Art Smarts for May 2020

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There are days in which I think that art, music, literature, theatre, and film are the only human endeavors that offer hope. Most museums are closed right now, but several recent shows offer things to consider, and the Internet allows us to experience part of what made them special.

Barley Hendricks
Even if you didn’t make it to the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA) to see Black Refractions, you can explore the Studio Museum of Harlem (SMH), the lending institution for the SCMA show. The SMH isn’t a large museum. It was only founded in 1968, and it contains just 2,500 objects. To put that in perspective, the SCMA holds more than 10 times as much. But sometimes it’s not big you are, it’s the size of your vision that’s important.

In the early 20th century, Harlem was the single most vibrant cultural oasis in the nation. Brush up on the phenomenon called the Harlem Renaissance if you don’t know what I mean. Alas, the Great Depression, World War II hit, Harlem declined, and postwar racism made black culture an afterthought. The SMH came along at a time in which the civil rights movement rekindled a sense of Black Pride. Fifty years after the SMH opened its doors, we can appreciate the prescient vision of its founders.
Kehinde Wiley
Isaac Julien. Yes this is a sculpture!
Elizabeth Catlett
The SMH spotlights artistic mastery in media ranging from painting and sculpture to fabric arts and video production. All of its holdings come from artists associated with the black diaspora. So, no Van Gogh, but Jacob Lawrence; no Rembrandt, but portraits from Kehinde Wiley. No Judy Chicago, but quilts from Faith Ringgold; no Rodin, but Isaac Julien’s hyper-realistic forms; no Mary Cassatt sentimentality, but the sensuality of Elizabeth Catlett’s mother and child. 

Faith Ringgold
 When we refract art through a black lens, one of the most poignant lessons is that racism impoverishes both victims and their oppressors, the latter of whom deny themselves access to remarkably creative individuals. In 1903, W. E. B. DuBois published Souls of Black Folk. His book mattered because of his powerful insistence that people of color had souls at a time in which many whites denied it. Black art matters. It is incontrovertible proof that DuBois was right.

Last summer I visited the Eastman House in Rochester, New York, and saw a show devoted to Warner Brothers cartoons.  This winter I went to the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, MA to see The Art of Warner Bros. Cartoons. It wasn’t as extensive or polished as the Eastman House exhibit, but it too reminds us that cartoons are more than just kid stuff.

In an age before CAD, cartoons were the equivalent of Claymation in that even the smallest movement took a lot of work. It entailed drawing numerous cels that overlapped to make drawn figures “move” when the film stock flickered through the projector at 24 frames a second. Some of that was a clever trick. Watch some vintage cartoons and you might notice the art behind the illusion. Often, part of a figure is static; if the cels are done well, your eye follows the movement and you “see” only the movement, not the parts that don’t move. Snobs may turn up their noses, but the magic that went into Warner Brothers cartoons is indeed art.

Warner Brothers ‘toons were not just children’s fare in other ways. Cartoon crews trusted that kids were smart enough to know that dropping an anvil on Wile E. Coyote’s head, handing Elmer Fudd a bomb, or flattening Sylvester the Cat with a steam roller was make-believe. Maybe we have done children an injustice by getting rid of imaginative cartoons that engage the imagination, when we should have worried about the realism of America’s Funniest Home Videos where real danger is hidden behind a laugh track.

Warner Brothers didn’t infantilize. It dared show Bugs Bunny singing opera, made puns worthy of Groucho Marx, and did animated send-ups of contemporary and historical figures. When you didn’t “get” the joke, you learned to ask and the discovery process began. There were also sexual innuendos in the old cartoons. All of the adult stuff meant that many grown-ups were also tuned in and laughing. They decided which things to explain or not.

There’s a reason why Warner Brothers studio personnel are so highly regarded. If you can’t appreciate the artistry, come up with an idea for a 22-minute cartoon. Write a story, draw all the characters, and direct them. Add a soundtrack. You have one week, then you must start anew. Rinse and repeat for 33 years. You can cheat and use your computer.

You can’t go see The Art of Warner Bros. Cartoons right now, but you can see some original drawings and cels on Pinterest sites. Better yet, go to YouTube and watch available Warner Brothers ‘toons. If you grew up in the age of saccharine cartoons or none at all, you might find Bugs Bunny to be (if I might) a hare-raising experience!

Wilson Bigaud
Are you up for an art challenge? Ever notice how often food is depicted in art? Yeah, me neither until I saw Embodied Taste at the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College. It’s billed as “a conversation on food, culture, art, and power,” which is a bit grandiose unless you were enrolled in the classes that supported those concepts. The basic idea, though, is to look at how social issues are embedded in depictions of food in art.

Marion Post Wolcott

 Who plants food? Who harvests it? Who prepares it? How is it distributed it and how is it parceled out? In a very basic sense, these are questions of who works and who eats. The Mead Show used graphics, photos, paintings, and objects to provoke thought. Of course, unless things change dramatically between now and July 26 when the show comes down, only those of us who have already seen it will be able to do so.

So, let me suggest a little treasure hunt in the spirit of the exhibit. Google some images from your favorite artists and look for those that have food in them. Don’t flip through them; pause and muse upon the images. What back stories relating to food, labor, consumption, and social class are inferred? In other words, does your favorite artist have hidden agendas?

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Let me show you what I mean though one of the offerings in the Mead Show: Frans Snyder’s 1640 painting Larder with a Servant. We see a table that’s almost literally a groaning board. A larder usually means a place to store food, but that’s not the case here. There is an obscene amount of food present: fowls, a stag, a boar, crustaceans, fruits…. If you’re wondering why there’s a dead peacock prominently displayed, peacock tongue was a delicacy, but only among the upper crust. Imagine how many birds had to be slain to sate the appetites of well-heeled guests. This painting comes from Belgium’s golden age of the 16th and 17th centuries, when money flowed into Antwerp banks, wine poured into Flemish ports, and merchants thrived in an unbalanced system that engorged their purses, but not those of workers who produced export goods or unloaded booty coming into the country.

Back to the table. For the most part you are looking at perishable goods. It is reasonable to infer that the servant girl’s role is to help ready a feast for a rich family and well-to-do guests. Her dress suggests she is a maid, not kitchen staff. She will probably take this food from the table to the kitchen and clean the room once the table is bare. Perhaps she’ll help serve it, a role in which she is expected to be efficient and anonymous. It’s unlikely she will taste more than the leavings of the feast. Depending upon her master, she might have to share even that with the hungry dog in the foreground.

Not all food in art is this politically charged. Some of it is a painted version of the cellphone “food porn” that we gleefully post on social media sites. Scores of other lessons emerge, so give it a whirl. Investigate the artist, the time period, and the place depicted. I’d love it if you shared what you find.

Rob Weir     


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