Emil Alzamora’s Sculptures Stuck in Time

"Shift" by Emil Alzamora, 2008

“Shift” by Emil Alzamora, 2008


A torso emerges from the grass, made of rough white rock with his swaying left to right – a motion indicated by a dizzying technique in sculpture magic that records all the little individual moments while the head moves through space and creates a fluid connection between two heads that looks like a sleeker artistic version of The Matrix. The tumblr Like a Field Mouse titled the piece, “Not shaking the grass” which I thought was cute. But the sculpture is actually called “Shift,” created by Peruvian artist Emil Alzamora, whose portfolio contains surreal sculptures of the human form like this one that twist and elongate bodies in ways that question nearly everything, from consumer culture to the time space continuum.


“Ultima Thule” by Emil Alzamora, ceramic, 2007


My favorite were these stuck-in-time sculptures, which included “Ultima Thule” too – a man standing in two places, connected to his former self by the same kind of blur of motion that’s repeated here but creates a more basic, symmetrical representation of the same idea. The sculptures in this world experience every moment individually and forever, multiple consciousnesses frozen between two places – eternal but limited.

The slenderness of their bodies almost makes them seem like aliens, like a Modern sculptural version of the Mannerist style that painters raved about after the High Renaissance, where women had long fingers and necks that reached just a little too high. The baby Jesus in Parmigianino’s “Madonna with Long Neck” looks like he was stretched like taffy, his long body way too giant for a baby.

But in Alzamora’s sculptures, this elongation is refined and tailored, the ceramic pieces often shiny with glaze. Some bodies remain muscular but most are thin with a remoteness that brings an element of robot to the alien/human mix. Be careful to keep these aesthetics away from the robotics industry cause it would be a poetic, beautiful death if they took over the world.


See more of Alzamora’s work on his website here.

Paragone in Practice

I’ve always found the whole “paragone” thing so interesting. Paragone is the Italian Renaissance word for the competition between different media, often referred to as the competition between the arts. In the contemporary art world the idea doesn’t really translate since media are often crossed over and blended, either in one image on a computer or physically in one place. Most artists today refuse to classify as themselves as a “painter” or a “sculptor,” but I really feel like the limitations of traditional media force artists to push themselves and their craft in a way that doesn’t happen often anymore.

When artists broaden their scope to include anything and everything – concepts from every range of the human experience along with every kind of media available – there isn’t the obsessive, hyper-attuned focus that’s needed to create something powerful. All good works have to have something obsessive about them, whether it’s one idea or one media. Before photography that obsessive bit usually involved an incredible faithfulness to reality.

Triple Portrait of Cardinal de Richelieu by Philippe de Champaigne and studio, c. 1642
During the Italian Renaissance when this word was floated across the lofty circles of artists and patrons, that competition of the paragone was completely focused on the work’s faithfulness to reality. These patrons were paying scudi by the thousand so that us, the people who live thousands of years later, could still remember what they looked like. 
The portrait bust below was completed after Bernini’s model of Cardinal Richelieu, a portrait the Cardinal didn’t sit for. Bernini created the sculpture solely from examining the painting of the Cardinal above, sent to him and completed by Philippe de Champaigne. Bernini was known to be actively involved in the paragone discussion, and this opportunity to create a portrait sculpture purely from a painting is often seen as one of the best examples of Bernini proving sculptures place among the arts. 

White Marble Bust of Cardinal Richelieu, after the model by Gianlorenzo Bernini
French, mid 19th century, from Christies

Although the painting of Cardinal Richelieu lights up the screen with all its color, at a time when works couldn’t just be reproduced a million times over, I imagine sculpture would have been the more impressive medium. It know it’s a lot easier for me to connect with an object that exists in my space rather than in a set scene somewhere far away. But painting also allows for more possibility – it can take you out of your space to an impossible one, while sculpture is limited physically, in the same ways we are.

             What do you think: painting or sculpture? 

Art escapes: Goddesses of action moving into your space

Robert Mango has been a working artist in Tribeca since the 70s. When he arrived it wasn’t yet called Tribeca; he set to transforming a bread and egg factory on Duane Street into a studio and home, the wooden floors still stained yellow from all the yolk. I was lucky enough to get a tour of this studio yesterday as he walked me through a body of work even more impressive than his transformed gallery, exposed brick walls lined with art. His work began as sculpture and painting that coalesced into a new kind of mixed media; a constructed layering of materials and color that projects three dimensionally, but is still contained on all four sides within a frame.

