Monday, November 10, 2014

Talking about Vincent Van Gogh


A few nights ago I finished reading the mammoth 900 page biography of Vincent Van Gogh from 2011, written by Stephen Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. It took about two weeks, and in the middle of that period I was invited to talk about VVG to a group of students at the Interlochen Arts Academy in northern Michigan. Jeff Wescott, a friend who teaches there, runs a biography class, and they are due to read and discuss Van Gogh's letters soon.

Sidenote: Jeff got Misty Copeland, the amazing ballet dancer, to talk to the same class a few weeks earlier about her recently published autobiography. As the following photo shows, she is also jaw-droppingly gorgeous, so I felt sorry that the same students had to endure my mug after spending time with this:


Be that as it may, it was fun to reflect on how Van Gogh has affected me as an artist, going all the way back to me teenage years. I was fourteen when an art teacher introduced me to his work. For years I had a reproduction of one of VVG's "Cypress Tree" paintings taped to my bedroom wall:


As I discussed with the Interlochen students, my response to Vincent's painting was less enthusiastic when I grew up, and became exposed to many other kinds of art. I renewed my interest when I discovered his letters--those copious documents of an entire adulthood and the rapid development of an artist's visual consciousness. I remember thinking that the man that emerges from the letters seems far more rational, and far less deranged, than the romantic notion of the "artiste maudit" that persists in the popular imagination. There are so many drawings in his letters, so many discussions of colour, that belie the idea he was just a naif who slashed away at the canvas and magically produced his paintings by a combination of luck and genius.

This recent biography sets the dial somewhere between the two poles. There's a wealth of new information in it, particularly from the pre-France years when Vincent worked as an art dealer, then a would-be preacher. The picture that emerges is more complicated than the one you get from the letters, which are inevitably more self-serving given that they record his voice talking about his own side of every dispute. So while it's true that Vincent was eventually shunned and friendless wherever he landed, the authors suggest that this was as much to do with his behaviour: his obsessiveness, his need to dominate and win every discussion, his unwillingness to concede any ground to convention. From our vantage point, we see it as a heroic defiance of the bourgeois constraints that threatened to choke his art, but really there was no evidence that Van Gogh has much talent at all until the last four years of his life, and before that there are many times when you see that his family had good reason to be anxious that this eldest son was not fulfilling his larger duty to provide for his parents and sisters. After all, that's what his younger brother Theo ended up doing, to the point where it's not an exaggeration to say he sacrificed his life for them. Fact I didn't know until I read this book: Theo died only six months after Vincent, from the awful effects of syphilis, and only a couple of years after finally getting married and having a son. Another fact: in the last year of his life, Vincent was becoming famous, and well on the road to being a sellable artist. The tragic irony is by 1889 to the middle of 1890, his mind was almost completely engulfed by repeated psychotic breaks that rendered him incapable of dealing with imminent success.

I've touched on just a few things from this remarkable biography. My final feeling was one of renewed sadness, because after all Vincent was destroyed by a disease of the mind that caused serious damage to the lives of his parents, siblings, and friends. He endured terrible torments, which may or may not be inseparable from his art. But thank god for the art, for all that colour and movement, and that unfathomable intensity of looking.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Indianapolis Art Museum, Part 2

Unlike most of the rest of humanity, I'm not that keen on Marc Chagall's work. But a nice little coincidence occurred after I saw this painting in the IAM:


A few hours after we left the museum, we arrived in Zionsville to have dinner. I saw a small independent bookshop on the quaint old high street, and popped in to make a small purchase, as I almost always do in such situations in order to support real bookshops. The first book that I pulled off the shelf was a 1968 edition of A Coney Island of the Mind: Poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I opened it up to see if it was worth buying, and the first poem I saw was this:

Don't let that horse
                 eat that violin
    cried Chagall's mother
                         But he
                 kept right on 
                                     painting

It goes on in similar fashion. Not a great poem by any means, but as we say in England: What are the chances of that happening, eh?

So of course I bought the book, and reconsidered my entire attitude to the paintings of Marc Chagall.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Indianapolis Art Museum, Part 1

I've heard about how great the Indianapolis Art Museum is, but I had to wait until October 2014 to find out for myself in person. I spent a few hours there, which is generally enough when looking at a lot of art, though I could easily have gone back a couple of times again to see all the galleries I missed.

I started in the Post-Impressionist section, where they have some outstanding examples from the Pont Aven school, including a room of prints by an American member of the group, Roderic O'Connor:


This painting by Emile Bernard, Breton Women with Seaweed, is extremely advanced for 1892 -- look at how abstract the shapes are:


One wall with three paintings is reason enough to visit the museum: a Cezanne, Gauguin, and Van Gogh side by side, showing the common interest in landscape, use of colour, and broken brushstrokes:




The Van Gogh was particularly well-lit, from above, so you could see how thickly the paint was applied:


Next post: Early 1900s and Cubism

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Visit to an artist's studio: Lynn Basa


Last Friday I spent a few hours in the studio of Lynn Basa. Her studio is a storefront space in a building that once housed an eastern European-immigrant sausage maker -- an apt history for a contemporary artist.

Our conversation ranged widely: current studio work, artist's block, the problem of changing your direction when your recent direction is in quite high demand, what represents good public art, the demands of an MFA program, how Andy Warhol influences the current generations of young success-hungry internet-obsessed artists. 

Lynn has a successful career as a public artist, with ongoing commissions in Baltimore and Chicago. She wrote a book a few years ago called The Artist's Guide to Public Art: How to Find and Win Commissions, which I think was how her name first came to my attention. Facebook, of course, provided the final bridge. Her studio work currently involves making these gorgeous images from combinations of spontaneous, gestural accumulations of materials and pigments, melted with a heat  gun to produce fields of texture that look like flowers or igneous landscapes.
 

