Happy Thanksgiving 2014

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is a pretty major event every year, so I thought it’d be neat to talk about it a bit and post some pictures of the parade from the 1920’s. But as I was looking it up I was surprised to learn that the parade was started by first generation immigrants, which struck me as a little ironic. I say “ironic” because immigration is a major and divisive topic in the US these days. But regardless of how you feel immigration policy should be conducted, I am excited to know that something as “American” as the Macy’s Day parade was largely founded by the influx of European immigrants.

In the 1920’s Macy’s department stores were largely staffed with immigrant workers. These new Americans were very proud to be part of this country and wanted to celebrate with a parade much like how they would in Europe. There was already an annual Thanksgiving parade in Newark, New Jersy started by Louis Bamberger for the Bamberger store, but in 1924 it was transferred to New York. The Macy’s employees marched to Herald’s Square dressed in vibrant costumes they made. They dressed up as clowns, cowboys, knights, sheikhs and elves. The first parade had floats, had professional bands and borrowed animals from the Central Park Zoo (it wasn’t until 1927 that the parade had giant balloons, the first being Felix the Cat). At the end of that first parade Santa Claus made his appearance at Herald Square, a tradition that has continued ever since. Over a quarter of a million people attended the parade, and Macy’s immediately monopolized on its success by declaring it an annual event. By 1933 the gathered crowd numbered over a million.

The parade has become bigger and bigger every year, with new floats, balloons, bands, and performances all backed by lots of marketing investments. But it is important to understand how influential immigrants were to the shaping this iconic event in our culture. We all need to be reminded of how this country was founded and supported by immigrant peoples. The Macy’s Parade is a wonderful example of how America is at its best when we are inclusive and celebrate our diversity instead of attacking it. Unfortunately our country is too often caught up in consumerism, race, fear mongering politics, and misbehaving celebrities to take the time to be united in mutual thankfulness and brotherly love. I suppose those are in part my own sentiments.

Anyway, I am glad that I can say I am thankful for many things about living in America despite the problems that we still struggle to resolve. Nothing is perfect. So this season I suggest that you gather your loved ones close and celebrate yourselves, much like those first generation immigrants who started a parade because they were so happy to be a part of this nation.

And I want to quickly thank you guys for reading my blog. I am still surprised by the number of people who read it, and I am glad y’all do.

Dia de los Muertos

Day of the Dead is a holiday widely practiced in Mexico. Families come together to honor dead loved ones and encourage their sprits to visit with various gifts. Evidence of ceremonial rituals meant to attract the spirits of the dead and honor them can be traced back to Pre-Colombian times. Aztecs dedicated a month long festival starting around August to the goddess Micteozcihuatl, the precursor to today’s Catrina. Over time beliefs of the indigenous peoples combined with Catholic beliefs, producing a three day celebration that starts on October 31st and lasts until November 2nd. Each day holds specific significance. On the first night, called Dia de los Inocentes (Day of the Innocents) children make altars for the angelitos (spirits of young children or babies) encouraging them to visit. The next day called All Saints Day honors adult spirits and on the last day, All Sous Day, families gather in cemeteries to decorate the graves of relatives and friends who have passed. The traditions of this festival spread through out the region and now similar holidays for the dead are practiced in Spain, Brazil, and some areas of Europe, Asia, Africa and America.

There are specific icons that make up the visual lexicon of Dia de los Muertos. The most readily recognized being sugar skulls (calaveras de azúca) placed onto graves as oferenda (offerings). These decorations made of sugar and can be bought, but are often homemade. The sugar is shaped into a skull and brightly decorated with patterns in multi-colored icing, shiny foil, sequins and glitter. These are not morbid items, but are cheerful reminders to the dead of the love their living relatives still have for them. Marigolds are the flowers of the dead and are thought to attract spirits. The flowers and sugar skulls populate art inspired by Dia de los Muertos themes. Faimlies also paint their faces in a likeness of the sugar skulls and wear marigolds in their hair.

