Art Comment Quarterly
Galleries, Glamour, Geopolitics, and Ground Zero
Back in the splendid pastoral solitude of ArtVitae.com's rural headquarters in sleepy laid-back County Tipperary Ireland, I light a cozy fire to fend off a late season chill and take pause to reflect on my recent trip into the dizzying world of New York City.
Prior to my visit, Iraqi artist Esam Pasha, now residing in nearby New London, had invited me and Geraldine, director of ArtVitae, to meet with him while on our NYC excursion. So we took the Amtrack to Connecticut where we were very pleased to meet in the flesh this industrious and talented artist who had joined Geraldine's ArtVitae.com web site while he was still in very serious harm's way - putting himself into great jeopardy earning meager subsistence cash for himself by acting as a translator for the occupation forces and later Western journalists in his native Baghdad. Prior to Esam's departure from Baghdad, every harrowing email Geraldine had received from Esam (and from Ahmed Al Safi, another Baghdadi artist now in residence in France) was happily tempered with the consolation that, at least he was still alive. No wonder then that as we met for the first time in New London we gave each other big hearty hugs like those one would expect of dear old friends or family. It struck me as a remarkable irony to meet Esam in a country that could be perceived as Iraqi's antagonist. (But then perhaps we might all be wiser to attempt to rise above our natural emotions and engage and work with potential antagonists rather than to succumb the all-too-easy path dictated by our testosterone-driven instincts.) This trip was to be full of profound ironies for me.
The multi-talented Esam insisted on cooking an authentic Iraqi dinner for us and his friend, American artist and writer, Cindi Eggers
(who, incidentally, had met Esam via ArtVitae). We got to see the originals of Esam's poignant oil paintings which he had fortunately managed to bring out of Iraq, that we had only previously been able to view on the internet. Esam was so exhilarated to be in a free environment and amongst comfortable company that we discussed with him politics, religion, art, and history until early in the morning. The substance of the discussions that night would have made a fascinating and informative essay in itself. But for those topics and others you will have to wait for Esam to finish his forthcoming book. He was finishing Chapter Ten at that time. Just as a teaser for you, to illustrate one of his stories, Esam showed us a photo of a group of dignitaries including his Grandfather, the former Prime Minister of Iraq, back in the last days of the then Monarchy. In the photo was also Lawrence of Arabia, which to Esam's consternation we said, 'Wow!' From Esam's perspective, he can't understand all the fuss Westerners always make about this man when he shows them that photo. An Iraqi would consider him to be merely a fringe character in that illustrious grouping.
To continue the East meets West theme (or is it West meets East?), back in NYC we had been invited to visit Oded Halahmy, owner of the Pomegranate Gallery on Greene Street in SoHo. Oded had exhibited Esam's work along with Qasim Al-Septi and a number of other Iraqi artists in the Pomegranate Gallery in an exhibition entitled Ashes to Art: the Iraqi Phoenix which had been curated by Peter Hastings Falk.
Having artworks in the collections of both the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC, and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, Modernist sculptor Oded Halahmy is himself a well recognized artist.
His sculptures relate to his many and varied homelands from his birthplace in 1938 in Baghdad, to his current 5th floor loft studio in trendy SoHo. Along the way he has also lived in Israel, London, and Toronto before settling in New York.
Halahmy has consciously sought to maintain within his sculptures an iconography reflective of his roots, especially in the form of the pomegranate - an ancient of symbol of the stubborn tenacity of beauty, fertility, and rebirth - an icon consistently alluded to in all the ancient middle eastern cultures and religions.
Halahmy established the beautifully appointed Pomegranate Gallery on trendy Greene Street just around the corner from his SoHo studio. Halahmy explains 'As an artist born in Baghdad, it is very exciting for me to bring works by Middle Eastern artists, as well as leading contemporary Iraqi artists to New York City.' He felt compelled to open a gallery that would introduce Americans to the serious artistic initiatives from the Middle East. He observes that Americans are not only becoming increasingly international in their art collecting, but hopes that his gallery will serve as a cultural ambassador to awaken American consciousness of Middle Eastern Art.
The gallery is supported in part by the Oded Halahmy Foundation for the
Arts, non-profit cultural organization created to fund original Middle East arts, thereby fostering peace and hope around the world. The Foundation has already supported a number of Middle Eastern writers and poets by bringing their translated works to an American audience.
