Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Elephant No. 124: Jean-Michel Basquiat Elephant

Last week, I edited an article on the new Basquiat retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), and it occurred to me that it might be interesting to try and create a Basquiat elephant.

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988) was born and bred in New York City. He first came to fame in the late 1970s as a member the graffiti group SAMO. Blending street art with hip-hop and post-punk, Basquiat was soon exhibiting in major galleries and museums around the world. The first retrospective of his work was held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City in 1992.

Untitled (Fallen Angel), 1981
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988)
Acrylic and mixed media on canvas

Something of a child prodigy, Basquiat could read and write by the age of four, and was fluent in three languages by the age of eleven. His artistic ability was evident early on, and was encouraged by both his mother and his teachers.

At fifteen, Basquiat ran away from home. Returned to his father within a week, he later dropped out of school, at which point his father banished him from returning. Basquiat eked out a living selling t-shirts and homemade postcards, while staying on friends' couches.

In 1976, Basquiat and a friend began spraypainting graffiti on buildings in Lower Manhattan, often with cryptic messages. Three years later, Basquiat began appearing on a local television show, and played a local bar with his "noise rock" band, Test Pattern, showing pictures of his art at band gigs.

Untitled (Fishing), 1981
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988)
Acrylic and mixed media on canvas

By the early 1980s, he was being asked to take part in group exhibitions, and had his first solo show in March 1981. That same year, his work was featured in the prestigious magazine, Artforum, and his career took off. In 1983, he even collaborated with Andy Warhol on a series of paintings.

In 1985, he was featured on the cover of the New York Times Magazine; but privately he had begun to unravel. As his heroin addiction worsened, he destroyed a number of relationships with gallery owners and others. After Warhol died in 1987, Basquiat began isolating himself even more, and had essentially started to self-destruct.

Although he made a serious attempt at sobriety in Hawaii in 1987, Basquiat was found dead of a heroin overdose on August 16, 1988. He was only 27.

Bird on Money, 1981
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988)
Acrylic and mixed media on canvas

Despite his relatively short career, Basquiat has had a major influence on contemporary art. His style was unusual for its time, and had a take-no-prisoners attitude towards social issues such as poverty, racism, and class struggles. He combined bold graphics with text that was sometimes obscure, and sometimes taken directly from commercial packaging, advertising slogans and even children's picture books.

In 1996, artist Julian Schnabel made a feature film called Basquiat, and in 2009, Tamra Davis debuted a documentary called Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child at the Sundance Film Festival. He has also been referenced by other visual artists, and a number of recording artists.

Trumpet, 1984
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988)
Acrylic and mixed media on canvas

By 2002, Basquiat's work was selling in the low seven figures. The highest price paid for a Basquiat to date, however, is a record $48,843,750 paid for Dustheads at auction in 2013.

Dustheads, 1982
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988)
Acrylic and mixed media on canvas
Source: Christies

I'm no expert on Basquiat, although I love his work. A quick study of his visuals, however, gave me a few hooks I could use to produce some sort of elephant homage: a limited palette in each work, splashes of bold colour, lots of scrawled black and white lines and cryptic text. So all of that went into the design of my Basquiat elephant.

I decided to paint on a piece of artist-quality bristol board measuring 11 x 14 inches (27.9 x 35.5 cm). I began by splashing on some broad strokes of colour. Because Basquiat seemed to like various shades of mid-blue, I started with that as my main colour. I never slop paint on like this, so it was kind of fun.

Since he also seemed to like a lot of yellow and a sort of salmon-tinged red, I used those next.

Finally, since I planned to write a few words on the final work, I added some areas of white. For the rest of the white and black, as well as any accent colours, I planned to use markers.

I tried drawing on the blue central section next with a white paint marker, but was somewhat underwhelmed. I should have gone for an oil stick. Instead, I overpainted it with white acrylic paint.

After this, I used markers to draw in some evil poachers with guns, crowns (both because I like elephants with crowns, and because Basquiat often used crowns in his work), some words, and various other stuff. Many of the words were taken from quotations and poems about elephants. I think I would add different words and think the verbiage out a bit more if I were ever to try something like this again, but I'm not completely displeased with it. I also usually have much nicer printing, but I let it go for this.

I added some splashes of red as well, because I wanted to add a bit of contrast and visual zing, as well as the hint of the relatively blood-soaked reality of today's elephants.

To finish up, I added some more scrawls and scribbles, and then let it be.

It's obviously nothing like an actual Basquiat, but it was an interesting exercise, and so far out of my comfort zone that it was kind of fun. I also have a new appreciation for the skill behind his work. I always knew, as he famously reminded people, "Believe it or not, I can actually draw." What I didn't realize is how complicated and layered his compositions actually are. Hope there's a catalogue for the AGO retrospective that I can buy.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Elephants are highly social creatures, and function within tightly structured groups. When that structure is disrupted, however, elephants can go off the rails.

In the late 1990s, rangers in South Africa's Pilanesberg Park suddenly began coming across white rhinos that had been brutally attacked and killed. Because the horns had been left behind, they knew poachers weren't to blame.

Instead, it was soon discovered that a group of elephant delinquents had begun picking off their fellow pachyderms. This is extremely abnormal among properly socialized elephants; unfortunately, this group had been left essentially without adult supervision from a very young age.

The problem originated in a major elephant cull 20 years earlier. In South Africa's Kruger National Park, elephant populations had grown too large for the park to support. Because there was no way of relocating large adult elephants back then, a number of adult elephants were killed, while the babies were saved. The babies were then taken to other parks, such as Pilanesberg. At the time, the supervising veterinarian worried that the baby elephants might not be properly socialized without adults to show the way, but there was no other option.

The cull was nothing short of catastrophic. Elephants learn from one another, passing down knowledge from mother to child. In effect, an entire generation of traumatized orphan elephants had been thrown together without adult supervision. And 20 years later, they were essentially troubled teens with raging hormones. In elephants, raging hormones generally lead to murderous behaviour—in this case, taking the form of rhino murder.

Pilanesberg rangers began tracking and observing the elephants, which had also taken to attacking tourist vehicles. The worst offender was an elephant named Mafuta, de facto leader of the unmanageable herd. So out of control was Mafuta that he would fly into a rage if a rhino escaped him, and would seek out and attack the same rhino weeks later.

At their wits' end, rangers feared they would have to shoot the rogue elephants. Luckily, someone raised the idea of bringing in older bull elephants to teach the teenagers some manners. By 1998, rangers from Kruger National Park had figured out how to transport fully-grown adult elephants, and brought some older bull elephants to Pilanesberg.

The older elephants quickly established a pecking order, which also has the net effect of reducing a younger elephant's hormone levels. As one ranger put it, it was like suddenly confronting a group of out-of-control teenagers with their fathers.

The juvenile delinquents got the message, and since the arrival of the adults, not a single rhino has been killed by an elephant.

Male elephant and rhino, South Africa, 2011.

To Support Elephant Welfare

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