January 29, 2013

Two New Textiles: "Cherry Ribbon" & "Chartreuse Ribbon"

Cherry Ribbon and Chartreuse Ribbon

My two most recent paintings were inspired by the drawing studies for these textiles, which you can see at this blog post. Not only was I excited about making paintings based on these ideas, I was excited about the textiles too. I've enjoyed making shaped pieces––you can see two recent works here––but haven't done anything quite this sinuously complex. 

Cherry Ribbon, hand dyed wool on linen, 16 x 9 in.

I like playing with illusion, as imperfect as my attempts are. 

Chartreuse Ribbon,  22 1/2  x 8 1/2 in.

I also want the forms to be interesting, to hold the space around them in an energetic way.

Making these illusionistic pieces is a good deal more complicated than textiles with flat shapes. I dip dye a long piece of wool, gradually adding more and more of it to the dye bath so that one end is dark and it lightens gradually toward the other end. I then cut the wool apart into its graduated values, labeling each one, from 1 to 7. Being organized really helps the work along. The small hand-cranked machine you see clamped to the table is my wool cutting tool; it cuts the wool into narrow strips for hooking. 

I put some recent pieces up on my studio wall to see how they felt about each other; not bad, I think.

January 27, 2013

Sacred Landscapes: Australian Aboriginal Paintings at the Hood Museum

Lena Nyadbi, Jimbala, Jeering and Daiwul Country, 2001; ochres on canvas.

It is amazing to me that an art that comes out of a strong spiritual tradition, with deep roots over millennia, can seem so vibrant and fresh to my eyes. The Australian Aboriginal paintings on canvas can stand with the best contemporary abstraction in formal terms, with additional emotional weight coming from their meaning. There is a beautiful selection of these works currently in an exhibit, Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art at the Hood Museum of Art.  I wrote a blog post about the paintings on bark in the exhibition, which you can read here; in this post I am showing the paintings of the central desert, which are mainly acrylic on canvas, which seems a strange medium for work so tied to tradition. The story of the beginnings of these paintings is very interesting: for thousands of years, Australian aboriginal painting was done on rocks, on sand, on bodies. It wasn't until 1971-2, when art teacher Geoffey Bardon encouraged the men at Papunya in central Australia to put their ephemeral sand paintings onto canvas, that a new world of painting began. At first the work was quite controversial; sacred designs meant to be solely for ritual and only seen by initiates were being shown. Soon the artists confined themselves to depicting symbols that were not secret and could be seen by the public, but they still used traditional dot patterning, and the paintings continued to be immersed in the sacred landscape. The curved forms in the painting above refer to caves where, in the Ancestral period, the fish Daiwaul took shelter from a group of women seeking to net him. He escaped by jumping over them and shedding his scales, which became varied colored diamonds in the landscape. This site in Western Australia, has been despoiled by a mine, now the largest producer of diamonds in the world.

Narputta Nangala Jugadai, Murrtja Kapi, 2003; acrylic on canvas.

Small curves, the mounds of hills separated by the blue of rarely running creeks in the artist's ancestral home. In this painting, she is paying homage to the land of her mother, south of Uluru, also known as Ayer's Rock.

Raymond Tjapaltjarri, Litjardi, 2005; acrylic on canvas.

Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, Fire Dreaming at Murmunya, 2003; acrylic on canvas.

In these two paintings, the linked circles represent the travels of Tingari men during the Ancestral period, when they created the land. Litjardi is a water site in the Western Australia desert, and at Murmanya the Tingari established the technique of burning the land for regeneration. It is wonderful to know the stories behind these paintings, but the images themselves, without knowing their meaning, have the power to enchant. 

Joseph Jurra Tjapaltjarri, Pukaratjina, 2006; acrylic on linen.

This remarkable painting, made up of thousands of dots making wandering lines across its large surface (all these paintings are medium to large sized; this one probably five feet wide), shows a water site. There the men would camp and weave hair-string belts which were worn during ceremonies.

