The perfect flow of paint

Mark Tennant’s recent work

Mark Tennant posted this painting on Instagram a little while back, and I’ve since gone back to it many times with pleasure. At first, it suggests an almost clinical distance from his subject, a hauteur about a fragment of past American culture, which he’s isolated for observation. In this case, he seems to be looking back at a middle-class couple, standing proudly in front of their tract home and new car, circa 1960—he with beer in hand, she in pumps that aren’t even indicated except by the tiptoe slope of her feet. It’s all imbued with a cool, dubious squint of someone who doesn’t share the enthusiasms he depicts, a clinical detachment present in some of Tennant’s more erotically suggestive work, much of which has a muted, colorless sheen reminiscent of Gerard Richter’s early portraits based on media photographs of Baader-Meinhof terrorists. In this clinical mode, Tennant picks subjects that seem selected to provoke a raised eyebrow or a half-smile of condescension—as if he’s looking down, rather than head-on, at whatever he’s showing. It reminds me of what Martin Mull has been doing in his work—purchasing collections of family photographs from garage sales and flea markets to use as source material for his own surreal, emotionally detached and dreamlike visions occasionally on view at Hirschl & Adler.

Still, though I doubt this is the response Tennant wants, I react to this painting with nostalgia for those brief post-war decades when America was genuinely thriving, leading the world in building a middle class that was actually earning more than what it needed to get by. What drove productive lives wasn’t false hope back then. This proud couple could easily have been living on one salary at Eastman Kodak here in my hometown, with its generous wages and annual bonuses for workers, when a household could thrive on a single income, earning enough to get a mortgage on a new house and even buy a new car every few years. Over the past few decades, that level of material comfort could be sustained only on higher and higher lines of credit and more than one wage. The middle class has waned though it remains to be seen if it’s down for the count. Simple bourgeois comforts, along with an occasional luxury, are certainly as illusory as anything else on this spinning planet—so Tennant is perfectly justified in suggestions of sic transit gloria mundi, especially when the glories are so humble. He casts a cold eye on this moment of celebratory happiness yet it feels like something most people wouldn’t mind working toward now as much as they did in the 60s, and rightly so. It’s precisely what people who flee into our country are hoping to find. But what’s going on in this image has gotten harder and harder to make happen.

That said, this painting is different from what I consider Tennant’s usual mode and that keeps me coming back for another look. It’s far more colorful than most of what he posts. His technical MORE

More lilacs and geese

September Apples, Igor Shipilin

Another find from Lilacs and Wild Geese.

Glorious paint

I can’t find a name for this painting anywhere, even with a Google image search. It’s Robert Henri, from the cover of a book he wrote.

More is more: Stooshinoff

Green Hill, Harry Stooshinoff. 8″ x 8″, acrylic on board

Harry Stooshinoff is a Canadian painter who has conquered the way of a picture-per-day. I hate looking at his Instagram feed because it makes me feel like a total slug, the guy is so incredibly prolific and fast, but also, worst of all, masterful. One glimpse of Harry S. and I just want to give up. Fast is the hardest thing to be as a painter, but he’s flawlessly so. He’s the ultimate premier coup painter, everything done in one sitting. His work looks like en plein air but I think he simply does studies and sketches on site and then improvises from his notes in the studio. You can read a great explanation of the thinking that goes into his process in a well-written little statement here. He posts and sells quite a bit of work online, I gather, for prices that are feudally cheap, but he lives by an economics I find admirable—he can apparently afford to aim high in his work and sell low on the market, which both moves the work and makes it almost universally ownable. It’s a generous strategy that reminds me of Jim Mott’s gift economy. I suspect a lot of teaching in the past is what enables him to do all this now. He can’t be living that far north of Rochester, so I ought to track him down and shake his hand at some point but knowing me, I probably won’t. His methods look utterly transparent, the way Fairfield Porter’s seem to in his best work—no cards pulled out of sleeves, no mystery about how or why that slash of paint happens to be there or do what it does—but try to paint something in such a self-evident way and you will see how Stooshinoff is nearly without equal. Welliver had that quality: you can see what he’s doing all along and would love to do it yourself—“no going back over”—but try it and see what a mess you make.

 

Belfast Bay

Belfast Bay, Matt Klos, oil on canvas. Absent inches, let’s just say very very small.

This may be, so far, my all-time favorite painting by Matt Klos, which I’ve seen once in a show he had at Oxford Gallery early in this decade, a tiny work, probably done on the spot when he was overseas, I’m not sure. The way he scumbled the paint to allow the canvas to peek through the porous medium gave a perfect shimmer to sea and sky, but it’s the way he used color that really knocked me out. I took a shot of it at the show and have kept it filed away ever since.

