Archive for May, 2014

Horse and cart

Breaking Free, Cutting Loose copy

Breaking Free, Cutting Loose, oil on linen

In painting, it can be hard to keep the cart behind the horse. For me, normally, paint comes first and everything else follows along behind. There are many ways to be clever and cerebral with a work of art, and most of them lead away from the subconscious drive to paint—a painting can too easily become a dutiful illustration of an idea. In my solo show in a couple weeks at Viridian Artists, entitled Polarities, I was drawn toward an idea of contraries as a basis for juxtaposing one kind of painting with another—or opposite principles within a single image. I arrived at the title and theme by looking at the work I’ve done over the past five years or so and seeing oppositions everywhere in the way I’d painted—in ways I hadn’t consciously registered while I was doing the work. At that point, I started working on some ideas for a few more paintings to complete the show. I was letting the idea of polarities serve as a basis for creating images that would fit, neatly or not, into the theme. For some people, this would be an occasion for applause, paintings that have “something to say”, work with a conceptual dimension, but I saw it as a Faustian bargain. Clever often means contrived. For the most part, though, the concepts here followed the work, sitting obediently in that cart securely behind the urge to paint.

I did one painting, Treaty: Jelly Bean Bullets, after coming up with my theme, though it took me weeks to arrive at the title. I kept stapling little notes at the crest of my easel’s middle strut, just above the upper edge of the painting, each note bearing a fresh, potential name. Armistice, no, Gun Control, no. Cease fire. Ugh. At first I was going to pair one of my candy jars with a jar full of empty Luger shell casings I found at Etsy, where they’re available in bulk as a craft supply for people making “steampunk jewelry.” Leave it to the Internet. I did a study or two of the empty shells and then at some point I saw how easily MORE

A bird in the hand

Bird in Hand, Jean K. Stephens, oil on canvas

Bird in Hand, Jean K. Stephens, oil on canvas

From Proverbs and Commonplaces, Oxford Gallery, Rochester, NY.

Join the crowd

Join the Crowd, Chris Baker, gouache

Join the Crowd, Chris Baker, gouache

From Proverbs and Commonplaces, Oxford Gallery, Rochester, NY.


Polarities and Prince Myshkin



The novels of Herman Hesse were a hot item in the 60s, with their romanticism, their mix of Jungian psychology and Eastern mysticism and their hippie-friendly dreaminess. I read most of them when I was in high school. I loved the opening of Steppenwolf, the yearning of Harry Haller, the depressed, cerebral, central figure who takes a room in a clean, well-lighted boarding house and lingers on the stairs admiring the cleanliness and order of the home’s little windowed corners, all the attention devoted to middle-class comfort and restraint. He loved it because it was a levee against the tide of darker impulses and brooding that pulled him, throughout the book, toward a pyschologically liberating and dangerous life on the margins of respectability. Its tension between the passion for order and normalcy and the imaginative pull of the unpredictable is how the book fascinated me years ago when I read it. The other night, in an email, I read  a quote from Mark Twain, sent from an acquaintance–“Be good and you will be lonesome.” It reminded me of Dostoyevsky’s Prince Myshkin, who was so good he simply uttered  whatever he thought, without calculation, always telling the truth, or what appeared to be the truth to him, and the most fundamental truth he uttered was that “beauty will save the world.”

So I did a search for Prince Myshkin to refresh my memories about him and came across an out-of-print essay about him from Hesse, who was deeply influenced by Dostoevsky. To my surprise, it led me toward Hesse’s notion of polarity and how Myshkin himself was a figure who reconciled polarities by being rooted in something more fundamental than the world of opposites (in a Joseph Campbell kind of way). As Hesse puts it, about a scene where the prince is rejected by everyone around him:

On the one side society, the elegant worldly people, the rich, mighty, and conservative, on the other ferocious youth, inexorable, knowing nothing but rebellion and hatred for tradition, ruthless, dissolute, wild, MORE

The next best thing to being there

Boating, Edouard Manet

Boating, Edouard Manet

The Metropolitan has joined in the trend championed by Google, Getty and the National Gallery and has uploaded 400,000 images of art for free public viewing, with resolutions fine enough to give you a “feel” for the surface texture. So quit taking pictures of permanent collections and just look while you’re there. As with Google’s art project, the photography is so good you can see much of what was only available by looking at the actual work, except for a sense of scale.