Oded invited Geraldine and your humble editor up to his loft apartment/studio for Arabic sweets and coffee and, of course, pomegranate juice. As an aspiring Super-Realist painter myself in the late 1960s, I was totally impressed to find that his loft was straight above the 'Mecca' for all Super-Realist painters, the Louis K. Meisel Gallery, 'Wow!'.
In fact the whole NYC scene was electrifying for a 'country boy' like myself. My son Andrew, who owns and operates a web solutions company, LoyerTCG.com has an office, coincidentally, just a couple of blocks from the Pomegranate Gallery. So he was able to suggest a good lunch spot with a curiously appropriate Irish/Chinese name: Murphy Ping. Well, who did we cross paths with there but someone I had idolized from as early on from her 'Dammit, Janet' role in the cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show. With apologies to Geraldine and Tim, passing close enough to exchange pheromones with Susan Sarandon was a divine experience - for me anyway. Later Geraldine and I were looking for a book store to find a copy of artist Steve Mumford's Baghdad Journals. In the midst of that hunt, we sought respite from the whirl of galleries and shops, and glamour and fashion, and the traffic and hurry, and those French horns blaring out Gershwin somewhere in the back of my overheated brain. So we fell into a crowded but comfortable Italian café and sat down for some refreshment. A couple of fashionable characters sat down next to us, and it turns out that one was a budding cinematographer/gopher and the other was a truly big noise who had been the artistic director for Brave Heart (filmed in part in Ireland - of course). What a buzz, this NYC.
Because the cost of living in Ireland now rivals that of NYC, and the Euro is strong against the Dollar, we were taking advantage the shopping opportunities there. So, the next day we were still on the NYC buzz. That is until we stepped out of the exit of the Century21 store to discover that we were standing, unexpectedly, right in front of Ground Zero>. Reluctantly we stepped across the street to peer into the great hole. I felt annoyed by the hawkers pushing gaudy souvenir books and DVDs of the tragedy in my face. I hadn't wanted to visit the site. I could see the windows in the adjacent building from which my two sons had witnessed the planes entering the Towers, the poor souls jumping to their deaths, and the collapses. I remembered the last message I had received from them saying 'all we can see is total blackness, we are breathing through our wet t-shirts, and we are scared.' I remembered the eight hours of abject grief helplessly watching the TV in my sitting room in Ireland, waiting to finally hear that they had escaped and were safe.
So, in the end, I suppose the excruciatingly sobering experience of that great hole was an important catharsis for me. I reflect upon Oded Halahmy who with the rest of his family, upon the establishment of the State of Israel, were 'invited' to leave Baghdad in 1951 by the Iraqi government (along with one quarter of the population of Baghdad who were also Jewish). Oded has ample experience to preach hate if should so choose, and yet his Foundation supports Middle Eastern artists of all religions and backgrounds without prejudice. Susan Sarandon and her husband Tim Robbins witnessed the very heart of their city torn out by the grandest act of terrorism ever, and yet they take every opportunity to speak out against the futility of wars of revenge. Ironic, or wise? The common thread intertwining these New Yorkers from two extremely different backgrounds is their belief in the principle that exposure to and education about the lives and cultures and histories of other peoples must surely be the key to peaceful coexistence, both within their proud multicultural city and worldwide.
If Art can give an insight into the universal humanity shared between different cultures, then perhaps by exhibiting artworks from around the globe without political prejudice, ArtVitae can take pride in the small contribution we have attempted to make towards tolerance and empathy in the world. My we also suggest that purchasing and hanging an artwork in your own home or office created by an artist of a markedly culture than your own, would not only serve as an fine exotic decoration, but more profoundly act as a conduit to understanding, education of, and respect for that artist's culture. Learn about the artist's personal background and the history of his culture. Study his motivations and how those are expressed in the artwork. And, most importantly, share those understandings with your guests. You would be doing a very good deed.
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Excerpts from 'The Form of Truth' by Eoin de Leastar - Part TwoArt Comment is presently being sent to about 10,000 people involved in all aspects of art: academics, galleries, collectors, media, artists, architects, arts organisations, and art lovers around the world.
For an introduction to Eoin de Leastar and the Part One of 'The Form of Truth' please visit: Art Comment Winter '05/'06 [Eoin de Leastar reserves the copyright to this material, and it cannot be reprinted without his express consent. (The views expressed in the essay are not necessarily those shared by Art Comment.)]
