April 30, 2015

A Walk in the Woods: Spring Waters

In the early spring woods, in places usually dull and dry, are bright patches of reflected sky and trees. These shallow vernal pools turn the world upside down for the brief period that they exist, as they gather the excess moisture of melted snow and spring rains.

Because they are shallow, the pools are a visually complex world, with objects above the water and below, and reflections of branches and sky. Grayish brown leaves become richly colored under water.

Branches draw expressive light lines above the darker pond, relating to their own reflections and those of surrounding trees.

There's a beautiful contrast with the bright, mossy log and the darkly mysterious wet leaves and reflections.

A log with mushrooms provides a different sort of contrast, one that emphasizes light and dark, dry and wet. The view of layered leaves is broken by reflections.

Small bright green plants are flourishing under water.

Mossy rocks frame an expanse of reflected sky, a space that is deepened by the illusion of reflected trees plunging downward.

Liquid and solid, surface and space, illusion and the real; seeing above, below, across. These small pools are magical, evoking the worlds of elves and pixies. They are all the more wondrous for being so short lived.

April 28, 2015

New Hooked Wool Drawings

2015 #5-8, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, each 13 x 11 in.

My idea for this group of hooked wool drawings was simple: a shape inside a border, crossed by a line, straight or angled. Only the line is made of wool loops; all the rest is paint.

2015 #5, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 13 x 11 in.

I did a lot of sketches, trying out different shapes and color combinations. I ended up with a trapezoid....

2015 #6, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 13 x 11 in.

....a rectangle....

2015 #7, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 13 x 11 in.

....a circle....

2015 #8, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 13 x 11 in.

....and a triangle, each having a line that I thought fit the shape. The colors are both complementary––as in the case of yellow and violet, and blue and dark orange––and in the same color family: red/orange, green/lime green. The color of the wool lines add contrast. I enjoyed working with this simple format, and maybe it will lead to other similar ideas.

April 26, 2015

Blinky Palermo: An Expansive Minimalism

Installation view of the exhibition "Palermo: Works 1973 - 1976" at David Zwirner Gallery
(the exhibition has ended)

I have a passionate love for all the work of Blinky Palermo (1943-1977), the German artist who took the name of an American gangster/fight promoter and lived a short and very productive life. I use the word passionate deliberately, as it implies a highly emotional, almost irrational response. It's difficult to describe clearly why Palermo's work moves me and makes me happy to be in its presence, as I was at the recent show at Zwirner, link above. I suppose I can start with minimalism, pared down, mainly geometric painting, which I love, and which has influenced much of my work the past few years. I'd have to include Palermo's work within the frame of minimalism, but he throws a curve ball into the mix. Looking at the long black line on the left wall, I see that it has some weight and presence, but it's not quite a sculpture.

Untitled, 1973, detail; oil on canvas over wood, 3 1/2 x 88 3/8 x 1 9/16 in.

It is, rather, a long narrow, irregular painting, pointed on both ends so as to push into the space around it, animating the wall. The surface isn't polished and smooth, but bumpy and somewhat misshapen. I find this imperfection very touching, and the emotion is heightened for me by the ordinariness of this object placed on the wall: it is a line, and a hand-formed object, inviting metaphor.

Wooster Street, 1975; acrylic on aluminum in 2 parts, 22 1/2 x 41 5/16 overall. 

There were two of Palermo's metal paintings in the show. The thin metal surfaces of the paintings gives them a lightness on the wall despite their strong presence and moves them outside the familiar oil-on-canvas tradition.

Wooster Street detail

The care with which white paint was laid over the darker color, making subtle stripes, belies the idea that the artist might have been a sloppy thinker.

Untitled, 1973; primer, oil, fabric, and wood; 98 7/8 x 26 3/8 x 3 5/8 in. 

Palermo called his hybrid works of painting in three dimensions "objects". They are painting amplified. In the piece above, a dirty red-orange supports gray and bright blue on a tall, thin rectangle. At the bottom another orange rectangle is layered. It is very difficult to achieve balance with such a tall shape, but this work feels achingly perfect to me.

White Wing, 1974-75; protective wood paint and mixed media on wood with acrylic on aluminum, 119 7/8 x 35 1/16 x 1 15/16 in. overall. 

A simple black line and and a white parallelogram washed with a stripe of pale color: a combination offering numerous metaphors. White Wing is dramatic in its actual presence, being 10 feet tall, engaging a sweep of wall. You can see its scale in the first installation photo above.

