Monday, November 29, 2010
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
An Examination of Jean Michael Basquait’s Untitled Skull
By Benjamin Doane
Jean Michael Basquait was born in Brooklyn, New York in December of 1960 to parents of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent; his overall background manifesting itself in encounters of discrimination, drug trafficking and graffiti street art. Early expression that stemmed from an artistic youth developed into the SAMO spray campaign which lasted until 1978, when he began experimenting in the music industry, though staying true to his visual roots. Publicity and acclaim ensued through Rene Ricard’s The Radiant Child and the Annina Nosei gallery allowed him access to celebrity artists who boosted his notoriety. However in 1988, Baquait’s life was ended by a lethal overdose on heroin, which tragic as it was only furthered the reach of the artists influence, as since his death, a number of retrospectives have toured in his memory.
This untitled piece by Basquait is commonly referenced as Skull, it is both acrylic and oil on a canvas measuring 207cm by 176cm. Painted in 1984 before his period with Andy Warhol, it depicts a human head that in some places reveals bone and further. Immediately, one notices the downcast eyes and the frown expressing emotional depth in the work.
The shape of the subject itself is indicative of a skull, hence the title, while deliberately making concessions in the contour for an ear and also the nose. Within this initial structure there are a variety of trapezoids formed over the left hemisphere of the brain with very organic line structure to them, roughly compartmentalizing regions of the head. Other more representational forms contribute to constructing a recognizable head, such as the circles which substitute eyeballs and the ear, and the jagged strip that forms the gums that hold this person’s teeth, thereby connecting the image to the audience by using such relatable shapes, while creating complex and curious negative shapes with the background’s swathes of color.
Extensive use of line defines many areas of the face, developing planes to provide the painting with a sense of depth, aided by overlapping and intersecting dashes. Varying the line width adds weight to the jaw area, and likewise adds a kinetic energy to the piece, such as the stitches that stretch from the left side of the canvas into the skull’s eye socket. By the sharpness of the terminal line, one can assume that the aspect was preformed quickly and with much excitement behind the tool used to apply it. In this piece, the line work is suggesting of some more sinister energy in its patchwork appearance across the subject, and also in the nigh-untranslatable scrawling in top left and bottom right corners, detailing Basquait’s sickly vision.
Much of the local color in this piece involves the complimentary colors of blue and orange, and orange’s analogous pair of yellow and red. The colors themselves are all very cool and feel somewhat detached, but in doing so the background does not overwhelm the subject. The skull itself is painted with flesh tones, ranging from brown skin to a bleached bone, defining for the audience the race of the subject, and potentially even the vital signs.
Working predominantly with hues, these colors are only contrasted by the stark use of black and white pigments that account for shapes and lines which cover the subject. All of these colors seem very flat, and when highlighting is attempted, it is done in a blocky, counter traditional to the blending techniques of artists past.
Texture comes into play with the method of paint application, which leaves much of the surface area looking like a crusty, battered plane, especially with the patches of split analogous colors which try, but fail to blend in with the local colors. Some of the lines in the piece also contribute to this with their haphazardness, which would lead interpreters to believe that they had been made unintentionally and hastily without concentrated effort. Being interdependent in their function, these aspects give the painting a discarded feeling and evoke pathos in the audience for the subject and his circumstances.
In both the foreground and background, movement is a very pronounced element of design in this piece. The subject itself contains the majority of lines included in this work, which tend to connect and overlap in abundance, and furthermore, the edges of the skull often have a border of lines or jagged points. Together, these function to lead the eye through the features, the nose in particular with its high contrast color, and push the focus from the middle of the subject to the outside of itself. From there on, the background takes hold of the movement, using the drybrushed edges of the blue and orange forms to spin the eye around the painting, keeping the attention in and around the subject and disallowing any deviation from the carved path.
The majority of comparisons to be made are in relation to the shapes and lines that compose the subject’s features, where proportions appear blocky, yet accurate in their representational form. Anatomically, though stylized, the skull exhibits basic standards for accurate interpretation of the physical, while making concessions as seen by the size of the eyeballs, and how the leftmost is slightly smaller so as to communicate the painting’s depth. Another example of proportion is the comparison between forms of the same meaning, such as the teeth, which hold a fairly small range in size, but continue the aforementioned concepts of distancing, and making the image more believable as a whole.
Emphasis takes place in all regions of the piece, namely with the heightened drama of the line in modes of simplifying or complicating essential structures. In the case of the yellow jawbone and nose, attention is drawn to these areas by virtue color contrast with their surroundings and because of their thicker lines that stand out in their definition more confidently than the lines on the top of the skull which tend to clump together rather than announce their independence. Oppositely, regions within the head function as interest catching, such as the eyes and rear regions of the skull for their complexity of line, which forms smaller compositions within the greater. Furthermore is the use of words in the top left and bottom right, as they draw attention to themselves by being not of the same family of meaning as their environment, as they blend another branch of language into the art.
On the first glance, balance seems to have been thrown out the window when considering this skull being painted at a three quarters viewpoint and centered in the canvas; little more stands out as related than the even negative space. However, Basquait merely deviates from the traditional ideas and makes his organization of the page more subtle, as in the ear and the nose, and how spatially, they take up the same space on a laterally symmetrical bisection, supported by the lack of transition between the blue and orange patches below. The same can be gathered from the eyes and the odd patches of corresponding color on the other side of the composition, as the artist has chosen to experiment in near balanced communication.
In this piece there is a variety in the executions of line where length, width and color are organized differently, making for a more interesting piece in its base materials. While they stand out in their own right, they interact more or less harmoniously due to Basquait’s decision to have no transition be too abrupt, so that lines get smaller and thinner without distracting the observer’s eye and breaking its concentration. The action within the piece is diverse, yet it does not conflict within the article, thereby achieving coherency rather than confusion.
The economy of the painting is difficult to gauge considering that it is simplified into very recognizable forms that the audience very readily picks up on, while oppositely, the use of line complicates matters with its function to apply additional content not necessarily related to the subject. The use of stitches across the head in their simplified form draws away from the represented skull and more to themselves, which abstracts the head in a way not conventionally considered correct.
Often considered to be Basquait’s most successful painting, the Untitled Skull represents his contribution to the Neo-Expressionist movement of the eighties, not to mention one of his more commercially valuable works. The reason I find value in this work is due to the emotional properties that are displayed in its subject. It is a frangible skull pieced together in mock stability, like many of us who for the sake of appearances compose ourselves to seem more solid and formidable. I think this piece accepts that about humans, and takes it to the next level by representing our frailties and crutches with stitches, producing a visual metaphor for the audience to apply to themselves. Basquait's untitled skull represents so much more than technique and process, but without them its meaning would be lost under poor technique and lots and lots of paint.
so its been a month since i've said anything? well at least i'm not as bad at updating as Paul Pope.