In the age of online shopping via Amazon, the traditional American shopping mall has gone down a death spiral year after year. However, as the rate of dead malls in the United States continue to increase, so does a growing community of urban explorers on YouTube and other platforms who venture from state to state to visit and document these ailing malls for future generations to see and learn about. Among such talents in the dead malls community include Jack Thomas of www.deadmalls.com, Anthony at Ace's Adventures, Nicholas M. DiMaio of The Caldor Rainbow, Ron and Kristen of UniComm Productions, Anthony from Faded Commerce, Adam from The Vintage Spaces Channel, Ashley, The Neon Explorer on Instagram, Pat and Heather from Raw & Real Retail, Jon Rev of [jonrevProjects], and Salvatore 'Sal' Amadeo of Quite Studios, all of whom are active members of the Dead Malls Discord.
In his video, Century III Mall In Extremis, and Le Flâneur de Beaudelaire, the 36th of his Expedition Log Series and sequel to another video about Century III Mall, Sal and other members of the dead mall community meet at Century III Mall in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania for the Inaugural Dead Mall Summit of 2018. It was an event open exclusively for the members of the Discord sever and it mostly took place in the area where Century III Mall is located due to the over-saturation of malls in the area. Therefore most of them were in stiff competition. The main focal point of this video is an analysis of the philosophy of Le Flânuer, which was introduced by 1800's poet and art critic, Charles Baudelaire in 1872 and how it relates to the explorations of dead malls (or urban exploration in general), some of which these theories influenced the ideas of Walter Benjamin in the 20th century. Although the ideas Sal expresses in the video are speculative, he brings up some very interesting points and details as to how Le Flânuer relates to urban exploration and the art world, (specifically during the time period of the Impressionist painters such as Degas, Monet, Caillebotte and Renior) as well.
Early on starting in the 11:35 minute mark, Sal talks about how he got into the urban exploration community. He mentions that his interest in urban exploration peaked "quite sometime ago" and that he would venture out into the woods with friends, not to film, but solely out of intrigue. When he discovered Dan Bell's channel, "the interest really kicked into high gear because [he] learned that people were gathering and doing [urban exploration], that there were more people out there that were doing it and since then, [Sal] wondered why? What draws us to that? And if this is a new thing or not?". This is an important question to consider because although dead malls and other such urban exploration videos have gained popularity during the late 2000's and the 2010's, the concept of sharply observing society's urban areas, even in the most obscure corners dates back much further than it would seem.
I won't go into the history of how shopping malls came to be, since it's not the point of this blog post, but the history provided is still worth noting. It starts at the 13:10 mark. Later, around the 30:29 mark, Sal discusses the role Le Flânuer plays in the history of urban exploration. Starting in the nineteenth century, the world began to flourish with urban growth, mainly noted in Paris, France and in the United States. All over Europe and the United States, arcades opened and this concept of indoor shopping centers began to accelerate all across the globe. As Sal highlights:
"This idea of a vast interior shopping center was gaining traction around the world. This intense expansion of commerce was causing social waves among the classes and philosophers were beginning to take notice of a new type of urban figure who reveled in the details of architecture and observing the less traveled paths in a city and within buildings. This new urban figure was coined by Charles Baudelaire in Les Fleurs du Mal or The Flowers of Evil, and refers to somebody who observes a newly industrialized city and its structures while just taking a walk, pondering the philosophical implications of what these new passages and arcades have on society and looking for the secrets that common passers-by would otherwise miss."
This is where the term, Le Flânuer originated. In Sal's opinion, this term might have paved the way for today's urban explorers.
At the 40:50 mark, he goes on the explain that the French verb means to stroll as the noun is used to describe someone who strolls and "wants to discover the secrets of public passageways, arcades, tunnels backstage areas and the like and to see what the general public might never notice". Anywhere most people never walk, le flâneur will step just to take in every little detail one might not ponder on. As a result, this concept became prevalent in Paris, even among professions throughout the Impressionist period, such as the artists of the time. Monet, Caillebotte, Renoir and Degas were all deeply immersed in the concept, that they would venture down less visited paths to paint images of areas and scenes viewers rarely noticed, if at all. Sal offers an analysis of the Caillebotte painting, The Young Man at His Window (1875) as an example of how Le flâneur is depicted in the works of these painters:
"[R]ather than the view of what the man is seeing, you see the man, the man's pose, an orange, velvet upholstered chair and the marble guard just past the window. The idea is that you are now the spectator, gaining an intimate view of something you wouldn't otherwise see. We don't see the man's face or what he sees because he's not the focal point of the composition. The idea of spectating is the focal point".
