Tag Archives: art

Release and Attack, Speed and Drag:
An Interview with Rosamond Casey

Mandelbrodt’s Nights, 1995, acrylic on glass, collage, from “Regions of the Will”

Rosamond Casey’s painting, Tabula Sacra, appeared in our spring issue accompanying the article “Vocation in the Valley.”  A painter, calligrapher, and teacher based in Charlottesville, Virginia, Casey recently spoke to THR about this painting and her other work.

The Hedgehog Review (THR): In describing your work, you have said “I excavate recognized systems—a man’s suit, the alphabet, cultural personas—fracturing them under examination so they can be set free, made transparent, or rendered slack.” What do you mean by the idea of “slackness”? Can you describe a project in which this was revealed? Did this elicit any particular response (sadness, disappointment, or dread)?

Initiation, photograph, acrylic paint on plexiglass, brass.

Initiation, from “Men in Suits: A Day on the Hill,” 2008; photograph, acrylic paint on plexiglass, brass.

Rosamond Casey (RC): “Slack” is the condition of an object lying spread out to be examined. In order to grasp the meaning of a thing it has to be taken apart visually, and emptied of its regular blood flow, its habit of being, the way it’s used to being seen. As the observer of the thing, I have to come to the project in a similar condition, a little bit empty and dumb. To understand the weight, proportions, and contours of a thing like a man’s suit (an object that held my interest because it was both ordinary and engorged with meaning and has survived centuries of fine-tuning with no fundamental breakdown of its form and function), I have to turn it around in my hands, consider the scope of its cultural reach, recall my own primal sensory reactions to the look, smell, and feel of it, dissect its interior lining, understand its high structure and flaccid motion as it moves down the street in a wind. Many small art projects accompany this stage of getting to know the object and they all inevitably get thrown out. I never doubt that the object will eventually be recharged and give itself up to a deeper interpretation by the time the work is presented in a gallery. The project was ultimately called Men in Suits: A Day on the Hill (above).

THR: Can you describe how you came to focus on kinetics in art, that is, the impulses of fixing/stabilizing and liberating/releasing?

“Sixteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird“ by Wallace Stevens; calligraphy

“Sixteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird“ by Wallace Stevens; calligraphy

RC: I came to art early through an interest in the kinetics of shaping letters and designing text. I continued my commission work as a calligrapher, but in my painting I shed the text and focused just on the kinetic, rhythmic messaging of lines in space. The possibilities of pure expressive line led me to invent new hand tools that would allow those gestures of paint to take on the illusion of three-dimensional form. The speed and pressure under which the wet painted strokes were made created undulating surfaces on glass panels that looked like natural deposits formed by wind, water, and slow growth. The character of the kinetic energy of the stroke determined the form. All this information came from studying calligraphic forms and understanding principles of touch—release and attack, speed and drag.

THR: Your interest in the art and craft of bookmaking—whether in your calligraphy, papermaking, or book art—emphasizes the physical object and the artist’s hand. Your work in acrylics on glass (below) calls for a special kind of engagement with paint and surface. Through your installations, you encourage viewers to take part in the art. You are in effect drawing attention to the “thingness” of art. What role does the material aspect of art and artistic creation represent for you? Continue reading

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Harlequin as Hammer

Harlequin, 1927, by Salvador Dalí; Museo d’Arte Contemporanea; Art Resource, NY; © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2015.

Harlequin, 1927, by Salvador Dalí; Museo d’Arte Contemporanea; Art Resource, NY; © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2015.

Lobster telephones, melting watches, deviant behavior—such images could only come from Salvador Dalí (1904–1989). Over the course of his life, Dalí created a body of work that examined memory, visual perception, sexuality, religion, and identity against a backdrop of a host of twentieth-century dislocations. The critical reception of his work remains divided—was he a craven manipulator or a genius-dilettante?— but few would doubt his abilities as a draftsman, a colorist, and an exuberant explorer of psychosis.

