Thursday, March 18, 2010

Suddenly I See....

I set this blog up to be a record of my thoughts and ideas on life as a woman, artist, mom, wife, etc. As opposed to a more third-person look at art or culture. I'll save those discussions for future essays that might be written should I ever go for an MFA or write an article somewhere. Here, I get personal (and please bear with me, because this could be a rather long post).

So, I've been going on a journey of sorts for a while and I've been thinking of how I should write about it, and the postings of a dear friend of mine have actually given me a really good jumping point from which to begin.

It started with a clip from Blow Up, presented within an essay on 1960's Mod London and David Bailey.

I encourage you to read the original blog entry and subsequent posts here.

It was, I thought, quite an extraordinary scene. My initial reaction was overall one of discomfort. First, I kept thinking that these two should get a room. And after that flippant thought came and went, what I was really left with were impressions of the dominance of the male photographer on the woman, the reduction of the woman to a writhing sexual object, the feeling that he was using his camera as a substitute for his sexual organ, and that ultimately I was completely turned off by this scene but could imagine that it could work in the totally opposite way for a man. In a second viewing I paid more attention to how the actor in the scene conveyed his sexual excitement in one particular shot of him looking at his model before he moves closer to her. And I just love how the scene ends, as if a sexual act just finished. It really is a brilliant little scene, even if it left me feeling a bit violated viewing it (because as a woman, I'm identifying with the model, not the photographer).

It brought to mind another film in which model and photographer interact - Funny Face. The scenes in which Audrey Hepburn models for Fred Astaire's photographer are far less sexual, but Astaire is no less dominant. The difference is Hepburn plays it as the innocent child to Astaire's sophisticated man - another sexual stereotype that left me cold (although Hepburn is far more lovely to look at than the model from Blow Up, who looks for all the world like she was pulled from a concentration camp and given a trampy dress to wear). Astaire's character is based upon the great photographer Richard Avedon - one of the most influential fashion and fine art photographers of the last century. Here is a photo by the real Avedon of Hepburn from the movie Funny Face:

These two films got me thinking about fashion photography in general and how fashion photography has defined the ideal image of women since there were fashion photographs. So then I began to wonder whether there were any really successful female fashion photographers and I began my internet search with a google search term of female fashion photographers. That quickly yielded an endless list of sources for photos of females modeling fashion. Well, I'm not a grad student, so I went to Wikipedia, and I did get a dribble of information there. I came across the very successful Andrea Blanch, who interestingly enough started her career as an assistant to Richard Avedon. She is working as a fashion and commercial and fine art photographer in NY. Her web site can be found here.

I wondered if her images would be qualitatively different than those of a male photographer and took a look at some of her work from her website. Here's one image that I found quite different from the usual fashion photographs:

Very strange to see a man in this position.

Here is another Blanch photo:

Much more typical of fashion photographs, but for sure there is a quality of intelligence and defiance about this woman laying there in her underwear. But clearly, Blanch can make sexy pictures of women, and there are many more on view at her website.

A further Wikipedia article yielded another delightful little tidbit - Louise Dahl-Wolfe, who was a staff photographer for Harper's Bazaar from 1936-1958 and whose work was highly influencial for a certain famous male photographer discussed earlier in this post. The National Museum of Women in the Arts has a nice article about her here. But there was precious little other information and left me thinking that fashion photography is still dominated by men.

My search got diverted, though, when I came across an entry about the music video "Simply Irresistable" by Robert Palmer, which was directed by the British fashion photographer Terence Donovan in the mid-80s. YouTube doesn't give an embedding capability to this video, so you'll have to click here to see it. By all means, take a few minutes to do so, and come right back please.

Now we have Robert Palmer singing about moving from simple attraction to complete obsession. There are so many interesting things to say about this video, but my favorite line in the song is "she's so fine there's no telling where my money went." What strikes me about this video is the juxtaposition of Palmer singing supposedly about a particular woman who is irresistible to him while he's surrounded by a group of fashion model-type women dressed alike and all dancing sensuously around together in the background or in separate scenes. I began to think this was not an ode to one woman in particular but to beautiful women as a group, and their power over him. With the lyric, "she's all mine, there's no other way to go" he sings about his need to control her.

This video was iconic in its time, as were other Palmer videos of the same type:


Pepsi got into the action as well, because as we all know, sex sells even soda pop:

And these videos were wonderfully parodied in one of my favorite movies - Love Actually (unfortunately the quality of this video is pretty poor - but I don't know where they got the full version of this video as it's not available on the DVD and the movie shows only a small clip):

I'm sure Bill Nighy had a good laugh filming that sequence, and I certainly cracked-up watching it.