For the underdogs

love artThis is a great guide for buying good art that’s far more affordable than what gets traded at the air fairs in one particular city–Toronto, just a hop across the lake for us in Rochester. It’s a great point-by-point argument for buying art that represents a choice between a good painting and a new high-end flat-screen TV. That’s no Sophie’s Choice.


Dazzle, Jim Mott's new app

Dazzle, Jim Mott’s new app

My friend Jim Mott came by a little while ago to discuss painting, “Tim’s Vermeer,” marriage, money, the uncanny behavior of birds, and an app he invented and created with the help of his partner, Bruce Campbell. A few days later, as a follow-up, he introduced me to a spot on the southern shore of Lake Ontario where you can see a dozen kinds of warbler in the course of an hour. They congregate there, biding their time before flying across the lake into Canada, maybe waiting for it to warm up enough to justify the effort. I photographed half a dozen warblers, a thrush I’d never seen before, a screech owl, a Lincoln sparrow and a couple catbirds. It was my first “birding” excursion, aside from climbing out of my TV-viewing chair to get a shot of a bird on our birdbath in the backyard.

The bird talk wasn’t completely unrelated to what he came to demonstrate: the game he made, called Dazzle, which is for sale on iTunes. It was designed with a couple disparate things in mind: the markings of a black and white warbler–which we saw in the woods a few days later–and the nautical camouflage used in World War I, called dazzle. Playing the game is simple: you try to rotate diagonal black-and-white squares to either match up colors for yourself or avoid matching them for your opponent. Points are assigned based on the number of matches. The level of simplicity is somewhere between Tic Tac Toe and Minesweeper. The game offers a virtual roll of dice to determine which square you have to rotate, and you can either play against the app or against another person.

“One of the things I like about it is that you can do something else intelligent, like have a conversation, while playing it,” he said.

Since Jim’s project, as an artist, is to take money out of the picture when it comes to art–traveling around the country and staying with people overnight in exchange for a painting of their surroundings–this app represents a very minor equivalent to a grant application or tenure for other artists. In other words, income not related to art sales. He created it to inspire the competitive urge, but also to give players a chance to get fascinated enough with the patterns they’re creating to quit caring who wins. That would be a nice principle to see applied to a lot of other activities. I bought it. It’s fun. Better yet, it’s like a donation to a Kickstarter campaign, without the Kickstarter.

Proverbs and Commonplaces

IMG_2972IMG_2974More from Oxford Gallery’s “Proverbs and Commonplaces” exhibit. Carolyn Edlund’s Fighting Tooth and Nail and Pearls to Swine. 

A First: Cat and N’Cognita collaborate

vernita and catA first-ever collaboration is being staged at Ceres Gallery on May 24 at 4 p.m.:  Vernita Nemec will perform in honor of under-recognized artists backed by the improvisations of  Cat Casual’s William Benton, the singer and guitarist  from Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers. Vernita, our director at Viridian Artists, has presented her performance art as Vernita N’Cognita, in honor of unknown and uncelebrated artists, in the United States, Hungary, Japan, Ireland, Germany, Mexico and France, including performances at the Pompidou Museum in Paris and Documenta 13 in Kassel.

Cat Casual, a Queens instrumentalist and singer  from Oklahoma, now with Shilpa Ray, has worked with a long list of luminaries: Nick Cave, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Makoto Kawabata (Acid Mothers Temple), Steve Shelley (Sonic Youth), Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate), Ivan Julian (The Foundations, Richard Hell and the Voidoids), and many others as well as sharing the stage with many legendary performers of the past and present. He is  grooming his solo band, Cat Casual, for live shows in the near future. Most recently, he contributed original music for a production of Marius Von Mayenberg play The Ugly One which was performed at The Bridge Theatre.

Sugar in my bowl

Kara Walker's Subtlety, photo courtesy Hrag Vartanian

Kara Walker’s Subtlety, elevator butt view, photo courtesy Hrag Vartanian

Some throw-away thoughts that arose randomly in response to the Hyperallergic’s excellent reflections (and photography) of Kara Walker’s new 35-foot-tall installation. It’s a striking feline berm of polystyrene coated with 80 tons of sugar, configured as a Sphinx. It’s called A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, and it’s sitting inside Brooklyn’s deteriorating Domino Sugar Factory, now scheduled for demolition.

