Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of “Flow”, (1934-2021)

From the book Flow. The first quote describes probably the easiest, best justification for representational art, which is mostly about sustained attention for no motive but to pay attention and then acting on what it shows:

If you are interested in something, you will focus on it, and if you focus attention on anything, it is likely that you will become interested in it. Many of the things we find interesting are not so by nature, but because we took the trouble of paying attention to them. The second describes the transition from not-painting to painting on the average morning:

The optimal state of inner experience is one in which there is order in consciousness. … “Flow” is the way people describe their state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered, and they want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake.

Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person’s skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding.

…success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue…as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.

…It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were.

Now . . .  we do studies — we have, with other colleagues around the world, done over 8,000 interviews of people — from Dominican monks, to blind nuns, to Himalayan climbers, to Navajo shepherds — who enjoy their work. And regardless of the culture, regardless of education or whatever, there are these seven conditions that seem to be there when a person is in flow. There’s this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback. You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears, you forget yourself, you feel part of something larger. And once the conditions are present, what you are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake.

…success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue…as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.


Some things have only intensified in the past 60 years. From the dailyrothko Instagram feed:

“When I was a younger man, art was a lonely thing. No galleries, no collectors, no critics, no money. Yet, it was a golden age, for we all had nothing to lose and a vision to gain. Today it is not quite the same. It is a time of tons of verbiage, activity, consumption. Which condition is better for the world at large I shall not venture to discuss. But I do know, that many of those who are driven to this life are desperately searching for those pockets of silence where we can root and grow. We must all hope we find them.”
– Address at The Pratt Institute, 1959

Susanna Coffeey

Four Radishes July, detail, 4 x 10 inches, oil on panel, 2015

Baird’s bowl of grapes

David Baird, Still Life with Grapes, 12 x 12, oil on canvas

I’ve been observing this painting for weeks now, off and on, trying to deconstruct what I’m seeing and why I love it. It does many things quite orthodox within the methods of the perceptual painters, some of them I “feel,” as one might say, and others I find irksome when they seem to become affectations and tics. He avoids everything irksome here even while engaging in a couple of the tics.

He’s another extremely talented alum of the Jerusalem Studio School, and he isn’t alone among painters who have studied there in that the quality of the paint he applies, for me, gives the sense of being mixed right from the tubes, without additional medium, so that it affords what seems like a dry, ragged texture, almost like pastel. The unfinished edges, which can seem like an affectation (one that I usually like until it looks studied), feel natural and serve his composition by echoing the tone of the bowl and the inverted soft-boiled egg cup—an object he has used repeatedly, going back to it the way Chardin kept using the same household tools from one painting to the next. That ragged border of raw canvas shows, in the gauzy and yet abrupt shift from paint to untouched canvas, what appears to be a low ratio of linseed oil to pigment. All of this sounds like shop talk, and I may be completely wrong about his mixing, but he is using this quality of paint to convey light and color in a way that’s deeply felt and sensuous. His tones are rich and beautiful and in perfect harmony. His very limited range of color is there to offer itself up for its own quiet virtues, not just to serve the purpose of representation.

Baird’s umber in the upper right corner, just leaning toward olive recedes obediently almost as negative space, a little glimpse of taupe wall that offers a ground for the objects closer to the viewer, but it’s also a hue that comes alive in juxtaposition with the reddish surface just below it that draws its harmonies from the grapes. Together, they are luscious colors that don’t call attention to themselves at first, but offer subtle pleasures to an insistent gaze. The geometry of this still life—the sphere, the rectangle of the MORE

Stuart Shils

Stuart Shils, while traveling in ancient lands, rag paper, likely watercolor

The whole point of study… is to stand before the world in awe…


I’ve been following Stuart Shils since I discovered him when he was juror for an annual group show five years ago at Prince Street in Chelsea. He’s one of the most consistently rewarding painters to follow on Instagram. He’s prolific as well, which makes him perfect for the ravenous maw of social media, but he’s able to keep the feed flowing with regular posts because much of his work is small and appears to be quickly executed, each painting seemingly just a freeze frame from an ongoing flow of paint. One of the aspects of his own Instagram stream that makes it unusual, if not unique, is that for a while it seemed to become a work of art itself, not just a way of sharing images of work done elsewhere: it was more or less the medium for his abstract photography. I could imagine buying a print of one of his photographs, but photography has been democratized to the point where it’s mostly digital now and exists in the ether as much as anywhere else, so when his shots appeared, they seemed to have their being there in that stream of images and nowhere else.

