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Wangechi Mutu & John Singleton Copley

Machinehead, 2003, from the Fungus series, Wangechi Mutu, ink, acrylic, and collage on Mylar, Courtesy of the artist Portrait of Sarah Erving Waldo, ca. 1765, John Singleton Copley, oil on canvas, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Edward Cotting, PEM

Caption (Left Image): Machinehead, 2003, from the Fungus series, Wangechi Mutu, ink, acrylic, and collage on Mylar, Commissioned by the Museum for African Art, Courtesy of the artist.
Caption (Right Image): Portrait of Sarah Erving Waldo, ca. 1765, John Singleton Copley, oil on canvas, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Edward Cotting, PEM

Although they are separated by two and a half centuries, these two artworks employ a similar strategy to convey their respective messages. In Machinehead by Wangechi Mutu and Portrait of Sarah Erving Waldo by John Singleton Copley each artist has used contrasting color and texture with great effect.
Copley, a self-taught artist, was an acute observer and a skilled technician. Like his sitters, he was a product of the pragmatic emerging colonial American society. The colonists were determined to prove that creating an egalitarian and moderate society did not mean sacrificing sophistication and elegance and Copley met their needs by providing status-conferring portraits. Rather than exploiting class distinctions and presenting idealized features in his portraits, as was customary in Europe at the time, he showed the particular faces of the individuals he painted.
In Portrait of Sarah Erving Waldo, Copley uses his extraordinary facility at rendering minute detail and textures to convey the richness of the objects. Satin, lace, pearls, and polished wood are brought to life brilliantly. The artist plays off of subtle differences in the appearance of each object’s surface while, like Mutu in Machinehead, minimizing the use of color. There is a basic contrast of value between Sarah, who is light, and the remainder of the portrait, which is darker. Copley creates another notable contrast, between the warm colors of Sarah’s skin, the red drapery and the brown table against the cool grays of her gown and blues of her shawl. By limiting his use of color and rendering beautiful texture contrasts Copley focuses the viewer’s attention on the message of luxury and success that the sitters wanted to communicate.
By limiting her main color selection to the warm pink in the figure’s skin and clothing and the contrasting cool gray of the mushroom, Mutu helps the viewer attend to the beautiful but vaguely repelling surfaces in Machinehead. The exact nature of the textures is unclear; on the figure could be animal or reptile skin, disease or clothing. The surfaces suggest impermanence and change, infinite space and microbial life, man-made horrors and nature gone awry. By limiting her use of color, Mutu leads the viewer to focus on the tensions she creates with the texture contrasts. The viewer’s speculative journeys resulting from this tension are central to Mutu’s artistic explorations about the nature of identity revealed by race, gender, geography, history and ideas of beauty.


Wangechi Mutu was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya, earned two art degrees in the United States and studied anthropology. She is known for her assemblages and collages that address questions of identity revealed by race, gender, geography, history and beauty.

Related Web Links: 1 | 2 | 3
John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) is considered to be the greatest self-taught genius of American colonial painting, noted especially for his acute observation of the material world. Introduced to art by his stepfather, who was an engraver, Copley was influenced later in his career by English immigrant Joseph Blackburn, but soon surpassed Blackburn in skill. A successful showing of Copley’s painting Boy with Squirrel at the 1765 exhibition of the Society of Artists in London was not sufficient immediate incentive for him to leave his lucrative portrait business and travel to Italy to study. When Copley finally did set out for Italy on the eve of the American Revolution, the nature of his work changed.
American Art: History and Culture by Wayne Craven. McGraw-Hill, 1993.
Related Web Links: 1

Portrait of Sarah Erving Waldo was commissioned by the sitter’s husband, Samuel Waldo, two years into their marriage, when Sarah was 27 years old

Art Elements and Principles
Six art elements can be thought of as the building blocks artists use in forming an art work. Seven art principles that organize the “blocks” can be thought of as the construction methods.

Elements - The building blocks
1. LINE A mark/stoke longer than it is wide: straight/curved, horizontal, vertical, diagonal, and thick/thin.
2. COLOR What we see when light is reflected or absorbed by surfaces: saturated/diluted and warm/cool.
3. VALUE (Luminance) Degree of lightness or darkness of colors: tint(light)/shade(dark)
4. TEXTURE Appearance of surfaces both represented (2D) or physical (3D): smooth/rough, glossy/flat, undulating/jagged, and transparent/opaque.
5. SHAPE (2D) FORM (3D) Area defined by lines, colors, values and textures: geometric/organic, soft/hard and sharp/smooth.
6. SPACE Distance or area between lines or shapes: deep/shallow, crowded/empty, and grounded/floating.

Principles - The construction method
1. UNITY Each element in art work is necessary, none can be left out with out changing the work significantly.
2. BALANCE Even distribution/arrangement of elements in an art work.
3. DOMINANCE One element is given more importance than other elements in an art work.
4. REPETITION Use of an element(s) more than once in more than one way in an art work.
5. RYTHYM Arrangement in an art work of element(s) in an ordered sequence to create/suggest motion.
6. CONTRAST Use of opposite elements (see parings above) in close proximity.
7. VARIATION Incremental changes in any element(s), especially a dominant element in an art work.

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