Chardin’s dreaming

 

When I was a boy, I used to take a toy, whether or not it was meant to represent something aeronautically sound, and I would hold it out in front of me and “fly” it above the sofa mountains of our living room or, outside, over the terrain in our East St. Louis yard: a stone wall, peonies and day lilies, an actual manual pump (like the ones in Westerns) drawing air from an unproductive well, apple trees and woods. The scale of everything would be altered by whatever I was holding in my hand, an airplane, a Superman, or a scuba diver. I wanted to be a scuba diver more than anything in grade school. (Or a sardonic gambler with a six-shooter on my hip in a frontier Nebraska saloon.) A little molded plastic figure of a diver, lime green or blue, would swim over vast underwater canyons carpeted with bluegrass. I was the invisible giant holding him up: a giant or a god. The world was my diorama. Everything became more interesting.

I get the same feeling looking at a close-up detail I shot a few months ago at The Getty of a masterful Chardin still life I’d never seen before. Up close, the objects on Chardin’s mantle look massive, like magical alien minarets and a flat-topped stadium, a terrain out of Gulliver’s Travels. It’s a strange city built with things from his kitchen. Bachelard would have been nudged by this scene into a reverie, another unique poetic measure of space, if he imagined everything in the picture a thousand times larger than its actual size. (I suppose you have to leave out the fish.) It becomes like one of those clockwork models of cities rising up out of the earth during the title sequence of Game of Thrones. This effect is partly what draws me to enlarged images of ordinary objects—making them massively larger on canvas than they are in my daily, disenchanted world—to bring out their formal resonance with so many other things with similar shapes and tones. In a way, I think this is related to what Braque meant in his notebooks about the centrality of transformation in painting, the alchemy that takes an ordinary interior space, full of utterly familiar things, and turns it into a painting’s dream. His transformations were more radical, obviously, but Chardin is just as concerned with the feel of the paint itself and the tactile quality of what’s seen–making you aware of the medium that invites you into its world, the same as yours, but cooler, fresher, more alive.

I was familiar with many of the objects in this picture from his other paintings, because he kept returning to these old inanimate friends again and again, as still life painters like to do: shallots, garlic, a couple gougeres (they look like cream puffs), several ceramic bowls with covers secured by lengths of twine, and a silver dish designed to hold two glass-and-silver cruets for oil and vinegar. Freshly-caught mackerel in the background are the wild card. Chardin did this at least a couple times—showing you fish and game ready for cooking. But he indicates the shining white underside of the fish with impasto streaks of paint uncharacteristic of his usually subtle handling. In a photograph, it looks right. In front of the actual painting, it distracted me and felt like the part of an overexposed photograph where highlights wash out into too much white. In the end, though, the problematic fish and the way he painted them make the painting even more interesting.

Continue reading ‘Chardin’s dreaming’

“It’s tough” is relative

Face Painting, Jonas Wood (2014). Courtesy of the artist and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles. Photo: Brian Forrest.

