Archive Page 2

Hey, somebody be Vermeer

Girl with the Red Hat, detail, Vermeer, National Gallery of Art

While I was running today, it occurred to me there ought to be a contrarian challenge directed at idealistic and/or gullible art students before they get launched into the world. Someone should dare them to leave behind, at their death, fewer paintings—or works of any sort—than Vermeer or Piero did. Of course this isn’t difficult. Anyone could leave behind three dozen paintings. Three dozen supremely painted ones, though, is still a challenge. Vermeer’s A-game isn’t in evidence in every one of his 36 extant works. There are around twice that number from Piero della Francesca. The seed to be planted here is that you would spend so much time on each of them that you have a far better chance of achieving something near that rarefied level of quality, without going full-throttle OCD. Finish fewer than most, not more, but make each one count in a way few artists can. It would run counter to most of what the commercial art world herds people toward: don’t get on a track where you’re working for another solo show every three years, don’t try to come out of art school and sell through a metropolitan gallery for significant sums, quit worrying about building a CV with awards and honors, and so on. The whole point would be to ignore the entire system that turns an artist into a one-person factory and simply focus on producing a small number of supremely realized works of art, on your own terms. This is all slightly self-justifying though I have no intention of reducing my slow output even more. Yet I’m thinking about this because my own production has slowed down in the interest of getting things right and focusing on a single series of larger paintings. But the Vermeer Way would be more extreme. For someone thinking on those terms, it would require a day job, or some other humbler and/or more nefarious way to make enough money to get by, short of becoming a professional gambler or day trader—and it would probably mean not having children, though a marriage or other domestic partnership could certainly help, on the economic end. It pays to be gay in the art world, in many ways, but the greater chance it gives you of being childless is a major logistical advantage. Mostly though it would be a way of focusing, while in the studio, on nothing but the quality of the work itself, leaving aside all motivations related to quantity. Imagine posting one image every three or four years on Instagram. You would have six followers, but it would be an event. At the very least, you and a few others would know what you’d done, though you might feel like Crash Davis breaking his minor-league baseball record in Bull Durham with only Susan Sarandon paying enough attention to realize he was a record breaker. Worse fates could be imagined.

Arnot’s 76th Regional

A couple weeks ago, I was pleased to deliver two still lifes to the Arnot Art Museum for the 76th Regional Exhibition. The show will run from March 16 through June 14. My two contributions are Breakfast with Golden Raspberries and Begonias and Dahlias.

Better belated than too soon

He was experiencing one of man’s keenest but least understood drives–information compulsion. –Tom Wolfe, Bonfire of the Vanities

I devote myself to painting, and then writing about painting, and I deposit any checks that come my way when someone buys one of my paintings, but I’ve never strategized any of it as a career.  I do have a career, but it isn’t the point, that’s all. It seems like a way of warping the whole activity into something it isn’t. A CV resembles a parasitical, invasive life form, imported from the world of business, the way sparrows were brought to North America from Europe. I’m a professional artist, but that term seems almost an oxymoron, and I don’t really think of myself as professional (except for my diligence at the easel) any more than Socrates would have thought of himself as a professional philosopher or Jeremiah Johnson a professional badass. I always think of Van Gogh when I imagine the system in which artists now vie to get onto a career track–prestigious MFA, straight to prominent gallery, applications for grants and residencies, keeping a running tally of awards, all of it as dutiful as the path of a white collar organization man in the Fifties. I keep my CV fresh, I list my awards and summarize my shows and sales. Yet it feels as if I’m applying for a job as a comptroller whenever I submit my CV upon request. Where would Vermeer have found himself in this system? Imagine his exhibition history. After a lifetime of work he’d have had enough for one big solo show at Zwirner, with maybe some other artist to fill out the adjacent space. 

My work always takes more time than I would like, but at that constraining pace I know I’m doing good work. The more I become committed to my best possible work, the less new work I have to show, though I’m starting to find ways to shave a little time from the process and actually do more during a day of painting, which is nearly every day of the week.

This puts me into a bind as far as hewing to the ostensible necessity of building a social media following. (In book publishing, this has become brutal. Publishers more and more have no interest in authors who don’t have a following.) As much as I like it—Instagram is the only social media I really use with any regularity, other than this blog which is social only in its availability to anyone. I recognize social media as yet another “professional” taskmaster even though it’s promoted as a service. If you are already known and have a serious following, it can be extremely useful, as is Twitter, which I don’t use at all. If I were far more famous, I would enjoy posting almost anything that seemed worth photographing on Instagram just as a way of being open about who I am. But I’m not, and Instagram isn’t going to get me there. The companies that own these platforms want you to think they will get you there. It’s a lie to make social media feel compulsory, in both senses of the word. They want people to feel irresistibly drawn to them but they also want the stream of content to begin to feel like a duty, an obligation, a necessity. Social media uses FOMO, the fear of missing out, to drive most users (sounds like “drug user” doesn’t it?) to work harder and harder to build a following and get likes, but all of social media has an inherent Catch-22. You need to have a following already by other means to even get noticed, which means there’s no way to gain followers unless you already have them. There are always rare exceptions as in the case of emergent YouTube stars, but any kind of time devoted to Instagram is better spent in front of an easel. Continue reading ‘Better belated than too soon’