Working with the female form as his muse, Mango’s most recent series presents women as powerful forces of feeling, with limbs twisting and swirling inside and on top of the border’s edges. Instead of being simplified, these women are glorified, celebrated, and admired – each one embodying an entire sensibility. Their arms and legs curve into distinct postures that transform each piece into the goddess of her action:

“Drumming Her Fingers,” 2012
Oil on canvas over sculpted foam.
Artist statement>>


A swirling body painted in matching swirls of orange, she sits on bronze stool with her ankles daintily crossed, leg joined with a hip that spirals up into the two small circles of her chest. Her body keeps twisting up into arms and a bronze head – her right arm disjointed and dropping down into fingers that tap restlessly on her leg. The attention on this arm leaves the whole rest of her body stacked on the right side, her abstracted torso looks like the face of a frowning man – left leg propped up to become his chin and cheek. She’s poised but waiting, with some impatience but with more grace.

“Blue Dance,” oil on canvas over sculpted foam.
Artist statement>>

Her figure spirals out on a grey-orange-purple background that looks worn compared to her bright blue and white. These orange and purple shapes are sketched out in rough black outline, and her figure literally floats off its surface, crafted puzzle pieces of sculpted foam that float together, two legs that cross and a single arm that encircles her head above. Looking up, her hair glides down and springs up to create a space for the hand coming towards it, which creates a sort of compositional symmetry that matches her criss-crossed legs. Her form dances, embracing itself and the space it occupies, a space that becomes yours physically with her figure projecting inches from the background.

“No Room for Doubt,” oil on canvas over sculpted foam.
Artist statement>>


She is absolutely absorbed in emotion, all her limbs motioning in the same direction as the kiss she’s blowing. The whole work is shiny, blue and green loops of metallic make up a background that leaves spaces for the wall behind to come through. Her hair is blown back into little casual curls in a bright shade of metallic blonde. The left shoulder looks like a cave shaped for her heart, a little spiral that projects itself forward like a megaphone disguised as her Adam’s apple. It calls out just like her kiss does, her toes curled with a hint of tense desire.

“Girl with Trumpet,” 2012
Image courtesy of the artist.

Here the sculpted foam is photographed against a white background, but of course photography can’t do much for sculpted foam. In person, her figure physically comes toward you, grabbing bits and pieces of the abstract background behind her and becoming a kind of golden goddess, bent over like she’s in the middle of modern dance rehearsal. Her gold-plated head and hair in profile bring out the frame that’s overlaid with the abstract shapes that become the trumpet part of the piece. She’s powerful, with a warm, sexy forcefulness – emboldened by the dynamic background and confident in the fact that you’re looking even though she isn’t. 

These women work as goddesses of action, fully involving their environment by revealing the wall behind them and by physically coming into your space; relief sculptures of carefully shaped and colored foam that melt in the most organic way, merging into legs and arms and hearts that become a single, powerful action.

See more of Robert Mango’s work on his website here.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini: Creating his legend with Michelangelo’s help

The legend of Michelangelo was still a powerful force in the art world in Rome a century after his death, especially for aspiring artists who wanted to become legends themselves. Michelangelo’s remarkable talent in the arts, and the works he left behind to prove it afforded him the luxury of a listening audience – he was able to control how the world remembered him by instructing a faithful student to write a biography that would be seen as the most first-person account possible, especially after the artist’s death. Thirty-four years later Gian Lorenzo Bernini was born, another multi-talented artist whose primary skill was in sculpting, and he followed Michelangelo’s example, creating his own legend by closely instructing his biographer on what to write and how to write it. While Michelangelo wrote to contest false rumors purported in his first biography published by the Italian artist and author Giorgio Vasari, Bernini was sure to preemptively create his own legend before the same thing could happen to him, already having learned from Michelangelo that the artist’s own words are the most powerful way to combat any sort of negative light that could be shed upon his memory.

Self-portrait of Michelangelo
via Casa Buonarroti, Florence
Self-portrait of Bernini
found here.

Scholars have examined these biographies for centuries, working to prove which aspects of each were likely exaggerated or even made up altogether. Both artists had secondary biographers as well; men who knew the artists personally but wrote without his direct instruction. What is most interesting, however, is Bernini’s adaptation of the biographical formula set forth by Michelangelo in his own instruction to Domenico, especially concerning Ascanio Condivi’s The Life of Michelangelo. He probably did not have a copy of the text in hand while instructing his son, and there was a biographical standard for artists thanks to Vasari’s Lives, but even so the similarities between the Condivi and Domenico’s biographies cannot be ignored. Bernini was sure to stress some of the same artistic attributes, but also added information or anecdotes that he probably considered to be improvements, almost as if he were still competing with Michelangelo in the very final art of the legend-creation. These lessons Bernini took from Michelangelo could even be broadened to include how he conducted himself throughout his career, carefully avoiding Michelangelo’s mistakes with the papacy and instead branding himself an artistic genius that was also easy to work with. The first time Bernini was granted the presence of a reigning pope, Paul V said, “This child will be the Michelangelo of his age;” a comparison Bernini surely kept in mind as he went to record how he wanted the world to remember him.

