Artist Talk-Amna Asghar

This week, artist Amna Asghar gave a fascinating artist’s talk about her work, processes, and philosophies. Asghar, a Pakistani-American born artist based in Detroit, creates paintings and screen prints that often reappropriate imagery, especially images from or involving Pakistan and the Middle East. Some source materials include skin whitening ads from magazines, Orientalist paintings, restaurant menus, as well as Disney movies, but she puts together slices of these images to put them into a new context and perhaps in an attempt to reclaim her identity. 

Amna Asghar, Portal II (Egypt), 2019
screenprint and acrylic on canvas
20 x 14 inches, 50.80 x 35.56 cm

For one, I really appreciated Asghar’s approach to art making, specifically in terms of reappropriating images for one’s own purposes. Her work often borrows from images of non-western cultures produced by westerners, such as the Orientalist paintings by Jean-Léon Gérôme and Disney movies such as Aladdin. Our conceptions of culture and places are undoubtedly formed, at least partially, by the media we consume, and I admire that Asghar is examining and challenging these bits of media and our conceptions of cultures that can often be rooted in colonialist attitudes. In doing so, she is also reclaiming her identity and culture as Disney and the Orientalist painters “don’t have ownership of depicting brown people a certain way”. And while she is dealing with heavy themes such as these and the trauma endured by POC, she says that she often portrays them in a light and humorous manner as “it’s the only way to do it”. While some situations or topics may need a certain amount of gravity or seriousness, I definitely agree that making light of difficult topics or trauma can help one begin a conversation and make sense of the world, as well as instilling a sense of comradery in a community. I also found it fascinating that Asghar seemed almost annoyed when asked about identity, as she is probably constantly asked questions about her identity as a POC artist. It’s almost as if she is pigeonholed into doing “identity” work, when in reality she says that all artists are creating works about identity, as you can’t quite separate the art from the artist. 

Bonaparte before the Sphinx Painting by Jean-Leon Gerome

Another element of Asghar’s art that I really admire and have been thinking about with my own work is the disconnect between our conception of space and real locations. I obviously cannot speak for her about her own emotions and experiences, but a lot of her work such as the pieces taking imagery from Aladdin and Gérôme are of the Middle East, and could possibly be incorporating ideas about her having grown up in America and having seen these locations and Pakistan through the lens of media and art rather than physically being there. In the case of Asghar’s art, she might be critiquing this media for colonialist attitudes and romanticising cultures in a one-dimensional way. While I don’t have quite the same relationship, I (and I’m sure most people to an extent) tend to romanticize places I’ve never been to, and if I ever have the chance to actually visit these locations, they never meet my expectations that I have formed through media. 

Amna Asghar, Agra and Baghdad, 2019
acrylic on canvas
36 × 25 inches, 91.44 × 63.50 cm

Gallery Visits and the Future of Art

This week, our class had our first virtual gallery visits! If this had been in person, I think I would be initially intimidated as I have never stepped foot in a gallery and the gallery world seems like an entirely different universe, but the virtual transition over zoom actually helped create a more relaxed environment. Despite a few technological complications with internet service, we didn’t miss out too much on anything had we been there in person, and we were able to see the artworks at close angles to appreciate the details. I’m especially appreciative of this as the two artists whose works were displayed, Keegan Monaghan and Alex Dodge, both utilized the medium of painting to create insanely physical textures, the latter creating works that blended childhood motifs of stuffed animals with technology that I really admired.

Alex Dodge, Roger Sitting, 2020, oil and acrylic on polyester, 54 x 40 inches, 137.16 x 101.60 cm

During both visits with James Fuentes’ gallery and the Klaus Gallery, we were able to speak with the respective founders and talk about their beginnings and what it’s like to work in the industry. James and Sam come from unique backgrounds in the gallery world, as Sam was a working artist before founding Klaus, and James having grown up Latino in the Bronx and not having access to the art world at a young age. While I’m not extremely familiar with the gallery world, what I’ve heard of it can paint a picture of elitism and class issues, but it’s heartening to hear that your success isn’t solely dependent on your original wealth.

