Category: General

Irving Norman Exhibit in New York

On October 30th, 2008, the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York City opened the exhibition, Irving Norman, a major display of the artist’s paintings, drawings, and prints. For those who possess an appetite for art with deep humanistic meaning - this is definitely an exhibit not to be missed.

Oil painting by Irving Norman

[ Persecution - Irving Norman. 1950. Oil on canvas. Norman’s work offered unflinching examinations of the human condition, often portraying humanity at odds with authoritarian forces. The artist became the target of unrelenting and brazen government spying. ]

In early 2007 I published an enthusiastic article on this web log titled, The Social Surrealism of Irving Norman, written after viewing the retrospective of his work presented by the Pasadena Museum of California Art. My piece also marked what would have been the artist’s 100th birthday (1906-1989). I received numerous e-mails from people who discovered the works of Norman through my article, so I am thrilled to announce the exhibit of his works at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.

Established in 1989 and now the exclusive representative of the Irving Norman estate, the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery specializes in twentieth-century American art, from social realism and surrealism to abstract expressionism. Irving Norman runs from October 30th through December 20th, 2008.

The Best Picture in the World

In 1925 the famed English author Aldous Huxley wrote “The Best Picture in the World “, an essay about a fresco mural by one of the great masters of the early Italian Renaissance, Piero della Francesca (1412-1492). Piero’s mural titled The Resurrection, is recognized as one of the finest religious paintings in all of Christendom. With careful examination it becomes clear that the master’s hand was guided by a considerable expertise in geometry - in fact the artist was also a brilliant mathematician. The polemic art critic John Berger, once referred to Piero as “The supreme painter of knowledge”.

The genius of Piero notwithstanding, it is Huxley’s belief in an artistic criterion that I wish to concentrate on. In spite of everything his keen observation continues to reverberate in today’s art world - dominated as it is with money and postmodern mediocrities. Here in part is what Huxley noted in his essay:

“The greatest picture in the world…. you smile. The expression is ludicrous, of course. Nothing is more futile than the occupation of those connoisseurs who spend their time compiling first and second elevens of the world’s best painters, eights and fours of musicians, fifteens of poets, all-star troupes of architects and so on. Nothing is so futile because there are a great many kinds of merit and an infinite variety of human beings. Is Fra Angelico a better artist than Rubens? Such questions, you insist, are meaningless. It is all a matter of personal taste. And up to a point this is true. But there does exist, none the less, an absolute standard of artistic merit. And it is a standard which is in the last resort a moral one.

Whether a work of art is good or bad depends entirely on the quality of the character which expresses itself in the work. Not that all virtuous men are good artists, nor all artists conventionally virtuous. Longfellow was a bad poet, while Beethoven’s dealings with his publishers were frankly dishonorable. But one can be dishonorable towards one’s publishers and yet preserve the kind of virtue that is necessary to a good artist. That virtue is the virtue of integrity, of honesty towards oneself.

Bad art is of two sorts: that which is merely dull, stupid and incompetent, the negatively bad; and the positively bad, which is a lie and a sham. Very often the lie is so well told that almost every one is taken in by it - for a time. In the end, however, lies are always found out. Fashion changes, the public learns to look with a different focus and, where a little while ago it saw an admirable work which actually moved its emotions, it now sees a sham.

In the history of the arts we find innumerable shams of this kind, once taken as genuine, now seen to be false. The very names of most of them are now forgotten. Still, a dim rumor that Ossian once was read, that Bulwer was thought a great novelist and ‘Festus’ Bailey a mighty poet still faintly reverberates. Their counterparts are busily earning praise and money at the present day. I often wonder if I am one of them. It is impossible to know. For one can be an artistic swindler without meaning to cheat and in the teeth of the most ardent desire to be honest.”

Masked: A Work in Progress

Painting by Mark Vallen

[ Untitled work in progress - Mark Vallen. Oil on linen, mounted on masonite. 2008. ]

This painting is part of an ongoing series I am working on that depicts people involved in street demonstrations. I hope to exhibit all of the completed paintings in the near future.

Art and China’s Revolution

Art and China’s Revolution is the latest exhibition at the Asia Society Museum in New York City. Running until January 11, 2009, the huge exhibit focuses upon the artworks produced in China during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution period of 1966-1976. The exhibit displays some 250 large-scale oil paintings, sculptures, woodblock prints, ink paintings, drawings, posters, and other art objects - making it the largest and most comprehensive show of its kind. Many of the works put on view have never been seen in the United States. For those unable to visit the museum, the institution’s Art and China’s Revolution website is an eye-popping and informative experience, which can also be supplemented with the show’s excellent catalog book.

