February 27, 2014

It's Still Winter; It's Still Beautiful.....

......but....After having a few mild days last week, with temperatures above freezing, which is actually normal for this time of year, we are back in the deep freeze. I have to admit to having been filled with false hope that there would be warmer days with only intermittent cold. It's not yet to be, so I have to take solace in the beauty that the cold brings: yesterday morning, a frost covered trees and shrubs, making for a glimmering landscape.

The effect was subtle and lovely, the trees softly bright in front of the clouded hill.

The sun caught the branches of this spirea, and in their contrast with the dark barn, they seem lit from within.

A bloom of frost covered the front door, brittle flowers revealing a hint of the world outside.

The morning before there was a magical sight that could only occur in winter: ice particles hovering in the air were captured in the beam of light coming from the rising sun. Fairy dust, a special gift from the genius of Winter.

February 26, 2014

American Folk Art: Strength and Whimsy

Ammi Phillips, Portrait of a Lady, 1835; oil on canvas, 38 x 30 in.

I suppose we could argue about what constitutes folk art, but however you might define it, the show currently at Edward Thorp Gallery, American Folk Art, is a thrill. The pieces in the show––you can see all of them at the link––are varied in subject and material, but they are consistently of strong visual interest. I have a real love of American folk art: its simplicity, wit, clarity of form, and sensitivity to line appeal to my taste. The show even has a prize of a painting by the great itinerant portrait painter, Ammi Phillips. Phillips was untaught, but had a eye for strong compositions and dramatic contrasts of light and dark, and a refined attention to the details of clothing, and in this painting, furniture. The portrait is very much a specific person, and strongly present to us. 

Anonymous, Marblehead, MA, Pair of Portraits, 1810; paint on white pine panels, 13 x 11 in.

These portraits seem to me more of the generic girl child and boy child. They are charming, each with an animal accompanying the portrait. The bird on the should of the girl is especially delightful; the girl herself looks at us with a kind of open surprise.

Anonymous American, Carved Flapper Figure, 1930; carved wood with original varnish, 53 in.

I have grouped the images in this post by subject, and these first pieces are all of the human figure. I loved seeing how each artist approaches the simplification of form. In this figure the nose and eyebrows are in a continuous arc and the eyes are emphasized with a raised line around them. I wonder why her arms are outstretched; was she holding something? when this figure was displayed was it clothed?

Anonymous African American, Seated Figure, 1910; carved wood and metal with original paint, 
22 x 15w x 12d in.

Here is another figure with outstretched arms, but they seem to be embracing something. The gallery's terse press release says that this piece references a Tanzanian chair. The legs contain a metal tray, so it could be a container of sorts. The lines of this work are beautiful, from the rounded head with large ears, to the curve of neck which echoes the curve of torso swelling out to the bent legs and rounded supports. It is powerful and sophisticated, topped by an enigmatic face.

Anonymous American, Dancing Man, 1920; mixed media, 20.5h x 9w x 5.5d in.

I honestly don't know whether to be charmed by this dancing man or be horrified by it. A black man in a beautifully shaped coat and top hat stands atop a box lid that I suppose goes up and down with the lever. I love it, but I also think it's way too close to the "darky" dancing for comfort. This piece too makes me wonder about its provenance, its origins.

Anonymous American, Walking Stick, 1920; carved wood and paint, 34 1/4 x 2 1/4 in.

This is a fantastic piece, a bony hand holding a globular form that has a soft and vulnerable appearance. Like the dancing man, I can see this in a couple of ways: as a fanciful gesture, or as something creepy, a grasping hand from beyond the grave.

Mr. Rothloff, Athens, PA, Pair of Carved Skeletons, 1906; carved wood and varnished wood, 18 in.

Speaking of death, here are two skeletons, finely carved, full of personality. Although they represent death, there's nothing frightening here for me, just the individual quirky attention of Mr. Rothloff.

Anonymous American, Dog, 1920; carved wood with original paint, 28h x 40w x12d in.

Folk artists often represented animals as an important part of their world. This wonderful dog is alert and ready to run; you can almost hear him panting with anticipation.

Charles Perdew III, Mechanical Crow Decoy, 1930; wood, 26h x 11w x 17d in.

A sensitively rendered crow is about to take wing. Although the gallery description mentions just wood as a material, the wings are made of metal.