Bill Santelli sent me this interview, which is a good read. Jonas Wood makes Hockney-esque paintings that look like graphic art, colorful in unpredictable and interesting ways, and dense with detail. They feel immediate and carefully observed but executed with almost childlike simplicity. I love the embrace of flatness because it forces him to put so much of his feeling into the color and his color can be extremely good (but sometimes not all that interesting.) What you see is what you get and that has to be part of his appeal, the ordinary quality of the experience he conveys. It’s funny to hear Wood talking about his staff and his office. Who does he think is going to hire a staff after reading this? The only staff I could imagine wanting or needing is Gmail with a good spam filter and auto-reply as my receptionist. Which he would applaud, if it worked to manage the tsunami of demand I anticipate any day now. It’s sort of his point: detach yourself from all pressures other than the work and get it done, but that’s easier to say when you are selling work for $2 million in an auction. There’s a no-nonsense fearless voice here, but it’s speaking back towards us in a foreign tongue he picked up in this other dimension of big art world success where nothing is commensurate with the way all but one percent of one percent of artists live. All of this reminds me of France before the storming of the Bastille. Where did Fragonard go after the revolution? I think he just dematerialized. Or maybe he finally hired a staff. But it doesn’t seem we are at that point, income inequality notwithstanding. We’re facing something different. Economically, Wood is among the elite of the elite. This world the rest of us live in, the world nearly everyone else lives in, can’t imagine hiring a staff. But who doesn’t envy Wood’s ability to just do what he loves doing and, voila, the money and attention flows? Reading his comments feels like watching the Kardashians have breakfast while they talk about how you need to become an Instagram star as practice for your reality TV show. Working hard isn’t what gets these results. Most of the factors that make Wood’s work so lucrative are beyond anyone’s control–and if art schools teach anything about the market it should be that you aren’t going to face his choices. It happens to an infinitesimally small number of people who get beamed up to this rarified world, and then have to find a way to shelter in place from the abundance of their new planet, the way Wood does, in order to keep working. Hard work is a given, but it isn’t enough. Van Gogh ramped up to a painting a day, more or less, near the end. Nobody has ever worked harder. It got him something far preferable to sales. 

Some good advice here, with the intro from art.net:

Jonas Wood is not shy. He won’t hold back, takes aim when he fires, and doesn’t seem concerned about ruffling anyone’s feathers. He’s also busy—very, very busy—and seems to have a lot on his mind.

When artnet News spoke with the artist earlier this month, he was preparing for the first institutional survey of his work at the Dallas Museum of Art, which opened last week. The show is a real boon; although Wood has earned a solid reputation for his lush interiors, tender portraits, and vibrant still lifes, which he has shown in dozens of commercial gallery exhibitions, museum support has largely eluded him until now. Not that he has much time to bask in his success. In April, Gagosian will present new works by the artist in New York, which means he has to quickly shift gears and look ahead.

From Wood’s answers to artnet’s questions:

I think it happens to be that I have a broad audience right now. Maybe that’s not always the case, but the reason I paint is not for those people. I think it’s for my own mental health and for my own sort of goals as a painter, but I’m aware of the viewer.

I worked with Laura Owens. And I got this really good advice—and from other people too—which was just, if you want to separate yourself from the noise, you’ve got to create some distance.  Another thing was just saving my own work and not being so greedy, and being aware that, okay, $5,000 now is $5,000 now. If I sell three more paintings, yes, I’ll get a little bit more money, but it’s not like life-changing money. Maybe I should start holding onto things for myself and not selling everything. I mean, the dealers are going to hate hearing this, but maybe they won’t. Maybe it’s good because they want an empowered artist. But they would offer to give me money to buy stretchers and buy stuff for my studio, and I didn’t really want them to buy stuff for me because I didn’t want them to know how many paintings I was making.

I was painting for me, and I knew that I didn’t want to paint for the collector audience. I wanted to paint for me. 

So establishing that was really important for me because I was able to keep my practice open. I didn’t want to be pigeonholed right away. I showed a lot of different kinds of work, and I didn’t really cut myself off and be like, “He’s the tennis court painter.” Or, “He’s the sports portrait painter,” or, “He’s the guy who makes the still life.” I guess I’m kind of all of those things, which is better than just being one of those things.

Well, when I was at school in 2002 at the University of Washington, my goal was to teach at a liberal arts school, have a studio on campus, have the summers off. That was probably my ideal.

Man, it’s fucking tough because people say crazy shit about your work. You have to be super thick-skinned, and it’s hard. That’s a big part of it. I would say that you just have to take all that energy back to your studio and try to be critical in your own way and just take that criticism. Just say, “Okay, yeah, I’m going to keep looking because maybe these people have a point.”

But that type of shit is tough. Dealers saying crazy shit, your friends saying crazy shit, collectors saying crazy shit, having a show where you don’t sell a bunch of stuff. That shit is tough.

