Saturday, July 04, 2009


Andrew Wyeth

There may be no better test of what's inside an artist than their response to what's on our surface.

The drama of human flesh has inspired a variety of artistic reactions. As John Updike noted, "the menace of and the sadness of naked flesh have impressed artists as much as its grandeur and allure."

At the same time that skin inspires such reactions, it also provides artists with a broad and complex language for expressing feelings, thoughts and desires. Here are just a few samples:

Toulouse Lautrec brilliantly captures the weight of flesh

In this detail from his watercolor of a weary stripper backstage, Burt Silverman distinguishes between the color of flesh that has been exposed to the sun and flesh that has never seen the light of day.

The ultra-cool Bob Peak lowers the temperature of skin to the level of liquid nitrogen

Gustav Klimt excelled at finding mythical eroticism in flesh

Andrew Wyeth puts flesh under his microscope and finds it radiant

Contrast these rich portrayals of our mortal envelope with the abject poverty of popular technicians such as Vargas or Olivia:

The disparity between these artistic treatments shows that for artists with searching eyes, skin offers clues, promises and temptations about inner life and personality. These are the fuel for true eroticism. On the other hand, lesser artists find that skin blocks any inquiry beneath the surface and ultimately leaves them with a shallow and boring caricature of sexuality.

Artists such as Vargas and Olivia excel at painting flesh firm like sausage casing, but they seem oblivious to the cosmic significance of the freckles that they thoughtlessly airbrush from a bare shoulder.

I was reminded of the artistic importance of skin last week when artist
Kim Smith sent me an mpeg about the Omo river people in Africa who paint their skin in wondrously beautiful ways using natural pigments from the world around them.

If you can overlook its annoying quotes from Picasso, you may find this slide show about the Omo people as inspiring as I did:


Kim said...

this links to larger images;

David Apatoff said...

Kim, Hans Silvester's photographs are absolutely beautiful. He has done a real service by showing the world the beauty that the Omo have created. Thanks for sharing them!

Paul said...

Anybody who has painted natural human flesh under a variety of lighting conditions (north light, or diffuse, overcast light, or sunlight) will tell you that what the Omo do is exceedingly ugly.

You may as well put up pictures of circus clowns with all their face paint and say that makes their flesh more beautiful. What nonsense!

David Apatoff said...

Paul, since I have "painted natural human flesh under a variety of lighting conditions," I guess you're not quite accurate to say that "anybody" who had done so would conclude that the Omo are "exceedingly ugly." But of course it's possible I am the only exception to the rule.

I think that their designs and colors are extraordinary. For me, the fact that they decorate themselves the way the bower bird selects brightly colored bits of ribbon and foliage to decorate its nest makes the Omo a refreshing alternative to art sicklied over with layers of con men and status peddlers. And finally, I'm not sure what the difference is between Lautrec painting green and blue skin on a board and the Omo painting with green and blue directly on skin. I accept that there is a difference; I'm just not sure what that difference is (other than perhaps greater primacy of experience).

Kim said...

David, thank you for posting his work; I had not kept current with M. Silvester.

Paul, you are entitled to your opinion, I find the Omo presentations remarkable, enchanting, superb.

Rob Howard said...

Allow me to depart from my usual go-along-to-get-along orthodoxy and venture into the heterox...nay, into being an iconoclast. I know that the Coomon Man (and the Common Artist) view the human figure as sacrosanct, with thousands of fluttering adjectives surrounding each depiction of meat on the hoof, but I find it impossibly boring. Man, after art school, there's no challenge to it at all. Not nearly the challenge that an alla prima painting of a plaid blazer can be.

Yes, I still draw nudes (and nakeds...the uglier version of a nude) but it's formulaic. It's not just me. All of those examples have a tired familiarity to them...nothing to see here, move along.

David, painting flesh is NOT that difficult. If it were they wouldn't include it in basic art school instruction. Every once in a while someone breaks the Yawn Barrier, such as the Rokoby Venus, but generally there's a really good reason that nudes occupy a sales position just over portraits of animals.

Art school idols manage to live well past their usefulness. First paint a plaid blazer and then get back to me about the sacredness of the nude.

David Apatoff said...

Rob, I'm glad you've finally signed up for that assertiveness training we have been urging on you.

I don't know whether it was because the nude was more "challenging" or "sacred" or just the best way to get someone to take their clothes off, but there are plenty of great artists, from Michelangelo to Rodin to Robert Fawcett (none of whom I hope you would describe as common) who continued to draw or paint the human figure their whole lives, and never seemed to find it "formulaic." Wyeth only turned to nudes in his later years, but seemed to thrive there for quite a while, too.

As a technical matter, painting the color of human skin may be no more difficult than painting the color of a pomegranate. However, I'd like to think that your psychological interaction with a pomegranate takes place on an entirely different plane.

kev ferrara said...

Even without reading the eye-opening interview with Andrew Wyeth in Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth, it's evident from his pictures that skin can be quite deep. While others go for translucence, he goes for transcendence.

I'm not sure if Toulouse had much game in that skin. Silverman's flesh cascade is equally abstracted, but with far more pendulous integrity. TL's multicolored mugs At the Moulin Rouge (1892) are much more "in your face".

In Cheesecake, skin looks like cheesecake. The metaphor of delectability clearly tongue in cheek. It is what it is, for people who like to bake their own.

I was never much for makeup on anybody except femme fatales in the movies. But those nutty river people take the mud cake. Smearing silt on themselves well into their dotage... without a care in the world. Or a handy wipe. I guess it beats bailing out the banks.

Hi David. Long time no see.

Rob Howard said...

>>>It is what it is, for people who like to bake their own.

Hahaha! Delightful, Kev.

Rob Howard said...

>>>As a technical matter, painting the color of human skin may be no more difficult than painting the color of a pomegranate. <<<

Not really. There's a point that you hit where it's all "materials handling," that is...observation, translation, execution. Back in the 80's I found myself in charge of a bullpen of thirty artists, half of which were illustrators. The subjects were clothing and general retail fashion items, perfumes, cosmetics, etc.