First, I thought of some Irish poetry:

1. . . . a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi/ Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;/A shape with lion body and the head of a man,/ . . . what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/ Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?   –W.B. Yeats

2. Thus having been put in mind of sphinxes that herald the apocalypse, or at least the end of factories as we know them, it struck me that if Subtlety were to start dating, after her performance in Williamsburg is up, her perfect match would be the equally apocalyptic Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, from Ghostbusters. They’re perfect for each other. They’re both enormous (weight issues would be off the table), made of sugar, very very white and they both bring intimations—at least for those with Yeats on the brain—of uprisings and/or end times. My only caveat for Stay Puft would be that he may be a big old sailor on leave and probably has seen more than his share of bad-ass ports, but the sweetness on offer here is only skin deep. Underneath she’s got a hard core of polystyrene. And, in turn, Subtlety should keep in mind that her hook-up is highly flammable. Aside from that, a one-in-a-million match.

3. Tired of bein’ lonely, tired of bein’ blue,
I wished I had some good man, to tell my troubles to
Seem like the whole world’s wrong, since my man’s been gone
I need a little sugar in my bowl,
I need a little hot dog between my roll. —Bessie Smith

4. Any cat lover, or simply cat observer, will recognize her pose as “elevator butt.” This is a term I discovered on YouTube after recognizing it from experience and trying to find a name for it. While being stroked affectionately on the back, or when ready for sex, a cat will raise its tail this way and expose itself. So this is a cat that’s either happy or about to be very very happy. It’s taking control of other cats in the time-honored way that women have taken control of men through the ages. The way sugar babies control sugar daddies. So, as if it weren’t enough to be an apocalyptic sphinx, this cat rules as they all do.

5. The last shall be first. An image explicitly honoring slaves by depicting a racial stereotype in a figure that represented, in Egypt, the fusion of god and humanity, would seem to indicate that Walker wants to celebrate how those who were last and lowest, a century and a half ago, now have the opportunity to be first and at the top of their chosen food chain. A visage that belonged to Aunt Jemima now adorns a figure that seems to demand worship, or obeisance, or at least some down-home adoration. The tips of a sweat-absorbent kerchief become the ears of a cool cat. The election of Barack Obama and the sale of Dr. Dre’s brand for $3 billion to Apple would be just two examples of how at least some members of a once enslaved race now can pretty much achieve anything they like in a way very few people can. There is a long list of others who have proven this to be true. (Some of us would like to reserve the right to wish for the old days when Dre was simply one of the most unique and minimalist DJs in hiphop who knew his way around an actual beat like few others.)

6. This turning of the tables, how the lowly can rise up into a position of power, the former slave becoming a master, put me in mind of Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, of all things. It was a novel about a dystopia in which most work had been mechanized and automated. The machine is the ultimate slave yet the labor it offers increasingly displaces more and more human workers. What once simply served us, now usurps the role we once had and leaves us, like the children with their baskets of token sweets in Walker’s installation, wandering aimlessly and unemployed in the terrain it controls and harvests. The rule of technology would indeed be a sphinx worthy of W.B.’s poem, The Second Coming, though I doubt that Walker had this kind of reversal in mind, leaving aside the question of whether her image can stand as an emblem of it regardless of her intent.

