What’s old is also new

Alma Deutscher

Some people have told me I compose in the musical language of the past and that this is not allowed in the 21st century. In the past it was possible to compose beautiful melodies and beautiful music but today they say I’m not allowed to compose like this because I need to discover the complexity of the modern world. And the point of music is to show the complexity of the world. Well let me tell you a huge secret. I already know the world is complex and can be very ugly, but I think these people have just got a little bit confused. If the world is so ugly, then what’s the point of making it even uglier with ugly music?

— Alma Deutscher, British composer, b. 2005

 

A continuous yes

Christopher Isherwood, detail from Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy

Most painters who try to do what a beloved, earlier painter did end up as imitators. Others, like David Hockney, begin where an earlier painter, or set of painters, left off and find a new, idiosyncratic path. Hockney’s a cheerful, sincere post-modernist, borrowing as a tribute to his passion for earlier painters and always using their influence to find himself. They include Matisse, above all, but also Picasso, the Impressionists and post Impressionists, Chardin, Vermeer, Freud, Balthus, and, a recent surprise for me, Piero della Francesca. It isn’t as if this was a secret, since he puts his admiration for the Renaissance painter in plain sight, but I hadn’t paid close enough attention to his work to notice it until now. An afternoon at The Metropolitan Museum of Art a week ago elevated my admiration for Hockney dramatically. Until last Saturday I had no idea how powerful his best early work is, and how wonderfully strange his paintings can seem even when he’s devoted to nothing more than honestly celebrating domesticity, bourgeois happiness and the simple pleasure of human relationships—in other words, the placid order of civilized life.

Having never seen his paintings other than in reproductions, I started paying serious attention to Hockney only around the turn of the century, when I first saw his Polaroids at Retrospektive Photoworks in L.A. during its run there. I immediately loved them, many assembled from dozens of Instagram-square Polaroids. Until then I’d been appreciating him in a sidelong way, fond of his color and the Southern Californian light that transfigured his work when he moved to the U.S. Hockney’s paintings are so intensely illuminated, it makes you realize that Venice Beach is nearly a thousand miles closer to the equator than Venice, Italy and the light of the Midi has nothing on the light that inspired Diebenkorn. To walk out of LAX for the first time into that brilliance must have been like stepping out onto another planet, compared to the Northern glow of Hockney’s native England.

The Metropolitan show highlights the radical simplicity of the earliest famous work that followed Hockney’s migration to the U.S. In each individual painting, MORE

Hockney at the Met

Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy, David Hockney

I got a chance to see the David Hockney retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this past weekend, and was knocked out by seeing, in person, so many paintings I’ve only seen in reproductions until now. A long response to the show will be forthcoming, if I can find the time to finish it. The double portraits–the one above offers a sense of their scale–make the show worth attending.

Simplicity

Stack of Tins, watercolor

Joshua Huyser, a Minneapolis artist who exhibits internationally, does the simplest possible water colors of single objects, or a small group of identical objects, on a nearly white ground. They’re a delight, and they do what all painting should do: make you look at something as if you’re seeing it for the first time.There’s a guileless quality to the execution that reminds me of Fairfield Porter in that it never lets you forget you’re looking at paint.  They’re precise and detailed but not overly so, and color is used very sparingly. Seeing each new painting on Instagram is like hearing a hammer drive a nail just a little more securely into its seat.

Cezanne’s gray

Cezanne’s studio, courtesy Paris Review/Joel Meyerowitz

Joel Meyerowitz makes some excellent observations about what he noticed when he saw color of the walls in Cezanne’s studio and how that color’s fluid properties, as the background for whatever Cezanne observed in his still life paintings, helped give birth to modernism. Delightful. It’s also wonderful to recognize the little sculpted Cupid still there, so familiar from Cezanne’s painting of it. Here’s an except from the fine little essay, which is actually itself an excerpt from Meyerowitz’s new book, Cezanne’s Objects

Cézanne painted his studio walls a dark gray with a hint of green. Every object in the studio, illuminated by a vast north window, seemed to be absorbed into the gray of this background. There were no telltale reflections around the edges of the objects to separate them from the background itself, as there would have been had the wall been painted white. Therefore, I could see how Cézanne, making his small, patch-like brush marks, might have moved his gaze from object to background, and back again to the objects, without the familiar intervention of the illusion of space. Cézanne’s was the first voice of “flatness,” the first statement of the modern idea that a painting was simply paint on a flat canvas, nothing more, and the environment he made served this idea. The play of light on this particular tone of gray was a precisely keyed background hum that allowed a new exchange between, say, the red of an apple and the equal value of the gray background. It was a proposal of tonal nearness that welcomed the idea of flatness.

