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Bursting Blooms Link Modernity and History in Gordon Cheung’s Decadent Still-Life Paintings
In 1634, during the Dutch Golden Age, an unprecedented financial phenomenon began in the form of skyrocketing prices for rare and fashionable tulip bulbs. By 1637, the speculative bubble collapsed, and while the plummeting price of tulips may have bankrupted a few investors, it didn’t take a steep toll on the overall economy, unlike the U.S. housing bubble that spurred a global crisis and led to severe recession in 2008.
“Tulip mania” is a term still used today to describe when the prices of assets—such as mortgages or technology—rise exponentially from their intrinsic or general market values and present a threat to economic stability. For London-based artist Gordon Cheung, Dutch still-life paintings provide a lens through which to explore ties between historical socio-economic systems, modern capitalism, and China’s new power on the global stage. “In part, they are about the rise and fall of civilisations, as well as the romantic language of still-life painting: futile materialism and fragile mortality reflected by the transient beauty of flowers,” he says.
Like much 16th and 17th-century Dutch painting, the artist’s still-lifes brim with symbolism and references to historical events. The linen surface is collaged with pages from the Financial Times, literally grounding the work in data and news about the global markets. The painting above, for example, references the Old Summer Palace of Beijing, also known as Yuanmingyuan, which translates to “Gardens of Summer Brightness.”
The residence of Qianlong Emperor and his successors, the Summer Palace was home to celebrated gardens and an enormous collection of historic treasures and antiques dating back thousands of years. French and British troops captured the palace in October 1860 during the Second Opium War, which led to mass vandalism, looting, and eventually, total destruction.
In “Gardens of Summer Brightness,” the two holy mountains of Sinai and Song flank the vase in the background, suggesting a collision that may have led to the fractured pillar. A map of the park punctuated by an architectural ruin tops the pedestal, and the mille-fleurs or “thousand flowers” style, a popular motif in the Qianlong period, decorates the vase. The vessel also contains botanicals by the emperor’s court painter Giuseppe Castiglione and sunflowers to symbolize the face of the sun as a deity and energy source.
Combining inkjet printing methods, acrylic paint, and sand to create a variety of textures and three-dimensional features, Cheung’s flowers appear to delicately float across ethereal surfaces. He assembles each bloom by applying thick paint onto plastic that can be peeled off when dry and collaged onto the canvas. He is interested in what he calls the “Ozymandian eventuality” of grandeur and power to physically and metaphorically crumble over time, using sand to represent impermanence and the constantly shifting nature of the human condition.
Cheung’s solo exhibition The Garden of Perfect Brightness opens at The Atkinson in Southport, England, on June 3. You can find more on his website, and follow Instagram for updates.
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Layered and Embellished Trapunto Paintings Exude Spirit in Pacita Abad’s First Retrospective
Having created more than 5,000 paintings in her lifetime, traveled the world, and shown in over 200 exhibitions, Pacita Abad (1946-2004) was one of the most prolific and lauded Filipina-American artists. Now on view at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, her first retrospective showcases over 100 of her bold, distinctive works.
Abad was born in Basco, Batanes, the northernmost province of the Philippines. As her parents were politicians, the young artist initially had the aspirations of following in their diplomatic footsteps, and she avidly organized student demonstrations against the authoritarian Marcos regime, which eventually led to the political persecution of both Abad and her family. To escape this unrest and find security, her parents urged her to move overseas.
During what was initially a pit stop in California, Abad’s amazement with the unencumbered vibrancy and freedom of expression in San Francisco acted as a catalyst for her abundant life-long career. Informed by her experiences with despotism, political refuge, and immigration, Abad began to create work underscoring these disquietudes.
The years that followed involved travel, living in a number of different countries, and connecting with creative communities in every hemisphere. Abad was able to learn artistic techniques from different cultures and gather materials from diverse environments, which she would later incorporate into her own practice, especially her mask painting series.
Along the gallery’s pink walls at the Walker, hand-stitched meandering lines run across canvas hanging more than two meters high. Though it was not Abad’s intention for her art to be seen from both sides, viewers are able to experience her work in a more intimate way by observing the artist’s hand, evident from the delicate stitching on each backside. Part of her signature trapunto painting technique, these sewn sections of canvas puff up with padding as geometric patterns house vibrant areas of color. Calling to Africa’s masks and abstract carving, Tibet’s Thangka tapestries, and Italy’s trapunto techniques, Abad’s series of masks are a conglomeration of community encounters as well as real stories of strength and strife inspired by those that she met along the way.
Abad’s retrospective is on view at the Walker Art Center until September 3. Later this month, Tina Kim Gallery in New York will be showcasing Abad’s work in a solo exhibition, as well.
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‘One Hundred Famous Views of Edo’: Hiroshige’s Seminal Series of Woodblock Prints Gets a Vibrant Reprint
From the 17th through the 19th centuries, a genre of Japanese art called ukiyo-e—translating to “pictures of the floating world”—centered on colorful depictions of landscapes, performers and sumo wrestlers, and scenes from folklore and history in vivid woodblock prints. Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), one of the most renowned artists in the tradition—and one of the last—was famous for his chromatic vistas depicting recognizable features like blossoming cherry trees and the omnipresent snow-capped cone of Mount Fuji. His final project, an ambitious collection of 120 woodblock illustrations, became known as One Hundred Famous Views of Edo and depicts what is now Tokyo throughout the seasons.
A new reprint from Taschen pairs each of the artist’s remarkable prints with text by authors Lorenz Bichler and Melanie Trede, celebrating the scenery, the city’s history, and Hiroshige’s contribution to ukiyo-e. The authors highlight how the colorful depictions of the country helped define the Western world’s visual interpretation of Japan, referencing the influence of Japonisme on European decorative arts and painters like Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Degas, and James McNeill Whistler. The new edition is presented in a case and bound in a traditional Japanese style known as stab binding in which a series of holes are punched in the cover and the spine is elegantly bound with string.