Dalí’s stylistic experimentation—some have called it stylistic promiscuity—marked his entire career. In the upcoming spring issue of The Hedgehog Review, we include Dalí’s Harlequin (right), an example of synthetic cubism from 1927. We chose the image to illustrate an essay with a particularly thorny premise, a defense of prejudice by Adam Adatto Sandel. Perhaps surprisingly, Dalí’s depiction of the hoary commedia dell’arte character Harlequin has quite a bit in common with Heidegger’s hammer.

Dalí’s awareness of Harlequin came from two main sources: his love of the theater, where commedia characters have been mainstays of the stage for centuries, and the influence of fellow Spaniard Picasso. The latter painted many depictions of Harlequin and other circus performers during his Blue and Rose Periods and into his cubist period; Dalí perhaps saw some of these during his visit to Picasso’s Paris studio in 1926. In Barcelona, Dalí also encountered circus performers among his circle of acquaintances. (No doubt, their antics inspired some of his own.) In addition around this same time, Dalí designed the sets was Adrià Gual’s La familia de Arlequín (Harlequin’s Family) at the Teatro Intim in Barcelona. So Harlequin held a prominent place in Dalí’s aesthetics of the late 1920s.

Dalí’s Harlequin relies on a disturbed dualism. Its limited color palette is primarily black and white, with a bisected humanoid figure that seems to be half crumpled and half smooth. The left half of the figure has a white head covered in creases and is clothed in uninflected black garment; the right half has a smooth gray head and wears a dark red tunic with three dimensional strokes indicating the diamond pattern of Harlequin’s traditional costume. The misshapen head, vaguely crescent shaped, indicates Harlequin’s jester’s cap. In the background, an ornamental wall in bright yellow frames the left half while the background of the right half is the same wall in dark red. These neat binaries are offset by a slightly diagonal line that respects neither the background wall nor the foreground figure, bifurcating the picture plane and emphasizing the formal aspect of the composition. We want to read this as a portrait but the surface elements are constantly interfering, thwarting our natural instinct to see faces in everything—Dalí relished pushing the boundaries of art and kitsch by frequently incorporating faces into his paintings and photographs.

While there have been endless discussions of Dalí in the context of Freud—what artist could be more accommodating in this area?—let’s return to the idea of Harlequin and Heidegger’s hammer. As Sandel explains in his essay,

We relate to things, Heidegger points out, and come to know them, not primarily as observers but as participants. As a carpenter hammers at his bench, for example, he does not really perceive the hammer as if he were a disengaged observer of it. He does not relate to the hammer as a thing with properties or even as an object of conscious awareness. The more proficiently he presses the hammer into service, the more the hammer disappears from his perceptual range. The carpenter’s first-person perspective, the “I,” or “subject,” disappears into the work he carries out. Absorbed in the flow of work, the carpenter and his hammer vanish into the activity of hammering.

So Heidegger proposes a way of understanding the world distinct from Cartesian subject-object dualism. In the hammer analogy, absorption has a pragmatic purpose, one offering a practical and moral understanding of “being-in-the-world.” While the moral aspect of Dalí’s work is the subject for another discussion, we can arrive at an understanding, however brief, of his approach to “being-in-the-world” by examining this work. For Dalí, Harlequin carves out a space in which to examine how visual perception informs epistemology. Through an interaction of conscious and unconscious forces, Dalí delves into psychical operations—his own and ours.

First, he utilizes the cultural referents of the historical Harlequin, the commedia figure, as an object that makes meaning and constructs relationships. Not only does Harlequin have a meaning on stage within the rules of dramatic unity, he also serves to make meaning for the audience and viewers who recognize him and his attributes. At the same time, Dalí thwarts meaning by emphasizing the thingness of the character he depicts. Dalí’s interpretation of Harlequin is based primarily in its physical presentation, so much so that it tends toward what the linguists call misprision. Up to a point, we recognize certain signs of Harlequin—the hat, the costume, the artwork’s title—but the artist’s insistence on misleading visual cues prevents a full comprehension. We can’t even really be sure if the apparent three-dimensional aspects of certain parts of the work are trompe l’oeil painting or actual collage.

