Saturday, December 21, 2013

When A Flag is not a Flag: Jasper Johns and George Zimmerman

George Zimmerman eBay Flag 2013

                                     Jasper Johns White Flag 1955 Metropolitan Museum of Art

George Zimmerman, recently acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin in Florida, has taken up the life of an artist. His flag painting, posted for sale on eBay, is reported to be up for bid at $100,000. Both George Zimmerman and Jasper Johns grew up in the Southeast--George in Virginia and Jasper Johns in South Carolina--and both have painted representations of the American Flag. But as in  the prototypical final art history questions from college art classes where students are asked to compare and contrast two works of art, these two flags couldn't be further apart in form and nuanced content.

Zimmerman's flag is hard-edged, linear and conceptual. It broadcasts a literal visual re-interpretation of a text, the Pledge of Allegiance, begging us to conform to a standard of justice, ironically abrogated from some people's viewpoint, by the Zimmerman trial itself. Could Zimmerman's painting be a surreal parody of justice? Or does that give too much credit to Zimmerman's scope of understanding? Johns's, White Flag, is painterly and suggestive, compelling us to distance ourselves from its face content and immersing us in a field of color and vague form. White Flag is not a flag; it is a cornucopia of intimated symbols. It is more akin to poetry than to the prosaic art of Zimmerman.

Giorgio Vasari, the 16th century artist and biographer, sought to understand Renaissance art through his biographic treatment of the major artists of his time. Can we tell a bit from Zimmerman's and Jone's artwork how each might have viewed the world? Are the hard-edges of Zimmerman's painting a mirror into a reflexive and jarring violence than seems to be borne out both by his actions and an overly enthusiastic patriotism? Does Jasper John's flag hint at the avant garde and at a hope for an open, complex and welcoming society? Two flags, two radically different messages.

Monday, December 2, 2013

12 Years a Slave: Steve McQeen and the Avant Garde

Aristotle in his Poetics proposes that the goal of tragedy is to arouse feelings of fear and pity within the audience an then through a process of catharsis purge these emotions. I can think of no better exemplar of catharsis than Steve McQueen's film, 12 Years a Slave. It is not the dense and compelling narrative that purges fear and pity, a narrative that remains strikingly close to Solomon Northup's original 1853 autobiography; rather, McQueen's direction and cinematography fasten and rivet our emotions. A steamboat paddle wheel spins, churning a wake of eddies along a river; embers from a burning letter disappear into the night. Images of light and darkness, water and wood, long close-ups of anguished faces sustaining brutal rapes and floggings. McQueen in his post-minimalist cinematography creates a visual catharsis instead of the more typical purging of emotions through word.

Steve McQueen is an artist. Winner of the British Turner Prize in 1999, he is known for his experimental films. I had the pleasure of seeing a retrospective of his work last year at the Art Institute of Chicago and his short, highly abstract films were a feast for viewing. I do wonder, at the risk of oversimplification, whether McQueen arouses in us the emotion centers from the right hemisphere of the brain--the regions that process the vague, the fuzzy, the sustained emotional, facial and visual content of our perceptions. Perhaps empathy is necessary for Aristotelian catharsis. If so, McQueen is an aesthetic genius of empathy, having discovered a direct non-verbal route for all of us to feel the horrific incongruities of American slavery.