Youth is Not Skin Deep

Its been six months since I’ve written anything on this blog about our film, A Force in Nature: Jóhann Eyfells. It was also six months ago when I thought I would lose my house, and be forced to move due to financial challenges and joblessness. I think the last time I was ever faced with the possibility of being without a home was exactly 30 years ago, during the Writers’ Strike in Hollywood, when my total gross yearly income had barely reached $9,000. 2017 was both a very challenging year for me financially as well as rewarding creatively. In fact, if it wasn’t for my special friendship to this exceptional man, Jóhann Eyfells and experiencing the extraordinary life force he has within, I might not be here today writing about it. Of course, I won’t ignore the generosity and support I also received from own family and friends

This confession is not so much out of a self-abasement then it is out of an earnest look at my own humanity, my own frailty and fear of loneliness in the face of aging in this country.

Growing old in the United States is synonymous of becoming more and more invisible, and becoming expendable and nonessential, unlike most other cultures. I’ve always known this about our own American culture, but never felt the affects of it until I began losing my hair and feeling the weight of my awkward, out of shape, aging body on this earth. Its as if at a flick of a switch the world no longer saw me as relevant. On the outside, through social media like Facebook and Instagram, people could perceive me as being happy in life and somewhat successful, being a father of two beautiful children, a new business owner, a homeowner (mortgage owner), a filmmaker having just completed a film, and receiving small accolades for it. However, on the inside I was quickly losing my hold on everyday life, watching myself physically deteriorate, and my sense of self worth was at an all time low. At 56, I was feeling the grip of loneliness and isolation (self-imposed and otherwise) tightening around me, and most importantly I had come to realize a hard truth about myself. I was dying.

I became acquainted with Jóhann Eyfells exactly 13 years ago to the day, 10 years of which I spent documenting and filming his intimate and creative life. I don’t claim to know everything about him, but what I have come to understand is that even at his advanced age he represents everything that I would consider youthful, vibrant and alive. In fact, after being exposed to him, I clearly saw that the concept of ‘youth’ in this country is merely superficial and skin deep, and that young people and old alike would profoundly benefit from experiencing the life force and spirit that constantly emanates from individuals like Jóhann. I am convinced that at 95 he is the poster child for youth, vitality and strength, and anyone who claims otherwise is simply foolish. Men or women his age and younger would usually resign themselves to complacency, and often look to the nostalgia of the past or fantasy of the future just so they don’t have to be reminded of their present state of being almost dead. Jóhann lives in and for the present moment, in which the past and future are merely part of a larger continuum, and death is simply an expression of life itself in its full splendor, giving way to another birth.

Why is there such a chasm between young and old in this country? Are we so distrustful of each other that we cannot tolerate each other or even listen to each other speak? As long as I can remember, this common perception of youth as being synonymous with strength and stamina is the foundation of our modern consumer society. Its no accident that Coca Cola’s long commercial success is thanks to their ability to manipulate their audience emotionally through the magic of film and imagery, whose brand advocates ‘youth’ and ‘vitality’, and has done so for decades, shaping our collective consciousness to ignore and sideline the aging. I am not blaming it all on Coke and other corporate advertisers, since there is something called ‘free will’ and we all have the ability to use it. However, there is something to be said about the manipulative and tantalizing power and soullessness of commercial television and consumerism, which if constantly consumed, eventually erodes at our own ability to be discerning, unaffected and even motivated. I’ve been working in this industry since my mid twenties, so I say this with some authority on the matter. If Coke’s advertising efforts and genius could be refocused on healing our ailing planet and building bridges between generations instead of marginalizing one generation by championing another, I might even consider buying a bottle.

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Last week on Christmas Day, my own two children and I went to visit Jóhann at his sculpture ranch near Fredericksburg, Texas, as I had done for the very first time, exactly 13 years ago. My son at the time was only six months old. Now, he is 13 1/2. Walking through this large playground full of massive and imposing sculptures, I found it to be both interesting and very satisfying that my own son and Jóhann were both animated and visibly engaged philosophically over one of his recent sculptural pieces. What I also found to be quite uncanny, was how they both inspired one another, and that their ‘youthfulness’ was glaringly noticeable.

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In all of the time I’ve known Jóhann, interviewed him, and experienced his person, I have always come away inspired and rejuvenated. Its not to say that he is immune to low moments as a result of his solitary life, but loneliness and depression has not in the least waned his insatiable curiosity of life and his feverish dedication to the creative process as an artist and visionary.