The corporate style was to use tightly rendered, but fashion-y pencil drawings. My job was to act as head coach and get everyone's head turned to utter fearlessness and that's when I chanced upon the approach of "materials handling." As soon as that concept was in operation, the production and quality went through the roof. The artists were also much happier and more confident as a result of what was simply a mental approach.

Sure, painting the same thing over and over, an artist with an investigative mind will always find some new avenue to explore. But that would happen with painting landscapes, flowers or glassware. As I say, there's nothing sacred about paintng the figure. It certainly less challenging than painting rumpled satin next to folded velvet with shiny silver, gold abd crystal next to a bird's feathers.

As for the mud kids...aside from being examples of people we should care about and put a check in the mail, what's so special? What's artistic? You fail to see the artistry in Jeff Koons but yet you rhapsodize about what is effectively the result of a mud-pie fight. Wha'sup wit dat?

Anonymous said...

another great post.I now tend to believe you will never cease to discover and share cool art ideas.
The negative comments of the Nomo People are laughable.Artisitc critique for its own sake is petty. The examples here are particularly childish. Their adornment is weaved into their everyday lives, an aesthetic adapted over thousands of years. To call them "mud kids" is typically cynical and racist, a point of view adapted over thousands of oppressive, imperialism.
More important than the question of is "it good art"?, is the underlying ideas behind the designs. What does it mean? Is there a hierarchy? Are some of the painters considered more "talented"? Is it completely freestyle and individual concieved?
From the outside, it seems as if some of the villagers express more abstractly and asymmetrically, how are they perceived compared to those with a more repetitive motif?.

I am convinced that this Western experiment in population has failed. It is refreshing to view a people oblivious to its trappings, who will probably be here long after we have raped, pillaged, murdered and blown ourselves away.
Thank you for your curiosity, exploration and research,
Derrick H.

David Apatoff said...

Kev, I will have to check out that Wyeth interview. He was a bright, articulate eccentric, and his opinions and explanations were always worth reading.

Your comment on my Lautrec example is fair enough(although I do like that blue/black swoop under the pale breast-- the man knew how to use contrast for emphasis). Lautrec did other, better treatment of skin that was closer to Wyeth or to Peak, but I picked this one as a strong example of a particular archetype. In retrospect, I was nuts to try to select just a handful of images to represent the range of skin treatments. There are 50,000 other examples I could have used.

I assume your comment on cheesecake was in defense of the genre as a whole, and not Vargas or Olivia. In my view, other cheesecake artists (such as Petty or Evgren) have redeeming social value while Vargas and Olivia do not.

I see cheesecake as part of a long tradition of idealization of the human form-- a tradition which stretches from the parthenon to Michelangelo's David to those muscle bound superheroes in comic books. There's no crime in exaggerating some attributes and filtering out others; that's at the core of what all artists do. Just be conscious of what the artist chooses to filter, and why. These creatures seem less like cheesecake than unbaked cookie dough; they have not yet formed any of the attributes that might intimidate an adolescent boy or annoy a henpecked and resentful adult male. They have been made nonthreatening at the expense of what would have made them interesting. That's fine for kicks, but not much sustenance for aesthetic pleasure (and I maintain that there is a difference). Who buys book after book of these things and hangs posters of them on the wall?

David Apatoff said...

Rob, I like the mud kids for all the reasons I dislike Jeff Koons. Their colors are striking and effective while his are gaudy and lurid. Their designs are strong and original and classic, while his are a jumble of weaker images, many of them plagiarized (what's up with those Popeye pictures?) The art of the mud kids is unassuming while his is arrogant and pretentious (they wash off their art when they are done-- he leaves a trail of cathedral sized rooms in his wake housing monumental sculptures of balloon toys.) Their work stands on its own merits (they either attract their peers or they don't) while Koons' work is force fed into the pipeline by a massive infrastructure of auction houses, sales reps, brokers, dealers and con men using a distracting cloud of persiflage to dupe the rich and tasteless. Shall I go on?

kev ferrara said...

David you are forgetting the role of cheesecake pin up dolls as religious icons. For a whole lotta middle aged males, (particularly those working under cars, it seems), thoughts of these glowing and doughy girls were (and may still be) sustenance and glory. Veritable slices of heaven, without which there might not be hope, faith, or reason to be at all. In this regard, I see no difference between Sundblom, Petty, Elvgren or Vargas. (All of them are easily associated when you compare their collective efforts at capturing gal power against, say, Mucha's Maidens or Zorn's Zaftigs.)

Anyhow, I have often read similarly ecclesiastical sentiments expressed about the contents of the finest museums, and culture in general. Metaphors for the metaphysical may arrive at all sorts of high and low associations, including skin-as-cheesecake. Valid up to the point of porn, it all falls under the heading of Freedom of Religion, be ye Mormon, Muslim, or Mummy.

Of course validity has nothing to do with quality, which is a far more important criteria to my mind, given the annihilation of the meaningfulness of the word Art over time.

(I would agree with you on Olivia being outside the pantheon, however, as there is something clinical about it. And Enoch Bolles may be a little too Gumby to warrant reverence.)

Anonymous said...

>>>It is refreshing to view a people (...) who will probably be here long after we have raped, pillaged, murdered and blown ourselves away.<<<
Of course history seems to suggest that it is much more likely we westerners will one day soon rape, pillage, murder and blow away the Omo, though not before having extensively enjoyed wathing their beautiful naked children, in a way we wouldn't dare watch our own...
Oh, those sophisticated, civilization-tired westerners and their nasty fondness for the "beautiful savage"...

David Apatoff said...

Kev-- ah yes, Our Lady of the Grease Pit. I suspect many of the people you mention are prototypical examples of the henpecked males I described above, but who am I to criticize another man's reasons for turning to religious succor?

