Friday, September 23, 2016

Art as a Universal Language, Part 6: Art as Social Change

by | Sep 23, 2016 | Art as a Universal Language, Blog | 0 comments

Kara Walker‘s “Testimony” reveals the injustice in African American history

Contemporary Syrian war poster portrays the reality of childhood

In previous editions of this blog, I’ve written about the universal symbolic language of art, and visual art as a mode of communication. One of my greatest interests is how art can be used to instigate social change.  In the 1980s, I was awarded the Raoul Wallenberg Scholarship to study the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  Once I arrived to study at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, I realized I wanted to focus my research on how art can direct attention to major social, political, and environmental urgencies.

Image by Australian street artist “Meek”, stencil art of his “Begging for Change”

Since the beginning of civilization in Mesopotamia, rulers
used art to depict their elevated status and power. Every
sight-enabled member of the populace understood that the
person depicted largest and closest to the life-giving source 
of the sun, wielded the greatest influence. The social structure
was as simple as powerful=larger; less powerful=smaller.

Victory Stele of Naram Sin, c. 2200 BCE

Naram Sin video

When one group overtakes another, it communicates its power
visually, by destroying the most sacred cultural relics of the 
previous culture and supplanting them with visual symbols that
reflect its own ideology. Roman emperors stole Egyptian obelisks
with hieroglyphics boasting of acts of great Egyptian pharaohs.
The Romans erected these obelisks, like cultural hostages, in
front of their own most important structures, to show the 
dominance of Rome over Egypt.  

Likewise, when Christianity replaced pagan spirituality in Rome, 
Christians took this cultural hostage-taking a step further, by 
sticking a cross on top of the obelisk in front of the Roman
Pantheon.  This communicated the ultimate triumph of Christianity, 
over the pagan religions of the past.  This one image of the Pantheon 
below, represents repeated cultural “replacement” from c. 1303, B.C.E., 
to the present day.

Athena, Goddess of Peace and War, intact, in Palmyra 

The same Athena sculpture, after Isis destroyed its head and arms, at end of hall

Destroyed Buddha of Bamiyan, Afghanistan

The Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas in BamiyanIsis’s 
obliteration of great artifacts in Nimrud–these acts of 
annihilation are acknowledgements of the ability of 
visual images to communicate messages of cultural 
significance to humanity.  Destroying them is like wiping 
out an entire society’s visual language or history.  It is only 
due to their fear of the power of those spiritual images, that 
the Taliban and Isis chose to destroy them.  Perhaps it is the 
power Buddhism gives to the individual for his own self 
guidance, rather than reliance on an external God, that is so  
threatening to their oppressive rule.

What if, instead of destroying works of art because we fear 
their ability to convey important cultural truths, we embrace 
the power of art to help unite turbulent societies? 
In our current environment of incredibly oppressive, 
xenophobic rhetoric, art can--literally--show us a different 
way.  It can present concept and leave the creativity of 
solution to each individual viewer.

Israeli artist Drew Tal grew up in Israel in the 1960s, when the 
country was a mixture of many diverse cultures.  Rather than 
narrowing his perspective due to religious or political differences, 
Tal is fascinated by different customs and beliefs.  He uses his 
photographs to mirror human realities in a neutral manner.  

In his “Revelation”, Tal gives the brave words “I Am” to 
Muslim woman who could be considered voiceless.  He allows us 
to perceive her individuality in a sea of imposed homogeneity.  
In presenting this unidentifiable woman to us, Tal reminds us that 
while we are so often inclined to define people by their larger group, 
every single human being is an individual, with the same mother, 
father, sister, brother, relationships we use to define ourselves.

The symbolism in Tal’s “Revelation” is dense.  He “reveals” to 
viewers not only this woman’s individual worth, but he also 
poetically bridges the abyss of misunderstanding between Muslim 
and non-Muslim cultures.  “I Am” is a significant statement, 
appearing in Exodus 3:13–15, when Moses says to God, “If I 
come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your 
fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ 
what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” 
And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me 
to you.’” God

In Tal’s “Revelation”, the “I” singles out an individual from the 
group; the "Am" refers to the universal, shared divinity in every
human being, regardless of political, religious, cultural belief. 
Tal’s art is the kind of imagery that can effect change in the world.