Have razor, will paint

One would think only action painters would be honored as action figures. When you fail to get that Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Genius Award recedes beyond the horizon and MoMA looks less and less likely to put you into its permanent collection, take heart, as always, from Van Gogh’s non-existent career. Even if all else fails, a century from now they might make an action figure of you, only by then it will be fully animatronic and equipped with AI to keep painting in your style, perhaps even better than you do now. At last, action figures will live up to their toy category.

From the back of the package. Wait for it:

Full Name: Vincent Willem van Gogh

Occupation: Painter

Weapon of Choice: Straight Razor

I like how he comes with two heads, the one before and the one after he used that razor to turn his ear into a Valentine.

Skulls and jars and unmethodical doubt

I had a recent email conversation with Chris Pulleyn, an old friend, a former employer, and a central figure at the Rochester Zen Center, where I’ve been a member mostly in absentia for a couple decades. She asked me a few questions about the relationship between my still nascent meditation practice and my painting–so that she could publish some of my work and our conversation in the Center’s publication, Zen Bow. It was a wonderful gesture on the part of the people at the Center, and much appreciated. One thing that was fun about the conversation was that she had a hard time seeing common ground between the few paintings of skulls I’ve done—which struck her as very Buddhist, being emblems of mortality and impermanence—alongside my candy jars. It forced me to think about how much meditation has governed not only the energy I bring to painting, but also influenced my understanding about how painting works. What follows is a condensation of the Q/A in Zen Bow.

My first encounter with Zen was in college, when I was a student at the University of Rochester. With a friend from my dorm, I attended my first workshop, run by Philip Kapleau, the center’s founder, in the early 70s. I began sitting then, and have been doing it off and on ever since—constantly trying to establish a daily habit. After I joined as an actual member in the 90s, I spent some regular time in the morning at the center but I’ve drifted into simply sitting at home. It was more than taking up something like yoga. It was, for lack of a better word, a philosophical pursuit.

I came out of high school with a kind of corrosive sense of doubt: a tenacious questioning about the possibility of meaning that seemed urgent but unanswerable. The nature of this doubt is hard to describe without muddling it up, but it was difficult and life-changing and psychologically “totalizing,” to use a word I hear in other contexts now. After contending with this state of unrest for a couple years, as a freshman at UR, I finally got around to reading J.D. Salinger’s Glass family stories, which introduced me to a variety of spiritual traditions: Vedanta, Zen, Russian Orthodox Christianity. His fiction offered me an intersection of references to a variety of spiritual paths. I was so impressed by Salinger, in addition to my curriculum in English lit, I made out a reading list of Salinger’s favorite authors and read them, one after another, as if he had introduced me personally to each of the writers themselves and said, “you two should get to know each other.” Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Proust, Henry James, Keats, Coleridge, and so on, (some of whom I’ve been going back to reread now after all this time.) As a result, I spent the summer after my freshman year at UR reading all of Proust and most of Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard was crucial—my parents were Presbyterian for a while in my teens, and I still consider myself a Christian who uses Tolstoy and Kierkegaard both as an excuse not to go to join a church, but a few of Kierkegaard insights were very close to the paradoxes one faces in Zen practice when trying to break through how the mind entraps itself without realizing it. (I think the conscious, egocentric mind is itself often a sort of self-sustaining trap.) In addition, I made a list of references to spiritual disciplines and other writers mentioned in Franny and Zooey: Ramakrishnma, Mei MORE

INPA 9

Monopoly Board Tokens, oil on linen, 40′ x 40″

I was pleased to learn recently that Monopoly Board Tokens was selected for inclusion in Manifest Gallery’s 9th International Painting Annual. They received 1313 entries from 399 artists and picked 122 works by 73 artists from nearly half a dozen different countries. I was included in the INPA 8 as well, which is available, and will be shipped soon for anyone who ordered it. Thanks, Manifest. Note: this is one of three paintings in a triptych: as part of the triptych it’s entitled Renunciation: Monopoly Board Tokens. 

Jessica Brilli

Jessica Brilli, Caddy in Carport, 2019, Oil on Canvas, 36×48

A preview of Jessica Brilli’s work, which keeps getting better and better, on view at Kobalt Gallery in August.

 

Earth, sky and water

Roadside I, Ken Townsend, oil on panel

There’s a little more than a week left to see Among Untrodden Ways at Oxford Gallery, and it’s well worth the time to get there before it closes. Sean Witucki, Charles Houseman, and Ken Townsend are all working in the same stylistic neighborhood, but each of them has a distinctly individual vision.