The backstage areas of performing art centers depicted in the works of Degas are another instance we learn about in this video. Degas painted what happens behind the curtain, all of which is invisible during a stage show. Monet also took his easel and art utensils, ventured into the back of a train station, went behind the rails and illustrated what passengers almost never see. These famous painters might just have been the first urban explorers in Sal's point of view. Given the similarities between today's content creators capturing these mostly abandoned places on camera and the Impressionists painters painting subject matters most people don't typically consider, the commonalities are very uncannily striking. In Sal's narration, he goes on to say the following:
"These in my opinion were the first urban explorers and they brought the idea of preserving a scene for purposes of exposure and archival to mainstream audiences. These people were exploring places that passers-by would never see and they were painting these places. They were capturing that moment and showing other people what they aren't noticing in their daily travels. How fascinating is that that these people were going out and doing urban exploration well before this ever became a popular thing? And now their art is selling for millions".
Next, we hear about Walter Benjamin, a Jewish philosopher from Germany. Before World War II broke out, Benjamin wrote about Le Flâneur, describing it as a representation of modern strolling into the urban culture, walking through the crowds at the arcades and coming across every brand new, shiny thing behind glass. Benjamin believed that because of the rapid growth in which urban culture was increasing along with the changes in socio-economic leanings in Paris at the time, Le flâneur as a trend began to soar. According to Sal's commentary, "[t]his change, which was rooted in budding capitalism, involved the creation of the of the arcades, which again, were the passageways through neighborhoods, which had been covered with a glass roof, embraced by marble panels, so as to create a sort of interior exterior for vending purposes". From Baudelaire's observations, the reason the passageways in which the arcades were designed with such style and grace especially in their shops, was because the concept behind the shopping arcades was to be seen as a small scaled city or a new world. On a social level, he perceived the arcades as a means for visitors to find a relief from the complications and/or monotony of daily life. Taking a leisurely stroll, he'd observe everyone and everything for both pleasure and gaining new insights into what is beyond the surface level.
After describing the feeling of going inside the active JC Penney and then returning to the lifeless mall, Sal delves a bit further into Walter Benjamin's philosophy, pin pointing that "Benjamin laments on the extinction of Le flâneur, who disappeared as the commercial world slowly deserted the interior exterior of arcades for the carpeted, artificially lit department stores that were to replace them". He then quotes Charles Baudelaire in which the main point was that even as the arcades would soon fall out of favor to department stores, Le flâneur will still roam even through such changes. From Benjamin's perspective, the more commercialized, the less Le flâneur would have an incentive to stroll whereas, Baudelaire's saw it as regardless of changes, the explorer will always have a reason to stroll the walkways.
In any case, as arcades evolved into department stores and from department stores to the major shopping mall, the idea for the places in which the public shopped was for them to be pleasing on the eyes and offer a delightful experience for the customers. With the rapid rate in which shopping malls are dying, Sal reminds the viewer that "the same notion of Le flâneur captured the minds of modern day urban explorers" and that the buildings they set out to explore "were something that the public would no longer see because they were being demolished and removed from our everyday lives". Like the mindset of the artists of the Impressionist period, today's urban explorers "felt an urge to capture [the structures'] last moments or moments that society either forgot about or will never see again to preserve what once was for future generations". Just like how the painters of 1800's would use their art to delve into and preserve what the general public didn't see or didn't realize they were taking advantage of, the urban explorers of the 21st century are always capturing what people miss through the lens of a camera.
Sal concludes his observations with this statement:
"While Le flâneur was the rise of interest in seeing these places, Le flâneur gave rise to the Impressionists, who went out and found places of interest that nobody saw and painted those things so that we can see them. Their senses were then dulled by the artificial department stores, which were just bland and bleached out inside until you got stores like Wanamaker's and such, which were gorgeous.
