Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Currin's Turkey

I feel uneasy when it comes to adding works by living artists to my precious “1perArtist” folder. I love contemporary art, but what happens when an artist inevitably creates a work that’s better than the one I originally chose? Going through the process of choosing art and saving it to my computer seems so final. I’m committing myself to this one painting, or drawing, or sculpture, or whatever it happens to be. I know it’s not really like that. That it’s easy to go back and reexamine an artist at anytime. That, in fact, that’s what I should be doing even for those that are long dead. But I usually don’t. No matter how much I love or admire a living artist, I’m usually too conflicted and end up completely ignoring them.

Not today. Today I’m going to talk to you about John Currin, an artist who is very much alive and very much awesome. The work I chose is his 2003 oil painting Thanksgiving. I figure that if I’m going to break my “no living artists” rule, it might as well be to show you a Thanksgiving painting the day before Thanksgiving.

John Currin, Thanksgiving, 2003, oil on canvas, 172.9 x 132.3 cm.

John Currin is an American artist who is best known for his sardonic paintings of women. In the early years, he focused on the impossibly busty and the creepy, cartoon-faced men who woo them. Now, his paintings are downright pornographic. Seriously. Porn. But, while Currin has often been accused of sexism, I think there may be something more to his work. I don’t think he’s making clichéd, fetishistic paintings just because he’s an infantile perv. I think that by showing us the images he does, he makes us stop and think about political correctness, our society, and our own attitudes. Plus, I love figure painting, and Currin’s a technically adept figure painter in a time when “real artists” are supposed to work with belly button lint and formaldehyde (although there’s nothing wrong with that either).

Thanksgiving depicts three eerily similar looking women with super skinny waists and giraffe-like necks gathered around a giant, raw turkey. They look like they could be different ages, but that could also be chalked up to the angles. The painting itself is firmly situated within art historical traditions, although it can be a bit tricky to figure out which ones. In typical postmodern fashion, Currin mixes and matches visual references as diverse as classical architecture, surrealism, and Norman Rockwell. But the most obvious reference is to Dutch genre paintings and still lifes. Like a Rembrandt, pale figures emerge from a dark brown background. The elaborate mirror and hanging candelabra suggest The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck. The blackish-purple grapes, dry onion, and wilting flowers point to Pieter Claesz still lifes. They may look perfect at first, but then you see little rotting bits of fruit, or half eaten pies, or bugs.

Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434, oil on oak, 82.2 x 60 cm.

In the 2006 book John Currin, Currin explains that he considered Thanksgiving in its original incarnation to be a failure. Lucky for us, he gave it another shot. It turns out, his muse for the revamp was his wife Rachel Feinstein, a sculptor in her own right. She was pregnant at the time and posed for all three women. In the end, Thanksgiving took exactly nine months to complete and became a sort of allegory for her pregnancy.

Not being privy to Currin’s private life, I see it differently. To me, Thanksgiving looks like a stage set. The three women are bumbling about playacting something they seem to have no real experience with. Props are crowded into the picture plane, and the women’s expressions are incredibly theatrical. The woman in the middle seems to be tasting something out of an empty spoon (although her mouth makes it look more like she’s singing than eating). The one on the left, holding the spoon, is also carrying a pot lid, apparently just for looks. At first glance, the woman in the lower right seems to be doing some real work. But no. She’s just staring at a grape she’s holding between her thumb and index finger. The whole scene is some sort of absurd mystery that makes me do a double, triple, and even quadruple take. Maybe the women have cooks and servers to take care of Thanksgiving preparations for them, but they want to put on a good show?

All in all, Thanksgiving is more subtle than a lot of Currin’s work. The overall feel that makes a Currin a Currin is there, but there’s less harshness and a complete lack of boobs. And I’m ok with that. While I’m a firm supporter of Currin’s work and think that it’s good when an artist tackles the taboo, some of Currin’s more lascivious paintings can make me a little too uneasy.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Dalí's Jewels (and more copyright)

Here’s my Salvador Dalí post. Late again. I’m a bit worried it won’t live up to all the hype, but here it goes.

