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Europe800px-Rudolf_IV

This is Rudolf IV of Austria (1339 –1365).  He was the first Archduke of Austria…or of anywhere (like some sort of 14th century rapper, he invented the rank of Archduke for himself, in case you were curious where that ponderous title originally came from) and he was also Duke of Styria and Carinthia from 1358, as well as Count of Tyrol from 1363 and first Duke of Carniola from 1364 until his death in July of 1365. Rudolf IV’s megalomania and grandiose plans laid the foundations of Vienna’s future greatness (and Austria’s).  The future imperial city was a backwater without even an episcopal see before Rudolf started building cathedrals, modernizing his duchy, and inventing fancy titles for himself (he invented some counterfeit royal charters too). In this post, however, we are concentrating not on on his historical importance to Habsburg dynasty building, but on his splendid portrait, the first half frontal portrait in Western Europe.  Like much of Rudolf’s legacy, the archducal crown of wild vines, arches, and jewels, was seemingly invented.  The intimate and introspective style of the work was partially borrowed from the master painters of Byzantium, but was also an Austrian painting innovation.  Like Rudolf’s reign it forshadowed wonders to come.

Marisol self portrait with sculpture

Self Portrait with Sculpture, Marisol, 1965

Sad news from the art world:  Marisol Escobar (who went by the single name “Marisol”) died on April 30, 2016 at the age of 86. Marisol was one of my favorite living sculptors.  She turned away from minimalism and conceptualism (the emotionally and intellectually empty aesthetic forms which monopolize contemporary art) and built her own powerful visual idiom.  By mixing ancient and modern forms (and joyously combining 3 dimensional sculpture with 2 dimensional painting), Marisol created astonishing portrait sculptures which capture the humor, heroism, and conflicted self-identity of America in the sixties and seventies.

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Women and Dog (Marisol, 1964, wood, paint, mixed media)

Although she is loosely affiliated with the Pop movement, Marisol based her sculptures on Pre-Columbian sculptural forms. Her sculptures of people are like a combination of giant ancient sarcophagi, wooden toys, and folk painting.  The rude forms are sometimes grotesque—but they capture true emotional intensity…and real humor (so much a part of life, but so infrequently seen in fine art).

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Dinner Date (Marisol, 1963. wood, paint, mixed media)

Just as three-dimensional objects have many sides: Marisol’s wooden people present different aspects of their identity from different angles—to such a degree that they have multiple faces or too many arms.  This multitudinous bricolage of overlapping identities was second nature to Marisol, a French Venezuelan who moved to Los Angeles as a teen ager. She was deeply involved in the private asceticism of Catholicism, yet she was also overexposed sixties celebrity in New York’s libertine art world.

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“Mi Mama y Yo” (Marisol, 1968, mixed media).

Her works often portray celebrities du jour—and the multitudinous juxtaposed iconography of the portraits gives insight into the strange stagecraft of fame.  In the portrait of John Wayne below, the famous actor has been grafted, centaur-like, to his horse.  Multiple blockish hands reach for multiple fake guns.  Only the solemn politician’s face and the quotidian cowboy boots seem real. The cartoonish formulaic aspects of Hollywood oat operas is combined with larger-than-life western iconography, which is combined with a real man.  The synthesis provides a surprisingly realistic and sympathetic portrait of the actor.

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John Wayne (Marisol, 1963, wood, paint, mixed media)

A famous anecdote about Marisol concerns her taking part in a panel discussion with four famous male artists.  She arrived wearing a white mask which she kept on during the discussion.  Marisol was a famous beauty and the crowd began to chant for her to remove the mask. When the hullabaloo drowned out the conversation, she untied the mask…only to reveal that her face was made up exactly the same way.

 

Her shyness and unease at the performative spectacle that is identity gave her unique ability to discern and portray the multiple faces–greedy, solemn, sly, sad, and laughing aloud–which we all wear.

In order to practice putting together an artist’s statement, I am going to try to write more posts about contemporary art.  Please feel free to chime in with any thoughts or critiques about the style, subject, or conclusions of these little descriptions.