Anonymous, NH, Salmon Weathervane, 1910; molded sheet metal, 22 1/2h x 77 1/2w x 8d in.

A.L. Jewell, manufacturer, Waltham, MA, Steeple Chase Weathervane; molded and sheet copper and lead, 36h x 30w x 2d in.

Weathervanes are some of my favorite objects of folk art, and these two examples are marvelous. There's also a galleon weathervane in the show. Because they're seen from a distance, their outlines have to be strong and clear. The salmon is an especially powerful work in its clarity of line and accidents of surface texture. It is solid and still, while the horse vigorously leaps.

Anonymous, Maine, Shelf with Moose, 1920; carved wood with paint, 28h x 22w x 7d in.

A pair of charming moose stand on a shelf, looking at us with a quizzical expression: here we are, much more graceful than in life, sporting huge racks...what would you like to say to us? And there are whimsical bits of decorative foliage carved around the animals, and at center, what? could it be the artist's idea of a pine tree? 

J. Paul Batemen, Bridgeton, NJ, Mantle Surround, 1890; carved cherry wood, 80h x 70w x 30d in.

I caught my breath when I spotted this dramatic work on entering the gallery: its size and color and complexity and craft are remarkable. Here is another instance where I wish I knew more about Mr. Bateman and the circumstances of his making this. It is religious in its subject matter, and like medieval carvings on a cathedral. (click to enlarge to see more details)

Mantle Surround detail

Although the drawing is quite simple––the face of Christ being almost childlike in handling––there are details that are sophisticated: the mountain, the curved wall with plants, and especially the subtlety of the carving of the arms of the woman at the well. In this piece of sculpture––I can hardly call it furniture––I see a relationship with the Trecento art of Italy.

Anonymous American, Checkerboard, 1910; original paint on wood, 11 1/2 x 11 1/2 in. 

Lastly, a work of modernist abstraction.....of course not; it's just a checkerboard, but how beautiful it is! The colors are wonderful together and the aging of the wood adds life to its surface; the frame of reddish wood adds another layer of interest. I would love to have this hanging on my wall. Folk artists may be untutored, but they are wise in the ways of art.

February 24, 2014

A New Painting: "Blue Cylinder"

Blue Cylinder, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 6 x 7 7/8 in.

Recently, there was a very interesting discussion on Facebook about the edges of paintings, initiated by the artist Mark Dutcher. The edge: where the painting ends and the rest of the world begins; how an artist treats the edge may say something about what they want a painting to be. Does the paint continue to and around the edge, as though to say the image could be continuous with the wall around it? or does the paint hover toward the center, making the painting a self contained world? does the edge mark a window behind which the action happens? or is that edge contiguous with a flat plane that can be broken? Does the edge disappear or is it insistent? 

In my paintings of the past several years I've been interested in edges as places of tension, like pricks on the skin. I am always aware of how close to the edge a form comes, touching it, or being cut off by it. My compositions are planned with corners and edges in mind. In this painting, the form at the right curves closer and closer to the edge and meets it at the upper right corner. The cylinder's left edge coincides with the left edge of the painting, so it swells from that edge. 

Blue Cylinder detail

The curve of the projection at the top of the cylinder rests against the upper edge of the painting. 

Blue Cylinder detail

There are other compositional choices to be made, along with those on color and light and form, but how the forms relate to the edges of the painting is always an important consideration for me.

February 21, 2014

Mark Fox: On a Scale of 1 to 10

If To Be Proscenia, 2012; colored pencil on paper with linen tape and metal pins, 30 x 40 in.

One of the pleasures in walking around Chelsea, popping in and out of galleries, is discovering work that is new to me. On my most recent visit I was introduced to the work of Mark Fox, in a show titled MFKPMQ, at Robert Miller Gallery. I have to say that I don't think I've ever seen a show which has elicited a wider range of reactions from me, from absolute love to strong dislike; this is a very interesting artist. Most of the work was on paper or made of paper, and the piece above was a marvel. Finely drawn colored lines make rectangles; they attach to one another and float a little off the wall, making another space of complex shadows.

If To Be Proscenia detail

The piece seems almost unbelievable, magical, line made into form and into light. There is tremendous charm in it too, a lyrical brightness that's so appealing.

SOB (large), 2010; colored pencil on paper with archival tape, 30 1/2 x 53 in. 

This is another piece similar to Proscenia, with colored lines breaking free of their confinement on paper and floating as if blown by wind across the wall.

