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Friday 24th June 2016Antiques Roadshow Hilarity

Antiques Roadshow is a rather hilarious television show in general, even if it's unintentional. On the surface it sounds incredibly dull, but there is something almost ineffable about the show that makes it withstand the test of time, and since its 1979 start on the BBC, it's since spread to multiple countries and inspired an American spinoff version which started in 1997.

It's the American version that's got the art world rolling on the floor laughing lately, however - and not at the naivete of one of the show's subjects or the extremity of their reactions. Instead, it's one of the experts who is behind everything.

In an episode that aired recently centered around Spokane, Washington on the west coast, appraiser Stephen Fletcher was presented with a strange jug covered in screaming faces. The piece had been found at an estate sale in Eugene, Oregon by Alvin Barr, and Fletcher compared the piece to work by Pablo Picasso and estimated its origin date as somewhere in the 19th century.

Unfortunately for him, someone watching the show recognized the work as that of a high school classmate named Betsy Soule of Oregon - from 1973. Not exactly the work of Picasso!

Soule gave an interview with the Bend Bulletin, the Oregon newspaper in her hometown. “I was just a really passionate, artistic kid. I don’t know where those faces came from; they just came roaring out of me on to those pots.”

Interestingly enough, the Antiques Roadshow program page on the PBS website revised its estimate of the worth of the piece downwards dramatically, but still left it at somewhere between $3,000 and $5,000 USD, which is rather amazing for a high school art project regardless.

Fletcher corrected himself in a statement saying, “This example, with its six grotesque faces, was modeled or sculpted with considerable imagination, virtuosity and technical competence. Obviously, I was mistaken as to its age by 60 to 80 years. I feel the value at auction, based on its quality and artistic merit, is in the $3,000-$5,000 range. Still not bad for a high schooler in Oregon.”

If only we'd kept more of our own school projects, who knows what they might be worth nowadays. Either way, it's moments like this that make the Antiques Roadshow program a hilarious watch, even if it's rather rare that an appraiser finds something quite so unusual. No wonder it's been on forever!

Posted on June 24th 2016 on 08:26pm

Wednesday 22nd June 2016A Child's Cautionary Tale

May truly was a rough month for museums around the world. From the SFMOMA glasses prank pulled off by a teenager to the fake heists orchestrated in the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate Britain by members of Youtube prankster group Trollstation, it seems like things couldn't possibly get any worse. But if the modern world has taught us anything, it's that there's always some new horror in store just around the corner.

At least in the first two incidents, nothing was actually damaged in the museum with the possibility of a little bit of pride. This next story is something more of a disaster, and takes place in the Shanghai Museum of Glass (cringing already, are we?).

The tale involves two spoiled and undisciplined children who are let loose in the museum, and their absolutely useless parents. The kids completely disregard any of the proper rules of etiquette, and more than just crossing the velvet ropes, they actually go on to seriously damage a piece by artist Shelly Xue entitled Angel is Waiting. Xue is one of the pioneers of the studio glass movement in China, and spent 27 months making the piece which she dedicated to her newborn daughter.

The children began messing with the piece, and their parents, standing nearby, did absolutely nothing to prevent them. Unbelievably, they actually took out their phones to begin filming the outrage! It wasn't until the spoiled brats started actually slamming the sculpture against the wall that they began to call the children off, but not before the piece was completely fractured.

Rather than choose to repair the piece, Xue chose to leave it as-is as a testament to the whole event, and retitled it 'Broken', which is a rather classy way to handle something that must have been incredibly frustrating to her.

The museum didn't mention any sort of punishment that was meted out as a result of the incident, but they did install a screen beside the work displaying the closed circuit security footage of the incident. Hopefully, it will act as a cautionary tale to other parents of spoiled brats, but it seems to send a bit of a mixed message considering that there was no official punishment noted.

A word of caution for parents: make sure you keep your children under control around precious works of art. There is absolutely no excuse for this sort of behaviour. 