The Old Testament
In the beginning when god created the heavens and the earth,
the earth was a formless void. Genesis 1.1
Alas for the goddess! How significant that Eve, 'the mother of all living' as Adam calls her, should see that the tree of knowledge was good for food and . . . 'pleasant to the eyes'? The Old Testament is a remarkable compendium of different voices over different periods in the thousand years before Christ.
As a historical document it tells of the travails of a particular Semitic group and is a justification for their invasion of the land of Canaan. As a religious document it holds the promise of salvation and is an invocation to a chosen people to maintain allegiance to one and only one God - 'Thou shalt not have strange gods before me'.
But as a document seen from the easel, the Old Testament is an extraordinary example of visual censorship. A most potent edict was the prohibition of 'the making of any graven image or likeness'.
While from Babylonia to Egypt, artists were making gods (especially of their kings), Isaiah was brilliantly ridiculing the image-maker. He says that 'the artisans are too merely human. . .'
The carpenter stretches a line, marks it out with a stylus, fashions it with planes and marks it with a compass; he makes it in human form, with human beauty to be set up in a shrine. . .
Then he makes a god and worships it, makes it a carved image and bows down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he roasts meat, eats it and is satisfied.
He also warms himself and says,' ah, I am warm, I can feel the fire!' The rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, bows down to it and worships it; he prays to it and says, 'Save me, for you are my god!' - Isaiah 44,12-17
The Jewish people closed their eyes to the image so that they might forge in their souls an omnipresent singular and personal god. That is their legacy: the monotheism that our thinking process takes for granted.
Yet ironically the Old Testament records the names of two significant artists. The Arc of the Covenant was a gilded box that held the Ten Commandments and was the seat of the invisible unnameable god. On top of the Arc were to be two cherubim; angelic creatures with outstretched wings, virtually the only images that the Old Testament would allow.
Then Moses said to the Israelites:
See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; he has filled him with divine spirit, with skill, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft. - Exodus 35.30
To assist Bezalel the Lord also called Oholiab who is described as 'engraver, designer and embroiderer in blue, purple, in crimson yarns, and in fine linen'. Bezalel made the two cherubim of beaten gold. This imagery seems an Egyptian concept (see Tutankhamen's sarcophagus) and the two artists may have been Egyptian born and trained (the period being shortly after the exodus from Egypt).
Do not believe in the justice of this world and that you will be
rewarded if you give everything to your art. Look to
our museums littered with anonymous masterpieces.
Greek culture a few centuries before Christ went through a period of creativity and excellence in the realms of art and thought that has never been equalled. No other age can compare with the breadth of its brilliance. It was and remains the flowering of the human spirit.
Postmodernism is only possible if we disinherit the Greeks.
It is difficult to make a case for evolution in art when confronted with the glory of Athens. Renaissance Italy, as the word implies, looked backwards. Michaelangelo at one stage was not above pretending that one of his sculptures belonged to the ancients. Vasari thought that Michelangelo had excelled the Greeks, and when writing about his pictures, he maintained that: if it were possible to place them beside the paintings of those celebrated Greeks and Romans they would be even more highly valued and regarded as being as much superior to the antiques as is his sculpture'>.
But Vasari was engaged in hagiography and was not in a position (just as we are not) to judge Greek painting. The 4th century BC was regarded as the golden age of classical painting. Apelles, court painter to Alexander the Great (who had Aristotle as his teacher) was considered the master. Genre, still life, landscape, trompe-l'oeil, were all practiced as well as the great mythological and history paintings that one would expect.
Every type of painting that the Renaissance recreated, the Greeks practiced (with the possible exception of a formal linear perspective). Painters and sculptors wrote treatises on art - now gone without trace. If the painting was comparable to sculpture (and for the Greeks it was of no less importance, being much praised by classical writers) then its loss cannot be estimated.
It is a curious thought that the history of western painting is without that period which could be considered its greatest era. Perhaps genius is a word that should be reserved for the Greeks. The gods have punished them severely by allowing their paintings to be lost to mankind.
It is also sobering to note that Athens at this period is estimated to have had a population of only about 230,000. This number included slaves, an integral part of Greek society. One could perhaps forgive Plato and Aristotle for believing that refinements of the mind are only for the elite (philosophers that is, not painters).
Philosophers pride themselves on being professionals of incredulity. The Greek thinkers believed that by asking questions, discovering contradictions and ascertaining generalizations, they could discern the truth. A famous example is the riddle of movement put forward by Zeno. An arrow in motion is at any given instant stopped in space, therefore motion is a series of 'rests', and therefore motion as such is a contradiction.
