Dan Hernandez: Genesis

Some of you may have noticed that there is a new exhibition opened in the East Quad Gallery. The exhibition is called Genesis, and features the paintings by the artist Dan Hernandez. I went to the exhibition opening two weeks ago, but did not have enough time to scrutinize the works and think about the message the artist tries to convey. Today, the artist visited my drawing class and gave us a lecture. He talked about video games, classical and religious paintings, and how these two seemingly unrelated elements inspired him to create his current artworks.

His paintings, according to the artist, owe a great deal to the video games in the 1980s and the 1990s. Passionate about both the history of art and video games, he observes many connections and shared visual languages between the two. For example, early video games depict the space in a flat manner, which echoes the lack of pictorial space in many ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Nonetheless, there are hints about the spatial relationship—fighting games often have a small stage at the very bottom of the screen and simple backdrop, a trait that is also found in early Pompeiian friezes. Just like Egyptian manuscripts, video games usually simplify the figures or buildings as straightforward symbols. The picture frames of both are often divided into multiple tiers to render different scenarios/stages. Additionally, the scrolling narrative that is observed in Trajan’s column and many medieval Asian handscrolls, is also found in video games like Super Mario Brothers. Remember the Sistine Chapel ceiling—how each section depicts a scene from a larger scenario. The same happens in video games: the space sometimes breaks into different sections, and one needs to reach a certain level to enter certain spaces, but once you unlock the space, it becomes a part of the larger narrative.

The artist incorporates these parallels between the masterworks in the art history and the video games into his own works. He draws his inspiration from the religious scene of annunciation, borrows the renowned composition and represents the virgin and the angel as the characters in the video game, Street Fighter.  He also explores the resemblance between the façade of Gothic cathedrals and the spaceship in Galaga, and creates his Flying Cathedrals series. He finds the halos of the saints in the choir similar to the repetition of identical coins in the Super Mario Brothers, and visualizes this idea in his paintings as well.

The lecture was really interesting and inspiring. So, definitely stop by the gallery to check out this exhibition sometime. For more works by Dan Hernandez, please visit http://www.danhernandez.org/Art/Home.html

frogger egyptian hieroglyphics super mario pompeii frieze galaga Dan Hernandez

Finally Seen: the Heidelberg Project

Ever since the first time I volunteered at the storytime at UMMA and read the kids the story of Tyree Guyton and his Heidelberg Project, I have been longing to see this neighborhood in person. However, two years passed and I went to Detroit several times, and never got a chance to see this project. Sometimes it was because I went with a class field trip; sometimes it was because I had to catch the train before it got too late. There were just always excuses and schedule changes. Finally this past weekend, I went to DIA with my friends and managed to see this neighborhood afterward.

As most of you probably already know, the Heidelberg Project was started by Tyree Guyton. Encouraged by his grandfather, the artist began to paint and decorate the neighborhood where he had grown up. With the help of other residents in the area, Guyton revived this neighborhood by painting lively and colorful dots on the houses and on the roads, decorating the street with dolls and shoes, and putting his paintings and artworks in the front yards. Most materials he used were collected from the streets and many toys were thrown away by their previous owners. That’s where the book I read to the kids during storytime got its title: Magic Trash—Guyton recycled these discarded objects and drew his inspirations from them.

When I actually saw the dotted house, the first impression I got was, delight. I was surprised to see how the simplest geometric form, the dots, could energize the house when the artist have painted them all over in different colors. There are dots on the surface of the road, too, and walking on it was a pleasant experience. As aforementioned, the artist has also decorated the front yards with found dolls and shoes. To me, they created an eccentric atmosphere because some dolls were broken or defaced, and the shoes hanging on the trees seemed quirky. There was a setting of TV station, where the artist put two dolls in the bathtub in the middle of a frame. They appeared to be an old couple, but the head of the old men was deformed. Thus, putting yourself within the frame and taking pictures seemed to be a somewhat creepy experience, but I did it anyway.

Other common seen motifs were clocks, wheels, and faces. I wonder if there are any symbolic meanings behind these recurring themes. For the faces, I once heard that they are the faces of the god. The mouths often appear to be smiling whereas tears come out from the eyes, as shown in the painting we have at UMMA. I attempted to find such faces in the neighborhood but, to my surprise, I actually did not find one—most faces appeared to be smiling instead of having a mixed expression. Maybe the artist changed his style? Anyone knows?

