From the current show at Oxford Gallery. A couple more weeks are left to see what’s on view.
the painting life
From the current show at Oxford Gallery. A couple more weeks are left to see what’s on view.
On Saturday, home for a week from Toronto, where I visited the Lawren Harris show at AGO, it struck me that I don’t need to drive three hours to see great art. If I make a point of getting out of my cave for a few hours, I can see dozens of great paintings, some astonishingly brilliant, with only a ten minute drive from my door. I remember when my parents moved to Pittsford, just outside Rochester, decades ago, and I was girding myself for my freshman year at the University of Rochester. Within weeks of our arrival, I visited our local museum, the Memorial Art Gallery, and was dumbfounded to realize that I lived only a few miles from a Rembrandt portrait. We’d moved here from the Northwest, and I’d been painting for three or four years at that point, and I’d never been to an art museum of any sort, and it was as if I’d stepped onto another planet, standing before that oil painting of a young man. Over the years–I moved away six years later and didn’t return to Rochester until another decade had passed–the collection at MAG has gotten deeper and richer. So on Saturday it was my middle stop between two other neighboring galleries, Makers Gallery and the home for my own work, Oxford Gallery, which has had an assortment of paintings and sculpture from gallery artists hanging throughout the summer. (The show ends in a couple weeks.) I got a glimpse of a full spectrum–a new, entrepreneurial space where local, exceptional emerging artists show their work, and then a museum that offers rare work from the most recent to centuries-old, and finally one of the area’s most established commercial galleries, still enduring with sporadic sales despite our endless economic stasis. It was gratifying, encouraging and energizing to see such great work in all of these distinctly different places.
At Maker’s, I got an early pre-reception glimpse–the show had just gone up–of work being given an encore from previous exhibits. It was all good, but I was especially impressed by some images on wood panels from Bill Stephens where he has taken paintings he’d put aside in the past and partially sanded them to reveal what amount to newly discovered and purely imaginary scenes. They evoke other worlds, mountains and seas from a crepuscular dream. They could be mythical landscapes viewed through isinglass. I’d seen Andrea Durfee’s landscapes at an earlier show there, but this time around I recognized more clearly how effective they are: geometrically vectorized scenes in which the lines define luxuriantly colored cells constructed into images that work as both representation and abstraction. To put it more directly: she can turn the human form into hills and hills into faceted gems.
Every time I visit MAG, I have the same feeling: a sense of startled gratitude for the intelligence behind its collection and the exhibits it pulls together, sometimes within severe constraints. When you walk into the exhibition space right now, you’ll find yourself spending half an hour in what would otherwise have been a foyer, but has been turned into an eclectic survey of portraiture. It offers an incredible range of work, from a portrait of John Ashbery by Elaine de Kooning to Kehinde Wiley to Sir Joshua Reynolds and a dazzling, effortlessly executed–did he ever make a false move?–oil from John Singer Sargent. What most impressed me about this show, aside from how the curators had leveraged the small, available space, was the way it worked for nearly anyone who spent time with it. Those with a deep knowledge of art would find gratifying surprises: a representational work from Elaine de Kooning, and not only that but an immediately recognizable likelness of a major American poet who happened to have been born here in Rochester. Yet a class of secondary students would be just as charmed by the work, and the carefully, accessibly worded descriptions of each painting. I’ll be posting examples of work I saw at MAG on Saturday, both from this show and from the permanent collection, all of which made me intensely grateful for having such easy access to such exhilarating work.