But, for the most part, in the rural sections of the department stores were pretty boring and Le flâneur didn't want to see it anymore. But once these places started crumbling and growing mold and trees inside of the mall where the carpet was, this was a wholly fascinating experience and a cathartic one, too because as the urban explorers were seeing these things, the mall was closed, the department store was closed and nobody would see it, so they began capturing these events as the Impressionists did back in the 1800's and showed the public because it was fascinating. The pedigree of modern day urban explorers in summation comes the idea of Le flâneur and the urban expansion in the 19th century. Urban explorers get their roots from Le flâneur and the Impressionist painters of the 1800's"
While Sal makes it clear that this is just his own speculation based on his own research, it's easy to see the similarities between the Impressionists and today's content creators on YouTube. As someone who shoots to write and draw her own stories that dispel expectations and strives to offer new insights into expected ideas, I find Sal's analysis not only insightful, but accurate. As both the Impressionists painters and urban explorers show spectators of their art new insights into the things they take for granted or don't usually give a second thought to, they utilize creative means to expand the boundaries of their expectations and challenge their perceptions. Our perceptions might deceive us into seeing only what is on the surface without questioning if there is more beyond that surface layer. Once the spectator takes a moment to remove that surface layer, uncovering the underlying details, the spectator can't help but discover new insights into what they thought they knew. Urban explorers, through the content they produce use video as a means to communicate such ideas as the Impressionists did through painting. Works of art indeed are supposed to invoke, not only emotions, but new insights as well. If an urban exploration video inspires a viewer in such a way that offers the new insights and suspends what was perceived early on, the modern day urban explorer successfully accomplishes what the Impressionists accomplished centuries ago.
Post Trip to Italy: After Thoughts Part 2 What I learned from Elia Stelluto about Capturing Moments through the Camera LensRead Now
Last blog post, I wrote about my trip to Italy, which took place back in October of the past year. In that post, which I decided to make into a two-parter, I started with my visit to Rome and what stuck with me the most when I was there: the Sistine Chapel. This was important because given the wealth of history behind the chapel and the legacy left behind by Michelangelo, I felt that I'd write about how understanding the skill and technique of the old masters is influential to today's artists.
In this post in which I focus on my time in San Giovanni Rotundo, I'm going talk about what I learned from Elia Stelluto, the famed photographer of San Padre Pio. Padre Pio (1887-1968) who has been canonized a Saint, was a friar, but above all, he was a well known mystic and stigmatist. His body remains uncorrupted to this day and is displayed on public view at a church in the Sanctuary of Saint Pio of Pietrelcina. Throughout the years of San Pio's work, Elia captured the major moments and highlights in his photographs and they have been on display throughout various locations in San Giovanni.
When my family and I finally met Elia and his sister, Maria, we got to see and learn of the many amazing places throughout San Giovanni and more about his friendship with Saint Padre Pio. As someone who specializes in drawing learning from someone who specializes in photography, there were a few new techniques I garnered from Elia that reshaped my creative process that I wanted to cover here in this post.
When we went to go see the stations of the cross, upon trying to get a good photo of each one, he showed me the best ways to take a solid snapshot. Don't hold the camera too close to the subject matter. Don't place it too far either. Keep it steady. If the subject matter is a landscape, position the camera to match the horizontal position. If the subject matter is portrait, set the camera in the upright position. Also, be very observant of the light source. In this case, because this was outdoors, the sun was my light source, so I had to position my camera in the best ways possible so that the sun wasn't blinding nor darkening which station I was taking the picture of.
Although I was using the camera on my phone to take pictures, (which I normally do for snapping real-life examples that I use as references for my illustrative works), Elia encouraged me to be open to the skill and techniques that go into picture taking. Usually when we take photos with our smartphones, we don't normally over analyze how we do it. We see something that catches our attention and want to document it as quickly as possible especially if it's something that is going to move very quickly like a truck with a rare logo or a billboard while on the road, so we just try to capture it right then and there. However, because there are those special moments we want to capture using any kind of camera and even though photography might not be our main focus, learning the basic techniques of photography from Elia got me rethinking the way I take pictures and why. In some cases, I do it to preserve memories and others as reference for my illustrative works. So, even though I don't specialize in photography, learning from Elia's years of experience has restructured my thought process for picture taking and how it complements the work I do. Ever since then, I just take pictures that I know are going to mean something to me when I pull them out again and that they won't just be a blurry clutter for my phone, both figuratively and literally. If it's a subject matter that I'm going to revisit for a project that I'm working on or an important memory I simply want to preserve from my travels that I want to document and show what I've learned from or got out of it, I felt it was a good idea to take advice from someone who knows the craft and experience and then I start using it in even the most simplest of things.