Since I have been writing about the meanings and ramifications of all things gothic, I have decided to start with Steven Assael, a very gifted realist portrait painter working today.  A native New Yorker, Assael studied with the contemporary masters of portrait painting to learn the meticulous craft of the great realist painters of yesteryear.  He employed hi hard-won skills painting outsider “punk” models with the refined & dignified realism one would usually employ for a university president or a bank executive.  The contrast is intriguing and it lends a stolid dignity to the pierced goth figures and faces on the canvas (and a frisson of craziness and excitement to staid academic portrait technique).  

Club Kids (Steven Assael, 2001, oil on canvas)

The otherworldiness of Assael’s portraits is an illusion we are meant to see through: the timelessness of the human emotions under the layers of props is part of his theme.  If we scrubbed off his club kids’ makeup and hair dye and then gave them cravats, lace, and wigs, they would look just like an 18th century group portrait.  Is the difference between a banker and a rebel girl just a bunch of props?  Well, on canvas interpreted through the brush of a talented painter, maybe it is.

Assael is self-conscious about using extremely traditional techniques and poses to contemporary ends.  When asked about his relationship with modern art he answered, “Modernism has taken a direction toward the North Pole—with nowhere to go, frozen.  On the way back we are discovering new territory, using the past as a means of expressing the present.  To go forward we must, at times, take a step back and evaluate our position.  With progression there is always a [positive, studied] regression”

At Mother, detail (Steven Assael, 2001, Oil, wood panel, canvas and steel)

So is the future of art just the past wearing wild clothes? And is Assael’s underlying classicism at odds with the gothic/emo/punk rebelliousness of the personalities portrayed?  There is a melancholic loneliness to Assael’s figures which suggests he understands the paradoxical desire to be outside of popular convention while at the same time being part of a group.  His paintings almost seem to have the same paradox.  He wishes to be outside of traditional painting while firmly a part of it.

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Flea Close Up (Dennis Kunkel Microscopy, Inc./Visuals Unlimited/Corbis)

By showing how strange familiar things really are, the electron scanning microscope provides an uncanny window into a hidden realm.  To demonstrate this, here are some remarkable portrait photographs of humble fleas taken by various gifted microscopists.  In order to obtain these images, the photographers required not only large expensive electron microscopes (and the training to use them), but they also had to kill the fleas, dehydrate the bodies, and then coat the tiny corpses with microscopically thin gold plating!  Additionally it is necessary to place such specimens in a vacuum, since air molecules interferes with the electron beam.  But all of that preparation was worth it–look at the amazingly expressive flea faces!  Each of these characters could be a rapacious nineteenth century huckster, or a wimpy impresario bent on one last gasp of glory.  Among all of the insect world, I believe fleas might have the most interesting faces:

Cat Flea, Ctenocephalides felis (photo credit "Last Refuge")

Dog Flea, Ctenocephalides canis (Dennis Kunkel Microscopy, Inc./Visuals Unlimited/Corbis)

Flea (photo by RBirtles)

Flea (Image by David Scharf)
What was this book about?

Of course even before the electron microscope, artists and illustrators have appreciated fleas’ distinctive personalities.  The image above is an illustration from a German children’s book from the nineteen forties which merits inclusion in this portrait gallery because of the detailed face of the tiny flea and because of the strangeness of the image.

Water Flea (photo by Jan Michels)

The final portrait here (above) is actually a water flea, Daphneia, which came up in my browser as an accident.  The water flea is unrelated to the insect fleas portrayed above except in the most cursory way: they are both arthropods.  The image was, however, too good to pass up–so I suppose this blog post celebrates intriguing portraits of things called fleas.  The water flea scan makes an interesting point about epigenetics–water fleas do not have a crested helmet (like the one in the photo) except when they live in the same ecosystem as tadpole shrimp.  Tadpole shrimp can pray on water fleas but find the shrimp with helmet shaped heads frightening or unappetizing.

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