The Wadsworth Atheneum is one of the oldest public art museums in the United States. Okay, they say the oldest but Wikipedia disagrees. I’m not here to fight it out, but rather to praise. The Wadsworth Atheneum has an impressive collection, it was the first in America to acquire pieces by Salvador Dalí, Balthus, & Piet Mondrian, and hosted the first American exhibition of surrealism in 1931. They also happen to have my personal favourite painting, Max Ernst’s masterpiece, “Europe After the Rain II”.
Early in 2015, a new exhibition will be on display in the newly expanded and renovated exhibition hall of the Wadsworth Atheneum, “Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008”.
It’s based on a pretty interesting idea, which is using art to look at 150 years of Coney Island’s history from undeveloped beachfront to its present incarnation, and all the stages inbetween.
The modern American mass-culture industry was born at Coney Island, and the constant novelty of the resort made it a seductively liberating subject for artists. What these artists saw from 1861 to 2008 at Coney Island and how they chose to portray it varied widely in style and mood over time, mirroring the aspirations and disappointments of the era and of the country. Taken together, these tableaux of wonder and menace, hope and despair, dreams and nightmares, become metaphors for the collective soul of a nation.
– from the exhibition’s website
Coney Island has a pretty fascinating history. Originally an undeveloped beachfront, it was a popular resort destination around the end of the American Civil War, with 3 elegant hotels by the early 1800s. By 1897 the amusement parks had already begun to spring up. By the time of the famous Dreamland fire in 1911, Steeplechase Park and Luna Park were well-ensconced. Coney Island became wildly popular with working-class New Yorkers looking for a way to beat the summer heat as the movement in the 1880s to have a “half-holiday” on Saturdays (until then, people worked 6 days a week) coincided with the expansion of excursion railroads and the Brooklyn street car line. At the time, there were few places for working class people to socialize, particularly women. Even before the subway line was expanded in 1915, Coney Island’s star was at its peak; when Dreamland, Steeplechase Park, and Luna Park were all open upwards of 100,000 people a day would visit.
Coney was at its peak during the years that the three major amusement parks dominated the scene. It was the major tourist destination in America. Crowds routinely topped 100,000. In contrast, Disney World has never reached this figure.
– the Ultimate History Project: “America’s Playground”, John Parascandola
After WWII, Coney Island became less popular for a variety of reasons, including the invention of home air conditioning. By the 50s it was notorious for gang problems and prostitution. Skip ahead a few years and Hurricane Sandy messed things up, but it’s been repaired, spiffed back up, and still going strong.
“Coney Island” will feature more than 140 objects, comprised of both celebrated icons of American art and rarely-shown works from both public and private collections, including paintings, drawings, photographs, prints, posters, architectural artifacts and carousel animals. Ephemera, sound recordings and film clips will immerse visitors in the popular culture of Coney Island.
– from the exhibition’s press release
One of the great things about me writing about this show 3 months in advance is that it gives you, dear reader, plenty of time to make travel plans. The Wadsworth Atheneum is located at 600 Main Street in Hartford, Connecticut, and the show runs from January 31 to May 31, 2015.
Should travelling to Connecticut be an issue, fear not – the exhibition will also travel to 3 other venues in the US: the San Diego Museum of Art, July 11, 2015 – Oct. 13, 2015; the Brooklyn Museum, Nov. 20, 2015 – March 13, 2016, and the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas, May 11, 2016 – Sept. 11, 2016.
For more information about “Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008”, visit the Wadsworth Atheneum’s website. All images used in this article are courtesy the Wadsworth Atheneum and the works shown are part of “Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008” exhibition.
As my regular readers know, I do some writing for Omen, the Montreal Street artist. Throughout the summer he’s been working on OMENfest, painting all over Montreal and other locations such as Toronto and Rochester.
He’s also been working on a project sponsored by Canon, part of their True Originals campaign.
You can read all about it on his blog but here’s a great video of Omen working in Montreal, doing a big mural down on Mont-Royal. Like I wrote on omen514.com,If you’ve never seen a mural artist at work using cans like a ninja, here’s your big chance! Just click on the preview image below and you will be whisked away to a magical land of slap bass and spraypaint.