White Wing detail

The tall black shape isn't a simple flat line, but a slightly volumetric wood form, roughened and marked by paint and staples. What appears from a distance as a clean, crisp form is instead worn and speaks of time and the hand.  

Object with Spirit Level, 1969-1973; rustproof paint, muslin, found level, and press board; 
21 3/8 x 53 1/2 x 1 3/4 in.

This work is quite witty, I think. Two implied vertical rectangles bookend a horizontal one, and on top is a spirit level, painted the same way as the board beneath. I had never realized that a level was also called a spirit level; to me it implies some kind of magic. In this case, the level is missing the liquid and its bubbles, so it cannot measure its straightness on the wall; it is an abstraction, with references.

Untitled, ca. 1974; oil on wood, 9 11/16 x 22 3/16 x 3/4 in.

With a plain shape on the wall, a triangle....

Wood Parallelogram, 1974; varnished wood, 35 9/16 x 22 1/4 x 2 in.

....or a parallelogram, is where the mystery of my deep response to Palermo's work comes most to the fore. There seems to be no reason for me to be so moved by a shape on a wall, but I am. It is as though I am being asked to see the basis of life, its essential form, turned into something poetic; a transmutation of matter.

II-1 and II-2, 1974; pencil on paper in 2 parts; 72 1/4 x 93 3/4 and 72 1/4 x 147 7/8 in.

In the same room as the Wood Parallelogram were six drawings, most in two parts, that seemed completely empty sheets of paper at first glance. Like a group of Ad Reinhardt paintings shown in this space in 2013, it took attention and time to see what Palermo had done. Like the Reinhardt's, they are impossible to photograph.

II-1 detail

On each sheet of white paper, a surface rich enough to look as though it was painted or gessoed, is one or more finely and crisply drawn parallelograms. They very subtly create a tension between them, a movement across the expanses of empty space. They anchor the space, but with such a light touch that they are almost illusory. They are beauty, hard to grasp.

4 Prototypen, 1970; four color screenprints, each 23 5/8 x 23 5/8 in.

I very clearly remember the first work by Blinky Palermo that I saw: it was the four prints above, and it was at a gallery on the north side of 57th street, sometime in the mid 80s I think. I remember being thunderstruck by this group of prints with their offbeat geometric forms. It was love at first sight, and this was when I was painting precise landscape paintings. It was a treat to see them again, in a show of Palermo prints at Carolina Nitsch Project Room.

Five Miniatures, 1972; suite of five color stencil prints on handmade paper; each 15 3/4 x 10 5/8 in.

In the print show were several suites of miniature prints, which showed another aspect of Palermo's sensitivity to form and color, and his ability to work at different sizes and with different materials. His drawings, which I wrote about here (another show at Zwirner), show another aspect of his marvelous sensibility.

I love these small images, their inventiveness and simplicity; their color and form. There is grace in all Palermo's work, a fluid ease with materials, a mysterious rightness that touches my heart and enlarges my spirit.

April 22, 2015

Three New Book Paintings

Book 3, cover; egg tempera on Sekishu natural paper, 7 x 6 3/8 in.

A month or so ago, I began a new series of works, which I've found tremendously interesting: small books which I think of as paintings. They are a kind of serial painting, where one page engages the next in a pictorial conversation.

Book 3, pp. 2, 3

This particular handmade Japanese paper is quite translucent, so I discovered that I could paint shapes or lines that related to the pages before or after, increasing the complexity of the image.

Book 3, pp. 4, 5

This book consists of mainly curved forms, that cross the page....

Book 3, pp. 6, 7

....or form a vertical line. Page 7 consists of just the yellow circle, but two other shapes from the back cover show below it. 

Book 3, back cover

The orange circle doubles the yellow one on the page before. I am trying with these works to keep the images quite simple, using the paint to animate a lot of blank space. With Book 3 I began using embroidery floss for the binding of the book; it comes in many colors and is more attractive than heavy thread.

Book 4; cover, egg tempera on Sekishu natural paper, 5 5/8 x 6 in.

Except for one circle, Book 4 consists of fluidly drawn lines, which sometimes cross each other through the translucency of the paper. One of the pigments I used for this piece is Iron Glimmer, which has a subtle warmth to it.

Book 4, pp. 2, 3

I tried to keep the marks fresh, which meant working quickly. It also meant that several books got tossed in the trash; they were too strained, or too complex.