Altars made for the dead can become large and complex, filled with sugar skull, paper decorations, food and drink favored by the deceased, candles, flowers, toys and pictures. These altars are made to attract the spirits during the days of the holiday when they can visit. Special bread is baked called pan de muertos (bread of the dead) and also placed on graves. These elaborate alters are quite beautiful and reenforce the celebratory themes of the holiday. Below I have attached some pictures of altars and other items from Dia de los Muertos. Later this week, my work place will participate with Dia de los Muertos by having private and public altars for the community to visit. I am very proud to be able to contribute to this long tradition as well as excited to be a part of it. I will try to take some good pictures of the altars to share later this week or early next week.

Thanks for reading guys, and whether you chose to celebrate Halloween or Dia de los Muertos or both, I wish you all the best.


Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz

Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei is photographed inside his studio in Beijing on June 16, 2014

Ai Weiwei is building portraits of imprisoned human rights activists onsite at Alcatraz out of legos. The portraits total 176 and feature political exiles like South African leader Nelson Mandela, Tibetan pop singer Lolo and even American whistle-blower Edward Snowden. The work is part of an exhibition titled “@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz”  that opened on September 27th and will run through April 26th. The instillation is organized by For-Site, a San Francisco producer of public art. The portraits will be located in the prison hospital, A Block cells, dining hall and the former laundry building.

Weiwei’s project will bring awareness to limitations on freedom of expression across the glob. I know it is hard for Americans to really understand how censorship abroad works (not to say our government never casts shade on topics) because our freedom to express seems unbound when compared to the degree of persecution human rights activists, artists, musicians, and political rebels face in say Russia or the Middle East among others. Weiwei has himself fought to resist efforts by the Chinese government to stop his artistic efforts.

And now the answer to the question on everyone’s mind. How many Legos did Weiwei use to build his portraits? The artist estimates the final count will total around 1.2 million pieces.
Heres a link with a video about the project and an interview with Weiwei:





Short Bit: Alfredo Jaar

“The Eyes of Gutete Emerita” 2004

Currently a large portion of artist Alfredo Jaar’s oeuvre is on display at Kiasma titled “Tonight no Poetry Will Serve” it opened on April 11 and will show through September 2014. Named after a poem by the late American writer Adrienne Rich (1929-2012), an important source of inspiration for the artist, the retrospective occupies two floors comprising more than 40 works from 1974–2014. It features real ground-breakers like “Lament of the Images,” “The Silence of Nduwayezu,” and “The Sound of Silence”. But the premium piece is Jaar’s re-creation of “One Million Finnish Passports;” the striking and historic landmark work shown originally in Helsinki in 1995 and was destroyed right after the exhibition.

The Chilean native has lived in New Year since 1982, gaining international fame as an ethical artist, architect and filmmaker with installations and public interventions. The overriding theme in Jaar’s body of work is social morality. He challenges us to question the practicality of our principles, revealing the holes in Western society’s attitudes regarding righteousness and social justice. His large scale installations, films, photographs, objects, and neon works examine human and social morals by negotiating the balance between our responsibility for ensuring self well-being and that of others. With art he tackled the Rwanda holocaust, gold mining in Brazil, toxic pollution in Nigeria, and immigration issues between Mexico and the United States. In a lot of the works, Jaar contrasts light and dark to expose moral disparities or focuses on eyes as points of entry into another person’s experience, effectively eliciting empathy and real compassion. Though he also distances the viewer from the human aspect to provide “room” for reflection upon the full implication of a problem, the spread of injustice in situations like immigration and persecution. Many of Jaar’s works are extended meditations or elegies, including videos like Muxima (2006) that portrays the extreme contrast between poverty stricken Angola and the oil economy and “The Gramsci Trilogy” (2004–05). The latter is a series of installations documenting Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s imprisonment under Mussolini’s Fascist regime.

details from Biennial exhibition

He has exhibited individual works in Finland in both the 1995 and 2011 ARS exhibitions and in 2010 as part of the Capital of Culture year in Turku Archipelago. Among Jaar’s many awards are a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Award (2000); a Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award (1987); and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (1987); and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation (1985). He has had major exhibitions at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (2005); Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rome (2005); Massachusetts Institute of Technology, List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge (1999); and Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (1992). Jaar emigrated from Chile in 1981, at the height of Pinochet’s military dictatorship. His exhibition at Fundación Telefonica in Chile, Santiago (2006), was his first in his native country in twenty-five years. Jaar lives and works in New York.