 

 

Magnetic and inexhaustible reality

Iris Murdoch

I’ve just reread Iris Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of the Good, in reaction to my rereading of Dave Hickey’s The Invisible Dragon, in an effort to see the contrast between their ideas about beauty. Hickey speaks about beauty and desire. Murdoch about beauty and love. One might think they are speaking the same language, Hickey at a very high rate of speed, full of rebellious spunk, and Murdoch deliberately, cautiously and in the dry language of a professional philosopher. They were both pushing back against a tide of thinking and theorizing, in their time, about what it means to be a responsible social human being. There is some commonality. It would seem Hickey would have been very uncomfortable with Murdoch’s wisdom. They arrive at what sound like very different conclusions, yet I’m wondering if Hickey might have appreciated Murdoch’s embrace of Greek philosophy a little more than he lets on in his own book. On the evidence, his view of beauty seems entirely utilitarian compared to hers, but his assertion that artists need to do beautiful work in familiarity with a tradition of past beauty that has some kinship with Murdoch’s concept of attention.  

She starts off in the weeds of shop talk, fending off one academic philosopher after another, trying to somehow save the idea of individual subjective consciousness against all the 20th century efforts to render human beings merely an agglomeration of genetic/cellular activity–or an isolated will, an abstract freedom of choice, completely detached from any governing reality external to the individual will. (The latter, existentialist view, has certainly receded since she wrote her book.) In rereading the book, at first, I was annoyed and puzzled by how dense her thinking gets, right out of the gate, as she fends off the other thinkers–analytic and existentialist both–who want to dismiss the idea of what used to be called the human soul, a consciousness that isn’t simply the epiphenomenon of bodily activity. She tentatively asserts subjective consciousness as the only way to describe the actual experience of being alive and human–an inner life apart from actual behavior that proves to others it exists–in order to build her philosophy of Goodness. Everything good in human behavior for her depends on a lone individual’s effortful attention to other people and things external to the self and she needs that inner life, that inner struggle of attention, which goes on invisibly from moment to moment (essentially a sort of continuous, daily discipline of contemplation) for her view of moral goodness to make sense. (Though she probably would have been disheartened by the current ubiquity of mindfulness meditation, complete with helpful apps on your phone, her thinking isn’t all that far from the moral dimension of mindfulness.)

For now, here’s a long series of excerpts from throughout her book. Any painter, including abstract painters, will recognize how much this describes the act of painting, how little depends on personal choice and how much relies on obedience to the requirements of a given picture, even though her focus is on moral behavior. She sees very little space between moral attention and creative attention:

But if we consider what the work of attention is like, how continuously it goes on, and how imperceptibly it builds up structures of value around about us, we shall not be surprised that at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over. This does not imply that we are not free, certainly not. But it implies that the exercise of our freedom is a small piecemeal business which goes on all the time and not a grandiose leaping about unimpeded at important moments. The moral life, on this view, is something that goes on continually, not something that is switched off in between the occurrence of explicit moral choices. What happens in between such choices is indeed what is crucial.

If I attend properly I will have no choices, and this is the ultimate condition to be aimed at. The ideal situation . . . is . . . to be represented as a kind of ‘necessity’. This is something of which saints speak and which any artist will readily understand. The idea of a patient, loving regard, directed upon a person, a thing, a situation, presents the will not as unimpeded movement but as something much more like ‘obedience.’

This is what Simone Weil means when she said ‘will is obedience not resolution.’ As moral agents we have to try to see justly, to overcome prejudice, to avoid temptation, to control and curb imagination, to direct reflection.

One of the great merits of moral psychology which I am proposing is that it does not contrast art and morals, but shows them to be two aspects of a single struggle.