Timeless classicism

Another page torn from that 2010 issue of Art News. Every time I think Picasso was the most over-rated painter in the history of Western art, I come across something that makes me think again. This is almost a riposte to Braque’s Canephorae. It was from the Guggenheim’s Chaos and Classicism exhibitionI have to say I prefer this to Braque’s figures–someone once pointed out that Braque invested all of his sensuality in his still lifes, not his nudes–though in almost every other respect, I expect Braque will outlast his rival. But something far more lasting that eroticism shines in this one from Picasso, even though it often seems nearly everything he did had some tangential link to sex.

The light of Piero, circa now

Head, oil on linen, Kathleen Carey Hall

A mother-daughter exhibition at Exeter Gallery promises to be something exceptional for anyone interested in perceptual painting: Eternal Sun, Paintings by Linda Carey and Kathleen Carey Hall. Matt Klos, the director of the gallery, sent out an announcement of the new exhibition last week and included a small sample of what’s on view. One of these paintings is to blame for a string of as-yet unchecked items on my To Do list—I spent much too long for my own good admiring this portrait, entitled simply Head.

The mother-daughter pairing feels like an interesting offshoot of the shows Manifest regularly puts together combining work from teachers and students. From the images Matt sent, these two painters have clearly mastered perceptual painting and used its tropes and techniques to create an individual vision. Both have spent time studying and painting in Italy. Time abroad in that particular nation seems to be one of the best things a painter can choose to do these days—judging by the quality of the work it nurtures, glimpses of which are readily available in the feeds of many painters on Instagram.

On the strength of the images Klos sent along, this is a show not to be missed. One of the two images, this particular portrait of a young woman—self-portrait maybe?—is a marvel of what the perceptual painters advocate. There’s a hint of pentimento, various self-evident ways of making paint itself as much of the point as the image it renders. There’s a deep tension between precision and looseness—or between predictable effects and seemingly risk-taking paint handling, daring the unexpected happy accident to emerge—and it gives a tremendous energy to what is an image of almost absolute stillness. The sitter’s expression is wonderfully ambiguous, serious and a bit lost in thought, but with a smile that seems to be just dawning, though if you try to pin down where this is happening, it’s tough to locate the particular signs of it in her face. It isn’t quite the Mona Lisa smile—somehow it’s even more ghostly and elusive. The background is a layering of so many tones—greenish blue, taupe, a spot of cerulean, pink and almost a stripe of pale rose at the far right, echoing all the colors in the face and lace-collared dress. That collar is wonderful, the way she has dragged the paint lightly over the darker blue of the dress underneath, so that the porous oil hints just enough at the filigree of the fabric to create a totally convincing impression of lace, and somehow—how?— it even looks a little starchy.

The handling of tones is marvelous. Over almost the entire surface, she works in the mid-range of values, keeping the tones muted and the saturation of the paint in the mid-range. But the color of the face itself is slightly more saturated in color and precise in form and line, and as a result it projects out toward the viewer, almost as if the sitter is peering through one of those cardboard images with a hole cut out for the head—but this works in a perfectly natural and evocative way here. As the skin tones come forward, vibrant and alive, the hair and the eyes are filmed in such a way, the tone is so much in the upper registers, that the pupils are entirely obscured and the color of her eyes is entirely indeterminate. Blue? Brown? Are we seeing a faded periwinkle glow reflected off the eye’s surface rather than the color of the iris itself? The effect of all this isn’t just technically impressive, but poetic. It creates that look of being absorbed, absent, remembering, but it also detaches the entire image from the present, so that one is justified in feeling as if this could even be the sitter’s grandmother as a young woman. In a similar way, the hair is almost entirely without detail and in a very light tone, so that in the entire painting there are only two spots of paint that might be considered relatively dark. This, as much as anything, is what I think Klos means in his lyrical appreciation of the two painters, when he writes that the sun of the Renaissance illuminates the work of these two. Piero’s work had this same kind of beatific luminosity.

The only point in the painting where the paint’s value reaches an extreme is in the tiny highlight, not swimming on the surface of the sitter’s eyes, but in the inside corner of one eye—such an original touch, perfectly natural and completely realistic, but almost a modest, easily-overlooked stylistic tour de force, to apply that pinhead of pure light right there, at the corner of the eye rather than somewhere on the cornea, where one would always expect to find it. I’d love to think it was the last mark she made. Once you notice it, the entire painting seems to pivot around that little glint of pure white, serene and blank, where all the other colors in the painting are hidden.