French street artist/photographer, JR, is one of today’s most 
engaging artists, using his art to help people all over the world 
make change.  Rather than just creating images for people to 
ponder, he makes the people themselves into their own art.  
JR takes photographs of people in their communities, or has 
locals photograph themselves, all over the world.  This helps 
people see that they can literally create their own reality, by 
rendering themselves as friend or foe within their respective 
community.   JR won the TED prize.  He asked Israeli and 
Palestinian people to make funny faces, printed monumental 
images of them, and mixed them together on each side of the 
wall separating the two areas.  He uses his art to magnify our 
similarities, rather than our differences.  His art opens our 
eyes to the idea that we can share humor, rather than 
animosity, even in the face of major differences.

JR’s Inside Out project in Israel

Visual images transcend barriers of specific spoken and 
written language.  Visual language is universal, touching 
each human being on a shared somatic level.  Therefore, 
artists have a unique responsibility to reveal issues we need 
to confront as a global human family. By changing the context 
of these images, visual artists can allow us to “see” a different 
way forward. Art can, in fact, change the world in a positive 
way, if we are open to its messages.

End of Part 6

Tonya Turner Carroll
Turner Carroll Gallery and Art Advisors
Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Art as a Universal Language, Part 5: Color as Communication



Before there was a written language, color was the universal language of mankind. Prehistoric humans used color to describe every aspect of their lives. Red= blood; orange= fire; yellow=sun; green=natural vegetation/food source; blue=air; indigo=water; violet=the color of sunset/sunrise transition. 

Cave painting from Lascaux
c. 17,000 BCE
Historians believe prehistoric people would travel up to 25 miles to mine iron, for pigments to make the red and ochre paints for their cave paintings.

Tomb of Sennedjem
Dar el-Medina, Egypt
13th Century BCE
Ancient Egyptians valued color symbolism in their tombs and temples so deeply that their desire for additional color options fueled their efforts in mining and trade. 

We know for certain that the Greek and Roman sculptures we think of as monochromatic white, were originally polychromatic! They had red lips, colored eyes, brilliantly hued garments--all painted with painstakingly created paints from pure pigment. The more rare the pigment, the more exalted the subject.
Peplos Kore/ reconstruction
Peplos Kore (Acropolis Museum), Peplos Kore cast, (University of Cambridge)
c. 530 BCE, Acropolis, Athens, Greece
University of CambridgeFaculty of Classics

In 1025, Persian philosopher Avicenna included the use of color as medical treatment in his encyclopedic The Canon of Medicine. Since then, chromo therapy has been used to stimulate various physical and psychological responses. Modern scientific research suggests that viewing bright colors causes the brain to release the “feel-good hormone” dopamine; while cool blues provoke release of oxytocin, causing feelings of calm.

Light dispersion through a prism

In the mid 1600s, Sir Isaac Newton discovered that by shining light through a prism, he could separate light into the colors naturally occurring in a rainbow. The resulting colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet, give us the pithy acronym Roy G. Biv, which has helped multitudes of school children master the visible color spectrum.

Fausto Fernandez, "Sound to Color Synesthesia" Collage, image transfer, acrylic, and glitter on canvas
Fausto Fernandez, "I Ate Some Mushrooms on Friday and Remembered I was Madly in Love with Her"
Oil, collage, glitter, spray paint, and oil crayon on canvas

Many contemporary artists use color as the visual language of artistic ecstasy. Fausto Fernandez, a Mexican artist now living in the U.S., places layer upon layer of color, embellishing his paintings with diamond dust glitter, to magnify and reflect the chromatic effect. Undeniably influenced by the festive use of color in Mexican culture, he collages colorful flowers; draws energetic lines with crayon, and his works emerge as a triumph of colorful beauty. Fernandez’s works were recently featured in the touring museum exhibition, Beauty Reigns:  Baroque Sensibilities in Contemporary Art.

