Friday, April 18, 2014

Printmaking again

After I moved studios last year, I spent most of 2013 working on a stop-motion animation that combines printmaking, sculpture, and narrative. This year I've been making 2-d work again, using images derived from the film, or remembered from it. So there are layered fragments of maps, buildings, machinery, boxers (my grandfather was a bare knuckle boxer, and that is one of the themes of the film). I'm also trying the same material in printmaking, like these drypoints:

Technical note: I'm using extremely thin pieces of copper that I got from a building supplies shop, which means that you have to print with extreme pressure on the press. This probably means that the plates will wear out even more quickly than using thicker plates. That's the trade off between price and quality, of course.

Memories of the mining town where I grew up form the basis of the film, and hence this work. The image of the winding wheel comes up a lot -- that's the mechanism that lowers and raises the cages in the mine shafts. I've tried the wheelhouse image in a linocut, too, or to be more precise, an etched linoleum print:

This is a technique where you paint an image on the surface of the lino with stop-out, then coat the block in caustic soda. The caustic soda burns the exposed area of the lino and leaves a relief surface that looks very loose and free, in contrast to the direct blocky image that results from cutting the block. The print above was helped along by advice from a printmaker in Scotland called Aine Scannell. You can check out this link to her blog for a short introduction to the technique.

I like trying the same images out in different techniques as a way of seeing whether a different mark produces a better realization of the idea of traces that emerge from memory.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Art Sightings in New York, Part 2

I went to look at some galleries in west Chelsea, New York City, last Friday. It was my first visit to the area. So many galleries, and so many I didn't even get time to see! What caught my eye was mainly abstract art, apart from this first one, a giant multi-coloured print by Kiki Smith at Pace Prints:

Ross Bleckner, at Mary Boone (below). The photo shows the size of the painting, but not the subtlety of the marks revealed underneath each dot or hole. On the way out, I heard someone saying snarkily: "Oh, Ross Bleckner is only here because some hedge fund billionaire buys all his work:"

A show of recent prints by Terry Winters:

Dead White Guy alert: a great set of paintings by Raymond Hendler (1923-1998):

And some loosey-goosey geometry by Gary Stephan. I liked this green/black/grey one a lot:

Friday, March 21, 2014

Art Sightings in New York, Part 1

I'm in New York City this week and here are some pictures of art that took my attention at MoMA and the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

In order of appearance: early Marsden Hartley, late Marsden Hartley, detail of the early Hartley, an early Mark Rothko believe it or not, a new print from Jasper Johns, people taking selfies in front of a Pollock, a Gerhard Richter painting, solid clouds in a Van Gogh, a detail from Picasso's Demoiselles, a print from the amazing Gauguin print exhibition, a linocut in the Art of Civil Rights show at the Brooklyn Museum, an african carving:

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Why I Reread

I recently added to a thread on Facebook about Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, during which I mentioned that I’ve read it at least four times. It got me thinking about how many other books I’ve read more than once, and what the list might say about me. Actually, I reread a lot, so for the purposes of keeping the list shorter, I’m trying to recall books I’ve read at least three times:

  • Specific plays by Shakespeare: Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth (10+)
  • Holy Sonnets, Elegies, Satires, John Donne (10+)
  • Ulysses, James Joyce (6)
  • The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, by, er, Billy Wobbledagger (5+)
  • Songs of Innocence and Experience, William Blake (5+)
  • The Iliad, Alexander Pope’s translation (4)
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain (4)
  • Plays and Poems, Bertolt Brecht (4)
  • The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene (4)
  • The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (4)
  • Sentimental Education, Gustave Flaubert (4)
  • Great Expectations, Charles Dickens (4)
  • Humboldt’s Gift, Saul Bellow (3)
  • The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoevsky (3)
  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce (3)
  • Smoke, Ivan Turgenev (3)

The first thing I notice about this list is that it’s easier to read poetry and plays multiple times than novels. Still, I have been drawn back to Shakespeare a lot, and Pope’s version of the Iliad, for the beauty of the language, the storytelling, and in Shakespeare’s case because it has everything. Novels predominate as a genre, and each example given led me to read almost everything else by that author. The exception is Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, which I fell in love with as a teenager, but which for some reason remained the only thing I read by Hemingway until a few years ago. A brilliant high school English teacher was responsible for my falling in love with Donne, Shakespeare, Twain, Dickens, and Greene. University brought me Dostoevsky, Bellow, Flaubert, and Brecht. I found my way to Joyce as a teenager because it was my first introduction to really complex writing, and also for the simple reason that it fed my personal rebellion against Catholicism. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on “Ulysses,” and turned to the Circe/Night-town chapter when making my first suite of etchings in the 90s. But I probably won’t read it again—too much of the linguistic experimentation in the later chapters, while being absolutely justified artistically, just don’t satisfy me as a reader any more. Turgenev is a recent infatuation, and is probably the candidate who will move up the rankings of rereadings in the future.