A stumbled-upon Tumblr

Eyvind Earle (United States, 1916-2000) Golden Hills

“Beauty will save the world.” –Dostoevsky

This and a slew of images to come are from a Tumblr I stumbled onto in the past year, and it has turned out to be a pretty consistent delight for a number of reasons. Its most notable quality is that its contributor often finds and posts work by artists I don’t know or else from a familiar artist I haven’t seen before. I like almost all of what appears here, with an occasional exception, but it’s never predictable and always interesting. The fact that whatever you see at lilacsinthedooryard.tumblr.com surprises me is probably indicative of the limited scope of my knowledge, the massive and perpetual surplus of great painting all over the world from the past couple centuries, and/or the remarkable angling ability of this fisher of artwork, whoever he or she is. There’s a mind behind this site, called Lilacs and Wild Geese, on constant lookout for what French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard called the oneiric quality, the aura of the waking dream, which really for me is the universal element of great painting that isn’t agitprop or snark or dutiful transcription of what’s seen. But even that last sort of diligence can’t help but become a dream thanks to its idiosyncratic shortfalls. From a Tumblr bearing an epigram from Dostoevsky and a URL from Walt Whitman would one expect anything less?

Valerio

 

James Valerio, Self-Portrait, 1998, pencil on paper, 21” x 23”

In his studio, Tom Insalaco has a little poster pinned up near a reproduction of an astonishing Franz Halls painting. This drawing was used to promote the show that included it twenty years ago at George Adams Gallery, when it was at 41 W. 57th St.

Things being just what they are

Optimistic Tumbler, Joshua Huyser, Watercolor, 2018

Mrs. Glass had undressed the package and now stood reading the fine print on the back of a carton of toothpaste. “Just kindly button that lip of yours,” she said, rather absently. She went over to the medicine cabinet. It was stationed above the washbowl, against the wall. She opened its mirror-faced door and surveyed the congested shelves with the eye–or, rather, the masterly squint–of a dedicated medicine-cabinet gardener. Before her, in overly luxuriant rows, was a host, so to speak, of golden pharmaceuticals, plus a few technically less indigenous whatnots. The shelves bore iodine, Mercurochrome, vitamin capsules, dental floss, aspirin, Anacin, Bufferin, Argyrol, Musterole, Ex-Lax, Milk of Magnesia, Sal Hepatica, Aspergum, two Gillette razors, one Schick Injector razor, two tubes of shaving cream, a bent and somewhat torn snapshot of a fat black-and-white cat asleep on a porch railing, three combs, two hairbrushes, a bottle of Wildroot hair ointment, a bottle of Fitch Dandruff Remover, a small, unlabelled box of glycerine suppositories, Vicks Nose Drops, Vicks VapoRub, six bars of castile soap, the stubs of three tickets to a 1946 musical comedy (“Call Me Mister”), a tube of depilatory cream, a box of Kleenex, two seashells, an assortment of used-looking emery boards, two jars of cleansing cream, three pairs of scissors, a nail file, an unclouded blue marble (known to marble shooters, at least in the twenties, as a “purey”), a cream for contracting enlarged pores, a pair of tweezers, the strapless chassis of a girl’s or woman’s gold wrist-watch, a box of bicarbonate of soda, a girl’s boarding-school class ring with a chipped onyx stone, a bottle of Stopette–and, inconceivably or no, quite a good deal more. Mrs. Glass briskly reached up and took down an object from the bottom shelf and dropped it, with a muffled, tinny bang, into the wastebasket. “I’m putting some of that new toothpaste they’re all raving about in here for you,” she announced, without turning around, and made good her word. 

–Zooey, J.D. Salinger

It’s a bit like an Antonio Lopez Garcia scene, the passage from Salinger where Zooey is smoking in the tub behind a shower curtain and his mother is replenishing the bathroom’s stock of toothpaste. What’s always baffled me, with delight, about J.D. Salinger’s prose is how he can take a deadpan catalog of items in a 1950s medicine chest and bring it quietly to life, until it seems you are watching the cast of a Pixar movie where absolutely nothing happens. Nothing moves. Nothing breathes in there behind the mirror. In this case, nothing moves even when the lights go off. But every one of those little objects has somehow absorbed the life of the people who brought home those notions and creams and razors, concealing them behind the glass in which they see themselves every morning. In a less distinct way, the reader sees those characters too—Zooey and Franny and Bessie—even in this passage, glimpsing them in these simple things that share their life. It’s more than verisimilitude at work here. Somehow, in the way he offers this roster of humble, innocuous Glass family artifacts, though they would have been hardly different from the content of anyone’s medicine chest at the time, Salinger makes them luminous with a quality that’s impossible to name—they are little idiosyncratic treasures of fascinating intricacy, almost human in their individuality, though all of them were mass-produced. You feel as if you’re seeing them for the first time; as if you’ve never quite looked at a nail file before, even though he says nothing more than “a nail file.” They are nothing but what they are; stand for nothing beyond themselves. Yet they seem blessed by the author’s attention, somehow, marvelous because of their ordinariness. You see them the way you would if you’d been brought home after a last-minute pardon on the gallows and were thankful for every least thing in the world. But then everything in Salinger is like that.