In those shots he was seeing the way he sees when he makes a painting: the photographs often had all the formal concerns and the feel for composition that magically give his paintings such a haunting quality of remembered immediacy, yearning and loss, shot through with a passion for color.

Most recently, he’s been proving that what he does may look like color field improvisation, but it’s also figurative in a broad sense: in extremely subtle ways, it represents the visible, physical world. It’s just as much about the ambiguous interplay of figure and ground as his earlier more quickly recognizable work. Lately, he’s using Instagram to create a diptych by pairing two paintings from twenty years apart, or thereabouts.  In the earlier, one can usually recognize the image at a glance. In the more recent work, it takes a while to see how the gestural paint both reveals and conceals the figure. Often, it can take some extended looking to decipher what you’re seeing, or might be seeing. In the pairings, he offers one painting from around the turn of the current century and another from the MORE

Diarmuid Kelley

THE BAYEUX TAPESTRY, 2018, oil on linen, 15 3/4 x 15 3/4 inches

The unfinished quality of Kelley’s work is part of its appeal, especially when the untouched white canvas creates a balancing tension with the white cloth, though after a while with his paintings it begins to feel like an affectation. The fascination for me is how he gets that matte texture that seems to be everywhere, even when it’s evoking a gently shining pear. Four colors plus black and white. It’s as if he first applies Gesso a few times to raw canvas, and it’s so absorbent that it draws all the oil out of the paint leaving that luxuriant suede-like surface. The modeling of the cloth is a pleasure, as if he’s stenciling some of those creases and applying a mist of paint over them. The little white lines in the purplish bruise of shadow at the bottom of the cloth look like beetle trails in firewood. His titles can be even more recherche and quirky than Shils’.

Last and best

Fairfield Porter Field Flowers, Fruit and Dishes, 1974 Oil on masonite 18 × 22

Fairfield Porter’s work reached its apogee in the last decade of his life. By today’s standards, he died young, in his late 60s, but his work achieved a new level in those last years, a more photographic clarity, simplicity and balance that seemed to serve as a counterweight to the intentionally awkward-looking, sometimes primitive, way he handled paint. Yet at the same time, in his coastal scenes, he pushed the looseness as far as he could take it to a dazzlingly luminous near-abstraction. In both modes he surpassed much of what he’d done before, though his work all through the 60s was at a new level, as was Burchfield’s, though in a much different way and even more remarkably. Porter always wanted the paint to be what you saw, as much as de Kooning and Vuillard did, both of whom he admired, but in the more precise draftsmanship of that last period, he let you see what he was representing more clearly than ever before. He got out of the way: one hardly noticed how radically he simplified what he saw, eliminating all but the most necessary detail, and it went less noticed because his line was more photographic. In Portrait of Nancy Porter Strauss, The Tennis Game, House with Three Chimneys, Lizzie and Bruno, The Harbor–Great Spruce Head, Still Life 1975, and many others he distilled and refined what he had begun to do in the early 1960s, being bolder and brighter with his simplified areas of color, far more accurate in his line and embracing a realism less French, less Impressionist, harder-edged but, maybe ironically, more and more radiant. There were amazing harbingers of his late mastery, especially The Mirror, his homage to Las Meninas, but also in probably his most complex painting, the utterly controlled The Cove, a depiction of what is probably the Maine coast, one of his favorite subjects, but this time looking in toward the land, at low tide. A lone figure in khaki shorts picks his way across countless rocks toward shallow water. The way in which he simplifies without ever violating the actual look of that uneven littoral path, the muted color of the low mountains and pines, exactly the shift in value they require to indicate their distance, everything precise and not a single extraneous bit of paint applied anywhere–it pointed toward what he would be doing even more powerfully in the 70s. Meanwhile, the almost purely abstract, and paint-besotted, Calm Morning, in 1961, points toward The Ocean, a large square canvas that looks almost minimalist in the abstraction of its layered horizontal tiers of low whitecaps and the thin sheet of lilac tidewater washing back toward the ocean. It’s both uncannily accurate and yet seemingly loose, spontaneous and improvised.

