Bruce Nauman (1941 –

Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive HERE for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: tomkweipoet@gmail.com. 

Painting is but one of the skills that sculptor, photographer and installation artist Bruce Nauman also has at his disposal. In spite of his myriad of approaches though, there runs an aesthetic minimalist consistency throughout his work. A stoic adherence to precision, with a direct eye that conjures deep juxtaposition puzzles for the viewer within subtle signifiers.

NO (1981)

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The sheer power of words is never better exemplified than in Bruce Nauman’s ‘NO’. The painting is a smart flip on the idea of patheticfallacy, with the chaotic weather of the piece not just representing the idea of the word ‘No’ as a concept, but also incorporating the slick contours of the word itself within the maelstrom. The word charges out from the front, the stormed techniques curving around the contours.

Regardless of the term however, the work throughout is outstanding. Though on first glance they may feel as childish scribbles, there is a consistency to the manic scrawls; spirals tube up and out of the words, small twisted tornados gather in arches, the guttering white at the left hand side of the ‘N’ of the word gifts it a seething, searing quality. Around this depiction of solid refusal there is still some of Nauman at work, with a clean white boundary left around the word, adding a caustic edge to the denial.

Though undeniably powerful even just on the screen in front of you, experiencing’ NO’ in real life, as I did when staying in Liverpool, really allows you appreciate the power of the painting within the context of a gallery. Scanning the upper room of the Liverpool TATE where the painting is housed, it will always catch your eye with monomania.

Ultimately, there comes a sense, especially with ‘NO’, that perhaps analysis as per Kweiseye isn’t even necessary really for this one, its powers self evident and without question.

Ah Ha (1975)

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The title of this delicate mirror image piece is something you may initially mutter to yourself you dig deeper down in its symmetries. There is just not just the black and white of the left and right, nor the fact that opposing words, whose letters can each equally be halved exactly, are in fact the same reflection in both shape and spelling. The interest and trouble then stems from the fact that the definitions of the actual pure words themselves, the ‘ah’ and the ‘ha’ are hard to pin down in terms of empirical certainty.

‘Ha’ is obviously the easier of the two, the standard explanation being laughter, though perhaps it can be of malice. Is the ‘Ah’ an exhalation? A scream of pain? Perhaps it’s meant as mentioned at the opening, as an ‘Ah’ of discovery.

The standard tropes of this blog then, looking at brushwork, imagery etc. these cannot apply here. Yet the piece still retains interest through both the simplicity of its execution, and the effectiveness of the sheer idea of the thing. It is playful and suggestive, alluring in an unpretentious way. A nudge in the gallery to remember that defining artwork is treacherous. And if forced one should be taken by the glee of the situation rather than labored with obtrusive baggage.

Enjoy reading that? Click HERE to see a list of all the artist analyses on Kweiseye to date.

To keep up with the blog and all the art I write about, follow me right here on this blog or here @tomkweipoet

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Lilly Martin Spencer (1822 – 1902)

 

Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive here for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: tomkweipoet@gmail.com. 

To walk through any large American art gallery is to see numerous artists akin to Lilly Martin Spencer. Her antebellum themes of family life, jovial occasions and light-hearted mischief are nothing new then, rather what intrigues is the subtle gender repositioning occurring often within Spencer’s work.

Young Husband: First Marketing (1854)

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How very humorous! A man is sent out to gather food from the market and, lo and behold, he struggles! Around his uneasy, clopping heels there already lies a tomato amongst radishes, whilst above these a chicken clings tightly by the legs to another bird which is also slipping out of an expertly realised basket menagerie.

Though the image is of course quite funny, both in a contemporary sense of general slapstick and also through its retroactive perspective on stereotype subversion, Young Husband: First Marketing reveals a hidden pain. Namely, the worry of establishing and maintaining a household well within the public arena. This melding then, of genuine hilarity and poignant anxiety, forges a bittersweet aura within. Something Spencer gently complements through her depictions of the rest of the watching crowd featured in Young Husband.

At the front then is, of course, the husband himself – he whose unfocused glance is both uncomfortable and askew. Behind him, a gentleman looks inward with a knowing smile:

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And at his left we see a woman hitching her skirt up in an act as gender defiant as the centre-point. When these three are taken together, an odd sense of momentum is formed as their moving directions counteract the other, compounding the sense of isolation the husband no doubt feels.

A common volley of complaint cast at Spencer is that her heads are often too large for her persons. And though perhaps that stands here, it’s undeniable that there is some real prowess demonstrated on the canvas. With the stairs at the right edge being notable in their defined polish whilst the retreating back is commendable in its misty mesh of branches and homes.

Reading the Legend (1852)

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A woman stares off; perhaps at the castle, perhaps enraptured within her suitor’s words, perhaps even lost within herself. The magic that has captured her is something  that we cannot see. Spencer takes this idea and runs with it within Reading the Legend, employing the signifiers of the image to pose an important question about the nature of imagination.

The castle in the background is Ireland’s Blarney Castle. Spencer always feels more comfortable to me with buildings rather than people, and the subtle battle here between Blarney’s degradation and the creeping vine is executed fantastically. It isn’t hard to imagine the majestic aura this battlement would give off back in its heyday, and at the far right edge we can see more of it crumbling off, suggesting mass.

And while the castle is integral here, it’s the three figures at the forefront that create such an engaging picture. Is it best then to be regaled, as the suitor does, by someone else? To hear them read someone else’s interpretation of a thing to send you elsewhere? Much like I, Tom Kwei, am doing now? I’m reading this picture in my own way for you and letting you know.

Maybe it’s best to be at the woman, to take in what I’ve said but to contemplate separately. Or, finally, you could behave as the dog, ignoring all around you and searching for your own answers within. Regardless of these digressions, Spencer yet again is enshrining the importance of the feminine experience, as here it is she rather than he that is seen as the central figure of the painting.

Enjoy reading that? Click HERE to see a list of all the artist analyses on Kweiseye to date.

To keep up with the blog and all the art I write about, follow me right here on this blog or here @tomkweipoet

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