I kinda like Enoch Bolles.

Kim Smith said...

I'm sorry if there are people out there who cannot see the beauty in the body adornment of the Omo people.
I actually think it's sad. (I've been taking David's advice and doing the assertiveness training) I respect and usually agree with some of the dissenters here, but in this case, we miss each other by a mile. I'm inspired by what the Omo do.

Anonymous said...

Their "art" is beautiful because the kids are beautiful. If they would paint on stones like this you wouldn't give a damn. And only because they are black and from some African jungle is why you dare to post these pics on your blog. Documentation of the habits and rites of savages is a classical excuse for this kind of pictures. Imagine these were white kids from, say, some nudist summer camp, who had adorned themselves with make-up and finger colors - no way would you show them here, even if the results were equally enchanting...

Anonymous said...

I find the Omo photos on the boring side, too. I guess those that are enchanted by the make-up and hats would fit right in there and find a mate.

PC Sinner in Seattle said...

We're all deeply DEEEEEEPLY impressed by your political correctness, Anonymous. You've learned how to unfurl all the little nasty tools in your self-righteous 20-something handbag. Woop-de-doo! Now we're all crying for our blighted souls! Sobbbb! Weeeeeeppppp! Meanwhile, because you played the race and culture cards (and 2 other "cards" you either learned in school or on the internet), you get to go to liberal heaven... express!


Now run along next door and go sell your snappy ol' girl scout cookies to some other band of PC sinners.

Thanks Tiger,
PC Sinner in Seattle

Kagan M. said...

Maybe he was googling "nudist white kids adorned with makeup at summer camp" and could only find this post, and is frustrated?

David Apatoff said...

Third Anonymous: you write, "If they would paint on stones like this you wouldn't give a damn. And only because they are black and from some African jungle is why you dare to post these pics on your blog."

It is true that if these designs were painted on stones, I would not put them in a post about human skin. I hope you will feel better to learn that everything else you've surmised is just plain wrong. (I'm entitled to say that because your comment is solely about my intentions and motives, which only I know.)

To change the topic a bit, you seem to be an incredibly angry person. Was there some recent experience that made you that way?

Marc Kingsland said...

No images by Rubens?
When the painting of skin is mentioned I can't help but think of his portait of Susanna Lunden.
Her pale but healthy and translucent skin showing the rosy blush and blues of her blood in shadow and gentle sunlight.

Hmmm, wonder if I've been watching too much True Blood? ;)

Rob Howard said...

>>>Shall I go on?<<<

Well, David, I see that I have my work cut out for me. Once I have you finally brought around to accepting Koons as a God-Who-Walks-Like-A-Man, then I will endeavor to convince you of what wonderful choices we made in voting for the junior president from Illinois and Saturday Nite Live's least notable product. They're all of the same three-card-monte, pea-and-shells approach to public perception. Why you object to Koons for doing the same thing that you voted for shows that intelligent people can hold opposing thoughts in apparent harmony.

Rob Howard said...

>>>Hmmm, wonder if I've been watching too much True Blood?<<<

There's no such thing as too much True Blood

David Apatoff said...

Derrick-- Thanks for the comment. I'm glad you see what I see in the Omo decorations.

Marc, I agree that Rubens' flesh is nothing short of miraculous. I had a juicy example all set to use, but there were so many wonderful examples of skin from Rubens and others that I just cut it off at an arbitrary point. Someday I would love to devote a post to how the bounty of Rubens' flesh paralleled the bounty in his life. He was quite a guy.

Rob, I have higher standards for artists than for political office holders.

Anonymous said...

A very interesting thread, as usual for this site.

I often learn something useful or interesting and always enjoy reading this blog.

Thanks David and your regular posters, such as Rob and Kev.

"I have higher standards for artists than political office holders." My favorite line from the entire thread.

Tim Langenderfer

Anonymous said...

>>>It is true that if these designs were painted on stones, I would not put them in a post about human skin.<<<
As I understand from what you write in your post these pictures actually inspired you to write about skin, so, if Kim Smith would have sent you some stone pics, would you have made a "stone" post? I wonder...
Anyway, obviously these designs wouldn't work on stones, they are intended to adorn the body and I simply doubt you could judge them somehow "neutrally":
you don't get them without the kids, without the (small) black bodies. And, you know, that then is a rather aged aesthetics, black skin with colorful adornment, be it clothes, jewelry, mud colors, what have you... (think of Leni Riefenstahl)
Plus the affecting image of the child; That's not art, that's 100 percent kitsch.

Rob Howard said...

David, the Nigerians do not have the only tribes who decorate themselves artistically with mud. Here in the states, we have the tribal rites of the UDTs, a small warlike tribe who decorate themselves in abstract patterns with mud.

Sick of Boring Moralists said...

Anonymous, it isn't an "aged" aesthetic, if someone is wearing it now. Nor is there any kitsch associated with the interest in seeing such adornment. Nor does one need to reference Leni Reifenstahl upon seeing photos of Africans. Nor does one need to twirl that association out to equate anybody who looks at africans painted with mud as some kind of fascist, a.k.a. a nazi imperialist, white suprematist, or some such nonsense.

You have way too much ego invested in being morally superior. No one requires your permission to look at other cultures. And if they seem to us to be primitive, we are allowed to make that judgment. And it would be great to be able to have such free thoughts without dogmatic dimwits like you trying to impose your sullen moral strictures on our inalienable right to think for ourselves. You are not our Thought Police.

Now shut up and grow up. said...

But where are their lovely camouflage hats, Rob?

Rob Howard said...

>>>But where are their lovely camouflage hats, Rob?<<<

The mud covered young UDTs must leave their headresses with the tribal elders as they wash themselves in the sacred chilling waters to purify their spirits.

Les said...

To change the topic a bit, you seem to be an incredibly angry person. Was there some recent experience that made you that way?