Of all the work from Witucki in the show, the standout is a small oil, only a foot in height,  Wolf Creek After the Rain. The way he renders the water of the creek purling over the shallow ledge of laminated shale so common in Western New York is remarkable. Anyone who has hiked the Finger Lakes will recognize that hardened prehistoric mudstone, once the bottom of a sea, under such a thin layer of fresh water. The color of the water, from ochre to olive and then to a gray/greenish blue where it recedes to the far rocky bank, is amazing. The little fringe of foam, harmless whitewater to a wader, beckons to the viewer, but it’s what’s below that remains enticingly visible, an inviting but risky submerged surface, seen through ripples and reflections of the sky. He manages to capture that sense of being able to look into the water down to the slippery face of the creek bed—there’s more trouble here than the shallow depth would suggest. One wrong step and you’re on your back. The woods beyond are done with Corot-like flicks of the brush on soft masses of color. The image conveys a rapt, luxuriant pleasure in the paradoxical stillness, the restfulness, of water that never stops changing but always seems the same. 

Charles Houseman has contributed more than a dozen of his newest paintings to the show, and I reacted most strongly to the most elemental, his vision of the Maine Coast, Great Head at Low Tide, where rock, sky, trees and tidal pool compose a scene that—like Townsend’s shale—could have remained largely the same for a hundred thousand years. It perfectly captures the way the Maine coast seems assembled—or rather dropped into place by a receding glacier—to repel anyone who isn’t standing on dry land, while still inviting you through a jagged gauntlet of stone with its hazy beauty. One of his smaller paintings, Newton Farm, was a minimalist composition with a small strip of land beneath a blue void, an apophatic affirmation of energy through the absence of everything inessential, both pictorially and for anyone actually standing out in that open field, taking it all in.

The revelation for me in this show is Ken Townsend’s assured versatility, where nearly every painting looks utterly natural while being carefully, masterfully designed. It’s his first appearance at Oxford and an auspicious one. Most of his paintings can be broken down into four areas of comparatively uniform value that lock together like a simple puzzle, with all the detail rendered as variations within that particular value—darkest, second darkest, second lightest and lightest. The way he gives each of these areas a clearly defined contour, compositionally, makes the paintings so visually powerful. It also enables him to emphasize and augment the color in each of these areas almost as an abstractionist would. He could push this even more than he does, but when he allows himself some rich hues, the colors are beautifully chosen, deeply felt. This is readily apparent in work like Gardner’s Road and Mendon Ponds, an overhead glimpse of water lilies, with one small white blossom serving as the tiny, lightest section. Yet a second painting of probably those same water lilies, Dar Reflected, is a perfect example of how Townsend is able to lay down areas of vibrant color by emphasizing and unifying those four areas of value and working within them as a structure for the image. All the viewer sees is a flat stretch of violet water, reflecting the sky, throughout most of the lower half of the painting, broken up by a cluster of lilies with one blossom, and then in the upper half of the canvas, the reflection of the dark woods and at the top, what appears to be the rippled reflection of a two-toned kayak with a slash of pink for the paddler. Keeping out of view what would have been the subject of the whole painting for most painters (Eakins, for example) is what enlivens the entire scene. The brilliant blue and green of that reflection draw your eye and then leave it wanting, hinting at what’s almost visible, so that what you actually see feels more like a memory or a dream of something even more alive than what’s available to the eye.

The Townsend painting that knocked me out, though, was a very small square one, Roadside I, executed with palette knife. The technique, though rougher and more approximate than any of the paintings done with brushes, creates a snowy embankment almost more visually convincing than anything else in the show—with a tremendous sense of clarity. Again, he’s broken down what he sees into continuous areas of value, the darkest, a line of trees on the horizon, then the brightest strip, in the patchy snow just beneath it and then, above and blow these two tiers of color, the cerulean sky and a violet reflection of the sky in the snowbank, sharing almost the same value, with a triangle of road at the bottom, the second-darkest region of the image. He captures everything perfectly, the low sunlight scudding almost horizontally across the embankment, the becalmed sky, and the purple shadows that look scraped into the soil and driven over by a plow or a truck, yet without any indication of exact detail in the thickly scumbled paint from under his knife. The eye sees what it expects to see though it isn’t really there. He works into the image not just the purple of the snow and the classic blue of the sky but a little strip of orangish growth along the tree line, a color also breaking through the snow in the foreground, that makes the other colors sing a little more distinctly. It’s a perfect painting, hopefully hinting of more to come. 

(Note: for fun, see if you can find the one Witucki painting in the show that bears the same title as an old Pearl Jam song.)