That’s how a still life ought to work. It introduces you to the most mundane tokens of life in a way that doesn’t make them into anything they’re not. His prose somehow reveals how incredibly fine it is that they are so perfectly whatever it is they are. I think medicine chests are fast disappearing from this world, but I never open any of the remaining ones without seeing what’s inside with a heightened awareness of the world it embodies and how, in its own way, it shares my time on the earth. Sometimes, thanks to Salinger, what were formerly throwaway moments—applying a Band-Aid, say, or putting to use one of those other assorted less indigenous whatnots—become as worthy of attention and gratitude as anything else I might be doing.

This is all pretty darn close to the way Joshua Huyser’s watercolor portraits of everyday things work. Each time he posts a new painting on Instagram it’s a treat. He doesn’t mess with his subject. He reduces his picture to little more than the thing itself and nothing much else except maybe a shadow. His methods begin to seem like a sort of apophatic discipline, saying no to nearly everything but that quiet little yes in answer to the humble can or bowl or glass he meets gently with careful affection. He’s especially good with glass as if somehow the fact that it verges on total transparency, that it almost isn’t there—like his medium itself and the minimal means he employs—makes one of his paintings a lesson in the actual reality of things and people, all of us here, but oh so tenuously, and so easy to miss. Look at enough of his unspectacular still lifes, and you feel as if his subjects are only ostensibly inanimate objects. They are actually more like living companions on the daily journey, fellow travelers from 6 a.m. to curfew, friends to keep one company in the lonely sort of loving awareness that makes possible painting and a few other things maybe even more worthwhile involving actual, breathing people.

Robert Mielenhausen

“Let’s Go” 61” x 84” Triptych, acrylic

Street Wise, a solo exhibition of paintings and mixed media by Robert Mielenhausen. He’s moving in different directions from when I knew him as a fellow member at Viridian Artists and it will be interesting to see what he’s up to. The Alfred Van Loen Gallery, South Huntington Library, Nov. 2-Dec. 5. Opening reception, Saturday, Nov. 10, 2-4 p.m., 145 Pidgeon Hill Road, Huntington Station, NY, 11746.

Transformations at Oxford

The Eunuch’s Wife, detail, A.J. Dungan, acrylic on canvas

At Oxford Gallery, “Transformation” offers new work from three artists who are finding different ways to split the difference between representation and abstraction.

Keuka Bluff, Phyllis Bryce Ely

In my favorite work from Phyllis Bryce Ely, the forms emerge under curls of heavy paint shaped like solidified candle smoke. Lately, and maybe for longer than I’m aware, she’s been laying down an undercoat of bright reddish-orange, as a ground, and then painting in tones complementary to that first coat, letting it peek through here and there the way Thiebaud does, suggesting a field of energy behind the visible. There’s little in the formal qualities of her work that reminds me of Burchfield, except maybe the ghostly way he evoked clouds at night, but her images have a similar numinous quality. Jim Hall’s comparison to the Group of Seven is apt. In her work, there’s more than an echo of Lawren Harris’s glowing landscapes under cold Northern light.

Desert Solitaire 18, Barbara Page

In her aerial views of cultivated land, Barbara Page offers striking abstractions that allow her to improvise with rich, lush color. In Desert Solitaire 18, the course of creeks and rivers rend the image, this way and that, like slow squirming bolts of lightning. Those sinuous lines of pale blue or green or cream break up areas of tilled earth she pushed up the spectrum into red and orange. Like the carefully rendered watershed, the topographical meanderings of edges between woods and field serve as backdrop for boundaries, just as serpentine. And then a blue line, a highway maybe, moves up the canvas, forking into a pair before heading off the edge, suspended over all of it like a line in the sky. As Jim Hall points out on the gallery’s site:

Page came to national prominence with “Rock of Ages, Sands of Time,” an installation consisting of 544 square panels, each panel representing one million years of the history of the earth. The installation formed the centerpiece of the Museum of the Earth, which opened in 2003 outside Ithaca, NY. With uncanny consistency, each panel reads as both a representation of a fossilized remains and as a painterly abstraction, and our fascination resides in its assuming a dual role as object of scientific interest and object of beauty. This project was followed by a similar installation of 268 porcelain tiles lining a pedestrian bridge at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