An exhibition of this kind is naturally not without its controversies, but the most contentious aspect of the show is the fact that the Chinese government refused to loan artworks from the Cultural Revolution period to the Asia Society Museum. While China’s government attempted to censor the exhibit, works held in university collections and private hands in Hong Kong, Switzerland, and the United States, were loaned to the museum - allowing the show to go forward. Interestingly enough, the Sichaun Art Academy in China, which does not require government permission to loan works, sent part of their famous Rent Collection Courtyard sculptures to the groundbreaking New York exhibition.

The original Rent Collection Courtyard project was created in 1965 by a collective of eighteen teachers and students from the Sichaun Art Academy. The project was comprised of 114 life-sized ceramic sculptures arranged in narrative fashion, depicting the peasant farmers of Sichuan in servitude to the real-life landlord, Liu Wen-tsai. Initially displayed in the actual rent collection courtyard of Liu’s vast Manor-House, the multiple sculptures depicted the brutal poverty and merciless hardships suffered by peasants at the hands of Liu - and how they ultimately rose up against him. During the Cultural Revolution the sculptures toured China, and it is estimated that they were seen by over two million people. The sculptures on loan to the Asia Society from the Sichaun Art Academy are cast in Fiberglass from the originals.

Unlike China’s vibrant communist propaganda posters of the period, the Rent Collection Courtyard sculptures are almost unknown outside of China, so I have decided to publish a few select images of the statues on this web log. Those familiar with the “socialist realism” graphic style of China’s Cultural Revolution posters will immediately see the same aesthetics at work in the sculptures.

Over the decades I have acquired a small collection of posters and periodicals from China’s Cultural Revolution period, with one of my prized books being, Rent Collection Courtyard: Sculptures of Oppression and Revolt, a 1970 English language book published by China’s Foreign Languages Press. The book is heavily illustrated with photographs of the sculptures as they were first displayed at the rent collection courtyard of landlord Liu’s Mansion. The images and captions that appear in this article were taken directly from this rare out-of-print book.

For further reading on the subject of China’s past revolutionary art, pick up a copy of Chinese Posters: Art from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, by Lincoln Cushing and Ann Tompkins. The book concentrates on the poster art created during the Cultural Revolution period, and with more than 150 color reproductions - it is the best compendium on the subject that I have yet seen.

Rent Collection Courtyard

[ Rent Collection Courtyard - Collective work by the teachers and students of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. Ceramic sculpture. 1965. Original caption follows: "This courtyard, built especially for the collection of rent, is surrounded by a hundred-meter long corridor in which stands the clay figures. Hungry peasants had to use the back door to pay rent." ]

Rent Collection Courtyard

[ Rent Collection Courtyard - Collective work by the teachers and students of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. Ceramic sculpture. 1965. Original caption follows: "Under the cold gaze of the landlord’s stooge, the poverty-stricken peasants trudge into the courtyard carrying the grains they have toiled so bitterly for." ]

Rent Collection Courtyard

[ Rent Collection Courtyard - Collective work by the teachers and students of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. Ceramic sculpture. 1965. Original caption follows: "The trick winnower has reduced two full baskets of grain to one. With heavy hearts mother and daughter drag it to be measured." ]

Rent Collection Courtyard

[ Rent Collection Courtyard - Collective work by the teachers and students of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. Ceramic sculpture. 1965. Original caption follows: "Even a tottering, sick man has to drag in his rent on time." ]

Rent Collection Courtyard

[ Rent Collection Courtyard - Collective work by the teachers and students of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. Ceramic sculpture. 1965. Original caption follows: "Liu orders the village chief and a policeman to ransack the homes of peasants and pressgang them if they cannot pay their rent. Another family is broken up as the father is dragged away and the mother is knocked to the ground." ]

Rent Collection Courtyard

[ Rent Collection Courtyard - Collective work by the teachers and students of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. Ceramic sculpture. 1965. Original caption follows: "With their carrying-poles they will smash the system of exploitation to bits." ]

Rent Collection Courtyard

[ Rent Collection Courtyard - Collective work by the teachers and students of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. Ceramic sculpture. 1965. Original caption follows: "A Kuomintang soldier and a secret society henchman lay hands on the old peasant’s son as he rushed up to argue with the landlord Liu." ]

Rent Collection Courtyard

[ Rent Collection Courtyard - Collective work by the teachers and students of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. Ceramic sculpture. 1965. Original caption follows: "'This is good grain!' Cries the old peasant." ]