But where am I going with all this? Traveling on the journey that all women must go if they are lucky enough to get old. There's no denying that the world rewards beautiful women, raises beautiful women to icon status, and celebrates youth. Thank Heaven that the world now finds additional value beyond beauty and sex appeal for women and can recognize women for their achievements in other dimensions such as science, politics, business, art, etc. This is a pretty recent phenomenon. In my mother's time, those types of accomplishments were much rarer, and I imagine it must have been pretty difficult for my mother, who was a beautiful woman in her youth, to get old.

For me, as a woman whose early adulthood corresponded perfectly to the Robert Palmer era, and who is now old enough to remember how it was and young enough to still want to get up and dance to the music, these images and videos bring up a host of emotions:

- the fear that the power of my own sex appeal is markedly diminished from whatever previous levels I managed to achieve
- the disgust that comes from acknowledging that fear exists
- the maturity to realize that sex appeal is not the most important aspect of myself but rather only one part of me
- the combination of happiness and pride in the growing beauty of my daughter combined with the wistful feeling of my own lost youth as I look at our faces side by side and see the tiny resemblences and remember when my skin looked like that and my eyes had no bags under them

Ariella at age 11

and at 13

How we see ourselves as women is intimately linked to how we look and that's an unfortunate side effect of human nature and society. So I admit that I struggle with the loss of my youth and diminished beauty and try to base my self esteem on my growing strengths in other areas of my life. On days when I've made some progress in my studio I am flying high. And then there are some days when I look in the mirror and steel myself not to get depressed, or fail and get immeasurably sad. It's pretty hard to be neutral.

Self Portrait, circa 2002

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Where's 2013?

I watched the movie 2012 on DVD the other night on my old 1991 Panasonic 35" color TV, and it was still pretty spectacular. I can imagine how this film must have played on a movie screen, or even on a 50" plasma (which is one of my more materialistic yearnings). There's something about movies like this one that I find mesmerizing. Even though there are so many ridiculous moments and an extraordinary requirement to suspend our disbelief. For example:
- as the world crumbles, people are still showing up for work at media stations
- John Cusack and his family manage to avoid dying when their limo drives through a falling office building, in a camper while avoiding hurtling lava missiles, or in a tiny plane when the runway is collapsing underneath them, driving a car out of a cargo plane going 200 miles an hour onto the peaks of the Himalayas, etc., etc.
- the Chinese manage to build huge ships (in tunnels blown out of those same Himalayan mountains) that are strong enough to withstand the forces of earthquakes and tsunamis, within 2 years and without anyone finding out about it (well, I can actually buy the notion that they wouldn't let anyone find out about it).

I could go on and on, but I really don't mind how preposterous the movie's situation is. That's part of the fun. Who wants to watch a movie about the end of the world that's completely believable? My sleep was disturbed enough with the 2012 fantasy.

But there is something weirdly comforting about watching movies like 2012 and Knowing (another end-of-the-world because the sun is getting too active movie - which got terrible reviews but I nevertheless was fascinated by it and watched it twice). We can sit in the comfort of our own homes (or in a theater with 1000 calories of popcorn in front of us) and realize that our crazy, unjust, unsafe, racially polarized, us vs. them world is at least not ending.

What I really want Hollywood to create next are the sequels to these movies. I don't mean the dystopian film genre (The Road, Children of Men, The Matrix, I am Legend, Blade Runner, etc.) I'm talking about 2013 (A Year After 2012). I want to know what those people who managed to survive while 6 billion plus others did not now do every day to rebuild the world. How will they manage? What will they do without the infrastructure of the world? What government will they make? How will they grow food, make medicines... Let's be specific. What we really need is a good HBO miniseries to take us through a 2012 type of disaster and then the rebuilding. I always feel like these disaster movies end just when everything will get really complicated and interesting.

Yes, it's mesmerizing to see landmarks blown up and exciting to root for those scrappy survivors. But I'd really like to see how John Cusack makes his way with his family in their new world, or how those two sweet kids manage to remake civilization in a new non-earthly paradise in Knowing. Will they do better than Adam and Eve? Are human beings capable at all of being able to rebuild the world better than we have now? I'd like to hope so even if the evidence suggests otherwise.

And it's that hope that is the unscripted sequel to all these disaster movies.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

So Much to Enjoy, and So Much to Say

I came across a review of an exhibition of the work of Lionel Esteve in ArtReview Magazine online. The image of Lionel's piece, titled Picture Opened to Prism, stopped me in my tracks.

The picture shown above was from the magazine - a closer view of his piece. The colors just simply leaped off the screen.

Given that this is a sculptural "painting" using gelatin sheets and paper, not paint, I was struck by the creativity and craftsmanship of the work, and felt a kinship of sorts with the artist because I too am looking at color, form and light in a way that makes those formal issues central to my work.