Desire and meaning

Jordan Peterson

Below are excerpts from two recent conversations with Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. Intellectually, he is following a path laid out by Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell in an attempt to draw psychological truths from the wisdom traditions, otherwise known as major religions (before our culture turned the word “religion” into a political slur and before everything had to be interpreted politically). Peterson moves beyond that in the second conversation, which ought to be of particular interest to artists. I find his thoughts on this subject compelling because I think religious faith draws its vitality from non-conscious wellsprings, just as great art does—faith and creativity both attempt to tap into a larger mind, a larger awareness, than the ego-centric, rational consciousness with its attempt to grip the reins and remain in the saddle of daily experience. For most of my adult life, I would say I’ve been totally in agreement with what Peterson says here, and yet as I get older I worry about an unquestioning embrace of “meaning”. What he says about the fundamental need for meaning is absolutely true, though I think it’s missing an acknowledgement that it ought to be hedged with hesitancy and caution. (Maybe I can venture reluctantly into that in the next post. This subject is pushing me, again, to make sense of why I paint and to question whether or not it adds up, which makes me uncomfortably curious.)

The craving for meaning is fundamental, maybe more fundamental than the instinct to survive itself. It may, at least, be indispensable to that instinct, as Victor Frankl suggested in his account of his time as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, where prisoners who had no framework of meaning died much more readily than those who had a way to make sense of their suffering. I think Donald Kuspit is pointing toward this in much of his published criticism by positing eros, desire, as fundamental in the production of art, and there is definitely an erotic element in nothing more than the energy of oil paint applied to canvas in a certain way. Eros is the affirmation of life over death; so by definition art is erotic. But he means more than that: he means MORE

Elements: Bill Judkins

Sometime This Winter, Bill Judkin, 36 x 36, acrylic, dye, plaster compound

The Patricia O’Keefe Gallery at St. John Fisher College is exhibiting Bill Judkins paintings from Nov. 13-Jan. 5. This one’s a beauty.

Elements: Bill Stephens

Three Seekers, Bill Stephens, 36 x 28, pen on paper

New drawings from Bill Stephens are on view at the Patricia O’Keefe Ross Gallery at St. John Fisher College. It’s another chance to see some of his work, maybe best described as subliminally generated. Some of his figures and forms seem to be animal, vegetable and mineral all at once. They never just sit there. His colored drawings are getting more and more interesting and one recent one in his Instagram feed is a knockout. Show runs from Nov. 17-Jan. 5.

Continuum: Jean Stephens

Matriarch

I met with Jean Stephens this week to talk with her about her new exhibition at Oxford Gallery, Continuum. I’d been impressed by her previous solo exhibition at St. John Fisher college, and I wanted to hear her thoughts on how her work has evolved since then. She paints landscapes and artifacts she brings back from her immersions in nature: a deer skull, eggs, nests, and rocks. She and her husband Bill are complementary souls, both spiritually-oriented without being attached to any particular creed or religious practice, though Bill regularly meditates. Both do work that is largely an attempt to tap into the subconscious, in Jean’s case with more emphasis on rendering the outward appearance of the world around her. What struck me in most in the new show—and in examples included in a concurrent exhibit at Main Street Arts—is a series of paintings of eroded rock towers she saw on a trip two years ago to the Southwest. She felt surprisingly at home in the rough-hewn landscape at Arches National Park and that encounter became a catalyst for a new kind of painting. We talked about her work in general and this new series of improvisational geological figures she’s been developing.

I began by asking about two of her paintings in this show that I’d seen in the earlier exhibit in which she takes rocks, sticks, bark and other objects she collects from nature and arranges them in the shape of human figures.

You had these in the St. John Fisher exhibition.

Yes.

You talked before about their spiritual significance to you.

They’re spirit guides. When I started gathering the items to set up the still lifes, the figures just appeared. I started putting things together. That wasn’t my intention. I just let it happen. I feel a spirit comes through me and helps me with the work.

Bill sees his work as well as a spiritual activity as well.

It’s not surprising that things overlap. We’ll start looking like each other eventually.

Where did you collect the objects for these paintings?

Walks in the wood. On the shore of Maine. How many people have boxes of rocks in their studios?

The birch bark is from the bed in our driveway circle.

You collect these things without any idea what you will do with them.

The backgrounds . . . the one with the corn husk and the egg is a piece of wood from an old gun cabinet that a student gave me. This other is part of the bridge support on Route 65. All this wonderful graffiti. Bill and I were taking a walk and I took a photograph of it. I printed it out on a large sheet of drawing paper.

<We moved over to another still life combining a shell with a page of writing superimposed across the surface of the painting, something she’s been doing in other work as well.>

This one is a page from my great grandmother’s autograph book. Her name was Henrietta. These were the sentiments that people wrote in these books. Tender, sweet, sometimes poetic. In those days people had these books. There are little stickers in there. Some of the comments allude to the man she was going to marry. She died young in childbirth. It’s a treasure to have this little part of history.

