I was drawn to Sebastãio Salgado’s image by the hundreds of star-like dots. I wasn’t able to distinguish what I was seeing, only that it was obviously about an environment “untouched” by modern society. As I approached, I noticed a crocodile in the bottom of the frame and I realized that what I was confusing for lights were the eyes of crocodiles and their reflections in the water. What is illuminating the crocodiles’ eyes? Would this image exist without Salgado’s intervention? These are logical questions, but beauty of the print, the formal qualities in this image, and the initial shock have me reeling too much to want to answer them. I am excited by works of art that shatter my expectations.
I first came across Toyin Odutola’s work on my tumblr dashboard. Similar to Salgado’s piece, I was drawn to Odutola’s work by its dark tones and by my inability to immediately decipher what I was seeing. Her drawings reminded me of my sad attempt at drawing a life-size muscular, figure and the sketches in my “Anatomy for the Artist” book. Unlike these, Odutola’s muscles were lush, fleshy, and black. As I learned more about her work, I was blown away by her process and her use of ballpoint pen to make drawings dense with ink. How many marks did it take to fill her 12” x 19” drawing of Mabel?
With her more recent work, such as LTS III, 2014, she further plays with abstraction by using every inch of her frame. At first I thought I was looking at an abstract drawing of patterns, then, as I looked closer, I followed a diagonal form across the frame and was able to make out the silhouette of a figure, the distinction of his shoulder blade and his arm, the curve of his lips and the distinction of his eyebrows, then lastly his eyes.
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s piece titled Voice Array is an installation piece of an audio waveform created with light. I was drawn to it by the beauty of the dark room and flickering lights (I am a sucker for mood lighting). I kept a safe space from the piece, but as I stood there I started hearing faint voices. I realized the piece was a visual translation of the human voice, and not just any human voice, but of hundreds of participants. As I read the piece from left to right, I noticed an intercom at the far left inviting me to speak. Just as Salgado’s piece evokes a sense of community, Lozano Hemmer’s piece is a communal work only made possibly by contribution.
Similar to the golden ratio in art and its direct relationship to nature, Stefanus Rademeyer translates math into the visual. Point Line Field, 2010 is a mesmerizing drawing of what looks like millions of birds in flight coming together, or ants closing in on a cloud of sugar. Upon closer inspection though, I was able to make out thin hair-lines spreading out from various starting points. It became a complicated connect-the-dots game. Now my eyes move frantically from point to point, trying to follow each line to figure out the logic behind the design. Looking at this piece never gets old.
As a high school student my definition of art was very limited. Gustav Klimt’s paintings seemed like child’s drawings. My best friend and I rushed around a show of his work in Ottawa in disdain. How could this be art?!?! I spent my next five years in blissful avoidance of him, even though Klimt’s posters overran every college bookstore. Slowly, and thankfully I started understanding the beauty of his work.
Klimt’s play between shape and form brings mosaic techniques into painting. In his Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, Adele is a three dimensional form, spurting out of a two dimensional space. Klimt uses paint and gold leaves to create intricate designs on every inch of his canvas. Adele is dressed in a gold dress with patterned tiles that merge with the gold background. Just as my surprise with Sebastião Salgado’s image, I realized the tiles are eyes.
Just as I was drawn into Salgado’s image by it’s dark tone, I am similarly drawn in by Albrecht Düer’s engraving Knight, Death, and the Devil. What keeps me looking in this piece is Düer’s marks on copper. The harsh and jagged lines in the background echo the morbid theme of the image. At the same time the lines that define the horse’s neck and thigh muscles are delicate and soft. When I look at the horse’s thigh I imagine myself creating the same lines and how delicate I’d have to be with my mark. The lines carved in this engraving are echoed in Rademeyer’s drawing. Everytime I see this image I make new discoveries like a game of “Where’s Waldo.”
As a kid, museums and galleries were very intimidating places for me. My experience was reminiscent of browsing stores with easily shop-liftable items where guards followed you around making sure you didn’t get too close. In art classes I learned about great Greek sculptures such as the David and the Nike of Samothrace. Therefore, I wasn’t expecting any surprises while strolling through the MET until I came across La Capresse des Colonies by Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier.
I had the broken expectation of seeing a black woman immortalized in a sculpture inside of one of the world’s most famous museums. I made the association to Odutola’s use of black ink to depict the black body and Cordier’s use of Algerian onyx-marble. La Capresse des Colonies beauty is further emphasized by her confident stance and coy smile. I had the desire to touch the smooth marble and invade her space. However, this made me uncomfortable because I didn’t want to fall into the role of colonizers and f exoticize her. This feeling lead to the same question as Salgado’s image. What is illuminating the eyes of the crocodiles? How was La Capresse made? How did she get to be here? Is her armband a slave mark? These questions remind me of my initial disappointment of walking through the museum. Regardless of the negative answers I find, seeing a figure I can relate to is an important step for me to see my value in the art world. For all I know, this could have been my grandmother’s grandmother.
Vincent van Gogh’s painting Starry Night Over the Rhone has an opposite effect to Salgado’s painting. I am certain of what I see from afar, a view of a city across a river during a starry night. But up close I am taken in by the beauty of van Gogh’s paint dabs. The blotchy brush strokes that create the whole are reminiscent of mosaic work. My most recent “a-ha” moment was noticing a couple walking from the shoreline towards me. I easily overlooked them because their bodies blend in nicely with the water and their faces can be confused for the reflection of stars in the water. The couple reminds me of the “tortured artist” cliché. They become a reminder that none of us are alone; that I am not alone.
Paul D’Amato’s portraits of Chicago’s West Side residents are some of the most arresting I’ve seen. A D’Amato image is unmistakable, yet his image titled Angela, 2010 is not easily placed. The scale, the soft diffused light, and Angela’s golden skin is what draws me in. Angela’s gesture and gaze insinuates a longing. The pattern created by the leopard print sheets becomes a sea engulfing Angela. The overall impact of the image makes the photographer’s intent and background trivial. Similar to Cordier’s piece, Angela is drapped in white linen. Angela is our modern day Capresse des Colonies transplanted in the reality of Chicago’s West Side neighborhood.
Some of my favorite works of art are those that combine art and the utilitarian. The craft and science behind arms and armor are impressive on their own, yet Filippo Negroli’s helmet, Burgonet, stands out by the intricate design and relifs decorating the helmet. A mermaid runs like a mohawk over the headpiece. Her tail morphs into acanthus leaves where each vein is discernible. Through closer inspection I was able to make out each of the mermaid’s ribs, the snakes that create Medusa’s hair, and the individual feathers in the cherub’s wings.
The color palette in Edvard Munch’s painting, The Sick Child, 1885-6, causes a sense of uneasiness and nausea. It consists of greens and yellows in vertical brush strokes. It’s clear that we’re looking in on a sad scene, and a young girl that is beyond help. There’s an older woman with her head down that looks highly distraught, and a redheaded girl propped up in bed who has accepted her fate. The beauty in this painting is in the abstraction created by rough brush strokes that evoke a feeling of a dream or an unclear memory from long ago.
The joy I experienced of a broken expectation first occurred through the discovery of my identity. Perhaps this is the reason my work revolves around my family history. The thrill in seeing La Capresse was parallel to when I learned I was not an only child. That in fact, I had two half sisters. Discovering the presence of crocodiles in Salgado’s image is similar to the feeling of finding out my great great grandmother had a beard and was “Africana.” The discoveries in Düer’s work are reminiscent of being introduced to an unknown aunt or cousin. Rademayer’s Point Line Field is my family tree.