Pukaratjina, detail

The dots are made by sticks dipped into paint. The technique has a mesmerizing effect as you follow the meandering marks.

Danny Gibson Tjapaltjarri, Mukula, 2009; acrylic on canvas.

Mukula, detail

I love the geometric patterning of this painting, with the sense of shapes moving outwards from a central site. This image is also about the journeys of the Tingari men of Ancestral times. Mukula is another ancient ceremonial site. 

Yukultji Napangati, Yunala, 2006; acrylic on canvas.

I felt awed when I stood in front of this painting; the power of its repeated dots, subtly shifting, was palpable.

Yunala, detail

Perhaps an online viewer can get more of a sense of this from the detail, which you can imagine spreading across the entire surface of the canvas. Yunala is a site were Ancestral women gathered food, the roots of the silky pear vine, twining underground.

George Tjungurrayi, Karrilwarra, 2009; acrylic on canvas.

Red and orange lines angle and curve in a stunning pattern that seems geometric and organic at the same time, or like a topographical map. Karrilwarra is an ancient site associated with the Snake ancestor, who created the sand hills, water soakages, and rock holes of the area.

Makinti Napanangka, Lupulnga, 2005; acrylic on canvas.

This painting was different from most in the exhibition with its free handling of expressive vertical marks, seemingly untied to a traditional expression. But I learned from the wall label that the lines refer to hair-string belts worn at the waist for sacred occasions. Lupulnga was a ceremonial site for women, and the artist's birthplace. Because this was a women's site I assume the artist is a woman; a good and important characteristic of the Aboriginal art movement is the large number of women painters involved. It is wonderful that the thousands of years of Aboriginal culture has interacted with the contemporary world to give us these works, so tied to the past yet so alive.

*To see a blog post on the bark paintings in this exhibition, click here.

January 24, 2013

A New Painting: "Untitled (Orange, Pink)"

Untitled (Orange, Pink), egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 7 1/2 x 6 in.

Here is my second painting in my new series of still lives using pieces of wool left over from textile projects (you can see the first painting and an explanation of this new idea in this blog post). This image is a good deal simpler than the last, with just one folded form floating at the bottom of an orange field. It would seem that these works are quite easy to paint, very straightforward, but no. I have a tendency of wanting to slosh the paint around when I'm working with a large, flat area of color; what happens, though, when I do that is the paint builds up in a clunky manner, it attracts all manner of dirt and dust, and ends by looking awful. This is egg tempera, not oil paint, and the beauty of its color comes from translucent layering. I wiped off the first painting twice––each time after several hours of work––before the third attempt worked because I slowed down. This painting needed only one fresh start after the background color got away from me.

Untitled (Orange, Pink) detail

Sometimes it seems that I have to learn to paint anew every few months. When I began working in egg tempera, I used the classical technique of cross hatching; I abandoned that for a looser brush mark several years ago, but still find it useful at times. You can see some hatched marks in the light curve of the pink shape. 

Kazimir Malevich drawings, from the book Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism.

When I began this series a couple of weeks ago, I took out my Malevich catalog and had it open on my work table for inspiration and support. The strength and depth of his simple compositions move me; although my paintings are almost baroque compared to his, I would like to aim for that clarity and emotion (with a tickle of humor from time to time). 

January 23, 2013

Winter Light: Everyday Things

"Ah, how everyday things touch mysteries for us!"
Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

"To restore silence is the role of objects."
                         Samuel Beckett, Molloy

"Even daily life should ultimately reach an essence that is akin to poetry."
                       Abbas Kiarostami, from Around Five: The Making of Five.

 "The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself."
                                                                                 Henry Miller

"Even a clod of dirt can be appreciated aesthetically if framed in the right way."

Winter's sharp indoor sunlight encourages noticing, and highlights ordinary things usually overlooked.
For some previous posts in this occasional series, click here.

