Friday, June 27, 2008

D. J. Hall

Artist Debra Jane (“D.J.”) Hall has a major 35 year retrospective show at the Palm Springs Art Museum. It runs through September 14, 2008 and is well worth a visit.

There are 50 large paintings and numerous pencil drawings and photographs, plus studies and notes used to advise the art director in the film “Spanglish,” which used her look and style.

I’d never heard of this artist and I was in Palm Springs for other reasons, but I’m glad I stopped into the museum. The work grows on you. At first glance I was disappointed, since photorealism doesn’t interest me much. I always think, “Yeah, it’s technically amazing; looks just like a photograph. But so what? Why not take a photo?”

Hall’s paintings mostly show rich, leisured women lounging at well-appointed pools and patios. The sunlight is ultra bright, the colors are primary and crisp, and the subjects (nearly all Caucasian women), haven’t a care in the world except to have a drink and soak up the rays. It’s a pleasant, dreamy atmosphere that just says “California.”

The large size of the canvases let you see how Hall makes the figures so realistic-looking. Almost every contour is outlined with a very thin line of bright or dark color. For example, if you get up real close and the museum guard does not blow the whistle on you, you can see a fine hair of brilliant cadmium yellow just touching the edge of the skin tones all around the women in the sun. From 18 inches you can’t see it, but it makes the figures pop out in the sunlight. Almost every object, no matter how small, is outlined in a similar way.

Still: “So what?” Hall often stages and photographs her scenes then paints from the photograph. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it begs the question, why not be a photographer then? Hall’s answer is given in an artist’s statement of 2001:

"Ironically, my images cannot exist in physical reality, as they are highly contrived composites of various real and imagined sources. I approach each new painting as though I am producing a film: selecting models, wardrobe changes, locations, props, time sequences, etc. For the photo sessions I devise scenarios for my models so they will project what I envision. With the resulting photos I add, delete, and re-configure information to achieve a strong visual structure which conveys my current interests."

So what is her message, her vision? She emphasizes the importance of women’s physical appearance, and most of her models are attractive, while some are older, but “well-maintained,” implying former beauty. That juxtaposition suggests fear, even denial of aging and death, just under the surface of these happy scenes.

Once you realize these pictures are not really about carefree youth and beauty, but their opposites, the paintings begin to look sinister. The shiny, reflecting sunglasses are more than eye protection: they are hiding the reality, from the viewer, and from the models themselves. The omnipresent alcohol, is it a desperate attempt to escape from time? What kind of person has time to sit and drink in the garden with a friend at mid-day? Someone with no plans, no appointments, no prospects, no life beyond appearances. Everyone smiles, but time hangs so thickly in the air it’s a wonder these people can breathe.

Older women have lumpy thighs and wrinkly faces, but big smiles, perfect teeth and expensive clothes to pretend they are still beautiful. They are with younger women -- not girls, but women of experience who have the economic resources to paint themselves with the timeless, confident, carefree palette of youth but who must know it has already passed. Their smiles start to look not light-hearted, but like clench-jawed determination to stop the clock. They are lying to themselves and to you. They know, even if only subconsciously, that turkey neck and accordion lips lie not far ahead. Gradually, these pictures of beauty and light become utterly depressing and you realize you’ve been “had.”

Then you understand the photo-realist technique. It presents ultra-real reality; the California reality of eternal, sun-drenched, leisured, youth and beauty that does not exist except in the minds of these delusional models, and perhaps in the initial fantasies of the viewer. After viewing a dozen or so of Hall’s pictures, you get the joke. It’s very subtle.

If she had shown a more typically diverse selection of multi-colored, not-so-beautiful, overweight women in JC Penny clothing, on plastic furniture, eating hot dogs off paper plates around a pool full of screaming children, all in photorealist style, then we could say, “So what?” The way Hall started on the other side with a delusional fantasy of eternal wealth and youth and made it ultra-real with her meticulous technique, the contrast between reality and imagination could not be more stark. Brilliant.

You can see more of her pictures, and buy them, I think, at

Sunday, June 15, 2008

MFA Exhibit- Henry Art Gallery

The Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington in Seattle was the first public art museum in the state, opening in 1927. I enjoy visiting there because it usually has challenging contemporary work. The annual Masters of Fine Arts exhibit is usually especially good. Spring graduates show one or two pieces of work that represents their best effort. Pieces are selected by the students, with their thesis committees.

Stupidly however, the gallery does not allow amateur photography, so I am unable to show what the exhibit was like, and not even able to associate the artists their work. I am unable to properly acknowledge this remarkable display of creativity. This is a pet peeve. Who is damaged by amateur photography at art exhibits? Nobody benefits. It is a stupid rule.