James also talked about how while he has been transforming some of his business models to be virtual in response to COVID, he believes that art is fundamentally meant to be viewed and consumed in a physical space. This led to an interesting generational debate in the class, with many people thinking that we will primarily consume media and art in a virtual manner in the future, with many welcoming it, and viewing Jame’s ideas about art as perhaps too antiquated. My opinion lies somewhere in the middle however. While I think physcially viewing artwork is the superior method, this of course isn’t always possible. Even if COVID was not an issue, museum and gallery spaces are not always accessible to everyone, especially working class people. Though viewing works on a tiny iphone screen may not be the most pleasant way to look at art, smartphones are more accessible to a larger swath of the population across class, and I have discovered more of my favorite artists and works through the internet or social media than I have by visiting museums. At any rate, our lives are increasingly spent online, so along with most other fields, I foresee art becoming even more digitized in the future. 

Eleanor Heartney on Doomsday

Eleanor Heartney’s Doomsday Dreams

This week, we had a fascinating conversation with art critic Eleanor Heartney centered around the very timely theme of “doomday” in art. Heartney had recently published “Doomsday Dreams: The Apocalyptic Imagination in Contemporary Art”, a book exploring apocalyptic narratives in art spanning centuries, from ancient Zoroastrian art to contemporary times. Heartney argues that the concept of “the end of the world” has been “deeply embedded in almost every aspect of Western culture”, especially as the three prominent religions of the western world, being Islam, Judiasm, and Christianity, all feature their own versions of the apocalypse in which the world is destroyed and every person faces judgement. And while the contemporary art world is seemingly more removed from religion, Heartney finds that ideas about the apocalypse still inform artists today, especially as the political and ecological state of the world seems more dire.

For one, I heavily related to Heartney’s upbringing as well as her views on art and religion. Describing herself as a “lapsed Catholic”, I also grew up in the Catholic church but gradually stopped attending and don’t really identify as being a member of the church anymore. While I understand and recognize the harm organized religion can bring and the ways in which it can be molded to fit political agendas, both being contributing factors to why I don’t attend church anymore, Heartney recognizes the profound influence religion has on art and our worldviews. While religion was of course the main subject manner of art for centuries, especially throughout the Classical, Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque eras, I think its influence is unappreciated in contemporary art despite religion not being so entwined with art as it was in the past. Heartney described so many Post-War and contemporary artists as having grown up religious, and while their works may not be explicitly about religion and they may not identify as religious anymore, their upbringings molded who they were and subsequently the art they make.

David Wojnarowicz with Tom Warren, Self-Portrait of David Wojnarowicz, 1983–84.

As I said, I don’t identify as Catholic anymore, but the values and aesthetics of the church are forever ingrained into my personhood for better or for worse (such as the “fire and brimstone” ideas of the apocalypse), and the rich artistic tradition of the church still informs my tastes today which I think holds true for most people of whatever religion or culture they grew up in. And while I think religion has a lot of negative baggage as of late, and sometimes rightly so, I think that anthropological ideas about religion in which it can instill a sense of meaning in one’s life and communitas should not be ignored. 

 I also appreciated Heartney’s optimism when faced with such a dark topic in what seems like such a dark time in human history. It’s easy to become defeatist and nihilistic when faced with such a polarized political climate and a ticking climate crisis, but Heartney suggests that by creating visions of utopic ideals in art we can start transferring these concepts into the real world instead of wallowing in these images and feelings of despair. 