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This time, I came away realizing the one reason why I was initially captivated by this man upon first meeting him, which subsequently led to our lasting friendship, and to dedicating 10 years of my life to making a documentary film about his life as an artist. Not only was he a source of vitality for my own tumultuous and sometimes ‘hopeless’ life, but he represents everything I would associate with youth and vitality, which I have spent most of my adult life trying to reconnect with, such as the innocence and curiosity of a child, the heart and soul of being human, and my own creative life force, among other things.

As a filmmaker, I am happy to say that the film does capture some of the magic I experienced first hand with Jóhann. Upon meeting him or seeing the film, it might inspire others, young and old alike, to understand that youth does not have to be merely skin deep, but rather an expression of joy and life.

This film is now available for public screening. Feel free to contact me if you are interested in hosting such a screening event in your home town theatre, school, museum, or even private space.

email: filmmakershowcase@gmail.com

phone: (512) 966-9299

https://www.facebook.com/AForceInNature/

 

How important is Jóhann Eyfells art to the 21st Century? (part two)

I thought I would continue a discussion on the merits of art, but this time from the point of view of an art historian, critic and curator. Here is what Joseph Bravo wrote about an important art installation in the city of Reykjavik, Iceland, the Icelandic Cairn, “Íslandsvarðan” created by Jóhann Eyfells.

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“During my recent trip to Iceland, I was glad to discover that the significance of Jóhann’s artistic achievements was appreciated by art historians and museum administrators in his homeland. While Johann may have spent a large portion of his creative life in the U.S., he has been and always will be an Icelandic artist. My recent trip to your beautiful country only further convinced me of the inextricable link between Iceland and the aesthetic optic of this extraordinary artist. 

The Icelandic landscape, the national character and the cultural context of Eyfell’s artistic practice are all clearly evident in his body of work. While his ideas and aesthetics have been in dialogue with the wider international art canon, the orientation of Jóhann’s inquiry is fundamentally connected to Icelandic indigenous perspectives and the instincts he derives from the landscape. Hayden de M. Yates’ cinematic biopic, “A Force In Nature: Johann Eyfells“, that premiered last week at RIFF, is aptly titled because the artist’s practice has been conceived from its inception to function as a force indistinguishable from nature. For Jóhann, both his existence and artwork are themselves the result of natural phenomena. 

Eyfell’s “Íslandsvarðan”, a sculpture currently on display in Reykjavik is of particular significance because it represents one of the most ambitious achievements in his bronze “Cairn” series. This series, perhaps as much if not more than any other in his deep oeuvre, bears the most literal testimony to the relationship between the artist’s aesthetic and the history of covalence between Icelanders and their physical environment. Jóhann Eyfell’s work has functioned on so many levels and touched on so many issues of art theory as to represent a heroic intellectual achievement spanning the scope of 20th century aesthetic priorities. In this important piece, he addresses conceptual issues of physics and metaphysics. The artist investigates organic form and environmentalism, chaos and hyper-complexity, superfluidity and spontaneity, the distinction between instinct and intuition, truth to materials and their iconographic implications, abstract expressionism vs. simulacrum as well as cosmopolitanism and indigenous cultural context. The artist’s expansive curiosity has allowed him to use his artistic practice as a mechanism of cosmological intellectual inquiry touching on an infinite number of theoretical facets. In “Íslandsvarðan”, he has achieved a masterwork of intellectual and aesthetic speculation. Eyfells has accomplished this without being derivative and while creating some of the most ground breaking sculptures in the history of Icelandic art in particular. His artwork is technically and conceptually innovative by any standard hence his intellectual contributions are of international significance to the wider global art canon. 

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The current site of “Íslandsvarðan” is in many ways ideal as it faces out over the Faxafói Bay and symbolically connects Reykjavik with Mt. Esja. The aperture at the sculpture’s center ensures that the vista of Esja is never obscured and makes for a respectful compliment to the awe inspiring landscape. Its position along both pedestrian and automotive thoroughfares as well as its visibility from the sea affords optimum appreciation of the sculpture by local residents and visitors alike. Its proximity to other important sculptures allows it to convey gravity in keeping with the curatorial context of public artworks in the vicinity and is essential in the creation of a consistent and poetic narrative along the shoreline. Even its placement on the rubble stone base lends elegance to its appropriate presentation. Those responsible for its original installation are to be commended on their foresight and good judgment in how this was technically managed. 