<We moved to an oil on panel painting of a Robin’s nest with long trailing tendrils, almost jellyfish-style.>

What kind of nest is this?

We had a robin build a nest from a grapevine wreath in our back yard. And when they were done, doves came in and added a couple twigs and used it themselves.

You usually work in oil.

Oil, colored pencils and graphite.

The landscapes are before or after the workshop you did?

After.

Tell me about the workshop.

Timothy Hawkesworth. Irish guy. In Pennsylvania on a farm. Three sisters run the farm. Christmas trees and maple syrup. There’s sheep, chickens. Eastern Pennsylvania. You could go for a two-week commitment, or one week. You get a room to stay in. They feed you three amazing organic meals a day. Tim does a talk every morning. He reads poetry. A lot of it is closing the gap between you and the work. How do you get into the painting? What is your energy approaching the work? Bill and I had just come back from the Southwest. I had two days to do laundry and repack. All those Southwest forms, all that color, all that heat, was still in there, ready to come out. We did the four corners. Moab, Arches, Canyonland, Dead Horse Valley, ended up in Santa Fe and flew out of Albequerque. I had packed a ton of supplies and had no idea what I was going to do (in the workshop). This was two summers ago. I started with drawing, just some gestural line work to get my feet wet. Tim did some demo stuff and came to me one morning and said, “Let me show you something.” I had oils and Liquin and paper and he took something I’d started and just went wild. Whoa. That was starting to crack the door open for me. I’m here, but let’s take some risks. The studio I started in I had a hard time because of all the hay. The sheep were right next to me and I was having trouble breathing. So when there was a change of people it opened up and they moved me to a better space. There was a morning I had a breakdown and a breakthrough. He started by asking the group, “Who was excited when you were born? Who was disappointed when you were born?” I was the third girl in our family and my father was just waiting for that son. So I mean I just spent twenty minutes in tears. He came by with his co-facilitator and asked, “How you doing?” I shared some of my journey. They were amazing. I felt as if I had this big support.

What was he doing by asking that?

It was part of his morning talk. He would talk about work; he mentioned Philip Guston a lot. He likes his work. And I’m not sure how he got to that question. It just hit me. It was what I needed to hear.

It sounds as if he was trying to get you connected to deeper motivations.

Who’s in here? How does that come out? His facilitator said, “We need to bring little Jean out to play. Jean needs to play.” Because I’m pretty tight and controlled.

We’re all dealing with that. I talked about that with Chris. We’re always trying to balance doing what we know how to do while taking chances.

Is that OK? Is that legitimate art?

That drawing that Rembrandt did, the little ink sketch of the mother with child, the baby trying to walk, like a calligrapher he created this figure that is full of energy and it blew Hockney away. I think it’s what you’re talking about.

It’s what we did as kids. What shut that spontaneity down? The what-will-people-think business. It’s OK, Jean.

How far were you into the workshop?

Halfway, at least. It wasn’t until I got into the second week that these started to appear (the towers from Arches park.) These were done there.

They stand out.

The writing was automatic writing.

That’s how it looks.

<She depicts these pillars of sandstone or other rock against lines that appear to be legible writing from a distance, but are simply script-like marks.>

I work with my non-dominant hand, they’re just gestures. It’s informed by the writing from my great grandmother’s book. Being out west, we saw a lot of petroglyphs. The native people out there, this was their form of writing. And we aren’t writing by hand anymore. No penmanship.

No penmanship for me, for sure.

Our sense of history as human beings, writing to each other, is eroding away. (Like the rock towers.)

The line for its own sake, the shape and energy of the line, freed from its need to mean something else. What do you call these?

They spoke to me as figurative, matriarchal. The one on the back wall I call grandmother. They are feminine, powerful. The spirit out there, the native spirit and the land spirit, is very strong.

There’s a tremendous energy in the desert and the mountains.

The earth is exposed in a way that it’s not exposed here. You’re looking at layers of millions of years. Out there, I’m face to face with it. It surprised me because I love the landscape around here.

The west is really different.

How I worked the piece, there’s that sense of erosion, history, the writing again is behind and then across the figure on the lower part. Appearing and disappearing as it wears away. That’s oil on Arches paper used for oil. I pinned a whole bunch of it up on a wall and just went at it with paint.

Just the feel of the paint is so nice. I love the color.

This is the matriarch. The lines are colored pencil. It’s got me a little freaked out because I love doing that, but I also love doing this. I’ve been playing with encaustic now too. It’s different. You work with the hot paint and it does different things. You get texture and surfaces that are unexpected which reminds me of printmaking.

These lines remind me of Gorky. You’re working from the same place as the surrealists and abstract expressionists: the subconscious.

I did the calligraphy first so that’s underneath informing the paint. Some of it gets obscured. Some remains.