There was a brief, insufficient piece in The Economist about five years ago about the notion of “the late, great work” of famous creative artists: Van Gogh, Beethoven, Ibsen, Goya. Proust died so young that his late work is really almost his only work, which is certainly true of Keats as well, so there’s a confusion at the heart of the thesis: are we talking old age or just the last act in a life of any duration? It’s funny the way the author sticks to its guns by citing work from the minds of those who were falling apart under stress and thus creating work that reflected the inner disintegration and/or withdrawal:

For each of these composers, late style meant something different. Gesualdo had murdered his wife and her lover, and spent his last days in a torment which one can sense in his crazily discordant late works. The emotional devastation of Schumann’s final days becomes starkly evident in his ruthlessly pared-down Gesänge der Frühe (“Songs of Dawn”). The Britten string quartet which Mr Biss has chosen shows the composer delighting in an extreme—and to him quite new—economy of expression. The chaotic middle movement of Mr Biss’s chosen Schubert sonata reflects the composer, who was dying of syphilis, going to pieces in rage and terror. Brahms’s late works suggest a man whose emotional energy has been sapped dry; Beethoven’s suggest the opposite. What links these composers, as Mr Biss points out, is that “with each of them, something has happened to completely change their style”.

Beethoven’s late quartets are indisputably awe-inspiring and maybe the best argument for the thesis that creative flourishing can take a lifetime to nourish. The list to support his thesis is fairly persuasive: the aforementioned Burchfield, Van Gogh, Porter, Matisse with his cut-outs, maybe whatever Stella will be doing before he dies, maybe Rembrandt, Degas, and certainly Monet. My takeaway: there’s hope for all of us who see the traces of youth shrink daily in the rear-view mirror.


Another from Bill Santelli’s Reverie series, which for me brings his work to a new level, along with the In the Humming Air series. These very small pieces are entirely organic, though when he introduces geometric elements into this series, they create a grid that also feels new, compared to the tension between geometric and natural shapes in his previous work. The work feels natural and the imagery offers more little pings of recognition: hinting at light through trees or underwater, spaces that feel more outdoors than psychological. Love where it’s all going.

Murmurations and runes

Bill Stephens has been doing something that strikes me as new, though he may not see it that way. He’s using fine-tipped pens to apply inks in varied colors to mixed-media paintings and, though extremely fine lines are his wheelhouse, the effect is different in the new work. There’s a jittery but shimmering quality to the almost pointillist throng of hatch marks in the new work. In his black and white drawings, the tiny white marks look like scratches applied to a black coat of paint on a white surface, but they are actually white ink, each mark one among what appear to be thousands that sweep across the surface like a murmuration of starlings or particulates of smoke or very fine cloth swaying in a breeze. It gives the effect of seeing a massive migration through space, souls swept helplessly along in Dante, say, or just ants marching across sand. The shapes as a whole also look geographic or meteorological, seen from space. At the same time, Stephens is using different tiny marks, more like runes, in other brilliantly colored work, again colored inks against complementarily colored grounds in highly saturated tones. The effect is entirely different, more like the quality of light off a cathedral in Monet. In both modes, he’s capturing the febrile quality of awareness itself: constantly in flux, quiet and still and barely moving in the dark work, yet intensely alive and shimmering with a kind of static bliss in full color.

You can see this work at the current member show at Mill Art Center. 

2023 International Juried Painting Awards

Candy Jar #13, oil on linen, 44 x 44

Candy Jar #13 has won Second Place in the Camelback Gallery’s online 2023 International Juried Painting Awards. A second candy jar painting was also included in the exhibition as a finalist.

Aradia in L.A.

Irina Cumberland, Stone Warm, oil on copper

From today through the 19th, Arcadia Contemporary is offering what is essentially an international survey of representational art from 13 different countries at the L.A. Art Show. The catalog for work available from this one gallery is astonishing. The Arcadia booth is nearly an entire exhibition in itself. The range of work is purposefully narrow in one sense, driven by Arcadia’s adherence to the dictates of its own largely dark, figurative esthetic, but I was dumbfounded by the sheer number of artists and variety of work, the way Arcadia has located, in so many different places around the world, exactly the sort of painter it chooses to represent. The Arcadia catalog rivals the international painting annuals produced by Manifest Gallery, with over 500 pages of artwork offering around 200 paintings and drawings. It’s an impressive act of curation and offers what must be the fruit of endless research to locate exactly the sort of painter the gallery seeks from Korea, Nigeria, United Kingdom, United States, Spain, Israel, France, Cuba, Japan, Australia, Russia, Ukraine, Spain, and Poland.

