He's based in California, so being an outsider might be helpful in portraying this particular situation. Like Louisiana, South Carolina has an impoverished racially divided population and a few festering environmental disasters of our own due to large scale industry, and a part of having to live with it is, well, living with it. We're both red states whose populations are staggeringly unwilling to direct their outrage at those who are directly harming them and whose politicians are too busy golfing with CEOs to care. Unfortunately for us the very situation that demands an outraged response necessitates the complacency which allows it to continue. The outrage of poor whites is instead directed in a million subtle ways toward punishing poor blacks and immigrants, and the very poverty and voicelessness of African American communities is in turn used by large industries to pocket billions and leave behind an unlivable world for everyone. This is precisely the type of work I'd love to see more of.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Laurie Anderson, "O Superman"

Video of a 1981 performance by experimental sound artist Laurie Anderson. It's not exactly "not safe for work," but your co-workers will think you are a freak if they walk in on you watching this. It's difficult to describe this video; Laurie Anderson is a young-ish thin white woman with her short hair spiked out, wearing a man's suit and standing on a darkened stage behind a synth keyboard. A small spotlight shines on a screen behind her making a shadow of her arm, which she holds out. She speaks through a device that makes her voice sound like a chorus of robots and plays a simple background on the keyboard. She delivers what is part spoken word and part song while doing a shadow puppet show.

"O superman, O Judge, O Mom and Dad! O Superman, O Judge, O Mom and Dad! Hi! I'm not home right now. But if you want to leave a message, just start talking at the sound of the tone. Hello? This is your mother. Are you there? Are you coming home? Hello? Is anybody home? Well, you don't know me. But I know you. And I've got a message to give to you: Here come the planes, so you'd better get ready, ready to go. You can come as you are, pay as you go, pay as you go. [break in speaking, a flute-ish sound plays] And I said ok, who is this really? And the voice said, "This is the hand, the hand that takes. This is the hand, the hand that takes. This is the hand, the hand that takes. Here come the planes. They're American planes, made in America. Smoking or non-smoking? And the voice said, "Neither snow nor wind nor blue light shall stay these couriers from swift completion, from their appointed rounds. Cause when love is gone, there's always Justice. And when Justice is gone, there's always Force. And when Force is gone, there's always Mom, hi Mom! [break in speaking] So hold me Mom, in your long arms. So hold me Mom, in your long arms, in your automatic arms, your electronic arms, in your arms. So hold me, Mom, in your long arms, your petrochemical arms, your military arms [birds chirp] in your electronic arms. [synth and sax buildup]"

Alternately the spotlight becomes an animated circle and rotating planet Earth. Anderson also appears in the corner doing what could be sign language and also appears to do hand signals for an airport runway. There are several close-ups of her face, which she holds perfectly still and mechanically. She speaks the words very slowly.

Friday, August 17, 2012


 "If one more person tries to talk to me about Bravo’s new reality show Gallery Girls I’m going to punch them straight in the face,"
writes Howard Hurst at Hyperallergic. You can tell he is off to a good, though tangential, start as he discusses a group show of over 100 artists working outside "the norm" called B-Out, curated by artist Scott Hug at Andrew Edlin Gallery.
"The great strength of this exhibition is its aggressive inclusiveness and refusal to categorize. The most poignant conclusions are those that the curator seems unwilling to make directly. By including multiple generations of artists, across aesthetic and theoretical boundaries, Hug constructs a loose history of misbehavior that includes a number of strategies and opportunities."
"Crystal," an installation by Maya Hayuk. Image from Andrew Edlin Gallery site. [Image: a narrow high-ceilinged room with a wood floor and an open doorway on the far side of the room. Photo taken from the short side opposite the door looking down the long space. The walls are painted with diagonal, brightly colored dripping stripes that leave no white showing and intersect to create a sort of psychedelic childish plaid. The room is lit by track light on the ceiling, creating a womb-like effect. Two smallish long horizontal light-boxes or TV screens face each other at eye level with blue images on them. Another image, framed in white and not on a screen, hangs higher but it's impossible to make out from the photo. Overall the installation feels surprising, playful and visually appealing if overwhelming.]
I'm surprised that in 2012, when virtually everything has a well-defined niche, at least online, with strict sub-categorizations and fractious followings, that there is still a humongous undefined box marked 'Other' when it comes to The Art World. Aren't we supposed to be the avant garde? But that sort of exclusion has a rich history and is still all too real, so it makes sense to have a show exploring just that phenomenon. And Hurst ads a layer of cultural relevance when he calls it a "mash-up." Looks interesting.

ETA: Hey, while you're over at Hyperallergic, check this out: Allison Meier's writeup of the creepy and complex sound installation by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller called "Murder of Crows." And in case you thing the title is a bit melodramatic, that is actually the proper name for a group of crows, like "flock" or "pride."