My final stop was also my longest, since whenever I visit Oxford, I end up having a cup of coffee and a two-hour conversation with Jim Hall on a dozen topics, in which I basically try to prompt him to amaze me with his knowledge of European and American history, Western art, philosophy, gardening, or politics. As we talked I kept focusing, as I’d done at both Makers and MAG, on work I’d seen before, but hadn’t fully recognized. I had a clear sightline to a small oil from Tom Insalaco, a preparatory study for his Conversion of Saul, a large painting indebted to Caravaggio that I’d seen in an earlier show. Somehow I’d overlooked this little study before, brightly lit, set in the desert, with two horses, one rearing up in protest and the other toppled to the ground, with a figure who looks both Bedouin and African. It’s a remarkable, dynamic image, a controlled exploration of how much can be done with a palette restricted to bluish/gray and gold, along with the stallion handler’s white thawb. In this little image, Tom has embedded multiple ironies. For one, there is no Saul. For another, as a whole, the image seems more a commentary on the Arab Spring than an exegesis of a Biblical parable. One horse has been toppled and another is rearing up, nearly out of control, and the ostensible handler is more bystander than active agent, exerting little control over what’s happening. In the distance, a structure that seems nearly swallowed up by a sandstorm. Insalaco’s work almost always has that fertile ambiguity, laden with multiple, sorrowful ironies about contemporary life, even when his subject is supposedly thousands of years old.
More to come from my visits on Saturday.
In Toronto this past weekend, I had a chance to see the Lawren Harris retrospective, a show that brings the work home from its previous exhibition at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Curated by Steve Martin, the show does exactly what it set out to do: reveal the greatness of Harris’s achievement in the first two thirds of his career before he moved into a pure abstraction influenced by Kandinsky. The exhibition offered two visual feasts in one and gave me a more effective experience of Harris’s best work than any of the plodding documentaries about him available on line.
Harris became three different painters during the course of his career. In his first period, he was influenced by Post Impressionism, as well as Americans like Hopper and Burchfield, in his depiction of the rundown, industrial sections of Toronto called The Ward. In thickly-loaded and intensely colorful paint, he conveyed a kind of seasonal grace infused into what would otherwise have been squalid scenes of row houses and hazy factories. It’s tempting to rush through the rooms devoted to these paintings on the way to the paintings of the “North,” but Harris could have quit painting after doing these urban scenes and still be worthy of a retrospective. And yet the focus of the exhibit, his paintings of his imaginary “North” are even more powerful. He simplifies what he depicts, eliminating most detail and reshaping nature into geometric forms that convey energy and structure and light. The amazing thing is that they actually look natural, as if the planet had finally figured out how to get a mountain or an island exactly right. He somehow manages to capture the subtle play of actual daylight on almost completely imaginary forms. The effect is that you’re invited into a visually coherent world that feels both eternal and otherworldly and yet recognizable and arising out of some inner necessity that gave Harris his own idiosyncratic measure for accuracy in what he was doing—when he was only elaborating on sketches done from direct observation.
As it did for Burchfield, the idea of the “North” represents a spiritual state for Harris. In simplified representations of mountains, glaciers, lakes and sky, Harris found a way to balance abstraction with representation in a personal way. You can feel, in the paint itself, how much care went into every square inch of the canvas–Georgia O’Keefe comes to mind repeatedly, both in the simplified and abstract rendering of nature, but also in the deliberate care given to the quality of the paint on the surface. It’s hard to grasp how resonant and serene these images are in reproductions. These paintings are both absolutely still, completely at rest, and yet they radiate an intense, vital energy and clarity of mind.
I happened upon an innocuously titled entry, “Taste and Aesthetics”, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy last night, and it brought to mind a brief section in Heidegger’s lectures on Nietzsche, where the German philosopher celebrates Kant’s theories of beauty—particularly the notion that a human being’s reaction to beauty is “disinterested.” Heidegger praises Kant for this insight that maintains the effect of a work of art has nothing to do with desire—the impulses or motivations an individual harbors, at any level. Art serves no purpose, no end, other than to be what it is. Like human life, it is not a tool, not meant to achieve anything. It’s an end in itself–and thus can convey an awareness of the whole of life, or, for Heidegger, Being. Here is how the Stanford entry summarizes it:
For Kant the pleasure involved in a judgment of taste is disinterested because such a judgment does not issue in a motive to do anything in particular. For this reason Kant refers to the judgment of taste as contemplative rather than practical (Kant 1790, 95). But if the judgment of taste is not practical, then the attitude we bear toward its object is presumably also not practical: when we judge an object aesthetically we are unconcerned with whether and how it may further our practical aims. Hence it is natural to speak of our attitude toward the object as disinterested.