In A.J. Dungan’s recent work, he seems to be pushing toward flatter images—in his last show, some of his figures seemed bulkier, like Bacon’s, where the energy of his brushwork supplemented the sense of depth. Here, many of the paintings look even more Cubist. He uses what appears to be MORE

Modernism now

I think of Mitchell Johnson as the lone wolf of contemporary painting. He’s showing everyone else the way to skirt the system, both academic and commercial, and still make a mark by finding new ways to make modernism his own. I keep watching his feed and envying how much energy he’s able to concentrate into his prolific output. I wish I could have attended this lecture, because the subject really says it all for me: so much of what I love in painting follows from Cezanne and Matisse, even if that awareness is hard to discern in much of what I do. It’s there, though sublimated, yet it’s at the heart of what I respond to most strongly in the work of others.

Elise Ansel, Time Present

Emerald Light, Elise Ansel, 2017

Cause to celebrate. Another Elise Ansel show, Time Present, at Danese/Corey already, a bit over a year since her last solo show there. November 2 – December 20, 2018 Opening Reception: Thursday, November 1, 6-8pm.

 

I love Wisconsin

My two jar paintings at Wausau MOCA last week.

I was honored to have Frank Bernarducci select my work for the Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art’s annual juried exhibition this year. Out of respect and gratitude, I decided to attend the opening last week in a show of support for the fledgling museum. It was founded only a year ago. Its first annual, national show last year was chosen by Alyssa Monks. I hadn’t been aware of this opportunity until Bill Santelli emailed me a notice that Wausau MOCA was accepting entries for the fall. I’d been visiting Bernarducci’s midtown gallery for years on visits to Manhattan, and I welcomed the opportunity, if I got into the show, to exchange a few words with him in this less pressurized setting.

“The City Has Stories to Tell”, John Hylan

Not surprisingly, most of the work was masterful, executed in highly sophisticated ways. When you see the actual work at a show like this, it’s chastening to see, up close, how many individual paths there are toward mastery of a particular medium–it’s always humbling to see how good other painters are. As traditional as some of their methods were, the show felt ahistorical—the work didn’t look as if it had been transported into the present from any point in the past but it also, to its credit, didn’t appear to be striving for any sort of illusory cutting edge. Because Bernarducci has been selling contemporary realist painting for years in Manhattan, I anticipated it would be weighted toward representational and highly realistic work, which it was, but I was surprised at how much the work emphasized the human figure and in ways accessible to most people with or without a grounding in art or art history. You didn’t need critical commentary to love this work, but occasionally it helped, and  slow, repeated observation deepened my appreciation for many of the pieces. The winning oil painting, Cindy Rizza’s Lineage, depicts the artist herself nursing her baby, sitting on a worn quilt—about as far from cosmopolitan hipster ironies as one could get. It’s a beautifully rendered vision of the most fundamental and central relationship in human life, and it served as the touchstone for the entire show. The exhibition offered an astonishing array of technical prowess in the service of a quietly jubilant, affirmative vision of human thriving. The mood was one of warmth and love and intense vitality—with some notable exceptions, including one painting of a protester tossing a Molotov cocktail and a solemn image from Geoffrey Laurence of a seated woman quietly waiting to be transported to Auschwitz.

“Departure,” Geoffrey Laurence

These reminders of social injustice were almost anomalies here. If there’s such a thing as spiritual abundance, this show was an homage to it. Photorealism was well-represented, and hyperrealism, but even in these genres, the feel of the work was affectionate and idiosyncratic—not cool and sleek and impersonal. The show demonstrated that traditional techniques and straightforward representation are firmly established, once again, as a fully contemporary way to make art. Everything in the show felt as vital and new and fresh as anything I could see tomorrow on a drive into Chelsea, maybe because a sophistication about principles of design was so prominent.

David Hummer, the director, is laboring mightily—as so many are having to do now—to find a way, economically, to give the people of his region access to contemporary art from around the country. He spoke about his remarkable and impressive plans for next year, mentioning the involvement of Vincent Desiderio and Bo Bartlett, among others.