Rent Collection Courtyard

[ Rent Collection Courtyard - Collective work by the teachers and students of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. Ceramic sculpture. 1965. Original caption follows: "'Class brothers, unite to settle the blood debts with the landlords!" ]

Rent Collection Courtyard

[ Rent Collection Courtyard - Collective work by the teachers and students of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. Ceramic sculpture. 1965. Original caption follows: "Only by thoroughly demolishing the man-eating system can the working people be emancipated." ]

Rent Collection Courtyard

[ Rent Collection Courtyard - Collective work by the teachers and students of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. Ceramic sculpture. 1965. Original caption follows: "Follow forever the Chinese Communist Party and raise high the red flag of revolution." ]

Doug Minkler: A Passion for Prints

His silkscreen prints can not be found in museum collections and his name does not appear in the art press. He is not a household name and his artworks are not sold for exorbitant princes at auction houses - but Doug Minkler is famous nonetheless. You could say Minkler is one of the most famous unknown artists in the San Francisco Bay area of California, where he lives and works. He is famous with his friends and associates, and those with a keen eye for socially conscious art. In a recent article about him that appeared in the Berkeley Daily Planet, he was referred to as “an artist who, print by print, has painstakingly documented every political battle that matters for decades.”

Art by Doug Minkler

[ Chico Mendes - Doug Minkler. Silkscreen. The following caption was written by Minkler. "Chico Mendes (1944-1988) pioneered the creation of rainforest preserves. These preserves are for collecting sustainable forest products such as rubber and Brazil nuts. A father of three, a union organizer, and founder of the Alliance of People of the Forest, he was eventually murdered by the cattle barons and plantation owners who opposed his efforts to hold the land in common." ]

The unique visual language Minkler makes use of in his silkscreen prints is entirely of his own creation - though one might compare his style to that of the Fauvists, Primitivists, and Expressionists. However, what has most influenced Minkler is the tradition of social activism found in printmaking, and his own words make clear his motivations: “Corporations want artists to glorify their wars, their products & their philosophies. I make posters for my own preservation, that is, planetary preservation. My prints are inspired not by rugged individualism, but by the collective humor, defiance, & lust for life exhibited by those on the margins.”

Art by Doug Minkler

[ The Beast - Doug Minkler. Silkscreen (detail). The following caption was written by Minkler. "This poster was designed to begin the dialogue with children about man's destructive tendencies." ]

I first met Minkler at his Berkeley, California, studio in the early 1980s - though his reputation certainly preceded him. Prior to our introduction I was already familiar with Minkler’s darkly humorous and pointedly political posters since his works had some limited circulation in Los Angeles during the Reagan years. Vaguely suggestive of angry punk aesthetics with all of those quirky jagged lines and explosive colors, I was immediately interested in Minkler’s art, and since making his acquaintance all those years ago - we still remain good friends.

Art by Doug Minkler

[ The Victors - Doug Minkler. Silkscreen. The following caption was written by Minkler. "To the victors go the spoils; to the U.S. goes the oil." ]

While in San Francisco to attend the opening of the War & Empire exhibit at the Meridian Gallery, a show that also includes a print by Minkler, I had the opportunity to reunite with my steadfast printmaking friend. Every Saturday from 11 am to 6 pm, he sells his silkscreen prints on Berkeley’s famous Telegraph Avenue, right in front of the now out of business Cody’s Book Store. As I watched Minkler sell his prints on the avenue for $10 and $20 a piece, I contemplated the irony of today’s so-called “street artists” selling their artworks for unheard of prices to celebrity obsessed collectors. Better to commission a poster from Doug Minkler than contribute to that decadence.

“Fundamental” in Brussels, Belgium

Brussels is not only the capital of Belgium and the administrative center of the European Union, it is also the city where the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is based. In addition, Brussels becomes the latest stop for Fundamental, the group exhibition I’m participating in - exploring today’s religious fundamentalist movements. My painting, A People Under Command: USA Today, is included in the exhibit, which has been touring European cities since September, 2007. You can read more about the show, and the meaning behind my painting in my original Aug. 2007 article, The Fundamental Art Exhibit.

Painting by Mark Vallen

[ A People Under Command: USA Today - Mark Vallen. 1985. Acrylic on unstretched canvas. 6 ft x 8 ft. On view starting July 19th, 2008, at the Gallery Gabrichidze in Brussels, Belgium. Click here for a larger image. ]

Organized by that other NATO - the Northern Arts Tactical Offensive of Manchester, England, and funded by the European Cultural Foundation and The Arts Council of England, the exhibit opens July 19th, 2008, for a one month run at the Gallery Gabrichidze. Located at Rue Pletinckx 56, 1000 in the very heart of Brussels, the gallery offers two stories of exhibition and workshop space, defining itself as an “art gallery concerned with current political issues found on the European and international agenda.”