The reviewer, Violaine Boutet de Monvel, had this to say about Mr. Esteve's exhibition, "...his craft - certainly delicate and sensitive - strikes first and last as absolutely decorative and light. Paradoxically, this is as much his failure as it is his strength. ...As much as they fail to inspire any reflection, they succeed in invoking a sense of beauty..." The reviewer goes on to describe a number of pieces from his exhibition, not pictured but which I wish I could see given the description, and then sums up the review by saying, "so much to enjoy, so little to say." If you'd like to see the whole article, go to the Artreview website and look for the Summer, 2009 issue.

This review is a perfect example of what I feel is a failing of the art world - and that is the tendency to dismiss the "decorative" as meaningless. The reviewer laments the lack of content in this extraordinary work. Now, maybe I'm missing something by not being in front of the actual piece, but even from an online image - I can find so much to see. Isn't that content enough??? Why is this "decorative" and why is "decorative" a pejorative description anyway. Why do critics require art to go beyond the sensual and move into other meanings like social criticism, political criticism, etc. I'm not saying that art which delves into those areas is not important. But what I am saying is that we seem to have lost the sense of appreciation of the physical impact of work when we have to search for more content. When art doesn't serve up more commentary it is dismissed as "decorative." Mr. Esteve's piece is superbly crafted and created with a clear sense of mastery over the formal artistic issues (shape, color, light, line, space, tension, etc.). It also happens to be beautiful. I find a tremendous amount of "content" in simply SEEING this piece. The human appreciation of beauty is a source of limitless "content."

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Looking Through the Smoke at Mad Men

I admit it, I am a little bit behind the times. I finally got the Season I DVD of Mad Men so that I could see what all the fuss was about when this critically-acclaimed show debuted in the summer of '07. (In my defense, this was during my last year of school when all the TV I had time for was American Idol and Big Love.)

The first episode started off promisingly enough - very cool opening graphics, great theme song. I must admit, I agree with the critics who love the gorgeous visuals of this show. It is beautifully filmed and art directed, the sets and especially the costumes are perfect and fabulous. But that's where it ends for me. I just can't get past two key things:

THE SMOKING - it's disgusting and it's in every scene. In the office, in the bedroom, in the kitchen (a pregnant woman!!), in restaurants. I can't get past the visceral gut reaction that knows what that air smells like and what it is like to try to breathe in a room full of smoke. I feel like coughing through every scene. I found myself taking shallow breaths and wishing I was near an open window! I grew up in a house with a mother who was a chimney. She has severe COPD now and I'm the one taking her to doctor appointments, hospitals, and watching her go from being able-bodied to being in a wheel chair and using oxygen 24/7. So you can see why I find cigarettes disgusting. Yeah, I know that's what it was like then. But I bet the cigarette companies are just loving this series. They haven't had this kind of advertising in years -- no, decades. We find it strange now to see everyone smoking, but we're still watching beautiful, glamorous people smoking.

THE SEXISM - it's so over the top and offensive that it's painful to watch. Do people today secretly enjoy this because they wish they could treat women that way and they can live vicariously through these characters? Do women like watching this because it reinforces how far we've come? Yeah, I know that's what it was like then. But do we need to go back there week after week?

It didn't take me long to give up on the series entirely - just to the first half of the second episode, when a mother (the glorious January Jones - whom I've admired since her small role in Love Actually) admonished her daughter for playing with the dry cleaning bag because she might have left mom's clean clothes on the floor, instead of for putting the dang bag over her head. I figured I'd had enough of this time period and that the rest of the series was just going to be more of the same. My time is valuable, so the following video - Mad Men in 60 Seconds, will have to do for me:

I realize that by making this opinion public, I run the risk of being considered unsophisticated for not falling for this dark, cynical, and sexy look at the past. But I wonder about this series. Yes, it shows life in the pre-revolutionary 60s, before Gloria Steinem, Martin Luther King, and rock and roll changed everything. But there's something celebratory in revisiting this decade week after week. It's like an opportunity to be non-politically correct and yet not be accused of being non-politically correct because obviously this is a satire, right? Do viewers continue to look aghast at the racism and sexism in this show if they are avid fans? I won't find out because I won't take the time to watch, but if you're a true fan of Mad Men, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

American Idol Syndrome

For the last six years, like millions of other Americans, I've been captivated by the cultural phenomenon known as American Idol. I didn't start watching it faithfully until season 3 (the success of Kelly Clarkson and the talent of Rueben Studdard and Clay Aiken - yes, I think Clay Aiken is talented) got me interested, but the sheer brilliance of Fantasia got me hooked. I've watched the show since then, and now own CDs from Chris Daughtry, Jordin Sparks and David Cook. My daughter has Adam Lambert's new disc and has generously put some of my favorite of his tunes on my ipod for me. Last year I even downloaded some American Idol performance videos and songs. When AI had their contest in Daughtry's year to see who could pick the next singer to go home, my guesses had me in the top 50 - of the whole country!!! (That year I also went to an AI concert and watched as these musicians performed with an enthusiasm and joy that I've never seen from any of the other concerts I'd ever attended. It was as if they also couldn't believe they were actually on stage singing to thousands of screaming people, and this was absolutely the most fun they've ever had in their lives.) So I guess I qualify as a core fan.