January 21, 2013

New Prints, Cardboard and Potato

Overlap, ink on Japanese paper; image size 9 3/4 x 13 1/2, paper size 17 1/2 x 21 1/2 in.; ed 4

Occasionally I finish a work that simply makes me happy; when I tacked this print up on my kitchen door, looking at it pleased me, made me feel a little jolly. Some of it is the color, the grayed red and blue that ended up working well together, and some of it the shapes. I had originally planned the escaping oval to be on the top of the composition, but then felt it looked much better at bottom. 

Overlap detail

In this detail, you can see my usual imperfection in printing, a basic character of using cardboard as a plate. I don't know if my buoyant feeling is shared by anyone else, but it's nice to have unabashed good feeling about a piece from time to time. 

Untitled 1, ink on Japanese paper; 2 pieces, each 21 1/4 x 13 in. 

After printing the edition of Overlap, I made four potato prints, of which two or three might be in the maybe folder, but I'll put them with the accepted ones since I'm not too terribly ambivalent. I decided to stop titling each work; it was too much trouble and invited too much direct pointing at metaphors. So now, Untitled with a number. For Untitled 1 I put two pieces of paper together and stamped a shape across them; very simple and minimal.

Untitled 2, ink on Japanese paper, 11 x 7 1/2 in. 

My thoughts still return, again and again, to Japanese Rinpa art, and the eloquence of its empty spaces.

Untitled 3, ink on Japanese paper; 17 x 15 in. 

The first shapes that I placed on this sheet of paper were the three ovals at bottom, stamping without re-inking so that the images became more ghostly from one to the next; then the purple diamonds and lastly the circle above. I'm not sure that the shift of opacity works with the other more solid shapes; the jury is out on this one. 

Untitled 4, ink on Twinrocker paper; 14 1/2 x 14 1/2 in. 

This image is printed on a rough watercolor paper, which I think has too much of an irregular surface, however beautiful, for this kind of print. I printed the three descending diamonds, then red hexagons on top of them, all quite irregular in ink coverage. But maybe, as with all the prints I've been doing, that imperfection is a key to their character.

January 20, 2013

With the Ancestors: Australian Aboriginal Bark Painting at the Hood Museum

Ivan Manirrkki, Untitled, 2007; ochres with PVC fixative on stringybark.

I just visited an exhilarating exhibition at the Hood Museum of Dartmouth College: Crossing Cultures: the Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art at the Hood Museum of Art. I thought I knew contemporary Aboriginal painting, having visited Australia in 1988 and seen a large exhibition at Asia Society the same year, but nothing prepared me for the power, presence, and sheer beauty of the works on display. I don't know if this was because I am more receptive to the work now, or because in the intervening years the quality and intensity of the paintings has soared; whatever the reason, I spent a long time wandering the galleries, photographing works. I saw so much that I loved that I will write two posts on the show: this first one on the paintings on bark, and another on paintings on canvas. The bark paintings are made by the indigenous peoples of Northern Australia, using natural pigments for their paints. The patterns and images are all deeply symbolic of land and history and culture; a wall label describes them as "metaphysical landscapes". The iconography of Manirrkki's painting is described as invoking "sequences of songs, dances, colors, and body designs used in closed ceremonies that are anchored to specifics of place". 

Ivan Manirrkki, Untitled detail

The very careful, close cross-hatching that is used in many of these paintings is called rarrk. The focus required to paint these delicately overlapping lines adds a meditative quality, as does the understanding that these designs are tied to place and to ancestors. I am sure that these layers of meaning, embedded within the making of each painting, are a primary reason that I find the paintings so compelling and moving. 

John Mawurndjul, Milmilngkan, 2001 and Mardayin Ceremony, 2003; ochres on stringybark.

John Mawurndjul is an important contemporary painter, whose images are of ancestral landscapes and beings. The painting at the left shows the lands of the Kuninjku created by the Ancestral Being Ngalyod (the Rainbow Serpent) who lived at the water hole at Milmilngkan. 