So you also are part of the coordinated push to change the New Realism movement into modernism and multi-culturalism?

What does primitive blacks painting their bodies have to do with illustrating flesh? If they paint their bodies, you're not seeing their flesh--you're seeing the paint that covers their flesh. Gotta hand it to you Apatoff--that's crypto multi-culturalism at its best! Bravo!

You might as well post about people wearing clothes.

I don't think that there is anything wrong with being angry at politically correct doofuses who have been brainwashed into thinking that every other culture is equivalent to (or better than) their own. These people live in shacks too. Next you'll be comparing the "aesthetics" of an African shack to the modern suburban house. But which would you rather live in? We all know the answer.

"Gosh, you're angry, what's your problem?"--sometimes its good to be angry, and there's something wrong with those who aren't angry. Comparing primitive African pagan ritual nonsense to western realistic art is a joke. And anybody who won't admit to that is either a liar or dope. Take your pick.

I look forward to more of your crypto-modernism and multi-culturalism. The coordinated push is on! Give Fred Ross at ARC a big hug for doing his part in this regard as well. The New Realism is now officially in the bag!

Anonymous said...

@Sick of Boring Moralists
>>>Nor does one need to twirl that association out to equate anybody who looks at africans painted with mud as some kind of fascist, a.k.a. a nazi imperialist, white suprematist, or some such nonsense.<<
You forgot white fascistic paedo-bear...
This kind of pictures have always been part of the big occidental wet dream...
Btw, you've learned an impressive lot of complicated words! Well, almost... It's supremacist, c not t!

David Apatoff said...

"sometimes its good to be angry, and there's something wrong with those who aren't angry."

Can I respectfully suggest to Les and to others who seem particularly wrathful this week that the problem with being angry is that it tends to make you incoherent?

Les, I honestly don't know what "crypto-modernism" is, and I can't tell whether I'm accused of supporting western realism by hugging Fred Ross or dissing western realism by lumping it together with "primitive" art from inferior cultures.

As for some of the other commenters, I am mystified by what any of this has to do with Nazis or how it qualifies as "kitsch."

I would remind my esteemed readers that I am just a simple guy who likes nice images. I will only disappoint those who are spoiling for a good political fight.

trudi true said...

I like the the phrase "big occidental wet dream"
After all this guy doesn't seem so completely wrong...
Does he, David?

Occidental Lobe said...

Anonymous, since I spelled "dogmatic dimwit" and "shut up and grow up" correctly, I assume you understood the general tenor of my message.

Btw, your "Dictionary Skills" merit badge is in the mail. I hope you will wear it to the next meeting of the Childish Robots of America Club. (Have your mom drive you.)

Anonymous said...

yeah,and you feel free to go on call others "primitive"
(>>>And if they seem to us to be primitive, we are allowed to make that judgment<<<)
just don't ever, EVER make the big mistake to begin thinking, promise?

Anonymous is a Great Thinker said...

As David Stove said, "putting a bone in your nose is not the same as putting a man on the moon."

Nonjudgementalism is primitive. Judgementalism leads to scientific rationality, which leads to medicine and computers, clean water, stocked shelves at the grocery store, and stable societies. Maybe you should live outside western civilization for a while, smart guy. Then you won't be such a spoiled know-it-all putz.

Rob Howard said...

Yikes! In the words of Samuel F.B.Morse..."what hath God wrought?

I love the ever-popular use of of the words "Nazi" and "Hitler" to apply the verbal vacuum pump and suck all the reason out of any conversation. "PC" is also another term guaranteed to bring conversation to the level of a grunt.

I think that we should create a little online dictionary of cliche words and phrases guaranteed to bring the liveliest conversation to a screeching halt.

Fortunately, we were able to have a healthy dose of Kev's wit before we began salting the fields. Oh well, perhaps the next topic will start slow enough to allow a few useful or witty pearls before the porcine onslaught.

On another note, David, I'd like to recommend you look at the work of the inventive illustrator, Jerry Pinkney. Aside from being a former partner and my oldest friend, Jerry's work is inspirational in that he's still using simple, traditional methods...pencil and watercolor.

I know enough to not expect you will devote any time to Antonio, and exceptional draughtsman and one of the most influential illustrators of the 60's and 70's. Oh yeah, and how about Heinz about originality and energy!

David Apatoff said...

Rob, I always thought of Edelman as "that Yellow Submarine guy" (which is a compliment) but if you say there is something else there, I will check it out. As for "Antonio," do you mean the fashion illustrator? (One of the dangers of artists going by a single name is that unless they adopt a name like "Sting," it can make identification difficult.) Help me with his draughtsmanship. Pinkney I already know and like.

Rob Howard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rob Howard said...

Edelmann is far more than that Yellow Submarine guy. He was huge and many people were of the opinion that Push Pin Studios were heavily influenced by his work. It was in almost every issue of Gebrauschgrafik during the late 60's. Edelmann was capable of almost any graphic approach.

Unfortunately there is very little of his entire oeuvre available online. The great pre-Yellow Submarine stuff is virtually unknown to the general public (then again, so is correct sentence structure unknown to them).

I seem to recall that he hates anything to do with Yellow Submarine. If I had his talent, I can't say that I'd blame him.

Antonio was almost a natural force...a hyper-talented kid from Spanish Harlem who went to SVA for a minute and a half until he was discovered by "W" the fashion magazine. He was another one capable of hitting any approach. He did a fashion series as though Duchamp (when he was painting), DiChirico and Braque had done it. Amazing in his understanding of their manner and being able to apply it to commerce.

For a real eye-opener, get the book, Antonio's People. I know that one is supposed to look down their nose at people who work in fashion as being lightweight and ephemeral, but let's not forget that René Boucher was also a fashion illustrator, and that dude could can Antonio.

kev ferrara said...

