November 8, 2015

Colour study: pastels x red



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October 31, 2015

The Charm of the Grotesque (and Egregiously Tacky)



A few years ago, I had a bedazzled phone cover that looked a lot like one above. Certain friends of mine with a predilection for frilly, fluffy, sparkly things would call it cute upon seeing it, but others would find this both amusing and ugly, as I myself did. So why did I like it? Eventually, I came to the conclusion that its appeal lay in the very fact that it was so overtly tacky it actually managed to achieve some kind of unconventional charm.

It sounds strange at first, if anything because it seems totally counter-intuitive to our aesthetic sensibilities, which we regard as usually attracted to the beautiful, symmetrical, and clean. But it is not so strange when we think about the appeal found in the art of the grotesque, a term coined in the 16th century that refers to styles of art which incorporate elements of the bizarre, fantastic, ugly, uncomfortable, and horrific. First revived during the Renaissance by the school of Raphael in Rome after a landmark excavation of grottoes in which such decorations were found, the grotesque style quickly became popular in decorative art and architecture throughout Europe and remained so until the 19th century.

But how did those who found it appealing explain its appeal? Like several terms that first appeared in the field of art but were then brought over to other branches of the humanities to be discussed, one of the first attempts to understand the term, ‘grotesque,’ occurred in literature, more specifically, in Michel de Montaigne’s (1533-1592) Essays to denote a burgeoning genre. In it, Montaigne described the genre as closely related to satire and tragicomedy because of its ability to effectively communicate grief, pain, and comedy all at once. Thomas Mann (1875-1955) later concurred with this feature of simultaneous discomfort and delight, thereby calling the art of the grotesque a “genuine anti-bourgeois style” in Past Masters and other Papers (tr. H.T. Lowe-Porter). Mann’s view was in the context of his broader opinions on modern art, the key characteristic of which he regarded as the refusal to acknowledge tragedy and comedy any further because “[Modern art] sees life as tragicomedy, with the result that the grotesque is its most genuine style.”

The funny thing is, though, that because of this tragicomic trait, the grotesque could very well relate to what we deem as cute. As tragicomedy tends to elicit a feeling of sympathy towards the pathetic, it creates an imbalance of power in which we viewers have the upper hand, and according to cultural theorist Sianne Ngai in Our Aesthetic Categories: Cute, Zany, Interesting (2012), so do cute things, which evoke “helplessness, pitifulness, and even despondency” out of the fact that they are “small, helpless, [and] deformed object[s].”

Arguably, then, the reason why things like my egregiously tacky phone case are somehow charming is indeed because they are cute— oddly enough by way of the pity they inspire in us, much like the art of the grotesque. Who would have thought that my giggly friends with a penchant for stuffed animals were right all along?

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October 28, 2015

colour study: orange x cobalt blue


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October 11, 2015

A history of the colour purple

purple“Infanta Style.” Paolo Roversi for Vogue Italia (1997).

Having been in the land of the well-loved British royal family for a few days now, I’ve been thinking lately about the history of the colour purple and its widely known association with royalty. Rulers ranging from Roman emperors to Queen Elizabeth I apparently passed sumptuary laws prohibiting the colour to be worn by anyone but royalty. But why was it considered so special?

The reason had much to do with its exclusivity. For centuries, the ancient Phoenician city of Tyre held its reputation for being the sole producer of “Tyrian purple” due to the locally found species of sea snail (now known as Bolinus brandaris) that was used to make the precious dye. The process for which to harvest the dye was extremely laborious: manufacturers first had to crack the snail shells open and extract a purple-pigmented mucus before exposing it to sunlight for a carefully set amount of time. To yield just one ounce of usable dye it required about 250,000 snail shells.

That’s a lot of snails. In fact, if you think about how a single standard serving of Escargots à la Bourguignonne is commonly served on a plate containing six grooves for six snails, that means that the same amount of snails needed to produce one ounce of purple dye would have also been enough to feed about 41,667 people each a restaurant-serving of escargots instead.

In the words of Plato, “The measure of a man is what he does with power,” and here, the extent of that power even affected the realm of molluscs. Imagine that.

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October 8, 2015

Colour study: sorbet shades


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October 2, 2015

Colour Study: teal x olive


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