A train is also just a train

J.M.W. Turner, Rain Steam and Speed

From My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s phenomenological angle on Turner’s painting: 

. . . the eye that puts aside all it knows, that puts aside all preexisting insight, is the eye that can see the world anew, as if it were emerging before it for the very first time. Turner was interested in the relationship between the inconstant and the immutable, the solid and the fluid, and in that way the train becomes an expression not of anything else, one of the many categories into which it might be placed to do with modernity, industrialism, civilization, and the man-made, but only of what it is in itself, in pure physical terms, an enormous iron object proceeding along an iron track, almost obliterated by the snow, which would obliterate almost any other object in the same way: a sailing ship, a horse-drawn carriage, a funeral procession, a bear.

—Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Volume 6

The painting shows how dwarfed this massive iron horse appears in the context of a nature overpowering and sublime. Our view of nature now is both the same and the opposite: in the “anthropocene,” we constantly tell ourselves that we are changing everything around us, spoiling it and twisting it into a state of imbalance and disorder, and we makers of engines are going to incite nature to violent storms and deadly droughts and massive, hostile phenomena akin to what Turner was depicting. The difference is that now we think our little engines, our technological and chemical footprints, cause the storm that envelopes them and threatens their and our disappearance. Now the engine in the painting, as it were, creates what dwarfs and erases it from view–we are the storm. As usual with human beings, it’s all about us. 

Knausgaard glosses over Turner’s awe and passion for nature’s beauty and power, no matter how hostile it becomes to human life, his Romantic devotion to nature as a new sort of God, a source of mystery, if not meaning. He’s right that Turner wasn’t trying to illustrate an idea, but convey through perception and intuition the relationship between human life and a larger, implacable world–the way Chinese scroll paintings juxtaposed tiny human figures against beautiful, craggy mountains, putting us into proper perspective within the whole. (It’s nice that the Sung Dynasty had no locomotives to include.) Man isn’t the measure of all things, in those paintings, except as a unit for judging the scale of a world infinitely more extensive than the human body and human concerns. 

 

Visions of the unbuilt

Andrea Durfee at ROCO

When I was growing up, in both East St. Louis and then in Idaho, my family lived at the edge of undeveloped land. These havens for my imagination weren’t protected, just overlooked or privately owned—undisturbed stretches of wildlife and undergrowth, a mix of grassy slopes, streams, and wooded paths. In a suburb at the edge of East St. Louis, it was a small copse at the base of the hill behind our little Cape Cod, and in Idaho, from our home sitting at the rim of the bench—just above the Boise Valley—I could walk to the edge of our back yard and look down at a fenced pasture with horses and, alongside it, the only human development within a convenient walking distance from the base of the slope, a sawmill. (We had some dangerous forbidden fun bounding across those floating logs.) My friends and my brother and I would spend hours in those spaces, only dimly aware of the smells, the soft feel of the earth, the birds and insects—yet all of it was imprinting itself on my mind whole, planting in me the desire to grow things as an adult and to get outside whenever possible. In those little overlooked tracts of wildness, I felt in touch with myself and the world in a way that I couldn’t in school or inside our home, in front of a television, the only screen that existed back then. 

There’s a surplus of artwork on view in Rochester right now devoted, more or less, to the symmetry between human nature and the natural world. (Thou art that, the ancient Hindu philosophers would say.) In a fortunate coincidence, while Oxford Gallery is showing the work of three masterful landscape painters, Rochester Contemporary Art Center has assembled a themed show, Landscapes and the Unbuilt, that celebrates the slightly paradoxical effort that we human beings are making to keep from spoiling places like the ones that helped shape me as a kid. We’re intervening to prevent ourselves from, well, intervening. For the RoCo show, a group of artists took as their subject a particular parcel of land under the protection of the Genesee Land Trust, and they created one or more works to capture the spirit of the place. The work is all marvelous, especially grouped together in a way that amplifies each individual effort—and some of it represents the best work I’ve yet seen from these particular artists. The terms of the show may have brought out new dimensions in their work by forcing some of them to pay attention to the particulars of a specific place.

I responded most intensely to what I saw just inside the entrance to the East Avenue membership gallery. There’s an intricacy and density in Andrea Durfee’s paintings and Bill Stephens’s drawings that makes it hard to get any deeper into the exhibition, there’s so much to see in just one or two of these pieces up front. In the work of both, the task of having to convey an actual, particular place—to sift through myriad impressions of a specific location and nurture a companionship with that landscape—produced excellent results. I’ve always liked Durfee’s work, but the clarity and particularity of her vision is amazing in her three largest paintings of Full Lotus Farm in Arcadia, NY. It feels like a new benchmark for her. She uses flat areas of color outlined with spiderweb-thin lines, vaguely reminiscent of stained glass. Her technique echoes the outlines of cloisonnism and some of the Nabis, yet her paintings have a different effect on the viewer—they draw you deep into the scene she depicts, forgetful of the painted surface, though they aren’t conventionally realistic. In each one, she conceals a nude female figure—her avatar, maybe—merged with the landscape yet emerging like bedrock pushed up from beneath permafrost. Continue reading ‘Visions of the unbuilt’