I think the Omo self decor is beautiful and heartfelt... Such a very human thing to do. Although I do agree that the decoration of skin is a fundamentally different trip than the portrayal of skin in art. Or I should say, the use of the portrayal of skin to express otherwise ineffable notions. Then again, equating one's self with nature is also an otherwise ineffable notion. (Clearly the Omo aren't simply camouflaging themselves.) I guess the difference is whether one shares their aesthetic thoughts on store-bought canvas or whether the canvas is you.

It is interesting to wonder how much of human culture is "picked up off the ground" in the manner of the Omo (Leopard Spots and Flower faces, etc). When you see the particular graphic character of nature in Japan, it seems almost like Japanese graphics were an inevitability. (Geography as cultural destiny anyone?)

But then again, why wasn't tomato sauce invented by the Aztecs? Were they just one lucky culinary experiment away from Pizza?

Similarly, could the Omo develop the plaid pattern? Or can that particular stripe of fabrication only develop in a society that has already produced the straight edge?

But a society only produces straight edges if they mass produce flat blank surfaces, and require engineering diagrams of one kind or another.

The extent of a culture's imagination does seem to hinge on how much cultural experimentation has already been logged in the record books for handy reference... i.e. what's on the grocery store shelves and what's Betty Crocker say to do with it, what's at the art supply store... what's at the hardware store... what can I do with photoshop... etc.

But our log books are so filled up with precedent, the only way to impress anymore is to be the next toehold in the endless climb up Mount Baroque (The SFX of Transformers 2, say). Which, I suppose, is why reactionary "naive" art movements keep getting traction.

David Apatoff said...

Kev, I agree that a painting on skin is different than a painting of skin. A few days ago I wrote "I accept that there is a difference; I'm just not sure what that difference is." Since then, I've had an opportunity to reflect further while waiting for the discussion to swing back to something I was interested in. (Thank you for helping it to get there.)

If Picasso had painted skin with brightly colored stripes on a canvas (as he has) we would accept it as an abstraction of skin because we view it through the apropriate mental framework. I'm not sure any of us knows what mental framework to apply to the Omo, but obviously they don't have canvas or paper on which to paint their bright stripes. Their choices are to paint on a tree or paint on their skin. If painting on their skin was solely for purposes of covering it up (the way natives might use a mask or a cloak) I agree that the Omo paintings would be "fundamentally different" from a painting of skin. But that's not the way I perceive these paintings. The Omo will paint one breast and leave the other unpainted, or they will paint concentric circles around a nipple but leave the nipple unpainted; they will paint a line connecting the face painting with the breast painting, or blurring the dividing line between skin and flower. They seem to be changing skin, enhancing it in accordance with their own sense of design, improving nature.

Is that what they are doing? Beats me. But at a minimum there is far more interplay with the color, shape and texture of the skin than in those western paintings where the artist applies paint to a model and then has him or her roll around on a canvas. (Do those works count as a painting of skin or a painting by skin?)

Finally, I will readily confess that there is always a little elasticity in my intellectual categories if it creates an opportunity to show or talk about truly extraordinary art, which is how I view the Omo work. I am particularly struck by how they play off the symmetry of the body to create the most asymmetrical, counter-intuitive work. There are radical redesigns at work here, a vision that doesn't just uniformly decorate the existing limbs, but goes all the way back to the roots and thinks afresh without regard to how many breasts we have or how our eyes are spaced on either side of our noses. I find this highly innovative work. I like the jauntiness of the angle at which leaves are draped. I like the use of color. To me, this is first class abstract painting.

kev ferrara said...

Yes, but can't the same be said for Yves Saint Laurent's (and quite a few other fashion designer's) work? And I don't think you are arguing that Wyeth and Silverman were fashion designers. There is some distinction to be painted here.

Anonymous said...

I like the textural element in that first Wyeth, that and the light coming from the top right make it an interesting painting, even if it is just a single figure nude.

Artman2112 said...

your comments about Olivia and Vargas are absurd and show a serious lack of understanding about, and respect for, their creations.

David Apatoff said...

Artman, it is true that I have a serious lack of respect for the work of Vargas and Olivia. Whether that is the result of a serious lack of understanding remains to be seen.

I can tell you that I have taken a serious look at the work of both of them over the years (Vargas going back to his first work in Esquire magazine), so I am not dissing them lightly. I would say they both have great technical facility-- they do highly polished work-- but to my taste, they are not genuine artists because they have no real sense of design or composition, no real talent for color, no noticeable creativity in their approach, no worthwhile opinions. They seem to have a repetitive formula they follow, a formula which to me seems quite boring and insubstantial. Do you see any growth in their work? Do you see any depth or nuance? There are other cheesecake artists (mentioned above) who could at least capture a twinkle in the eye, or a glow to the skin.

I'm sorry, but for all these reasons I just don't find much of interest to a genuine artist there. As was discussed above: kicks, not aesthetic pleasure. I think this is the kind of work that the detractors of illustration point to when they want to demean the whole field.

But one of the main goals of this forum is for you (or others out there) to tell me what I am missing.

Rob Howard said...

David and Kev, in reading your discussions of the Omo decorating themselves, I was aware of both of you bringing a great deal of back story to the subject. I have found that approach to be in conflict with understanding art and artistry. The back story is always literal (or literary). That means we impose the criteria and standards of words (written and spoken) on a purely visual experience.

For the person producing a visual artwork, this is an impediment to seeing. I have found that riding two horses at once is difficult if not impossible. Thus, bringing any literal observations to something purely visual can get in the way of understanding some of the more sophisticated visual pieces (not the Omo). This could account for the instant wall of resistance we see when so many literal-minded people try to reconcile a Pollock, a Rothko or a Warhol with the written descriptions of what art should be. It becomes like that gag where one person tells a joke in English which is then translated into French and then into German and then back to English...the essence is always lost in the translation. The same happens when one visual communication is translated into words and then applied to another visual piece. It's very limiting or it leads to hyperbole.

Artman2112 said...