Also included in Fundamental are works by artists Debbie Hill (a photojournalist living in Israel), Frans Smeets (Dutch artist and sculptor), Parastou Forouhar (an Iranian-born artist residing in Germany), Khosrow Hassan (an Iranian artist based in Tehran), Dalila Hamdoun (a French-Algerian artist based in London), Garth Eager (an English multi-media artist based in Manchester), Andrew Stern (a photojournalist based in New York), Andreas Böhmig (German photojournalist), Joel Pelletier (US painter based in Los Angeles), and Johan Oldekop (a UK based photojournalist). Visit the Gallery Gabrichidze at


The A Shenere Velt Gallery of Los Angeles, California has issued a Call for Artists to participate in a juried exhibition entitled, R U Evolved? Artists Reflect on Darwin at 200. Scheduled for January 11 through February 27, 2009, the show will mark Charles Darwin’s 200th Birthday. I’ve been asked to juror the exhibit, along with my distinguished collegues, Paul Von Blum (author and Senior Lecturer, African American Studies, UCLA), and Sheila Pinkel (artist and Associate Professor of Art, Pomona College). The following is an excerpt from the gallery’s Call for Artists:

“February 12, 2009 will mark Charles Darwin’s 200th Birthday. The year 2009 also marks the 150th Anniversary of the publication of his seminal work, On the Origin of Species (1859). Repercussions of Darwin’s life project have yet to subside, as headlines of extremist fundamentalist ideologies fill newspapers every day. Even leading candidates for the United States Presidency have recently claimed not to believe in evolution! Anticipating an outpouring of worldwide Darwin observances, we ask artists to consider the meaning of his life and work, and reveal to us any suitable historical or contemporary insights.

Artists are asked to submit slides or digital images of up to three wall-hung works in any media (except jewelry and ceramics) that speak to the theme of R U Evolved? Artists Reflect on Darwin at 200. The deadline for submission of materials is October 24, 2008. Pieces selected for this exhibition will augment the social space for understanding and dialogue. Jurors are: Paul Von Blum, Sheila Pinkel, and Mark Vallen.”

The complete Call for Artists, including prospectus and details for submitting artworks, can be viewed at:

Exhibit at Katalyst Gallery, Los Angeles

I will be exhibiting a few paintings in a group show presented by the newest gallery space in downtown Los Angeles, California, the Katalyst Foundation for the Arts. Starting May 31, 2008, and running until the end of June, 2008, Pulse Point will be the second exhibit offered by Katalyst in its temporary gallery near the historic Little Tokyo district of L.A. Reading from the gallery’s press release:

“The term ‘Pulse Point’ in Eastern Medicine alludes to the spot on the human body where the indication of life registers strongest. Katalyst Foundation for the Arts presents an exhibition of seven visual artists offering their own reflection of culture’s pulse points. Iraqi artist Paul Batou’s lustrous images of pre-war Baghdad neighborhoods, Sculptor Lilli Muller’s figurative work, Mark Vallen’s realist portraits and John Paul Thornton’s large panels depicting religious rituals are on display.”

Amongst the paintings I will be showing are two that I have just completed - large oil on canvas depictions of burning palm trees. Belonging to a larger series of such paintings I continue to work on, the blazing trees are part historical observation and part metaphorical expression. Naturally palm trees are omnipresent in my home city of Los Angeles, and they have become an internationally celebrated icon of Southern California, but on April 29th, 1992, I witnessed L.A.’s palm trees set ablaze during the Rodney King riots - and I have been struggling to capture that vision on canvas ever since. By the same token, my paintings also allude to the untamed natural environment of my city, where annual brushfires rage through the hills in and around the metropolitan area.

Oil painting by Mark Vallen

[ Burning Palm Tree - Mark Vallen 2008. Oil on canvas. 30 x 40 inches. ]

Time does not permit my writing about all of the talented artists involved in the Pulse Point show, but I would like to draw attention to the works of Mr. Batou, a native Iraqi artist in exile from his country since 1989. Batou’s paintings jump back and forth from naïve realism to severe abstraction, but his works are always permeated with a deep sense of love and longing for his native land. Many of his dreamlike canvases evoke ancient Babylon with its gods and mythic figures, and his paintings are often covered in the Kufic style of Arabic script developed in Iraq in the 8th century. It is certainly a pleasure to exhibit with him, and his artistic voice is unquestionably an indication of where “life registers strongest.”