In the end, I really enjoyed my conversations with Elia and getting to know more about his work ethic and process. Although photography is not something I'm considering to pursue professionally, I felt it was very beneficial to learn a thing or two from Elia's craft. In turn, I started to see we are very much alike. Although our mediums are different, as artists, we share the same goal in our art: to tell a good story that will be an inspiration to others.
For this post, I'm going to write something a little different here. I'm going to share a personal story about my trip to Italy last month and what I got out of it. I went to Rome and San Giovanni Rotundo in the middle of October for ten days with my family. We visited many historic locations, such as the Sistine Chapel in Rome and the resting place of San Padre Pio in San Giovanni. Even so, we met San Padre Pio's photographer, Elia Stelluto, who also gave me a few pointers in taking photos. One month after the trip, I got thinking about what contemporary artists can gain from visiting Italy and getting to know its rich history.
For Part One, I'll start with the Sistine Chapel in Rome first. What stood out for me the most in Rome was the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Painted by Italian painter and sculptor Michelangelo (1475-1564) in 1508 and completed in 1512, the ceiling is highly renowned as a staple of the Renaissance era. Upon observing depth and detail that went into every aspect of the piece, I could not help but be utterly amazed by how one person could have taken the time, skill and patience to create such a colossal work of art. Given both the time it took and the intense level of craftmanship (as Michelangelo was known for), this is one sight you just can't miss visiting. It got me thinking about art in the modern world and how craftmanship has been regarded overall since the early 20th century, specifically with the Dada movement. While I don't dislike all art from the 20th century, nonetheless, it was the time period when high skill level was often mocked, ridiculed and looked down upon as 'outdated'. In addition, I also got thinking back on the rules of stylization, -a topic that comes up often in the art world- when reflecting on the art of the Renaissance era to the rise of Cubism. If artists intend to deconstruct a piece and stylize rather than make it look realistic, it's always important to practice and understand the skills behind drawing from life as well as learning about the craft behind the old masters. I've mentioned in a previous blog post about stylization according to fine artist, Stan Prokopenko and how learning the basics helps refine our approach to style.
That said, finally getting to see the Sistine Chapel ceiling in person further extended my appreciation for the high level of craftmanship the likes of Michelangelo was famous for. There are a couple of reasons as to why contemporary artists should observe pieces of the time period and take them to heart. The main reason first and foremost is our historic roots. When the Dada movement emerged, it was a major shift in the art world, but it seems that as the 20th century went on years afterwards, craftmanship was starting to seem like a joke. Aside from the fine attention to detail, even subject matter became increasingly superficial. With the high level of craft, beauty and strong desire to seek deeper meaning in our human existence, the art world accomplished such significance through the classic works. Upon examination of the fine arts, the exploration into the human condition is expansive and the time focused on that craft is as a result, what gives the spectator an immersive amount for self-reflection and evaluation. The artists themselves sought meaning through their craft and viewers can learn a great deal about themselves.
The second reason artists will benefit from observing something like the Sistine Chapel ceiling goes back to the stylization practices. As expert artists say, aspiring artists must know the basics before they can develop a personal style and develop it well. Even so, they are encouraged to learn from the old masters. I'd go another step farther to add on that there is something extra to gain from studying both that will help artists hone, not only their technique, but getting to know their true potential and individuality. As practicing from both life and the old masters goes hand in hand, it was also that the old masters sought their inspirations from life and its greater significance. Although it might seem unrelated at first, it's as classical Greek philosopher, Socrates (470-399 BC) famously stated, "[t]he unexamined life is not worth living". The statement is interpreted to mean that a life without self-reflection is fruitless and therefore, lacks the meaning and potentiality it could have or could have had. The way I see it is if artists want to develop a personal style, something that should say something about the artist as a person in some form or another, those steps are always going to be crucial to the learning experience, but it's also significant for artists to learn more about themselves as well. Artists could know all the fundamental foundations that are encouraged and necessary to enrich their craft. When comes time to develop a personal style, is should also be encouraged for artists to self-reflect on their lives such as the mistakes they made, the struggles they been through and the things they learned from them as well as individual exploration and what they gained out of it. Sometimes artists start on a path that seems like its the one they truly want to take, but through hardships, challenges and growing stronger because of those experiences prompt change.