Anyhow, for more news of Omen’s upcoming projects, go check out omen514.com. He’s a busy guy!
When I first moved back to Montreal in 2002, I was living in Little Burgundy by the Turcotte Expressway, and started seeing these really unusual drawings on the walls in the area, all painterly faces and stuff… I was used to seeing marker and spray paint, but some guy was actually drawing using oilstick – and not the standard hip-hop imagery and wild style lettering, but actually drawing stuff, with an uncharacteristically rough-hewn tag, “PRODUKT” or in this case, a tag that was actually a legit signature.
I kept my eyes open and kept seeing work by this Produkt character in side streets, alleys, and industrial spaces all over town, from the Plateau to Saint-Henri, often working within KOPS crew.
One day I saw an online article talking about some guy doing live painting on Saint-Laurent (2008, maybe?) and I recognized the artist as Produkt – I wrote to the author of article who had the sense to have an email address attached to his article and thusly ended up meeting Alex for the first time.
He has been one of my absolute favourite Montreal street artists since I first saw his work, and I have made a point of keeping my eyes open for new oilstick drawing, wheat pastes, or anything else of his I could find. Imagine my excitement when he mentioned on the Book of Faces that he was launching a show! No, really, I was super excited. The show, “End Orphans” opened last Friday in the old Bedo space on Saint-Laurent right next to Bifteck.
Here’s the artist’s statement for the show, conveniently arranged on the wall right by the door:
“For over a decade he has wandered the streets and train tracks of Montreal covering walls and other surfaces with portraits and drawings that blend finely-detailed realism with cartoon fantasy. Whether they realize it or not, many Montrealers have seen his work and some might recognize his recurring characters, such as an austere eagle or a man on all fours dressed as a dog”
Well, it’s been well over decade since I’ve seen his work on the walls of the city, but whatever. He did get busted at one point under the stupid graffiti laws so maybe he’s trying to keep his history on the down low, but all the old stuff is mostly gone so whatever.
Now, I’ll be honest with you – most of the time artist’s statements are a load of horseshit, but this one really does sum up Alex’s work pretty well. His work consists of a cycle of re-occurring thematic elements. Sometimes he adds some in, sometimes he drops some out. It doesn’t talk about his motivations or the meaning of his work, but it makes sense within his body of work. I think that because I first got used to seeing his work on the streets instead of a gallery, I didn’t expect any explanation, I was just pleasantly surprised to see reoccurring elements and accepted it at that. The pieces do have titles at the show, but you’ll have to go there to find that out for yourself. Context, right?
Here are a few samples from the show:
The thing I like best about Alex’s work is that he switches between media and focus very fluently. His work is always figurative, representational drawing & painting, but sometimes it is very much in the tradition of representational realism, and sometimes it is very cartoony. Sometimes he draws scratchy, blunt ciphers, and sometimes he renders line and shadow carefully. Sometimes he paints like he is drawing, and sometimes he draws like he is painting. Sometimes he will slash across a canvas with a loose calligraphic mark, sometimes he will spray a random fog of paint across the surface, and sometimes he will draw a tiny green heart in pen on top of a carefully rendered oilstick form. It’s really quite exquisite, but never precious. If Alex wants his work to look like pen, he uses a pen. If he wants it to look like he’s painting with a brush, that’s what he does. He doesn’t play trompe l’oeil tricks or give in to pure abstraction, but he is still a real painter’s painter and then some.
Alex Produkt is not just an artist that artists will enjoy, by any means. The recurrent themes throughout his work remind me of the way that Mozart or Beethoven would construct a symphony. You see a thematic element, you see it evolve, you see new elements added in, you see them interact, and you see them resolve. It’s not just elements, though, you also see him interpret those elements in different media, like how in a symphony a theme will carry through the woodwinds, the brass, and the strings, showing a different side to the idea each time. In many way I look at Alex’s work as very musical, but through art media.
Anyhow, the show is fantastic and you really ought to go see it of you are in Montreal. I’ll be dead honest, I’m not sure when it’s on until, so you really need to get up off your couch and go check out the first major art show by one of the few Montreal street artists that has figured out how to combine the fine art tradition with street art/graffiti and be totally legit in both contexts.