SEGMENT  Art21 follows and films Jaar in his native Chile during a major retrospective of his work, which he shares for the first time with the Chilean public.



“Lament of the Images, version 2,” 2002

“Lament of the Images, version 1” 2002

From Rwanda project

“Geometry of Consciousness” 2010

“Lament of the Images, detail” 2002

“Gold in the Morning”

“Real Pictures”


Odalisque paintings were hyper-pervasive icons of 19th-20th century art. These paintings are characterized by the reclining, nude, exoticised female figure surrounded by patterned decorations and furnishings Europeans believed to be emblematic of a Far East harem. In the 19th century, the West became very interested in Eastern countries and the Middle East— Turkey, Morocco, Egypt and Persia (now Iran) — and became fascinated by harems. As a result, it became very popular for European women to dress up in far East costume for portrait paintings. Collectively, this is trend in art is referred to as Orientalism. Many artists visited these countries and began to paint scenes with models dressed in foreign garb that romanticized harems, exploiting women as sex objects by “othering” them with a foreign ethnicity. Some scenes painted by Orientalists were true to life, but most odalisque portraits were exaggerations of harems that failed to provide a comprehensive understanding of Far East culture.

Europeans believed and perpetuated the falsehood that harems were orgy-tastic retreats where wealthy, royal men kept their mistresses who were, of course, experts in sexual gratification; specifically experts on how to sexually gratify a man (in conservative European culture sex was not meant for proper women to enjoy). In reality, harems are far less explicate though no less interesting. Typically the harem housed several dozen women, including wives, the Sultan’s mother, daughters and other female relatives, as well as eunuchs and the slave girls who serve the aforementioned women. Sometimes the sons of the Sultan also lived in the Harem until they were of an appropriate age to appear in the public and administrative areas of the palace. Basically the harem was merely the private living quarters of the sultan and his family within the palace complex. It was also commonly said in Ottoman culture that “the empire was ruled from the harem” which indicates the political power these royal women yielded in their own right. Two of the most powerful political figures in Ottoman history were women, Hürrem Sultan (wife of Suleiman the Magnificent, mother of Selim II) and Kösem Sultan (mother of Murad IV). So clearly harems were the sacred seats of power from which these influential women lived and ruled and where caed for— they did NOT spend all of their time doting on the sultan’s every need. These were NOT royal whore houses.

The French word “odalisque” originates from the Turkish odalık. It’s Turkish root “oda” means “chamber” and refers to a chamber girl or attendant. These attendants were not only unpracticed in the sexual arts, they did not have the privilege of sexually pleasing the sultan. They were slaves at the lower end of the Ottoman hierarchy, responsible for tending to the sultan’s wives, daughters, and concubines. There was small chance that an odalık might distinguish herself and join the concubine realm, but it was not common occurrence. The shift in the term’s definition as it transitioned from Turkish to French to it’s English usage, illustrates how Europeans objectified Far East culture, belittling and exploiting these people. By the 18th century the term “odalisque “referred to the eroticized artistic genre in which a model, a European woman posing as an eastern woman, lies on her side on display for the spectator. Instead of building a cultural exchanged based on a comprehensible understanding and equality, these Europeans paintings belittled these people and their culture for entertainment