“Listening to Silence,” Ali Cavannaugh

The power and honesty of the show Bernarducci selected made me feel slightly abashed about my insistence that art works subconsciously and directly, in ways that don’t depend on subject matter. There was much implied narrative on view in Wausau, and it was powerful. Much of that power derived from the way it was painted, yet content mattered at least as much. One could use a show like this as evidence for an argument that art’s other greatest virtue, beyond the subconscious disclosure of a world, is to make visible what makes us human in the most obvious way possible, by depicting human beings. This show demonstrates you can put aside most of modernism and much of what has come afterward and still get this job done perfectly, without losing anything important in the process, including relevance to the contemporary world.

I did get a few minutes to talk casually with Bernarducci. I’m surprised to say that his manner, his kindness and geniality and unassuming role at the event were endearing. Somehow I’ve never thought to use that adjective to describe an art dealer until now, but it was exactly the impression he made. I suppose I could have arranged to speak with him in the past on a visit to his previous Midtown location, but somehow in that setting I would have felt as if I were getting between him and the ongoing fight to stay afloat that galleries face now in Manhattan. (Something they have in common with museums in Wausau, Wisconsin.) I got to know him a bit between his absorbed bouts of texting–the pressure of his life in New York followed him to the Midwest thanks to his smart phone. He said he’d gotten married in Wisconsin and he enjoyed coming back, though he was a clearly a New Yorker. He talked a bit about the economic battle for gallery owners in Manhattan and his recent new venture downtown, and he said he’d be happy to sit down and speak with me at more length on a visit to the city, with enough notice. (Afterward, I thought I should have assured him I could use a siren to give him time to find shelter, if that helped. Some people might take me up on that.) He won me over with his refusal of the spotlight when it came time to announce the prize winners, along with the look of near-anguish on his face when he said that deciding on the winners was one of the worst experiences of his life. He was not being hyperbolic. It was obvious that he hated having to eliminate all of us who didn’t make the cut for an award. Just mentioning it the way he did seemed to drain him. He struck me as a good man, fighting the good fight from his corner now in Chelsea, with nothing guaranteed, even after his decades in the business.

“Ivet,” Shane Scribner

He came to the right place: Wisconsin itself struck me the same way. It’s a long way from Silicon Valley and Brooklyn, but it’s holding its own. Wausau was a picturesque town that looked surprisingly new—as if a lot of what I saw had been developed within the past ten or twenty years. Wages aren’t quite as high as the national average there, but it had the aura of a small city with a fairly vibrant local economy, in a hilly setting that was even more beautiful with its foliage near peak autumn color.

But what struck me most deeply about the state was a moment on the highway as I drove north to attend the opening. I flew into Chicago and drove to Wausau in a rented Nissan, listening happily to podcasts in a steam of comfortably spaced cars doing around 80 for most of the trip on Interstate 90. About halfway to Wausau, my Google Maps route turned red and traffic slowed dramatically. Here’s what was so marvelous: very quickly, the cars in the right lane began to merge into the left one, as I followed the example of the fellow ahead of me. A couple cars passed and merged ahead of us, but that was all. Soon all the drivers were slowly crawling forward in the left lane—far ahead of the need for any of us to be in one lane. The bottleneck was still well ahead of us and the right lane now was entirely open and free of cars. No one, not a single driver, was speeding down the right lane in order to get up to the most advanced possible spot for the two lanes to merge. In other words, nobody was doing what drivers in every other state seemed to have learned to do—stay in that right lane until the very last moment when you have to merge left in order to shave a minute or two off one’s drive time and cut into line far ahead of all the others who have already politely taken their place in the slow lane. The right lane seems to have become the passing lane, at least where I live, and people roll up to the red light just waiting to engage in a drag race to get ahead of as many people in the left lane after the light turns green—and the same principles seem to apply in most places on the highway when construction is in progress. But not in Wisconsin. They’re actually courteous when they get behind the wheel–more than willing to respect the place of others who have already queued up. A quarter mile of slowly moving forward with absolutely no one cutting out into that empty right lane in order to get ahead—it was almost poignant. This was civility. I’m glad I made this trip, despite the cost and the time involved. It was worth it.

Embodiments of life

Still Life, Gillian Pedersen-Krag

There’s a funny and moving scene in Amadeus where Mozart defends his music for The Marriage of Figaro. His monarch cites good reasons for prohibiting a performance of the story: it’s immoral, degenerate and revolutionary in spirit. (The movie suggests that some might have thought of Mozart’s own personal life in those terms, on occasion.) The king fears that a performance of the opera might inspire insurrection.  France is on the verge of political chaos. Austria worries about the contagion. Yet Mozart dismisses all of these considerations, and his fervor about what he’s done in his composition is entirely about the formal brilliance of his work: the libretto may be subversive, disruptive and potentially violent, but his music is the embodiment of harmony and order. He’s living on an entirely different plane from those around him, playing a glass bead game with notes, striving for transcendent harmonies, merging many voices into one melody, with a passion for conveying nothing more than the quick joy of life itself.

