In honor of National Coming Out Day, I want to discuss something largely overlooked by the LGBTQ+ generation of today- the AIDS crisis.
Eric Rhein was a young artist living in the East Village of Manhattan in the 1980s, where he witnessed many friends and lovers go through the struggle of living with HIV and AIDS. And then, in 1987, he found out he was HIV positive. Out of fear for his career, he kept the information secret for years until he found a few people he felt he could trust, and they helped him feel comfortable enough to be open about his fight. Unfortunately, shortly afterward he took a turn for the worse and ended up hospitalized for a stretch of time.
Referring to the time he spent at St. Vincent’s Hospital as his “Artist Residency”, the whole experience was brimming with creativity and inspiration. He felt the presence of everyone he lost to the disease around him, particularly in the leaves he found on the ground outside. Thus, the beginnings of his internationally collected and ongoing Leaves project, in which he dedicates a wire silhouette of a leaf he traced to a friend with AIDS who passed away.
In his own words, “One by one, I picked up leaves until a host of kinsmen was gathered in my arms. In death, they continue to be the teachers that they were in life, generously sharing with me the gifts of their individual attributes.”
Currently, there are over 250 portraits.
We lost almost an entire generation to the AIDS crisis, and since there are so few left to tell their stories, it feels like few talk about it. Please, take some time to remember the history as you celebrate today.
(If you’re interested in learning more about the AIDS crisis in the LGBT community, I highly recommend the documentary We Were Here, available to stream on both YouTube and Netflix.)
For some reason, it’s often overlooked in favor of Western art.
I happened to stumble across a jazz festival in my city, and sat (and danced) through a wonderful performance by Awa Sangho of Mali, whose timbre and energy is similar to that of another favorite of mine, Angelique Kidjo. The vibrancy of the song and dance reminded me how much I love African art. However, I will preface this saying that I really only have a background in Ewe and Yoruba art, so that’s what I’ll focus on.
It’s rather unfortunate that African art is so commonly overlooked in favor of European and American art. The people of West Africa have such a rich, vibrant culture that reflects throughout everything they create, be it song, dance, textiles, or even sculptures and masks. They pour their souls into the craft, and it’s truly incredible to see.
The Ewe of Ghana and Togo produced (and continue to do so) wonderfully diverse and vibrant tapestries called Kente, described by the annual Kente Festival as “the web of human emotions, cultural values, social identity, ideas, and even dreams that have been woven inextricably into one unit.” A lofty claim for sure, but there’s no doubt that they’re made with extreme care.
Art has flourished with the Yoruba people for centuries, clearly evidenced by their intricate ceremonial masks and fertility statues. For example, the statuette above was carved to protect a deceased twin from abiku, or spirits of the children born to die. The careful engraving of the hair and carving of the figure’s face, however the features are exaggerated, show how skilled the artisans are. The masks are also incredibly detailed and really represent the heart of the group of people who make them.
The art of these people is so unlike what westerners are accustomed to, since it’s not “art” in the same sense. It’s less about creating a work of art, and more about creating something not just useful, but deeply meaningful. Everything- masks, statuettes, clothing- is crafted with such remarkable care. One thing I find interesting is there are generally no artists names’ attached since the objects weren’t just created for the veneration of the artist, and served a function in daily life, whereas European and American art has no purpose besides being art. Yes, it can inspire thought and extricate specific emotions from the mess of human life, but if you don’t look at it, what does it do? I hope that more students and artists decide to give African art a chance, there’s so much more to learn from it than you’d initially think.
Van Gogh finally gets his time to shine, a few years too late
In the last few years, I’ve noticed an incredibly large amount of art history thrown onto anything and everything- from Frida Kahlo earrings (I had a pair), Hieronymus Bosch Doc Martens (high on my wishlist), to it’s popularity in meme culture. Art history is everywhere, but there’s one particular movement that sticks out, Post-Impressionism. In particular, Van Gogh.
You can find his paintings anywhere, Doctor Who (this clip made me cry the first time I watched it, fair warning), socks, even my dad had a phone case with Starry Night! He’s also the subject of the first fully hand-painted movie, titled Loving Vincent, which took over 100 individual artists to complete. Needless to say, the world has an intense infatuation with Vincent, and his work deserves it. The man was a genius.
Vincent’s incredible popularity I believe can be attributed to a host of things, first and foremost being his ingenuity in both color and linework. If you were to take a look at any one of his sketches, finished drawings, or most definitely paintings, you would see that every single line he lays is describing the plane of the surface it rests on. Every single line. In addition, his markmaking is ridiculously descriptive of the textures he is attempting to capture, all while retaining it’s impressionistic feel. Not only does he use the line work of the piece to emphasize form, he also is incredibly skilled in color theory. He meticulously chose colors based on their compliments, even writing about his choices in a letter to his brother, Theo. He chose his colors from the specific color wheel created by the chemist Eugène Chevreul after reading about his take on color theory. He places colors directly, or extremely close to their complimentary colors in order to make the color really pop.
In addition to his creative genius and technical skill, I believe that a part of people’s love for his work reflects a slow shift in society’s contemporary artistic values from heavy abstraction to more of an appreciation for technical skill, particularly when it’s used to express emotion.
All in all, dear Vincent truly deserves the posthumous fame he’s garnered, no matter the reason. Anyone- art lover or not, can enjoy Starry Night, and it’s bringing art back to pop culture. Although to be honest, I just really enjoy buying everyday items covered in art.