When I last visited the gallery in SoHo, Steve Diamant showed me his most recent discovery, one of the paintings in this show from a female Russian painter he’d recently discovered. He said he almost always seeks out the artists he shows, not the other way around, without divulging exactly how he tracks painters who fit into the gallery’s esthetic. It’s a category of work hard to pin down precisely because it depends on his own individual sensibility. There’s just a touch of Weimar Republic in some of this work, the mordant air of the cabaret. But he also shows bright, ecstatically affirmative almost wholesome paintings of simple, familiar things and situations from painters whose vision is anything but sceptical. He said the work he wants is frequently beautiful but never pretty, though some work in his catalog could be considered quite pretty—except that the adjective seems to have joined sweet and nice in a ghetto of paradoxical pejoratives. (Wait long enough and someone will start a Make Pretty Great Again movement.) All of which is to say the work he selects is often visually and morally or emotionally dark, limited in its range of color, often nearly monochromatic. What a few of his artists depict verges on the decadent, even depraved, and there’s a theatrical and implicitly narrative quality to what he likes, something he prefers to call cinematic. Staged drama would be my description, and clearly some of the work is painted from scenes with models costumed and posed for the painting, with all the drawbacks and all the undeniable impact of that kind of artifice. Frequently, the images imply a backstory through these posed, stylized subjects, and some work verges on illustration or fashion shots, yet most of the paintings remain challenging because they almost always have a quality Gaston Bachelard called oneiric—being both real and unreal at the same time, sometimes hyper-real, but in a way that tips the portrait or scene beyond the range of mundane daily experience into a slightly disquieting state of surreal or haunted dream. That pretty little girl in bright colors has a lizard on her shoulder. There are bees gyrating around the flower in another girl’s hand. The rugged and handsome older man with the gray mane has a stiletto pump aimed at his nose like a gun. That quaint little town has a massive tornado approaching from the distance. The roller coaster is, hm, well it’s on fire! Much of this work feels equal to the eschatological mood that seems to be the dominant tone of the media about nearly everything now: the world just keeps either dying or ending, if you watch the news often enough. Yet the tone of the work Arcadia shows is quietly poised just this side of its own existential dread, balancing there, the way Hopper did with the subject of loneliness in his single figures in urban, dense populations.

In this vein, the work that least appeals to me, in terms of my personal taste, but most impressed me in the way its conscious limitations give it power is from another Russian: Alexander Timofeev. Like so much of what Diamant selects, his color is so muted as to be almost absent, but in his cropped images of faces, the moribund skin tones are perfect for the warped, moral universe on display. At a different level, his paintings read like a gallery of the vices, but without Giotto’s clear delineation of one vice from the next in his own Early Renaissance sequence. The most stunning one, Secret, shows two women, one gazing up with addicted desire at a glittering clutch purse, dangling by its strap from the hand of the other witch-like figure. The temptress is dressed in a red robe (a robe that reappears in another painting, Slave ,of someone smothering the head of a man, visible in relief through the red fabric that wraps around his head like molten plastic pressed onto a mold of a face). It’s a world as weird as Macbeth, as morally ill as the Marquis de Sade, and yet the remarkably detailed realism in the faces and hair transcend allegory, reminding one of Christian Seybold’s 18th century portraits, even though these are far darker in spirit and tones. Yet, the context for all of them is established in the title of the catalog’s penultimate painting, The Tenth Commandment, a simple image of an older man’s hand grasping the limp wrist and hand of a very young woman, who in her submission appears to be either dazed or drugged.

Dark in imagery, but completely different in spirit and worldview, are Stephen Fox’s marvelous night scenes of drive-in movie screens beneath a sky during an electric storm. The convergence of what is essentially a screen capture of Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back with illuminated storm clouds over the pines that flank the screen and the audience of people sitting in front of their cars at night: the scene is irresistible and breath-taking, partly because the expansive Romanticism of the image gets undercut by the irony of juxtaposing a big rectangle of luminous pop culture that looks trivial against nature’s infinite sublimity. The effect is to make what’s depicted feel like an image of the perfect family night out: summer warmth, lightning and thunder without any rain, a fantastic movie, civilization having reached a sort of apogee of balance between old-school film projection, CGI, a population with leisure time on its hands and the loveliness of nature itself, all of it painted with astonishing skill. You look at Fox’s paintings and think we aren’t such a terrible species after all and the world has never been a better place to be.

Matthew Cornell’s two contributions to the catalog are just as beautifully done as always, but these two scenes are more enigmatic than his previous ones, which were often painted during the “golden hour” after sunset, before dark. These are at night, little structures with a single light shining down, painted in a way that looks a bit looser than in the past, until you realize they are only eight inches wide. The tiny scale demands more generalized brushwork. One has a more consciously imaginative touch: a second glance at that one-way sign behind the windowless building and you realize it says Hope. These tiny paintings are one of Arcadia’s signatures: the smaller the work, more he’s interested. Diamant has assembled here some of the miniature work he regularly exhibits and sells. For example, Stephen Mackey’s fey oil-on-panel portraits of rodents dressed as infants in frilled collars are only three inches square. It’s hard to imagine smaller artwork, other than of course sculptures inside the eyes of needles.