That’s cool. There’s a counterpoint between the drawings and the paint. The lines don’t dictate what you’re going to do with the paint.

In the pyramid piece I covered it up.

That’s a more exacting image. The paint in these, though, has the same feel of your hand as the drawing.

I didn’t intend it to be a human figure. But she’s there. She’s in me and needing to come out in this way. I can’t fight it anymore. I’ve been afraid of her too long. I spent two weeks in Hawaii in September. I went with my best friend. The color and the fire; I did a couple watercolors to respond to them. But here probably should be some larger oils maybe on piper.

The encaustic seems like a medium more suited to it. You’re drawn to these elemental things.

I was always outside playing in the fields and the trees as a kid. That’s why I’ve been on this journey in organic form: nests and eggs and landscape.

What is your background in terms of your sense of spirituality?

I think I’m a naturist. The spirit comes through nature, the sky, the stars, the spirit of the land. I was raised Wesleyan Methodist, and it was brutal. I had an opportunity a number of years ago to participate in a vision quest for a fourteen-hour stretch. Spiritual, personal growth, at a retreat center south of Ithaca. One of the final events was this vision quest. We went out when the sun rose and came in when the sun set, no speaking, on your own. We were just asked to notice what was going on in the natural world. I saw a lot of things with wings that day. I saw a hawk just soaring, gliding, and just tipping a wing or its tail, letting go. It was a great metaphor for life.

He was just riding the wind.

That was my message.

 

Continuum: Chris Baker

In conjunction with Oxford Gallery’s show of new work by Chris Baker and Jean Stephens, Continuum, I drove to Weedsport and met with Chris at his home studio for a conversation about his work. Here are some of his comments when he could get a word in edgewise, despite my motor mouth. Chris is super-fit and in September he finished eighth in the world for his classification in Rotterdam’s ITU World Triathlon Grand Final):

Tell me how you got started.

When I was in high school it was for fun. Always enjoyed it. But then when I went to Rochester Institute of Technology for undergraduate work and things started to meld. I wanted to do it, become a professional artist, but realistically . . . you have to have a plan B, or maybe painting is the Plan B. I was lucky enough that I just went for a BFA and when I got out in ‘68 the war was on, and someone said, “If you go into teaching you’re draft-free.” I went into teaching, but it didn’t work. I taught in Auburn for two years. After two years in the service, I got back out, went right to Auburn and got an MFA and again thought I want to paint not teach, but I had to go back into it. In Auburn, they said no openings but there’s an opening in Cato. They hired me when I walked in the door. The superintendent said you’ve got to get your certification. He said “Let me just check, you’ve had two years experience in Auburn” So I got my certification a month later in the mail. Thirty-six years there. That was a great job. Summers off, painted all summer. Over the years I taught kindergarten all the way up to a little bit of college in Auburn.

That’s the great thing about teaching. It really does afford almost enough time to make art.

When we lived in the village we had a carriage house I converted into a studio. I was able to work evenings, weekends, year round.

What sort of work were you doing then?

I started playing around with tempera paints in the classroom.

On the way to gouache.

I went to Commercial Art and said this Crayola tempera, as much as I enjoy it, not sure . . . they said try gouache and that was that.

You were doing representational art even back then?

MORE

Premier premier coup

Morning Commute, Abby Lammers, oil on canvas, 9 x 12

From abbyblammers, on Instagram. Abby Lammers works here in Rochester and also East Falmouth, MA.

The crucial thing is enjoyment

Frank Stella, Mosport 4.75x (1982), © 2015 Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

I couldn’t have put this any better, from the beginning of an essay by Robert Linsley a few years ago on the occasion of a Stella retrospective in Europe. My only quibble is that I’m not sure I see any intellectual side to Stella’s best work (one reason I love it), which Lindsay seems to suggest in a paradoxical way further on, when he talks about feeling the artist behind the work without any conceptual screen between viewer and artist. Art is immediate, even though it can take years coming back to it to actually see and feel a painting directly, and this passage bears that out even though it starts inauspiciously with critic-speak about “voiding of the subjective” while then offering the counterpoint of “feel the artist behind the decisions,” which is what he’s really describing:

