Monday, March 03, 2008

Vitruvian Barbie by Michael Morris

Well, it seems that Michael Morris read my belated post about his recent print exhibition, and was kind enough to send me images of my favorite pieces from that show.
Above is Vitruvian Barbie, which obviously comments on ideals of beauty, both classical and modern, as well as consumerism and mass production. Those themes seem pretty accessible to any viewer with a passing exposure to pop culture and art history. Digger a little deeper, I think there is some struggling here with the conflicts of art and commerce. This also seems fairly obvious to me, but this is a conflict I've spent no small amount of brainpower considering. Perhaps it would not be so apparent, or even valid, to a non-artist.
The appropriation of DaVinci, barely needs to be commented on. Except I'd like to point out, that to many artists, Leonardo can represent the pinnacle of "Fine Art." Not exactly "art for art's sake," Leonardo's works, especially his sketches, are the paragon of the concept of art as a means of inquiry.
A layperson can easily understand how art can comment on reality and human existence; can communicate existential, philosophical, and even scientific truths.
It is perhaps more difficult for the uninitiated to grasp, that art can also be an extremely effective tool for discovering those truths. And I don't mean that solely in the sense of the tired chestnut of "Truth is beauty, Beauty is truth." (Though the validity and import of that truism should not be underestimated.) Science and Art both involve intense study of a subject, intense observation. Leonardo Da Vinci represents to me, and I suspect to Morris, how disciplined observation links painting and the harder sciences.
An interesting example of how Da Vinci's art blended and melded with his science, is his study of water and hydraulics. This is an excellent example of how close artistic observation can be to scientific observation. There is also the interesting corollary of the impact the study of water had on Morris's work:

An emphasis on the elements is found in Morris’ paintings, and it was his experimentation with water that prompted him to pioneer the Massurrealist art movement 15 years ago.

“Painting water took a long time to learn,” Morris said. “I spent about six months on it before ‘Orange Crush’. Water is made up of secondary colors—green, orange and violet—and blue added on top for the reflection of the sky, then the foam…water is what got me started, it got me excited."

Of course, the artist and the scientist face a similar dilemma: How does one get paid to study, get paid to observe? Scientists, are perhaps fortunate in that they may still rely on the strategy Leonardo exploited, patronage. Of course corporations and federal agenicies now fund laboratories, rather than merchant princes... but ultimately that is a difference of semantics.
This brings me to the second artist who Morris alludes to with his Barbies, Andy Warhol. The use of repetition, the staccato rhythm of the army of jumping-jack dolls in their multi-hued uniforms, brings to mind many of Warhol's works, where one subject is explored with the same rainbow-tinted bass line. The fact that this subject is an artifact of mass-produced consumer culture, only reinforces this association. In fact for commenting on the effect of marketing on standards of beauty there is no better subject than Barbie. It is actually surprising that Warhol didn't attempt a similar work, though he would not have executed it with the complexity and humor that Morris has.
If Leonardo represents the artist as scientist, as an curious observer kept almost as a potentate's pet, then Warhol represents the artist as marketer, as a factory for images. Warhol, more than any other artist with whom the layperson would be familiar, represents the commodification of art. If one were to distill a single theme from his life's work, from his place in art history, it would be that images are products for commercial distribution, just like cans of condensed soup.
Interestingly, Morris, like Warhol, was an art director for many years. But he is doing something very different with that experience. While Warhol's Marilyns and soup cans were the epitome of cool or cold art as Baudrillard would describe it, there is something else going on in Vitruvian Barbies. The dolls don't quite fit the molds. They are held up to measure against the proportions of classical beauty, and they are found wanting. No other artifact of American consumer culture so sums up our standards of beauty, as does Barbie. Yet she doesn't fit the geometries of the golden ratio.
Some how, Morris has discovered an aesthetic cold fusion. The analytical structure of Vitruvian Man is cold, and analytic. The Warholian use of repetition and subject matter is cold, and even cynical. Yet in bringing these two cold elements together, he has created a friction, like dead twigs they rub against each other and they spark. The dissecting eye of impersonal geometric analysis is superimposed on plastic, and yet the viewer comes away with a sense of warmth, wit, and reassurance.
If even the unobtainable Barbie body-type doesn't measure up, perhaps we with our love handles, our oily skin, and our cellulite, are OK. The humor here is more than schadenfreude at Barbie's failing. It is a hopeful giggle that beauty is too slippery to be captured in simulacra. It is a chuckle at the realization that flesh is prone to joys and pleasures which fall outisde of hyperreality. It is the Monty Pythonesque protest of painting..."I'm not dead yet! I feel better!" It is art chomping on Samuel Clemens cigar, and ribbing us that, "Rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated."

Well, I rambled about this piece far longer than I expected. I'd wanted to talk a little about my favorite piece by Michael, Homage to Munch, but I have some paintings of my own to work on, so it will have to wait for another post.
Oh, and having mentioned art and commerce, I'd be amiss if I didn't tell you that prints of Vitruvian Barbie are available from Morris's website. $140 for a high quality 15”x 15” gicleĆ© print. That's a steal, art lovers!

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