Art News and Opinion: June 13, 2010


Sandro Botticelli’s Venus and Mars On NPR

Andy Warhol’s “art for the masses” prophecy has come to fruition in the form of Bravo’s new reality TV show, “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist,” which premiered Wednesday. In his provocative book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: (From A to B and Back Again), Warhol said that at a certain point he stopped feeling emotions; instead of caring for people, he was fascinated by them. It makes for a precise description of this show.

Featuring the obvious hipster contestants and a healthy smattering of curator/critic judges, the show begs such obvious questions as: How can one judge art? How much is creative success based on personal marketing? In the first episode, the contestants have 13 hours to paint a portrait of a fellow contender. It’s a clever move, allowing both the viewers and contestants a way of getting to know each other in a high-pressure situation. Art is subjective; although this show cannot possibly please everyone, it is certainly fun to watch and is swiftly erasing the line between the general public and the art elite.

Deep sincerity and playful irony are married in the currently installed “Greater New York” at the MoMA P.S. 1, an extravaganza that is put on by the institution every five years to celebrate local emerging talent. The work busies itself to heckle the senses, oftentimes paying homage to the concept of painting in favor of actual paintings. Dave Miko’s Lonely Merch Guy exemplifies this, as a blank white canvas propped up on a shelf with drips of paint appearing on the wall behind it.

The most meaningful pieces at the exhibition combine two or more genres to create something otherworldly: looping together photography with sculpture to create a long filmstrip that clutters the ceiling and walls; techniques like collage and assemblage are joined with unusual materials like mud and stolen records. “Greater New York” speaks loudly: although the work might seem silly or frivolous, it is important and worth a second look.

During the latter half of the 19th century, French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme popularized a style of painting known as Orientalism before it was largely squelched out by the Impressionist movement, as well as after his death due to the widely circulated opinion that the West represented the East as distastefully erotic and uncivilized. This makes the fact that the Getty is showcasing a major exhibition of the artist, “The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme,” opening Tuesday, that much more controversial and prone to eyebrow raising.

As the first major survey of the artist in over 35 years, Gérôme’s reappraisal raises questions of racism as well as art-historical significance. During his reign as the king of Orientalism, the artist’s paintings were hailed as exquisite and decorative; it will be interesting to see if this fodder for debate can be seen in such a light today.

Art historian David Bellingham is calling into question the true meaning of the masterpiece Venus and Mars, painted in the 15th century by master Sandro Botticelli. Bellingham recently concluded that a piece of unnoticeable fruit in the corner of the canvas is likely none other than datura stramonium, more commonly referred to as “poor man’s acid,” a plant with effects similar to that of LSD. Simply put, the slumbering Mars depicted might very well be stoned.

The painting portrays several mischievous satyrs clustered around the deities, which Bellingham points out as further proof that the fine art painting has a less than pious pedigree. He goes on to suggest that the Venus and Mars pair may symbolize Adam and Eve, while the datura may be playing the role of the fateful forbidden fruit. Bellingham presses that the actual meaning of the painting is of less importance than understanding that it can be interpreted on varying levels.

Recently opened at the Yale University Art Gallery, a high-end exhibition, “Italian Paintings From the Richard L. Feigen Collection” showcases two exquisite paintings from the same artist, Orazio Gentileschi. Both painted in the early 1600s, the subject matter of the pair is as different as night and day. The first painting depicts the groveling Mary Magdalene in a shadowy cave, which paves the way for most of the other paintings in the exhibition that explore Catholic themes, including many grisly Crucifixion scenes. In contrast, the second Gentileschi masterpiece Danaë and the Shower of Gold beautifully captures the mythological Danaë waiting for her lover Zeus, king of the Roman gods.

Although the distinction between this pagan theme and the Christian paintings in the rest of group is striking, it is not the point of the exhibition, which aims instead to show off the impressive collection of art dealer Richard L. Feigen. Upon observing the magnificent Danaë painting, it is easy to see how modern-day secular humanism, inspired by the pagan cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, was bound to triumph over the authoritarian mysticism of medieval Christianity.

Laura Lawson paints when writer’s block strikes and writes when painter’s block strikes. She has studied fine art at LCAD and is pursuing a degree in journalism. Recently diagnosed with the degenerative eye disease retinitis pigmentosa, she strives to bring hope to those without vision through her blog. She is currently working on her first book about coping with vision loss.