Sunday, 21 September 2008

Artwork Mondays: referencing, gazing and Mitochondrial Eve

This week, I've been thinking a lot about social-consciousness in art. Y'know, being political and having a message for the public sphere.

There's some reasons for my preoccupation.

Tyler Handley at The Edger wondered how to classify atheist art. Jessica Palmer at Bioephemera shows the tension between illustration/photojournalism and fine art, and how poorly played it can both enhance and upset a career. Coturnix at A Blog Around the Clock has an interesting round-up of articles about art about science; I'm struck by how many are about global warming, but not surprised.

Social activism and controversies are always a part of the fine artists' agenda. It's not surprising. And it's a good thing the global warming crisis is a part of the agenda! I remember in university about 10 years ago, some wag put up a list of "10 images to be an art hack" too high up on a support pillar to take down. On it were things like, "Coca-Cola logo" (to signify evil corporations), "Kate Moss" (to signify male-controlled body image), "fetus" (to signify the abortion debate).

My friends and I used the term, "shake and bake" for this type of art; by putting an image on canvas of say, Kate Moss you were automatically addressing bulimia, women's body image, the perpetuation of the male-gaze in art, heroin chic (Trainspotting was a big movie when I was in Uni) and being "ironic" and "conflicted" by both showing her and "referencing" her. Ooo, edgy, a half-naked painting of a photo of Kate Moss.

Referencing was a big buzz word in Fine Art back then. It meant copying something, or including it in there. It was supposed to be a dialogue, while perhaps being vague on what you were saying.

It meant you didn't have to come up or reveal a new conflict to the viewer, you simply added to the dialogue. Shale and bake. Truly new conflicts were hard to smash through with. In my own small way, I tried. After reading River Out of Eden by Richard Dawkins over and over, I tried numerous pieces about the Mitochondrial Eve concept. It enthralled me that we could figure out things like this bottleneck in our prehistory. But it wasn't new of the day, so it was hard to spread the wonderment. Frustrating.

Here is that painting, Mitochondrial Eve:

Not perhaps my strongest work back then, and I've almost painted over it a few times. This one was painted on an antique wood panel to prevent warping, using traditional materials (rabbit-skin glue....eewwww) so it will likely look at me with it's not-up-to-my-standards look for quite some time.

I had roommates also in the Fine Arts, one majoring in dance, one in theatre. We'd joke a bit that in both their disciplines, collaboration is essential; whereas in visual art, you're expected to stand smoking in the corner saying, "They're all hacks, no one understands my genius. puff".

But back to social messages. Are they all shake and bake? All instantly microwaveable into some sort of painting/sculpture/installation that everyone brings their own political/social/media-savvy background to?

No. There can be something strong enough to break through and galvanise people. But I think the world of visual Fine Art is tough. We are surrounded by astounding images every day, so standing still and letting a painting perform long enough to affect one's mindset as it unravels and wraps up a viewer is a difficult thing. I try it from time to time.

And once, I was so overcome, I simply sat down in the middle of the gallery, on the floor. I stretched my legs out, and just enjoyed the still oil painting on the wall and let it affect me. Security didn't mind this gothy-punk just sitting there; I was causing no harm and others could walk around me. And the painting was marvelous. I consider it now my very favourite. Science and myth thrown together on a canvas. John Atkins Grimshaw's Iris. (The science comes from the part you cannot see in a photo: thin glazes of oil forming a rainbow following the tragic arch of Iris's body).

Try it. Find an image about a current issue like global warming. Perhaps it's a block of ice in a gallery kept at temperatures cool enough to drip only slowly, or tiny plastic polar bears on the floor of the gallery. Perhaps something on the computer screen, something from antiquity, something in your local museum or art gallery or a book.

Ponder it slowly.

Be unafraid to find it shallow.

Be unafraid to say, "that's it?"

Be willing to enjoy the art of the small message for its small message.

And keep moving on, and slowing down to look until one commands your gaze. Let it mesmerise you with its memes and forms. My hope is that it will provide a rallying point for rationality in its beauty.

- - -
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Peter Bond said...

Hey Glendon. Hmm... I've been pondering this post for a while now. I love "mitochondrial eve" but it repulses me a little bit! Please don't take that the wrong way! Something about the long ghost arms and the sperm-like viruses... Gives me the shivers!

On my own science painting that I connect with is "The Experiment on a Bird with an Air Pump" by Joseph Wright. It sucks me in and I get lost in the people's different reaction to the death of the bird. And being so dark and warm, the scene feels removed from time and space. Yup, I like it!

Glendon Mellow said...

It is pretty repulsive, isn't it.I included the 'dead' sperm since sperm only have enough mitochondrial evergy to make it to the egg, not to pass on (I believe they only have one each?)

I just checked out the painting you mentioned on Wikipedia, and wow, that looks like a Caravaggio! Excellent painting, Bond. Thanks for introducing me to it.

It feels a bit Golden Compass-like to me.

Thanks for weighing in on something unpleasant. I've almost painted over this piece many, many times. I feel it is not my best work.

Prehistoric Insanity said...

Funny cause the long ghost arms are what draw me in, but I've been known for liking creepy things...

I like the embroyic vessel the woman reaches for. It to me due to the black void of negative space incarnates the ONLY potential in that world. The dead sperm are all that remains of other failed attempts at anything...

Again maybe I'm just a freak. Bond can vouch that I often float to the not normal choices.

Glendon Mellow said...

Thank you, Craig.

One of the original ideas was to give our mitocchondrial eve many arms, like Arachnia of Greek Myth. That's where the creepy appendages come from. I think if I were to re-do this painting now, I'd make her powerful and pregnant.

A friend of mine who has found religion (!) has posted something of a rebuttal online to this painting and the notion of Mitochondrial Eve.

It's full of weird errors, and no research other than thumping open the Bible.

I'll have to respond, I think.

Stephanie Zvan said...

This is very simple for one of your paintings, but I'm not sure that the simplicity is in the message. I think it's at least as much in the composition. I like the idea of making Eve a stronger figure.

I also love the "no one understands my genius" commentary. So true, and not just for visual artists. If one were a writer, the only difference would be that one would swill rather than puff.

Glendon Mellow said...

Thanks Stephanie!

I think it does need a re-do.

As a writer, I'm sure you can remember a time when it was tough working a day-job, and trying to keep up.

I've got four other projects on the go at the moment. Hopefully by mid-October I can begin something with this idea again.

It is a mystery to me why so many artists smoke: flammable chemicals abound in the trade

Stephanie Zvan said...

When it was? Tell you what, I'll let you know if that part ever stops. :)

On the chemicals, yeah. I've had two roommates who were visual artists. I don't get why anyone needs to smoke with everything hanging in the air.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful picture!
I was wondering whether or not I could use it in my presentation.
I am going to have a talk after two weeks about renin-angiotensin system and mitochondria in Finnish young students´competition?
If not, than not. But I like it anyway=)

-Juha LempiƤinen

Glendon Mellow said...

Greetings Juha!

Please send me an email, and we can discuss using the image for presentation. I'm open to the idea, I'd just need some more details.

You can email me at:


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