The real world is an illusion, according to Plato, only an ideal heavenly world of perfect forms exists. The physical world is only a shadow of these true forms. Of beautiful things, like a particular picture, one can only have an opinion, because one cannot have true knowledge of something derived from the senses, which are by nature contradictory. However, the philosopher is capable of having a vision of truth which is not a particular beauty, but beauty itself.
Fortunately Aristotle disagreed with Plato, knowledge has to do with forms, but these exist in the real world and have specific properties that the mind can abstract. Thus a table has properties which are similar to another table and all tables. The characteristics that together make a thing belong to a particular group or class is its form.
Painters and sculptors should attend to this idea of form. It is a concept that the philosophers gave us, now lost to our art schools. Just as a statue made of a particular material has form impressed on it by a sculptor, it may go through different transitions of form; without form material cannot exist.
But this form is not simply a shape; it is for Aristotle a Universal Idea inherent in the object. Seeing the beautiful in an object is to perceive something good; because all that is real, that has form, is good.
Neoclassicism is what the Greeks did after Homer.
'Fine Art' did not exist as a concept for the Ancients. Painting and sculpture belonged to the servile arts of work to be done, and not the liberal arts of the spirit, like music or logic. When either Plato or Aristotle spoke of art they did not differentiate the art of the blacksmith from that of the sculptor.
Beauty was not exalted to the effete spiritualism of the 19th century Romantics. It was an ideal of harmony and symmetry that reflected Greek confidence in the world and in themselves.
When approaching the life of Christ
be not tempted by the humanity of Judas
Incidental to the Old Testament's prohibition of the graven image, we are left without any record of what Jesus Christ looked like. Yet his image still dominates the west (Buddha has more monuments worldwide).
Christ inherited the anti-image asceticism of the Old Testament. He did not use the concept of image making in his stories, nor is he recorded as ever using the word beautiful. He mentions the lilies of the fields only to show how precious man is above nature.
He speaks with absolute conviction of God as his Father, whose loving paternity he emphasizes with parables of nature and husbandry. Yet his message is inextricably centered on his belief of who he (Christ) himselfis.
Of course the Jews were right; if Jesus was not who he claimed to be, then he was the greatest of blasphemers -before Abraham was I am- no human being ever had such arrogance.
Christ did not scruple over social mores, nor did he discriminate in the sex or class of his friends. He saw himself as the antidote to the age of death I am the water of life. If you drink of me you will live forever. In preaching a philosophy of love he could hardly have chosen a worse time, for the descendants of Abraham were an angry people, frustrated and humiliated by a foreign oppressor.
Crucifixion was a form of capital punishment too vulgar and terrible for Rome to allow its own citizens. It took several centuries before Christians could accept the curious image of the cross. It was an extraordinary start for a religion, having a central image that is shameful and repugnant to human nature.
But the radicalism of Christ's message of love which is only approximated in the great world religions, and which is not so much revolutionary as awful, has proved too difficult for his followers (approximately 1 billion today), though it has been attempted by a few, whom we have come to know as saints.
If Christ returned today and walked among the posturing painters and sculptors, he might enter the galleries of the new Pharisees, their 'whited sepulchres' and preach thus:
Blessed be the poor in art
For they shall be recognised
Blessed be the critic
For he shall lie with the father of lies
Blessed be the patron
For he has found mammon
Blessed be they who hunger and thirst
for self-advertisement sake
For theirs is the kingdom of the earth.
Blessed be they who seek after truth
For they are pure fools
In the few centuries that it took to consolidate the Christian religion, as in Sumeria, new temples were built on the foundations of old. The Church overcame the various god and goddess cultures with what one 2nd century writer called a 'fantastic and blasphemous cult of an only God'.
- Eoin de Leastar, 2005
Read Excerpts from 'The Form of Truth' by Eoin de Leastar - Part Three in the next issue of Art Comment
'Many thanks for the artist lament. I do find some peace in it as a virtual unknown, abstract, spiritual painter.' - Rebecca Carroll
'That was an interesting excerpt by Eoin de Leastar, metaphysics has been a popular subject of my recent reading. I don't seem to have any time for fiction anymore, and instead have been reading quite a few books regarding quantum physics and string theory, philosophy and theology. The most interesting are those that seek to bridge the divide of all these subjects.' - Nathan from Nashville
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