Western artists were so taken with the idea of a sex retreat that their paintings of harem slave girls ALWAYS insinuated a woman experienced and used for sexual gratification of a royal male ruler, a male viewer.  Therefore we have a prevailing assumption that odalisques were exotic objects of inspiration for artists of the Orientalist school. These artists began to combine European standards of beauty with the inappropriate European concept of a harem woman, so we have an exhaustive number of paintings bearing the title of Odalisque from the 1800s to as late as the 1920s. Some notable artists were Henri Matisse, Eugène Delacroix, Jules Joseph Lefebvre, Lord Frederic Leighton, Richard Parkes Bonington, American Frederick Arthur Bridgman, Italian Ignace Spiridon and Spaniard Mariano Fortuny. Common themes in many of the paintings were turbans, striped harem pants, embroidered or beaded slippers, fur pelts, tasselled pillows and expressions or poses of willingness.  In these paintings, the woman was put on display purely for the viewing pleasure of the male gaze. Unlike Sargent’s Madam X who commanded her sexuality, these serpentine odalisques were submissive and compliant, offering themselves shamelessly for the pleasure of male viewing.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the most famous odalisque painting pretty much ever. French artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ 1814 The Grand Odalisque was a royal commission. Ingres produced with his usual stunning clarity an elongated and reclining nude with her long back turned toward the viewer. Wearing a turban she glances passively and expressionless over her shoulder as she lies on a divan, surrounded by rich blue fabrics which serve to contrast against her creamy flesh. Of course the model looks more like a classic French beauty than a true  descendant of Middle Eastern, which makes her turban all the more ridiculous to look upon (or maybe the farce is ridicules only to me). I must confess I hate, and have always hated this painting. Matisse’s Post-Imresionists paintings of odalisque women at least had a charm about them due to his experimental approach and having his models act out roles (he always often used actual foreign women at times) but Ingres’s doe-eyed and vacant woman has always irked me. She is bland and at the same time eery and alien. Its a strange combination that is as off putting as the overly ornate divan. Her torso is a few vertebrae too long and I find it painful when I look too long at the strained curve of her back and tension in her shoulder and arm area. Oh and the anatomy in her legs is wrong too, the left knee, the one under her, should be bent upwards like that with foot resting on calve and I think that one is awkward too. I will not deny that this is a remarkable painting for its draftsmanship, structure, attention of detail, light, contrast, composition, blah blah blah, but its subject disturbs me. This woman is clearly a fantasy, a grotesque overly worked fantasy. But I will let you decide for yourself.

Ingres, “La Grande Odalisque” 1814


For comparison here are a few of Matisse’s odalisque paintings from the Post-Imressionist era. Though they are still Orientalist in theme, but I find that I admire these paintings for the way Matisse captures a moment with the women. I get the impression that these are women with personalities and responsibilities that give them a life beyond being viewed. They are still exaggerations of reality, but I believe Matisse was more concerted with his expirmental treatment of painting techniques than to exploiting a culture or women’s sexuality. Plus I love his brilliant color and pattern.

Matisse, 1920’s


Matisse, 1920’s


Matisse, 1920’s

Matisse, 1920’s

American Girl 2014

I did not grow up as a fan of the American Girl dolls, I was rather indifferent to them I suppose. So while you couldn’t say I had any expectations for the debut of the 2014 Girl of the Year doll, I was notably disappointed and sadden by the bland choice for this year. Her name is Isabelle, she has hazel eyes, blonde hair with an attachable pink hair streak, and her outfit is also pink. Oh, and she is into dance. This is very cliche American isn’t it? A cookie straight from mother Dixie’s oven. I had always thought that the dolls were about moments in history, so I looked it up.

I started thinking that if I  knew more about previous dolls maybe it would help understand why Mattel chose to have a blonde girl in pink that is into ballet represent 2014, instead of a Hispanic girl whose family is struggling to get legal status, learn English, and fit in in a Texas neighborhood (cause immigration reform issues would have been a great topic to mark the year right?)

Mattel has owned the American Girl brand for 15 years, buying it up in 1998 from Pleasant Company. After the Mattel takeover American Girl under went incremental, but forgettable, changes. The company debuted a line of contemporary 18-inch dolls and accessories that has since evolved into the new My American Girl. The first really notable change was in 2008, when Mattel decide to archive the original dolls and rename them “Historical Characters.” This means that dolls with stories that illuminated on controversial and important moments in history- like Samantha, Kirsten, and the headstrong colonial girl Felicity,- that made up the core of the “The American Girls Collection” are no longer sold by American Girl. The archiving of Historical dolls freed up funds to market the customizable My American Girl and the annual Girl of the Year dolls. These product lines feature blander avatars to little girls, reflecting only the present time period and appearance of “contemporary girls.” This is right off their website: “The My American Girl product line lets every girl create a truly special doll that’s just right for her, then bring her doll to life in a safe, enriching online world that promotes learning and helps girls to be their best.”  Really? A truly special girl, just like her, that promotes learning in a safe online world. How can a doll that is “just like her” really challenge your daughter to explore ideas and topics outside of her awareness?