This sounds like blasphemy when you consider what is routinely celebrated in the art world now–how much art is meant to have a political or social “message.” I was puzzled at first why Heidegger dwells at some length on this issue, and especially the fact that he was siding with Kant, when Heidegger’s fundamental concern is ontological: “the question of Being.” Yet as I spent some time with his asides on Kant I realized that he recognized how Kant was, in a way, putting art beyond the reach of his own rationalism. In a like-minded way, the thrust of Heidegger’s effort was to recognize the limitations of Western rationalism and Western philosophy in general.
(Heidegger’s view is that Western philosophy has been unintentionally nihilistic since Plato, and that Nietzsche’s thought represents nihilism in full, decadent bloom. Nietzsche believed he was overcoming nihilism with his notion of the ubermensch and the will to power, but for Heidegger these notions represented the pinnacle of nihilism, its ultimate form–and the dead end of Western metaphysics. For Nietzsche and for Heidegger, art was an affirmation of life in opposition to nihilism, but the two philosophers had dramatically different views of how this works. Nietzsche was a prophet, not of fascism, but of where we have arrived as human beings on this planet. The human race has collectively become his ubermensch, in its march toward the mastery and manipulation of nature through science and technology. By contrast, Heidegger’s lifelong effort was to warn against the dangers of Western hyper-rationalism, in which the natural world and human beings themselves become raw material to be shaped by the will to power inherent in science and technology. Anyone who doesn’t recognize how Nietzsche’s predictions have come true in this way is living in denial.)
In his philosophy, Heidegger was reverting to the contemplative puzzlement of the pre-Socratic thinkers, like Heraclitus and Parmenides, who asked foundational, unanswerable questions without moving far beyond those questions. This Stanford entry echoes Heidegger’s concerns about the limitations of Western rationalism:
Rationalism about beauty is the view that judgments of beauty are judgments of reason, i.e., that we judge things to be beautiful by reasoning it out, where reasoning it out typically involves inferring from principles or applying concepts. At the beginning of the 18th century, rationalism about beauty had achieved dominance (through the work of) a group of literary theorists who aimed to bring to literary criticism the mathematical rigor that Descartes had brought to physics.
It was against this, and against more moderate forms of rationalism about beauty, that mainly British philosophers working mainly within an empiricist framework began to develop theories of taste. The fundamental idea behind any such theory—which we may call the immediacy thesis—is that judgments of beauty are not (or at least not primarily) mediated by inferences from principles or applications of concepts, but rather have all the immediacy of straightforwardly sensory judgments.
Behind this lies an unasked question about what visual art is uniquely able to do— MORE
With this being, the artist, Being lights up for us most immediately and brightly. Why? Nietzsche does not explicitly say why; yet we can easily discover the reason. To be an artist is to be able to bring something forth. But to bring forth means to establish in Being something that does not yet exist. It is as though in bringing-forth we dwelled upon the coming to be of beings and could see there with utter clarity their essence.
Being an artist is a way of life.
__Heidegger’s lectures on Nietzsche (1936-40), Vol. 1
Long-time buddy of mine, Chris Lyons, designed these four stamps for the Postmaster General. He told me that his work underwent a rigorous vetting process, to make sure the designs were effective and suitable, and that he was forbidden from relying on photographs as a source for his images, presumably to prevent copyright violation issues. His own shots would have been fine. I would have recognized an easy write-off and a fun junket in a photo shoot at a classic car show in, say, Carmel-by-the-Sea. Instead, Chris relied on scale models, a few which I believe he still has in the trunk of his actual, current-model car. The only other stamp designer I know by name is Marge’s husband in the movie Fargo, Norm Gunderson. In the movie, Norm artwork made it onto only the three-cent stamp, while Chris’s work is forever.
From his Instagram.
Takeaway: Respect Vermeer above all. And do whatever they are saying can’t be done anymore. From Chuck Close profile today in the Times magazine:
Even as you slip forward a few years and he begins adding color in the early 1970s, you’ll find no painterly style on the canvas, no distinctive brushwork — namely because he had given up brushes to work with a paint sprayer, which he considered a homage to Vermeer. “I can figure out how any painting in the history of art got made, with the exception of Vermeer’s,” he told me. “It’s like a divine wind blew the pigment on.”