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It is my sincerest hope that “Íslandsvarðan” by Johann Eyfells becomes a permanent fixture in the civic landscape of Reykjavik. The citizens of the city and the nation of Iceland are indeed fortunate to have such an important artwork. It stands as yet another reason for well-deserved Icelandic cultural pride. Jóhann Eyfells is an Icelandic national treasure and one for which the rest of the world owes a debt of gratitude to Iceland for spawning and inspiring him to create such edifying artistic achievements.”   (Written by Joseph Bravo)

How important is Jóhann’s contribution to the 21st century? (Part One)

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Jóhann Eyfells with Architect M.J. Neal (Photo by Hayden de M. Yates)

“We shall never surrender”. Those were the words that Winston Churchill pronounced at the wake of the Nazi Invasion of France in 1940. In 2017, there is another invasion that has been going on for many years, perhaps decades, and that is the mediocrity of art and  of the apparent corruption that seems to have permeated the Art world, where art is considered to be nothing more than a commodity and a means to exclude and even extinguish out of existence many meaningful and important artists of our time. Art can be equated to mean anything that requires a certain level of creative planning, execution and outcome. The outcome of that narrative begins the moment the art piece, like a sculpture, is shown to a receptive audience. However, what determines whether the art is successful and important is not necessarily through exhibition, peer or public scrutiny, or how complex and successful the narrative is, but rather is sometimes judged and priced arbitrarily by an elite group of art buyers, collectors and critics.

 

The question is how do we know if the art is good, and how can we determine that for ourselves? Some say that “art is subjective, and not all art is for all people.” Whether someone likes it or not, art should have a number of criterias that can determine whether the art is important and meaningful to someone(s). Here is something I found that might guide us a little.

“How to Judge Art: Five Qualities you can Critique whether you’re an Artist or not.”

“The characteristics I found were beauty, skill, inherent meaning, uniqueness, and fulfilled intent. I’ll explain each of these throughout the article.

I’m convinced that anyone can use their own fundamental knowledge to compare artwork based on these five inherent properties. Even if other people have a different opinion than you do about a particular work of art, this article should help you explain how you came to your conclusion.

All right, so on the basis that all art is not created equal, let’s get to the nitty-gritty and break down these five characteristics of art.

Beauty in Art

Beauty is, and always will be, in the “eye of the beholder.” Your decision about the beauty or lack of beauty in a particular work of art is instinctive and natural. In fact, you probably won’t even have to make that decision, you’ll just either be captivated by a piece of art or you won’t.

People within the same social context often agree on what is beautiful, so you’ll probably find others close by who will like the same things as you do. Some aspects of art that are generally appealing to people are:

1. Repeating shapes, patterns, and symmetry.
2. Colors, especially colors that complement or enhance each other.
3. Textures, both visual and physical (like thick, impasto paint).
4. Crops and compositions that focus the eye and keep the viewers’ attention.
5. Movement or flow to guide viewers through the art.
6. Correct or appealing proportions of figures and objects.
7. Presentation and framing.

You won’t need to take a checklist into the galleries for this since your eye will naturally be drawn to the art you prefer. Like I mentioned before, this is the easy one. All you have to do is answer the question, “Do I like this?” Of course, if you decide to ask why you like it, then the list above might come in handy.

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Skill and technique

Technical skill is the most comparable and measurable aspect of art. As you look at a painting (or any other work of art) you probably will be able to determine how skillfully it was created simply by comparison with other works.

First, compare the works to other art you’ve seen in that medium before – if it is a painting, for example, decide whether this artist is more talented than others you’ve seen. It might be difficult if you’re just starting out, and in that case, don’t let it worry you. It will only take a short amount of time for you to see the differences between a skillful painting and one that’s poorly done.

Second, look at all the artwork on display by the artist. You might find that some are more impressive than others, or appear better made, and you’ll certainly have an idea of one or two that are the best out of the entire group.

Third, look at each work of art itself. Are they individually consistent? Are there places that you can see odd markings compared to another area within the same piece? Sometimes art may look rushed or strange, but if it is created in a similar fashion throughout the entire piece then the effect is most likely intentional. If not, then that work may not be as good as some others that are more internally cohesive.

Judging the level of skill in a work of art is probably the most difficult thing I’m suggesting to do in this article. Over time and with more exposure to art you will eventually come to a greater understanding of different mediums. Plus, if you’re lucky enough to be an artist yourself you’ll probably find out that you instinctively have a better grasp of other mediums already.

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Inherent meaning

Art is powerful, not just for its beauty or the talent needed for its creation, but because it can cause emotion, make political statements, or challenge preconceived ideas. Of course not all works of art are intended to be so thought-provoking. A still life of oranges and apples, for example, usually won’t have a deeper meaning. If it does, I think the artist deserves more credit than for a traditional still life.

Here are five levels of meaning in art, which I’ve listed in order of increasing importance.

1. Purely representational art – Made simply for visual appeal, with no deeper intent.

2. Art that references other art – It “tips its hat” to some other work, possibly providing a fresh perspective or continuing a conversation that another artist began.