The historic dolls represented more than just the origins of an iconic brand, they allowed girls to see themselves in the thick of the action. They were doing rather sitting on the sidelines. The systematic archiving demonstrates a lost sensibility about teaching girls to understand complex historical controversies AND how use that understanding to become builders of a continually progressing social and political consciousness. When compared to the historical dolls, the contemporary dolls lack dimension, interest, and dynamism. These are qualities that help children understand that they have the potential to do more than be a part of their small part of the world- they can reshape it.

Take Saige, McKenna, and Lanie. These are three previous Girl of the Year Dolls, that are nothing more than recycled attributes plus or minus a superficial element. All three are white; upper-middle-class. Saige is a dancer, McKenna a gymnast, and Lanie is an amateur gardener and butterfly enthusiast. In their attempts to encourage spunky and active girlhoods, Mattel approaches problem solving in a highly local way. One has a bake sale to help save the school arts program, Lanie persuades one neighbor to stop using pesticides and Isabella balances school work with her dance lessons (I think McKenna learned the same lesson about time management but with gymnastics instead). They also undergo emotion development by overcoming jealousy, insecurity, and bullying. Great. But none of these girls faced situations that brought them into contact with real social issues or physical and emotional hardship.

Before the rebranding, American Girl characters faced real social real controversy and the girl’s solution had meaningful, resounding impact. The very first American girl doll was Samantha, an orphan raised by her grandmother during the Edwardian period. Themes in Samantha’s books include women’s suffrage, child labor, and classism that were dealt with through her friendship with and rescuing of a serving girl. Molly McIntire is a young girl of Scottish descent,  living in Jefferson, Illinois during the latter years of World War II. Her father is doctor stationed in England caring for wounded soldiers, and Molly must cope with changes that war has brought. She realizes that she can do something to aid soldiers and she and her family host an English girl immigrating from the war zone. Kirsten Larson is a Swedish immigrant who settles in the Minnesota Territory with her extended family. She faces actual physical risk posed by the challenges of settling a wide territory and adaptations necessary to adjust to life in America- like ya know learning to speak English. These earlier dolls deal with immigration, displacement, women and children’s’ exploitation, and hard work. These girls grow from their situation.

Compare that to Isabelle who enters a dance competition but then starts to do poorly in math (she’s poor at math! why math? why can’t she be bad at home ec?). She is just like Marisol, another dancer, plus a bit from Lanie or Kailey, or both who can tell?, with a different outfit. Sure, her story might inspire some little girl to be the next greatest dancer or choreographer, but more than likely most parents will find that they have wasted their money on lessons their daughter quit after a few weeks.

*sigh* Ok on the real, there’s nothing wrong with young girls learning about good time management early on, but seriously, how does Isabelle’s story make her different in some way from the “average” girl reading her book? How is this young reader compelled, motivated, or enlighten? She’ll learn about bullying and dedication to accomplish goals, but did she learn about immigration reform or LGBT rights? Gun violence in school?  Or let’s talk about creationism vs evolution in schools! Or even about freaking global warming?!!!!!

Those are things that real American girls do face every day. Where’s the girl who as two dads or a mentally ill sibling?

But this is just a harmless marketing move, right? Nothing more that a strategic way to target collections toward buyers willing to cash out the big bucks for costly dolls, right? Just like Spanos said, its a marketing strategy. She also says that “[Mattel] still considers the historical characters to be the heart of the brand.” 

The current catalogue leads off with the My American Girl offerings, followed by “Dress Like Your Doll” 2013 Doll of The Year,’ and ‘Books and Magazines.’ Only when you get to the fifth section, on page 38, do “Historical Characters” make an appearance. And on the website the homepage features matching doll outfits, dresses for girls so they match their doll, the current product line, and the online game for our 2014 Girl of the Year, Isabelle. Essentially, historical dolls are afterthoughts.

