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.

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Judith Leyster (1609 – 1660)

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. 

Despite being highly regarded within her own lifetime, it took more than 230 years after Judith Leyster’s death for her to be rediscovered for a contemporary audience. Up until that point the entirety of her own work was actually considered to be that of acclaimed portraitist Franz Hals, an error eventually corrected by the excellently named critic, Cornelis Hofstede de Groot.

Leyster’s work typically is of people within scenes of entertainment and leisure. The preoccupations of the then growing Dutch middle class.

The Last Drop (1639)

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The signs are clear that the men have indulged too much. The tankard is tipped empty, the long pipe smoking. The drinker at the left is maternally gripped to his jug, cheeks bulging. And as if this wasn’t enough to connote avarice, there are the items that the grimacing skeleton holds too. A flickering candle reaching its end, a running hourglass, and, somewhat more obscurely, his own head. A sight to suggest the loss of reason maybe, or, more likely, something to underscore the uneasiness of the image.

Whilst the moral lesson of The Last Drop is practically spoon-fed (the title a pun on both the end of the bottle and the end of life), what holds interest is the sense of light. From the candle in the middle we have not only the bones themselves illuminated in all their macabre glory: the broken teeth, the wide, searing eyes which are enrapt looking at the oblivious gulper. But the features of the indulged too, the ornately clothed smoker lit up in a delicious execution of skill, the watched man on the left shown on his darker side with the light peeping out, gilding a three dimensional edge to the image.

The light also draws us into the face of the standee whose look is a perfect vision of drunkeness. His mouth toothy and agape above eyes rolled back, looking off over the shoulder of the viewer to some beleaguered sense of reason.

Alongside the skeleton, this element of otherwordlyness is compounded through the blank, grey background. Where actually are we here? A bar or something of that type would make sense but they seem on display as a lesson rather than amidst mere depiction. Everything is good in moderation so they say, even moderation.

Young Flute Player

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Lost in the trills of practice, the small boy (who is much smaller than his large tented clothes let on), looks out into the nothingness that musicians inhabit when they’re amidst practice. Behind him other extraordinarily well realised instruments hang, the sheen of the violin and recorder something really to behold. But he is elsewhere, engaged with his flute; his mouth pursed, his fingers curved into a melody.

Again, much like The Last Drop, Leyster takes us to a blank background to reinforce all the details within. The arch of the chair the boy sits on, the cobra like patterning that creeps up the leg, as well as the delicate, hushed white ruffling of his collar.

There 0f course is no sound in painting, no other sense but sight. Yet Leyster seems to have captured the moment so well in its tranquility and envelopment, that you strain a little to imagine what sound the boy is making.

 

For Dutch genre painting of a similar ilk, read about the earlier explored Jan Steen (1626 – 1679) here.

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Jakub Schikaneder (1855 – 1924)

 

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. 

I like painters who leave hints. Painters whose work renounces mere representation and engages their audience with some narrative assembly. Jakub Schikaneder, the Czech Realist, is such a tease.

An artist of delicate, sombre pieces that feel at once both full and empty. His technique is remarkably assured, especially in the treatment of the human body, yet ultimately his work’s intent is obscure and unsteady. Schikaneder’s paintings feel as offerings in a sense, invitations up to the discerning, inquisitive eye.

Evening Street (1906)

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There is a squinted-eyed dimness to this piece. A sense of solitary chill which permeates the very bones of Evening Street, developing a trace of hazy static as if it were encountered through a light sleet. This is best evident on the worn walls and browning cobbles, their quickly dappled surfaces emanating a bleary frost.

Up top amidst the eaves of the forward facing building, a snow has gathered and grown visible. Above this the night holds impenetrable but for a single defiant star – much akin to the solitary lamplight seen at the far left window – that is fighting against the inevitable tug of a wintry night. Atop the aforementioned pane, another is curiously open to the world, along with yet another which hangs ajar just to the upper left of the unreadable sign. Maybe whoever was there has upped and left; who would want to live in such unenviable cold?