The king: “Figaro is a bad play. It stirs up hatred between the classes.”

Mozart: “Sire, there is nothing like that in the piece. I hate politics. The end of the second act for example. It starts out as a simple duet. Just a husband and wife, quarreling. Suddenly, the wife’s scheming little maid comes in, duet turns into trio. Then the husband’s valet comes in. Trio turns into quartet. Then the stupid old gardener comes in. Quartet turns into quintet. On and on. Sextet, septet, octet. How long do you think I can sustain that, your majesty? Twenty minutes. If that many people talk at the same time, it’s noise. Only opera can do this. But with opera, with music, you can have twenty individuals talking at the same time and it’s not noise, it’s a perfect harmony.

For him, it isn’t what anyone in the opera is saying that matters. What matters is MORE

Bill Finewood

These are small, beautifully executed landscapes by Bill Finewood, currently on view in “Methods Change but the Spirit is the Same”, at the Insalaco-Williams Gallery 34, Finger Lakes Community College. It’s a great overview of his work in different mediums and styles throughout his career. These oils were stand outs in composition, color and handling of the medium, resonant with the unique light of a particular time of day and season. The show also includes a marvelously tactile and detailed drawing of a rabbit, a bit of an homage to Durer’s famous and incomparable one.

Air, water, food and art–maybe in that order

From the sixth episode of The Anthropocene Reviewed, a witty, smart podcast about almost anything from the vantage of this era in which human beings are changing the nature of the world, intentionally and unintentionally, in ways no living creature has ever done before. This is almost the entire essay on the Lascaux caves, but the second half, on Taco Bell, is just as fine and worth the visit for a listen:

So if you’ve ever been or had a child you will likely already be familiar with hand stencils. They were the first figurative art made by both our kids somewhere between the ages of two and three. My children spread the fingers of one hand out across a piece of paper and then with the help of a parent traced their five fingers. I remember my son’s face as he lifted his hand and looked absolutely shocked to see the shape of his hand still on the paper, a semi-permanent record of himself. I am extremely happy that my children are no longer three and yet to look at their little hands from those earlier artworks is to be inundated with a strange soul-splitting joy. Those pictures remind me that they are not just growing up but also growing away from me, running toward their own lives. But of course that’s meaning I am applying to their hand stencils and that complicated relationship between art and its viewers is never more fraught than when we are looking deeply into the past.

In September of 1940, an 18-year-old mechanic named Marcel Ravidat was walking his dog Robot in the countryside of Southwestern France when the dog disappeared down a hole. Robot eventually returned, but the next day Ravidat went to the spot with three friends to explore the hole and after quite a bit of digging they discovered the cave with walls covered with paintings, including over 900 paintings of animals: horses, stags, bison and also species that are now extinct, including a woolly rhinoceros. The paintings were astonishingly detailed and vivid with red, yellow and black paint made from pulverized mineral pigments that were usually blown through a narrow tube, possibly a hollowed bone, onto the walls of the cave. It would eventually be established that these artworks where at least 17,000 years old. Two of the boys who visited the cave that day were so profoundly moved by the art they saw that they camped outside the cave to protect it for over a year. After World War II, the French government took over protection of the site, and the cave was opened to the public in 1948. When Picasso saw the cave paintings on a visit that year, he reportedly said, “We have invented nothing.”

There are many mysteries at Lascaux. Why, for instance, are there no paintings of reindeer, which we know where the primary source of food for the Paleolithic humans. Why were they so much more focused on painting animals than painting human forms? Why are certain areas of the caves filled with images including pictures on the ceiling that required the building of scaffolding to create? Were the painting spiritual? “Here are sacred animals.” Or, “Here is a practical guide to some of the animals that might kill you.” Aside from the animals, there are nearly a thousand abstract signs and shapes we cannot interpret and also several negative hand stencils, as they are known by art historians. These are the paintings that most interest me. They were created by pressing one hand with fingers splayed against the wall of the cave and then blowing pigment, leaving the area around the hand painted. Similar hand stencils have been found in caves around the world from Indonesia to Spain to Australia to the Americas to Africa. We have found these memories of hands from fifteen or thirty or even forty thousand years ago.

These hand stencils remind us of how different life was in the distant past. Amputations, likely from frostbite, are common in Europe, and so you often see negative hand stencils with three or four fingers. But they also remind us that the past (artists) were as human as we are, their hands indistinguishable from ours. Every healthy person would have had to contribute to the acquisition of food and water, and yet somehow they still made time to create art almost as if art isn’t optional for humans  It’s fascinating and a little strange but so many Paleolithic humans who couldn’t possibly have had any contact with each other created the same paintings the same way–art that we are still making. But then again what the Lascaux art means to me is likely very different from what it meant to the people who made it.