In one of those important movements of return from philosophical theory to simple things we know about great art and about the moral insight which it contains and the moral achievement which it represents. Goodness and beauty are not to be contrasted, but are largely a part of the same structure. Plato, who tells us that beauty is the only spiritual thing which we love immediately by nature, treats the beautiful as an introductory section of the good. So that aesthetic situations are not so much analogies of morals as cases of morals. Virtue is au fond the same in the artist as in the good man in that it is a selfless attention to nature: something which is easy to name but very hard to achieve. Artists who have reflected have frequently given expression to this idea. (For instance Rilke praising Cezanne speaks of a ‘consuming love in anonymous work.’) Continue reading ‘Magnetic and inexhaustible reality’

Picasso, the blind Minotaur

Pablo Picasso, Blind Minotaur Guided by a Girl at Night, burnished aquatint

I’ve been surprised that the exhibit that has occupied my attention the most since my last visit to LACMA was Fantasies and Fairy Tales. It was a small, quirky collection of prints from around the year 1900. The aim of the exhibit was to show how, within this tight, curatorial window of qualifications (prints mostly within a narrow, fin-de-siecle range of dates), a selection of work could suggest incorporeal states of mind or spirit, as well as hint at transcendence. The show was beautiful and eerie, dreamlike and occasionally chilling. There was a slightly morbid strain in the imagery on view, but it was tempered with stylistic wit in the work itself and the playfulness of the curation. Charles Addams might have brought an Edwardian folding chair to this one, the better to take it all in. David Hockney etched a simple rear view of the prince nudging his horse up to Rapunzel’s dangling locks. In Death the Strangler, Alfred Rethel engraved an image of a skeleton in a hooded monk’s habit pretending to play a fiddle with a pair of leg bones as people cowered around him. Max Klinger’s aquatint, Pursued Centaur, depicted three seemingly naked hunters chasing a centaur through long grass—right after the centaur has loosed an arrow backward into the leading horse’s neck. It shows you the moment when the hunters became the hunted. It’s all slightly magical, in an altered states sort of way.

But the revelation for me was a print from Picasso, the one of the blind Minotaur commonly considered the final image from The Vollard Suite—if you discount the concluding three portraits of Vollard required by the art dealer in his commission. I’d seen many prints from that suite before, but seeing it in person, for some reason, stopped me in my tracks. It was an entrancing exhibit, and this one print sent me briefly down a rabbit hole of study off and on during the past two months since my visit in January. Eventually, I’m going to post a long essay on The Vollard Suite—if I can sit still long enough to write it—because it has changed the way I think of Picasso and his career. I’m finding it hard to see anything else he did as equal to this suite of prints, especially if you consider Guernica the offspring of his years laboring on them.

The Vollard Suite is giving me a deeper respect for the sort of art—the kind of art that critics love because it can generate so much discussion—that doesn’t fit into my essentially modernist advocacy for visual art’s fundamental kinship with music, in the way it acts directly on the pysche, in contrast to language and narrative. Visual art and music are equipped to do something different from the meaning-making role of language, opening up an immediate sense of the world, but in a direct way that bypasses the intellect, and I consider this their most valuable role among all the arts. When this work gets tied to the notion of “meaning,” then visual art heads in a direction that usually seems less compelling to me. Yet the Vollard Suite is making me see the other side of this argument. It’s catnip for the thinking mind, but in such a way that it leads you toward the impenetrable paradox of Picasso’s own personal daemon. The Vollard Suite is a maze of implied, mysterious narrative, but it becomes, as Picasso is drawn toward greater and greater honestly about himself and his art, a work of tormented self-questioning and self-criticism. I’m not sure there’s anything else like it in his work, or in anyone else’s. It’s art that calls art itself into question. Out of this self-defeating struggle, one of the most worldly and pagan of 20th century artists created, in this image of the blind minotaur, a dead-end reverie of blind enchantment. It’s a depiction of himself as both baffled and instinctively creative with no way to see where he was going, yet obedient to the beauty that offered to lead him through his darkness. In a way, it’s an image of soon-to-be rejected grace. I think Picasso understood his own spiritual blindness. It’s his brief discovery of enchantment, as a consequence of his being honest about his inability to comprehend himself or his life, that takes him and the viewer by surprise. He had his secular equivalent to Beatrice in his teenage lover, Marie-Therese Walter, yet he parted ways with her. Yet while he created this print and its companions, she offered to light a path for him that he ultimately abandoned. 

