Critcal Studies

Art is a trend, like fashion, media, technology etc. Art moves forward in terms of style, movement and culture. In the late nineteenth century, art took a leap forward that was considered quite controversial to critics. It was often criticised for being unnatural and immature. However, modern art snowballed into one of the biggest trends in art history. Artists such as; Piet Mondrian, Salvador Dali and Jackson Pollock ruled the art world in their time. Since modern culture, a lot has changed. The world endured another devastating war that had changed modern culture forever. Europe, the home of modern art was left in ruins after Adolf Hitler’s conquest had ended. Although he failed in his endeavours, he left scars that would take a lot of time and a lot of work to heal. Post WWII, technology had made advanced leaps in terms of productivity. “When antibiotics became industrially produced following World War II, our quality of life and our longevity improved enormously. No one thought bacteria were going to become resistant” – Bonnie Bassier (2002)

 Machines had replaced factory workers, furniture was being made by robots rather than hands, cars were being made by the hundreds and art would soon follow, much like Fritz Lang predicted in his epic sci-fi film Metropolis (1927). In the mid-twentieth century, art and culture moved forward and evolved from modernism. The technological advancements post WWII, opened up opportunities for artists to challenge their predecessors and gave them the ability to create something for the average, working-class person. Art pre WWII was very subjective in terms of target audience. The art created was incredibly unique as only one of those pieces existed. However, the birth of Postmodernism not only challenged these ideologies, but it also changed them. This subculture reformed consumerism and pushed society into an era of trendiness.

As consumerism became a larger part of society, advertising and graphic design worked hand in hand to boost sales of products. Huge prints would be cascaded over skyscrapers, billboards and television advertising became more popular as the technology advanced. Advertising was the inspiration for one of postmodernisms most influential artists. Born in 1928 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Andy Warhol would soon make history with his reproducible prints of Campbell’s Soup. Warhol was the fourth child of Slovakian working class immigrants. As a child, Warhol was often bedridden due to him being a severe hypochondriac. His fear developed after being sick from scarlet fever. While bedridden, he would draw and paint which flared his creative interest in art. He described this period of his life being an important part in his personality development. “At the times in my life when I was feeling the most gregarious and looking for bosom friendships, I couldn’t find any takers, so that exactly when I was alone was when I felt the most like not being alone… I became a loner in my own mind… I decided I would rather be alone.” – Andy Warhol. His career took off when he developed ink drawings for a shoe company in the 1950’s. He used blotted ink over rough sketches of stylish shoes, creating tasteful posters for advertising. He exhibited some of his pieces in the Bodley Gallery, NY.

As technology allowed companies to improve the quantity of products made, one industry affected by this advancement was the music industry. Records would be made in huge batches by machines in factories. Consumerism was growing and show were businesses. This made opportunities for artists such as Andy Warhol to be involved in something a little bigger than advertising. Warhol was offered a job by RCA records to create record covers. During this time, Warhol created covers for artists such as; The Rolling Stones, Liza Minnelli, Diana Ross, John Lennon and most famously, The Velvet Underground.

The banana album cover is one of Warhol’s most famous art pieces. It was designed by Warhol as part of a contract with RCA records.  The simplistic design won him the job of managing the band in the late sixties to early seventies. The album cover quickly became iconic and put Warhol’s career into overdrive as he became the most influential face in pop art. “The Velvets are an important group, and this album has some major work behind that erect banana on the cover.“ – (Goldstein, R 1967.)

In 1962, Andy Warhol had been working on a comic strip project when he stumbled across the work of his predecessor Roy Lichtenstein in Leo Castelli Gallery. Looking for inspiration, Warhol asked a friend if he could use him as a subject to paint. However, his friend refused and suggested something different. He suggested that Warhol painted something everyone recognises, like Campell’s soup. This suggestion changed Warhol’s life as he ran to the supermarket and bought the tins of soup he needed for his work. This was the beginning of one of the most significant and largest projects in Post-Modern Art.

The project spans to thirty-two paintings of each of the flavours Campell’s Soup produces. The paintings are done by trace projecting the cans onto a canvas then lightly painting the outlines to resemble the aesthetics of the unique lithograph labels. This work changed Warhol’s style quite drastically. When he would paint his comic strips and advertisements, he would drip the paint onto the canvas to give it more of an impressionist look. However, in this project Warhol sought the use of mechanical reproduction, which required precision and accuracy in his strokes. The first of his paintings, tomato, was analysed by Irving Blub, who was expecting to see comic strips, however upon looking at the soup painting, Warhol was immediately offered a space in the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. Warhol continued his project and created each of the thirty-two soups and exhibited them on shelves in the gallery.

The exhibition was a huge success, younger members of the art community flocked to the gallery, fascinated by the novelty of the paintings. However, not everyone viewed the paintings with an open mind. Mostly, people treated the paintings with insignificance and disregarded them as art. So much so, that a nearby art dealer mocked the work by stacking soup cans, and advertising the fact viewers could get them cheaper in his gallery. During the time of the exhibition, Blum had sold five of Warhol’s paintings, but soon realised that they are a set and shouldn’t be separated, so he bought them back and the collection has been together since. With the success of the series, Warhol realised the potential of creating work in a series, rather than a single piece.