Scheduled for release next month, you can pre-order One Hundred Famous Views of Edo: The Complete Plates on Taschen’s website. You might also enjoy Hiroshige’s instructional shadow puppet prints and a look back at a recent exhibition focusing on landscapes in the Art Institute of Chicago’s ukiyo-e archive.
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An Insightful Demonstration Recreates Donatello’s Marble Carving Technique
To coincide with the first major U.K. exhibition of works by the Renaissance great Donatello, the Victoria and Albert Museum released the latest addition to its How was it made? series, which explores the process behind some of art history’s most lauded pieces. The short video follows sculptor Simon Smith as he creates a scaled-down iteration of the 15th-century Prato Pulpit, a relief featuring dancing cherubs made for the Cathedral of Prato.
Referring to marble as “the emperor of all stones,” Smith draws a portion of the original work on a small block and explains the unique characteristics of the material as he carves. “It’s all about trapping shadows,” he says. “Carving is all about having deep cuts here and lighter here and the angle here and how the light plays on it. And certainly in relief because relief carving like this. It’s kind of halfway between sculpture and drawing.” While demonstrating how Donatello might have approached his work, Smith offers a compelling glimpse into how two artists’ techniques overlap and converge centuries apart.
Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance is on view through June 11 in London and includes Smith’s panel, which viewers are encouraged to touch. Find more about the demonstration on YouTube. (via Kottke)
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Jeanne Vicerial’s Enigmatic ‘Armors’ Evoke Timeless Strength in Elegant Sculptures Made of Thread
Evocative of medieval suits of armor or monastic traditions, Jeanne Vicerial’s intricate sculptures exude quiet strength in thousands of draping threads. The French artist layers halyards, a type of cord used to hoist sails or flags, to outline the curves of figures wearing elegant cloaks, hoods, and shield-like accessories with unraveled coils at their feet. In her series Armors—a play on the French words amour and armure, meaning “love” and “armor,” respectively—she assembles enigmatic garments that await use, as if crystallized over time.
Vicerial was inspired by the Gorgons of Greek mythology, the most famous of which is Medusa, whose hair roiled with snakes and turned anyone who looked at them into stone. “The idea was to insert myself into that great mythological story but to suspend its time, making it impossible to define the time or place where they were born,” the artist tells Colossal. She leaves the wearers’ identities open to interpretation, allowing the viewer to imagine the possibilities of their histories or purposes.
Drawing on her background in fashion and textiles, Vicerial was originally interested in studying the male figure and clothing. She began to focus on expressions of the female form when she participated in a year-long residency at Villa Medici in Rome and was struck by the way women have been represented throughout art history. “When I looked at the sculptures in the Villa’s park and saw the Venuses with their wet drapery, the representations of women in lascivious postures with draped cloth that always seems to be accidentally slipping off, I decided to focus again on the female body,” she says. Vicerial turns the ancient trope on its head by emphasizing garments as protective coverings that beget a formidable presence, merely hinting at the figure beneath.
Describing the works as “guardians,” Vicerial provokes subtle associations with medieval European burials of knights and nobles, Japanese samurai armor, or nuns’ habits. She sometimes places varnished flowers like roses into cavities located where a metal chest plate would have protected one’s vital organs in combat. Like portals glimpsing a mysterious interior, they highlight the body’s vulnerability.
Blurring the boundary between fashion and sculpture, the phantom-like works are devoid of facial expressions. Long threads cascade from headdresses, shoulders, and faces illustrating dignity and vulnerability, and the spectral, imposing armors are “protections that express a form of power, but that are in reality extremely fragile because they are made only of threads,” she says, underlining the dubious tension between strength and weakness. “To touch them is in a way to destroy them because they could never be presented in the same way again.”
Armors comprised a recent exhibition with TEMPLON. If you’re in Paris, you can find Vicerial’s work in the group exhibition Des cheveux et des poils at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs through September 17. Follow updates about forthcoming shows and new works on the artist’s Instagram. (via .able)
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Clara Holt Reimagines Ancient Myths and Decorative Traditions in Vivid Ceramic Vessels
Drawing on the long history of Mediterranean ceramics, Italian artist Clara Holt covers the surfaces of vessels, tiles, and tablets with playful, colorful narratives. Inspired by the region’s ancient decorative pottery like the Minoan octopus flask or Greek and Etruscan vase painting, she illustrates references to mythology, nature, customs, and folklore.
As a child, Holt’s grandparents told stories of Greek heroes and monsters, and she devoured books about the ancient gods and legends. “Mythology fascinated me because it was like a bridge that could connect our present with a dimension far away in time—a time so far away that it could only be told with a dose of fantastic storytelling,” she says. As she grew older, her interests expanded to Nordic lore and the Old Norse sagas. Today, she borrows imagery and motifs from the timeless tales, recontextualizing them into mysterious narratives.
Employing a traditional Italian pottery decoration technique called sgraffito, meaning “scratched,” Holt carefully incises shallow cuts out of the smooth surface of a glazed pot, revealing the outlines of figures, animals, plants, and landscapes. In her series Terracotta Blues, the characters exist within an undefined story that circle around tall earthenware vases, creating “dreamlike scenes and imaginary characters that leave room for interpretation.”
In addition to pots and vases, Holt makes two-dimensional ceramic tiles and panels, and she is currently preparing a new series for an exhibition in Iceland in June. Find more work on her website where she also has pieces available her in her shop, and follow updates on Instagram.
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