Although tone and style are different, tone being the attitude the author displays in his/her work and style is the format the piece is designed with, both always go hand in hand and compliment each other. So, without experiences, your tone can express one thing an thus, influence the style you are known for. But when new experiences shape you as a person and you grow from them to better yourself, you learn more about your true self, about others around you and garner a better outlook on life because of the obstacles that come and overcoming each one. You then garner a greater appreciation for yourself and others around you that you count your blessings more than take things for granted. It's also important to note that as time brings about change and your outlooks on life change, your taste also changes, too. Art is based also in one's taste and of course, but styles change as attitudes do. In other words, aspiring artist shouldn't just learn from the old masters from a technical standpoint, but on a philosophical one as well.
When in Rome (no pun intended), if you visit the Vatican, definitely make a trip to the Sistine Chapel. As you browse all the way to the end of the chapel, give yourself permission to ponder the time, skill, practice, craftmanship and thought that went into such a marvel. If you're an aspiring artist, definitely keep the lessons your instructor encourages you to study in mind as well as making room for reflection. I'll discuss my visit to San Giovanni Rotundo in Part Two after the Christmas and Holiday season. Until then, keep exploring beyond your boundaries!
Blending the Traditional with the Modern according to Takashi Murakami. Post MFA Boston Visit ReflectionsRead Now
To say that the art of Takashi Murakami is eccentric is without a doubt a huge understatement. With a fine blend of traditional Japanese art and modern day pop art, Murakami mixes, not only the old and the new, but elements of the high art and the low art in ways that leads spectators to another level of imagination. From October 18th, 2017 to April 1st, 2018, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston presented an exhibition entitled Takashi Murakami: Lineage of Eccentrics, which featured a selection of traditional Japanese art from the museum's own collection and a selection of pieces created by Murakami himself.
At first, it seems like the most unlikely combination one could dream up of, but given the context of the rich history behind the arts of Japan and how it shaped the Japanese pop culture of the 21st century, the meaning behind the art of Murakami becomes clearer. The exhibition, fittingly titled Lineage of Eccentrics showcases the heritage Murakami's art depicts through a display of his own works and which traditional pieces influenced them. On one side, museum visitors will see a piece of traditional Japanese art and next to it, a piece created by Murakami himself that borrows from it, mixed with vibrant colors and his signature cartoon (anime) character art. For example, the 17th century folding screen, Poppies from the School of Tawaraya Sōtatsu is among the featured pieces from the MFA's collection. The materials used to create it consists of gold-leafed paper, ink and color paint. Looking to the wall on the right, viewers would see Murakami's rendition, titled Kawaii - Vacances (Summer Vacation in the Kingdom of the Golden) circa 2008, in which one of the materials similarly consists of gold-leafed paper. In contrast to Poppies, the flowers are made with acrylic. Also, the flowers depicted in Poppies are rendered with a slight sense of simplicity, yet more realistically detailed while set in front of a spacious golden background. Murakami's Kawaii - Vacances flowers are arranged in a similar fashion as the ones from Poppies in that they are also in front of a golden spacious backdrop (with clouds behind them in contrast). Unlike the more realistically rendered Poppies, Kawaii - Vacances features flat lined multi-colored anthropomorphic cartoon-like flowers with smiling faces.
So what is it about the collection that makes it so appealing? What possible sort of cultural significance could an art form known for blurring the lines between high traditional art and low commercial art have to offer? Why does something 'commercialized' even need to draw from traditional art? For artists who want to learn how to create his/her signature style, Murakami sets a superb example of how to do it. Because he is both a fine artist as well as a commercial artist, he knows how to build from the arts of the past and offer new insights into them with a modern twist. Without drawing from the traditional arts of Japan as a foundation, the response to post WWII Japan would be very disconnected. To delve into specific detail, when taking Murakami's early career into account, it's known that he is a fan of anime and manga. Even so, at one point, he had dreams of working in the animation industry. Although initially he went to school to garner the skills for it, his career focus shifted and thus majored in the art of Nihonga (traditional Japanese paintings dating back to 1900), instead. Despite earning his Ph.D, he became disenchanted with the art of Nihonga due to its overtly political nature. As a result, he went on to expand his artistic boundaries. The main set back he could see in modern Japanese art was that there was a major focus on incorporating Western trends, which his 90's projects would satirize, receiving less favorable reviews in Japan. Murakami did however, receive a fellowship from the Asian Cultural Council (ACC) in 1994 and traveled to New York City as part of a studio program from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). While he was living in the city, he discovered modern Western contemporary artists and became influenced by their works. The works of Jeff Koons and Anselm Kiefer stood out the most for Murakami. Upon his return to Japan, Murakami defined his signature artistic practices and showcased his recent works at major exhibitions in Europe and the United States. By establishing a cultural foundation for himself as an artist both in the West and Japan, Murakami could take full control over his work and build his own market.