 “[American Girl] still considers the historical characters to be the heart of the brand.”— Spanos

So why doesn’t Mattel feature a doll who has a parent, maybe a mother, fighting in Iraq? Or just a girl whose not white? (there’s only been two black  character dolls—one a slave girl!— and NO Asians, Ivy doesn’t count cause she’s Julie’s BF, not a main character with her stuff), and for the contemporary lines there’s not much to cater to girls with darker skin either. 

Oh what look at this:

The dolls retail at American Girl stores nationwide for $110 each, and accessories cost extra.”—ABC News

In the end, the dolls are  $110-$200. Mattell knows who they are marketing to, and its not to every American girl. Heck after reading the comments its not even to girls, it looks like its mostly old ladies buying them up.

Check this quote for a buyer”

“”I purcahsed these two dolls for my girls as a Christmas present. Although they have not seen them yet I LOVE them. Their accessories and outfits are so nice.”

(the caps are not my formatting)

Also, does no one else think dolls are just plain creepy?

She has the devil’s eyes!

Happy 2014! And Some Art Market Predictions for 2014

Happy New Year everyone! I hope that 2014 is off to an excellent start for everyone. To get the year rolling, I thought I would share my thoughts on this article of art market predictions by Ben Davis I found on Blouin ArtInfo.com. I’ll put the link below for y’all to read:


And here are my summaries and musings on his four predictions.

Awesome! Museums need to start incorporating interactive technology into their exhibits as artists and audiences become more and more reliant on social media as a means of communication and expression. Plus let’s face it, the wealthy are the main art buyers and it is becoming apparent that the people getting rich are the ones inventing or are otherwise invested in technology. So I am all for it.

So like I said, the techies are the ones making the money and it’s the wealthy that maintain the stability of the art market. And rather than spending their money traveling to banals and exhibits in other cities and countries, the high-brow of Silicon Valley have decided to host two art fairs at home, the Silicon Valley Contemporary in April and Art Silicon Valley in October. This is actually really interesting and (I think) good, because having these events suggests that even though we are in a tech-driven society the elite are still wanting to invest in the arts.

Sadly this is a story that we all know well enough. The risk of obtaining an MFA is that you will never earn back the money you spent on your degree. (On a personal note, I am dealing with this now as I consider whether or not to pursue an advanced degree in art history.) Critics also complain about how art students risk becoming too educated and this degrades contemporary art into commercial regurgitations of previous art. I don’t completely agree with this because the innovative artists of this generation will rise above the rest to drive expression and creation like they always have before.

So the prediction is that what happens to the art market in 2014 depends on what happens in the “real” economy. This is based on the theory that because art is being sold as the new safe asset, like gold, dealers are paradoxically encouraging more people to speculate on it. Its also based on how the art economy of 2013 happened to correlate with emerging markets and the resulting investment craze. An example are the “BRIC” nations— a term coined by a Goldman Sachs economist to refer to the fast-growing economies of Brazil, Russia, India, and China. Pundits made a big deal about the importance of the art economy of these countries, but the Chinese market is already in decline along with the the larger economy it’s part of (the world’s second largest). So maybe we should hope that art can continue to dodge the pitfalls of the international recessions that will most likely continue in 2014. Sorry guys. But at least in the past art investments have been able to maintain their value despite stock market declines, so lets stay positive this early in the year and hope that 2014 will continue to have record breaking sales at art auctions.

The Portrait of Thanksgiving: ThanksGetting

By now I think most people know that the 1621 Thanksgiving feast between Pilgrims and Indians is a myth. But I still find it fascinating to look at how artists have either played a part in perpetuating the warm-fuzzies with traditional Thanksgiving scenes or unmasking tradition for the farce it truly has become. You see, though the origins of the holiday are loosely traced back to a grand feast between Indians and Pilgrims— btw, it was actually prompted by a good harvest, not the benevolence of local tribe helping starving Piligrims— the celebration without question has become an important tradition in American culture, but not for reasons of family gathering or thankfulness.