Our only real sense of any powerful light comes through the intriguing passageway at the right. The shine both richly illuminating the pallor of the buildings, as well as pulling us subtly away from the numbed heart of the square to somewhere more inviting. But of course, there is no exit here. Schikaneder is a heckler as we’ve discussed. Rather our eyes become dragged back to the street, wherein it soon becomes clearer on examination that this is an oddly claustrophobic image. One that is walled with no escape at the right, bar the subtle tease, with a solid storefront facing outward defiant towards us. The gloom of the square is less expansive than it may have first appeared it seems.

A feeling compounded by the two departing women who in a sense seem to reflect each other, creating a smaller enclosed division within the open space. Their paths are a near perfect angle of symmetry, along with their similar white covering and haunches both up struggling against the night. With the solitary light and their pale shawls, they can perhaps be seen as ghosts in this wasteland, stalking on the bitter chill of a Prague street.

Murder in the House (1890)

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A man at the front of a group gestures to a body, the corpse itself seems to point back. This wonderful picture is one to be scoured for its details and mysteries.

Amongst themselves, regardless of the tragedy around them, the crowd are a fantastic collection of characters. Most, such as the maid with her hands clasped or the older man leaning forward, appear pensive and curious rather than horrified. Perhaps what Schikaneder is showing is a moment past the initial hysteria of discovering a murder.

The majority of the 10 (look out for the easy to miss younger girl beside the older man infront of the door) appear to be focusing more on the older couple up front as opposed to the body. Intriguingly, it seems that the small child is the one most fascinated of the rabble, her pose relaxed yet gripped in its gaze. From the exasperation of the man signalling towards the boy to the more diplomatic reserve of the maid behind him, Schikaneder excels in creating character through expression. On the face of it they seem a disparate bunch, but through placing them all in the context of the horror they feel coherent and believable.

Supposedly images of this kind, which look to the fate of women within squalor, was an arc that Schikaneder plumbed regularly for inspiration. Research has identified the place that inspired Murder in the House as the opening of the dead-end Sitalska street which lead in part to the ghetto of the artist’s home city, Prague. The vivid realism here then is no accident, with the incredible detail of the area indebted to Schikaneder’s own experience.  The walls all scrubbed yet dirty, the window frames wooden and uneven. At a close corner by the barrel, a piece of wood festers broken.

There is of course the woman herself too. Despite her clear once-elegance, the artist is unsparing in his depiction of her demise. Her head silently twisted in her own blood puddle, her wrist cast awkwardly backward. Grimly it seems that this position was something she would have stumbled to, with her hand print on the yellowed hallway suggesting she had held herself for a second before collapsing to be found by the crowd.

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Joan Eardley (1921 – 1963)

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. 

Some of my all time favourite songs are instrumental. Freed from the conventional storytelling of lyrics, there often paradoxically seems to be more to be said through a weaving melody line than couplets that inevitably chorus climb. Of course there isn’t any actual tale being spun within a song of this ilk like, say, Dirty Three’s excellent ‘The Restless Waves’, rather it seems the lack of a coherent centre allows the technique and style of the musicians to flourish.

As Tommy Emmanuel and Guthrie Govan before her then, Joan Eardley feels to me as an instrumentalist. An artist who primarily feels concerned with pageantry, her affecting style taking over her stark depictions. Eardley’s world is one of great force and abandon, a place dominated by the brush rather than any message.

July Fields (1959)

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This painting captivates through its impenetrable surface. With little in the way of pictorial representation July Fields feels essentially an exhibition for Eardley’s sublime control of chaotic colour blending. Such simplicity of image – the gruff of a field beneath a smudged blue sky – inevitably invites scrutiny, and up close the complex grassland begins to disintegrate to something more akin to the tapering plaster of a wall than a waist high meadow.

Its blends come in pockmarked creases, the brushstrokes visible as they mingle. Every inch of the greenery feels worthy of interest as its subtle tones weave in and out, leading the audience’s eye with them. The grass here is dense and stubborn rather than flowing, almost concrete in its recalcitrance. It seems that no matter how hard you scour, it’s impossible to get past the first layer.  And it is here within this investigation that the true wonder of ‘July Fields’ is revealed, with two distinct halves emerge from the pasture.

As Manet famously said, ‘there are no lines in nature, only areas of colour, one against each other’, and here within July Fields we see a perfect demonstration of this collision. At the far right there being a more typical depiction, the greens deep and verdant, their flowers evoked as white wisps of flick on a leaning stem. Whilst at the left there holds a splodge of red on top of the brush, the sun perhaps, that seems to have dribbled down into the reeds as water.