David, i have to say you are correct about Vargas, once he hit a 'look' that worked he stuck with it for pretty much the rest of his life. The same can be said for Waterhouse, Rockwell and Frazetta and a zillion others so i am not saying it is a bad thing, just that i agree with you on that particular point.
i cant possibly see how you can say that about Olivia's work though. her stuff has evolved quite a bit since her early days, getting looser, more experimental with color, mediums, models, even the support she paints on. so to answer your questions yes i do see growth and nuance and exceptional use of color in her work, but most of all, imagination. personally, i wasnt impressed by any of the examples you posted so obviously we look at this stuff with different eyes ;)

Anonymous said...

Has anyone ever asked the Omo what they mean to convey by their painting? Do they consider it 'art' or does their culture blend art and life together in a way that our primitive understanding cannot comprehend? The photographs themselves are an artistic representation of skin, albeit adorned in a rather wonderful way. My difficulty is in trying to compare them to Vargas and Wyeth. I would like to take this article to the Omo and ask them which of your ilustrated artists they prefer. In my experience 'primitive' people often live lives requiring a high degree of creative intelligence. Even though they do not explore outer space, they cannot simply put the dinner in the microwave.

Multi Culti Dolt said...

"Do they consider it 'art' or does their culture blend art and life together in a way that our primitive understanding cannot comprehend?"

Do you mean like how everything that surrounds us (in our primitive western understanding) has been designed and decorated seven ways to sunday and chosen for that reason? Like your phone, your computer, your car, your haircut, your clothing, your home architecture, your chair, your lawn, your headphones, your musical instrument, your silverware, your wallpaper, etc. etc. etc.

In your indoctrination into multiculturally correct dogma, (calling us primitive is hilarious) your have lost the ability to judge your own culture squarely. When you grow up, you may abandon such Collegiate Claptrap and (maybe, just maybe) APPRECIATE the stunning luxury of your life (a.k.a. Western Civilization, or that which brings you ready-to-eat food so you may spend the bulk of your time sitting and reading PC dogma on the internet.)

Kagan M. said...

Yeah, Rob, Antonio's great! A lot of Antonio's People is really dated but there are some great, strong drawings in there. I've never heard of fashion illustrators being looked down upon, is that or was that true?

Anonymous said...

Dolt, 'a slow witted or stupid person'. Multi cult, perhaps, but sadly lacking an understanding of irony. That's what I call primitive.

Rob Howard said...

>>>I've never heard of fashion illustrators being looked down upon, is that or was that true?<<<

Absolutely. There is always a subject-based hierarchy that exists in art. A lacklustre portrait portfolio of celebrities is better regarded than a superior portfolio of nobodies. A beautifully painted advertising illustration does not have nearly the worth of a less well-painted piece of art in a gallery.

Fashion art is not highly regarded because fashion is mercurial and changes rapidly, demanding that everything about it be discarded to make room for the latest fad. Thus, you mention that Antonio's drawings are dated. What about Rubens' drawings?...those people are so far out of fashion as to be not worth considering. Yet we appreciate them as art separate from the original intent. Could we do the same with beautiful drawings done for fashion? Absolutely not. They are part of the package that must be disposed of before the new fashion can take hold.

Nope -- fashion art is not treated as art anymore than a magnificently painted picture of baked beans will ever impress the subject-centric public. In most eyes, the subject is king and the artistry goes largely unnoticed. Even though Antonio could outdraw most of today's acclaimed realist masters, he'll never be viewed for his artistry...only his place in rapidly moving history. Don't like that era...well discount him as an artist.

The reality is that very little of our appreciation of art is based on the visual presentation. Most of it is connected with the back-story that we bring to it. The average viewer arrives before a picture carrying a bookshelf full of preconceived notions. The Omo are exotic, thus they are noteworthy. Does anyone make much over the painted faces of the various American Indians depicted by George Catlin? Naah! How about the facial decoration of the Willigaman-Wallalua in Borneo? No way Hose-A! Africans are currently high on our "special people" list so, like the big guy at the door of the latest chic club, we wave them through. They have a special dispensation. Then they'll go out of fashion and we'll discover some other exotic people worthy of our short attention spans.

Matthew Adams said...

>>>The reality is that very little of our appreciation of art is based on the visual presentation. Most of it is connected with the back-story that we bring to it. The average viewer arrives before a picture carrying a bookshelf full of preconceived notions.<<<

That explains your problem with backstory quite well Rob, something I was struggling to understand seeing as illustrators will always deal with literal / literary subjects. And I would have to say I agree.

>>>The Omo are exotic, thus they are noteworthy. Does anyone make much over the painted faces of the various American Indians depicted by George Catlin? Naah! How about the facial decoration of the Willigaman-Wallalua in Borneo? No way Hose-A! Africans are currently high on our "special people" list so, like the big guy at the door of the latest chic club, we wave them through.<<<

That I don't understand... I looked at the slideshow (and not only were the quotes annoying, but the music was bloody awful also), and actually found the body painting of the omo's interesting for all the reasons David mentioned (which didn't strike me as fashion of the moment driven, but reasoned). In Australia we see a lot of a pictures of Aboriginies in body paint, and as interesting as I find them there is something incredibly different about the Omo people and their approach to body paint.

To all the anon out there: go sit in the corner while the Adults, and those who wish to learn, discuss things.

David Apatoff said...

Artman, based on your comments about the late work of Olivia, I will go back to take another look at her most recent images. I mentally checked her off the list when she was doing all those wildly successful calendars and greeting cards and posterbooks of tarted-up women, pandering to boys with fantasies about spiked heels and corsets and garter belts. She had wonderful technical facility when it came to painting individual strands of Bettie Page's shiny hair, or painting mesh stockings, and the skin she airbrushed was always smooth as glass. But despite those technical skills, I found her pictures uninformative and unimaginative. I saw the work she did for Playboy in its decline, and all those black background paintings and her images just didn't have what I look for in an artist. But if you tell me she is getting "looser, more experimental with color, mediums, models, even the support she paints on," then it's time for another look.

tania said...

