The American Dream – Drentsmuseum, Assen

Is it a sign of the times, is my perception of the land across the Atlantic shifting? I was brought up on the art world of the U.S. It was a constant point of reference during my years at art school. For me it was, and still is, the abstract art that was the focus, large scale, often very lean and reduced. But the exhibition The American Dream spread across the Drentsmuseum in Assen, the Netherlands, and the museum in the northern German city of Emden, the focus is on figuration. Assen has responsibility for the twentieth century up until 1965.

The title The American Dream makes use of an often heard phrase, a dream, or an ideal perhaps. Either interpretation hints at a positive view of America, its people and way of life. From a distance I have often viewed this as maybe a bit brash, larger than life, a very ‘in your face’ view of the reality being depicted. However, and this may be being influenced by the current political and social shifts going on, the feeling I gain from seeing this exhibition is one of melancholy. This doesn’t feel like a land of hope, possibilities and of dreams, it’s just as much about suffering, disappointment and often loneliness. There seem to be figures adrift in the world, or at the very least, adrift in a sort of introspection and battles with the city, the landscape and nature.

 

Even when an image of a brash, attractive surface is to be found, in this day and age it seems only too inviting to prick through its shiny surface and ask what is the reality playing out beneath. Is it a world that we might aspire to be part of? Is it a dream or is it even a dream that is sliding into something closer to a nightmare.

Melancholy can certainly be found in the single or isolated figures that people many of the pieces but at times it seems to take on an almost David Lynchian menace, with concealed narratives seeming to be lurking in the background. A link that is never any clearer than in Catharine Murphy’s painting In the Grass. In this case the snake that is approaching from the top left. But the hose pipe takes me in this context instantly back to the opening sequence of Lynch’s Blue Velvet and it’s tale of what lies beneath the tranquility of suburban America.

Even Roy Lichtenstein’s Crying Girl seems to have become charged with a sorrow that I haven’t ever felt before!

The star turn of the exhibition is Edward Hopper’s painting Morning Sun, a painting modeled of the artist’s then 68 year old wife. It’s a beautiful, serene image, but as with many of the artist’s works there hangs a series of questions. What are the thoughts being contemplated? Has something happened? What is playing out just beyond the frame of the painting? The very same questions I find myself asking about multiple artworks in the exhibition.

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Reality, what was that again?

A sunny day in Rotterdam and three different exhibitions that connect in an interesting way by asking questions about our perceptions and understanding of the world around us and the differing realities that we experience in our minds.

Gek op Surrealism‘ (Mad about Surrealism) in the Boijmans museum in Rotterdam was the first port of call, followed by ‘Hyperrealism‘ and ‘ Human/Digital‘ across the park in the Kunsthal.

The Surrealism show featured work from the museums own collection and from several private lenders. Dalí, Ernst, Miró and Magritte were all well represented in the three hundred plus works on show. Seen as a group the exhibition presents an extensive and at times confusing collection. Maybe this is inevitable and not entirely inappropriate for an art movement made up of individuals with such diverse approaches.  Paintings, drawings, collages, film, photographs, poetry and texts all feature.

It was principally the work of René Magritte that I wanted to see. His simply executed paintings have always drawn my attention, particularly the ones where he seems to be questioning our interpretation of what we see and what we experience as real and as image.

Then it was on to the Kunsthal for the Hyperrealism show with the seventy, other quite large scale, works from the early days of the photorealists through to the present day.  Chuck Close and Audrey Flack amongst others representing the ‘old guard’ along with a selection of more recent followers of this tradition.  Photorealist work is a bit of an island in contemporary art.  In many ways, the development in terms of subject matter and content doesn’t seem to have changed so much.  Artists still seem drawn to the reflective qualities of shiny materials and light sources.  They also seem often to continue to be captivated by the otherwise rather insignificant apertures that they open on everyday life.  This might be a contemporary still life of bottles on a restaurant table or children’s toys.  Equally it might be a light reflected in the polished body work of a car or reflected neon in a wet road surface.

There does seem to be the challenge of creeping towards a better sense technical excellence, but whether this ultimately brings us towards anything more than an increasing ‘wow’ factor is the question.

Don’t get me wrong though, I did enjoy the exhibition. Yes, there is that constant feeling of a double take as you approach these images that lurk somewhere between a painting and a photograph. Ultimately though, what I find most interesting is the way that all the images seem to force us to stop and consider the reality of the familiar world around us.  The trivial, the unnoticed and yet constantly present, thrown into quite literally sharp focus, in these often incredibly polished works.

Downstairs in the Kunsthal is the ‘Human/Digital’ exhibition. An exhibition of recently produced digital artworks.  Here too we are often forced to consider and reconsider the reality around us alongside digitally created realities. These can be places that may or may not actually exist, but through the ever-improving technical advances challenges us, like the Surrealists and the Hyperrealists to ask questions about the world around us and the layers of perceived reality in which it is built up.

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A simple exercise in tonal/value work

Teaching the basics of drawing and what a simple pencil is capable of is one of the first things I like to get to grips with my first years (aged 12) at the start of the year. They are familiar with the idea of line, the setting up of an arrangement, but tonal work is often limited to shading an area in gently with a shade of grey. I want to deal with the extremes of shading, going from the whitest white to the darkest grey and everything in between that a 3B or 4B pencil can offer. I want to cover the gradations in shading and how you can achieve sensitivity in your results. Building on this I like to lead onto the modelling of form that can be achieved.

fullsizerender

fullsizerender-7There are numerous ways of doing this, from shading in boxes, drawing cylinders and imaginary balls. The ‘how to draw’ books are full of such exercises. Technically they cover the same ground, but they hardly catch a twelve year old’s imagination and leave them with a feeling of ‘wow’ as they leave the art room.

Yesterday I had the chance to cover some of this ground when I visited a neighbouring school to lead two, two hour workshops. I decided to cover these same areas with the two classes of 23 twelve year olds.

Working with a gridded up version of one of my favourite subjects, Chuck Close I was also able to bring in a little art historical context that was completely new to the pupils. After discussing his work for a while I was able to set them loose on trying to produce high contrast fragments of a large scale group drawing.

Four hours later I had a reworking of the first Close self-portrait and his image of a young looking Philip Glass and a classes full of children wanting to photograph the result to share what they had achieved as a class working together. In terms of creativity the assignment might not be the most experimental. But as an exercise in an important technical skill it does lay a basis that can be built on later.

For a more challenging variation see:

Tonal drawing and a favourite resourch