Oriental Encounter: More than a Craze

So, below is the exhibition proposal I submitted to the Robert Rauschenberg Emerging Curator Competition. Just wanna share with you guys–

The exoticness of foreign cultures never fails to fascinate and inspire artists. The incorporation of Asian elements in the artworks by Western artists is not an innovative one, the most noteworthy movement being the phenomenon of Japonisme in the nineteenth century France—the influence of Japanese art on the aesthetic styles of impressionists. Cross-cultural borrowings have been more commonly observed in artworks ever since—the American Pop artist, Roy Lichtenstein made a series of Chinese-style landscapes, whereas the Japanese artist, Taraoka Masami shows the fusion of Eastern and Western cultures by juxtaposing a blonde woman consuming ramen and a geisha eating hamburger. Oriental Encounter: More than a Craze explores how the cultural exchanges between American and East Asia have fostered cross-fertilization among postmodern and contemporary artists.

The exhibition features nine works by the American Neo Dadaist, Robert Rauschenberg. By using the technique of assemblage in most works, Rauschenberg includes Chinese images like the flying roof of a Chinese pavilion, the lotus,hanzi (Chinese characters), and Chinese fans. The artist also draws upon Japanese elements, such as the koinobori(Japanese carp-shaped kites) and Japanese screen. In Ethnic Cultures (Tribute 21),Rauschenberg expresses his admiration for the Tibetan religious leader. The artist traveled to Japan in 1982, and during his two visits he experimented with the Japanese clay and made sixteen works with this new medium.

Also included in the exhibition are Mao by Andy Warhol, and Multicolored Robe by Jim Dine. By portraying the Chinese political ruler, Mao Zedong, in his signature blotted-ink style, Warhol satirizes the personality cult of Mao in the mid-twentieth century China. Dine’s work, on the other hand, conveys a more friendly message. It was commissioned by the 1988 Seoul Olympic Committee, and through this painting we can see the artist’s interpretation of Korean culture from his American perspective.

The exhibition concludes with two works by the contemporary Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei—Han Jar Overpainted with Coca-Cola Logo, and the triptych ofDropping a Han Dynasty Urn. The artist comments on how China loses its cultural and historical identity in the process of westernization. These two pieces, therefore, deliver a different response regarding the fusion of cultures.

On View: Ghosts and Demons in Japan

Kohada Koheiji, Katsushika Hokusai, c. 1831

The Art Institute of Chicago is currently presenting an exhibition, Ghosts and Demons in Japanese Prints. When I first saw this on my phone, I was thrilled because I have been doing research on the same subject for my senior thesis. My focus is on a sixteenth century hand-scroll depicting the night parade of one hundred demons, but I also look at many nineteenth century prints to get a broader picture of the development of Japanese supernatural belief. Thus, I am super excited about this exhibit and want to encourage you to see it if you have the opportunity to do so.

The work that appears on the exhibition poster is Kohada Koheiji, one of the five Hyaku Monogatari prints by Katsushika Hokusai. It depicts a skeleton-like creature leaning over a mosquito net. This scene is based on the story of Kohada Koheiji, an actor who was murdered by his colleague, who had an affair with Koheiji’s wife. After he died, Koheiji turned into a vengeful ghost and haunted the two to death. The image here shows Koheiji creeping into the bedroom of his wife and her lover.

As mentioned earlier, this scene is from the Hyaku Monogatari (One Hundred Supernatural Tales) series. Hyaku Monogatari was actually a popular game, which originated in Edo period. To play it, a large group of people would sit together with a hundred burning candles in the room after sunset. Then all participants would take turns to tell ghost stories, and extinguish a candle after each story. As you can imagine, the room would get darker and darker as the game went on, therefore creating a scarier atmosphere. It was believed that something frightening would happen once all the candles were put off.

Hyaku Monogatari is developed from hyakki yako, the belief about the night parade of one hundred demons. It is commonly believed that at night, ghosts and demons would come out and form a procession in the streets. The number “one hundred” of hyaku monogatari is presumably to derive from this folklore. Interestingly, the notion of vengeance also echoes hyakki yako. The most famous visual representation of hyakki yako is the hand scroll I am working on. In this scroll, all the demons are depicted as the spirits of man-made objects, such as scissors, a lute, an umbrella, etc. They are vengeful beings roaming in the streets because they were ill-treated and abandoned by their owners, and committing mischievous, if not hostile, acts to punish those who do not cherish man-made objects…

Anyway, it will be a super cool exhibit to see. It is be even more interesting because AIC will present another exhibit, Temptation, the Demons of James Ensor. So don’t miss—that will be an encounter between the supernatural beliefs in Japan and those in Belgium.

Mark Rothko and the Period Eye

The weekend before last I attended the play reading series presented by Thus Spoke Ann Arbor, the Chinese Drama Club. The performance featured John Logan’s The Red, a two-character bio-drama about the postwar American painter, Mark Rothko. The two actors sat at the two ends of the table and read from scripts, with a girl facing us with her back reading the narrator’s lines. The costumes were simple and there were only a few props—a canvas displayed on an easel, a paint bucket, three lamps, and that’s all.

