October 12, 2013

Lessons from Basquiat and Art



I just finished watching Basquiat, a biopic of the American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. It was a beautiful movie, and I was in tears at the end, considering the fact that Basquiat died of a heroin overdose aged 27 in 1988. The film was quite well-cast, with Jeffrey Wright imbuing Basquiat with a wonderful, natural joie de vivre , and David Bowie bringing the sublime Andy Warhol to life... (To be honest, it was somewhat surreal watching the movie with my David Bowie drawing staring at me from my noticeboard!) That Basquiat was directed by Julian Schnabel, himself a painter, probably resulted in a more sensitive depiction of Basquiat's life. However, it doesn't address the issues that Basquiat tried to portray in his art such as racism, class struggles, and colonialism; it charts his meteoric rise to fame in the art world and his casting as the token black artist of the times.

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This semester I'm doing a course called "Appreciation of Western Art". I chose this course because I'd quite enjoyed another art-related course under the same professor, Prof. Anna Kwong, called "Understanding of Western Painting". I did well in the previous course by doing a lot of legwork, researching each and every artist and painting - not that it was a chore for me, because I love, love, love art.

Anyway, I decided to research aggressively for this new "Appreciation" course as I did for the previous... and it has been such a learning and refreshing experience. Sometimes, one feels jaded by how money seeps into art and how shallow the art world can be. For example, I went to the Hong Kong leg of Art Basel, and while I was amazed at most of the exhibited pieces, I would find some pieces that weren't remotely attractive or didn't require any artistic/technical abilities to produce... such as a painting of four layers of white! Some resembled the scribbles of a five-year-old. And yet, some of such paintings would be claimed as the newest "breakthrough", or "subtle", or "insert a superlative description here". However, occasionally when studying the lives and motivations of the artists, one can understand and appreciate their creations better.

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I saw Basquiat's work at the Gagosian Hong Kong in early June, and I didn't really understand them then. (It bears reminding: that although I've loved art for a long time, I have no formal training in art and haven't had the opportunity to really study the field as a proper student would - partially because I'm currently immersed in finance - but I'm still learning so much about different artists and techniques every day.) They were primitive, and yet they seemed to buzz with energy and symbolism through their vibrant colours and their seemingly unstructured streaks. (It was later that I learnt that seemingly unstructured brush strokes have meaning and/or intention - whether conscious or not -  in the artist's hands, when I was creating my painting Columbine Unresponsive.) Upon further reading, Basquiat's work deals with "suggestive dichotomies" - between wealth and poverty, integration versus segregation, and the inner versus outer experience.

"I don't think about art when I'm working. I try to think about life." - Jean-Michel Basquiat

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Last week, I learnt more about Mark Rothko (as posted 2 blog-posts ago here). A simple glance at Rothko's later and signature work which were, in short, blocks of colour on canvas, would probably yield the idea: "Great, he's painting different blocks of colour on a canvas... that has so much meaning!"

However, when viewing them up close, perhaps one may grasp Rothko's yearning to create the transcendental by abandoning the complex and tried formula of painting mythology, to totally immerse and envelop viewers in the painting. When studying his technique and considering the tricky nature of oil paint, one develops admiration for his rapid and light brushwork and the fugue-like arrangement of colours: each variation counterpoised against another, yet existing in the same structure. 

So you may ask, now what? If Oscar Wilde is right as in his preface of The Picture of Dorian Gray that all art is useless (then again, Wilde was a master of witticisms and satire), then... now what?

"All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril." -Oscar Wilde

I don't know the definite answers. What I know for now is that art attempts to elevate us closer to the concept of the Creator, to show us the beauty beyond our suburban, mechanical lives; to bring up close to our faces the ways in which we treat our fellow brothers inequitably, to warn us of the consequences of our apathy. Perhaps art will just mock us, for our earnestness in trying to decipher every other work; for trying to be seem better than we are. 

What do you think?

Images: here, herehere, here.

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