Zoey Frank

Peter Reading, oil on panel, 36″ x 36″

Zoey Frank has a show at Gallery Mokum in Amsterdam opening on March 16. She has to be the perceptual painter who has risen to prominence more rapidly than anyone else in that club. I’ve been following her with bemused fascination since she was the star of Manifest’s INPA not long ago. She’s everywhere, it seems. When I checked out Arcadia’s booth at the L.A. Art Show two years ago, I noticed they had one of her paintings on view. She’s included in a group show now at Danese Corey, with plenty of work to spare for a solo show in Europe. For someone with her prolific confidence, the challenge has to be picking what not to paint.

The polarities in her work are what keep me trying to reverse engineer what she’s doing, but it’s as hopeless as twisting a Rubik’s Cube back to perfect alignment. At her best, the surface works on its own semi-abstract terms. Conversely, the image works just as well, as a representation, despite all the flat decorative patterns she so often seems to improvise behind and almost in front of her subject, if you can actually pin down a single subject in some of them. Note the checkered pattern of the boxer shorts, the irregular cinder-block lines in the wall, the random-looking orange stripes at the top, as if someone has ripped a pasted advertisement away. Hers are “all over” paintings that resolve themselves, at least partly into the old familiar genres of interior, figure and still life. When this polarity between surface and image is strongest, but without marks that don’t seem unified into a recognizable image, her paintings are the most satisfying. (It looks as if lately she’s moving more toward heavy impasto, in the vein of Stanley Lewis, and the image flattens into two-dimensional patterns completely, losing some of her charm in the process.) Her work is about the texture of the paint and yet they often look as accurate in the way they convey light as a photograph. (It’s hard to imagine she doesn’t refer to photographs at all in some paintings.) As with most of the perceptual painters, she’s willing to paint anything she sees, seemingly just as she finds it, so that anything for her is a fitting subject. Each individual painting looks more like an inconclusive portion of a long scroll of work that never ends–just an arbitrary clip from a continuous experimental translation of seeing into paint, never quite arriving at completion, which adds to the transitory quality of her images. They feel more dreamed than seen.

In her most interesting work, she’s constantly juxtaposing scumbled or scraped spots of paint against crisply defined edges–the way Eve Mansdorf once talked about the importance of edges as a counterpoint for her more improvisational areas of paint. The governing greenish light here–is it a yellow incandescence or a muted natural glow on her friend’s nose from a leafy summer scene outside? She conceals a line that looks as if she’s trying to slice her friend’s anatomy off at the knees, angling up from the lower right, the way a Cubist would, arbitrarily (hints of Braque often are absorbed into her compositions and texture) and yet that little edge seems to work as an accidental but accurate alignment of shadow. In most of her work, she uses these structural straight lines, as if she’s clicking everything into a purely imaginary grid that keeps surfacing in the shapes she puts down. She breaks up this particular image with little shards, wedges and shims of color, without detracting from the depth of her forms and the realistic light, so that a lot of these details don’t coalesce the way you would expect them to, yet don’t keep you from seeing the scene. In this case, it’s almost the way a digital photograph looks when it’s pulled off a slightly damaged SATA hard drive, fractured with visual noise, but still recognizable.

Message from the unseen

From “Art is Dead; Long Live Aesthetic Management:”

“The work of art,” Alfred North Whitehead writes, “is a message from the Unseen,” or as I would say, the unconscious. “It unlooses the depths of feeling from behind a frontier where the precision of consciousness fails.” This, I think, is the credo and intention of all true artistic creativity–to reach into the unseen depths of the psyche and bring back the pearl of original feeling from them. T.W. Adorno says something similar. “Works of art,” he writes, “do not, in the psychological sense, repress contents of consciousness. Rather, through expression they help raise into consciousness diffuse and forgotten experiences without ‘rationalizing’ them.”