Cuban artist Darian Mederos contributes portraits of sensuous female faces, eyes closed and alluring, but he lets you view them through bubble wrap. The distortion it affords would seem gimmicky and coy, as if to suggest you’re spying on these sultry women though a wall of warped glass blocks, imaginatively completing the picture on the other side, until it’s clear the regularity of the grid created by the bubbles points back to Chuck Close with his later grid paintings and Alyssa Monks, when she was doing portraits of faces seen through droplets of water on glass. It’s a balancing act between soft porn and a simple exploration of a different way to examine how visual perception works. Plus, of course, a smart way to recycle all that surplus bubble wrap left over from shipping artwork to collectors and fairs.

In a completely different mode, with the most emotionally upbeat work in the catalog, Tim Rees depicts women, some solitary, others with a child in their arms, as well as a Norman Rockwell-esque boy in pants and loose suspenders, standing at low tide along the ocean or the Gulf. The scenes are lovely, one might be so bold as to say even extremely pretty, with low sunlight, sometimes at sunset, but without any of the kitsch sentimentality, or at least Pre-Raphaelite drama usually inevitable with paintings of beautiful women standing near water. These are simple, realistic transcriptions of what’s already beautiful and casually, accidentally wonderful in and of itself in daily life, full of light and color, a sharp departure from what would seem the Arcadia creed but perfectly at home with the rest of the work in the quality of its vision and execution.

The most abstract of the paintings are also at least as hyper-realistic as the most detailed work in the show, the swirling, undulating essentially color-field compositions of Irina Cumberland, one of the gallery’s Ukrainian painters in the show. Her large oil-on- copper paintings capture the dance of light on what would appear to be rippling tropical water. Paintings of light on water are plentiful, if you search for them, but these are carefully composed in such a way that they may be the best and most lyrical I’ve ever seen. Stone Warm is a fantastic abstraction: blues, violets, greens, and yellowish olives swirl in unpredictable ways, reverberating toward the top of the canvas, erupting from beneath, all of it balanced and yet in constant motion. It’s an amazing painting, the sky reflected in such a way that you can’t quite recognize anything in the water until you notice and realize that the row of huge river stones along the top of the canvas anchor the image in reality, snap it back from abstraction. What a joy it must be to paint these canvases: what must be weeks of arduous, painstaking accuracy leading up to the way in which the finished painting seems a perfect image of spiritual liberation.

68th Rochester Finger Lakes

Happiness, oil on linen, 46 x 46

I was pleased that Happiness, from my series of salt water taffy paintings, was invited to be a part of the biennial 68th Rochester-Finger Lakes Exhibition at the Memorial Art Gallery. It will also be included in the new International Painting Annual published by Manifest Creative Research Gallery. I’ve been included twice before but it has been a few years. It will be a pleasure to see it keeping company with the work of the other artists selected this year.

Innocent delights at Exeter Gallery

Erin Raedeke, Trivial Pursuit, 10” x 8”, oil on panel.

I’ve been returning to Erin Raedeke’s paintings with pleasure over the past decades. What first intrigued me were her perfectly composed images of what appeared to be detritus from a child’s birthday party. Getting what looked like perfect compositions from a post-party mess was an achievement in itself. Yet her color carried most of the charm. She hasn’t posted any of that uniquely lovely work from a decade ago at her website.  I wonder if she thinks they’re too pretty. That’s how Matt Klos referred to them when we were discussing her paintings, after he’d included her work in his curation of a show of perceptual painters in Baltimore. (On my last trip to New York City, Steve Daimant at Arcadia Gallery talked about how he looked for work that was beautiful but not pretty, so pretty is pejorative. Got it. I’ve always thought Matisse cut-outs are pretty great, as well as just pretty, but maybe I’m wrong.)