Remember that Close was making these portraits at a time of spectacular upheaval in American art, when many of his contemporaries were preoccupied with wild, experimental work — with artists like Walter de Maria, Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson moving into the desert, where they would trap lightning, build a mile-long city of black stone and extend a huge spiral walkway into the Great Salt Lake. Just a few years earlier, the prominent critic Clement Greenberg effectively banished the kind of work that Close was doing from the ranks of modern art. “With an advanced artist,” Greenberg wrote, “it’s now not possible to make a portrait.” So in the world that Close inhabited, his work presented a strange duality. In one sense, the decision to paint photographic portraiture was almost laughably conventional. In another, it was among the most defiant things a downtown artist could do . . .
I was having an email conversation with a good friend (and a couple others, including my brother) on the need, or lack of it, for historical accuracy in movies based on actual events. My friend’s position was that art can do anything it likes, as long as it conveys eternal and absolute human values. I’ve been reading Heidegger’s later lectures over the past year—I’m going to offer much more of my thoughts on those in the near future, I hope—where the idea of “values,” comes under repeated assault, in interesting ways. Yet, as penetrating and surprisingly accessible as Heidegger is in these essays, I tend to agree with my friend, not Heidegger, that in the moral realm, certain things are unassailable and unchanging. (Heidegger’s interest was never ethics, which is why he’s compelling, but more on that later.) Yet, those eternal “values” or “truths” my friend advocates are like Kafka’s castle, partly visible from down here in the village, but its hard to find a permanent home in them–and often difficult to connect that realm with the complexity of human obligations down here on the street.
My friend’s position is that movies need to embody moral truth in order to be worthwhile, and any viewing time devoted to films of lesser quality is not just a waste of attention but destructive. TV should come with a surgeon general’s warning. I informed him that, right or not, he would be able to pry my vintage DVDs of The Simpsons from my fingers only when said fingers are cold and dead. (Actually I cited Rocky and Bullwinkle.) He was unmoved. But he insists, as always, that movies can be utterly unpleasant to watch—the equivalent of eating your broccoli—and yet be essential to the life of the mind. Last Year at Marienbad? Really? Dave Hickey became notorious as an articulate opponent of this view in his celebration of the essential need for beauty in art. His position, as I understand it, is: Give me pleasure or move along—because without it, I’m not going to pay attention to your precious truths. I second that. And I believe Hickey was suggesting that beauty keeps generating truth in different ways as time passes, for succeeding generations, all on its own, without a premeditated effort to adhere to some preconception of “truth” prior to its creation. Its creation becomes a source of unexpected truth, not an illustration of something already known. (This is actually closer to Heidegger’s outlook, I suspect.)
My friend insists that we ignore certain annoying or unpleasant expressions of truth in films at our peril. As much as I disagree with his general stance on this, and think that a movie ought to be engaging and at some level enjoyable to watch, no matter how uncompromisingly true it is, I wasn’t going to engage him on this. I’ve learned not to do that. Yet, along with Hickey, I think this attitude, in part, has made visual art the sort of isolated, segregated, boutique activity most people consider it to be now—a branch of the arts, in general, created only for the discerning, initiated elite while being irrelevant to most people’s lives. As I put it to my good friend: “My position on all this is to ask, if a tree falls in a forest and no one bothers to listen, does it matter whether or not it makes a sound?”
Jim and Ginny Hall’s Oxford Gallery has been selling a lot of my work over the past two years. When I got back from our visit to California this month, I found a check for this one waiting for me. He’d included it in the gallery’s summer show.
From Jason Franz at Manifest Gallery about one of the worthiest opportunities for artists who want to get their work seen:
It is the 7th INPA I’m writing about today…
If you have not already done so, I would like to encourage you to consider submitting your work to the 7th International Painting Annual which has the upcoming (final) deadline of July 24th.
As you may recall, within the past few years we doubled the cash awards for all three of our book projects—with each now offering a $1200 first prize. We do everything with our fellow artists in mind (we’re artists, students, and professors too!), and so we are very happy when our board of directors approves an increase in what we can give back. Believe me, we know that every little bit helps. (We also increased the Manifest Prize to $5000!).