John Mawurndjul, Mardayin Ceremony detail

 This painting too is said to be abstracted representation of the ancestral landscape. The wall labels at the show were very useful for iconographic details. For instance, I learned here that the designs of this painting were modeled after ceremonial designs the artist's ancestors wore on their bodies, "symbols now said to connect initiates to the sacred power of those ancestors". Aboriginal painting on portable, lasting materials is a 20th century activity; before that paintings were made on sand, or more permanently on rock. Information on technique was less in evidence on the labels, though this one did state that Mawurndul used his own hair for paint brushes. And indeed, when I watched a segment of a video at the museum, I saw him painting with a fine, long haired, obviously home-made brush. The video also showed him clambering up a eucalyptus tree to cut the bark for his paintings. The pigments, ochers and charcoal and chalk, are gathered locally and used with traditional resins, such a tree sap, or with modern PVC.

Samuel Namunjdja, Gungurra (Wind Dreaming), 2006; ochres on stringybark.

This stunning painting is not simply an artistic invention, but an invention to describe winds and cyclones in Namundjdja's home of western Arnhem Land.

Samuel Namunjdja, Gungurra detail

Also using rarrk, the painting is described as referring to a site near Namunjdja's clan estate associated with an ancient ceremony of cyclical regeneration.

Kay Lindjuwanga, Mandjabu (Conical Fish Trap), 2005; ochres with PVC fixative on stringybark.

The shape of a fish trap is evoked using very simple patterns and lines, so beautiful, clear, and present.

Jimmy Njiminjuma, Wakwak (Crow Dreaming), 2002;  ochres on stringybark.

The artist Njiminjuma is a senior custodian of the Kurulk clan, and the iconography of this painting represents body paint design worn by its members. From the wall label: "The energy immanent in the design recalls the creative power of the Crow Ancestor in the Ancestral Period and allows the wearer to partake in that power." Is it any surprise that even a Western viewer without knowledge of these ancestral powers would still be affected in some subtle way by them? 

Abraham Mongkorrerre, Ngalyod Site at Milmilngkan, 1999; ochres with PVC fixative on stringybark. 

 Mongkorrerre is representing the sacred site of Milmilngkan, where the Rainbow Serpent, the great creator spirit, lives. The white shapes are water lilies and water holes. The white creates a real drama amid the ochre colored lines of the painting. Here I want to say that even though these paintings are representations of sacred land and history, each artist approaches their subject with a fine sense of composition and color, each individual and surprising.

Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, White Painting #5, 2009; ochres on stringybark.

Yunupingu's works are different from the others I've shown in that she paints personal lines and shapes, having nothing to do with ancestral meanings. The painting is vibrant with its white marks on a dark ground.

Dawidi, Girri (Wagilag Ceremonial Emblems), about 1965; ochres on stringybark.

Narritjin Maymuru, Banatja Story, 1973; ochres on stringybark.

Peter Marralwanga, Namanjwarre, about 1981; ochres on stringybark.

 There were a few older works in the show, and from these three you can see how the style and use of imagery has changed. What remains constant is a very strong sense of surface design, a clarity and simplicity even in more complex compositions. Constant too, is the depiction of the power of ancestral beings, such as this amazing crocodile, once a man, now the overseer of fresh water. The combination of brilliant painting with a depth of meaning tied to ancient traditions makes these works remarkably compelling.

*To read a post about the works on canvas in this exhibition, click here.
*if you click on the images to enlarge them, you'll get a much better look at the paintings.