Cubism’s stylistic hegemony—the dislocated binaries, the tactile surfaces in a two-dimensional work, and the distortions—interferes with what we want to understand about what few clues we can decipher. Falling back on those familiar terms with which we confront the world, what Sandel refers to as our particular “life perspective,” we discover that perhaps the most salient point in our interpretation is anxiety about what we are seeing—is it Harlequin or not? Dalí has so skillfully reimagined the character of the Harlequin that like the carpenter wielding the hammer, he and his tools have disappeared into his work, absorbed in the purpose at hand: that of investigating conscious and the unconscious sources of identity, meaning, and self-knowledge. And we have become reluctant co-conspirators.

Leann Davis Alspaugh is managing editor of The Hedgehog Review.

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Recognizing Art

The Battle of the Pictures (1745) by William Hogarth (British, London 1697–1764 London), Gift of Sarah Lazarus, 1891; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Battle of the Pictures (1745) by William Hogarth (British, London 1697–1764 London), Gift of Sarah Lazarus, 1891; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In 1603, El Greco was commissioned to decorate the chapel at the Hospital of Charity in Illescas, Spain. Up to this point, El Greco had had an enviable life as a successful artist. True, his Mannerist style of emaciated figures and elongated faces did not result in a steady stream of royal commissions, but he lived comfortably in Toledo, renting spacious apartments in a nobleman’s villa and taking the commissions he wanted. He was so well off that he could afford to maintain musicians who played while he dined. His prosperity even allowed him to refuse to pay taxes on this work. So he enjoyed a measure of independence as well.

El Greco, it should be understood, also knew the value of his work. According to the practice of the day, an artist’s fees were determined when the work was completed. The assessment, or tasación, was performed by a group of individuals nominated by the artist and the patron. When El Greco received an insultingly low valuation for his work at the hospital, he launched a long and bitter court battle that quietly changed the perception of artists and art in Spain.

In the case of the Illescas commission, El Greco committed a number of sins. Continue reading

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Christmas and the New Cult of Images

Gossaert 2013 stamp

Christmas is a complicated affair. Never mind the dizzying logistics of 15 billion packages, cards, and letters to be delivered by the U.S. Postal Service this season—many going to those who have so much, fewer to those who have little, and most of them destined for landfills or the bottom of the sea—a thought that brings on a sense of aesthetic fatigue at the environmental consequences of the gift-giving economy, not to mention its deeper ethical quandaries. The simple question of what stamp to choose has also become increasingly complex.

As I was recently and publicly reminded by a postal clerk, with a knowing wink to the other customers waiting in line, it’s no longer acceptable to ask for Christmas stamps. “Holiday” is the preferred term.

Two of this year’s seasonal stamps, though modest in size, reveal much about why images—what we choose to represent by them and the meanings they might unfold—continue to matter in a culture thoroughly saturated by them.

Global Wreath 2013 stamp

Consider the differences between Jan Gossaert’s richly rendered, jewel-like Virgin and Child of 1531 and the “Global Wreath,” the first global holiday stamp, newly commissioned for 2013:

The wreath that graces the stamp art—created especially for the project—has a base made of a wire metal frame folded around Styrofoam, which was spray-painted green. The designer attached evergreen twigs onto picks—small sticks with one sharpened end—and then inserted them into the base, rotating the picks to make the wreath full and lush, a process that took more than eight hours.

I understand, and have some sympathy for, the logic behind the Global Wreath, which is more than a celebration of Styrofoam-and-toothpick craft. As wars of religion continue to rage, with images increasingly at the center, benign symbols like the Global Wreath, nearly emptied of historic or religious content, are carefully constructed to avoid such tensions.

But I chose the Gossaert. The choice was made not without a certain feeling of embarrassment and the need to justify my apparent lack of global spirit, both to the clerk and the suddenly attentive audience awaiting my decision.

“I’m an art historian,” I said, attempting to use my profession as a buffer. “I simply want the most beautiful image, a real work of art.”