Perhaps the impervious nature of July Fields works in its favour, as down here, as nature towers above, we feel relaxed, guarded. Free from the heat of July and able to singularly appreciate the sense of isolation that Eardley stubbled technique conjures.

Sea and Snow (1958)

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Caught amidst two marauding elements, the smiling inward curve of a shore appears battered between. Eardley’s painting is truly remarkable here, capable both of evoking the slushy drifts of snow on the sea, as well as the blistered browning rocks before the tide.

The foreshortened sky and indulgent coast pulls the image closer to us as viewers, giving a reduced distance to everything. Detail is sparse. And within the broad, gnarled strokes of the sky and the near translucent bluffs at the bottom right, Eardley presents a vague, cold world. A place in which the sea and the snow work to drain each other of definition, their interactions, such as the long streaks of turbulent white against the furthest point of the cliffs, marvels of layered discipline.

Similar to the earlier explored Raoul Dufy, Eardley seems to revel in the artifice of her work. There is no effort towards true mimicry (what are those pink streaks on the water for one?) rather an indulgence in the raw revelry of display.

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David Kakabadze (1889 – 1952)

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. 

A polymath of his time, David Kakabadze was not only a visionary avant grade painter, but an art scholar and innovator of cinematography. Within his sparse depictions there comes breathing room for his affecting technique. His imagery a subtle meld of leftist techniques and his native Georgia.

Rioni Power Station (1931)

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There comes a modern oddness to this painting. It feeling near inconceivable on initial viewing that it has crept from way back within the 1930s. Not only does the anachronistic sense stem from the small, soft concrete of the bridge that feels sharper than it has anything right to be, but via the mountains too, their base, expressionistic patches of surprisingly few shades creating a landscape more affecting than inspiring.

Nothing is given too much definition. The forests darkened deposits rather than detailed leafy canopies. At the top left there stand two solitary trees as guardians, the duo being of only a few trunks visible. Above this all the sky, stark in its realism, only serves to highlight the somewhat Fauvist approach to colours that Kakabadze has adopted. His world a take on the world rather than a fitful representation.

In spite of the blocky discipline though, movement does seem to dribble through here. The sun above falling majestically against the cleft of the world behind the power station, a single ridge, to which another tree watches, lying completely shadowed whilst the rest behind blazes indifferently on.

Sailboats (1921)

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Whenever faced with a Cubist image like this, I always scour the thing for traces or hints to which the title could be alluding to. It’s always best to initially center yourself this way I find, with Sailboats being an easy task for its sharp angles intersecting that resemble as masts. There also occurs small waves on the Sailboats, tiny ripples of water occurring within the white fold shape of the folds. There is little else to engage though.

The boat feels pinned up on the grey to be examined, a specimen. An origami rearrangement whose center folds inward, inverting the colours. This semi transparent shade behind is particularly well realised, the shapes below still visible and submerged beneath. Sailboats a simple puzzle of mental assembly that grows more complex as the subtle patterning of suggested colour are imagined.

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Evie Hone (1894 – 1955)

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. 

Though primarily regarded as one of the most outstanding stain-glassed designers of the 20th century, Evie Hone was also a talented painter. An extremely devout artist who tended more towards the unreal within her brushwork.

Abstract Study (1930)

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There is a sheath, a skin to this work. An overwhelming presence of blue that itself seems unsteady in the frame. The image plays with ideas of images, the outer limits of the canvas painted on as if wood.

Striking first is the many shades and variation of the colour. It is a blue holding formations and currents beneath, their designs piled on as stencils laced. At the center there comes a sense of a torrent, the shapes in the outer reaches seeming to begin to curve whilst those in the middle conforming utterly to a circle. It is as if the aforementioned sheath is pulling backwards to a determined, gritty difference between the two. A pearl in the oyster.

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This crystallised centre. Intricately measured and judged as bricks of colour from bold, powerful strokes. As orientation is easier down here, it allows a sharper appreciation of the sense of movement and distance between the two areas of the image. The exterior expanses far more sluggish and broad, the heart so varied.