Robert Townsend, "Cherry Blossom"
oil on canvas

Robert Townsend, "Oh Lolly, Lolly"
watercolor on paper

Like Fernandez, Robert Townsend uses explosive color and celebratory themes in his hyper-realistic watercolors. Candy and lollipops, polka dots, and modernist analog clocks, all express the child-like excitement of color.  Townsend’s colorful pop works are included in top museum collections such as the Getty Museum and the Frederick Weisman Art Foundation in California.

Jamie Brunson, "Kirmiz"
oil, alkyd on polyester, over panel

Brunson is more of a pure colorist, and she uses deep hues and bold shapes to achieve meditative transcendence. Brunson has received numerous art residencies, and her works are included in the American Embassy in Doha, Qatar, and museums throughout the U.S.

Jamie Brunson, "Sway"
oil, alkyd on polyester, over panel

Brenda Zappitell, "Sunset in Santa Fe"
cold wax, acrylic and flashe on panel

Contemporary artists, like artists since the beginning of time, use the universal language of color to communicate directly through our senses, on the most powerful level.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Art as a Universal Language, Part 4: Canary in a Coal Mine

Scott Greene, "FUBAR", 2007
Antonello da Messina, "Crucifixion", 1475, National Gallery, London


There is the moral of all human tales;
‘Tis but the same rehearsal of the past.
First freedom and then Glory--when that fails,

Wealth, vice, corruption--barbarism at last.
And History, with all her volumes vast,
Hath but one page…

Allegory painters are the prophets of each generation.  They use familiar images to convey weighty social or political concepts relevant to their specific time in history. They reflect the world back to us as it is, but with their own fantastical understanding of where it is headed. Scott Greene is one such painter.  He uses familiar imagery, like the landscape, detritus of human life, and animals, to remind us of how our presence on this planet impacts nature.  He paints all these subjects with such exquisite beauty, that we cannot help spending great amounts of time contemplating his messages.  Greene says of his work:   

I employ the language and finish of classical painting, deriving inspiration from both art history and the contemporary social environment, in order to examine and satirize the relationships between politics and nature, and between beauty and the unpleasant.

Greene’s painting, "FUBAR" (F’d Up Beyond All Repair, from military slang), uses the allegory of the crucifixion to portray how contemporary mankind has “crucified” the environment. He was inspired by a crucifixion painting from over 500 years before, by Antonello da Messina. While Messina's painting features an idealized landscape in the background, Greene portrays a bombed-out Iraqi landscape in the background of "FUBAR". His cross is draped with extension cords and discarded electrical gadgets, to assert our national over-extension in the Middle East at that time.

Scott Greene, "SNAFU", 2015, Turner Carroll Gallery, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, “Portrait of Countess D'Haussonville.” 1845, Frick Collection, New York

In "SNAFU" (military slang for Situation Normal, All F’d Up), an overflowing suitcase becomes an allegorical symbol for our generation’s decadent opulence.  I see the suitcase as an overstuffed container of human life, spilling out the excess we have accumulated.  I am reminded of a formal painting by Ingres, from the early days of Industrial Revolution. Ingres paints the young countess wearing a gorgeous blue silk dress; satin ribbons in her hair.  The interior in which she stands is adorned with rich furnishings and flowers.  She seems young, hopeful, and confident about her future.  In Ingres’ painting, the earth had not yet been severely polluted by industry, so there was a lot of prosperity and possibility on the horizon. But by 2015, when Greene painted "SNAFU", humankind had definitely “F’d Up” the environment. Marshmallows are strewn on the dirty ground; the only green in site is discarded fabric or carpet, standing in for the absent grass. A pink chemical bonfire burns from thrown out pipes.

Greene writes of the painting:

"SNAFU" is a parable of sorts about making the best of a bad situation. It depicts a make-shift bivouac with a blazing campfire for warmth. Wood appears to be scarce, so a pile of PVC pipes are used instead. Bits of food and debris are strewn about, with all the fix’ns for some very smoky s’mores. I was inspired by a homeless person (possibly a whole family) who established an encampment in our irrigation ditch last summer. It was a very organized campsite, with tarps, suitcases, backpacks and cooking utensils. Because of the nature of the objects (specifically food and fire) and their close proximity, I also see this belonging to the genre of vanitas painting - meaning art that reminds people of mortality and that material things are ephemeral.