The two men engaged in intense discussion about the aesthetic of Rothko’s works, the works of his contemporary artists, the relationship between philosophy and art, the purpose of art making, and their past memories. It is interesting to observe how the relationship of the two changes subtly as the plot develops. In the first half of the play, Ken, Rothko’s (fictional) assistant, appears as a modest and deferential figure, who hardly dares to express any oppositions to Rothko’s arrogant harangues. However, in later acts, he becomes stronger and more mature and starts challenging Rothko’s aesthetic of art. In the final act, to repute Rothko’s disapproval and harsh comments on several pop artists, he criticized Rothko’s hypocrisy and self-approbation, and points out that Rothko’s art has become obsolescent.

I was shocked to hear someone describing Rothko’s art as outdated. As an art history student who is always stuck in the past, more often than not I look at medieval, even ancient stuff, or, at least pre-modern. Nineteen century is already called “modern,” when it is about 150 years ago. Thus, having never got the chance to take the modern and contemporary art class with professor Potts before, I always have the impression that artworks created after the 19th century are just too “new” for me. I mean, of course I like them, Jackson Pollock, de Kooning, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein—he is definitely my favorite—not to mention the main reason I was attracted to this play was Rothko. However, I tend to group them together, even though I am aware that Warhol and Lichtenstein came after the former ones. It is hard for me to imagine the scenario when a pop artist raises his eyebrows when talking about Rothko and refers to him as “some old guy who plays with his color blocks.”

This reminds me of the concept of period eye in my Renaissance class. Baxandall developed this term to invite a viewer to consider the original cultural context when looking at an artwork—how the work was viewed and understood by its contemporaries. Imagine how striking would it be when linear perspective was experimented by artists like Brunelleschi, those Renaissance artists who we now call the “old masters.” Aren’t they the ones who pioneered new art forms in their times, forms that we deem as classical canons today? I should be more careful with calling something “the old stuff,” because they may be the most innovative inventions in their times.

It surely takes me long enough to finally realize the fascinating dynamism in the history of art.

I as an Amateur Art Maker…

At least five times out of ten when I tell people I am an art history major, I would get the confused face from them and the recurring question:” So do you draw?” The confusion between art history and fine art is a plausible one because there seems to exist an assumption that art lovers are passionate about both the practice of making art and the theories/concepts in the history of art, and there are, indeed, many student who are more talented than me and can pursue a dual-degree in art&design and art history. However, for me, the studio art class, instead of the three-hour seminars and honor thesis class, appears to be the most intimidating class I need to take in order to fulfill the concentration requirements in art history, and that’s why I was too reluctant to worry about it and have been avoiding taking it until the last year before graduation.

It is not that I do not enjoy fine art practices at all. Actually, I always love making art. Fine art classes have been my all-time favorite among all the classes at school. I remember in elementary school, my art teacher would reward students who got five on all art assignments with a drawing of Digimon or Cardcaptor Sakura by her, which seemed to be in huge scale for me back then (actually about the size of a poster). This reward successfully motivated me to get fully engaged in every class and put huge efforts at all my drawing assignments. In middle school, I was fascinated by Japanese anime and manga. I watched so many anime and subscribed to multiple monthly MAG (manga, anime and games) magazines, and the idea of drawing my own comic naturally raised in my mind. I copied anime characters from anime posters and created my own cartoon characters. My dream to be a cartoonist evaporated with the increasing academic pressure as I entered high school. No more spare time to watch anime or read comics or magazines, but I soon realized another interest, graphic design, when I was making the class magazine. I spent hours on photoshop and pagemaker to design the magazine cover and to edit graphic illustrations in the magazine.

I have been wondering about how these passions gradually disappeared as I entered college and how I ended up keeping myself a respectful distance from the world of fine art. Being an art history major and being exposed to masterpieces over the centuries in classes seemed to have raised my standard for art makers in terms of their level of profession, and my hypercritical attitude, in return, also makes me more fastidious about myself when considering me making art. How can I, who is not in the art and design school and has got no artistic training before, be professional enough to make some satisfactory artworks? This logic seems convincing until I realized that the ultimate audience of artworks is actually the artist him/herself. Art historians may judge the aesthetic value of artworks, but the pleasure the artist get from the process of art-making could not be measurable by certain theoretical standards. In retrospective, the time I spent on polishing a drawing assignment, copying my favorite anime protagonist, and designing a magazine cover was really enjoyable and memorable. With this in mind, I finally get the confidence to reenter the world of art making and to start sketching another amateur drawing.