Posted on June 22nd 2016 on 03:55pm

Friday 17th June 2016Artist Spotlight: Petr Pavlensky

In the West and around the world, most people involved in the art scene - and quite a few who aren't - are aware of the (in)famous Chinese artist and political activist Ai Weiwei. Far less known is the name of Petr Pavlensky, the Russian performance artist and dissident, although it's hard to say why, exactly.
Perhaps it's that the West is far more obsessed with the astonishingly rapid economic growth of China than the rather more alarming cultural regression of Russia, but whatever the reason, Pavlensky has had a rather incredible career that deserves more attention than it gets. 
He has been in the news most recently as a result of his latest performance piece / activist statement, which took place last year. As part of a piece entitled Threat, Pavlensky doused the massive wooden doors that serve as the frontpiece for the Moscow headquarters of the FSB ( the Russian equivalent of the GCHQ or FBI) and set them ablaze. He then posed for photographs holding a petrol can, but was arrested immediately on the spot and has been held in captivity ever since.
The truly strange thing is the way it was handled by the Russian authorities. After simply staging a concert at a Russian cathedral in 2012, members of the punk band art collective Pussy Riot were famously jailed for two years before being released. Naturally, most people following the case expected Pavlensky to get an equally harsh sentence as his trial concluded in early June. 
Astonishingly he was instead let off with no additional jail time and ordered to pay a fine of 500,000 roubles for damaging the site, and another 491,000 roubles to compensate the state for the cost of repairs. This amounts to roughly £10,000.
It's hard to imagine a British subject being let off so easily for a performance art piece that damaged the headquarters of the GCHQ in any respect, and the fact that Russia of all places was more lenient makes the whole event even more noteworthy. 
After leaving the courthouse, Pavlensky said, "“It does not matter how the trial ended. What is important is the fact that we were able to unmask, uncover the truth: the government is founded on the methods of terror.”
Despite the fact that he received no additional jail time as part of the sentencing, his lawyer says that Pavlensky apparently has no intention of paying the fines, which will likely land him in jail eventually anyways. 

Posted on June 17th 2016 on 03:15pm

Wednesday 15th June 2016Google's Preservation of Artwork

Google, arguably one of the most successful technology companies of all time, has a lot of capital to invest. As a result, they have their fingers in a vast number of pies, from mobile phones to self-driving cars to scholarly article publishing. But one of their lesser-known ventures is the one that is probably nearest and dearest to those of us in the art world: the Google Cultural Institute.

The Cultural Institute has partnered with over 1000 museums and galleries around the world to digitise their artworks and bring them online, so they can be enjoyed by anyone with internet access. One of their best tactics for this is an incredibly high-resolution camera that is being used in the digitising process, and it just got a huge boost forwards in the last few months.

While having an initial burst of creativity during the launch of their search engine and naming it Google, the company has since gone rather literally-minded when it comes to naming their inventions (even their crazy balloon wireless internet project is called Project Loon, appropriately enough), which leaves us with the singularly uninspiring 'Art Camera'.

What IS inspiring, however, is how impressive it is when it comes to preserving images of some of the most popular artworks in the world. At first, the Cultural Institute was rather slow at digitising images, scanning and uploading just 200 images in five whole years. Admittedly, the images are measured in gigapixels rather than megapixels, but nevertheless, that's only about one image per week.

Suddenly in the last few months alone, over 1000 images have been scanned and made available to the general public, all thanks to the Art Camera system. The photographer/technician simply outlines the borders of the image for the system, and then the rest of the process is computer-controlled, stitching together hundreds of smaller photographers using the Google servers and outputting super-high-resolution images.

Marzia Niccolai, the Cultural Institute's technical program manager, explains, "The capture time has been reduced drastically. Previously it could take almost a day to capture an image. To give you an idea, now if you have a one meter by one meter painting, it would take 30 minutes."