Talking with Art World Insider Kenny Schachter

Before going into our meeting with dealer, artist, writer, and curator Kenny Schachter, I was initially intimidated. Prior to Kenny’s lecture, what I’ve read from him and about him paints him to be someone who likes to push buttons and be provocative, himself publishing articles slamming other professionals in the art world. However, at the risk of sounding trite, you should not judge a book by its cover as Schachter comes across as an extremely empathetic and warm person despite whatever reputation he may have garnered. Initially entering the art world as an outsider, having been involved with finance and having no formal art education, Schachter entered the field for his genuine interest and love of art before the art world became so characterized by art investment and backwards politics. From what I have gathered, I don’t think Schachter is deliberately attempting to come across as derisive in his writings, but is using his art world insider status for good and to expose the corruption within. While he is an expert on the financial aspects of the art market, he seemed more interested in talking about art for art’s sake, beaming when discussing how art enriches his life and the emotional connections art and artists can make.

While I can’t say I’m necessarily surprised, one of Kenny’s most fascinating divulgements was how the art world is very conservative despite its progressive veneer. Most people probably associate the art world with being radical and tolerant, but his experiences do not quite live up to these expectations. Schachter said that when entering the field he had the notion that “everybody was drinking absinthe and getting wasted and cutting their years off”, yet “sitting on the floor of the stock exchange or working in the law firm was a more radical environment to work in”, then going on to say that the art world was the most conservative field he has worked in. He then described how exclusionary of an environment the art world can be, himself being pigeon holed by his appearance into the lower rungs of the art world hierarchy. I think Kenny here proves that there is a disconnect in the art world between what it’s touted as, in being a progressive place with importance placed on marginalized identity, yet this is not mirrored in reality as it’s still a male and money dominated field. 

As mentioned before, Schachter came across as very sincere, which was very refreshing especially in terms of his curation and how he chooses art to purchase. Instead of picking art purely based on what the market might favor at the moment, Schachter chooses pieces by instinct and what he connects with on an emotional level. Most touching was his connection with Eva Beresin, a Hungarian artist he discovered on Instagram whose self portraits often deal with trauma caused by her parents whom she lost in the Holocaust, and whose works Schachter now curates. Relatively undiscovered at the time, Schachter reached out to her curious about her life and works, and the two ended up becoming close friends, Kenny saying “I basically changed her life as much as she changed mine”.

Never stand naked in front of a mirror and when that happens I close my eyes tight
Oil on cardboard
39.5 x 27.5 in.

With this said, Schachter is not interested in just making money, but deeply cares about art and establishing real connections with artists and people in the field. 

Artist Talk: Andrew Brischler

A Pointed Remark, Feuer/Mesler, NY
Installation view

This last Friday was our first video conference with a guest! While I’m disappointed our class can’t physically go to New York and visit artists and speakers in their studios, galleries, etc., I obviously realize that isn’t currently possible given the circumstances. While zoom fatigue may have set in for me long before this semester had begun, the switch from in-person to online video conferencing has worked surprisingly well for this class. While some physical elements of the artworks shown may be lost in translation as I cannot physically view and get up close and personal with brushstrokes or details, I thought the guest artist this week, Andrew Brischler, did a fantastic job of showing the class his studio setup and allowed us to view his work from close angles.

Andrew Brischler is a working, NYC-based artist who re-appropriates images found within popular culture through his worldview and style informed by graphic design and abstraction, translating them onto paper/canvas with primarily paints and colored pencils. Many of his works, especially recent ones, are text-based and feature words or phrases he pulls from a variety of sources whether it’s movies, song lyrics, or media found from scouring the depths of the internet.

 While I’m usually drawn to more figurative pieces of art, I really connected with Brischler’s body of works over our meeting with him as the conceptual frameworks of Brischler’s works as well as his process is so human despite their initial plastic veneer. His works at first look as if they could be created on photoshop or illustrator computer programs, with careful lines, typography, and bright saturated colors, but Brischler creates all of his work by hand with physical materials such as colored pencils. And when viewing the details of his works, the viewer realizes there are slight imperfections such as scuffs or rough edges that meet the white of the paper or canvas, and I really admire when artists are not afraid to break from precision as the quirks add so much character and humanity.