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Prince William of Wales and Prince Henry of Wales by Nicola Jane ('Nicky') Philipps

Prince William of Wales and Prince Henry of Wales by Nicola Jane ('Nicky') Philipps. National Portrait Gallery, Britain. Image description will be added soon.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Infinite Are The Shits I Do Not Give

Infinite are the shits I do not give
to concupiscent tycoons of public space,
to God,
to Country,
to the crocodiles,

to freshly minted perky expertise,
to the police,

to all my tawdry avatars who grind the blistered tissue of seething brains,
to their fevered children,
to the turgid,
not a turd.

This is the poem I wrote in response to I Blame The Patriarchy commenter Gingerest who spontaneously uttered, "infinite are the shits I do not give," in response to which the blaming community has already composed several poems.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Sir David Hare by Paula Rego

Sir David Hare by Paula Rego. National Portrait Gallery, Britain. [Image: vertical full-body painting of a middle aged white man sitting in a wingback chair that is completely draped in stiff black or charcoal grey material, possibly satin, which continues to the ground under his feet like a carpet. Behind him on his right is a sheep or possibly gibbon, about three feet tall, wearing a black business suit and holding a shephard's crook, peering around the chair at the man or the viewer. On his right a crow or raven stands on the ground facing the viewer and a white thing-- a wad of sheep's fleece possibly?-- is on the ground behind it. The bottom half of the background is babyshit brown and the top half is pale peachy orange, with the contrasting grey-blue underpainting showing through between brushstrokes. The man wears black patent loafers, dark blue jeans, and a black sweater over a white button-down shirt. He appears to recline in exhaustion or grief, his right hand over his heart or chest with his thumb hooked into the "v" of his collar, and his left hand in a tentative loose half-fist hanging over the arm of the chair. His head lolls back and to his right, his eyes cast down and to the right as if he is lost in his own thoughts. The chair drapery creates a tall triangle from the bottom of the page to the top. Though the background brushstrokes are loose and abstracted the chair and figure-- particularly face and hands-- is composed of thick and sculptural, but tight and realistic brushstrokes. Overall the paint is thick up to the edge of the canvas and descriptive of sculptural form.]

Monday, August 6, 2012

Wherein I measure Audrey Hepburn's eye sockets

This ever-popular post has been updated in 2017 to make my writing more clear and understandable, and to include a few extra examples from pop culture.

I often hear people gripe that ideal female beauty is based on teenaged girls, or that society puts pressure on grown women to look like teenagers. And I hear "scientific" minds back this up with explanations that men are naturally attracted to very young girls, citing the (theoretical) biological advantages of impregnating a virgin. I also hear people complaining that there is only one standard of female beauty, which is defined in accordance with what men find attractive. That "beautiful" = "ideal" = "sexy." Sounds pretty straightforward, right?

However, when I compare images of iconically beautiful women, I see something else: the idealization of pre-pubescent features-- of childhood, not adolescence. Second, I also see ideals split roughly along gender lines between "pretty" and "sexy"-- that is, the female ideal of female beauty is different from the male ideal of female beauty. Here I'll make these two case using images and facial proportions, then speculate about the social implications. Since beauty ideals are ever-changing and culturally specific, I'll stick to mainstream icons in post-1950s Western (mainly US) culture.

Some disclaimers: Since I'm talking about trends over large populations, of course I'm generalizing very broadly. I'm not discussing the many men and women who don't fit in with these trends, including gay people and people who aren't attracted to the Hollywood standard. I'm also limiting myself to what's commonly available in pop culture (straight, mostly white). Third, I'll be dissecting the appearance of several celebrities, but I'm not trying to tear them down. I think they're all gorgeous

First, I'd like to gently remind everyone of what adolescence actually looks like:
Stephanie from "Full House"
Tia and Tamera Mowry of "Sister Sister"
Anonymous girl from an internet meme (poor kid). Text reads, "Blurt out to guy, 'I love your long flowing hair' / Too Embarrassing to speak to him again."

Jennifer Aniston headed to Prom

Anonymous woman from BadYearbookPhotos.com
The signs of adolescence are commonly associated with males being able to see that females are becoming fertile. They're usually discussed in pop culture as things like thinness, smooth poreless skin, full lips. But if we pause and appeal to common experience (and the photos above), we'll notice that some common demarcations of adolescence are in fact:
  • a face with an adult skeletal structure that is slimmer than in childhood with the exception of fat deposits surrounding the mouth and chin ("baby fat"); 
  • intense facial expressions, breathlessness and exaggerated movements; 
  • greasy blotchy skin, large pores and zits; 
  • hunching shoulders; 
  • baby fat and/or gangliness; 
  • snaggle-toothedness; 
  • large meandering eyebrows; 
  • fully-formed defined nose; 
  • bushy arm pits and thick dark leg hair; 
  • and being very loud in groups.
If a adolescent does not have these features (or childhood features), we tend to think they're older-- that is, not newly fertile.