Seeing for the first time

Jim Mott, from his recent show at ROCO

My next post will be about the current, marvelous exhibition at ROCO: a group of artists showing work that celebrates a particular place worthy of preservation in this region. But first I wanted to catch up on Jim Mott, whose own work would have found a place into that show if only he hadn’t had a solo exhibition there just a short while ago. Jim does, all of the time, what the artists now on view at ROCO did simply for the curatorial purposes of the exhibition:  to pick a place, sometimes at random, and depict whatever he sees as equally worthy of consideration, no matter what it is. 

Mott came by for a cup of tea recently and talked about a variety of things and rather than take time to rework our conversation into a regular post, I’ll just pass along the conversation, as I’ve done before, which should be of interest to his fans. I have high hopes for the residency he’s seeking at the University of Michigan. I think his proposal should get some serious interest, but the ordinariness of his work almost puts it outside the mainstream now—but he has an interesting angle on how he might present his project, which he discusses. He stayed long enough to touch on a lot of different things, yet left in time to get in some cross-country skiing at Mendon Ponds Park before it got dark: 

Jim: I’ve been reading this longish book. Richard Powers? A friend of mine from Nature Conservancy gave me this novel of his about trees. The first half is brilliant but the second is good but not as exciting. He takes nine different characters, odd people who are moved by trees toward something and then he goes to a showdown in the Northwest. It’s intensely poetic and full of information. He got a genius award.

That always helps.

Jim: He gets all ecstatic about trees. I didn’t loan you Julian Bell did I?

I don’t think so. Are you still communicating with him?

Jim: Yeah, I have an open invitation if I ever get to England. 

<I mention that I’m reading the last volume of My Struggle, which includes a long essay about Hitler and how Knausgaard thinks the modern era has de-individualized society and has cut people off from nature so that

Pages: 1 2

Robert Ryman, 1930-2019

This is spot on. From an interview with Robert Ryman:

RYMAN: I came from music. And I think that the type of music I was involved with—jazz, bebop—had an influence on my approach to painting. We played tunes. No one uses the term anymore. It’s all songs now, telling stories—very similar to representational painting, where you tell a story with paint and symbols. But bebop is swing, a more advanced development of swing. It’s like Bach. You have a chord structure, and you can develop that in many ways. You can play written compositions and improvise off of those. So, you learn your instrument, and then you play within a structure. It seemed logical to begin painting that way. I wasn’t interested in painting a narrative or telling a story with a painting. Right from the beginning, I felt that I could do that if I wanted to, but that it wouldn’t be of much interest to me. Music is an abstract medium, and I thought painting should also just be what it’s about and not about other things—not about stories or symbolism.

ART21: You don’t think of meaning?

RYMAN: There is a lot of meaning, but not what we usually think of as meaning. It’s similar to the meaning of listening to a symphony. You don’t know the meaning, and you can’t explain it to anyone else who didn’t hear it. The painting has to be seen. But there is no meaning outside of what it is.

ART21: So, meaning is closer to an emotional reaction?

RYMAN: I think that’s the real purpose of painting: to give pleasure. I mean, that’s really the main thing that it’s about. There can be the story; there can be a lot of history behind it. But you don’t have to know all of those things to receive pleasure from a painting. It’s like listening to music; you don’t have to know the score of a symphony in order to appreciate the symphony. You can just listen to the sounds.

ART21: How does your work fit into the contemporary art world?

RYMAN: I don’t think of myself as being part of anything. I don’t get involved with art. I mean, I’m involved with painting, but I just look at it as solving problems and working on the visual experience. I’m not involved with any kind of art movement, and I’m not a scholar. I’m not a historian, and I don’t want to get into that kind of thing because it would interfere with my approach. So, it’s better that I not think of that. (LAUGHS)

Fruit and flowers

Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose, oil on canvas, Francisco de Zurbarán 

Zurburan’s fascinating, austere Still Life with Citrons, Oranges and a Rose hangs directly opposite the entrance of its period room so that it commands your attention as soon as it comes into view at the Norton Simon Museum. When I saw it a few weeks ago during our visit to the museum in Pasadena, I immediately recognized the work from its visit to The Frick a decade ago. What I actually remembered was Peter Schjeldahl’s review of the show and his justly ecstatic paean to this particular painting—similar to his raptures over Morandi in another essay. It’s simple, spare, and as perfectly balanced and restful as a Matisse, but also full of mysterious grandeur, in an almost ironic way, since it’s a depiction of the most commonplace things. It’s a surprisingly large painting by traditional still life standards, close to four feet wide, so that the depicted objects are larger than their actual size. The layers of Catholic symbolism—the objects standing both for the Holy Trinity and the Virgin Mary—has little resonance now and yet the painting’s power and subdued beauty hasn’t diminished. Its simplicity feels as integral as ever, as if it embodies some kind of alternate mathematical axiom—five + seven + three = one. Stripped of its religious symbolism, it continues to shine with its intended spirit, as if Zurburan’s religion was merely a way of climbing a ladder, as an artist, to quotidian serenity not limited to its theological expression.