January 18, 2013

The Art of Resting/The Gospel of Relaxation

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could be like our cats, who dash around furiously and then, in a moment, settle down comfortably for a nice nap? I have been reading the words of writers, divided by more than a century, and by vastly different cultures, aiming to address our frenetic and tense lives, with much to say in common. In his 2009 book, no self no problem, Anam Thubten, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation teacher, writes that "meditation is about resting completely".
[Meditation] is simply the art of resting and relaxing.
Complete rest includes letting go of all forms of mental effort....a deep rest, an inner rest, a rest in which we let go of all forms of mind's effort, including mind's effort to maintain this illusory self. I am speaking about a deep relaxation in which we are no longer trying to hold on to anything.
I wouldn't have thought that this Buddhist philosophy would in any way touch the thoughts of William James, the 19th century American psychologist and philosopher, but in his 1895 essay "The Gospel of Relaxation" he explains his theory of emotions, that
action and feeling go together, and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not. 
So, if we sit quietly and calmly, we will become calm and peaceful. Where the Buddhist asks us not to hold on to anything, William James tells us that if
we wish our trains of ideation and volition to be copious and varied and effective, we must form the habit of freeing them from the inhibitive influence of reflection upon them, of egoistic preoccupation about their results. 
For by the sensations that so incessantly pour in from the over-tense excited body the over-tense and excited habit of mind is kept up; and the sultry, threatening, exhausting, thunderous inner atmosphere never quite clears away. If you never wholly give yourself up to the chair you sit in, but always keep your leg and body muscles half contracted for a rise...what mental mood can you be in but one of inner panting and expectancy, and how can the future and its worries possibly forsake your mind?
He tells us to "unclamp", and the Buddhist teacher Kongtrul Rinpoche tells us to "let go". Both these philosophies, Buddhism and American pragmatism, show us a way forward, to relax the body and therefore the mind.

*I have written two other blog posts on William James' writing, on "Habit", and "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings". He is a fascinating and eloquent writer. 

January 16, 2013

At the Met: Early Greek Art

Terracotta kernos (vase for multiple offerings), Cycladic, ca. 2300-2200 B.C.

There is a gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that I enjoy visiting almost every time I walk down the hallway of Greek sculpture; it is Gallery 151, that houses a collection of early pieces from Greece, of the Cycladic, Minoan (of Crete) and Mycenaean periods. These cultures were of the Bronze Age and stretched from 3200 to 1050 B.C. Although I love the simple, abstracted figures of this period (you can see one here), on my last trip I found myself entranced by objects, vessels and containers of terracotta, a medium close to the earth, decorated with simple, bold patterns. This stunning object has 25 openings for offerings, the outer ones fluidly striped, with with more lines emphasizing the flaring shape of the stand. 

Terracotta kalathos (vase with flaring lip), Cycladic, ca. 1150-1425 B.C.

 The depiction of grasses on this vase is delicate and graceful.

Terracotta jar with three handles, Minoan, ca. 1600-1500 B.C.

This Minoan vase has a very different character: bold and inventive patterns declare a dramatic presence.

Terracotta larnax (chest-shaped coffin), Minoan, mid 13th century B.C.

Larnax, view of other side

Larnax, view of sides

Isn't it wonderful how each side of this chest has vividly different and inventive designs? They are mainly organic, plant inspired forms, except for that wonderful checkerboard/diamond pattern. It's too bad we can't order up coffins like this nowadays.

Terracotta jar with Nautiluses, Helladic (Mycenaean), ca. 1400-1300 B.C.

More beautiful, flowing, natural patterns adorn a full-figured jar with a flaring mouth.

Three terracotta one-handled cups, Helladic (Mycenaean), ca. 1400-1300 B.C. 

I love seeing the varied patterns on the same wide, shallow cups. I'm particularly fond of that bull's eye whose circles repeat the horizontal circular bands.

Three terracotta female figures, Helladic (Mycenaean), ca. 1400-1300 B.C.

Finally, here are three charming creatures, seemingly human female, but two having heads that look a bit birdlike to me. At any rate, their outlines, rounded and flaring, and the lines of paint that decorate them are whimsical and marvelous. While writing this post I kept thinking how lucky I am to be able to travel the world's art in one encyclopedic museum. Here's a link to several posts on art at the Met; thank you, Met!