Scott Greene, “Exhaust”  1992-94, 132 x 192”  Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art, Roswell, New Mexico 

Scott Greene’s “Exhaust” was inspired by Theodore Gericault’s painting “The Raft of the Medusa,” with its message of desperation and hope. When Greene first saw the monumental painting at the Louvre, he was struck by its impact and detail.  He writes, “My intent was to create a modern version of his History Painting, a contemporary equivalent with environmental issues as a core theme.” 

Theodore Gericault, “The Raft of the Medusa” 1819, 192 x 276”, Musee du Louvre, Paris
Gericault’s painting portrays the darkest tendencies of humanity. The Medusa was a ship that crashed while attempting to colonize Senegal, necessitating the crew’s hasty fabrication of a raft.  Many escaped via suicide, others threw weak and injured overboard to save themselves; some even turned to cannibalism.  Likewise, Greene’s “Exhaust” addresses contemporary man’s attempt to overtake nature, via dependency on fossil fuel (see the upturned, empty gas can) and depletion of natural resources.  Just as the crew members of the Medusa were left desperately stranded due to national greed, so is contemporary man left forlorn, in the deluge of environmental problems he has wrought.

Both artists reserve one small grain of hope.   In Gericault’s painting, the men try to flag down a boat for help.  It is so far away that it is barely visible in the painting, so chances are slim it will reach them in time.  Greene places a small surfer riding a wave; a small hope for survival.

Scott Greene, "Big Dish Candy Mountains", Turner Carroll Gallery, Santa Fe, New Mexico
The painters of the Hudson Valley School were inspired by Romantic painters such as J.M.W. Turner, as they painted the sublime beauty of unspoiled nature in the United States. They would paint views from afar; dreamlike visions of the landscape.  Scott Greene employs some of the same aspects of romanticized, mystical landscape as Hudson Valley painter Sanford Gifford, in his "Big Dish Candy Mountains". In Greene’s painting, however, mountains of satellite dishes become the view--evidence of human imposition on the environment. The painting is part of a series of works he made in which the satellite dish symbolizes our inability to communicate, in spite of the proliferation of communication technology. Greene writes that "Big Dish Candy Mountains" was inspired by the "great hobo song 'Big Rock Candy Mountains,' about a make-believe place where lemonade rivers flow, and trees sprout cigarettes. A place where all your dreams come true, and you are never wanting for anything."
Sanford Gifford, "A Gorge in the Mountains", 1862

Hudson Valley School founder, Thomas Cole, created a series of five allegorical landscapes titled “The Course of Empire,” from 1832-1836.  Cole meant his paintings to symbolize man’s imprint on the natural world. Greene contemporizes the concept, creating a series of paintings that reach from the time of the dinosaurs through Manifest Destiny, nuclear testing, to the melting of the ice caps.  Unlike Cole, who pictured a time-lapsed version of the same scene, Greene sets his paintings at different locations across our country.

Scott Greene, "Course of Empire" series ("Peace Offering", "Manifest", "Testing One Two", "Eminent Domain", "Shelf Life"), 2015, Turner Carroll Gallery, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Scott Greene, "Mistletoe", 2015, Turner Carroll Gallery, Santa Fe, New Mexico

May we all learn from these images. Visual language doesn't preach to us; it allows us complete freedom to contemplate these issues in our own minds, and come up with our own answers to difficult problems.

To hear Scott Greene speak about the environmental symbolism in his paintings, please join us on Friday, March 11, at 6 pm at Turner Carroll Gallery, 725 Canyon Road, Santa Fe, New Mexico. 

You can also view Scott's paintings at the New Mexico Museum of Art, until April 24; Turner Carroll Gallery, and Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art in Roswell, New Mexico.

End of Part 4

Tonya Turner Carroll
Turner Carroll Gallery and Art Advisors
Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA