Monday, February 25, 2019

Contemporary Art: From Classic to Modern

    I have always been a fan of classic art, dwelling in past affairs of the poetic conceptualizations that encapsulate the classic tastes. I enjoy the idea of preserving the past and expressing the immortal beauty of storytelling. I prefered my art to have set interpretations, the recognizable history right in front of you. Classic art is as it says, classic. I struggle with accepting new ideas; I like things the old way, the usual way. Because of this, I have always found it hard to grasp onto the general ideas of contemporary art. Contemporary art is a broad category and contains a massive and wide grasp as to what kind of art it contains. Contemporary art is generally defined as the modern art of today. I tended to stereotype the art form as to what I had assumed it was, cartoons and splatter paint.
For years, I renounced the idea of abstract art and unusual subject pieces and I had told myself that there was only one way to art and that was the classic style. During my senior year of high school, my art teacher noticed my stubbornness and guided me to broaden my horizons. She started me on these mini artist researches, in which I must find a contemporary artist every week and create a small piece of you own take while utilizing some of their techniques and styles. I did what any angsty teenager would’ve done and just googled “contemporary artist”, clicked the first link, and then substandardly created a sloppy piece so I could move on. With each link, I ended up finding myself becoming more and more intrigued by certain artists and their modern styles.
I eventually ran into the artist Peter Doig. Doig, born in Scotland circa 1959, was a contemporary artist who mainly focused on the ideas of magical realism, a topic that had heavily interested me in literature at the time. As a child, he continually moved with his family and was never provided a sense of stability guiding him to take on a more “free spirit” persona. At the age of seventeen, Doig dropped out of school but eventually took it upon himself to enroll in Wimbledon College to pursue a career in art even though “he had no real ‘natural drawing skill” (The Art Story). Doig really only began rising towards popularity in the early 1990s after he created this complex yet curious emotion behind his figure paintings.
At first, I struggled with his art and what he was trying to say because, again, I liked things to have a set meaning. Doig commented that "I am trying to create something that is questionable, something that is difficult, if not impossible, to put into words" (The Art Story). That irked me. Why couldn’t he just say what he painted? It was important to step back, to not zoom in so fast, and just look at the image. The colors he used were beautiful and while I had originally felt that some of his tactics were rudimentary, I just wasn’t taking in the whole picture. Curator Keith Hartley states that "he has an extraordinary visual memory which coalesces with his personal memories when he paints. So, an incident that he witnessed can be transformed by the interaction of all these elements into a painting that possesses an extraordinary resonance” (The Art Story). Through everything, what I loved about classic painting was the story being told, the deep roots of history and that is exactly what Doig is doing in his pieces. Yes, it may be more difficult to come up with the conclusion, but it is a story nonetheless. While he claims that its difficult to deduce the final say in his art, he know that the complexity is what provides the personal story for everyone else. He likes it to be unfinished for the observers, it holds its own energy that travels between people and interpretations that you can’t always get from classical artworks. I came to realize the importance and impact that contemporary art can make on the interpretations of storytelling and that everything in life doesn't have to be set in stone and above all, as Doig states, “I think that's what we find exciting about looking at other people's paintings, something that's living - not inert or complete or perfect.”

“Biography for Peter Doig (Born 1959).” Peter Doig Biography,
“Peter Doig Biography, Life & Quotes.” The Art Story,
Saatchi Gallery. “Peter Doig.” Cecily Brown - Pyjama Game - Contemporary Art,

A Brave New (Art) World

In October 2018, a piece entitled “Portrait of Edmond Belamy” was sold at Christie’s Auction house for a cool $432,000. With the auctioneer’s gavel, history was made. The artwork, a dynamic and loosely-rendered portrait, was not a painting not created by a famous old master or today’s brightest visionary. Rather, it had been generated through an artificial intelligence algorithm. The sale was the first of its kind, a piece of artwork not generated by a person, but by computer.

Edmond de Belamy.png

The ability to create art seems like a fundamental distinction between man and machine. Artwork, whether representational or abstract, is a subjective interpretation of the world. We imbue it with value because it can illuminate truths, challenge perceptions, and change perspectives. At a minimum, it can strike wonderment of the beauty that other humans can create on paper, transcribe in score, or chisel into marble. But does AI-generated art have this value? When increasingly smart computational models can produce artwork with indistinguishable quality from that created by humans, should the art world open its arms?