Until recently she had a sort of open door policy at her studio, which is in a, shall we say, "lively" area of Chicago. But recently she's had to keep the door shut and begin working in a room hidden from street view, simply in order to get anything done. I'm glad, however, that she made an exception to the new policy for me, and I hope to do it again in the not too distant future. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Talented Students


My wife Patty and I went up to Interlochen in northern Michigan last weekend, to teach a two day workshop at their facility for adult programs. In the hallway, I saw some works by students from the high school Arts Academy which really caught my eye for their skill. That portrait, above, has a great awareness of tonal harmony, don't you think? That, plus the observational skill, the nice mark marking (flat brush for the block shapes, thinner brush for the lines) ... if I were this student's teacher, I'd have given them an A.

Similarly, this more abstract looking painting of a lighted window at night has great brushwork, and a developed sense of how to make a painting with just a few colours. Considering the artists were teenagers, I was extremely impressed. I could definitely imagine hanging one of these in my own home.
 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Visit to an artist's studio: Josh Garber

Bequeath, 51" x 48" x46", tree branches, electrical cable, electrical conduit, coaxial wire, packing tape,
bubble wrap, shrink wrap, magazine paper, t-shirts, shoes, beer cans, soda bottle, stuffed animals, injected ink
I attended a gathering in the studio of sculptor Josh Garber about a week ago, and this piece caught my eye.
Close-up
It's a wild, free form accumulation of the cheapest, throw-away materials, wound round tree branches and taped any old way to hold them into place. The list of materials on the caption to the first photo suggests that they might be a classic representation of what an artist wears, eats, and drinks nowadays (with the exception of electrical wire, perhaps). If you follow the link to his website, then look again at this new work, you'll see that it's a departure from previous work. But the more I look at it, the more I see the relation to Josh's other sculptures. His public art pieces may be made from aluminum, but they have the same looping and winding forms, and the appearance of material that may be hammered into the forms, or exploding outward from them. Notice how this trash sculpture similarly appears to be lifting up and pushing outwards.

He hasn't decided yet when this piece is finished, or where the series will end up, which is the natural way to proceed. There was conversation about casting it in bronze, which would be a striking conclusion. In it's current form, though, it's clear evidence of an inquisitive mind that's not satisfied with previous conclusions, and is open to posing new questions to itself.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Visit to an artist's studio: Doug Frohman


Doug Frohman is an artist whose studio is upstairs from mine at the Cornelia Arts Building in Chicago. He makes abstract paintings on canvas and panel, usually at least 48" x 48" upwards in size, which are an absorbing combination of all the ways a painter can make a mark on a surface. He takes paint and he brushes it, lightly and roughly, thickly and thinly, he scrapes the paint off and relays it, he uses a knife and a rag. When he's covered the whole surface, he goes at it again, and again, putting down one small area next to or over another small area until the whole picture finally emerges from this accumulation of stuff. The overall tonality and visual effect of his paintings is like Sean Scully, the difference being that Scully's "blocks" are often larger.


After Doug spoke about his paintings for a while, he said something that might be a profound way of describing this process. Or it might not be. But it probably is.

He said:

"When the picture changes ... it changes."

Hmmm ...

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Visit to an Artist's Studio


Actually, this was a visit to a studio used by two artists: John Schettino and Sheri Wills, who are currently enjoying a month-long residency at the Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest, Illinois. John makes sculptures, Sheri makes film/photography based work. During August they collaborated on works which they showed in a temporary exhibit in a beautiful purpose-built studio building. The floor to ceiling windows offered stunning views of the expanse of wild prairie that stretches for many acres west of the residency buildings: trees, wildflowers, grass as high as your shoulders. The art inside the building seemed at first to be a response to this environment. John's sculpture was an assemblage of tree branches found outside, suspended from the ceiling by monofilament wire along with a framework of thin wood strips. Sheri's piece consisted of a darkened box containing a slide projection of images of trees, rivers, glades, the images being rear-projected onto a crumpled piece of tissue paper.




The photos were not taken in Illinois, however, but back on the east coast. Similarly, John's piece had only a tangential relationship to the very visible landscape around the building. During our conversation, they spoke about many ideas raised by their work. Nature and culture. Naturally growing wood versus machine made lumber. Free nature and tamed nature. Making a tear or rip in the viewing mechanism so that you appear to be looking out through a crack in the wall. Interior space versus exterior space. Finding an object and changing an object.


John elaborated these ideas via email:
During the residency, through continued reading and long hours of conversation, our notions of landscape expanded beyond the literal to include cultural landscapes. The vanished, forgotten and overwritten features – the invisible history – of our 19th Century western ecosystem retained it’s importance for us but as we contemplated what has disappeared in history in the cultural world – the loss, obliteration, and erasure – a deeper and more personal sense of urgency set in. The moral imperative of memory emerged, the need to gesture to a complex cultural landscape whose cumulative scope ranges from generosity to dehumanization. Our thinking came to hinge on not only the exterior ‘natural’ world but also the worlds within and between us as landscape and memory intertwined at the heart of our new work.
I remember when I did a residency in Vermont, way up in the hills near Burlington, how everyone eventually just couldn't help themselves: no matter how hard you tried to resist, no matter how abstract your work, you drew something relating to trees in the end. That's partly my way of saying that I responded positively to the combination of beauty and intellectual rigour in Sheri and John's work. There are more ways of reflecting the outer world than repeating the well-worn gestures of Impressionism, after all.

You can see more of their work here: John's site. Sheri's site.

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