Condivi and Domenico had very different approaches in the way they wrote these biographies, which may be one of the first indications that Bernini was working to make his legend seem even better and more credible than Michelangelo’s. Condivi writes The Life of Michelangelo completely in the first-person, always acknowledging that the book is merely his recordings of what happened, admitting that he is not a writer but instead an “honest collector” of truth. He begins with a letter addressed to the “Holy Father,” followed by another addressed “To the reader,” and in both he makes very clear that his intention with this biography is to honor his master and set the record straight because so many “have said things about him which never were so,” including most notably the first edition of Vasari’s biography which was later revised upon the release of Condivi’s. Domenico’s biography on the other hand is written entirely in the third-person, and he refers to himself only as the “author of the present work,” even where he talks about “Domenico” being the last of Bernini’s sons. By phrasing things as an outsider when in fact he was just the opposite, Domenico makes the stories appear more factual because they are presumably being presented by a third party and therefore with less bias. Bernini is attempting to reveal his life as a straightforward account of events that could be told by anyone; perhaps he felt that Condivi’s first-person narrative sounded too much like a fan letter, and by keeping the author and story separate in his own biography, it would appear as a more serious transcription of reality.

Michelangelo and Bernini had very different relationships with their fathers, part of the story that Bernini used to his advantage, as a way of suggesting that destiny was paving the way for him like it had not for Michelangelo. Of Michelangelo’s father Condivi writes, “On this account he was resented and quite often beaten unreasonably by his father and his father’s brothers who, being impervious to the excellence and nobility of art, detested it and felt that its appearance in their family was a disgrace.” On the opposite side of the parental spectrum, Domenico writes that Bernini’s father “gave his son the freedom to work as he wished, since he realized what higher aspirations were at work motivating the youth to make such great progress.” While Michelangelo’s story of struggle against his father might resonate more with a modern audience who have come to associate artists with some sort of strife, Domenico crafts Bernini’s fortune into fate, writing that “Heaven” had destined Bernini for greatness, laying the foundation with a supportive father so that the artist would have every opportunity to succeed. This theme of divine intervention on Bernini’s behalf continues throughout the entire biography: “But, in fact, we can justly conclude that the circumstances had been orchestrated by Heavenly Providence Most High, which, from that moment on, desired to prepare the hearts of future popes to be favorably disposed toward Gian Lorenzo.”

Success in seventeenth century Rome meant being in the favor of the reigning pope, which is why this intervention by Fortune and Heaven on Bernini’s behalf is almost always connected to the papacy. Bernini’s love affair with the papal throne is by far the biggest difference between he and Michelangelo, both in their lives and biographies. Domenico always includes mention of the death of each pope along with a description of the selection process for the next one, usually to draw attention to the fact that the next papal successor already loved Bernini, especially in the case of Urban VIII. The same day Urban was elected he called Bernini to his office and said, “It is a great fortune for you, O Cavaliere, to see Cardinal Maffeo Barberini made pope, but our fortune is even greater to have Cavalier Bernini alive during our pontificate.” Indeed Bernini’s every action is made with the pope in mind, a lesson he seems to have learned from Michelangelo who left Rome when the pope offended him, and sacrificed more than fifteen years worth of commissions after losing the favor of Pope Leo. Michelangelo was notoriously difficult to work with, a stubbornness that came through in Condivi’s writing; when Pope Julius kept asking when Michelangelo would finish the Sistine Ceiling, he repeatedly answered, “When I can.” Bernini created the opposite reputation for himself, always appeasing, obliging and “kissing the papal feet,” almost becoming an entertainer, and indeed Domenico even grants a whole chapter to Bernini’s work in writing and directing Comedies. Bernini’s reliance on the pope for his extraordinary success is reflected in his biography, a large chunk of which is dedicated to discussing the papacy.