Sluggo #1, 2013; oil on paper with archival tape, 39 x 45 in.

In another approach to a paper work hanging a little off the wall, Fox paints small rounded shapes that spill outwards, ending in an irregular edge, giving a sense of an ever-expanding life force. Beautiful.

Juggler of the Big Idears, 2013; acrylic, ink, watercolor, marker, color pencil on paper with PVA glue, bronze, wood, Styrofoam, 87 x 70 x 19 in.

But then there is this heavy heavy piece of sculpture (though made mostly of paper) in a room of gold wallpaper. There's nothing about it that I like except for the humorous title. A show like this makes me think about taste as an issue, my own of course: can I tease out why I like or don't like certain art works? It's difficult to do. I could say I don't like this because of its large size, but there are many large works that I love; is it the presentation which seems ponderous in a gold-papered room? perhaps; is it simply that the form and color don't mesh for me? or that the clown shoe seems just off putting? Or I could admit that I have no way into it; it blocks my understanding and my aesthetic joy.

Nothing Discernable, 2013; ink, acrylic, watercolor, marker, and pencil on paper; 22 3/4 x 28 7/8 in.

Back to work I loved in the show: drawings, developed from random drops on paper, become all-over subtle layerings of marks, evoking a gentle chaos as of objects floating in mist.

Silver Pools, 2012; ink and acrylic enamel on paper, 50 x 38 in.

Or in Silver Pools, busily multiplying forms, hovering in light. The touch in these works is assured, yet sensitive, attentive to every nuance of dark and light.

Jan 1, 2013; ink, acrylic, watercolor, marker, and pencil on paper; 22 3/4 x 28 7/8 in.

I came to look at other drawings that I didn't like at all; too much going on, with a mix of abstraction, imagery, and text that I found uncomfortable. I took a photo of this drawing in the gallery as one that I didn't like, but now, when I look at it in a smaller size on my screen, it looks wonderful to me, full of a controlled energy. So again...to try to understand my responses: I think that seeing it in a small size has allowed me to see the overall form, the sweep of marks, the balance of full and empty, that now look very satisfying to me.

Diptych, 2010; polished stainless steel, ca. 96 x 96 in.
image courtesy Robert Miller Gallery

Fox makes site-specific steel curtains made up of words. Maybe it's that I've seen a lot of contemporary art using text, some interesting and some not, but this work leaves me completely cold. There's nothing in it that made me want to look more closely, not the form of the calligraphy, not the materials, and not the occasional word that pops out at me.

Confused History of Bad Drawing, 2013; acrylic, ink, watercolor, colored pencil, and gold leaf on paper with foam and metal saw horse; dimensions variable, ca. 108 x 68 x 61 in.

I felt very ambivalent towards this piece, and my feelings about it keep shifting. As in all Fox's work, it is very finely crafted, here of tubes of painted paper. It is an exploded creature, rising from clean metal legs into a frenzy of color and rounded lines. At one moment I love it, then my architectonic sensibility––more comfortable with simpler compositions of horizontal and vertical and clearly receding planes; an example is my loving early Renaissance painting and hating the Baroque––takes over and I think it's just too too much. I learned in an interview with Fox that he had worked in puppetry for many years and it seems that the live spirit of that art is still very much with his current work.

Excited by Drawing, 2013; ink, watercolor, marker, oil, acrylic, colored pencil, crayon, and graphite on  paper, found level; 41 1/2  24 x 14 in.

Snare, 2013; ink, watercolor, colored pencil, and acrylic on paper with wire; 19 1/2 x 21 x 15 1/2 in. 

These two small sculptures are in the "I love it" category: their simplicity and whimsy are wonderful. A frivolous line of cones rises, curving, above an object that insists on being straight; a bent arm of color dangles a pom-pom of black and white lines of paper. They are closer in sensibility to Confused History than to Sluggo, but I can see that the same artist made them all, even the Juggler of Big Idears. I admire that Mark Fox has an abundance of different ideas, even if it leaves a viewer such as myself saying "this is beautiful, this is awful". Then I think of myself and my various endeavors and know that they can elicit the same responses from love to hate. As artists we have to move forward, no matter the responses from the outside world.

February 19, 2014

A New Textile: "Two Squares and a Circle"

Two Squares and a Circle, hand dyed wool on linen, 15 1/4 x 19 in.