Once he was already well rooted in the high arts, he started to blend the "low" arts of Japanese subculture such as manga and anime into the mix. Eventually, he coined the term, Superflat in 2000, which is a term to describe the 2D flatness of traditional Japanese art and anime and manga. The term, Superflat also takes on an array of other meanings as well, such as the superficial nature of the consumer culture in Japan. It also represents Japan's post-war society, where according to Murakami, trends and various social classes were geared towards flatness, by which he means that after WWII, tastes regarding what can be defined as 'high' and 'low' art have been blurred. When asked about the over commercialization of today's art market in a 2007 interview with BLOUIN ARTINFO, Murakami's response is as follows:
"It's always funny when people say this, because it sounds like they don't understand what a "market" is. Isn't it a place to buy and sell? Personally, I think that the more commercialized the art market, the easier it is to understand strategically. I do appreciate all different kinds of art, though; just like I appreciate all different kinds of people. There are some people who compete in the commercial arena and there are some who abide by more personal, spiritual or idealistic guidelines. If done well, both can be equally satisfying".
And when asked if there is a risk involved in 'straddl[ing] between art and commercial products', Murakami replies:
"I don't think of it as straddling. I think of it as changing the line. What I've been talking about for years is how in Japan, that line is less defined. Both by the culture and by the past-War economic situation. Japanese people accept that art and commerce will be blended; and in fact, they are surprised by the rigid and pretentious Western hierarchy of "high art." In the West, it certainly is dangerous to blend the two because people will throw all sorts of stones. But that's okay - I'm ready with my hard hat".
To summarize Murakami's statements as well as his experiences throughout his career, whether artists are meeting the criteria of 'high' art or 'low' art, either way, they are all in it to market and sell their works. Regardless of their values represented in their art, all artists are marketing and branding themselves every time they put their work out into the public eye. In either case, if the art the artists are selling display a level of craftsmanship and a solid understanding of stylization, the end results that come of their efforts are truly rewarding. As for the 'straddling' effect, Murakami deftly puts it that in port-War Japan, both 'high' and 'low' art intertwine and receive an equal amount of respect and acceptance. Blending the 'high' and 'low' art in the United States on the other hand, often receives a negative reaction and thus, are seen as separate.
Returning to the question of what possible cultural significance could art blurring the lines between high traditional art and low commercial art have to offer and why would commercial art even be drawn from traditional art, it all boils down to a deep rooted connection to one's own heritage and that the commercial world would never have existed without such a rich history. As bizarre as the works of Takashi Murakami tend to be, when given context from the traditional art of Japan, the branded art contains a deeper meaning behind it. Murakami demonstrates that without that connection and understanding of cultural heritage, what is defined as commercial art wouldn't have a platform to stand on. Even so, in order for artists to come up with a signature style, (as discussed in my previous blog post), understanding that lineage is what gives the artist's effort a significance. It is truly quite surprising to see how much of commercialized art came to be as a result of art history and Murakami as both a branded business man and traditional artist proves it best.
With a resurgence of 1980’s and early 1990’s nostalgia, there has been an abundance of art and music that draws inspiration from the decade of excess. From the creative visual and musical artists showcased on New Retro Wave to Indie pop to video games as well as revivals of classic characters and intellectual properties in mainstream popular culture, there’s no doubt that the retro styles of the recent past have their appeal.
Today I will be focusing on one very prominent visual artist of the 1980’s, who’s illustrative works have famously defined the entire decade and has become a major inspiration for some of our contemporary artists. Patrick Nagel (1945-1984) was an America illustrator known for his flat, 2-D art, which were simplistic, yet complex renditions of women. Although his birthplace was in Dayton, Ohio, he lived most of his life in Los Angeles, California. Nagel attended the Chouinard Art Institute after serving in the U.S. Army in Vietnam. He received his bachelor's degree at the California State University, Fullerton in 1969 and began his art career, teaching at the Art Center College of Design while building his value up as a professional illustrator and graphic designer.