Michelangelo’s David
found here.
For Michelangelo’s David, Condivi begins with how the piece of marble was quarried in a shape that limited the figure so much that no one had been able to make any use of it, writing that once Michelangelo was done he was able to form the shape so perfectly to the original block of marble that the rough parts could still be seen on the top and bottom. He continues on to say that this ability “is characteristic of great artists and the mastery of their art,” then praising it even further and concluding with how much money it earned. Of Bernini’s David Domenico is exceptionally brief, only telling of how Cardinal Maffeo Barberini frequently held the mirror “with his own hands” so that Bernini was able to sculpt his own features “doing so with an expressivity completely and truly marvelous.” Both biographers admire their artists but Condivi focuses on Michelangelo’s ability to create within confinements while Bernini is praised for dynamism and expressiveness, in a story that, as expected, includes the involvement of a future pope and Bernini’s biggest eventual benefactor.

Domenico’s The Life of Bernini also included a number of sections and topics that were never discussed in Michelangelo’s biography, a selection of improvements, including a rather large section dedicated to Bernini’s own religious beliefs and his strong conviction in the Catholic faith. Condivi hardly included any mention of Michelangelo’s personal beliefs, which could result in Michelangelo appearing mad rather than spiritually inspired. In one passage Condivi writes that the artist dedicated himself to his art so much that “the company of others not only failed to satisfy him but even distressed him, as if it distracted him from his meditation,” a meditation not linked to the Catholic faith. Contrarily, Domenico describes Bernini as a theologian as well as an artist; Domenico dedicates a sizable portion of the final two chapters to descriptions of Bernini’s extreme faith and piety: “So much did he become inflamed with these spiritual sentiments and so high did the acuity of his genius ascend, that the aforementioned men were astounded that someone who had not dedicated his life to letters could so often not only succeed in intimately penetrating these most sublime mysteries, but also raise probing questions about and offer logical accounts of the same…” Similarly, Domenico tells of Bernini erecting his painting of Jesus on the cross at the foot of his deathbed, and he spoke with many religious leaders in his final days. Including these mentions of Bernini’s own spiritual convictions brings even more substance to the works he spent his life creating because he actually believed in the messages they were purporting. The same may have been just as true for Michelangelo, but it is a point that he did not stress to Condivi for inclusion in his biography, which results in the impression of a slightly mad Michelangelo and a divinely possessed Bernini.

In the same way that Bernini learned from Michelangelo’s mistakes, he was also sure to learn from his successes; both biographies heavily stressed the artist’s virtues of piety, self-motivation, modesty, and generosity, both with their money and with their craft through teaching. Michelangelo’s abstemiousness is a character trait Bernini works to duplicate in his own biography; Domenico repeatedly includes mention of Bernini not eating because he was so enraptured by a project or too dedicated to his work to be bothered. Domenico writes that Bernini “was abstemious in eating,” and for the marble portrait of Cardinal Borghese, Bernini, “except to replenish his energy with a bit of food, did not rest from this labor for the space of three days, when he brought the work to completion.” These mentions seem to be derived at least subconsciously from Condivi who writes, “Michelangelo has always been very abstemious in his way of life, taking food more out of necessity than for pleasure, and especially while he had work in progress, when he would most often content himself with a piece of bread which he would eat while working.”

Michelangelo was also abstemious sexually, a piety that Bernini could not logically include given that his biography is written by his son. Although only mentioned in a notation written down by Michelangelo’s student Tiberio Calcagni that was incorporated into later versions of Condivi’s biography, Michelangelo gave advice to “refrain from sexual intercourse in the interest of long life.” However, Bernini was sure not to be outdone by Michelangelo, and since he could not include sexual piety, he includes anecdotes that show a physical devotion to his art that is even more powerful. In his creation of the statue of St. Lawrence, Domenico writes that Bernini, “placed his own leg and bare thigh near the burning coals” in order to accurately “reflect in the saint’s face the pain of his martyrdom.” Had this inclusion been a direct rebuttal to Michelangelo’s abstinence, it would have been a very clever reversal of situation, turning a rather boring form of personal devotion into an exciting, vivid one where Bernini sticks his own arm into fire for the sake of realism in his sculpture. At the very least, it is certainly an augmentation of Michelangelo’s overwhelming desire to create works true to nature: “…he was determined to acquire not through the efforts and industry of others but from nature herself, which he set before himself as a true example.”

Bernini’s David
found here.

There is another similarity between the stories told by Condivi and then Domenico that seems too close to be accidental. One of the few times Michelangelo is in favor with the pope, Julius III remarks that he would “gladly give up some of his years and some of his own blood to add to Michelangelo’s life,” continuing on to say that if he outlived the artist “he wants to have him embalmed and kept near him so that his remains will be eternal like his works.” A story from Domenico is eerily similar; he writes of a gift Bernini received from Pope Urban VIII, a magical liquid that “would revive the vital forces in marvelous fashion,” continuing, “A gift truly worthy of the affection of that pontiff, who, had it been possible, would have wanted Bernini embalmed and rendered eternal.” The use of the word “embalmed” appears to be borrowed directly from Condivi, especially considering that it was applied to Michelangelo in a direct papal quote and only inferred from a gift that Bernini received.