AI-generated art generally relies on technology called generative adversarial neural networks. These computational models “learn” both to generate samples which can realistically belong to a distribution—for example, generating an image which could easily belong to a library of real images-- and to distinguish samples that do not belong. They are tuned, trained, through a two-prong learning process: one network is dedicated to generating these realistic samples, while the other is tuned to distinguish fakes from real samples. Iteratively, parameters in the two networks are tuned so that they excel in their competing goals, arriving at a stasis where the generating network can dependably produce realistic images which the discriminating network can no longer dependably identify as fake.

And the results are uncanny. Life-like faces belonging to no real person can be generated, videos of politicians or public figures saying outlandish things can be fabricated, prose seemingly belonging to well-known authors can be spun out. And fake artwork masterpieces could easily replace the canvases adorning museum halls and gallery walls. AI art-generators have been developed to impersonate everything from impressionist to modernist painters. The Google DeepMind algorithm notably depicts its “dreams” in psychedelic abstractions of every day objects, deconstructed and lingering just beyond recognition.

These new advances intrigue and challenge me. The technology is exciting. The complexity encompassed in state of the art models exceeds the limits of computational power just a few years old. AI models are capable of intuiting abstract, high-dimensional features that humans cannot grasp. So invention, creation generated by these models at a minimum is technologically impressive. But while these models create new, yet familiar, artistic images, they do so in a method completely alien and opaque to even computational scientists. AI art generation lacks the human creative process of intuiting, planning, conceiving, and laboring. But when the results can be sold for nearly a million at auction and replace the best Rothko, is this human process actually obsolete?

Why is contemporary art disliked?
Modern and contemporary art is often ugly, hideous, vulgar, repulsive, trivial, unsophisticated, badly executed, crude and even foul smelling. Modern and contemporary art often show no or little artisanship and skill. Simply put: much of the modern and contemporary art tends to lack the attributes we tend to identify with ‘art’.
Understandably, people feel cheated when they face modern and contemporary art; many feel deceived. They feel like the little boy in Emperor’s New Clothes: they see the emperor is naked.
Everything boils down to the three basic values: truth, goodness, and beauty. What is beauty? What do we consider beautiful? Contrary to most people’s beliefs, beauty is not in the eyes of the beholder. The basic laws of beauty were discovered already in the Antiquity: the concepts of what is beautiful are pretty much universal. Try asking any girl what is beauty and being beautiful, and you get a downright dead honest answer - and that answer is not relative nor a social structure. It is the same in all cultures all around the world. Beauty is objective.
Why modern art is hideous? Because modern art is basically the break-off from Classical ideas and challenging the natural concept of beauty. The Classical and Medieval periods equated beauty with goodness and Godhead; the art was to reach for the divine and the capture the God’s image within us. It had to have harmony. (See Leonardo’s La Gioconda, better known as Mona Lisa.)
In contemporary art, the new theme is: Art must be a quest for truth, however brutal, and not a quest for beauty. So, the question became: What is the truth of art?
The first argument of contemporary art is a demand for the recognition that the world is not a beautiful harmonious place. The world is fractured, decaying, horrifying, depressing, empty, and very unpredictable. Artists are demanding a way to express this ugliness of the world through perspective and color. Although this is common in contemporary art, it’s not entirely new. (See Rembrandt’s Flayed Ox)
Another argument is the intrinsic value of Novelty in contemporary art. Most contemporary art is easy to duplicate by any artisan- classical art is not easy to copy. The real value of contemporary art is in the fact that nobody has done it before. Yves Klein’s Monochrome(see bottom) square is easy to duplicate but no one before him had done it before. But would it be art if hung a white canvas on the wall, dipped my cat in blue paint, and had him roll over it? Certainly, it would be a novelty, and maybe contemporary art or not.
Why I prefer contemporary art?
Classical art is beauty and harmony. But beauty without honesty is deceit and not all beauty is art. True beauty should incorporate goodness within and if contemporary art can depict goodness through its less harmonious avenues, then I’d prefer that over beautiful Realism Soviet-era art.

Rembrandt’s Flayed Ox 

Contemporary. Art in Painting

I have been drawing and creating small scrappy works of art since the age of five when my mother gifted me my first sketchbook.  However, my true passion for creating art emerged when I was in middle school and, while my interest in drawing developed later, I was initially inspired to paint.  As a young artist searching for inspiration, no modern paintings inspired me more than the vibrant and harsh style of Belarussian-Israeli painter Leonid Afremov.

Leonid Afremov was born in Belarus in 1955, and began his studies as an artist at a Vitebsk university in Belarus.  He originally began publishing art in the form of posters.  However, due to the Communist Party’s insistence that the sole form of permissible art was propaganda for the Party, Afremov emigrated to Israel in order to pursue his visions as an artist.  He ultimately relocated his studio to Florida, where he began creating and releasing his signature paintings.

When I first found his paintings on the internet, I, as many of his other viewers, was immediately struck by the vibrance and contrast of the colors he used in his art.  His paintings have no clear central theme or unifying message.  Instead, he focuses on creating visually pleasing landscapes, tranquil park scenes, or paintings of famous landmarks.  Each piece of art has a distinct nostalgic feeling, as the lack of central figures or evidence of human life in his scenes reminds of a time before the modern issues of overpopulation and environmental destruction.

While many viewers might initially think that his art resembles the style of classical or impressionist painters, a closer inspection and insight into his intention shows that his art more closely resembles modern art.  He uses broad, heavy-handed brush strokes not only to create a visually pleasing painting, but also to give insight into his process in creating the piece.  Many renaissance painters tried to create such accurate renditions of landscapes or portraits that they almost hid the fact the art was in fact a painting by blending the colors and the brush strokes.  However, Afremov, armed with only a palette knife, uses both vibrant and striking colors such as oranges, reds, and dark blues, to highlight his own hand in creating the painting by using thick swatches of the paint and applying them to a more blended background.  These swatches primarily mimic the dispersion of light across a colorful scene, and allow the viewer to appreciate not only the beauty of the scene, but the process which the artist went through to create this piece.

I was immediately drawn to this aspect of creating art, which allows the viewer to appreciate even seemingly simple landscapes or portraits the may not have a distinct message as a work of art that an individual put effort and skill into.  As a young painter and later in drawings as well, I enjoyed the challenge of creating pieces that seemed accurate at the surface, but where either small cross-hatching lines or unblended swatches of paint indicated that the piece was meant to be appreciated as a work of art rather than a photograph.

Contemporary Art: An Evolution of Appreciation

From confusion to awe to a developing appreciation, my relationship with contemporary art has evolved over time. My first memories of art were my own contemporary “masterpieces,” abstractions created from glitter glue and finger paint. From a young age, my parents accompanied me on countless museum trips, and I remember never quite understanding what was so exciting about a huge canvas covered in solid red paint, or other contemporary abstractions. But these museum trips created a lifetime appreciation for art that eventually led me to attend a pre-college program at the Cleveland Institute of Art.

The program was accompanied with free access to the Museum of Contemporary Art, or MOCA, which my friends and I happily took advantage of throughout the program. Concealed within the mirrored, geometric building was some of the most peculiar artwork I have ever experienced. I remember sitting in a dark room for at least half an hour, trying to make sense of Lu Yang’s animated work entitled Delusional Mandala. According to the MOCA website, the purpose of Lu Yang’s work was to “... investigate how neuroscience, medical and digital technology, and the Internet are changing society” (“Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland”). This was my first introduction to the use of art to explore technology’s effects on society, an area I am exploring today. But Lu Yang’s imagery was wild; after staring at a variety of dancing body parts and psychedelic buses, I left feeling at once fascinated and a bit violated. This animation got somewhere deep inside my head, recurring in my memory throughout the next few weeks. Though I went into the exhibit somewhat skeptical, it had an incredible impact on me.

Fast forward about a year and a half to this past winter break, when my family went to visit the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. I was weary of being pushed through crowds of tourists, but I entered the Whitney with an open mind, eager to see and learn something new. We first went straight to the special Andy Warhol exhibit. Of course, I was familiar with Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup series, but I did not understand the story of his life beyond the pop art designs most Americans recognize. From this exhibit, I gained insights into Warhol’s ever-morphing identity and opinions, from his sexuality to his political views. I left with a heightened understanding not only of the art, but also the artist behind the work.

More exciting to me than Warhol’s exhibit was the exhibit Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965–2018. From the Whitney website, “...Programmed traces how rules and instructions in art have both responded to and been shaped by technologies, resulting in profound changes to our image culture” (“Programmed”). Like Lu Yang’s work I had seen in Cleveland, this was an entire exhibit dedicated to the intersection between art and technology. This was the kind of contemporary art I could relate to. After years of confusion about seemingly forced deep meanings in contemporary art, I could see the meaning in this exhibit. I was particularly drawn to W. Bradford Paley’s Codeprofiles, which visualizes “ code is read by people, written by programmers, and executed by computers” (“Programmed”). Lines moved across the screen, representing how code is written, read, and implemented. I was entranced. This exhibit spoke to my interests outside of art, expressing the art behind programming and algorithms.

As my family left the museum, we shared our favorite exhibits, finding that we each had different preferences; different works piqued our interest. Now I see that, perhaps, there is contemporary art for everyone. I believe that if you look around, you will find something that speaks to you. You just have to be willing to look long enough to find it.


“Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland.” Home | MOCA Cleveland, 2 June 2017,

“Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965–2018.” Hopper Drawing | Whitney Museum of American Art,

Link to Lu Yang's Delusional Mandala:

Immersion as a form of art to prompt sense of self - Mary

One of the earliest examples of installation art is Marcel Duchamp’s series of ready-mades. I remember the first time seeing Fountain in a museum, a gold plated urinal firmly mounted on a white pedestal. It was a very confusing experience for me. The idea behind this series was based on the principle that objects not considered material art is conventionally made from can be dignified and transformed into artworks through reactions. Hence a gold-plated urinal.

But the idea of evoking reaction from an experience as art has persisted and evolved up to today. Installation art has grown to works like James Turrell’s light rooms, Yayoi Kusama’s obliteration rooms and LACMA’s rain room, to name a few. These works center around evoking reaction through immersive experiences.
“Immersive” to me means that the viewer must be able to experience and sense themselves in the work.
For example, at NCMA’s “You Are Here” exhibit, a piece by Lozano-Hemmer titled “1984x1984” featured a TV wall mounted with cameras that projected a reflection of the viewer’s movements as they stood in front of the wall. The viewer is able to experience themselves through viewing their own movement and form abstracted into colorful squares.

Another example is James Turrell’s “Breathing Light”. While the point of his works are to flood the viewer with color until all senses are seemingly diminished, I would argue that the procedure/experience of entering his piece lends to its immersive-ness. Upon entering, viewers are required to wear the white clean room booties that are provided. This step in requiring the viewer to perform an action therefore inserts the viewer into the piece, making it immersive.
Yayoi Kusama’s Obliteration Rooms and Infinity Rooms are prime examples of immersion. In the Infinity Rooms, the viewer is the center of attention. In the middle of all the flashing lights and infinity is the viewer themself. The focus and draw of her work is being able to see yourself reflected infinite times! (A prime argument of our time’s trend towards the need for self? Maybe. Maybe that’s why the field of immersive installation art has grown. But I digress.) Same as the Obliteration Rooms. The viewer is instructed to place colored dots in all places of the room, “obliterating” all forms of furniture and object in the room. Though a fun concept, it’s made immersive and appealing by utilizing the viewer. Once again the viewer is inserted in the work by performing an action that creates the art.
The Rain Room in LACMA - a contained room that dispenses water from the ceiling, mimicking rain. What makes the work appealing and draws visitors to book their tickets months in advance is that viewers are allowed to - in select numbers - run through the room and get rained on. The art does not exist without the viewer! The experiencer! Other wise it’d just be considered a terrible room with horrendously leaky pipes running across the roof.

All in all, these new forms of immersive-ness in modern installation art are bushing boundaries of how art is defined and experienced. Gone are the days where art was a distant, untouchable, unrelatable object, and here are the days where we the viewers are given the ability to create the art as we experience them.


Sunday, February 24, 2019

Contemporary Art: a journey of experience

Contemporary Art: a journey of experience

Drooling heat, liquid sunshine dissolving skin — my trip to LACMA in 2013 on a steaming summer day was one of the first few modern art museum pilgrimages I have ever made. As a young artist who was training in pencil, pastel and charcoal, the Levitated Mass — a 340-ton boulder sculpture — captured all of my attention. Trudging back and forth under the “levitated” mass, I could not grasp the idea that an art museum paid 10 million dollars for a piece of rock that does not display any sort of floatation illusion as its name suggests. The rock encounter made me, for a little while, a blatant attacker of modern art. Partly due to the fact that the concepts are mostly foreign, and that I approached most pieces with a consequentialist perspective. 

A few summers ago, I worked at Outsider’s Arts Nanjing as an art instructor. The nonprofit provides space and resources for people who have intellectual or developmental challenges to exercise their creative minds through visual arts. The students drew from pure imagination, utilizing lines, blocks of colors, or even just a single paint stroke. At first glance, the creations may seem to fall far from the common art pieces that we recognize, but the raw sentiments that emerged from those flat canvases allowed me to understand and learned about each student personally even though we often could not communicate verbally. Interactions with the students there led me to ruminate further what art is and could be. In a digital age, cameras capture the reality far better than any realistic paintings. I was inspired to diverge from my obsession with technical perfection and invest time pondering the colors and forms I see in this world. While I still do focus heavily how a painting turns out when I paint, I began to realize a deeper significance in the process of art making rather than the end product.   The art pieces from Outsider’s Arts Nanjing are expressions. They document the thought process, emotions and imagination of artists who are not necessarily concerned with how a painting looks when finished. 