Another of Warhol’s popular series is his Icon Portrait series. Warhol was pulled in to the glamourous world of Hollywood, fashion and celebrity news. Anything that was published in the papers about the lives of Hollywood celebrities, Warhol was interested. His interest in pop culture manifested in his early childhood, when he would collect signed photographs of celebrities. He bought into and read teen magazines that glamorised the lives of the rich and famous. He was fascinated in staying up to date with the current trends and what was popular at the time. This obsession was carried into his adulthood, where he projected it into his work. Warhol started a long term project creating portraits of celebrities. His portraits spanned across a huge variation or people including; Elvis Presley, Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minelli, Mick Jagger and most famously Marilyn Monroe.

What makes these portraits special, is the fact that Warhol usually never met any of the celebrities he painted. His work was created by taking photographs from newspapers, magazines or directly from the photographs he had collected as a child and using a technique called photographic silkscreen to print them. This allowed Warhol to mass produce the same image. The most famous of the series are the portraits of Marilyn Monroe. Soon after her death in 1962, Warhol paid tribute to Monroe by creating a series of paintings made with silkscreen ink on synthetic polymer paint on canvas. Warhol centred the painting on a still from the 1953 film Niagara. He painted the background gold before silk-screening the boldly coloured face in the centre of the canvas, adding black to define her facial structure. “The rubber-stamp method I’d been using to repeat images suddenly seemed too homemade; I wanted something stronger that gave more of an assembly-line effect. With silk-screening you pick a photograph, blow it up, transfer it in glue onto silk, and roll ink across it so the ink goes through the silk but not through the glue. That way you get the same image, slightly different each time. It all sounds so simple – quick and chancy. I was thrilled with it. My first experiments with screens were heads of Troy Donahue and Warren Beatty, and then Marilyn Monroe happened to die that month (August 1962), I got the idea to make screens of her beautiful face. (Andy Warhol, Popism, 1980)

The importance of Warhol’s work wasn’t just the style or aesthetics of his paintings. The mass production eliminated the snobbishness that thrived within the art community. Thanks to the Post-Modern era, art was for everyone, not just the rich and famous. And because of artists like Warhol, and thanks to the industrial boom, it wasn’t just art that was for everyone. Everyone had access to vehicles, electronics, furniture and fashion. The world changed forever, advertising became huge which created jobs for artists and consumerism quickly became part of our culture. As technology improved and changed, it made more room for different disciplines within the art community. Including the growth of photography. Photography was seen as a huge threat to artists during the late 19th and early to mid-20th centuries and was often disregarded as art, however, more artists began to use photography as a medium or a foundation from which to build their work. Whether it was collages, silk-screening or as a stand-alone aesthetic, photography was finally accepted into the art world. Many famous photographers such as Man Ray, Sebastião Salgado, Martin Parr etc. Grew as artists and tried many different techniques in terms of photographic technology. However, one particular photographer took it one step further and used moving image to create art as a performance.

Sam Taylor-Wood was born in Croydon, London in 1967. She is the oldest of one sister and grew up with her single mother in South London. Attending Beacon Community College, she became interested in art and eventually photography. She began her career exhibiting small projects around London, one project in particular titled, 26 October 1993, was a collaboration with fellow photographer Henry Bond. The photograph depicts Bond, nude, clutching Wood on a bed in the foetal position, kissing her cheek. The image represents vulnerability and the need of support. It’s also a pastiche of the photograph of John Lennon and Yoko Ono that was taken by Annie Leibovitz just a few hours before Lennon’s assassination. She also directed a film called Nowhere Boy (2008) based on the childhood of John Lennon. “I thought, I’m in too deep and if I mess this up, I’m never going to make a film again, and I went into a panic. I got into the car and said, I just have to call these producers and pull out. I got into the car and I put the key into the ignition and Lennon’s voice came straight out of the radio and it was Starting Over. It was one of those moments where I thought it was a sign: OL I’m gonna do it.” (Sam Taylor-Wood, 2010) The film was nominated for a BAFTA that year, but she lost to Duncan Jones.

Just like Andy Warhol, Sam Taylor-Wood became obsessed with celebrity pop culture, however Warhol and Wood differed in their techniques drastically. Where Warhol painted his subjects in a neutral, almost beautiful manner, Sam photographed her subjects looking very vulnerable, often male subjects. Between 2002 and 2004, Wood created a series of beautiful images titled ‘Crying Men.’ This was a project compiled of portraits of dominant male celebrities in pop culture. People like; Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Sean Penn and Jude Law where all photographed vulnerable and crying. A various range of techniques were used to photograph these men. They were all shot digitally using a various selection of lenses. Predominantly 50mm and 85mm, though some are shot with a wide angle 20mm lens to add variety to her shots. Each photograph depicting a celebrity in tears.