First things first. After writing about copyright last week, I decided to experiment. I actually asked for permission to use photographs of some of Dalí’s art. First, I contacted the Teatre-Museu Dalí, the museum that owns the pieces I wanted to use. They have a “Rights and Images” section on their website, but after I emailed their Intellectual Property Department, they told me to contact VEGAP, the artist’s rights society that manages Dalí's reproduction rights on their behalf. But, they’re a Spanish organization. After I emailed them, they told me to contact ARS, the group that covers Dalí in the United States. I should have just done that from the start. I was already familiar with ARS and its sister organizations from an internship I did at MoMA.

Anyway, I finally made some progress. I described my blog, specified the images I wanted to use, told them that I believe what I’m doing falls under fair use, and asked them to clarify their policies. In response, they said that what I’m doing generally is not considered fair use (if you open yourself up by contacting a rights organization in the first place, they basically have to say that no matter what), but that they would be willing to waive the fees (thank you!) on three conditions:
  1. The term is limited to one year.
  2. Their copyright credit is included with the Dalí’ works.
  3. The resolution is no more than 1024 x 768 pixels at 72 dpi.
I agreed. Get your Dalí fix now. In a year, this post has to come down. Unless I just get rid of the pictures.

On to Dalí.

He is so much more prolific than I was expecting! I knew about his hyper-realistic surrealism, his melting clocks, his crutches supporting bulbous noses, his spindly-legged elephants, his ants. . . . I even knew about his film where he takes a razor blade to a cow’s eye. What I didn’t know as much about is his photography, his set design, his fashion, his architecture, his literature . . . . He even designed the logo for Chupa Chups Lollipops!

Cheapest way to own a Dalí.

Before I discovered all of these awesome new things, I was going to talk to you about Dalí’s study for Memory of the Child Woman. I love the graphic quality of its squiggly lines, and the isolated areas of subtle color add something great.

Salvador Dalí, Study for Memory of the Child Woman, 1932, 32.5 x 28cm.
© 2012 Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí,  Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

But, I changed my mind. I found something better. Today I’m going to talk to you about Dalí’s jewels. Specifically The Living Flower.

Salvador Dalí,The Living Flower, 1959, 39 x 25.2 cm.
© 2012 Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí,  Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Dalí designed his jewels between 1941 and 1970. While New York jeweler Carlos Alemany executed the designs, Dalí chose the metals and handpicked each gem. The Living Flower has a base of dark green malachite with two leafy 18-karat gold stems twisting up out of the rock. The flowers themselves are encrusted with diamonds.

But that’s not the best part. When you look closely, you can see the petals and stamen are shaped like tiny outstretched human hands. On the main flower, each hand reaches up to the sky as if it was grasping at the light. I love representational metalwork, and I love seeing body parts where they shouldn’t be.

You can buy a brooch version of The Living Flower here.

But that’s not the best part either. The best part is that it moves! Hidden inside the malachite is a system of weights and pulleys. When set in motion by what Dalí calls “electrical impulses,” the lower flower's petals slowly unfurl to reveal even more diamonds. It all makes it seem alive. Apparently, Dalí thought of The Living Flower as a metaphor for the artistic process, from conception to creation. “The malachite represents the unknown, latent forces; the gold and diamond flowers, known beauty and creativity.” It’s all wonderfully human and humanly bizarre.

To see a video of The Living Flower and other Dalí jewels go here. Be sure to stick around until the end!

Something else that’s wonderfully bizarre is Dalí himself. Most of us are familiar with his signature mustache, but among countless other eccentricities, he also had a pet ocelot named Babou.

The ocelot in Archer is named after Dalí's.

If you want to see Dalí’s jewels and pay your respects all at the same time, Dalí is buried in a crypt at his Teatre-Museu in Figueres, Spain.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Musings on Copyright

My computer is back up and running, and I promised you a post on Salvador Dalí. I’ll keep that promise, but before I do, I’m going to diverge a bit from our normal topics to talk to you about an issue that has my head spinning:

(Please don’t go away! I’ll try to keep it interesting!)