So much talk about savages - and such an ostentatiously disinterested David :-(
It's funny, compared to some of your recent commenters even your friend Mr Howard suddenly looks reasonably sane... (which of course is an optical illusion :-)
As for me, I really love what the Omo do (no surprise, is it?) How beautiful they are! What an intelligent, inspired variation of a (very) common primitive behaviour:
And far and wide no standards which to apply would make any sense. An unknown wilderness light years away from Scylla and Charybdis... Nice!
Your savage Tania

tania said...

Sorry, link doesn't work, here is the right one:

tania said...

Next try:
if it doesnt work again, you just type .jpg after the number

David Apatoff said...

Savage Tania, apparently they don't have such things as internet links on your wild and savage shores. But that's OK, I enjoyed the jpg anyway. I agree with your reaction to the Omo, which should be enough to make you change your opinion.

Artman2112 said...

David i did a post of Olivia's work on my blog a while back focusing on her work with my fave of her models, Bella Schol. Several of those loose gouche paintings are shown.

weather you find them any more to your liking then her earlier playboy work is anyone's guess but i think you'll have to agree they show a different approach and a branching out in color and tehnique. In her last book she said she was working on rougher surfaces, trying to seek more passion in her paintings and less obsessing over details.

btw i was lucky enough to see an exhibit of her stuff many years ago, just about the time she started painting Julie Strain. i walked in to a room and there was this huge painting i never saw called "Banshee", stll her best painting of Julie imo.

"pandering to boys with fantasies about spiked heels and corsets and garter belts."

since when are those kind of fantasies just for boys?!?!?!?

Rob Howard said...

>>>Has anyone ever asked the Omo what they mean to convey by their painting?<<<

Funny that you should as that. Just two weeks ago, our local community outreach agency had a used food collection for the Omo. Several showed up but I must confess that we were somewhat disappointed because rather than being daubed with mud, they chose to wear baggy pants and legible T-shirts with some helluva cute sayings on them. The Omo also opted to drive large SUVs with spinner hubcaps, playing their native music very loud on megawatt amplifiers.

The Omo in this country may have lost some of the charm we see in those heart-grabbing photos but still, their desire to beautify themselves seems to be inate because as they smiled they displayed cleverly wrought metal-work (what they described in Omonese as) "grilles" and had woven their hair into elaborate arabesques to honor the corn harvest. Rather than the impermanence of mud, they has adorned thier bodies with, what in Omo are called "tats."

It's amazing how few people recognize the Omo influence here in this country along with the powerful Ndebele design influence on their cars. Yes, Africa is mother to us all.

tania said...

>>apparently they don't have such things as internet links on your wild and savage shores<<
Come on, David, we all know that your elitist blog simply doesn't allow links to anything that isn't art :-)

Rob Howard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rob Howard said...

>>>Mr Howard suddenly looks reasonably sane... (which of course is an optical illusion :-)

Ah clever you, you saw through my ruse. What some detractors say is true in that I combine the qualities of Beelezebub, Hitler and the massed Manson Family Choir except that I'm just a bit more clever and a hell of a lot better armed.

Still, I manage to dangle my art knowledge, my books and articles out there like bait and attract people who, while more talented than you, are not as resistant as you are to my blandishments. I think that your lack of artistic insights is a fair tradeoff for being proof to my nefarious schemes.

Clever you!

Kagan M. said...

Thanks Rob. I think a dated illustration style can still be appreciated, or a strong drawing of bell bottoms and butterfly collars is still a strong drawing. Is it appreciated by the masses? Nah. But that's why I come here, to see stuff that's just plain good, regardless of when it was done or what for.
So fashion art may need to turn over new leaves more often than other areas of illustration, but surely that's no reason to think any less of the craft...

David Apatoff said...

Artman, I checked out your blog (which I enjoyed very much) and the Olivia paintings you mentioned, which I agree show movement in what I would consider to be the right direction, although others might disagree. My personal view is that she showed more progress than I expected, but much of her recent work still superimposes a tightly rendered woman on top of a wild and free background. I think her best work on your blog is where she merges the two styles a little better.

When it comes to painting attractive women, I don't think that either Olivia or Vargas can come close to artists such as Bowler, Parker, Whitmore or de Mers. Admittedly these last artists are not cheesecake artists, but some things (such as faces, hair, hands, legs) can be fairly compared, and I think that comparison shows there are miles between their respective talents.

Rob Howard said...

>>>artists such as Bowler, Parker, Whitmore or de Mers.<<<

A lot has to do with how you perceive women. With current fashions tarting up women as sexual objects dripping with lip gloss and WonderBras, Olivia may have a handle on that division of the old Madonna/Whore conundrum.

Those artists you mentioned produce wholesome women who are attractive and sexy but don't look as though you'd need a shot of penecillin after spending time with them.

This gets into matters of taste and intent. You can imagine what sort of man would have his wife's portrait done by Olivia. You can also reason the attitude another man would have in commissioning Bowler to paint his wife. Now that I find myself in the portraitist's arena my natural deference to women shows in how I portray them I most certainly would never reduce one of my sitters to a Betty Page or a CNN weather girl.

Isabelinho said...

I don't find the couple of Picasso quotes annoying. What I find offensive (more than annoying) is how these quotes were used to equate childness and "primitiveness." This was a typical colonial ands racist idea. If they are like children the colonial powers could rob them because they didn't even know what they possessed. It's also a disrespect for these peoples' culture.

PC Word Policeman #2,341,572 said...

I guess we should shred all the dictionaries because there is no such thing as "primitive." "Barbarism" is also a bad word, I bet. "Civilization" couldn't be anything but a racist construction, same with "society" and "modernity".

Such words offend all the delicate souls who have been programmed with "college smarts".