The ideas have fallen away leaving the perceptual power of the image to keep working on the viewer and marvelously urging the same orientation toward the world as the ecclesiastical one. The lesson has faded, but its wisdom remains: humility, self-abnegation, attention to the abundance of ordinary experience, and gratitude for any glimpse of ordinary goodness and truth and beauty. Both artist and viewer marvel at the generous luxury of the earth’s simple gifts, its fruit and flowers. These subjects still look like offerings on an altar but at the same time seem to be just the opposite: not sacrifices, but gifts going in reverse, from a greater to a lesser power—from one who can make a lemon to one who can make a picture of one—offered to whomever stands before them as sustenance for either body or spirit. 

In other words, even without all the intellectual trappings that gave Zuburan a pretext for making this painting, they pass along the same monk-like devotional intensity—in the assiduously achieved formal qualities of the painting, the long hours of solitude in the studio—without consideration of his religious justification for painting them.  They stand as an example of how the greatest art embodies a life that spills up over the lip of every meaning and purpose meant to contain it—and meant for it to contain—conveying a quality of attention that operates as a moral and spiritual corrective in and of itself. A great still life conveys psychological qualities that have moral consequences—silence and calm.  The painting stands as one of the supreme justifications for the still life genre—not nearly as congenial and charming as Chardin, but just as magical as the French master’s best. The humblest and most commonplace objects, simply by reflecting light a certain way, seating themselves naturally in their space, bearing the pull of gravity in their own particular ways, can convey the quiddity of life itself, long before the mind has time to go to work breaking down what it sees into what it ostensibly means and, in the process, gets further and further from the actual work—and life—itself. 

20th century mystic

Concert, oil on canvas, George Braque, Janice and Henry Lazarof Collction, LACMA

On my visit to LACMA last month, I was delighted most by the work in two particular areas of the museum: Fantasies and Fairy Tales, a themed exhibition of arresting prints and the small wing devoted to the Janice and Henry Lazarof Collection. The latter had the feel of those private collections converted into museums–the Frick, the Phillips–where the taste of the collectors is tantamount to a class on how art should be made. Nearly everything in the Lazarof Collection begged to be photographed, but when I tried to take a shot of the Braque above, the guard hurried over and chastised me, which was a surprise, because the wing appeared to be a permanent installation of work–a way of sharing the vision of two insightful collectors with the public–not a temporary exhibition, which seems to be the only shows that prohibit photography now in an effort to increase catalog sales. I asked, therefore, if there was a book available, and he directed me to the shop where it was on sale and for a discount. It was a fortuitous purchase because it includes a long essay on Picasso, so prominently featured in this collection, that turned out to be an indispensable aid to the thinking I’ve been doing, since my visit to Los Angeles, about one particular Picasso print I saw elsewhere at LACMA–it changed my understanding about that painter whose fame and position in the history of 20th century painting has always, for me, eclipsed the aspects of his work that have turned out to be most powerful and intriguing.

So I purchased a book simply to bring home an image of this particular still life by Braque, which was done toward the end of his most fertile period, from his move toward synthetic Cubism through the more and more idiosyncratic interpretations of pedestal tables, the “gueridons,” his most personal motif, especially with a guitar on board. It preoccupied him for at least twenty years; the most representative and familiar example of this series is The Gueridon at the Phillips. What’s astonishing about this work, for me, is that everything in the paintings from this period–with a few exceptions–seems to have been invented perfectly, naturally, as if Braque were proceeding like a scrupulous realist, where you know the work is great because the proper marks are the ones that most faithfully reproduce exactly what’s seen. The rules are obvious and simple. Here, none of that is the case, there is no common sense guideline for what makes a Braque so manifestly perfect–everything he sees or imagines is flattened into an essentially arbitrary pattern, and yet though every shape and line and color seems the outcome of improvisation, the final result looks inevitable, almost immutable and right, but also deeply felt in a way that seems in a class of its own next to all the other work that sprang from the Cubist movement. How a painter achieves this is the great mystery–on a par with the question of how Vermeer enabled a fleeting moment in an average day to look eternal. Braque’s own enigmatic journals only deepen the mystery and suggest that his path, once he broke with Picasso, took him more and more deeply into the region he entered via synthetic Cubism–a long, meditative and assiduous creative exploration during which Braque rightly felt infallible without ever letting his ego know what he was up to. He’d reached the artistic equivalent of a state of grace:

On this painting, from Envisioning Modernism, p. 62:

The viewer is thus forced to focus on the tenuous relationship between the still life and its environs, demonstrating what Braque called his “great discovery”: “Objects don’t exist for me except in so far as a rapport exists between them or between them and myself. When one attains this harmony one reaches a sort of intellectual nonexistence–what I can only describe as a state of peace–which makes everything possible and right. Life then becomes a perpetual revelation. That is true poetry.”