I have to confess that even though I am a jaded and cynical semi-professional reviewer of human activity, I actually find it overwhelmingly hopeful that four teenagers and a dog named Robot would discover 17,000-year-old hand prints. That the cave was so overwhelmingly beautiful that two of those teenagers devoted themselves to its protection, and that when we humans became a danger to that cave’s beauty, we agreed to stop going. Lascaux is there. You cannot visit. You can go to the fake cave we built and see nearly identical hand stencils but you will know this is not the thing itself but a shadow of it. This is a handprint but not a hand. This is a memory that you cannot return to. All of which makes the cave very much like the past it represents.

Attention

My parents, Gene and Rita Dorsey, from happier times.

I’ve been a blogger manqué for much of the summer mostly because I’ve been immersed in trying to finish the three paintings I’ve already written about—and I am on pace to get them done on time. But I’ve also been busy with my two other occupations—writing to earn money and taking care of my elderly parents. It feels odd to call my parents elderly when I, myself, will in short order be able to qualify for that demographic. Maybe sixty is the new forty, but I have a feeling that the milestones to come will cast a darker shadow on a narrowing path. Time feels as if it’s getting shorter by the day, which means I need to work harder to stay ahead of the clock, but I’m finding that the painting life is giving me lessons about my larger life as a human being, not just a painter, despite myself. The need to pay attention has become the central imperative of my life, in almost all activities. Writing still comes naturally, and I can do what I need to do—with the exception of contributing to this blog over the summer, clearly—but caring for my parents has become both a bigger challenge and a deeper reward. I find, repeatedly, that I’m choosing to see myself as a son, rather than a painter, on a daily basis for varying lengths of time. And I’m discovering that, as laborious and discouraging as it can be, I’m adapting to it. I’m changing in a way similar to what happened to me when I became a father, when I found myself willing to do almost anything to care for my kids, without resentment or complaint—no matter how it robbed me of my autonomy and personal time.

My brother, Phil, and I share the responsibilities of enabling my parents to continue to live independently in their condo in Penfield, NY, a twenty-minute drive from my home. My father lives most of his life now at a few points on the tiny map of his primarily domestic world: bedroom, bathroom, dining room, deck and TV room. He’s able, just barely, to shift his body from bed to scooter and thence to the bathroom, the living area, or the deck outside. His infirmities derive from stenosis, peripheral neuropathy, a brief TIA from which he partially recovered, pulmonary issues, and increasing effects of dementia—he is the same person as he always was, but greatly diminished, hemmed in, caged by his body and brain, though his sense of humor remains intact as do his gratitude and kindness. However, more and more his despair over his condition sparks bouts of anger or snarky critiques of those around him. Inevitably, whenever we are together I gaze directly at the future, my future and everyone’s future, and it has the effect of stripping away most of the layers of denial that all of us wrap around ourselves like comforters on a cold night. Old age and death watch me, as I watch them. We’re all dying slowly or quickly, and when you see that, what matters most in life is giving as much care to one another as possible. Occasionally, the demands of my father’s predicament test my equanimity, but most of the time I just surrender and do what both of them need and what my brother, Phil, is unavailable to do.

Yesterday afternoon, I stepped away from my canvas long enough to take a call from my mother. I had to do it on my iPad because the iPhone was MORE

Wide Awake passes the Turing test

Parquet Courts at SXSW 2013

Wide Awake, the new album from Parquet Courts, is a relief. I’d almost given up on these guys. In his production of the album, Danger Mouse has helped bring them back to their core strengths, while at the same time becoming a bit like the musical equivalent of Prozac. He makes the overall experience less discordant and much, much more enjoyable than the band’s work since their breakthrough album, but he also rounds off the edges a bit. In a few tracks, the boys hit their post-punk target with the same raw power and wit (“Do I pass the Turing test?”) that was so evident in Light Up Gold. Yet much of this pleasurably surprising album stays at a less frenetic pitch. What’s hopeful is that, in comparison with the experimental recordings they’ve been tinkering with, here they’ve kept faith with their unkempt appetite for a relentless beat, and are a little more considerate of an average Ramones lover’s needs. What I miss is the sense of their cutting completely loose, flirting with barely controlled frenzy in obeisance only to a melody and their phenomenal drummer, Max Savage. They have yet to set the crossbar any higher than Master of My Craft but they’re getting close.