Some of her more recent still life images come close to those after-party paintings: looking down at a flat surface, objects randomly strewn into view, everything forming an abstract pattern from top to bottom and side to side, with little or no negative space, just a solid patchwork of one thing astride another or sharing adjacent space, everything falling into place randomly as the playmates leave their mess behind. The birthday paintings were haunting, charming, beautiful, with colors perfectly chosen—her sense of color in the best work is extremely good, purely musical—and a little sad, given that we are loitering around after the party has ended, glimpsing the beauty the celebrants left by accident. Go even further back and some of her landscapes from 2006 and 2007 are marvelous village scenes that could be from nearly any little burg or ‘burb in the hilly Northeast. As I’ve written here in a post years ago, Backyard Gardens is a perfect painting, reminding me of the simplified precision of the late Fairfield Porter at his best. My favorite Porters are the ones that I’m certain he did from photographs, keeping his simplified approach to representation, one patch of color next to another, accurate in terms of shape and form but more concerned with light and color than detail, and this painting has that same quality. Her color sense in these outdoor scenes—intensely evocative of a certain kind of light at a given time of day—are quite different from the still life work, but just as carefully felt in the way the colors work together. They aren’t there just to trick the eye or drafted into service as a way of creating a sense of depth or volume or whatever–each color is there for its own sake, along with what it’s doing for the others around it. It’s hard to describe how her color distinguishes itself from so many of her fellow perceptual painters. Her tones, in absolute terms, can be just as muted, but they harmonize and accentuate one another and come together in a way that sometimes sings–not always but often–and has a quality of nostalgic yearning: she feels her images into being with these tones. Her recurrent affinity for humble and common subject matter most painters would think unworthy of attention, often related to childhood—board games, party hats, jelly beans, snacks, Froot Loops turning to junket in a bowl, as Robert Lowell would have put it—it reminds me of Pop’s friendly, unpretentious and anti-heroic attention to everyday things, simple food, household products, things so familiar you don’t even see them when they’re there, inanimate companions everyone takes for granted, domestic objects Chardin might have painted if he’d had a dozen things from the past fifty years shipped back to his era.

You can see Raedeke’s latest work at Exeter Gallery’s current show “Generations.” You can get a preview of the Gen X Series at her site. It’s being shown along with work from Neil Callander and Nicole McCormick Santiago. As Matt Klos writes about the work of all three: “The art in Generations explores youthful memories, present hardships and enjoyments, parenthood, and a look toward the future with soberness and sincerity.” I would say in Raedeke’s work, it’s a mood of poignant joy, a wistful quiet glimpse of innocence, past and yet fully present.


Reception on Feb. 5 for the member’s show at Mill Art Center in Honeoye Falls. My friends Jean and Bill Stephens and many others will be exhibiting work. It’s another great place to find interesting work from regional artists.

Joshua Huyser

Stocking Cap, Joshua Huyser

Another wonderful painting by Joshua Huyser, from Instagram.

Mika Salamon

Still Life in Turquoise, Mika Salamon

I’m fascinated by painters associated with the Jerusalem Studio School who are taking perceptual painting in a lush, sensuous direction, with a luxuriant sense of color. I’m loving what they do with limited but rich palettes. Salamon’s work takes that esthetic to an extreme simplicity.

Viridian’s juried show

“Rocinha Series 3 No 1”, Alan Garry, 32 x 32, Oil and graphite on canvas

Before I get to my impressions of the juried show currently on view at Viridian Artists, allow me a digression about the location depicted above in one of the exhibition’s paintings.

On a visit to Fiji, my son reported back to me that he found there the poorest and happiest people he’d ever met. I was reminded of that brief report (which included first-person details about indigenous volleyball) when I looked up Rocinha, a famous, densely-populated favela that evolved organically and spontaneously near Rio de Janeiro. It’s occupied by those who can’t afford to live in the more expensive, planned urban areas of the city. It’s a borough scaled for human beings, growing and developing virtually without urban regulation or oversight, with a self-organized, makeshift structure, improvised and wildly colorful. It’s a libertarian’s nightmare that seems to be trying to grow into a libertarian’s dream. The population is packed into tight spaces, structures rarely rising beyond three floors. Nothing looms over anything else there except the upper reaches of the steep hillside on which everything higher up is the same size as everything lower down.

Close to a quarter million people now live in Rocinha, and they get around mostly by foot on a few roads and alleys and paths that snake through the place. As Rio has grown, it has enveloped this encampment that has been crystallizing into a suburban town, now that it’s centrally located. (In a way, the economic mountain came to Mohammad and surrounded him.) It is becoming more modernized so that almost all structures now have plumbing, electricity and sanitation.

From Wikipedia:

Compared to simple shanty towns or slums, Rocinha has a better developed infrastructure and hundreds of businesses such as banks, medicine stores, bus routes, cable television, including locally based channel TV ROC (TV Rocinha), and, at one time, a McDonald’s franchise.[2] These factors help classify Rocinha as a favela bairro, or favela neighborhood.