Among untrodden ways

Zurich Box, oil on canvas, detail, Ken Townsend

I’ve been reading, with greater and lesser pleasure, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, which–throughout the series of fictionalized memoirs–has repeated references to Romanticism, especially in painting. In the narrative, he’s regularly moved by images that convey the implacability of nature–and these moments, not of epiphany, but of emotional release, baffle him because the author has no way of making sense of his deep response to nature through these paintings, in contrast to his almost Beckett-like exhaustion with the daily life he so tediously represents in thousands of pages of prose. My response to the series of books is similar to my reaction when I look at artwork created in devotion to an invariable idea–in other words, a fair amount of work done over the past 150 years–once you grasp the idea, if it’s merely the illustration of an idea, why keep reading or looking? What’s fascinated me about Knausgaard is his deep ambivalence about modernism and the way it has set ordinary human emotions aside in favor of general artistic principles (though his own artistic principles seem, in the course of the work, to be destroying his own family so that maybe has more in common than he thinks with the modernism he distrusts). Hence, his retreat, emotionally, to Romanticism. Yet, in the final volume he seems to see his florid outpouring of feeling in reaction to certain poetry and painting as delusional, or at least negligible–leaving the reader with a vision of his creative work as a pointless exercise in obsessive attention to his own life, out of a conviction that life is essentially meaningless. Not exactly where I had though he might be going.

Three artists on view now at Oxford Gallery are equally drawn to the beauty and grandeur of nature–Ken Townsend, Charles Houseman, and Sean Wituck–and don’t quite distrust their passion the way Knausgaard does. And there’s an appreciative realism involved here, a friendly humility in the face of nature, that seems more contemporary than the era evoked by the quote from Wordsworth Jim Hall has used for the show’s title. Their work hints back to the Romantic love for nature, but not in a way that evokes the Hudson River School, nor the sublime of Edwin Burke or Kant, where nature is great beyond comprehension. Turner’s storms are nowhere to be found here. Nature is beautiful in their paintings, and in some cases, as indifferent to human comfort and scale as it is in the Romantics, but it’s also still, inviting, and serene–a setting for human purposes, on its own terms. The painting that most interests me is what appears to be a diptych depicting a spot on the coast of Maine, at Acadia National Park by Houseman–enormous rocks, typical of Maine’s fractal coast line of glacial rock. The massive boulders at the center are surrounded by tidal pools covered with a thin layer of autumn leaves–the leaves are what make it inviting. It’s a glimpse of an outcropping that could serve as a seat for a hiker’s quick lunch in October, or could just as easily be what was visible twenty thousand years ago, when cave paintings were the only contemporary art. I suppose that’s a roundabout way to say the current show at Oxford offers a glimpse of what’s timeless everywhere around us, with a hint that our time is brief, compared to the tenure of sky, earth, ocean and trees. Maybe that’s a Romantic insight after all.

Face to face

Dora Natella’s work in Similitude

Manifest Gallery has a new show, Similitude, through Feb. 22, devoted to contemporary portraiture. I wish I could get to Cincinnati to see it and another show revolving around the subject of sinks and chair. Sinks are a fascination for me, though I’ve only painted one from different angles and in different lights. Here is the overview of the show from the folks at the gallery:

SIMILITUDE
The Contemporary Portrait

As we stated four years ago when we last approached the theme of portraiture, technology exacerbates people’s retreat into the upper limb of their body, encouraging portraiture on a mass scale in the form of social networks such as Facebook and Instagram with their flood of ‘selfies’. Facial recognition tools which help sort photos of friends and family based on images of their face, and ‘facetime’ calling also put the focus on the front of the human head, and puts a premium on visual identity. The center of our humanity has coalesced into the mind, behind the face. When we think of each other, we (usually) start with the face. 

Recognition matters. Throughout art history the ability of the artist to not only capture a likeness but also the character and spirit, if you will, of the subject has defined whole careers.