Anyone who has had a discussion with me about modern art knows that I dislike Jeff Koons’ work, and from more recent talks with friends of mine, I am far from alone.
Jeff Koons has built himself a following beginning in the 80s by trying to be like Duchamp, yet injecting his sculptures with consumerism and marketing them to the rich instead of attempting to make them mean anything. His sculpture is about aggrandizing the mundane- recycling the idea of a simple balloon dog, for example, onto a much larger scale for the purpose of profiting off of them. Color temperature is foreign to his paintings, which often come off as flat, cut and paste collages. Although his Made in Heaven series is not in the same style, it only serves to glorify himself and his sexual conquests. To be honest, it’s almost repulsive to look at, complete with overt narcissism and run-of-the mill depiction of sexuality.
His following is incredibly large despite all this, and the only reason I can really think of is his reliance on consumers. There’s nothing to be learned from his work, and quite frankly, I’m disappointed that Gaga chose to work with him as opposed to someone like Richard Macdonald, who has done incredible work for Cirque du Soleil. The only thing keeping him relevant is his marketing which panders to rich, influential patrons.
The push and pull between two vastly different subjects.
As John Cage, the American composer has said, “The function of Art is to imitate Nature in her manner of operation.”
Our understanding of “her manner of operation” changes according to advances in the sciences.” Science and art have always operated hand-in-hand, particularly with the impacts of scientific advances on the artistic mind (and vice-versa). There are countless examples throughout the history of man, spanning from the innovations in the Lascaux caves to the mathematical ‘art’ of fractals. Art and Science are everywhere, and it’s only natural that they push each other to their limits- leading to some of the greatest creative ideas the world has seen.
Biomorphic Surrealism, an offshoot of the Surrealist movement, consisted of a group of expressedly scientific- minded artists who were interested particularly with the groundbreaking discoveries happening at the molecular level and incorporated aspects of them into their work. The artists utilized the unique patterns and fluid, organic lines that are found in even the tiniest natural forms into their work. Joan Miró was a very influential artist involved in this movement, and he encouraged organic forms to express themselves in his art, often beginning through scribbling on the canvas, and creating figure-like images out of the doodles he had just created. Microscopes had just been greatly improved and allowed biologists to finally see microorganisms clearly, and many artists fell in love and began replicating the microscopic organic forms that they saw before them.
Perhaps one of art’s loftiest goals is to imitate nature, and throughout history any time that there has been a significant advance in a scientific field- be it biology, archeology, or almost especially chemistry, there has almost always been creative explosion in another area of art. But at the same time, we must not forget the influence that art has had on science as well! Thanks to Da Vinci sneaking out in the middle of the night and dissecting human corpses, making sure to note what he found in his incredible journals, we learned far more about the musculature of the human body than we would have otherwise, since the Vatican had strict laws on disrespecting the dead. In addition, the mathematical discovery of the Fibonacci Sequence and its close sibling the Golden Section became the go-to compositional guide for many artists- from Raphael to Degas, even Dali.
Most likely being the most influential art-related scientific discovery to date was the creation of chemically based pigments, which allowed the saturation of virtually every color available to skyrocket. The creation of chemically-based pigments allowed paints to become much more vibrant than ever before, since artists were no longer restrained to using a much more muted palette like those of the older masters. This, along with the newfound idea of optical mixture, resulted in the impressionists abandoning traditional methods of applying color to a painting. Delacroix was one of the first artists to truly experiment with the new possibilities of inorganic pigments in oil painting. Unlike those who came before him, he placed colors adjacent to their complements in order to create even greater contrast, and also started using brighter, broader strokes of color. After taking some time to get used to the idea, many artists took this idea and ran with it.
Art and science, seemingly near opposites on the surface, are inexplicably connected. Discoveries made in one of these fields ultimately influences the other, as C. S. Smith of MIT said, “What artists have accomplished is realizing is there’s only a small amount of this stuff that’s important, and then seeing what it was. So they can do some of my research for me. It cannot be avoided, then, for science to stumble upon something that ends up aiding the artists.”
At the end of the day, one thing remains crystal clear- Art will always influence Science, and Science will always influence Art- pushing and pulling each other further.After all, if art seeks to describe life and its meaning through visual descriptions, and as Hawking wrote in A Brief History of Time, “the goal of Science is to reduce the entire universe to a single equation.” – should the two not support each other?
Surprise, it’s me, the person writing this! The name’s Aurélie, although people call me Emily as well, and I’ll respond to either. If you were wondering what I look like before I give you a brief history of me, I can be seen below in my natural habitat rubbing art supplies on my face (or above reciting at a poetry slam a few years ago).
My love for art has taken me places I never thought possible, coast to coast, city to city. Incredible opportunities started popping up before I even gradutated high school, where I was chosen to be head student curator for a Larry Fink show, my work was shown in a professional gallery, etc. Following graduation, I packed my life into two suitcases, threw my kitten over my shoulder and moved to Portland, Oregon from my small Pennsylvania town dreaming of a career in tattooing, only to realize the Portland art scene and that profession was nowhere near what I was looking for (an epiphany I had while sipping sangria and popping Good and Plenty’s at a gallery opening dedicated to the Velvet Underground). Just over a month later after that realization, my bags were packed and now my cat and I are settled into the Greater New York City Area, where I’m pursuing museum work.
At this point, I would be surprised if you weren’t questioning why you should listen to what I have to say about art, and I’m not here to argue with you. I’ve had three years of art history, four years of classical art training, and I’m still learning. Granted, I’ll never stop learning, but I’m inviting you to join me on my quest.