I think AI shows America an incredible thing - a close-up view of what it's like to pursue a dream, and then the actual dream happening for someone (and as we've seen, you don't have to win it all to have your dream come true). We journey with these dreamers from their initial audition to the finale (if AI deigns to show us the audition - shame on you Idol for not including Adam Lambert's audition during the regular season), we pick our favorites and invest ourselves in their hopes and dreams as week after week (if we let them) they show us more of who they are and what they can do. And except for a few strange outcomes (Taylor Hicks!?) the cream rises to the top. It's inspiring, uplifting, and usually very entertaining.

The only downside for me in the show - the part that I hate to watch - are the beginning auditions. I watch them now to find my early favorites. And I don't mind the people who come on and know they're not good singers. They are just there to see if they can be outrageous enough to get on TV. Those aren't painful (just highly annoying, and only rarely entertaining). It's the ones who THINK they can sing and clearly cannot that are painful. First, it's not fun hearing them sing, 'cause they're lousy. Second, the judges have body language and make faces at these kids that remind me of middle schoolers. (Thank goodness Ellen DeGeneres avoided that this season - I hope she can get away with it again next year, although since Simon will be gone who knows if I'll even watch it anymore.) No, the worst part of these scenes is that we witness how much people can be deluded about their own capabilities. Sometimes after a particularly pitchy performance, I wonder how it's possible that the person can't realize that they cannot sing. And you can tell - usually - when the person really thought they had a chance and are bewildered and stung by the judges' reactions. Some are crushed. Others go right on deluding themselves. They vow to come back next year, or they say the judges are wrong, or they say something so colorful that the AI logo gets patched over their mouths - over and over again. How can someone be so blind about themselves? I just don't get it. And it worries me a little.

See, as an "emerging artist" I wonder where I would fall on the AI continuum. Would I be the equivalent of an undiscovered "Fantasia" or am I more like one of the Hollywood hopefuls that gets cut before the final pick of the top 24? Or worse yet - maybe I'm not good enough to make it to Hollywood. There are times when I feel that absolutely I am destined to make it as an artist. Lot's of people have put their faith in me. I've invested thousands of hours and thousands of dollars in pursuit of this dream. And I've sold some paintings, at good prices, to people who have discerning taste in art. I've had some paintings accepted to juried shows (and some rejected), and one solo show. When I went to the opening I did feel like my work belonged on those gallery walls. So I suppose I'm not in the category of contestants that are blind to their real lack of capability. I just worry sometimes if I'm the kind of artist that can make it past "Hollywood Week."

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Art is not intimidating.

It took a long time before I would tell someone I was an artist. When that question came up, "so what do you do?" - as it usually does when getting to know a new person - something would catch in my throat and I just couldn't say "I'm an artist." But what was I if not that? Well, nothing, and for a very long time. That is - nothing that held any interest to anyone. After all, I was no longer a marketing exec in corporate America. I was "only" a stay-at-home-mom, and that, after all, generates very little discussion unless the other person is also a stay-at-home-mom. The usual response from anyone else was a smile combined with a condescending look and maybe a comment like, "oh, what a tough job - or - how wonderful that you can be at home with your kids," and then a quick change of subject or a quick move to extricate from the conversation entirely.

So I was used to that. And when I went back to school when my youngest was old enough for a full morning at pre-school, I was not at all sure I could even do this "art thing." It took seven years of part-time study (2, sometimes 3 classes a semester) before I earned my BFA in painting. And by my last year in school, I began to think of myself in a new way - as an artist. I still am a stay-at-home-mom, but now I answer "I'm an artist" when someone asks what I do. That answer usually generates quite a bit more conversation as people like to find out what kind of art I do. And invariably, if the person I'm talking to is not an artist or working in a related field, often they quickly confess a bewilderment when it comes to looking at contemporary art. I hate that people are intimidated by art, and I don't think the problem is in the viewers. I think the problem is in the art world.

So, as this is my very first post, I will simply say that art should not require a post-graduate degree to be appreciated. Art, like Torah, can be understood and appreciated on many levels. The more learned one is, the more levels one can delve into, but ultimately there should be a way to appreciate something without background, and just with one's senses. Art, at its most basic, should be impactful without a museum label, gallery guide or artist statement. Just by looking, art should communicate. I like to tell people who are intimidated by art that they should trust their instinctive reaction to something, but also take the time to really see it, and think about what they're seeing. They'll understand more about the work than they probably give themselves credit for.