In contrast, children also have signs that they haven't yet reached puberty. Obviously, they're short; but also,
  • the early development of their large brains and skulls gives them heart-shaped faces with very large eyes, forehead and crown of head in relation to their nose, mouth, chin and jaw; 
  • they have big bobble heads in relation to their small necks, shoulders and bodies; 
  • they have squishy cheeks; 
  • small straight teeth, many of which may be missing; 
  • all of their body hair is downy and not noticeable; 
  • their skin appears poreless, even, matte, and untroubled (except for their mouths and nostrils which always seem to look like they've just eaten jam that they're allergic to); 
  • their noses tend to be small and ski-sloped because their cartilage hasn't yet developed into bone; 
  • they tend to have small rosebud shaped mouths with especially full upper lips, which will morph as their jaws grow larger in puberty;
  • they have squeaky voices.
To get more of an idea of what I mean when I say, "childlike proportions," take a look at some of these actresses as children, adolescents and adults:

Candace Cameron (DJ from Full House) as a child and as an adult. Notice how her adult face appears longer, her eyes closer together, her nose longer and pointier, her mouth wider, her forehead less prominent, her cheekbones wider in relation to the top of her skull, her head smaller in proportion to her shoulders, and her cheeks slimmer. Coincidentally she has puffed the top of her hair which mimics a large childlike cranium.
Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen as children. Heart shaped faces with wide foreheads, small ski sloped noses with soft squishy nostrils, large heads in relation to shoulders and bodies, wider set eyes, up to no good.

Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen as adults. Notice the distance between their eyes, the tips of their defined noses, and the corners of their mouths-- much longer than as children. Also notice the smaller size of the head in relation to the shoulders. Their necks are longer, thicker and more muscular than in childhood. These women have not styled themselves to appear childlike in proportion, perhaps because these former child stars have a vested interest in appearing adult. Though both women have made their eyes appear larger and evened out their skin-tone and texture with makeup, the dark smudging of the lower lid gives a sunken, narrow and elongated appearance rather than a perky or innocent wide-eyed look. I'm guessing they've also contoured their faces (i.e. adding faux shadows with lighter and darker skin makeup) to emphasize their adult-looking narrow temples and hollow cheeks. No volume is added to the hair at the crown of the head (where children's heads are larger). 

Jodie Sweetin (Stephanie from Full House) as a child.

Jodie Sweetin as a very young teenager. Though she still looks childlike you can see that her adult bone structure is basically in place by puberty. Her face is now longer and slimmer, but she has the hallmark adolescent fat deposits around her mouth and chin. Her neck is longer and thicker than in childhood and her shoulders wider.

Jodie Sweetin as an adult.
 You can see childlike proportions taken to exaggerated extremes in anything designed to be "cute:"
sanrio characters
Anything kawaii is going to involve wide set eyes, large foreheads, big bobble heads and small noses. These are a bunch of Sanrio characters.
lap dog
To be cuter, lapdogs are bred to have big heads, small short muzzles like button noses, and big wide eyes.

The theoretical male desiring to impregnate a newly fertile female should seek the adolescent physical attributes listed, no?

Yet few women pursue these attributes when they get dressed or do makeup-- the beauty industry pushes anything but. And few grown men seem particularly drawn to these. Most women and girls probably aspire to the appearance of a poised film star, a toned pop singer, a sultry sex symbol or a lithe dewy-faced model-- some of whom are teens, but who tend not to look very "teenaged." The ones who escaped actually looking adolescent.

I'd venture that the #1 sexual fans of actual adolescent girls, are other adolescents.

Now that I've pointed out the complications of claiming adolescence as the visual ideal in modern Western society, I'll illustrate which iconic beauties have large female fanbases, and which have large male fanbases (some of them have both).


Women tend to be fans of these ladies, whose adult features mimic pre-pubescent proportions:
Audrey Hepburn.
Audrey Hepburn's head and neck viewed from front and back.

Audrey Hepburn, probably practicing ballet, with her hands on her hips viewed from the side.
Audrey Hepburn may have her legions of male admirers, but it is women who have really carried the torch of fandom. She has been described as androgynous, fairy- and elf-like, elegant and timeless. She was famously thin, petite and small-chested with a long skinny neck. I'll break this down:

-While she was quite thin and petite, her oversized head (as compared with an average head) drew attention to her small body, giving her a doll-like look (in contrast with typical fashion models who are also quite thin but look more like mythical Amazons in comparison). She shared this in common with children up to around age 8 who have enormous heads in relation to their bodies.