Punk & Faggotry (Patient Zero)
Colored pencil, marker, and graphite on paper
17 x 14 inches

Along these lines, the texts, imagery, and concepts found within Brischler’s works are drawn from popular culture but filtered through Brischler’s worldview to take on new personal meanings for himself, as well as to create works in which the viewer can project their own personal meanings. In the call, Brischler recounted how he had once sold an artwork containing the word “”stars” to some sort of straight, rich tech yuppie, unknowing that “stars” was re-appropriated from obscure gay pornography. This highlights how his work is often sourced from queer subcultures and his lived experiences but can mean anything to anyone, which he too welcomes. On more personal tangents, I related to Brischler’s process of searching for imagery and inspiration from in which he borrows from the media he consumes and goes through deep internet searches, as I am most inspired by popular culture and spend hours just searching the internet for films, songs, etc. to inform my drawings. I also deeply related to his love for horror films and why he might be so drawn to them, discussing how he as a queer person sees himself both as the villian (as the horror film cannon has a long history of queer-coded villians) as well as the victim. With this said, I found Brischler to be an engaging, relatable, talented, and fun guest artist and set a great footing for the semester. 

In Response to “In a Time of Crisis, Is Art Essential?”

In these “uncertain times”, doing much of anything can seem like an impossible task when burdened with the daunting reality of surviving a global pandemic. Not only are people and their loved ones faced with immediate health threats just by leaving their homes, but many are threatened by a recession marked by high unemployment rates and a further divide in economic inequality, as well as a constant news cycle spouting apocalyptic narratives in regards to the pandemic, climate change, the political landscape, etc. All of these forces combined have undoubtedly taken a toll on many, especially mentally. Since the beginning of quarantine in March until now, six months later, I’ve oftentimes thought of it as almost pointless to partake in things I’ve always held as crucial to my identity and sanity, such as creating, while being inundated with this barrage of crushing messages about the present and future. Myself and possibly many artists, creators, appreciators, etc. have gone through a similar thought process, asking whether or not art is essential when our livelihoods and material reality are at stake. 

Grappling with this same question, M.H. Miller in “In a Time of Crisis, Is Art Essential?” examines the nature of artmaking and how artists are overcoming adversity through creating. In one beautiful summarization, Miller writes “All art is an act of faith — a faith that life itself, with all its tragedies and flaws, can be improved by creating something new and putting it out into the world.” Of course, the author’s response to the question of whether or not art is essential is a resounding yes. I think what Miller is saying is that art is not a luxury or an indulgence tied to prosperous moments in history, but instead an innate need in humans regardless of the material circumstances around them to transcribe their emotions or ideas and to leave something behind when they’re gone. Humans have continued to persist through strife and struggle and have managed to create, whether it be artists on the front lines of WW1 portraying the destruction and reduction of humanity in war, or persecuted queer artists working in underground subcultures.

“Runner Through the Barrage, Bois de Belleau, Château-Thierry Sector; His Arm Shot Away, His Mind Gone” (1919) by Claggett Wilson

With this said, art offers the alternative and subjective experiences of real people that you cannot find in a history book. Art too serves many more functions besides acting as historical snapshots, and these functions and the need for them transcend negative circumstances such as the current pandemic or times of war, famine, etc. in the past. Art will forever hold a place in human culture, whether it be for more practical needs such as ceramics or decorative tools, to more metaphysical human needs such as connecting with the spiritual through art or coming to grips with one’s lived experiences by using art as a form of therapy. Not only this, but art is inherently a communicative tool used to bridge contact between the artist and the viewer, and in a time where offline human contact has been drastically diminished, art is especially important now in reducing our isolation and connecting one another. This article has helped reinstate my love for art and realize its importance as a human need, not a luxury, and come to the realization that art might just be needed now more than ever.