I’ve enjoyed Frank Stella’s art since my own beginning as an artist, and the crucial thing has been the enjoyment. The intellectual or theoretical side was always evident—the literalness or factuality, the deliberate voiding of the subjective—and I never needed to take a course or read a tract to feel its necessity or reason, but overriding for me was the pleasure that accompanied the fact that I could also feel the artist behind the decisions. I had a particular affection for the Protractors, although it was many years before I saw one of the original Black Paintings in person, and felt how strongly emotional and romantic they are. I find myself thinking back to those early days in art because recently I’ve acquired a real love for Stella’s Moby Dick series. . .  I’ve known about them since they were made, in the late eighties, and always thought they were an important group of works, but only very lately have I really seen them, with a return to feelings about art that perhaps one only has when young. Inspiration means an intake of breath—the breath of life, being whatever one needs and wants to find in art. For me, Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne, and intermittently many others, were truly inspiring—they filled me with a sense of the possibilities of  life. Emulation was the necessary beginning, but eventually I had to meet the challenge that was presented, to breath out and keep on breathing. In those days I drank in their work and always had a thirst for more, or, to return to the metaphor of inspiration, the fresh air of art brought every cell to life. Looking at art books was a daily pleasure that gave a perspective on the ordinary dullness of life; visits to museums were transformative. Every contact with art sent me back to the studio. I never had a “disinterested” response to beauty, for me it was always about what could be done—what had been done and what I could do, and every historical achievement was another possible path forward. This practical, achievement oriented attitude is why I like Stella’s writing, which is exactly that way, but I never expected to have such strong feelings about his work. Today I just want to stand beside the Moby Dick reliefs and feel the energy. It’s the unexpectedness of this response that, for me, proves its truth.

Eve Mansdorf

Upstairs View, Eve Mansdorf, oil on linen, 26 x 30

Sherie’ Franssen

Hell, rising from a thousand thrones, oil on canvas, 77″ x 77″, Dolby Chadwick

Grand Jury prize finalist

Breakfast With Golden Raspberries, oil on linen, 22″ x 46″

I was humbly surprised to be informed recently that I’m a finalist for the Manifest Grand Jury Prize, with a cash award of $2,500, which will be bestowed on the best single work exhibited in the entire 13th season at Manifest Gallery. This means the organization’s panel picked Breakfast with Golden Raspberries as the best work in its particular exhibit earlier this year. The final award will involve the contribution of as many as 20 jurors and the few dozen works under consideration will have been culled from more than 15,000 entries to all of the Manifest shows throughout the past season.

Here’s a summary of the process from the notification:

I’m writing to notify you that, now that our 13th season has concluded (and we’ve gotten #14 off to a good start) we’re launching the final stage of the Manifest Grand Jury Prize for your exhibition season, and your work is among the finalists to be considered.
Since we announced the MGJP partway through the season you may or may not be aware of all it entails. Rest assured, there is little you will have to do, although we hope you’ll chat about it in your networks, share your success to this stage, and, if you win, shout it from the rooftops. If you would like further information and background, rather than belabor it  here, I’ll ask that you read up on the prize at http://www.manifestgallery.org/about/awards/grand_jury_prize.
In short, your works were scored the highest by our jury (either alone or tied with others) in the exhibition in which you participated. The entire pool of works, out of many hundred we exhibited across 30 exhibits during the season, are those which did likewise. This pool comprises approximately 40 works.
I’m delighted to have gotten this recognition for a painting that won awards in two other shows last year, including a best in show at Marin MOCA.
I recently told Jim Hall, at Oxford Gallery, that I loved this painting. He laughed and said, “If you do say so yourself.” I laughed along with him, because what I really meant is that there is nothing in this painting that bugs me. To say I love it is, in my lexicon, essentially to say it doesn’t trouble me. (It’s a little more than that, but not much.) Normally, in almost every painting I complete, something continues to bother me about it, something I am at a loss for how to fix–or too cowardly to risk messing up the painting by attempting to fix it. In this painting there is nothing that needs fixing, and that’s a very rare quality in one of my paintings. In a painting I’m finishing now, another small still life with a patterned bowl–I keep going back to them–I’m very happy and surprised by much of the canvas, but one particular area of the background continues to bother me. It doesn’t look wrong or bad, but something in it just subliminally nags at me as not quite right. It’s fine, and few other people would see anything amiss, but something about those distant kitchen cabinets keeps asking for adjustment. I went after it this morning but even as I completed the amendment, I was wondering how to neutralize, just slightly, the color of that sector. As Sam Kinison said so immortally, it never ends.
Sometimes it does end, though–as with this award winner. No matter how often I look at it, I know it’s done. And nothing about it bugs me.

Thiebaud, part 2

Two Paint Cans, Wayne Thiebaud

More Thiebaud, on how he isn’t and was never a Pop artist, is self-taught, and doesn’t trust art that’s rooted in ideas, from another book published in the same year as the one in the last post, Realists at Work, John Arthur, Watson-Guptill, New York, 1983:

You’ve described yourself as a self-taught painter. Does that mean you didn’t study painting?

No. I started as a sign painter and did fashion illustration, furniture drawing, lettering, and cartooning without going to school. At twenty-eight or twenty-nine, when I went back to college, I got credit for most art courses by special examination by that time I had exhibits, Army experience, and so on. I have courses on my record showing I studied painting and drawing, but those were generally by challenge; they just gave me grades. I took art history, courses like the psychology of art, lots of art education courses, but no formal training.