-If you drew lines from her jaw to her temples-- up the sides of her face-- they would angle out slightly. Hepburn also shared this in common with pre-pubescent children.

-Her eyes were wide-set and disproportionately large, like a child's.

-Her mouth was small in proportion to her eyes. Her upper lip was also prominent, which was exaggerated with makeup in the 1950s nearly to the point where she had a lipstick moustache.

-The crown of her head was wide.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Andy Goldsworthy

Natural artwork by Andy Goldsworthy
A natural artwork by Andy Goldsworthy. Red leaves floating in a small icy tidepool, arranged with empty black space at the center.

On oldie but goodie: clips of the film about land artist Andy Goldsworthy, "Rivers and Tides," set to music from CocoRosie. Video features Goldsworthy constructing impermanent natural structures and their slow deterioration: beehive shapes from stacked slate or ice and the tides around them; long chains of leaves left to float in a current; shockingly bright graphic shapes made by rearranging natural elements so their colors are grouped together; icicles broken and reattached as a snaking form attached to a stone; Goldsworthy lying on the ground in the rain and standing up to reveal his own crisp dry outline; the artist stacking a dome of driftwood that lifts as the tide comes in and floats out with the outgoing tide; and other natural materials rearranged into striking and precarious forms.

ETA: Goldsworthy working reminds me of playing with my friend Stella in elementary school. Stella had some woods behind her house and we spent a good deal of time trying to make things out of what we found, with a fantasy of being some sort of medieval woodsy hermits. We never got very far, but we did things like extracting the "glue" from osage oranges ("mock oranges") and using it, or weaving tiny things with pine needles, or extracting the orange color from the inner bark of the osage orange trees, or making food from wild onions and stuff in the yard. So even though we never made much I recognized Goldsworthy's process from a very long time ago. All this to say, having this realization made me think of when people see contemporary art and get angry and say, "my kid could do that!" Well, I actually recognized something I did as a kid in contemporary art, and it was pretty exciting. 

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Last Portrait of Mother, by Daphne Todd.

Last Portrait of Mother, by Daphne Todd. National Portrait Gallery, Britain. [Image: Painting on two rectangles of paper or canvas joined and overlapping on the top right quadrant of the lower rectangle and lower left quadrant on the top rectangle, so the image moves diagonally up to the right. Painting is of the head and torso of an elderly white woman, critically ill or deceased and reclining in a white hospital bed. The sheets are pulled over her body and reveal a naked chest and shoulders and two fragile arms with hands folded in the lap. Her head sags to one side and her mouth hangs agape. The paint is opaque and brushstrokes are visible but fluid, detailed and quite realistic.]

Friday, August 3, 2012

Martin John Rees by Benjamin Sullivan

Image description follows.
Martin John Rees Baron Rees of Ludlow, by Benjamin Sullivan. National Portrait Gallery, Britain. [Image: black & white graphite drawing on vertical white paper of an older man sitting in a fancy chair wearing a white suit jacket, grey slacks, a button-down and a horizontally striped tie. The angle is from above, such as a tall person standing just in front and to the left of the seated man. The man rests his spread palms on his thighs and stares straight ahead, putting his focal point around the middle of the right edge of the image. The gaze, together with the figure and chair that move diagonally from upper right to lower left, forms an implied triangular composition. The top left side is shaded very darkly causing the head, which emerges above the chair back, to stand in sharp contrast.]

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Jean-Paul Sartre by Alberto Giacometti

Jean-Paul Sartre, by Alberto Giacometti. Hirschhorn collection, Washington, DC. Ok, when I saw this I snorted out loud. I mean, honestly, what a perfect way to portray an existentialist, the man who wrote "Being and Nothingness." Ha! [Image: graphite sketch on white paper of a man's head and neck. The lines are rough and indicate more of a geometric sculptural quality than traditional facial features. There are either no eyes or the space behind the glasses is left completely blank. The head fades into nothingness on one side, lacking a definite outline, as does the neck area. The head is slightly leaned awkwardly to one side.]

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Nathalie Djurberg's "The Parade"

This exhibit, Nathalie Djurberg's "The Parade" (2011) at the New Museum in NY, looks quite worthwhile. I especially appreciate Thomas Micchelli's vivid descriptions and thoughtful interpretation, especially since I'm guessing the show won't be stopping through Charleston any time soon.
Nathalie Djurberg's "The Parade" 2011. New Museum, NY. This shows only the sculpture; there were also claymation films projected on all the walls. [Image: cavernous white gallery filled with colorful sculptures of exotic or tropical birds ranging from knee- to head-height, standing around in pools of light cast by spotlights. The birds look quite solid, like they're made of metal frames, then covered with textures-- the feathers stick out individually-- and cloth and painted to be somewhat cartoonish while retaining a theatrically realistic look.]