Google has since constructed 20 separate Art Camera systems and is lending them out to various museums and archives around the world to dramatically increase its collection. Be sure to check out the website here:

Posted on June 15th 2016 on 01:57pm

Friday 10th June 2016Stolen Art Mystery Solved

One of the most perplexing art theft mysteries has finally been solved, thanks to the keen eye of a professor at the University of South Carolina Upstate. The theft took place in 2003 in South Carolina at an estate in the countryside named Hobcaw Barony, and while it didn't excite much notice at the time, it was featured on a 2013 episode of the popular show 'Antiques Roadshow'.

The missing pieces included a painting by renowned English artist Sir Alfred Munnings, a famous equestrian painter and an incredibly outspoken critic of the Modernist art movement, entitled Bell on Souriant, which was valued at over $1 million USD. That wasn't the only piece that went missing, however - there were also some original folios painted by the famous naturalist John James Audubon from the series 'Birds of America', valued between $45,000 and $80,000 USD.

Professor Frazer Pajak immediately recognized the piece by Munnings as the work stolen 13 years ago, after being asked to consult on a lot of pieces that had been acquired by John Allen Ivy of Ivy Auctions, a local South Carolina auction house. The painting and prints were part of a collection they had received from the estate of a deceased wealthy Colombian collector, although there was little information as to how they wound up in that collection.

The 17 prints and paintings went missing in 2003 as part of a larger heist originally reported by Samuel McIntosh, who had just retired as the curator of the Hobcaw Barony collection. He fell almost immediately under suspicion of the thefts, and several of the missing pieces were discovered in his home, but the recently rediscovered pieces stayed missing for the last 13 years.

"We were relieved and happy because we never lost hope that our paintings would be seen again. These pieces help tell the story of Hobcaw Barony,” said George Chastain, the executive director of the Baruch Foundation, which owns Hobcaw Barony. “Their theft left a hole in our history. Thanks to the assistance and persistence of Matt Jacobson of the FBI’s Greenville office and Assistant United States Attorney Rhett DeHart, they will be restored to their rightful place, both physically and narratively."

Unfortunately some of the pieces were found to be in bad condition, but technical and forensic experts hope that they will be able to be successfully restored to their original glory.

Posted on June 10th 2016 on 01:45am
Labels: art, mystery, theft

Wednesday 08th June 2016Artist Spotlight: Leonid Afremov

On today's edition of Artist Spotlight, we're going to take a look at the work of a modern day Impressionist, Leonid Afremov. He has a remarkable body of work, and he also manages to market himself completely outside of the typical gallery establishment that boosts so many artists. But first, let's take a look at his work!

He paints primarily in oils, but he throws a bit of a twist into the mix by forsaking paint brushes in favour of a palette knife. Originally used (as the name would suggest) as a knife / trowel for mixing paints on an artist's palette board, the advent of modern premixed paints left these tools in a rather unique state of limbo. Virtually every painter had them in their paint boxes, but they no longer needed them for their intended purpose - so many artists began to experiment with using them in place of paintbrushes. This wasn't the first time that anyone had tried it, but it certainly helped to popularise the technique.

Afremov takes the palette knife and uses it with his oils to great effect, as it is such a versatile tool. He can create the smoothest of gradients or the classical extra-visible strokes that exemplify the Impressionist style. He focuses primarily on the interplay of light and colour, and manages to create some truly breathtaking images out of relatively mundane cityscapes, as you can see from the example on the right.

One of the more surprising things about Afremov is that he refuses to work with any galleries or agents, and instead does all of his own self-promotion using the internet. He manages to make his entire living this way, and it's possible to buy original oil paintings from him for far less than you would expect. This is a remarkable feat for any artist, and how thoroughly he has embraced the marketing power of the internet is even more remarkable when you consider the fact that he was born in 1955 in what is now Belarus.

Curiously enough, he was actually born in the same town as Marc Chagall, who was one of the artists responsible for popularising the use of the palette knife in the modern era. Chagall became a huge inspiration to Afremov, and helped to shape his unique and beautiful style.  After a brief stint in Israel and Europe, he moved to New York but later abandoned it for the Caribbean shores of Mexico, where he now lives and paints full-time.