Artistic expression thus undermines the pseudo-self and restores the original self. It uses unconscious feeling to undermine conscious reason. Diffuse feeling arises spontaneously, as though experienced for the first time or suddenly remembered, and so all the more meaningful. It is an unexpected message from the unknown depths, a surprise that cannot readily be explained, which makes it all the more resonant and urgent and profound–and makes the art that mediates it convincing.

–Donald Kuspit, Redeeming Art: Critical Reveries

 

Happiness, courtesy James Neil Hollingsworth

Honda: Aft, James Neil Hollingsworth, oil on panel, 12″ x 12″

To the prejudiced, everything that belongs to a certain category tends to look alike. Likewise, to its detractors, I suspect photorealism all looks the same. In their view, it smothers individuality. It’s impersonal and slick. It’s meretriciously seductive in its surface pleasures. And what makes it so galling: it’s popular. Although I use photorealist methods, I have been known to respond this way to some of the hyperrealism I see—opulently lavish with color and light and detail and yet seemingly devoid of subtle emotional tones. It’s so extreme in its technical skill that mostly it gives you an envious thrill similar to what you might experience while gazing at a Lamborghini on a showroom floor. I’d love to know how that car and those paintings are made, but I wouldn’t feel right bringing either of them home. I think that’s how many fellow painters react to this genre as a whole. It’s cool perfection seems as off-putting as a luxury item.

On the other hand, I could rattle off a list of photorealists whose work I love, as well as work that has the same deadpan, literal accuracy but relies to a lesser degree on photographic technology. (The Dresden painters, the French classicists, for example.) With his lenses and maybe mirrors, Vermeer would be the most beloved practitioner, of course, but many different contemporary painters working in this mode evoke far more than just a lust for looking. Their paintings find ways to convey almost exactly how things look, without any creative meddling, and yet also manage to be individually expressive by employing subtle, personal stylistic jigs—the self-limiting guides of an individual painter’s personal conventions and preferences. Some of these painters evoke a world of memory and stillness and poetry: the sense of order that saturates a certain kind of autumn afternoon, the smell and sound of a golf course, a childhood home in the dusk, or the look of a certain season in the way its light falls on things arrayed under a window. Behind all of that, throughout almost all examples of the genre itself, there’s an affirmation of the Apollonian order embedded in science and technology–its almost ontological presence in modern experience so omnipresent it becomes invisible, though it is what makes possible suburban homes and golf courses and lunches at a favorite diner and lavishly abundant supermarkets and quiet October afternoons scented with burning leaves when you can sit and do nothing in your backyard but listen to a remote motorcycle start up again at a green light. By and large, photorealism shows you how contemporary happiness looks and feels–you look at one of these paintings and realize how happy you actually are. Which is, by and large, what Vermeer wanted to depict as well.

I’m finding myself this year, in my own painting, concentrating on one sort of photorealist work that ought to have its own name: photorealist abstraction or abstract representation would describe it pretty well, though it Continue reading ‘Happiness, courtesy James Neil Hollingsworth’

Complementarity, a la Niels Bohr

Again while running, two songs came up in my playlist rotation, and the lyrics struck me as a good description of two sorts of people, with two different visions of the world. But maybe not. It seems I fit into both of these groups. Why do both of these songs feel true at the same time . . . 

Time Hard, The Pioneers:

Everyday things are getting worse
Everyday things are getting worse
Everyday things are getting worse . . .
I took him down to the market place
And them laugh at my dog
You never see smoke without fire
I said
Oh,
You gotta hold your head up high
Everyday things are getting worse
Everyday things are getting worse
Time so hard, why oh why oh lord

Getting Better, The Beatles

I’ve got to admit it’s getting better (Better)
A little better all the time (It can’t get no worse)
I have to admit it’s getting better (Better)
It’s getting better
Since you’ve been mine
Getting so much better all the time!
It’s getting better all the time
Better, better, better
It’s getting better all the time
Better, better, better

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

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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)