Vulnerability became the centre point of a lot of Sam Taylor-Wood’s work. Although she did try different things, her work on vulnerable men stood out more than the others. Wood took a chance with her discipline and made a shift to moving image where she directed many successful independent films and video performances. In 1994, Wood exhibited a multi-screen video piece titled Killing Time, which depicted four people miming an opera score. She created many video art pieces and was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1998, but lost to painter and sculptor Chris Offili. In 2001 she went back to her roots and made a short video piece on a vulnerable celebrity. Pieta (2001) Is a video art installation about Robert Downy Jnr, his addiction to heroine and overcoming it with the help of a strong female figure. The video depicts a naked Downy Jnr being cradled by Wood, centre screened on a set of dark stairs. This moving piece is one of her most prestigious installations.

Although Andy Warhol and Sam Taylor-Wood are vastly different artists, they both share a common interest in pop culture. Warhol, one of the founders and cornerstones of modern consumerism created beautiful portraits of celebrities using different techniques that were available, enabling him to change the way that art is produced and manufactured. Sam Taylor-Wood took a chance with her career to explore different methods in creating art, from herself portraits to her award winning multi-screen art installations, she always pushes the boundaries. Their interest in pop culture is also vastly different from one another, Warhol’s beautiful portraits of strong celebrities, making them look proud was a way for him to pay homage to his subjects as fans, but from a distance. Wood executed her method very differently, she was very up close and personal with her subjects, photographing them in a way that makes them look human, rather than just photographs of the rich. These differences may separate Warhol and Wood, but their overall goal was the same and they are both strong figures within the Post-Modern art culture.

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Visual Analysis

Genesis, a photographic homage to our planet in its natural state. Sebastião Salgado is one of the most influential photographers in our time and his broad range of photographic projects, have been a foundation in realism photography and photojournalism. In 1970, at the age of twenty six, Salgado placed his eyes over the viewfinder of a camera for the first time and would never see the world the same again. “I looked through a lens and ended up abandoning everything else.” As a young economist, Salgado was infatuated by the natural world and the destructive nature of human beings in their own socio-economic conditions. This highly influenced his future career as a photographer and inspired his first two major photographic projects; ‘Workers’ and ‘Migrations’. Salgado became physically sick due to him photographing too much death and destruction. So much so, that his doctor told him if he didn’t stop, he would die. “He says ‘You are not sick. What happened was you saw much death, you are dying. You must stop. Stop!’” In the early 90’s, Salgado returned to his home in Brazil and decided to try and heal the world by undoing some of the damage. By 2003, his charity single handedly restored almost 50% of the rainforest in Brazil. In 2004 Salgado picked up his camera for the first time in almost a decade and began to photograph the world as though it had been untouched by economic growth. This project became Genesis.

One of the most beautiful photographs of the whole series was taken in 2009 at The Arctic National Wildlife Range in Alaska, USA. The photograph depicts a mountain range landscape and a river vein at the bottom of a Valley. The photograph is composed beautifully using the rule of thirds. The jagged horizontal lines of the mountains clash with the vertical lines of the river. The foreground is made up of part of the river sneaking out of the corner of the frame as a smaller convex mountainside blends into the other corner with subtle natural light skimming the details, highlighting them so they are just noticeable, leaving dark shadows in the gaps between the rocks. The light becomes more prominent in the middle ground, illuminating the detail on the mountains and the grassy area beneath them. The light becomes more gradient as your eyes wander up the river in the middle of the frame, bright and revealing on the right side of the frame, but darker on the left. Suggesting the photograph was taken in the early morning or late afternoon. The detail becomes sharper aesthetically and literally in the background as the shape of the mountains become more protruding. The background is also lit up by the sun bouncing of a raincloud that meets the ground on the left hand side of the frame, lighting the whole scene. The black and white brings out the highlights and shadows exquisitely, bringing out the smallest details and creating a breath-taking contrast. The frame is also taken in portrait rather than landscape, which is unusual for landscape photography. However it works with the composition as it brings the landscape in, making it tighter, allowing the viewers eyes to follow the river.

This particular photograph isn’t what inspires me or creates impact on my work. Granted, this is my favourite photograph of the project, due to its powerful aesthetics in visual composition and lighting. However, the whole project inspires me, not because of the aesthetics of the photographs, but because of the politics behind them and the ethics that Salgado works by. This project has opened my eyes creatively in a way that forces me to appreciate the beauty of what is in front of the lens, and what is behind it. Everything that happens between is what allows me to take that appreciation and pass it on to others. Genesis taught me that beauty can really come from anywhere and all it takes is a different perspective. A perspective that is easily found when looking through the viewfinder of a camera. Salgado has made a huge influence on my work, creatively and morally. He somehow managed to prove that one person can really make a difference and a change of perspective can kick-start that. Genesis, a photographic homage to our planet in its natural state.