The show is at 3706 Boulevard Saint-Laurent, just south of Pine on the west side, right next to Biftek.
If you want to keep up to date with is latest endeavours, Alex Produkt has a Facebook page.
Alex was also involved with this year’s Mural Arts festival in Montreal. Here he is, hard at work making awesome things.
I’ve been brushing up on my German, and I like owls. That’s basically all the meaning there is behind this piece. As far as how the brushing up is going, It’s mostly just spending a lot of time reading. Even so, I actually got to give German tourists here in Montreal directions today, in German. I feel pretty stoked about that. The German in this sketch is the first bit of a well-known quote from Nietszche: “Wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft, mag zusehn, daß er nicht dabei zum Ungeheuer wird.” Or, in English, if you fight with monsters, take care that you do not become a monster. Food for thought, right? Anyhow, good inspiration for some sketching. I’ll be working on the next bit of the quote when I get a chance, but this one’s the taster.
One of my personal favourite artists is Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech, 1st Marqués de Dalí de Pubol (May 11, 1904 – January 23, 1989), more commonly known as Salvador Dalí. Or even more often, as Salvador Dali – without the diacritic mark on the “i”.
Dali has been largely misunderstood by the critical community until fairly recently, even though he enjoyed mass popularity all along, which is kind of telling. It’s worth noting that he was critically popular before, and then critically unpopular, and then critically popular again and soforth, it kind of comes and goes in waves.
As the author J.G. Ballard, an avid collector of surrealist paintings once noted, “The critical establishment absolutely disdained Surrealists, and World War II seemed to confirm their hostility.” [Art Newspaper, 1999] J.G. Ballard Quotes p. 287
I’ve seen that disdain. When I was in art school, my instructors cautioned me against enjoying Dali’s work, and that of most of the surrealists in general. Sure, his work is technically good, they would say, but it’s too easy. We heard that in art school a lot about the work of various artists; too “easy” basically meant not challenging enough, something that could be enjoyed without thinking about it too much, basically implying that anything you could just “enjoy” was decorative work with no real “artistic” value. Now, I personally think that’s a load of crap, but it goes a long way to explaining why fine art has so vigorously turned its back on figurative realist painting – but I digress.
Back to Dali, even those critics who can “forgive” that his work is easy to enjoy like to dig into Dali’s public persona with the intent of explaining away the effect of his art by dissecting his bizarre proclamations and even more bizarre lifestyle, attributing his work to oddities of neurosis and fascist dreamings. I believe that Dali at his prime was never serious, but always sincere.
What counts as his prime is a matter of some debate, though – there are many that insist that Dali never created work of any significance after he was kicked out of the surrealists, and that he wasted much of his genius in self-promotional antics, devolving into self-parody.
When Dawn Ades of England’s University of Essex, a leading Dalí scholar, began specializing in his work 30 years ago, her colleagues were aghast. “They thought I was wasting my time,” she says. “He had a reputation that was hard to salvage. I have had to work very hard to make it clear how serious he really was.”
Smithsonian Magazine – Stanley Meiser – April, 2005
I believe quite the opposite of all the negative sentiments; Dali was a true genius, I believe that he was the first real pop artist, bridging early modernism and postmodernism, and I also believe that his antics were a form of self promotion that are not entirely unlike what we now expect from every artist in the age of celebrity from fine artists like Jeff Koons to street artists like Banksy. Basically, Dali was an icebreaker churning up the seas of modernism in a way that can only really make sense to viewers and art lovers in the post-modern phase of painting.
People have tended to dismiss the late work as a whole, all 40 years of it,” says Dawn Ades, a leading Dalí specialist and cocurator of the Dalí retrospective opening on the 16th of this month at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (through May 15). “But when you look more closely, you see that Dalí is in fact a sort of cusp between modernism and Pop art. It becomes a much more interesting problem, and much trickier.