Remember, our non-profit publications are undertaken in an effort to allow wider participation by artists from farther away since they do not require the physical work be available or shipped. The books also enable our otherwise gallery-bound exhibition program to reach a wider viewing audience because books can easily be shipped anywhere.
Many academic libraries collect our publications and college professors (perhaps many of you!) use our books in the classroom as prime examples of the diversity of types of works being made around the world by artists their students can relate to. The fact that we refresh this collection every year makes the resulting compendium even more valuable for everyone.
It is very important for you to know that your past participation does not hinder nor help your submission to this or future projects. As you surely know by now, Manifest’s juries are shuffled each project, and juries are ‘blind’ in that they are not aware of whose work they’re viewing. Your identity is not a criteria. That said, you’ve had success in the past, and this is a good sign that your work has what it takes to win approval through the Manifest jury process. That fact should be encouraging.
So, because we want this 7th volume to continue the series’ participation level and growth in quality and diversity of painting, I wanted to encourage you to submit your work, and to share the opportunity with others if you would.
You can get the details here: www.manifestgallery.org/inpa7
Please don’t hesitate to email me if you have any questions. And thanks again for being a part of Manifest’s history! I hope to see your work again soon.
It’s always gratifying to see a painting find its way to a warm and loving environment. I was invited to the birthday party of one of my most devoted collectors here in Rochester a couple weeks ago. She owns two of my paintings, including this large one, Mangoes and Matthiasdottir, which won an award in an exhibition at the Memorial Art Gallery. She purchased it from that show in 2009 and recently moved to this new apartment and wanted me to see the work in its new spot. Lest anyone get the impression I’m completely self-absorbed, and not just mostly self-absorbed, I should point out how great it was to see her again and meet her friends and children.
This is a detail from Muente’s perfectly composed painting, from INPA 5, Manifest International Painting Annual, Manifest Gallery. Manifest’s current selection process involves a complex two-part system, juried by a 9-12 member panel of professional and academic volunteer advisors with a broad range of expertise. The jury then passes along their scores to the project curator who will assemble the final selections from the jury-approved pool. The gallery is accepting entries for the next annual, with a deadline of July 18.
One of Bill Santelli’s tremendous drawings has been selected for “DRAWING NEVER DIES” a national juried exhibition at Redline Contemporary Arts Center, Denver, CO. This drawing comes from a series I’ve loved since I first saw it here at Oxford Gallery.
The exhibition will run from July 9 – August 5, 2016. Opening Reception is July 9, 2016 at 6PM.
Bill’s contribution to the show is THE PATH 29, above, a prismacolor pencil drawing.
About the Exhibition, from Redline:
Perhaps the oldest and most basic art act, drawing remains relevant despite significant changes in technology and the nature of art. The definition of drawing is blurry and often serves as a basis for study in most every other medium. Drawing is rarely is given the same attention as other disciplines within visual art, but is regularly a root for other artistic practices, as well as being a valid realm on its own.
Drawing Never Dies will survey the range of drawing taking place today. Approaches may span from minimal to maximal, meticulous to messy, monumental to miniature. From commonplace and traditional materials such as graphite and pens on paper, to drawing on the surface of the earth, to artists working with technology such as 3d pen drawings in space or forms intended for experience on the screen; we are interested in a broad/expansive survey of drawing now.
That’s Rule #6 from William Friedkin in this interesting interview:
Inside every one of us who has ever created anything there is almost a constant record of failure, that’s what we think of, that’s what involves our thought process. I know some of the most successful filmmakers and songwriters and inside these giant talents is a little mouse. And that is, I guess, the problem of the creative artist.