Visual art in the modern age often combine and intertwine with performing arts. For example, the artist Sam Cox, widely known as Mr. Doodle, is invited to draw for big name clients such as MTV and Adidas, often in a live or recorded drawing session, in the form of endless doodles that often lack structure, big design, nor substantial meaning. Sam Cox has gained wide spread popularity over the past few years by stepping out of a conventional art studio and make the art making process an art in itself. What he calls a “growing drawing virus,” he lets his imagination run loose and spill his brain endlessly on a blank surface. In sped up videos that he records, white surfaces of almost anything you can imagine —that of a chair, car, shoes, even his own shirt — are covered completely by cartoonish doodles by the end of the recording, a marvelous spectacle that induce awe and joy in the viewers. Sam Cox draws, but by letting the viewers in on his art making process, he is a performing artist. 

Of course, Sam Cox is not comparable to the students I met at Outsider’s Arts Nanjing. However, the parallel that I see from their artworks is striking. Both see art as a means rather than an end. Artworks to them are chronicles of their feelings, maps of their imaginations. The concept of contemporary art changes and evolves every single day as we as a human species gain experience and step forward in history. Modern art is only becoming ever more diverse. Six years after my first visit to LACMA, both my art style and perspective metamorphosed. I still, however, cannot cease to be confused by the Levitated Mass. 

Black Male Identity Politics in Art: The Black Romantic

        Over the past two decades, there has been a global push to diversify and normalize positive images of blackness in all forms of media. A concept known as the Black Romantic has been used to describe this phenomenon within the Identity Politics art movement. Awareness of Black males in this spectrum piqued when Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of former President Barack Obama went viral on social media platforms everywhere. Even before Wiley’s work, Black Male Identity Politics in art grounded its roots in the Harlem Renaissance era with painter Charles White. 
        His lithograph piece, Gideon, utilized layered line contours to depict realistic depth and phenotypical African American features to articulate alternative beauty standards. The right facing position of the model on the paper makes the viewer interpret themselves looking upwards, in a heroic fashion fitting of the name Gideon, who was a military leader and prophet from the book of Judges in the Bible. Charles White and his artistic repertoire stood in active opposition to caricatures by humanizing African American males and realistically illustrating the beauty of the Black race.           
        White’s abilities extended into his teaching career and inspired a student by the name of Kerry James Marshall. He built an artistic flair of depicting the protagonists as jet black skin tone combined with the bright and vibrant environments, equating outside color value with aesthetic African American beauty standards. A piece most reminiscent of Gideon painted by Marshall would be the Untitled (Stono Drawing), where the male model has a straight on perspective and direct communication to the observer. His mane of thick locs paired with his elaborate white coat indicate a heroic stature. Shoulder poise and facial expression absent of simplicity invoke a deep question of the model’s disposition, stark contrasts of light and darkness gift him strength. 
        Kerry James Marshall continues the lineage of the black romantic and his work influences many present-day artists, such as Kehinde Wiley and William Paul Thomas, a resident artist at the Duke Rubenstein Arts Center. In the art collection of 2013, Kehinde Wiley completed an oil painting named Casey Riley, that maintains similar poise and facial stature that is seen with Charles White and Kerry James Marshall. The model position is more direct than seen in Gideon and is looking left almost as if appreciating a glorious past, basking in the light as it rebounds off of his cinnamon skin. Heroic elements are also present with the gold accent overlay, which is another nod to Charles White and his work. 
        Similarly, artist William Paul Thomas has been working on a collection called Cyanosis, which are illustrations of the societal suffocation imposed onto the Black male in America. Many of the models possess complex emotive stances and vary in age, while maintaining cultural appreciation and the beauty of the Black male. Also, the models are Black males that have contributed to the life of Thomas as well, making a personal connection between them and the world around them through a common experience across generations. 

Works Cited
Charles White (American, 1918-1979), Gideon, 1951. Lithograph in black on ivory wove paper, printed by Robert Blackburn (American, 1920–2003), 338 x 260 mm (image); 509 x 390 mm (sheet). The Art Institute of Chicago, Margaret Fisher Fund, 2017.300 © The Charles White Archives Inc. 
Kerry James Marshall. Untitled (Stono Drawing). 2012. Watercolor, ink, and pencil on paper. Acquired through the generosity of Thelma and AC Hudgins, Donald B. Marron, and Susan G. Jacoby in honor of her mother Marjorie L. Goldberger. © 2019 Kerry James Marshall. 
Kehinde Wiley. CASEY RILEY. 2013. OIL ON CANVAS 48" X 36".