I believe I saw your rows of pies in Life magazine in the early sixties. Your work kept getting linked with Pop Art at that time, which I thought was a bit of a distortion. Much of Pop Art relied on the look of mechanical processes and played down the effect of the hand.

If anything, my interest was the opposite, more out of the tradition of Velazquez, Manet, to Eakins, through people like Jasper John and Richard Diebenkorn, for whom the signature gesture is central.

When I painted the first row of pies, I can remember sitting and laughing—sort of a silly relief—“Now I have flipped out!” The one thing that allowed me to do that was having been a cartoonist. I did one and thought, “That’s really crazy, but no one is going to look at these things anyway, so what the heck.”

Some people have talked about the irony in my work and the idea terrifies me. That’s something I’m not interested in on a conscious level, and the reason I’m not is because that kind of explication of an idea vitiates its power. If I were using what intelligence I have to be ironic, I couldn’t be smart enough for myself. I would be disappointed, and I’m generally disappointed in irony for that very reason. It seems self-explanatory and anticipatory in a way that never interests me. The reason I don’t like classical surrealism if there is such a thing, is that it seems already to have arrived before you’ve seen it. Even a good painter like Magritte—his ideas put me off.

You may be opposed to irony, Wayne, but not to wit.

No, I think wit is a very high form of attainment. Any kind of wit is one of the toughest things to do. Also, it’s one of the things that’s missing in so much of the art world. When you lose the capacity for a sense of humor in an art form, you lose a sense of perspective.

I was just talking to Harry Rand, who wrote a book on Gorky, about how, when you get so you can do something, you don’t want to do it anymore, and he said, “Yeah, that’s very hard, but I think one of the things that painters have to learn is that it’s all right once in a while to shoot fish in a barrel.”

 

Thiebaud, part 1

Art history in its essence is an organic, growing, and changing discipline. It’s more like a private game refuge, a treasure of exotic and wonderful rare Art Beasts. And our interests continue to change as we find out more and more. It’s hard for me to recognize something like progress or evolutionary development, say in a Darwinian sense, in the development of art. For instance, though I’ve conscientiously studied his paintings for many years, I just can’t find anything new, conceptually, in Paul Cezanne. For me he’s just a damn good painter, who’s using practically every device, convention, and trick in a painting, but he was so terrific, so bright, so careful in trying to be true to his relationships, that the painting is different, not because of any invention, despite his beliefs, but because of the composite structure and complexity of his perceptions translated into paintings. 

–Wayne Thiebaud, from Art of the Real, edit. Mark Strand, Robert Hughes forward, Clarkson N. Potter, New York, 1983

In the fewest possible words, and his typically humble voice, Wayne Thiebaud here says nearly everything an artist needs to know about his or her relevance at any given place or time in the world of art. To wit: the historical sense of place and time don’t matter now. Everything is permitted; but only a few things are worthwhile. Thiebaud came to this realization after Arthur Danto did, but before Danto started talking much about it in 1995. By the 60s, when Thiebaud emerged by being mistakenly classified as a Pop artist, it became possible to do anything and call it art. There were no longer any limitations on what could be considered a work of art, something Duchamp asserted decades before, but it was a cynical declaration of freedom that didn’t flourish until the Pop artists adopted that same philosophical stance and liberated artists to do whatever they wished. The ironies embedded in Pop’s appropriations struck Danto as an integral part of the game, I think, but irony isn’t required and if anything it cheapens much of Pop and makes it far less interesting than it ought to be. (Don’t forget that Pop gave us Jim Dine.) It’s now entirely possible to paint like an Old Master without a postmodern smirk (some of Richter for example)—because the work has the same power now as it did hundreds of years ago. What Thiebaud is trying to say, and which remains difficult to articulate clearly, is that an authentic individuality matters more than any other consideration in art—and this individuality is infused into a painting subconsciously, not by choice. It’s about style, not stylization, as Susan Sontag said. Style is involuntary. A painting needs to be an extension, a replication not necessarily of something seen but of the wholeness of a painter’s identity, “the composite structure and complexity of his perceptions translated into paintings.” It has nothing to do with conceptual justifications or ideas or meanings and messages. A painting is more like a sacrament, a host for the life of the painter, than an expression of something a painter simply thinks up. It isn’t about thought, and it isn’t about hewing to anything but what an individual’s need to paint requires, which is something to be learned anew with each painting, something felt rather than known, discovered through act and instinct and a physical struggle with the qualities of paint.

Taffy #1

Taffy #1, Oil on Linen, 46″ x 46″

Standing Taffy

This cairn of taffy squeezes
into shapes that Hammersley,
Stella, or Matisse
might have liked, loopy
curves of subtle tones,
color contained, simple as a tune
or cream uncoiling into a cup.

