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

As the only female member of America’s (at the time) only indigenous modern-art movement, Precisionism, it would perhaps have made sense for Elsie Driggs to produce art concerned with a separation from the established order. As it were though, as with the majority of her fellow Precisionists (see the term-coiner himself, Charles Sheeler) the Connecticut born artist is nowhere to be found in her work. Rather, ‘The Javitz Center’ & ‘Pittsburgh’, along with numerous other topographically titled works of Driggs, center on the idea of place & object, approaching the familiar with a hard-edged, oft abstract vision.

‘The Javitz Center’ – 1926

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We come to ‘The Javitz Centre’ from an intimidating, underside angle. A perspective that pins & perplexes the viewer; first in the optically intriguing glass that overlays the skin of the building & the sky alike, and then secondly through the sheer size of the construction. Regardless then of what this colossal feat actually holds within, the title indicating some sort of exhibition center perhaps, its sheer sense of purpose is readily apparent through its engulfing display.

Though a little gauche maybe in terms of its presentation, the underlying conceit here finds Driggs suggesting through the diaphanous form of the sky and the structure that they have achieved a new similarity of permanence. Sky scrapers and eyesores were burgeoning at the time, something slowly being realised here by Driggs as a symptom of the future rather than mere fad.

What could have been quick & gimmicky in its execution is stunningly rendered through a thoughtful approach to the catoptric elements. At the top roof section for example, where there is little visual interference, the blue of the sky fades into the glass effortlessly, creating a languid sense of the afternoon absorbed in the building itself. Down below the reflections get more quivery as the building seems to reflect in of itself. The shaky lines arching back as bars as Driggs imagines the complexity of these cast iron lines interacting with a representation of themselves.

‘Pittsburgh’ – 1927

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Yet again, Driggs is taking us to the lesser seen angles of common utilities. Tellingly in ‘Pittsburgh’ we aren’t even given a form or function, rather it is these drab tunnels, these elements of machinery keeping the place running that stand for the southwestern town. There is a sense of humour here though in ‘Pittsburgh’, one found in the essence of contradiction throughout.

As the association to such a sight is initially one of hard work; a tough, sour place in which the world is kept moving.What’s unusual then is the freshness of the forms, almost as if the tubes and equipment were themselves pulled straight new from a production line, of which there are not doubt hundreds within. A comparison could even be made to the factory looking like a trumpet of sorts, the four towers as sooty, ethereal valves. Indeed the place feels at once heavy and weightless through the shifting, mercurial smog.

With this dislocation in place, Driggs does what most great art tends to do, it defamiliarise the familiar. It suggests new interpretations of the common, forgettable backdrop of my of our lives. Be it back in 1927 when this could be taken as an image of great hope & promise, or right now when the factory seems to smoke as a charred carcass.

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Charles Sheeler (1883 – 1965)

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

Perhaps it’s on account of his early work as a Fashion & Commercial photographer that there seems so much of the salesman throughout the paintings of Charles Sheeler. Their sense of presentation unparalleled, with Sheeler’s distinct clarity evoking, in the best possible way, the brochure and the textbook rather than the canvas.

His is an eye of reverence, one that shows familiar images with an entrancing level of detail that has actually been there all along. With a storied career, Sheeler’s approaches to his work changed drastically through the decades of his painting. The first piece here, ‘Suspended Power’ indicative of his populist Precisionist (a term he coined) phase, the second, ‘The Artist Looks at Nature’ signalling toward the more abstract gaze that became dominant for Sheeler before a stroke in 1959 sadly forced him to give up both photography & painting.

‘Suspended Power’ – 1939

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Comissioned by Fortune Magazine to create six paintings that, ‘reflect life through forms … [that] trace the firm pattern of the human mind’, Sheeler picked symbols of great infrastructure. Choosing amongst them: a railroad, a dam, a waterwheel, a steam engine, an aeroplane, and, in ‘Suspended Power’, a hydroelectric turbine.

A turbine that hangs both dormant and dominant within the central space of the image. One worth noting that, regardless of its adroit artistic realisation, is a wonder to its own design. One we are seeing a rare topside perspective of. Its complex hinges and steel circles hidden up above from the view of the worker who is decapitated in a sense by the resting blades that makes him look so tiny.

Sheeler’s ability here to conceive near photographic realisation through his paint is tremendous. From the edged shadows of the brick walls above the exiting corridor, to the two workers stooped together in probably incidental reverence, everything is freighted with reality. Especially the turbine, which feels almost surrealist in its aggressive imposition on the picture inspite of it in fact being amid its natural habitat. Viewing this painting I feel an almost benign aggression by Sheeler, a latent tension that hangs the machine as a noose above the men that it towers.

The men who, after all, have no real power in the picture. They are presumably for maintenance and button pushing, incapable of the unimaginable power that the beast of ‘Suspended Power’ was built for. An omnipotence Sheeler suggests by cutting ‘Suspended Power’ off at the base, as if the machine itself could burrow right off into the ground and away from everything, off out the canvas even.

‘The Artist Looks at Nature’ – 1943

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An Inception of a picture. The artist, presumably Sheeler, sits on a high precipice, seemingly untroubled by the heights as he works on an image of a stove that holds no relevance to the jumbled eccentricity of the landscape hinged before him.  The message seems clear, and indeed directly at odds with the hundreds of paintings akin to ‘Suspended Power’ that he created early on. Don’t trust the artist. Their impressions are just as fallible as yours, and, in witnessing their act of creation, you can see the real truth. All the artist is doing is ‘looking’ at nature, he holds no responsibility to reproduce it.

Regardless of this existential quandary, the bright landscape of ‘The Artist Looking at Nature’ rolls wonderfully down to the righthand side. With the dam-like structure Sheeler sits on blooming a gentle vegetation that arises in a skilful wash. There is a peace here then in spite of all the contradictions. A gentleness that is as absurd as it is comic. Sheeler perhaps wished to hint to all the possibilites open to both the artist and the audience when engaging with a piece. The physical all around us and the imaginative within.

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

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