In 1971, he worked as a graphic designer for ABC Television and as a freelance artist for other companies and magazines such as IBM, Rolling Stone, MGM and Universal Studios. in 1972. 1976 was the year that would hint at the direction Nagel’s later efforts would take. During that year, he worked on contributions for Playboy magazine, where his work received a wider audience and his signature “Nagel Woman” name.
Aside from Playboy, Patrick Nagel also designed album covers of popular musicians of the time, most notably Duran Daran’s 1982 album, Rio. Other recording artists’ albums included Think It Over (1978) by Cissy Houston, In Touch (1976) by Tommy James, and I’ve Got the Music in Me (1975) by Thelma Houston & Pressure Cooker.
According to the official website of Patrick Nagel regarding his poster art, during the 100 years prior to his time, “poster art has been one of the most humble, influential and pervasive of all the arts.” Unfortunately, it was a dying artform in the United States in the 1970’s as it was losing much of its effectiveness to capture audiences’ attention. Nagel reinvented the art form by displaying something of value to the market that he could offer with his skills:
“[I]n partnership with Mirage Editions and fine art printer Jeff Wasserman, [Nagel] sought to recapture the beauty and power that posters once held in popular culture by returning to a model created at the turn of the century with artists such as Toulouse Lautrec and A.M. Cassandre. They sought to produce the highest quality hand screened art prints that would also serve as collectable advertising art for businesses. Over Nagel’s career, 60 limited edition silk-screened prints were completed and were sold out upon release and Nagel’s iconic women found their way to worldwide recognition.”
Because Nagel showcased rare works that the market could reward, his career proved to be a major success, not only in quality, but also in subject matter. The women depicted in his prints were always known to be “complicated”, creating a rather fascinating ambiguity into her mind. What the Nagel women wants from the viewer is lure their attention towards her. There is a bit of self-importance, yet she’s very reserved. There is also a sense of indifference, yet astuteness and elegance that adds to that ambiguity in her character. There was a reason Nagel retained this vagueness as his official bio adds:
“Nagel often said that he didn’t really want to know these women too well. He imagined them as creatures of the night who drank and smoked too much. Perhaps, but they remain always in control. In the pin-up tradition of women as object, Nagel’s portrayal of them was a break from the past, reflecting the rapidly changing role of women in America. His style evolved subtly along with the times. His women of the seventies are shown as softer, more vulnerable and innocent than his stronger, more self assured women of the eighties.”
Because of the way Nagel portrayed his subject matter, it made his work and their traits memorable. As the Nagel Women continued to take shape throughout his career, he kept increasing their worth in the the art world and market. Even in the fashion and music scene, his works became iconic.
In the years after Patrick Nagel’s death in 1984, his works remain highly regarded worldwide. Zach Kelly’s piece on New Retro Wave covers Nagel’s impact on today’s artists as well as his contemporaries. Examples of such include Comedy Central’s short-lived 2015 adult animated series, Moonbeam City, created by Scott Gairdner (Parental Advisory Warning for language and adult humor). Kelly highlights that “Gairdner encapsulates many facets of the [retro] movement, through a nostalgic Miami-Vice theme, however the distinctive character illustrations and some of the execution of colour is a direct throw to the art of Nagel”. He then describes the album covers of the artists whom are often featured on NRW. ALEX’s 2017 EP, entitled Youth features art by Jacqueline Ruther, Mizucat, which adopts a similar approach to how Nagel portrayed women, while incorporating color and more detail to the woman in the image. The woman featured on Trevor Something’s 2014 release, Trevor Something Does Not Exist, displays a similar art style, by Ariel Zucker (Parental Advisory Warning for gruesome imagery), with the figure’s own elegance and ambiguity blended with more detail. Synthwave musician, SelloRek/LA Dreams pays homage to Nagel with a track, titled Nagel Girl, which Kelly praises how it “matches Nagel’s art well.”
As for Nagel’s contemporaries whom Kelly mentions, such as Carlos Sanchez, Dennis Mukai and Luis Preciado, they each have created works of art, depicting the Nagel-esque woman, while “[adding] their own flavour to the artsphere”. Kelly includes one piece from each artist to illustrate the similarities and contrasts to Nagel’s work. Thrill Me by Carlos Sanchez shows a woman smoking, expressing a similar aloofness to that of the Nagel Women. In contrast to Nagel’s works, however, Sanchez illustrated more detail on the woman’s face and features much like that of the styles of Ruther and Zucker. Dennis Mukai’s Special Friend compares to Nagel’s style by adopting a slightly different, yet similar minimalistic technique in the design, while retaining that sense of elegance seen in Nagel’s posters. Genevieve by Luis Preciado is similar in composition, concept and style. It is distinguishable in its spotty backdrop, making the piece a bit more playful than Nagel’s design.