It’s the urban equivalent of an outlaw entrepreneur, someone more interested in growth than legality. The name Rocinha means “little farm.” This mid-sized city sits on a hillside that has been the backdrop for various productions like Rio and Children of Men. As in Mexico, MORE

No ideas but in perceptions

Detail, Vermeer’s View of Delft

The only work of art criticism I return to with relish and as a way of relearning what I already think I understand is In Search of Lost Time. Marcel Proust’s insights into how music, painting and fiction all are grounded in perception, rather than discursive thought, distinguish him from most people who have written about visual art. He understood an artist’s job isn’t to have something to say, so much as the challenge of learning how to see.

In Proust’s novel, on the cusp of death, the novelist Bergotte ventures out unsteadily to an exhibition of Vermeer’s View of Delft. What the fictional writer longs to see one last time is a small, innocuous area of the painting, a simple patch of yellow sunlight on a wall: it’s hardly more than a sensation to his old eyes, with no intellectual substance, no understandable relevance to his life. In that one little detail of Vermeer’s great painting, he recognizes a world of feeling and insight, an intense reality, a meek simplicity in the representation of a commonplace element of human experience that triggers a recognition of his life’s deepest reality. He dies a short time later with regret about having ignored and neglected the quality of this perception, this simple sensation, hidden in plain sight, throughout his entire writing career when his love for it could have been a lodestar for his own writing.

In Search of Lost Time’s narrator is luckier. Marcel has multiple moments quite like this one, and they are more consequential than Bergotte’s. He calls them instances of involuntary memory. They recur throughout the seven-volume novel intermittently until the last book when several in rapid sequence open his heart and finally, after wasting much of his adulthood in social and erotic struggles, he understands how and why to become a writer.

Vermeer’s little patch of yellow was a sort of perceptual synecdoche. In the book, its effect on Bergotte demonstrates the immediate and totalizing impact and power of visual art itself. One snatch of Mozart, or one glance at a Cezanne, and you can behold life’s wholeness, without needing to intellectually dissect what’s been disclosed. It’s immediately recognizable, but was inaccessible until one hears it or sees it. Phenomenologically, as an element of experience, Proust’s serendipitous moments aren’t metaphoric but sacramental in the same way: the fragment is the whole. They don’t signify, they embody. A morsel of experience contains the whole of experience, as in the old New Age holographic paradigm from David Bohm in the 80s, where every part of the world is the whole, in a sense, in a way analogous to the structure of a fractal or a Fibonacci sequence. Proust’s narrator doesn’t theorize about this, he experiences it.

Proust’s awakening is essentially spiritual, through it would be quite easy to construe everything in the novel as merely psychological, an innocuous brain phenomenon mistakenly serving as the fulcrum for a life-changing devotion to what Proust experienced as timeless, imperishable, and Platonic. He never appears to be anything but an observer of the Catholicism in his characters, but he has one passage that implies human beings behave morally because they have intimations, even memories, of a more perfect and eternal state from which they derive their current life. In that passage, he articulates it in Platonic terms: that people remember Goodness because they essentially descend from it when they are born. This is about as far down that road as his narrator goes. Yet the structure of the novel and its pivotal experiences are parallel to traditions in various Axial wisdom traditions: the morning prayer for an Orthodox Christian is to a God who “art everywhere present and fillest all things.” To say the least, this isn’t the state of mind for most people on any given day before heading into work, but it’s analogous to how Proust’s narrator awakens to a new sort of wisdom through otherwise insignificant perceptual experiences. The novelist, in a secular and modernist mode, essentially asserts that the reality of life remains veiled to most of us most of the time, but briefly discloses itself to those who are attentive—and maybe, as it happens in the book, deeply discouraged—enough to be granted these moments of vision, through triggers as humble as the musty smell of a public restroom or the look of a line of trees on the horizon. The whole of life, the ground of life, is there in every experience, every smallest experience: but there’s no way to consciously stand back and behold the whole of things, the musical structure of one’s own experience, the melody your life is essentially composing. You can’t hear it because you are making it. You are it. In these moments of involuntary memory, for Proust, that melody presents itself through humble perceptions.

Proust recognizes the impossibility of seeing the whole, that ground of all things, the unity of all things in any place or time, though some reliable technique. But the “excavation” of art, the descent into one’s own individual experience and perceptions over time, in the act of writing fiction or painting or making music, can open a window in which that reality offers a brief glimpse of itself. That this ought to be an artist’s mission never occurs to Marcel until the end of the story, when he finally sets out to write the book the reader is finishing even though moments of humble illumination, where his life presents itself to the narrator, punctuate the novel and form its central leitmotif.

