Author Archives: Toby Byron

Election Day, 1852, By Aldis Browne

George Caleb Bingham’s The County Election (1852) is described as “a crowded voting scene on the main street of a town in front of an open porch.”  What is its more profound meaning? The artist depicts an election through several vignettes in an era when slavery prevailed and only men could vote. Augmenting the museum’s notes, my interpretation, reading from left to right, is:

Almost certainly poured by a slave, a voter is given another drink–clearly more than ‘one too many’. Over his left shoulder, a seated voter has passed out.

Boys in the foreground play a game of mumble-the-peg. The game, played by tossing a knife in the air, may symbolize the potential peris of politics

Behind the boys, perhaps this is a self-portrait of the artist seated on the steps, sketching.

On the porch a hopeful candidate tips his hat while handing his card to the next voter in line. The wary voter keeps his hands in his pockets.

Beside the recalcitrant voter, another voter is sworn in, attesting he has not voted elsewhere.

Beneath them, three men discuss the election.

To their right, a gentleman reads a newspaper, perhaps looking for endorsements, while another looks over his shoulder.

At the far right a symbolic figure, beaten and bowed with head bandaged and trousers torn, has clearly lost his fight.

In Bingham’s Missouri of 1852, slaves had no rights at all, and many men asked: “Why should women have the right to vote, they’d only vote the way their husbands tell them?”

“Bingham believed slavery to be immoral and an issue that threatened the future of the Union. On these grounds, as a state legislator he advocated against the expansion of slavery beyond its original borders.” (Deborah Keating, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO)

Robert Rauschenberg: Canyon

by Matt Carey-Williams

Executed in 1959, “Canyon” is one of Robert Rauschenberg’s greatest works and an eponymous example of his Combine series. Begun in 1954, Rauschenberg’s Combines fused both two-and three-dimensional elements together, manifesting themselves as visual and intellectual hybrids that concurrently spoke the languages of painting, sculpture, collage, installation and, even, the readymade. Rauschenberg’s Combines were creatively cacophonous — like artistic Towers of Babel — with the multi-laminated, interdisciplinary and chance-driven nature of their production vital to any understanding of the object itself. “I think a painting is more like the real world if it’s made out of the real world,” Rauschenberg once said. And so, in the 1950s, Rauschenberg would scour the streets around his studio in downtown New York, sourcing and then repurposing materials he found. The surface of “Canyon” is made up of a collage of painted canvas; a collared shirt; some floral fabric; a flattened drum; a wrung-out tube of oil paint and a photograph of Christopher, Rauschenberg’s son. Two elements — quite literally — jump off the surface of the work and dominate the composition. Dangling pendulously, like a pair of testicles, a pillow harnessed in netting, hangs off the bottom of the painting from a piece of string. The androcentricity innate in this form is further announced by the startling addition of a stuffed bald eagle — that signifier of American pride and prowess — adhered to the canvas. His friend, the artist Sari Dienes, found the taxidermied eagle in a pile of junk belonging to her recently deceased neighbour, who happened to be one of the last of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. “Canyon” is a painting about America and simultaneously a selfportrait. It’s the Grand Canyon; a portrait of the artist as a man and as a father; it’s the great American landscape; it’s a work that scrutinises the power of abstract and expression yet inveighs against the Billy-Big-Bollocks-ness of Abstract Expressionism. It’s one of the cleverest art works of the 20th century, by one of its greatest artists. “Canyon” is now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Robert Rauschenberg was born on this day, 1925.

Francesca Woodman: Italian Works

Through December 15th
Victoria Miro, Venice

by Matt Carey-Williams

It’s raining here in Wiltshire. So, sat by the fire, with a glass of red to comfort the soul, my mind drifts to sunny Venice and our heartwarming exhibition of photographs by the enormously talented Francesa Woodman. This is her “Self-portrait, Easter, Rome, Italy, 1978 (1.160)”; the most sublime little gelatin silver estate print and, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful works in Victoria Miro Gallery Venice’s show dedicated to Woodman’s practice in Italy. Woodman was born in Denver in 1958 and was educated in Colorado and Massachusetts. Her family owned an old farm just outside of Florence and Woodman summered there for much of her childhood, learning to speak fluent Italian as a result. A child prodigy, she enrolled in the Rhode Island School of Design in 1975 and, as part of her honors program, lived and studied in Rome between 1977 and 1978. This is where she made this gentle, elegant, stripped back yet haunting photograph. It’s typical in that Woodman exposes the fragility of (feminine) self through the interaction of her (more often than not) naked body with a bare, distressed, usually ambiguous, interiorized space. Here she sits, scrunched up in a somewhat anxious pose against a mottled chevron-thrusting plaster wall and hexagonally-tiled floor. Even the purity of geometry is discombobulated by Woodman’s insistence on an extended exposure for her print, blurring image, time and meaning. Around the corner from her apprehensive self stands a lone Calalily (voicing soft whispers of Mapplethorpe), propped up against the wall. Its thrusting vertical stem and marginally exposed flower head providing the gateway to Woodman’s exploration of both gender and sexuality, already communicated with the depiction of her naked self. The artist was barely 20 when she made this simple yet utterly beguiling image. A strangely unbreakable delicacy prevails but one, alas, that would not last long. She would live only until the age of 22, committing suicide in New York by jumping out of her loft on 19 January 1981. Her images embody a pain only poetry can evince. Achingly beautiful work.

Three Stephen Douglas paintings have found new homes this summer.

Three Stephen Douglas (American, b. 1949) works have found new homes this summer.

Frost Art Museum, Miami, FL. In With Poe, 2013, Oil on linen, 48 x 48 inches. © Stephen Douglas

Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, CA. Overcast Imminent, 2002, Oil on linen, 40 x 30 inches © Stephen Douglas

Bakersfield Museum of Art, Bakersfield, CA. Marsha, 1995, Oil on linen, 70 x 58 inches © Stephen Douglas

These artworks are posted in accordance with fair use principles.
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