I’m hardly posting here of late, because I’m finally hitting my stride again in the studio, after a desultory year, crammed with more social activity and other work than any year in recent memory–all of it good, but also a hindrance to daily painting. I have been almost completely abstaining from exhibiting work this year in an effort to get to the point I think I’m reaching now in my work, with strong momentum, along with a queue of ideas for enough future paintings to fill a show and a currently-successful diagonal move toward something a little different in my still lifes–while continuing to do what I’ve done before, alternating between the two modes. The perfectly executed painting by Porter, above, serves as something of an inspiration–most of the work he did at the end of his life (he had four years left when he painted this one) humbles me, actually, though what I’m doing isn’t nearly as loose. I may get there. What I’m trying to uphold from his example is the sense of a light-drenched scene, where color and only the upper register of values are used to define form, where the shape of the paint is as important as whatever the paint depicts, and where everything seems to have been laid down with a single brush, giving a unity to the marks. It’s as spontaneous as a watercolor, the liquid quality of the oil conveying the shine and reflections of the sunlight. It looks exactly right as you see it for the first time, until you wonder why the shadows of the porch’s window frames could be that yellowish-ochre-orange: in fact it’s the color of the table revealing itself in the shadows of those wooden struts, apparently beneath a sheet of glass laid down over it, or simply a glossy finish on the wooden tabletop. It appears Porter applied that color to the entire tabletop and then went back over it, alla prima, or else on the next day, with an off-white to convey the reflected light from outside. Maybe it’s just an arbitrary color choice that works because it evokes all of this even if he didn’t see it on the actual table. This one has an effortless quality, sprezzatura, the masterful way all the colors harmonize as an abstract pattern, and yet also, amazingly, evoke the unified world of that hazy day on the Maine coast, instantly recognizable as a moment of ordinary happiness, perfection. But it’s the quality of this light, coming from behind but also glowing in this porch, seemingly from all directions, that pushes me to take a different approach in the painting I’m doing now, not just in the quality of the scene, but in the way I’m applying the paint–a greater simplicity of application, thicker layers, some wet-on-wet, and a bolder more simplified way of building the picture through areas of color with less attention to minute details. I’m liking it.
Oh, snap: “That dull Merchant-Ivory movie ‘Surviving Picasso’ has been much criticized for showing, for legal reasons, only ‘faked’ paintings of Picasso’s work in the forties and fifties, but no one has had quite the courage to say that it’s hard to tell them from the real ones, except that Picasso’s real ones of the time were even worse.”
–Adam Gopnik, “Escaping Picasso,” 1996, The New Yorker
I’m happily painting every day again, to the neglect of other things, such as writing about painting. But I want to pass along a series of examples from the INPA 5, the latest international painting annual from Manifest Gallery. This detail, slightly cropped at the right edge, is of a painting done by David Smith, one of my favorite artists who exhibits regularly at Manifest in Cincinnati. He combines the subject and feel of classic Chinese scroll painting–misty camel-hump mountains–in a contemporary mode. Instead of water-based paint on paper, he’s using oil on plywood, and the integral role of the brushwork in traditional Chinese painting here has a gestural quality that reminds me of Richter’s abstraction. And yet it works perfectly to evoke nearly the same kind of world a Song dynasty painter-poet would have evoked. Would love to know more about Smith, how and why he paints in Hong Kong, and if he was born there or is an expatriate.
I’ve been talking with some other artists lately about the motivation to make art–and how easy it can be to lose the intrinsic urge to make it by focusing on it as a means rather than an end. If you aren’t selling anything at the moment, or no one seems to be paying much attention, then it’s tempting to go outside and, say, plant some vegetables rather than struggle with a resistant picture. Art is hard work, but I do it mostly because it’s so pleasurable to finish a painting, and sometimes even more so if the image played hard to get. It’s easy to drift away from that zone where the effort is both constraining but also feels good, the reward of pushing back against a challenge, with the sequence of the hundreds of interim completions along the way toward being done. When it’s most frustrating, it’s easy to dismiss what Keats said about poetry: “If Poetry comes not as naturally as Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.” But I doubt that he meant all good creative work has to be a first draft: Kerouac, non-stop with his long scroll of paper, or Edwin Dickinson with his premier coup work. I think what he meant was that the urge to create something comes naturally, and that’s why people do it, with no other purpose in mind. It’s an end in itself: which is what the “fine” in fine art really means, fin, the end.
I had coffee yesterday with a young artist, Adam LaPorta, who also sells Piction software to art museums. He sat down with me, Bill Stephens and Bill Santelli, for a casual conversation about how technology has changed MORE