Canal Bridge

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An intelligent balancing act of a painting. In ‘Canal Bridge’ we see all the pieces fitting together smartly: from the disembodied leaves on the top left mirroring as dapples on the water, to the eponymous bridge itself which smiles back in a positive hum. Our view is both teased further and cut off shortly through these catoptric surfaces. There is a sense of being tugged back to the image as you try to spy further into it through its echoes.

It is both modern and engaging, and postcard. There is no depiction bar the very technique that realises the bridge. A theme common throughout Hone’s painting.

The palette overall is far rougher than ‘Abstract Landscape’, with the tempo of the work both urgent yet calming. Everything comes in bold strokes, the water itself seemingly translucent and absent through the build of different responses of the landscape rather than the employment of depth.

Perhaps her fundamentals within stained-glass influenced this crystallised sense of her image. Her goal more to reverent iconic pieces rather than suggestions and prods. Within Hone there is a peculiar silence build from a beguiling, stilling technique.

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Alesander Bogomazov (1880 – 1930)

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. 

Alexander Bogomazov was another book find for me. And by that I mean an artist to whom I’ve reached randomly whilst flicking pages, not one I’ve long admired or been curious to explore – see Konrad Kryzyanowski or Harriet Backer for other aleatory jaunts.

Counted as Russian in my ‘100 Years of Russian Art, 1889 – 1989’ tome, the now Ukrainian painter seems more remembered today as a theorist than for his pictures. Though exploring his work I have found this ill-fitting, Bogomazov being a painter whose startling inventiveness deeply affects through its often rigid geometry.

‘Expectation’ (1900)

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Whilst the majority of his work seems to call towards the dynamism of the machine age, this painting, with its contradictory pull of deep sentimentality and blatant construction, seeks its celebration within itself.

As ‘Expectation’, in spite of its simple pictorial centre, can appear abstract on first encounter through the sheer force of its method. An impact stemming from Bogomazov’s employment of Pointlist techniques. Pointlism being a process perfected by the French Post-Impressionist Georges Seurat wherein it is the glow around a point of colour that is heralded as key. A feature that can be heightened when that dot is on a white background which reflects rather than absorbs light, giving a distinct fizz and luminosity to images.

Such inspired detail gifts the work a sense of movement. Ideal especially considering the setting of the piece: the sea eternally folding at a distance below, the wind blowing through the harsh grass, the frills of the bowed woman’s dress.

A woman who becomes more absorbed into the scene around her the more you scrutinise. Though her body itself may be a tad basic in execution, a thoughtful eye and mouth acting as visible distinguishers, it is perhaps the dark of her head leaning forward that enraptures most. Its hairline coincident with the shoreline as if a glimpse of night was captured in the thatch – a preview of this world at another time of day.

Bogomazov’s strict style engenders a sense of cohesion throughout the piece. The little chain-link fishes of the water inseperable in their speckled neatness from the sky behind and  the sitter above.

But why is she sitting? The mystery as to who she is and to what purpose this inner meandering is serving is unclear. Neither is the red bag/coat/flower beside her. An odd disjunction that encroaches and distracts from the inner peace of ‘Expectation’.

With such outlandish skill on display already though, perhaps Bogomazov is merely showing that breaking to fundamentals is not necessarily at the sacrifice of beauty.

‘Abstract Landscape’ (1915)

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There feels a play on words here. ‘Abstract Landscape’ is still a landscape then, still a depiction of hills and gorges and cliffs and distance, just one that is employing abstract imagery to achieve these ends.

Various slopes cut across at intervals as stomachs. These vertical reaches being more noticeable the father away from the painting you get. Up-close the labyrinth lines of various purples and yellows are too rich in complexity to look past; what ultimately intrigues here though is the order rather then chaos, the landscape rather than the abstract.

At either side of the valley we have corresponding cliff faces of gnarled instrument husks with weathered caverns within. The painting just retreats and retreats, until the jazz solo smatterings of the peak we’re cresting beneath us gives way eventually to the bold strokes at the back.

What such distance and difference allows is the sense that you are falling into the canvas. It is both cavernous and inward, a barbaric display of nothingness that still seems to pull at the viewer. It unfolds and unravels from whatever view you take at it, as complex and enthralling from high above or deep in the basin.

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