Posted on June 08th 2016 on 02:31pm

Friday 03rd June 2016Art Pranks Redux: Forging a Heist

It seems like May was a ripe month for art pranks all across the world. In addition to the modern art prank that took place at SFMOMA in the United States, there were two rather high-profile pranks that took place at art galleries in London.

In the National Portrait Gallery, members of a Youtube video group named "Trollstation" donned cheap masks, carried cheaply framed paintings  and ran through the gallery pretending that they had stolen the paintings off the wall. 'Trolling' is an internet term for actively harassing other people, usually in a tongue-in-cheek way, although it can rapidly become more malicious.

Though the paintings were demonstrably cheap, the group was intending to cause as much chaos as possible. One woman fainted during the chaos, and the group took off before the police arrived to take the situation in hand.

They weren't off to congratulate themselves and lay low, however. Instead, they took off to the Tate Britain gallery where they repeated the stunt. This one was slightly more elaborate, and by the end of it, they had dragged off a woman in a headlock, although it later turned out that she was in on the entire prank and was not an innocent bystander.

The video of the National Portrait Gallery "heist" is still visible on the Youtube channel of the pranksters, although the Tate Britain video has yet to appear.

Unfortunately for those involved, the authorities naturally took a rather dim view of the whole affair, and all four members of Trollstation were sentenced to short periods of time in jail, ranging from 16 to 20 weeks.

The prosecutor on the case, Robert Short, said in a statement, “The hoaxes may have seemed harmless to them, but they caused genuine distress to a number of members of the public, who should be able to go about their daily business without being put in fear in this way. We hope these convictions send a strong message that unlawful activities such as these will not be tolerated in London.”

It's understandable that in the currently hyper-vigilant climate that exists throughout the West, joke crimes are going to be taken far more seriously than they might otherwise, but it's important to remember that nobody was actually hurt in any of these events. Please don't take this as a defense of their foolishness, but just a reminder that knee-jerk reactions to performance art can be a slippery slope to start down.

Posted on June 03rd 2016 on 07:56pm
Labels: art, pranks, troll, youtube

Wednesday 01st June 2016Art Pranks

You may remember from a previous post a few weeks ago that we took a look at the latest developments in digital museum tours courtesy of Apple and SFMOMA, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. After a recent hilarious set of events at SFMOMA, they're probably going to be even more happy they they have such an excellent tour system.

Just at the end of May, there was an unremarkable addition to the pieces on display at the museum. The key twist was that this addition was not a new work by a popular modern artist, or even a newly acquired piece - in fact, it wasn't officially sanctioned by the museum at all.

It was just a pair of glasses, left on the floor near an empty wall as though it was a modern installation piece. The most hilarious part is that many museum-goers couldn't tell that it wasn't an official piece, didn't have an artist statement and was actually a simple yet powerful prank being played by a teenager who has yet to start his first year of post-secondary education.

He and his friends visited the museum and enjoyed much of the work, but were less than impressed by some of the pieces that were on display.

“Upon first arrival we were quite impressed with the artwork and paintings presented in the huge facility. However, some of the ‘art’ wasn’t very surprising to some of us. We stumbled upon a stuffed animal on a gray blanket and questioned if this was really impressive to some of the nearby people,” he said.

This is a pretty common theme among casual art viewers, especially regarding the modern style of conceptual art that often balances on a knife edge between profound and pure idiocy.

“I can agree that modern art can be a joke sometimes, but art is a way to express our own creativity. Some may interpret it as a joke, some might find great spiritual meaning in it. At the end of the day, I see it as a pleasure for open-minded people and imaginative minds.”

An admirable sentiment, and with luck, TJ will be attending college for an art-related discipline. Hopefully he'll be able to make a career out of lampooning the pretentiousness of the art world, which could use having its head shrunk occasionally. Duchamp would be proud!

Posted on June 01st 2016 on 07:53pm
Labels: art, prank, sfmoma
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