Artist Richard Notkin recently lectured at the Renwick Gallery (part of the Smithsonian family of museums) on the role of the Artist in Society. He asked us what is the ultimate purpose of art and can the human species live on in a world with out it? Richard cited the Lascaux Cave paintings, early Greek art and architecture as examples of our need to have art and beauty around us.
He believes the artist serves as both a visual and social link, that the best work of an artist ‘stimulates those who view it to ask questions’. Notkin has chosen to embrace the role of an artist as a social critic, that he celebrates new ground and quoted Andre Malraux saying, “All art is a revolt against man’s fate.”
All Nations Have Their Moment of Foolishness, by Richard Notkin
Notkin made it clear throughout his lecture that for him the word artist was a broad term, encompassing painters, sculptors, ceramicist as well as musicians, vocalists and composers from different eras. Notkin cited that for his generation, Dylan’s ‘Blowing in the Wind’ served as an anthem; a call which spurred them action. His need to protest the war and destruction in Viet Nam was a direct result of Dylan’s song.
A protest against war and destruction is a central theme in Notkin’s work. While discussing nuclear weapons he states that nations continuing to seek them, add them to the ranks of the axis of evil. He then asked, “Do we sleep more soundly at night knowing we can incinerate the families of our enemies many times over?” His work has borrowed from Michelangelo (Pieta). One of the themes that he referenced several times in several series was Goya’s revolution etchings along with Picasso’s greatest work Guernica that these works were protests against war.
Detail from All Nations Have Their Moment of Foolishness
He stated that he has no messianic beliefs about himself, rather he views his work as something similar to the artisan working on a cathedral. The artisan/craftsmen know that their work will not be completed during their lifetime, yet they labor proudly, content to be part of a larger purpose. When he said this I thought about the time I wandered around marveling at the still incomplete Sagrada Familia designed by Gaudi. This cathedral has been under construction since 1882 and still isn’t completed. In this age of instant everything-it’s hard to understand or accept that your role of a social commentator may be to only be that small stone in a larger movement/avalanche.
Creation and Destruction. Notkin returned repeatedly throughout the lecture to his concerns with destruction. He stated that mankind’s issues are far too complex to solve with explosive devices. Notkin believes the fulcrum of creativity lies midway between creation and destruction. Art is the physical manifestation of our hopes and our dreams. Without art, what can hold our destructive capabilities in check?
Stopping the Godless Aggressors
Listening to him speak, I had several quick thoughts that I jotted down which I wanted to ask him about. If he feels that mankind’s issues are so complex that they can not be solved with the use of weapons of mass destruction, how does he reconcile that they are a necessary part of his creative equation (i.e., the fulcrum of creativity lies between creation and destruction). I wondered what would happen if you removed the threat of destruction from the equation. I think he touched on the answer briefly when he joked that if the threat of destruction went away he would happily paint nudes.
Works. While speaking about his work Richard Notkin stated that he has found more questions than answers. The major themes of his work center on art and war. Notkin wants to understand why an artist continues to create for a seemingly indirect or disinterested audience. Notkin found a partial answer to this question in these two quotes.
The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man. George Bernard Shaw
Speaking the truth in times of universal deceit is a revolutionary act. George Orwell
Detail from And they Shall Beat Their Swords into Plowshares
Richard Notkin works small. If you look at the mural All Nations Have Their Moment of Foolishness you will see a portrait of former President George Bush. Notkin created this using 3×3 tiles. Each tile was formed and then carved.
Notkin said he can spend 50-60 hours carving on less than one cubic inch. He said he was trying to surpass the type of carving seen in a Japanese netsuke. This can be seen in the both ‘Stopping the Godless Aggressors’ and ‘And They Shall Beat Their Swords into Plowshares.’
Detail from ...Plowshares
The work Stopping the Godless Aggressors is about Viet Nam and Nixon and the horrors of war. The scale is small but Notkin stated this work was far more about context than scale.
And They Shall Beat Their Swords into Plowshares. This work originally began as a maquette for a larger piece but became the actual piece. There are a multitude of weapons (including civil war cannon) as well as a variety of building materials. At the top of the piece (with grass) is a horse drawn plow going through a fecund clod of earth. He was trying to show the earth’s ability to heal and show us that we have that healing ability as well. To get an idea of scale, the plowshare is carved out of clay and is about two cubic inches.
All Nations Have Their Moments of Foolishness. I liked this piece. Richard said he made his murals with 3×3″ squares of clay that he formed and then carved. Frankly each tile is a work of art in itself. They feature skulls, a horse screaming in mortal agony from Picasso’s Guernica, Jesus’ limp feet from Michangelo’s Pieta, the iconic figure of the hooded figure standing with his arms outstretched from Abu Ghraib. Murder, torture, war all the heinous acts that have been committed within the last two centuries are memorialized in this work. Notkins fired these tiles in sawdust, which allowed for the range of light and dark. He used these tiles with a grided photograph to recreate former President Bush’s portrait. More specific information can be found at this here which provides the artist’s statement about the piece as well as the specifics of his techniques used to fire the clay. He said that he struggled for a while to find the title for the piece. Eventually he felt that the title was a statement that best fit this piece because it explained why the American people voted for President Bush for a second term.
There were many other pieces that he spoke of during his lecture that I haven’t covered. His heart vessels, his yixing teapots, or his wondrous ‘It’s no Use Shouting (After Goya)’. I will hopefully cover these in a few weeks. I also have to state that my pictures were photographs of the 35mm slides Mr. Notkin’s used. Most had to be cropped to remove other people’s hair, hats etc from the view.