Norman Rockwell “Thanksgiving” 1943

Norman Rockwell’s famous painting from 1943 “Freedom from Want”(just one in a four-part series of “freedom” paintings inspired by Roosevelt’s State of the Union Address) embodies perfectly our ideal Thanksgiving family gathering. The family is gathered at the table while the mother, or grandmother, places a large turkey before her husband. The painting was commissioned to promote the importance of tradition and family togetherness as a means of rediscovering American values and strength after the war. But the painting is a an illusion, and reflects instead the American obsession with consumerism.

John Currin “Thanksgiving” 2003

Contemporary artists Kent Bellows and  John Currin have painted  to dispel the Thanksgiving illusion and reveal how the holiday has evolved to center around commodity, greed, and gluttony. While Norman Rockwell created the shiny surface of family ties to hide American overabundance, Currin employs a kind of hybrid surrealism to deftly reveal it. Currin’s “Thanksgiving” (2003) cleverly pulls off a juxtaposition of cruel and tender by utilizing techniques from the old Dutch masters, notably Vermeer and to my mind the Ingres “Odalisque,” to convince us of the real-ness of his unreal women. Their heads are too large, their necks are too long, and their bodies are oddly misshapen ovoid forms. Yet the qualities of detail are so rich and carefully constructed that there is an unsettling harmony between the disturbing exaggerations and luxurious details and we are convinced of the image as a reality. Currin pulls it off by balancing the old masters’ techniques of accurate depiction with the more nuanced and searching qualities of the abstract expressionists to devolve and reconstruct the figure. Besides the Expressionist influence, Currin is taking the absurdities from Surrealism and incorporating this into his canvas to demonstrate the absurdities of causally following a tradition you barely understand. Like the raw turkey; is this family really about to carve into the uncooked bird? And what is being fed to the girl in the middle poised like a baby chicken? Also, nearly everything in the picture is in a series of cycles, each representing three different states of time and decay. The floral center piece is made of roses that are in various states of bloom and wilt, the food depicts three groups—meat, fruit, vegetable— and the women are in three stages of life: maiden, wife/mother, and widow/hag. Is this the cycle of American consumerism? We buy, use, then discard and replace, never truly taking the time to be thankful for having it.

Kent Bellows “Self Portrait with WIne Glass (Gluttony) 2000

Kent Bellows’ “Self-Portrait with Wine Glass” (Gluttony 2000) is another jab at the veil hiding American greed. His painting parodies other traditional Thanksgiving dinner portraits with his mastery of Realism that is simultaneously unsettlingly surreal from his dramatic use of lightening. Bellow’s is quite skilled in creating dream-like drama and anxiety in his portraits that make them different than reality— a kind of hyperreality if you will. With the aim of expressing psychological and emotional states, “Self-Portrait with Wine Glass” assaults our senses with the abundance of food, shine of silver dinnerware, and rich luxury of fabrics and color. The exquisite finery is emblematic of the current state of America’s obsession with possession, status, and commerce. And even the stormy background serves to forewarn us of the dissatisfaction we will eventually feel from the endless cycle of consumerist culture.

I think that when people are out shopping for super sale deals on Thanksgiving— a day supposedly and ironically set aside as a time for thankful reflection on what is already had, not for what can be bought for a steal— then it becomes an issue that needs to discussed; or at least brought to light. And that is what Bellows and Currin have done. They have pulled back the veil on Thanksgiving to show the truth.  What we are really celebrating is the success of American business and marketing to get people, regardless of their social standing, to wait in lines in the cold for hours to buy items they don’t need at “deals” worth the loss of priceless time that could be spent with loved ones. Am I being dramatic? Perhaps a little, but I really do question the reason for this holiday, or at least our societies’ demand that we still refer to it as “Thanksgiving” when it has truthfully become more of a “Thanks-For-What-I’m-Getting” or ThanksGetting.

Kent Bellows’ Self-Portrait with Wine Glass (Gluttony) 2000



Thanks Veterans and Soldiers, and An Uncle Sam Review

Happy Veteran’s Day y’all! Thank you to all of the soldiers who have served this country from the Revolution to now. Whether the government was right to declare war our not, no amount of irresponsible political ploy can diminish the nobility of the sacrifice you all gave for this country. And I want to give a special shout out to my dear friend in Afghanistan right now. He’ll be home in ten days but honestly it cannot be soon enough. He is in my thoughts and prayers and I know that many, myself included, cannot wait to have him back in the States. And all the veterans, soldiers, and their families have my sincere thanks.