Mythic landscapes

Status of Persephone, etching, Gillian Pederson-Krag

From Matt Klos, of Exeter Gallery, in Baltimore, on the gallery’s current show:

Accidents of TimeMagnolia Laurie & Gillian Pederson-Krag

January 11th – February 28th

Magnolia Laurie’s paintings and Gillian Pederson-Krag’s prints present landscapes that feel immutable. The landscapes are poetic and, at times disquieting. Often monochromatic, and grand even at a small scale, each work possesses a profound stillness. Magnolia presents paintings on panel excepting two large oils on canvas. Each panel features subtle washes which form reticulated edges where the puddles of pigment end. The fine networks at these perimeters form distant blurred treetop canopies or the appearance of pulled cotton where clouds give way to sky. Her paintings feature volcanic mountains, scorched earth, and in “To Weight it Down” a forested space with what could be police tape cordoning off a crime scene. This is what remains after the cataclysmic event. Nature remembers the action lest we forget. Gillian makes meticulously crafted etchings. These dense and expertly arranged tangles of linework describe landscapes of bare tree branches, rivers, and ruins. Thin filaments run behind thicker ones creating a deep quiet space. In an amber toned etching a statue of Persephone sits with one leg crossed over the other holding a fruit amongst an overgrown thicket. She presents bounty from nature as nature itself threatens to overtake her. Many of these landscapes bear the mark of humankind. Human elements create the formal structure which carries one’s eye throughout the scene.

In Laurie’s works towers and fences serve as this device while in Pederson-Krag’s ruins and weathered statues are featured. Our affect on nature is front and center in current scientific and political conversations. If a monomyth is present here perhaps it reveals that our striving, our monuments, our self-importance, and our collective self, will eventually pass away. The landscape of tomorrow will contain our ashes and dust. “The happy ending of the fairy tale, the myth, and the divine comedy of the soul, is to be read, not as contradiction, but as a transcendence of the universal tragedy of man. The objective world remains what it was, but, because of a shift of emphasis within the subject, is beheld as though transformed. Where formerly life and death contended, now enduring being is made manifest – as indifferent to the accidents of time as water boiling in a pot is to the destiny of the bubble, or as the cosmos to the appearance and disappearance of a galaxy of stars.” – Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, pg. 28 

Intriguing work at Main Street Arts

Bradley Butler, acrylic on panel
Life Is (And Isn’t) Meaningful, acrylic on panel, Bradley Butler

Over the past few years, Bradley Butler has been doing a marvelous job in Clifton Springs of creating some excitement about visual art in this region. Playing hard to get to may be part of his gallery’s cachet: it requires a bit of time to get there from either Syracuse or Rochester. It’s almost always worth the drive. This new Small Works exhibition offers work from 103 artists, residing in 26 states, chosen by Rick Pirozzolo, executive director and curator at the Arnot Art Museum in Elmira, NY., with great work from many regional artists, along with a sampling of representative work from across the U.S. 

Bill Stephens and Bill Santelli both offered first rate paintings: Santelli’s Awake in the Night was a departure from much of his usual style, a small black monolithic canvas bisected by an aperture through which a new light seemed to break through. With Into the Deep Woods, Bill Stephens has laid down some of the most effective color I’ve ever seen in any of his precise, surrealistic improvisations of natural forms and human figures. The warm tones hover in the background while the vegetation in the foreground of his dreamlike copse were done in cool blues and greens—the inversion of warmth at a distance and chill tones up close made the background seem to advance as the foreground receded. The effect was to create a unified sense of potential energy, everything poised, ready to change places as soon as one looked away. 

The masterful and restrained Self Portrait, by John Van Houten, of Buffalo, winner of Best in Show, is actually Tonalist in spirit, so dimly lit as to require some moving around to see through the glossy shine of the surface in order to simply make out the face. It evokes long-lost virtues, a quiet and humble sort of patience and forbearance and modesty, and the image served almost as an emblem of core values seemingly abandoned in our shrill and combative social media culture. It’s gratifying to see a painting without a trace of modernist or post-modern pretensions getting top honors while holding its own as entirely and justifiably contemporary. Nearby, Rubicite Earring, by Zach Koch, was a simple but eerie evocation of a weirdly serene but ominous rapture: a face in which the features seemed to be masterfully drawn and then blurred, except for the nose and the gumdrop stone affixed to the beautiful subject’s earlobe. The bright

Pages: 1 2

Henry Miller


The artist is the opposite of the politically minded individual, the opposite of the reformer, the opposite of the idealist. The artist does not tinker with the universe, he recreates it out of his own experience and understanding of life.  —Henry Miller

Rare Porter

Fairfield Porter

This work by Fairfield Porter is startling in its bold freedom, the almost arbitrary way he represented the flowers, the saturated tones, the almost splattered looking petals in contrast to that marvel of a jar used as a vase. I’ve never seen this painting through any channel other than this page eight years ago from Art News. I recently found a stack of magazines and tore out half a dozen pages from this 2010 spring issue. I will post iPhone shots of them now and then in the future. Just thumbing through the ads in Art News was best way to explore unfamiliar work and learn a few things, while diligently ignoring the text. Sort of the way most of us boys engaged with Playboy back in the day.