Details, details, details

There are a lot of people in the world who enjoy big picture thinking: the grand ideas and actions that will impress others while changing the world as we know it. And that’s great as a motivational tool to educate, earn money, or strengthen the social bonds between people. But what about the actual plan to make that happen? How will it get done? By working out the details, of course.

Now, details are not as complicated as their reputation would have you believe. In fact, there are only two kinds of details in the world: the ones you see, and the ones you don’t. The former often impress viewers with their exactitude, intricacy, material, subject, or location within a larger whole. The latter are difficult to pin down, often portraying things that are overly familiar, giving the viewer a false sense of knowledge and as a result, not taking the time to examine carefully. Both kinds can be obvious or subtle, depending on circumstances, but always rewarding when discovered by the discerning eye.

One object that practically defines the concept of details is lace. From its origins as handcrafted needlework or created with bobbins, the 19th – 20th process of chemical lace made by machinery, and 21st century laser-cut and 3-D printed formats, this textile has been used as accessory, decorative detail, or as a stand-alone fabric, coveted by royals and commoners alike. The Bard Graduate Center currently has a wonderful show on the subject, ‘Threads of Power: Lace from the Textilmuseum St. Gallen’ with over 200 examples from 500 years of creation. The intricate designs may be anything from geometric formations to scenes from Bible stories, the materials range from natural fibers to modern polymers, and the results are hundreds of precise details coalescing into stupendous constructions. Click on our ‘Gallery Shows’ section to learn more.

Another show that examines details from a different perspective is our latest entry in the ‘Opening This Week’ section. ‘Alex Katz: Gathering’ at the Guggenheim Museum, is a fascinating retrospective of the figurative painter whose work over the years has gradually removed the inessentials from his compositions to create works where the subtle detail of color, light, and shadow is more important than the subjects themselves. Only an artist well versed in art history and technique could pull off the incredibly complicated and difficult task of making detail the focus of a painting while letting the viewer discover it for themselves – but only if they take the time to do so. His most recent works, based on nature studies, are a prime example, enlarging the shapes of leaves and grasses to the point where shapes could almost be abstract, while also staying grounded in a recognizable physical world where time of day and atmospheric conditions determine what colors may look like, details that provide subtle clues of context for the image. This constant back and forth between Katz and the viewer is the central force behind all his work, giving his art a unique dynamism that can only be experienced in person.


Cutting Through the Visual Noise

Here in New York City we have a tremendous amount of noise – most of it aural, but some is visual. Blinking screens on every commercial street and in the subway stations, messages scrolling across signs on food carts or in store windows, even in elevators there are little screens showing everything from the weather forecast to sports scores, not to mention what floor you’re passing by. It’s a hell of a lot to take in, so most of us don’t, having trained ourselves not to look unless an image is really striking.

There are some artists who would regard that willful blindness as a challenge to their creativity, knowing that if they could make you look (and think), they will have won the greatest prize ever: your attention on their work. This is the goal of everyone in the visual arts, no matter the discipline or medium, but it’s especially true of people who make posters. They are preternaturally aware of the need to be brief and memorable, whether the message is buy, sell, or challenge the status quo of practically anything.

In Poster House’s latest exhibits, we see how artists work through various methods to confront, subvert, or redefine an existing image/statement for an audience that needs shaking up. ‘Masked Vigilantes on Silent Motorbikes’ (September 9, 2022 – February 12, 2023), displays posters that are torn, redefined with superimposed imagery and language, reassembled, painted over, fragmented, blurred, and altered in ways that change both the original intention of the advertisement as well as the viewer’s perception of it. The result is not just street art but a refined and thoughtful set of responses to consumerism, marketing, and societal changes (or lack thereof).

In ‘Air-India’s Maharaja: Advertising Gone Rogue’, the airline’s advertising team takes a different approach, using the Maharaja mascot to interact with symbols of nations, cities, and even social mores of the time. Witty appropriations of artistic styles and imagery enhanced the character’s cosmopolitan image while also acknowledging cultural touchstones in each travel market. His lighthearted approach to travel and life made him a popular figure around the world, representing a new view of India, not stuck in the past but ready to embrace the modern era on its own terms. It’s soft diplomacy as practiced by commercial interests, while difficult to achieve, so memorable when it works.

Taking a (Good) Photograph Is Harder Than You Think

Photography is one of the arts that everyone thinks they do well. Look at this picture, they say: isn’t that a great expression, fantastic sunset, beautiful moment? Well, if we’re being polite, yes, it is. But it isn’t often memorable, and it rarely qualifies as good, in an aesthetic/art criticism criteria sense. We’re not going to get too deep into what those guidelines are, but we suggest that if you imagined seeing those photos in an exhibition space with no distractions, no friend hovering over you, eager for praise, you’d rapidly conclude that the images on view were pretty but not impressive.

But this attitude goes some way to describe the difficulties in being a professional photographer. The hours they spend in studying composition and pattern within a three dimensional space, working out camera angles, shutter speed, printing techniques, and so on are as much as any artist in other disciplines, although without that certain mystique of those specialties. However, a professional photographer rarely gets credit for this labor; instead receiving praise for their timing, attention to detail, and perhaps most irritatingly, their luck in getting the shot. Preparation and practice have their place too, and nowhere is this more applicable than in street photography. Whether walking or staying in one location, the photographer must be prepared for everything and nothing, watching both people and their environment to capture that instant when everything fits perfectly, to recognize when a moment turns into The Moment. And one of the finest practitioners of that elusive skill is Shawn Walker, whose early career photographs are on view now at Bruce Silverstein Gallery. Walker’s photographic training and education was helped immeasurably by his membership in the Kamoinge Workshop, a Black photographers’ collective that met weekly for advice and critiques, and it’s influence can be seen in these images, with their blend of individual portraits set in the context of their daily lives and era. While these prints are essentially a time capsule of the 1960s and 70s the expressive qualities of his subjects are universal, no matter the date.