Without a doubt, Patrick Nagel's short lived career has left major impact for the culture of his time as well as today's creative artists. By reinventing the art of the poster and expressing a unique perspective for his subject matters, Nagel not only created memorable works of art that art lovers would remember him by, but he displayed a tremendous amount of value through his skills that both the market and the art world could reward. When looking back on the traits that made Nagel's art distinctive, it's not just the sense of nostalgia one feels from viewing his work, but the vision and craftsmanship behind them that extends one's appreciation for them.
I’ll admit, I’m not a big fan of early 20th century art, but from Cubism to the Dada movement to Surrealism, no one can deny the art of the time had a major influence in the art world going forward and into the 21st century. Throughout those years, the definition of what constitutes as art became immensely loose as artists in the late 19th and early 20th century were drifting away from the classical art to the absurd, often being subversive in their pieces. Before World War I, from the Neo-Impressionist works of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac to the Post-Impressionism of Vincent Van Gogh to the Fauvism works of Henri Matisse, leading up to the works of Pablo Picasso, the craftsmanship of the classical art was slowly starting to decline in favor of more free-flowing types of art styles and movements.
Taking place after the first World War began, the Dada movement originated as a reactionary response to, not only the war itself, but to traditional values in art and modern capitalist society as well. The Dada movement as defined according to manraytrust.com, is “[a] European artistic movement (1916-1923) that flouted conventional aesthetic and cultural values by producing works marked by nonsense, travesty, and incongruity”. With that definition of Dadaism in mind, the movement steered away from the complexities, beauty and logical to the carefree and put forth that anything, - just anything - can be considered ‘art’. Alongside Marcel Duchamp (who infamously signed and dated a urinal, which he titled, Fountain (1917) to emphasize the anything-can-be-art/anti-art mentality), Pablo Picasso and Man Ray were also prominent figures in the movement. After WWI and the start of the 1920’s, the Dada movement was phased out by Surrealism, which evolved from Dadaism and continued to display similar traits and mindsets. While practices of Surrealism also consisted the anti-art mentality of Dadaism, it distinguished itself from the previous movement by putting more emphasis on dreams and the unconscious mind. Amongst the major figures in the Surrealist movement were Andre Breton, Salvador Dali, Max Ernst and Rene Magritte. Breton was a Surrealist writer and poet and was known as the founder of the movement. Dali was a painter, illustrator and sculptor. Ernst was also known for his paintings and sculptures and Magritte was also a painter. While the main figures of the Surrealist movement were, no doubt influential, the works of Man Ray set fourth new, innovative ways to depict such absurdities and illusions to the art movement, not only through photography, but via the art of photogram (camera-less photography).
Although the art of photogram had existed decades prior to Man Ray’s time, Man Ray used the medium to his advantage to display his signature dream-like illusions. Referred to as rayographs, Man Ray’s subjects consisted of everyday items and would utilize his composition in rather peculiar and imaginative ways. Take for example, a pair of scissors, a nail filer and a strip of film and those ordinary objects would be arranged to depict a surreal, image that looked like it was derived from a dream.
Other photographic techniques Man Ray was known for was the thick black lining of the people he photographed. At first glance, it appeared that he used ink on the images, when in reality, he created this technique via solarization. In a translated interview from the documentary, The Adventure of Photography from Kultur Video, Man Ray stated it was “a method of re exposing a print to light during the development stage to produce unearthly pictures of people with mysterious halos” and that it was “a matter of luck” at first. Eventually it became a repeated process and after several experiments, he refined the technique that it became old hat.
While the Surrealist movement may have been primarily a literary one, and paintings and sculptures were also other predominant forms of media used to depict this bizarre art style, the influence of Man Ray’s photography is important to note when delving into the history of the movement. As other artists of the period were known for their roles in influencing Surrealism through such art forms, Man Ray was a main driving force for photography in which he brought something truly unique to the table. With his outlandish approaches to camera less photography and his quirky techniques he developed using the camera, there’s no denying Man Ray was also of a creative and innovative mind in his medium. Whether the viewer deems it art or ‘anti-art’, the craftsmanship behind Man Ray’s works merits its place in art history.
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