First, let me give you a brief overview of copyright law in the United States. Lawyers often describe copyright as “a bundle of rights” so we plebeians can understand it better. It includes the right to make copies of a work, the right to adapt a work, the right to distribute a work, the right to display a work, and the right to perform a work. It’s independent of physical ownership and protects books, paintings, sculptures, songs, plays. . . . I could go on and on. But, a work can’t be purely functional. It has to have some sort of creative expression. Also, although it might seem to, copyright doesn’t last forever. Its expiration date depends on when a work was made, whether and when it was first published (or in the case of the visual arts, publicly displayed), and whether and when the creator died. It’s complicated, but in general, if it’s artistic and was made in the last 120 years or so, it’s copyrighted.

I can post this portrait of my beloved husband impersonating an elephant fetus because I own the copyright.

So why am I writing about copyright? I want to talk to you about a variety of art and artists from a variety of times. I don’t want to limit our discussions to two-dimensional works made before the turn of the last century. At the same time, I don’t feel like I have the resources to ask for permission for every image I use. When I’m not here with you, I spend most of my time looking for a good, post-grad-school job and volunteering at a local museum. I also work at my county historical society (for real money!), but that’s minimum wage, one seven-hour day a week.

I can post my dad's doodle because I (theoretically) have permission.

Up until now (with the exception of the Twin Peaks photo and the Dalí from last week), my posts have all dealt with works in the public domain. That means that the paintings, drawings, and lithographs I showed you are all so old they are no longer protected by copyright. But, the coming Dalí post raises several potential hazards. Dalí didn’t die until 1989 (He was alive when I was alive!), and all of his art is still protected under copyright (even though he’s not American, and the works were not produced in the United States, and there are more special rules). Even if it wasn’t, the piece I chose is a sculpture, which complicates matters even more.

I can post Rembrandt's 1659 Self Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar because it's in the public domain.

There are these things called “derivative works.” They’re works that are based on other works. For example, Andy Warhol’s soup can paintings are derivative works based on Campbell’s Soup labels. But, derivative works can also be photographs taken to document another work. It’s generally accepted that a two-dimensional photograph that faithfully reproduces a two-dimensional work in the public domain is not protected. There’s no “creative spark.” Taking a photo of a three dimensional work requires more creativity though. The photographer has to decide on things like the lighting, angle, camera settings. . . . It can result in amazing photos that have a totally different feel than the original piece. In these cases, a photo can be protected under copyright even if the original work is in the public domain.

If I wasn't the one making the "artistic" decision to shoot this sculpture in an ugly setting with a shitty camera, I might not be able to post this.

On the other hand, there’s also a thing called “fair use” that makes it seem like I shouldn’t have to worry about copyright at all. It says that you can use a copyrighted work without permission for the purpose of criticism, comment, teaching, scholarship, and research. So there you go. In my blog, I am researching, commenting on, and critiquing art in order to teach both my readers and myself. But, fair use is not a hard and fast rule. It’s judged on a case-by-case basis based on four factors: the purpose and character of the use, the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount of the copyrighted work used, and the effect on the market. Again, my blog is not commercial, is using only immaterial images of physical objects, and, if anything, is increasing the market for the works I present. At the same time, copyright holders and licensing agencies are becoming more aggressive. They want their fees and may sue even in cases that seem to be fair use. Just downloading an image to your hard drive can be considered infringement!

Anyway, I’m still going to continue with my blog. I believe in what I’m doing. It’s just so much more complicated than you would think.

So, what do you think? Should I be more or less cautious of copyright? Will it affect my chances of being hired in the museum field? Is it super boring? Do you want me to stop talking about it? I want to hear your comments. I’ll try to be good, but if you are a copyright holder and want me to take a picture down, let me know. Please, just don’t sue!