The question of the relationship of these moments to an artistic vocation runs, like a river underground, throughout Proust’s novel. And the moments when he sees the whole, the entirety of his life, when he recognizes who he is and the beauty of what was there all around him at a particular time, unnoticed—these moments are the underpinning, the foundation of the whole book, both motif and motive. It isn’t the past experience he would like to have remembered that comes back. It’s the entirety of the actual world of his experience that was hidden, inaccessible to his conscious mind, while he was living it. Art isn’t an alternative kind of experience: it is a way of tapping down into the unregarded ground of experience. What is recovered and comes alive is a paradise that is never apparent while most of us are living within it. These moments are the crumbs that lead him out of the sexual and social forest, the illusory pursuit of erotic security and social prestige, in order to create the whole book itself.

These small, quiet moments are the core of Proust’s novel, as Samuel Beckett pointed out in his uncharacteristically eloquent and passionate treatise on the French novelist. For Beckett, the world’s enchantment, its Platonic truth, are out of reach, everywhere present but already pre-lost, as it were, because your awareness is chained to its habitual and learned perceptions and ideas, always returning to what you already know and have already experienced, “like a dog to its vomit.” This, he suggested, is what Proust’s novel depicts in the quality of his unsparing insights into human delusions and cruelties, to guide the reader toward moments that bear intimations of what transcends this suffering: the unattainable awareness of the whole of one’s experience. Art, for Proust, is an attempt to see through the illusions toward this reality, an attempt to wake up. And it doesn’t happen through intellectual or willful means; Vermeer didn’t intend his little patch of yellow wall to inspire a sort of death-bed conversion in a Bergotte. He just worked passionately to get that little bit of sunlight properly rendered in the context of the town’s skyline. Yet the character and skill of the man painting that yellow wall invested it with that perceptual quality, not as something planned or learned, but as a byproduct of years of labor in an attempt to simply capture how things in the world look–and how the finished painting needed to look for it to be properly finished in Vermeer’s eyes. The rest is a gift, for painter and viewer both.

New candy jar

Candy Jar #13, 44×44, oil on linen, 2023

I took a break from taffy in December. It was enjoyable to return to the candy jars, and it’s been long enough that I felt the contrast in doing one of these, a distinctly different flow from the process for painting salt water taffy. The taffy presents a complex topography, a lot of wrinkles, crimps, bends, declivities, a very natural terrain–and feels more like portraiture, the candy having a flesh-like consistency and the waxed paper serving as drapery. Hard candy in a round jar, by comparison, feels simple and geometrical, the surfaces so much more readily rendered with flat areas of color and with detail abbreviated by brushwork. I changed the color for many of the pieces–M&Ms, jelly beans and Tic Tacs. What was key lime green became orange while purple shifted to slate blue in places, as I cooled or warmed up the hue on others. Stepping away from the painting it looks photographically precise but, up close, it’s intentionally painterly. This is actually true in some degree with most of the jar paintings. I may try another small series of these this year, but there are so many other things to work on . . .

Dushka Vujovic

Photography by Dushka Vujovik

This is an unusually lyrical photograph for Dushka Vujovik, whose typical subjects are abstract geometric color compositions created by simply cropping what she sees in her urban environment in Toronto, just a few miles north of us down here on the bottom of Lake Ontario. When she wants to be, as a photographic coloriest, she is a rare bird. Her pallet is restrained–seriously, how much radiant color can one find on the walls of buildings in Toronto or any large city?–but somehow she discovers geometrically arranged fields of beautiful color everywhere around her. In other words she has the core skill of a creative talent: to actually see what’s there rather than what you habitually think is there. She also passes along touches of humor wherever she finds it, and her recent posts have been of the natural world. You can see her marvelous color sense here in this photograph: it’s a quiet little melody with a fine simple drum beat off to the side, courtesy of those fences. You almost can’t lose with Virginia creeper in the mix. As a representationalist obsessed with how to make color central to my work, I’m always impressed by how she achieves that with a camera. Stuart Shils was doing something like this with his camera for quite a while on Instagram. Unlike his current paintings, which are all about color, his photographs found muted abstract compositions in the real; some were black and white. He was great at it, but moved on to the incredible paintings he does now. (It takes a while to scroll down five or six years on his feed to find the photographs, he’s so prolific.) Love Vujovik’s posts. With my limited knowledge of Serbian art, she has to be my favorite Serbian artist after whoever painted the White Angel.