Why do I reread so often? Partly it’s the warmth of familiarity, a memory of the strong emotional response of the first reading, a desire to be pulled into the story and for it to completely enfold me and engage me again. Partly it’s because these works are touchstones: I read much more contemporary fiction that I ever did, thanks to my writer-wife’s influence, but every now and then I drift back to My List as an unconscious way of maintaining the connection between present art and past. Maybe this is the same as trying to answer the question: Why do I listen to pieces of music more than once? Because they give me the old pleasure, and because for certain pieces (of music, of literature) it’s never exactly the same on the third, fourth, or even tenth reading.

Maybe the best answer was given by Vladimir Nabokov: “One cannot read a book. One can only reread it.”

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Lynn Saville: The Plenitude of Emptiness

West 125th Street, New York, New York. Copyright Lynn Saville.
The French writer Roland Barthes, in his book Camera Lucida, said of photography that it “can be the object of three practices (or of three emotions, or of three intentions): to do, to undergo, to look.” It’s a banal statement, amounting to a plain summary of the photograph as something transmitted between an object and a spectator via the camera. All that this phrase really tells us is how a photograph is made, not about the differences between one photograph and another, or one photographer and another. But in looking at Vacancy, a series of photographs by Lynn Saville on show recently at Schneider Gallery in Chicago, that phrase by Barthes came to mind, particularly the second of those verbs, “to undergo.”

Saville trained her lens on vacant storefronts on streets across the United States, at night or nearly night, so that the luminance of artificial lighting from streetside or inside determines how we see the spaces. We see warehouses, restaurants, stores, all emptied of people and commerce, but filled with the geometry of modern structures, garish neon light, reflections, shadows. There is careful attention to framing, but that’s what you’d expect of any professional photographer. Saville seems equally to be transfixed by the transition of colors from one side of the picture to another, as in West 125th St, NY, where the underwater green tone is modulated by splashes of red and blue, and Closed Restaurant, in which our eyes are drawn to the shadows of an interior room glimpsed through an open door, and the heavenly blue suggesting a corridor to the left. There are inevitable political associations in the project, to do with documenting what happens to businesses during a recession, but the closest that gets to something explicit is in Warehouse, Houston, where we see a warehouse on the left, the lights of houses on the right, and a lot of vacant space between, suggesting the separation between people and this former place of work.

Warehouse, Houston. Copyright Lynn Saville
These are not spectacular photographs. Nothing appears to be happening, but that nothing is filled with possibility, signified by all those doorways that stand half open, all those windows with light behind them, all those vacancies waiting to be filled. They are contemplative, meditative images. You see them, but you also experience them, undergoing a slow unfolding of light and time.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

News of a Former Student

I saw this article in the latest issue of Poets and Writers magazine, and I was, as we British say, extremely chuffed. The photo shows five young writers who have been selected to be student ambassadors in the National Student Poets Program. Second from the left in the photo, standing shoulder to shoulder with First Lady Michelle Obama, is Sojourner Ahebee. Sojourner took a class with Patty and me in January 2012, and seeing her in this picture made me a) extremely proud to have worked with her for a short period, and b) extremely jealous that she got to meet Michelle Obama.

The circumstances of the class: Patty and I were invited to teach a five day Journal and Sketchbook class to students at the Interlochen Arts Academy in northern Michigan. The students ranged in age from 15 to 18. They were musicians, theater students, writing students. Some of them were not that interested in the class, and some of them, like Sojourner, responded strongly to it. I particularly remember Sojourner because of her name, which she explained to me was given to her in memory of Sojourner Truth, the nineteenth african- american woman who was born a slave and became a travelling preacher. I can also still call to mind a piece of writing and accompanying drawing that she did in the class. Like many of the people who take this class with me and Patty, they aren't trained artists. But Sojourner wrote a poem about the Middle Passage, and the practice of throwing kidnapped Africans overboard to drown, sometimes just to make the ship lighter. The drawing that she made showed a ship and waves at the top of the page, and then a figure falling down through space towards the bottom of the page. Like the poem she wrote, it had concrete physical detail in it, and wasn't just an exposition of some history that she'd read.

From the article, it seems that she's continued to explore this material now that she is a poetry major at college. It was a privilege to meet her, and I'm sure we'll all hear more from her as she continues to grow as an artist.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Diego Rivera in San Francisco

When I was in San Francisco last month, I visited the San Francisco Art Institute to look at the Diego Rivera mural. It's on the wall of a building which is used as a student exhibition space. The photo above is a panorama of the barn-like interior, with the mural on the left and a show of student work in the rest of the space.