I tried something a little different with this piece; instead of having the shapes be part of a whole, I hooked two separate works––the red square and the blue square––which I then sewed together after finishing their edges.

Two Squares and a Circle detail

I wanted the sense of two forms joined, rather than a single shaped form. I don't know if it makes a difference to you visually, but to me it makes a difference conceptually, and even visually. I feel that there is now a conversation between two pieces.....

Two Squares and a Circle detail

....that is different from that between two shapes on the same surface. I am intrigued by this idea, and have started a second work of two joined pieces. It's always interesting to have more ideas to play with.

February 18, 2014

"Museum Hours": Art and Life

In a room at the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum is a collection of Pieter Bruegel paintings that is the greatest in the world. Bruegel's paintings––their complex liveliness, their focus on both the mundane and the sacred––are a central theme, I might even say the central metaphor, in the quiet, observant, intriguing film by Jem Cohen, Museum Hours.

The thoughtful museum guard Johann is our guide through this film, as he muses on the art surrounding him, the people visiting the museum, and his city of Vienna. Johann, who in earlier days had been a manager for a rock band, then a woodworking teacher, loved the quiet of the museum.

He especially loved the Bruegel room where there was "so much watching out to do" and always something new to see. 

Cohen shows us many beautiful works throughout the museum, lingering on them with a sense of longing. 

But then he takes us out onto the streets of Vienna, looking with as much interest at a group of flea market objects as at ancient Egyptian artifacts. In other juxtaposed shots, we see a group of miniature portraits at the museum and then a wall of photos in a neighborhood cafe.

Johann mentions noticing a frying pan sticking out of a person's hat in a Bruegel painting, which got him looking for eggs in paintings in the collection. He spends many pleasant hours on searches such as this. 

And the filmmaker goes on searches to find equivalent images in everyday life. For Cohen, everything is worth paying attention to: great art and the stuff of the street.

Museum visitors hold the camera's attention, singly, in pairs, in groups. Johann is amused by groups of teenagers who are insistently uninterested, except in paintings of severed heads or of sex. They might surreptitiously look at a roman sculpture of a man "whose ass so tenderly rests on a tree"; and at what Johann calls soft-core porn; in one such painting, even a small dog in it "looks a bit embarrassed".

Johann says "I like people". He found it interesting that he was curious about some, but with others he didn't want to know any more about them. He got to know Anne, a visitor to the museum from Montreal, in Vienna to visit a sick relative. They became friends, looking at art together....

....and visiting various parts of the city, seeing sights such as this chimney sweep sculpture/sign, visiting bars, going to the hospital. It was a lovely, reserved friendship; it was a way for the filmmaker to show the city, to show a human connection with art, with life.

For me the heart of the film was a discussion of Bruegel's work by a "guest lecturer", a fascinating and complex presentation. When a visitor responded to her query of "what do we like about Bruegel's paintings?" with "they are timeless", she responds that they carry time along with them. We can understand some of what is depicted, and some is a mystery. One thing that is certain is that Bruegel lived in a time of upheaval and chaos, something I had learned about by watching the interesting The Mill and the Cross inspired by his The Procession to Calvary, also in Vienna. And that he was radical in painting the lower classes, even being known as "the peasant painter", though not a peasant himself. The lecturer describes his paintings as "hallucinations of the real", as combinations of the allegorical and the realistic.

In the painting Conversion of Saint Paul, she points out a small figure of a little boy in a too-large helmet standing under a tree and claims, to the extreme consternation of a listener, that he is the center.....

Pieter Bruegel, Conversion of Saint Paul, 1567; oil on panel, 43 x 61 in.
image courtesy Wikipedia

....of this painting, the "center of the turning earth". Why is it that Bruegel filled his paintings with so much incident and near-hid the action of the title? why is it that the asses of horses seem more important than the figure of Saint Paul, a tiny figure in the distance? For me it is because of his insistence on the importance of the everyday, the odd; the equating of high and low, of sacred and profane. It is an expansive view of humanity, and of the things of the world; it is a view that Jem Cohen presents in his wonderful film.

And so as to emphasize this fact, at the end of the film Johann describes, in the same way he describes a painting, the scene, "a landscape of sorts", of an old woman walking up a path; he speaks of the "tail lights, impossibly red, and even beautiful"; he is reminded of the "transience of things". It is a transience that art attempts to overcome.