This country was founded on the efforts of solders fighting wars that often they did fully understand or perhaps even support. This post will be far too brief to cover the enormity of political and cultural intricacies of war and its implications on art, but art— broadly and specifically, bodily and subtly— has been used to support and condemn war efforts the world over. Artists have always responded to acts of war with visual dialogue. Some responded in support of the cause and used art to boost the moral of soldiers and citizens at home, while others used their talent to declare their anti-war sympathies. One of the most popular and oldest images to respond to war is the iconic Uncle Sam, the embodiment of American patriotism.

The term Uncle Sam is older than the image, reputedly inspired by  a meat packer from Troy, NY named Samuel Wilson. WIlson supplied rations for the soldiers during the War of 1812. There was a requirement at the time for contractors to stamp the food they were sending with their name and where the rations came from. Wilson’s packages were labeled “E.A – US.” When someone asked what that stood for, a coworker jokingly replied with “Elbert Anderson (the contractor) and Uncle Sam,” referring to Sam Wilson, though “US” actually stood for United States.

The earliest known personification of the United States was “Columbia”  first appearing in 1738 as an early Lady Liberty figure. Seventy-eight years later the first use of Uncle Sam in literature appeared in the 1816 allegorical book “The Adventures of Uncle Sam in Search After His Lost Honor” by Frederick Augustus Fidfaddy. Also, a Revolutionary war song from 1775, probably the original “Yankee Doodle,” mentions an Uncle Sam in its lyrics, though it is not clear whether or not this reference is to Uncle Sam as a metaphor for the United States.  With the American Revolution, a second personification came about, the “Brother Jonathan” allegory that competed with the Uncle Sam symbol that finally surfaced during the War of 1812.

Originally, Brother Jonathan and Uncle Sam stood for different things: Brother Jonathan was the country itself while Uncle Sam was the power of the government. But by the 1850s the two names were used interchangeably for the other. Similarly, the appearance of both personifications were interchangable went through a variety of revisions. For example, a print of Uncle Sam modeled after Benjamin Franklin appears in an issue of Harper’s Weekly from June, 3 1865, while an issue of the magazine from 1862 shows Brother Jonathan looking more like our modern expectation of Uncle Sam, only without that goatee.

By the end of the Civil War Brother Jonathan began to diminish in popularity and Uncle Sam became the favored face of America. But Uncle Sam did not have a standardized representation until James Montgomery Flagg created and published the image of Uncle Sam we all know for the cover of the July 6, 1916 issue of Lesley’s Weekly. Flagg needed to create an image to bolster recruitment for the WWI  military. He was inspired by a British recruitment poster of Lord Kitchner and modeled Uncle Sam’s pose to match. Under the print appeared the caption “What are you doing for Preparedness?” Between 1917 and 1918 more than four million copies of the image and been printed and distributed. During WWI, this portrait of Sam with the words “I Want You For The U.S. Army” was used as a recruiting poster. The poster was widely distributed and has subsequently been re-used numerous times with different captions.

Eventually, the image of Uncle Sam would be reused as political satire by political cartoonists. Tomas Nast is one of the earlier t and most famous political cartoonists to appropriate Uncle Sam and ironically his satires  also contributed to the image’s popularity. Nast was not the last to use Uncle Sam’s image as satire. Today you can hundreds of appropriations of the icon. Often the act of appropriating Uncle Sam is to criticize and undermine the authority of the US government. By altering what was once an image of camaraderie and support for the “American cause” the artist can challenge the government’s reliability through allegory, symbolism, context, and satire. Below I have added some of my favorite Uncle Sam appropriations and I invite you all to add your own or comment on the ones listed.

Oh, and I guess I should mention that in September 1961, the U.S. Congress recognized Samuel Wilson as “the progenitor of America’s national symbol of Uncle Sam.” Wilson died at age 88 in 1854, and was buried next to his wife Betsey Mann in the Oakwood Cemetery in Troy, New York, the town that calls itself “The Home of Uncle Sam.”

from airbrushartists.org


Thomas Nast