Of course, while they would never never ever judge any "don't you call them primitive" cultures with words, in the more important judgment, deeds, it is very easy to see they aren't rushing to go live with the Omo, the Maori, the Nuba, or any other "don't you call them primitive" tribes. Instead the mousy moralists sit surrounded in the comforts they can't bear to say they appreciate.

Must... Stay... A... Radical... Even... In.... My... Comfy... Chair...

Is there anything more lame than verbal-only moralists and their attempts to control words. You're offended? Who cares. You're a robot that has been programmed to be "offended."

David Apatoff said...

Rob, I agree that the Olivia/Vargas images are based on a different perception of women than the Whitmore/de Mers images (although it is of course quite possible for all of us-- women and men-- to assume very different roles at different times of day. Lots of middle aged housewives shop at Frederick's of Hollywood). From an artistic perspective, what I have suggested may be one of those infamous apples-and-oranges comparisons. However, I maintain that if you look at their respective treatments of skin (the original subject of the post), Whitmore and de Mers have far more insight and sensitivity and are far better artists. The same goes for their treatment of hair, eyes, etc.

Isabelinho, I think the creator of the slide show thought that if he or she slapped Picasso's name on the pictures, it would cause viewers to think about the images as something more than a National Geographic travelogue. Like you, I think it was a mistake.

Les said...

Isabelihno, Savage Tania, Rob Howard, and David Apatoff:

I fully support you're claims that the Omo are entitled to cultural respect.

But how about these people and their religion? They paint their faces too. I expect the same respect for these body painters as the Omo. If not, why?

Take that, all you racists! High culture is everywhere! The Omo have a culture no worse than ours! This proves it!

Artman2112 said...

glad you enjoyed the blog David! i can not dispute your observation that Olivia paints tightly rendered women. she is after all, using a lucinda and photos, not drawing her figures freehand anymore. this is one of the thorns in my side about her work but i enjoy it regardless (to the best of my knowledge, Parrish and Rockwell also 'traced' so she's in good company). as for great painters of women i'll take a frank frazetta over any of them, so it's most defintely a matter of opinion, and personal taste.

"You can imagine what sort of man would have his wife's portrait done by Olivia."

Bob, if i had a wife that i found sexually attractive (and i wouldnt want any other kind) AND i had the money to do so, i think having Olivia paint her portrait would be totally awesome, so please i'd love to hear, what type of man does that make me??

Matthew Adams said...

lol, it must be feeding time at the zoo, all the hipanonymous' are rampaging.

so please i'd love to hear, what type of man does that make me?? said...

A pig? ;) Then the question you'd have to ask, "What kind of woman would that make her?"

Rob Howard said...

>>>A pig? ;) Then the question you'd have to ask, "What kind of woman would that make her?"<<

A sow?

Rob Howard said...

>>>she is after all, using a lucinda and photos, not drawing her figures freehand anymore. this is one of the thorns in my side about her work but i enjoy it regardless<<<

why is that a thorn in your side. Is it a moral thing? Would she be more of an artist if she ground her own paint? How about trapped the fur for her brushes? Why is a lucinda (sic) a bad thing? I agree that in most hands it's a crutch and if you give a man a crutch he'll learn how to limp, but the people in the studio cannot tell the difference between what I draw from a photo, a model or my imagination. On occasions I use a camera lucida (the prism type), also a projector (opaque) and a lucigraph (transmittal). I devoted a section of one of my books to using those devices, saying the better you can draw, the better you can trace.

Someone who can't draw well does not improve by using a luci. They just lean a bit more confidently. But the whole dodge about using a luci or photos is just a form of snobbery, until you realize that you can't work without copy a model. Then the guys like me who can draw from memory can look down our noses, just as the masters of the day looked down on Caravaggio becaise he couldn't paint without a model...and a convex mirror, I might add.

Artman2112 said...

well Rob, you talked a lot but didnt actually answer my question. if anyone can be accused of snobbery i would say it would have to be you. that and bad manners.

good luck with your Blog David.

Rob Howard said...

>>>you talked a lot but didnt actually answer my question. if anyone can be accused of snobbery i would say it would have to be you. that and bad manners. <<<

I believe that someone else answered that question. The answer was...a pig.

Ah, modern manners. I am endlessly amused at people who routinely say..."eeeewww, that rude," never noticing their own poorly turned out manners and (worst of all) lack of wit. Ah the predictability of those responses!

Doubtless, what you consider to be good manners resembles the deference you receive from a waiter..."how's everything"..."would you like some fresh ground pepper with that?" In other words, franchise manners.

How you would have dealt with an impeccably mannered Oscar Wilde or J.A.M.Whistler would have been to call them rude, ill-mannered and boisterous.

What was it that old Greek geek said about the unexamined life? Something you'd think was ill-mannered, no doubt.

Kal said...

I'm surprised you didn't talk about Lucian Freud. If there's one artist who managed to capture the reality of skin and flesh with paint, it's certainly him.

Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida had an incredible way of painting sun lit skin. From small children playing in the water or old fishermen pulling back their nets, he had an amazing range of color and texture.

Also worth mentionning would be Jenny Saville, who is a formidable skin painter.

Johnathan Barner said...

jamie williams is an illustrator that takes the flesh concept in a different direction,

the omo presentations are remarkable, have to agree with kim

Thomas Fluharty said...

Thanks David for posting this. It amazes me how proud people are that they cant see the beauty and art of this post. I would challenge the dissenters to try this themselves and try to out design the Omo people. I doubt it could be done ~T

Doug said...

The main problem with Vargas and Olivia,from what I have seen, is their poverty of ambition.Is a woman only sexy when she's got her tits out? I think not.Creating erotic as opposed to anatomic images takes a little more thought and subtlety, and this is where those 'proper' illustrators win out every time.
PS. I for one don't like Lucien Freud because I think he deals in a kind of unflinching ugliness that lazy critics call 'reality'.Really, why do non-artists get to be critics, very few talk sense or see with an artist's eye?