Anyway, about 20 artists presented their work, most of it “installations” or sculpture. There was very little traditional paint on canvas. I wonder if everything has finally been said in two dimensions. I don’t believe it, but it certainly does seem strange that only about 2 out of 20 newly minted artists would think that their best work was in painting. Perhaps that reflects a bias of the faculty at UW.

One of the most memorable pieces was a white, human-sized, human-shaped figure made of cotton batting. It looked sort of like a huge voodoo doll, horizontal, “face” down, suspended from a ceiling panel by several wires which were differentially lengthened and shortened by a set of motors above. This caused the figure to slowly writhe as if in agony as it rose and fell. There seemed to be no pattern to its movements and there was no sound except that of the motors. This was all in a darkened room, making the scene sinister, suggestive of death, mummies, or torture perhaps. Behind the figure was a shattered glass wall, onto which was projected a play of light from behind. The light from behind was reflected from a mirror mounted on the wall, reflecting a projected film clip of the cotton figure rising and falling. The film clip did not seem to be related to the actual motion of the figure. I got the impression I was looking at the ghostly spirit of the cotton figure on the other side of the life and death division. Or maybe its memories. I don’t know. It didn’t obviously mean anything. But it was haunting.

A large installation on the floor of one room showed cedar blocks about 4 inches long and a half inch high, stacked irregularly up to a couple of feet high, in various organic rising and falling shapes, especially cylinders. It was slightly reminiscent of Maya Lin's work. From the center of the cylinders emerged something like blue fingers with white tips; I think they were clay. The whole thing gave me an underwater feeling, as if I were looking at a strange coral reef with blue anemones. Nothing moved, but I still had the impression that everything was undulating.

One large sculpture, in clay or fiberglass, had three figures that were half woolly sheep and half young boy, like mythical figures. They were detailed and life-like, and disturbing. The boys’ spines curved back to meet the body of the sheep just in front of the animals’ front legs. The children were young, clean, with expressive faces and big blue eyes. One was lying down, the other two just looking around, curious. They were mythical figures that didn’t really remind me of any particular myth or mythological creatures. That made them connected to realism as much as mythology and gave them shock value.

Another interesting exhibit was a set of thousands of pins stuck into a white wall. On the end of each pin was a clover leaf shape made of paper, actually cut from pages of a German history book. The flowers near the center of the display were yellowed and the ones right at the center were almost brown, as if the paper had aged, but the net effect of the whole presentation was that there was a large brown stain on the wall. Some of these “plants” extended out onto the floor, and some around the corner onto the next wall. There was also a brown dressmaker’s mannequin wearing a sort of scarf made of wire twisted into loops containing more of those yellow and brown pages from the history book. Many of its petals had fallen to the floor so it looked derelict. Was this supposed to be a political comment about Germany. A stain on German history? A formerly glorious history that has become dry, lifeless, derelict? I don’t know. It was an impressive display though, well-conceived and executed.

One other remarkable piece I remember (without any pictures!) had an organic feel to it despite being made out of thousands upon thousands of white, plastic flex-straws. Those are the drinking straws that have an accordion folded segment that allows them to be bent 90 degrees. Individual straws and bundles of two and three of them were bound by white plastic cable-ties to form a brachiating network that grew out of the wall horizontally, narrowed into a roughly cylindrical area about 3 feet from the wall, then expanded again for another 3 feet to fill a 6 foot square, red window frame. This horizontal structure is suspended from the ceiling on invisible nylon wires. If you look from the front, through the red window frame, you can see all the way through the open, somewhat geometric structure, which seems only slightly denser than the air around it. The overall effect though was like some kind of white ivy on a building, something that had grown aggressively out of the wall onto the window. This organic, plant-like impression was all the more remarkable for being achieved with plastic straws.

Nearly all the presentations were very “organic,” and by that I mean they had natural forms, shapes, and materials, generally soft materials. I saw very few right angles, few “hard” materials like glass and steel, no neon, no mechanical gadgets, no words or numbers. Everything seemed to come from nature or to reference natural forms and motions in some way. Again I have to wonder why this would be a universal among 20 graduating artists? Are they all drinking the same kool-aid? Doesn’t it seem like at least one of them would prefer to work in polished stainless steel, or do something geometric? Perhaps it is the zeitgeist. Frank Gehry comes to mind in architecture. I am not tuned into contemporary art well enough to know what the young people are thinking these days. But from this exhibit, it seems like the young people are all thinking dangerously alike.