3. Art that tells a story, or evokes a specific emotion – This is art that begins to affect you. It might cause you to understand, empathize or feel what’s being depicted.

4. Art that makes a statement – Here the artist is clearly speaking through the work, actively promoting a cause or perhaps bringing attention to an issue that’s important to him or her.

5. Art that is an allegory or metaphor – This is art that contains more than one meaning, and possibly several. It use symbolic imagery or deal with more intangible human issues, and yet the artwork should still work as a visually appealing creation.

Look for these when you look at art. Finding meaning or emotion in art opens up a whole new realm of enjoyment, and will deepen your appreciation of artists who incorporate it into their work.

Uniqueness

This is the aspect of art which relates to not only what the artist is depicting but also how the artist is depicting it.

Good art either explores new subjects, or old subjects in a way that hasn’t been done before. When you look at art, ask yourself what (if anything) is different in the work from all the other art you’ve seen. Sometimes it will jump out at you, sometimes it won’t. If you do notice something different, decide for yourself whether that unique quality distracts from or enhances the piece.

There’s a happy medium, I believe, in finding art that stands out from the crowd but doesn’t use gimmicks or cause distractions.

Fulfilled intent

What is the artist trying to say? I hear this question a lot, and for the most part there’s a simple way to find out. If you’re at a gallery, read the artist statement. Many artists just want to accurately portray a subject, or to express an emotion. The important thing is for the artist to be in control of the art. If the intent is one thing, the art shouldn’t say something else. The artist statement should deepen and strengthen the viewers’ understanding of the art.

Cezanne still life with flaskI’d suggest that when you go to a solo show, briefly scan all of the works being displayed so you can get an idea of the artist’s style and note any constant themes, emotions, or ideas.

Then go through each piece of art again, but more slowly, to really study them. Take your time and determine what you think of each one according to the five characteristics mentioned in this article. After that, check out the artist’s statement.

Compare the artist’s intent with what you had previously understood the intent to be, and then armed with that knowledge (trust me, sometimes it’ll blow your mind) make one last round of the gallery to see how your opinions have changed.

If you experienced the artist’s intent before reading the statement, excellent. If you only got it after reading the artist’s statement, that’s OK too, just not quite as good.

This method keeps the art from being overshadowed immediately by what the artist is saying about his or her work. It lets the art speak for itself, yet the artist still gets a chance to clarify what is meant in case you miss the point on your own.

Of course, if you can’t even understand what the artist is saying in the artist statement, then just try to enjoy the art for its visual impact and don’t worry about it. The intent probably wasn’t very clear for that artist either.

To sum it all up:

Good art should appeal to you. It will be skillfully made, most likely by an artist who has created other works in a similar fashion.

The best art has meaning beyond just an image; perhaps it will bring you to tears, make you laugh, or remind you of something you’d almost forgotten. It also stands out in a crowd, and dares to be different.

Most importantly (in my opinion) good art is understandable, although it may make you think in ways you never expected to.

I hope you found this article helpful; I know that in writing it I’ve solidified some of my own views about art. Feel free to send me your own comments or feedback as well.”

*All images in this post are details from still life paintings by Cezanne.”

In the end, art is nothing more than a commodity, and its value is arbitrary, unless someone(s) is willing to break the mold and take the risk and forfeit actual money for the piece, due to its inherent value to the collector, not the value determined by those market forces. People who have the means to buy art are less likely to forfeit money on art that is not deemed “marketable” in the Art World. If the work is not deemed valuable by market demand, than the art is “un valued.” By the way, not all marketable art is good art, and it seems that the world has ignored that fact for many decades now.

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Jóhann Eyfells (Photo by Hayden de M. Yates)

Jóhann Eyfells, at 94, is without a doubt one of the most diverse and important artist of the 20th and 21st centuries. However, the recognition he has sought has been as elusive as the collectors for his work. Why? Very simple he doesn’t play the game that most recognized artists have, and he is to many collectors, buyers and critics untamed and enigmatic. His body of work challenges the viewer by its impressive forms, diversity, physical size & weight, and its inherent deeper meanings. He is one of the most true and honest artist that this world could ever hope to produce today, whose creative process is deep, precise, and multidimensional. He brings to this world an opportunity to not only peer into the unknowing universe that resides around us, but also within our own consciousness. He needs our attention, because this world desperately needs him to help us out of our mediocrity and growing lassitude.

 

 

(Photos by Hayden de M. Yates)

Jóhann Eyfells will never surrender because what keeps him alive is not whether he will be accepted, appreciated or if his work will sell, but because he embodies the spirit of an artist, continuously searching for the opportunity to express what words can’t possibly express about ourselves and the universe we belong to. (Written by Hayden de M. Yates)