Monday, September 30, 2019

Contemporary Art and Social Commentary (Julia Henegar)

With the progression of time, art has expanded in every aspect. Contemporary art is the result of a continuous growth of visual art in style, method, materials, and concepts. Art is no longer simply traditional paintings depicting certain people or places; it’s more fluid and less definable. It can't be boxed in. Anything that conveys emotion, alludes to an event, or evokes thought using visual elements can be considered art.  
In the past 20 years, we’ve seen contemporary art deliberately comment of art of the past. This comes in the wake of a new consciousness that certain societal and cultural stigmas should be eradicated. Issues ranging from gender inequality, racial inequality, xenophobia, homophobia, and body dysmorphia have been explored in depth, and a lot of contemporary art seeks to make social change. Contemporary art is used for awareness. People see the art, hopefully consider its implications, and take away a piece of information that alters their mindset. And it’s easier to alter mindsets with visual information compared to verbal or literary information because images capture attention and are remembered; all they require are a pair of eyes. 
An artist I’ve admired for a few years now is Jenny Saville, an English painter who creates massive displays of morphed, tangled, abstract bodies and faces. Her bold brushstrokes, vivid and unnatural colors, and gruesome figures fill each painting with emotion. For example, her work Reverse depicts a face in an extremely unusual way: the head is lying on its side, the lips are pulled and distorted by the forces of gravity, and the color scheme is largely red, making a striking statement about flesh and what it’s made of. This painting is a portrait. But it’s not a portrait in a conventional sense at all. It’s almost gruesome, evocative of blood and wounds and even death. The stylistic elements aren’t conventional either. It’s full of raw brushstrokes that still effectively show the texture of flesh without being blended. Saville furthers this expression in her paintings Rosetta II and Red Stare Collage.  

Reverse, 2002-03

Rosetta II, 2005-06

Red Stare Collage, 2007-09

These portraits are a patchwork of bold brushstrokes of unnatural colors, yet they’re obviously human faces. Saville uses this style to comment on artwork of the past and conventional art in general- her portraits are huge, almost frightening depictions of strange faces. They aren’t ‘pretty’ or small or pleasant because humans aren’t pretty and small and pleasant. In the past, flesh was painted as a smooth porcelain texture, but this isn’t representative of reality and can create unachievable beauty standards. Saville redefines beauty. She paints abstracted faces that are somehow more real because they’re more emotional. Contemporary art takes art of the past and changes it to more accurately convey reality, and Saville does this expertly. 
More examples of art restructuring the past include Standing Nude by Jemima Stehli and The Better to Kiss You With by Jessica Lagunas (images unavailable)Stehli’s self-portrait is a direct allusion to Boticelli’s Venus. She poses in the exact same way as Venus, but she is located in her photography studio and takes her picture herself. This is an obvious comment on the historical implications of beauty in art, and it has a feminist undertone. Stehli makes the ultimate power move by highlighting her own career in the arts while being stark naked. She combines famous artwork of the past with the contemporary practice of tackling social issues. The Better to Kiss You With is video art, something that is mainly contemporary (if we exclude cinematic works of art) because of its technological implications. In this work, Lagunas applies and reapplies bright red lipstick to her lips, conveying a sense of pressure and pain through a common activity. Many women (and men) wear lipstick daily, but why? Lagunas raises this question by turning this usually simple and pleasant activity into a grisly, obsessive one—beauty and the motions we go through to achieve it could actually do more harm than good. Both of the aforementioned works of art are contemporary in that they take old art or normalized activities and twist them in some way that makes viewers consider the significance of beauty standards and reflect on how they’ve changed through the centuries. 
Contemporary art is undefinable, but a lot of it is created out of a desire for social change. That’s what art is used for, after all: to convey a message that inspires individuals to think differently. 

Works Cited 
Barber, Karen. “Jenny Saville Artist Overview and Analysis.” The Art Story, The Art Story Contributors, 16 July 2018, 

“Jenny Saville.” Gagosian, Gagosian, 12 Apr. 2018, 

Rideal, Liz, and Kathleen Soriano. Madam and Eve: Women Portraying Women. Laurence King Publishing Ltd, 2018. 

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