Regardless of how consciously Bernini instructed Domenico to write his own biography after the template left by Michelangelo, the two books do have striking parallels that at the very least confirm that Bernini had read Condivi’s work to learn the characteristics of the “artistic genius” that he wanted to apply to himself as well. Of course, Bernini’s reputation as a problem-solver prevails as he works to improve on what many considered to be Michelangelo’s faults, fulfilling what Domenico describes as Bernini’s motto: “He who does not at times depart from the rule never exceeds it.” Domenico arranges of the pieces of his father’s life in a fashion similar to Condivi’s arrangement with Michelangelo, but with more repetition of his successes and less acknowledgment of Bernini’s competition and critiques. Ironically, Domenico’s third-person biography included more overpraise and excessive flattery of the artist than Condivi’s first person account of Michelangelo. It seems as if Bernini’s attempt to leave a lasting legacy resulted in the creation of a hyper-idealized version of what he thought an artist was supposed to be; a fault that surely became more noticeable as the time passed and the biography’s readers grew smarter and more aware of how easily the truth can be shaped for personal gain.

I originally wrote this piece as a final essay for my Bernini class at NYU, hence the citations and (boring) academic nature. 

Blossom, Sanford Biggers, 2007

Suddenly coming upon this grand tree in the middle of a museum hallway was a stunning experience, in every use of the word. It wasn’t until I walked around it that I saw the even grander piano containing its massive trunk. The wood of the piano and the bark of the tree looked like they had been fused together over time, until the piano seemed to nearly reach its original state, as a tree that once lived too. Almost like the tree was claiming back the brother that we’d stolen away to saw down and polish off.

The piano is actually a working keyboard, and when turned on it plays the song “Strange Fruit,” in a version written by the artist. It was a song made famous by Billie Holiday in the late 1930s, as a protest against lynching and hate crimes. It has a dark, ominous tone and moves slowly along from note to note. Unfortunately the piano wasn’t turned on when I visited so we didn’t get to hear the artist’s interpretation of this severe somber song. The lyrics included on the placard read:

     Southern trees bear strange fruit, 
     Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, 
     Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze, 
     Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

But when I first saw the tree, my initial reaction took me to a very different tune. I immediately thought of Regina Spektor’s song “Firewood,” from her new album What We Saw from the Cheap Seats. In it she repeats the line “The piano is not firewood yet,” as a way of recognizing the life and potential that still remains within all of us, regardless of our age. It’s such a happy, uplifting song – even though Regina sings it sweet and soberly. Applying that song to this sculptural work seems to only make the message even more uplifting. As if the wood of the piano was destined for beautiful musical means, and now that it has become the piano it was always meant to be, it’s come to share this newfound music with the rest of the trees. Her song goes:

     The piano is not firewood yet, 
     They try to remember but still they forget
     That the heart beats in threes, just like a waltz
     And nothing can stop you from dancing 

Pick one of the two songs I talked about and scroll through the pictures below while you listen.

Try out the other song too if you like, just to see how different two interpretations can make things.

All of these photos were edited using the “Yellowed” filter on Picfull. The tree was in a poorly-lit area in the museum so the originals didn’t turn out how I wanted. But they’re saved towards the end of this Flickr set if you still want to see them!

Portable City by Yin Xiuzhen, 2009-2012

As you walk into the MCA’s architecture-inspired exhibit, Skyscraper: Art and Architecture Against Gravity, the first piece you see is Yin Xiuzhen’s Portable Cities: five open suitcases spread out along the floor.

Each contains a mini-skyline, small buildings made out of cloth – just like the clothes our suitcases carry. You can even see the tags on some of the clothes that make up rivers and lakes, and buttons in odd places. Most of the little buildings are built along the open flap, inside the body of the suitcase is a map of each city, viewable through a small lit hole.

Hangzou, China

The blue-painted walls suit the yellow strings hung above. The strings map out the distance from one city to the next, forming a makeshift globe out of the three blue walls that surround the five suitcases. The string-suitcase combination makes for a beautiful scene, like a miniature world that can be thrown in the washer whenever it gets dirty.

Check out the rest of my Portable City pictures and others from the MCA here in my Flickr set:)