Book 4, pp. 4, 5

The first two sets of open pages have one or two marks, which become more as seen through the paper.

Book 4, pp. 6, 7

The final set of pages has two and three lines....

Book 4, back cover

 ....and three lines are repeated on the back cover. Crossing lines are palely seen, looking almost like a pictogram.

After completing my first couple of books, I thought it would be fun to try painting on different colored papers. I put in an order for handmade Japanese paper from the online catalog at New York Central Supply, which has a remarkable selection. I tried to choose papers that were listed at lighter weights, but I discovered that there's nothing like being there to handle the actual paper. I love all the papers I bought, but some will not be suitable for books as they are too heavy, so I'll likely use them for prints.

Book 5, cover; egg tempera on Mitsumata pink paper, 6 1/8 x 5 3/8 in.

Mitsumata is a gorgeous paper with a delicate feel; it has striations on the surface that are marks left from the boards on which the paper is dried. The paper is named after the plant Mitsumata, whose fibers are used in its making; the stories of the papers can be as interesting as handling the papers themselves. For Book 5 I began with rectangular and curved shapes. I was afraid that the cover was too fussy....

Book 5, pp. 2, 3

....so when I painted the second and third pages, I kept them simple.

Book 5, pp. 4, 5

A line from page 3 extends into page 4, and page 5 reprises the theme of the cover.

Book 5, pp. 6, 7

You'll notice that this paper is not translucent, so the book is missing the very interesting interactions of ghost images. This is now a decision I have to make: will I only use paper that allows for seeing through pages, which is kind of magical, or is there enough interest in a paper such as this––as delightful as it is to handle––to continue to work with it? 

Book 5, back cover

But it is also marvelous to work on a colored sheet, which asks for, and allows, a different use of color. Such fun!

April 20, 2015

At the Met: The Whorls of Ancient Southeast Asia

Armlet, Thailand, ca. 300 B.C.-A.D. 200; bronze, 6 1/16 x 3 in.

On my most recent visit to the Met, because of some closed galleries in the Asian wing I wandered into a gallery I'd never seen before––gallery 244––comprising early Southeast Asian art. You can see all the objects in the gallery at the link. What most interested me were the objects with curvilinear patterns that flowed across forms. In the armlet above, bands of thick curves, looking like unceasing waves, are repeated from the top to the bottom of an indented cylindrical form. The rhythm is enhanced by thicker horizontal lines breaking the pattern and thinner lines across it. There's a lilting movement in this ancient bronze.

Container with Spiral Decoration, Thailand, ca. 500 B.C.-A.D. 300; bronze, H. 8 7/8 in.

Here is another marvelous use of curves on flatter surfaces. The interlocking linear circles are full of energy, and remind me, oddly, of van Gogh's Starry Night. The reference isn't too surprising, though, since I'm sure that the artists who made these works were tied to a long tradition of referring to the natural world.

Bracelet with Conical Spirals, Thailand, ca. 300 B.C.-A.D. 200; bronze, diam. 3 15/16 in.
Bracelet with Conical Bosses; Thailand, ca. 300 B.C.-A.D. 200; bronze, 2 1/8 x 3 3 1/6 in.
Small Cuff with Concentric Circles, Thailand, ca. 300 B.C.-A.D. 200; bronze.

I loved seeing the inventive expressions of curved forms, from a wacky bracelet bristling with spirals, to multiple protuberant cones, to a more simply designed cuff. 

Pair of Pellet Bangles, Cambodia, ca. 500 B.C.-A.D 300; bronze, 1 1/16 x 2 15/16 in.

Five little spheres attach to rounded bracelets; raised lines formed like woven rope connect them. I think that the rope-like lines must refer to a form before bronze, perhaps a basket.

Bracelet (or anklet) with Two Spirals, Thailand, 300 B.C.-A.D. 200; bronze, 1 3/4 x 4 in. 

I love these coils, like ferns about to unfurl. In this piece too are delicately incised lines on the double band. They may refer to rope, or it could be part of a desire to decorate, to not leave a surface unadorned.

Five Earrings, Thailand, ca. 500B.C.-A.D. 300; glass, ivory (white disk), ca. 1 in.

I was completely delighted by this group of earrings, especially the curved glass pieces, with their cheerful air. According to a wall label in the gallery, not much is known about this period of Southeast Asian art, but it is very clear that the artists/artisans working then had a finely tuned sense of design.