Stacked, unstable acrobats
lean, and come near
to teetering onto stone.
There’s a timid cheer
in their defeated smiles
that spiral through caramel,
raspberry and peach,
those fields of foggy color
wrapped in wax
and twist-tied into chipper bows.

Sweets, created to melt
into fleet flavors,
no one can respect,
nor put to use,
signifying nil but the need to please.
Dimpled, dented, crumpled,
they sag as if under more
than the punished bulk
of one (or two) of their own.
Those wings will never fly, guys,
but you’re serenely ready
in the purity of your hues
to stand for nothing but what you are.

Minot purchase award

Chevron Bowl, oil on linen, 12″ x 16″

I was pleased to learn that Minot State University purchased Chevron Bowl, which was included in Americas: All Media 2017. As a part of the school’s permanent collection it can be exhibited and also used as a teaching tool. It has always seemed that the school puts a special emphasis on printmaking exhibitions, so it seems appropriate that they wanted to hold onto this painting. It’s one of my best efforts in a more painterly approach to the process of making a picture, one in which I’m often thinking about the techniques of serigraphy. With all of my work now I apply a first layer of paint in discreet areas of uniform color, with an effort to establish the right value relationships between these flat shapes, so that the hue may be off here and there, but the image breaks down properly into lights and darks. Then I go to work within these sections of flat color, adding detail and tweaking color, both in my typical, painstakingly realistic work, and in less defined paintings like this one, where the effort is to work wet-on-wet, keeping the premier coup quality of the paint–and maintaining the sense of flat patterns established in the first application of paint.

In both processes I want to develop the painting in stages, keeping corrections to a minimum so that the color remains fresh and alive, yet with paintings like Chevron Bowl I want the ghost of flatness, as it were, to be an active element in the viewing experience. I want what the viewer sees in this work to waver just a bit between two and three dimensions. I want areas of color to remain as uniform as possible, which means I sacrifice precise, granular detail for the sake of preserving the evidence of my brush and hand. The execution becomes much simpler and the quality of light in a painting like this feels more delicate and resonant, the paint a bit less opaque. Because you’re not looking at something rendered with a sense of photographic accuracy, the mind is attending to both the paint itself and what the paint seduces your mind into seeing. In that conflict, the frisson of those two things–the image of the world I’m creating and the flat pattern of paint on cloth–I’m trying to bring a certain kind of life to the work different from what’s there in the verisimilitude of my more extremely realistic work.

Our Oregon correspondent

Now that he lives in Oregon, instead of Western New York, I don’t get a chance to have coffee with Rick Harrington anymore, and I miss it. I think the last time I saw him was at his home and studio here, after he’d had his first surgery on his vocal chords. He used to be the loudest guy in the room; now he sounds more like Super Dave Osbourne leaning over to say something in a movie theater. His surgery saved his life, probably, but for a long, long time, the anesthesia dulled his brain in a way that made him wonder, as many of us do, about signs of early-onset something or other. But he’s come out of the fog and sounds like a new man. As he puts it here, he got lost in his mind. I thought I would pass this especially interesting and encouraging post, after a long silence:

OK, so it happened. I was warned, and didn’t act quickly enough. Nothing like a friend thinking maybe you’d died to get you off the dime.

A couple months ago we were in New York, on Long Island, visiting my marketing consultant. I’m her favorite pro-bono client, the sort of privilege you get when your daughter happens to be a spectacular designer. I’ve been futzing over a new logo/identity, which she usually lets me muddle through on my own until I go astray with type and such. Then she shepherds me back in, (i.e., takes over and gives me a file when she’s ready). Anyway, she pulled up my website to see where we were currently, (yeah, I know – wouldn’t you think she’d be current, checking in every few days?).

Dad! You haven’t posted anything since 2015! People are going to think you’re dead!

I gave her my best hangdog look.

Knock it off! You don’t get to use cancer! That’s history. Over. Time to move on!

I admitted I knew that, but was trying to worm my way out of my complete and utter negligence of the publicity side of my career. She got me to promise to get back to updating, to journaling, to keeping current.

But I didn’t. I thought a lot about it, but I didn’t do it. We lost my younger sister Cindy this year. If you knew Cindy, you’d think it impossible, something as puny as cancer taking her. But cancer’s not puny, and despite strength and courage unimaginable to me, to say nothing of a will way stronger than iron, Cindy is gone. The earth should have cracked at her passing, the universe should have split. But as loss so often is, it was quiet, leaving us all deflated and heartbroken. It’s taken some time for me to regain focus.

I have some vague recollection of posting a while back about habits, and how mine are nearly all bad. And over the past few years, since before 2015, I’ve gotten way out of the habit of posting anything, out of the habit of a lot of things.