Oil painting by Paul Batou

[ Woman in Abaya - Paul Batou. Oil on canvas. The abaya is worn by women in Iraq and throughout the Islamic world as a pull-over garment worn loosely over clothing. ]

The opening for Pulse Point took place on Saturday May 31st, 2008. A closing party for the exhibit will take place on June 28, 2008, from 7 until 11 pm. The Katalyst Foundation for the Arts is located at 201 S. Santa Fe Ave. #207, Los Angeles CA 90012. (click here for a map). To view the show by appointment, or for more information, phone: 213-604 3634.

The Harvey Milk Public Monument

On May 22, 2008, a monumental bronze bust of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician to be elected to public office anywhere in the world and a martyred hero of the gay rights movement, was unveiled and officially dedicated in the rotunda of San Francisco City Hall. Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, but was shot to death by an assassin a year later at S.F. City Hall along with the Mayor of the city, George Moscone. The unveiling of the commemorative statue, officiated over by San Francisco’s current Mayor, Gavin Newsom, occurred on what would have been Milk’s 78th birthday.

Portrait bust of Harvey Milk by DFH

[ Harvey Milk - Daub Firmin Hendrickson sculpture group. 2008. The image shows the portrait bust of Milk as an unfinished work in progress before the clay model had been cast in bronze. ]

The realistic bronze bust of Milk stands atop a solid granite base, situated upon a pedestal faced with a bas-relief bronze plaque, and taken as a whole the monument is 75 inches high and weighs over 200 pounds. The slain gay rights activist is portrayed flashing his famous winning smile, his tie fluttering in a gentle wind. The relief plaque portrays three scenes from Milk’s life and times, his service in the U.S. Navy, riding in a Gay Pride Parade, and a depiction of the massive spontaneous candlelight march held by thousands in San Francisco the night of the assassinations. A quote by Milk appears on the pedestal as an inscription - “I ask the movement to continue because my election gave young people out there hope. You gotta give ‘em hope.”

Some years ago the S.F. Board of Supervisors passed a resolution authorizing the statue, and a private committee raised the funds to secure and build the memorial. The San Francisco Arts Commission held a design competition, and selected a panel of jurors to judge the submissions. Out of three finalists, the commission was awarded to the Daub Firmin Hendrickson (DFH) sculpture group, a Berkeley, California based team that excels at creating figurative realist sculptures and bas-relief plaques cast in bronze.

DFH is a partnership between sculptors Eugene Daub, Rob Firmin, and Jonah Hendrickson, and their collaborative, traditional style bronze statues have appeared as public art works across the nation. In their own words, the trio specializes in “sculptures devoted to the aesthetic illumination of important histories and uplifting allegories, created in monumental scale cast in bronze.” I commend the Daub Firmin Hendrickson sculpture group, not just for continuing the tradition of realistic monumental public sculpture, but also for seeking and accepting such an important commission as the Harvey Milk memorial. DFH should also be applauded for avoiding the “great man” theory of history that so often explains momentous events being the work of solitary individuals. By including panels on their memorial sculpture showing a mass movement of people, DFH gives us the view that history is made when enough people move together towards a common goal.

The assassin of Milk and Moscone was Dan White, a former police officer and a disgruntled law maker who had just resigned from the S.F. Board of Supervisors. Armed with his police revolver and extra ammunition, White secretly entered City Hall through a window in order to avoid detection and shot the two politicians at close range. The gunman surrendered himself to the police and his trial would be closely watched by the nation - it ended up being important for several reasons.

White denied the shooting was premeditated, and his legal team successfully argued that he suffered from “diminished capacity” due in part from eating too many Twinkies - the media came to call this the “Twinkie Defense”. Rather than receiving a murder conviction, White was instead found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and given a seven year prison sentence. San Francisco’s gay community and its allies immediately reacted to the verdict by filling the streets with angry protest, and thousands turned violent. On the evening of the “White Night Riots”, twelve S.F. police cars were set ablaze by furious rioters. White would serve slightly more than three years of his prison sentence before committing suicide, and in 1982 the California legislature would do away with “diminished capacity” as a legal defense. These events and more are covered in the Oscar-winning 1984 documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk.

Harvey Milk suspected that someone would eventually try to assassinate him, so he recorded a statement to be played in case of that eventuality. In that public statement Milk said; “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” While some obstacles barring gays from enjoying full democratic rights have been done away with - others still remain. The memorial bronze of Harvey Milk placed in San Francisco’s City Hall should be a constant reminder of what has yet to be achieved.