7. Does artistic intent matter? Should it determine what effect a work has on a viewer? I like ideas that arise out of some visceral struggle with basic formal challenges. You want to pair something monochrome and cold and shiny against something soft and colorful and bright and you end up representing objects that enable you to do this and, maybe all those shapes cohere in a visual way. Sometimes, on top of that, you end up with another kind of coherence. A painting of, say, open diaper pins becomes an emblem of moral choice, a way of behaving, an outlook on life, once you step back and start thinking about it. None of this needs to be in the mind at the start of the process; only a desire to achieve a particular visual quality. But maybe an idea arises as you feed that impulsive, instinctive appetite to see certain colors and shapes appear on a field of white. Personally, I want to make paintings that have nothing to say, but evoke a world, a unity, a whole. If they imply more than I had in mind, fine. Yet I like Walker’s installation, as intentionally conceptual as it appears to be. It does all I ask: it makes me want to keep looking at it. I mean, who am I to say no to something that big? It makes me wonder if she had an idea of a sphinx lurking in the back of her mind for a long time and finally found the place to make it come alive, without any ideas associated with it, or did she come up with it only after being offered the space? Even better, did the sphinx not occur to her until she had sketched a hilly mound of abstract sugar, with its eskers and kames, and then she thought: hey, that could be the haunch of a cat! Better yet, a sphinx! And she went on from there. I’d love it if that were the case, because that for me is how art ought to come about. It starts as a subconscious pull, like love, towards certain instinctive physical choices, certain formal qualities, and in the effort to make a whole out of many disparate parts, something else happens. It all comes together somehow, and you’re surprised by what your mind has led you to do, even if it didn’t bother to enlighten you, along the way, about where you were headed.

Proverbs and Commonplaces

IMG_2983This wonderful print, Beauty is, by Elizabeth King Durand can be seen at a surprisingly colorful group show at Oxford Gallery, Proverbs and Commonplaces: all work based on sayings, a theme that presented itself to Jim Hall while he was reading a book about Bruegel. It’s a fascinating show and most of the work stands on its own, with the link to the saying offering an added layer of interest. King colored this monoprint by asking her technician for a copy of an X-ray taken for her cataract surgery. She was refused, but persisted with the surgeon who relented and printed it out for her. Her muted color sense is always full of elusive feeling.

Old Masters muddy the waters


The Venus of Urbino, Titian

Great, funny piece from Huffington on how the Old Masters might have indulged in some obscurantist theorizing about their own work in order to be taken seriously, had they been contending with a postmodern academy. Sample from a contemporary Titian:

“Woman, goddess, subject, object and signifier: Venus activates both the Utopian and Dystopian spaces of the Venetian Palazzo. By inducing an affirmative valence of feminine/objective lucidity Venus poses a question: has our tendency to privatize desire further affirmed or disenfranchised her archetypal significance?”

 The post concludes beautifully with:

“Life etches itself onto our faces as we grow older, showing our violence, excesses or kindnesses.”

– Rembrandt Van Rijn

That is what an actual artist’s statement sounds like…

Shop talk


From top down: before, and then after, after

From top down: before, and then after, after

And now, the studio equivalent of a Hint from Heloise. I was ready to toss out half a dozen brushes. I have always gone through them much faster than I should mostly because it seems the more I clean them, the gummier and more fly-away they get. (Is that a hair marketing metaphor? It’s synthetic sable, so . . .) I was at the utility sink washing them the usual way, linseed oil, turpentine, and then laundry soap, and because of a recent rug cleaning effort I thought of the granular Oxiclean in our laundry room cupboard. We have one of those tubs of it that reminds me of a gallon of Breyer’s ice cream, though I’ve found the nutritional content is a bit different. I dissolved some of the granules in a little jar and then stuck my brushes in it for a few hours. When I pulled them out, they were as close to new as I’ve ever seen a used brush get. It even dissolved the paint from the metal stem holding the hairs in place. My thought: all these years, and I’ve never tried this stuff before? I’m interested in seeing how the brushes work now when loaded with paint. The bottom two brushes in the photo above looked exactly like the top one before the Oxiclean. They’re soft now. This message was brought to you by me, not Oxiclean.

Paying attention

Ruskin's drawing of a peacock feather

Ruskin’s drawing of a peacock feather

From Alain de Botton: “So he slowed things down and recommended we spend far longer looking at impressive things, even quite simple things. His own drawings showed the way.”

Shining leaves

Oak Leaf Hyndrangia in Fall, Susan Sapanara

Oak Leaf Hyndrangia in Fall, Susan Sapanara

New Burnes

Portrait of Beth, Sarah F. Burnes

Portrait of Beth, Sarah F. Burnes

A new, very assured portrait from Sarah Burnes, in Oregon. Love how, as usual, she keeps the values bright, narrowing the range of light/dark, as well as restricting her palette to a very limited number of muted colors, with all that feeling concentrated in the slightly pinker tones around the mouth, one fingertip and an elbow. And her previous painting in the background feels completely integrated into the scene, as if the model is dreaming or remembering on earlier moment in that chair.