The Artwork of Michael Divine

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Notes on an Exhibition: Kubrick and Caravaggio at LACMA

February 8th, 2013

103 Caravaggio, Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness

Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) had two shows going on this past weekend, including the Caravaggio show would be ending in a few days. My friend Radhika had called me several days before – did we want to go? Since we’d be in LA for this GATE event where I had artwork (along with Amanda Sage and Mikal Aubry) we figured we’d spend the night on Saturday and go to the museum the next day. Besides, with Amanda Sage and Chris in town we could get Bloody Marys downtown at Cole’s in the morning  – the best Bloody Marys in LA save for the ones we make ourselves.

Sunday started out with us waking at the downtown HIlton, sharing a room with Amanda and Chris and probably not getting enough sleep. I went out and brought back Americanos for all and when we were all showered and dressed, we headed out the door to Cole’s. Downtown has been enlivened in the past few years – nicer eateries, boutiques, etc moving in; old theaters being cleaned up. It’s looking right respectable! I remember coming here years and years ago on my first visit to LA. There as no heart that I could find, so to speak. Anyways, downtown LA has been slowly revealing itself to be a marvel of Romantic Art Deco architecture mixed with Mexicano style, hipster cafes, and great bars…. And a slew of other flavors and sirens and car horns and homeless and business people and everything. It’s a city, you know and a delicious one at that. While the best part of downtown may be a small hub, it’s a rich and beautiful little hub.

Cole’s, as always, was fabulous. I know that this is entitled ‘Notes on an Exhibition’ but I really must wax eloquently about Cole’s for a moment. Cole’s is known as the oldest bar in LA – operating since 1908. It’s not terribly old by some standards but still. The bar, below street level, dark wood, stained glass, etc. feels old, authentic, lovely and the sometimes rather complicated drinks are made from scratch by bartenders in little black 1920’s style vests. The Bloody Marys are only served on Sundays and I’d tried countless times to bring Violet there only to be stymied by the wrong time of the day.

So there we were eating French Dips (Cole’s claims to be the originator – tho the jury is still out on that) and drinking these fabulous spicy Bloody Marys in the corner table by the bar – a great way to start a Sunday and a great way to soften… well… something about the woo-woo fest the night before. Anyways… Later we moved outside to finish off our Irish coffees (because what to follow Bloody Marys, french dips, spicy pickles, sweet potato fries than Irish whiskey and coffee and cream?). Chris and I went back inside to pay the bill, had a Knob Creek on the rocks (big ass ice cubes as they should be), sat for a moment appreciating the scene.

His friend Castro drove us all to LACMA in his little Cube car. It was a beautiful day and, with the breeze up, the sun playing off the white lines and walls of the museum, the green leaves and grass we felt splendid. We sat in the Stark Bar in curving red cushioned chairs from 1975 waiting for other friends to show up while we drank espressos from tiny cups. Eventually, Radhika Heresy, Christopher Ulrich, and a couple others arrived. (for the record, I really think Christopher is one of the finest classica styled artists alive today) We talked laughed exclaimed – Art and life and creation and everything! It’s so beautiful! It’s so open and wide and available! O muse!

But the day was passing and it was art we were after (or I was in any case). We went to the Kubrick exhibit first. If you don’t know or have lived in a cave, Stanley Kubrick is known as one of the greatest film makers of the modern era. His films are masterpieces of cinema – Clockwork Orange, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and 2001 – and the exhibit spanned his entire career from a photographer to director to producer. In some respects it felt more like a film buff movie retrospective. There were props and posters and story boards and pages of screenplays. Clips of movies played on loops. There were the funky chairs from 2001, a space helmet with the final scene, a spaceship model used in the filming. The strange and erotic white milk women from Clockwork Orange on white pedestals looked bold and sexy. There were outfits worn in period pieces.

I think that if I were more of a film type person (not just someone who likes to watch them) I would have been more impressed. I love the movies I have seen of his. 2001 is a psychedelic masterpiece. However, I felt like we were seeing all the bits and pieces that went into creating the work of art without being able to see the work of art itself. It’d be like if there was a Dali show and it was made up of pieces from his studio, a few sketches, photos, his paintbrushes, etc. It shows a life but not the art piece itself.

After a little while of that, we went to the Caravaggio exhibit – Caravaggio and His Legacy. That was something else entirely. Caravaggio, an Italian master, is known for his darkly Baroque paintings from the late 1500s into the early 1600s as he arrived on the coattails of the Renaissance. I will readily admit that I know little of him and I didn’t take notes so you are going to get the general impression – distinct pieces, histories, etc – these I could not tell you. But what I can tell you is that his work is remarkable. His compositions are never crowded but nor are they overly spacious – they are balanced just right. The great black spaces coupled with the extreme paleness of the lead white that he used creates a glowingly stark beauty. The looks on the faces, the curve of a brow or the shape of a torso all balanced just so – just enough to give the feeling that needed to be evoked.

Incidentally, Caravaggio died of lead poisoning and lead white is no longer on the market…

I love looking at the works of old masters. Their colors and moods, their lines and shadows and their people. You know, at that time there were only a small handful of subjects from which people chose the themes of their paintings. There were biblical studies, still lifes, and depictions of the present day – a fisherman’s wife, a street scene, a girl with a basket. He chose his subjects well and conveyed emotions with soft buttery brushstrokes and deep richness.

After the first two (I think) rooms of Caravaggio there followed several rooms of his ‘followers’ – his legacy as it were. You could tell where some of them strayed. Where Caravaggio had pitch perfect layout, the works of others were sometimes crowded and, tho still painted skillfully, poorly composed or lacking the greater subtlety of Caravaggio. Where Caravaggio never failed at the emotions he meant to embody, others sometimes languished. That’s not to say that the work of some of the others in the exhibit was bad. In fact, some of it was quite remarkable – the subtlety in the colors on the hand of a soldier, the hairs of a beard, the use of light, or the glowing flame of a candle, etc. I think what is notable of most derivative works is that, while there is skill for sure, the ideas and theory behind the creation can get muddled. The artist who follows, who paints in the wake of  the master, who merely seeks to use the ideas and motifs, sometimes ends up floundering, looking for his/her own voice. The master, the originator, had a personal experience of the thing and created his layout, chose his palette, understood his subject – and, in this, it was an authentic experience of the thing as it was an expression of the artist himself. So the artwork that he created stands the test of time because of it’s authentic and unique voice.

We all – Amanda, Violet, and I – left the exhibit inspired and enlivened. To us, Kubrick exhibit seemed like a cluttered disarray of film detritus (incomparable to the visions that made it to the screen) but the Caravaggio exhibit was alive, glowing, and engaging.

I felt like I always do after an inspiring jaunt through art: back to painting!

The Artwork of Michael Divine

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