Yes, the Gossaert is a real work of art: the deeply saturated colors, subtle volumes and nearly palpable surfaces of its figures and cloth rendered through a masterful application of innumerable layers of paint. It’s an image that overtly performs and announces a dedication to the achievement of the highest principles of painting by an individual artist, in contrast to the anonymous, Styrofoam project that constitutes the Global Wreath.

There’s also a rich symbolism to the painting, an iconography of allusive meanings that slowly unfolds for the viewer who makes the effort to understand the theological significance of the Virgin’s somber, contemplative look, the darkening mood of the sky, the artful exposure of the Child’s genitalia or the cluster of berries he holds in his hands.

But what makes Gossaert’s painting of 1531 deeply moving, and worthy of further reflection, is its fragile synthesis of the humanistic ideals of Renaissance painting and the image as a site of devotional contemplation, a synthesis that was to be shattered by the wars of religion in the Reformation that reshaped the religious and political landscape of modern Europe.

As Reformation scholar James Simpson reminds us, the violent iconoclasm of the sixteenth century, and the resultant shift of contested, religious images into the neutral space of art and museum, had greater consequences than the stripping of Protestant churches and the division of faiths. Our hard-won modernity — the Enlightenment legacy of rational inquiry, freed from the superstitious grip of idolatry–is integrally bound up with the destruction of images.

Yet despite the best efforts of the Reformation and Enlightenment to abolish the idols of images and of the mind, they have returned with renewed force in contemporary culture, reconstituted in powerfully seductive, proliferating forms that are increasingly hard to resist.

From iPads to iPhones, image-rendering screens are an indispensable part of modern life, reconfiguring individual and social behavior in complex ways we are only beginning to grasp, rebooting traditional conceptions of what it means to be human in a post-human world. Given the timely introduction of the iPad mini for the holidays, with expected sales upwards of tens of millions, Christmas day around the globe promises to be a virtual affair, as a new generation of iconophiles pay homage to these artful and miraculous machines.

Should we be worried that the iconic image of the holidays is no longer one of communal gathering around a hearth or table but a scene more reminiscent of Plato’s cave, where individuals are held captive by an illusory succession of flickering images—newly instantiated in even more illusionistic and captivating digital form?

Among modernity’s unintended effects—one that isn’t captured by historian Brad Gregory’s capacious, and controversial, critique—is the ascendancy of a new cult of images:  endlessly distracting technological images that cultivate consumerism rather than contemplation and, more alarming, at times supplant our connections to the real persons, places and the world around us with virtual ones.

Fortunately, we need not be philosopher-kings to occasionally find our way out of our technological confinement. Nor do we need to resort to the wholesale iconoclasm of our intellectual ancestors, though there is nothing so refreshing as occasionally closing the browser, stepping outside into the bright light of day, and noting the suddenly enhanced contrast between the sensuously replete, fully dimensional, physical world, and the digital world of the internet.

We share a life with images. There is an intimate relation between the images that form the basis of perception and the internal images of the imagination, a relation that profoundly shapes the most fundamental aspects of our being as knowing, feeling, and thinking persons. For philosopher Alva Noë, pictures, and how they bring aspects of reality into presence, are crucial to understanding perception in general. The world opens up to us in relation to what we we able to bring into view.

Picturing things, taking a view, is what makes us human; art is making sense and giving shape to that sense, the German painter Gerhard Richter once wrote. To the degree that we attempt to understand a work of art, it holds the potential to transform how and what we are able to see, enabling us to see more and further, and to become more intelligent in the process. As Kryzstof Ziarek argues in “The End of Art As Its Future” (The Hedgehog Review, Summer 2004), art, in its transformative, poetic possibilities, also enables us see the limits of technology as the dominant  interface with the world.

It may be a virtue of our newly complex, technological condition that the continuing value of the old cult of images, whether of art or literature, is brought into clearer view, precisely at the moment when it would seem to have been lost.


Anna Marazuela Kim is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia and a member of The Iconoclasms Network, an international team of scholars and curators whose research contributed to the exhibition Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm at Tate Britain in London.

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