The Great Late Salvador Dalí – George Stolz January 2, 2005
Now, it is worth knowing that according to Modernist art critics, Salvador Dali ‘s prime ended in 1939. That was when he was kicked out of the Surrealists headed by André Breton, and left Paris for New York. Bréton was a very active socialist and envisioned surrealism as a kind of revolutionary art form something along the model of Leon Trotsky’s notion of art as a revolutionary practice. That Dali refused to disavow the rise of fascism in Spain under Franco was too much for Bréton, who already disliked Dali’s desire to actually make money from his art to the extent that Bréton renamed “Salvador Dali” as “Avida Dollars”. It was a pretty serious diss, but Dali never made a secret of wanting to get rich making art. He also enjoyed the attention of being shocking, which goes a long way to explaining his open support for fascism – especially considering that in his youth he was a communist, at a time when being a communist could get you thrown in jail, which it briefly did, for two months, though the prison records have disappeared.
Was any painter a worse embarrassment than Salvador Dali? Not even Andy Warhol. Long before his physical death in 1989, old Avida Dollars — Andre Breton’s anagram of his name — had collapsed into wretched exhibitionism. Genius, Shocker, Lip-Topiarist: though he once turned down an American businessman’s proposal to open a string of what would be called Dalicatessens, there was little else he refused to endorse, from chocolates to perfumes. He was surrounded by fakes and crooks and married to one of the greediest harpies in Europe: Gala, who made him the indentured servant of his lost talent even / as he treated her as his muse.
Nevertheless, Dali was an important artist for about 10 years, starting in the late 1920s. Nothing can take that away from him. Other Surrealists — especially Max Ernst and Dali’s fellow Catalan Joan Miro — were greater magicians; but Dali’s sharp, glaring, enameled visions of death, sexual failure and deliquescence, of displaced religious mania and creepy organic delight, left an ineradicable mark on our century when it, and he, were young. Dali turned “retrograde” technique — the kind of dazzlingly detailed illusionism that made irreality concrete, as in The First Days of Spring, 1929 — toward subversive ends. His soft watches will never cease to tick, not as long as the world has adolescent dandies and boy rebels in it.
ART: Salvador Dali: Baby Dali Robert Hughes, July 04, 1994
So that’s the respected art critic Robert Hughes – contrast that with this statement from Dali some 30 years after his “prime”:
It is not necessary for the public to know whether I am joking or whether I am serious, just as it is not necessary for me to know it myself.
Diary of a Genius (1964), p. 12
I think it’s pretty clear that Dali was well aware of both his clownish reputation and its relationship to his intent as an artist. That said, in recent years Dali’s entire career has been enjoying a redemption in critical circles.
For years art critics wrestling with this problem were forced to carve up his 70-year career into the “good” Surrealist years and the embarrassing “bad” decades (…) a landmark exhibit at Paris’ Pompidou Center (…) aims to rewrite the art history books. It shows how his mass-media period, shunned by critics, was in fact extremely influential and must be reconciled with his early work to fully understand the scope of his genius.
“The surrealists said that we shouldn’t like his ‘bad’ years… But we can no longer ignore their influence on art in the 50s, 60s and 70s,” said curator Jean-Michel Bouhours.
“We are not babies,” said contemporary artist Orlan, who viewed some of Dali’s later work for the first time at a preview of the exhibit. “We must see Dali warts-and-all for ourselves, and make up our own minds independently. Yes he was a show-off, but so are many artists. Why have we censored him?”
‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ Salvador Dali Finally Meet – Thomas Adamson – Nov. 20, 2012
Personally, I prefer Dali’s later work, especially his atomic period. While the virtuosity in his early work like “the Persistence of Memory” (1931) is undeniable, there is a depth and complexity to work like “Portrait of my Dead Brother” (1963) that Dali’s early work only foreshadows.
As Dali himself said in 1960,”Compared to Velazquez I am nothing, but compared to contemporary painters, I am the biggest genius of modern times . . . but modesty is not my specialty.”
Fun art fact: if you watch the TV show “Archer” you know the pet ocelot, Babou. Salvador Dali actually did have a pet ocelot. Its name was Babou.
If you would like to learn more about Dali’s work throughout his lifetime, the book “Dali by Dali” is an excellent starting point. Dali himself talks about his life, his work, and his intent, giving a lot of insight than a more academic history. Of course the possibility that he’s making most of it up is a strong undercurrent, but that’s all part of Dali’s showmanship. Of course, if you prefer a more academic history, Dawn Ades played a big part is restoring Dali’s reputation, and her book “Dali and Surrealism” is pretty much definitive.