The mural was commissioned in the 1930s, and it's a typical Rivera subject of the union between art and industry:

It's a trompe l'oeuil painting, depicting the artist himself sitting on scaffolding that appears to be in front of the wall. He's directing a group of helpers who are working on a giant image of a cloth-capped worker.

The scaffolding divides the wall up into panels, in which we see men working on machines, woodworking, and placing giant girders together on a building project.

No deep thoughts about seeing this. Just an appreciation of the fineness of Rivera's design, the brilliantly preserved colours of the mural, and thinking how incredibly lucky the students are to have the opportunity to show work in the company of this painting.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Philip und Johnny und Franz

It's my birthday today. It's also the birthday of Johnny Rotten from 70s British punk band, The Sex Pistols. And Franz Schubert was born on this day, too. It's a measure of how old I am, or am becoming, that I saw Mr. Rotten and his fellow musical scamps performing in a filthy club in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, in 1977, when I was 15 years old. They were on the same bill as The Damned and another group whose name I can't remember. I was thrilled at the time by the loudness of the music, the absolute magnetism of Johnny Rotten, the pogo-ing throng occupying most of the dance floor (I was too timid to join in, and stood pressed against one of the side walls). I also remember that people were spitting so much at the performers -- considered a form of applause -- that they stopped the gig at one point to allow time for the guitarist to kick a few people in the front row, very hard, almost like a karate kick. This didn't seem to diminish the kicked people's enjoyment one little bit. The club had a very low ceiling, maybe only two feet above the Sex Pistols' heads, and I remember that all the sweat from the closely packed bodies in the room condensed on the ceiling and dripped back down onto performers and audience alike.

I imagine that the performing conditions for Franz Schubert in the salons of early nineteenth century Vienna were rather different. The music of The Sex Pistols and Schubert is about as far apart on the spectrum as you can go, too, without one or the other falling off the end of the chart. Yet that's the length of the line that I've travelled in my musical taste, too. If I heard "God Save the Queen" or "Anarchy in the UK" again, it would instantly bring back memories of my teenage years, but it's 'written down music' that I listen to almost exclusively these days. That's a phrase used by a college friend of mine who is a pianist and piano teacher: 'written down music', instead of 'classical music'. Probably for a few reasons: strictly speaking, the Classical period of so-called classical music ended more or less in the decade after Schubert's early death; and the phrase 'classical music' has so many cultural and social meanings, many of which get in the way of actually listening to the sounds.

Anyway, that's the music that I get most sustained pleasure from these days. But I've only recently come to like Schubert in more than just a superficial way. It's impossible to dislike Schubert, of course, because of the "endless melody", the simplicity of his songs, the attention to sonorities as much as harmony (the sounds the music makes, as opposed to the direction it takes). I've always liked listening to certain songs, piano sonatas, chamber music by Schubert, but it always seemed lighter than the Big Three of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. In the last few years, though, I've realized that there's more to it than pretty noises. I can't make a completely music-based argument for this, because I don't read a musical score that well, so this is more an argument based on feeling. But when I listen to some of his last music, like the B flat piano sonata, I hear something that sounds like melancholy mixed in with all that beauty. Schubert's music almost always sounds like singing, whether it's for voice or an instrument: someone singing for the moment, because they've had a sudden thought, or seen a beautiful thing, or because they're happy to be alive. Yet I also picture someone sitting at a piano, improvising these endless patterns of music out of the sheer joy of playing, and also being aware that none of this beauty can last forever, that the music has to stop at some point. In the Winterreise song cycle, Schubert expressly deals with coldness, loss, and death, but there are intimations of these things in his 'brighter' music too. Think of it this way: we expect that someone who is preoccupied with tragedy and the greatest contrast of existence (like Beethoven) to be turned into a sober human being. But think, too, about how someone who is dedicated to nothing but beauty feels when he realizes that it will all be taken away from him in the end. It's a smaller moment of self-realization than the sturm und drang of existence in a Fifth Symphony, but it's a completely human moment, too. This is the thorn in the rose of Schubert's music, I think: the sting, the thing that pierces even as it mesmerizes us.

Returning to the birthday thoughts: it often amuses me when Americans (as they do) say about dead people that, for example, "Today is Franz Schubert's birthday." I mean, dead people can't have birthdays, can they? They can have anniversaries of the day of their birth, but they can't have a birthday, with cake and candles and cards, and friends writing birthday wishes on Facebook. Yet maybe there is something to this quaint American custom. In a sense, they're treating the dead person as if they were still alive, as if they were still present, at least in our lives. So I'll wish the very much alive John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) a Happy Birthday:

And our absent friend Franz Schubert a gl├╝cklich geburtstags:

And may all our birthdays be filled with cake and music.

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