So, I’ll catch you up, briefly. See if I can’t get a habit started again. Sometime a while back I was diagnosed with cancer in my vocal chord. If you’ve known me a long time, you’ll remember a voice that could really holler. I was loud. As a child I was asked by innumerable teachers to get everyone’s attention. In high school, the adorable little girls next door, Amy and Julie Hoffman, told their mother they were afraid of my brother Todd and me. They’re so loud, was their explanation. I could stop my dogs in their tracks at 400 yards, occasionally terrifying innocent bystanders (even some not so nearby) in the process. Yeah, that’s gone. But I’m still here. Two surgeries to extract the cancer, two more to rebuild my voice as much as my throat would allow, and then, once I was convinced I was going to live, I had my knee replaced. It would have seemed a waste of money otherwise.

And I lost my mind for a bit. Or more accurately, was kind of lost in it. I was unable to digest a book, paint well, and seemed to have suffered almost a complete loss of my sense of direction. I didn’t even know I had a sense of direction, I was just never really lost, comfortable still when others were sure I (we) was, or might have been, lost. A midnight paddle, for example, and portage and more paddling through the Adirondacks that left my brother-in-law a little fuzzy on how we’d arrived at our campsite. That sort of thing. But after my medical adventures, it was gone, along with the rest. And a few other oddities, skips of perception, etc. Finally after a couple of really strange and disconcerting episodes scared me to the doctor, my GP, my wonderful GP, ran a few tests and confirmed two things-

  1. The anesthesia required for five surgeries, over so short a period, had been, “a severe insult to my brain”.
  2. Outside of the cancer, I was insanely healthy. Not healthy like a 55 yr old guy, but maybe 28 to 30. (This is not to claim anything affecting my appearance, which is all of the current 58. Or more).

And the cancer seems to have been dealt with. When will my mind be my own again, I asked. Well, that’s a tough one, he said, (or something along those lines). You need to be active, to sweat a lot, to make your system circulate, and it will come back with time. But there’s really no telling how long it will take. A couple years. Maybe more. So get busy, he said, with life, with living. Don’t think about it.

Hard not to think about. And I’m hard headed. I was raised to work, so I kept painting. Poorly for a long while. They made beautiful flames when they burned.

I went to Alaska and ran a remote river with friends. I walked the dogs. A lot. Exercised. We welcomed an amazing granddaughter into the world. And after the kids gave me permission, I convinced Darby we should move back to the Pacific Northwest of my youth.

And then, seemingly in the blink of an eye, Darby got a job that really excited her, in Portland, OR, my home town. Next thing I knew, she was there working, we bought a house I hadn’t seen other than Zillow, and with the help of friends and family, we packed up a truck, loaded three cats and the White Devil into Darb’s truck, Uly in the cab with Todd and me, and off we went to Oregon City, OR. A trip we all swore we’d never do again, but I knew I had to repeat it a few months later with the rest of our stuff, with my buddy Paul Driscoll along as co-pilot.

Damn. What a pain in the ass. Seriously. But we’re here now, and I love Oregon as much as I did when I was a kid. More for all the years of missing it. The whole place is new to me again, and I hope to explore it until I drop, 35 or 40 years from now. Rivers to run, mountains and coast to hike, and steelhead to chase. At least that’s the plan. I’m not new to the idea of plans going awry, of punches to the head, but I’m making plans anyway.

And granddaughter No. 1 has been joined by a little sister, and a cousin. That’s the downside of the move – them so far away. But it’s actually quicker to fly back and see them than the drive was. And I don’t have to drive through New Jersey traffic. And the other part of this plan is grandma and grandpa’s ultimate summer camp. Hiking, horses, rivers, rafting, paddling, ocean…. they’re not going to want to go home. And until they get out here, or if they don’t, we’ll be back there frequently.

So out of the blue, I get a call the other day. I didn’t recognize the number, and didn’t answer. But there was a message, and it’s from an old fishing buddy- like way back old, college days. I call him back, we catch up a little, and he said, Yeah, I was on your website, and I saw that you hadn’t posted since June of 2015. I was afraid you were dead.

So this is the first attempt at re-establishing the habit. To let you all know, I’m not dead. There are a few updates tucked in here, on the Artist Statement page. And the painting above. I’ve been working a lot, with a bunch of pieces finally coming together. More soon. I think. If not, Emily, give me a swift kick this time. I can’t have anyone else thinking I’m gone.

ps- (do blog posts have ps’s?)- This spring, something has cleared out more of the cobwebs. I suddenly have more ideas than I can keep track of. Like it was pre-cancer. I have some summer travel in between, but I’ve got to find a larger studio this fall. So much to do. Big stuff. Stuff I’m really excited about. I’ll try to remember to keep you all in the loop.

So, if you’ve read this far, I need to say Ive migrated the Field Notes to my new website- the one I got scolded for not updating. I’ll post here a few more times, but at some point it will all be over there. It can be found at: http://www.richardcharrington.com/field-notes/