Monday, April 6, 2015

Visit to an Artist's Studio: Trevor Lillistone

I visited ceramic artist Trevor Lillistone's studio in Bath Spa, UK, last November. It's in a building made from the butter-coloured stone that you see all over this beautiful city, and you get to Trevor's studio by crossing cobbled courtyards and winding along corridors past other artists' studios.

He's been making ceramics for about twenty years, and only devoted himself to it full time relatively recently. He makes tableware and decorative ware in fired stoneware, with glazes that are classically smooth or deliciously improvised. They are all lovely to look at, but the ones I respond to most are the anagma ware pieces, which have that crackle-glaze texture in colours such as orange and blue.

During our visit, he talked about the people who had influenced him, like Lucy Rie, and the length of time it takes to get things right, and how he now holds classes in his studio.

I took a five week class in hand building with stoneware about four years ago, from which I learned two things: working with clay is difficult to master, but could get addictive very quickly; and ceramic artists have the great satisfaction of making something real and tangible. I'm sure an artist like Trevor Lillistone has his bad moments and his frustrations, but looking around his studio, they seemed like they might be few and far between.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Josh Garber Goes Out on a Limb

"in their clothes", branches, shrink wrap, tape, 12' x 18' x 14', 2015
Oak Park, famous as the home of the young Ernest Hemingway and the slightly less young Frank Lloyd Wright, is a separate township about ten miles due west of downtown Chicago, though it merges almost seamlessly with the city in a way that makes you feel you’re visiting a leafy Chicago neighborhood. Speaking of leafy, Josh Garber’s installation at Terrain, Oak Park, consists of tree branches and limbs connected by shrink wrap and tape that clamber up off the ground and claw spikily at the air, denuded of foliage but seemingly revivified into a new stage of growth.

Titled “in their clothes,” the sculpture is 12 feet x 18 feet x 14 feet, and is placed like all of the exhibitions at Terrain on the streetside lawn between two houses, opposite a local school and open to all weather which on the day I visited was warm, but not enough to melt the piles of surrounding snow. The whiteness of the snow provided a blank backdrop that accidentally emphasized the outlines of the piece, and focused the eye on the way the shapes struggled to achieve an airborne lightness. The artist spoke about hunting for trees on railway embankments and in the streets around his studio, of how he wanted to avoid the obvious interpretation of “nature strangled by plastic refuse,” and how he was more inspired by the Japanese practice of repairing damaged trees by binding them with plastic cord ties, like a sling for a person’s damaged arm. 
Is the piece also, as Garber put it, a precursor of a time when there will be creatures, humans possibly, that are a combination of organic and artificial material like plastics? That statement seemed as opaque as the title of the piece (whose clothes, exactly?). Looked at from the streetside, the piece starts to look like an animal, its long neck rearing up into the sky. Interpretations are fluid and open with most works of art, of course, so there’s no reason why I shouldn’t have been reminded of some words by Robert Frost, from a poem called  The Sound of Trees:
My feet tug at the floor
And my head sways to my shoulder
Sometimes when I watch trees sway,
From the window or the door.
I shall set forth for somewhere,
I shall make the reckless choice
Some day when they are in voice
And tossing so as to scare
The white clouds over them on.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Etching with old copper plates

Since I merged two studios into one last year, I've gradually been going through crates of etched steel and copper plates that I've amassed over the years, unwrapping them from their protective layers, cleaning the rust-proof gel off them, and seeing if any of them can be reused. (When I first started to learn intaglio processes in the 90s, large sized copper plates could be had for about $10 each. Now they cost more than $50, because of the rapacious demand of the smartphone industry.)

The plate in the photo above is 12" x 14". I covered it with an acrylic resist called Z*Acryl, and drew the image with a drypoint needle. As I was drawing, I noticed that the line wasn't clean and straight, but slightly fuzzy. When I etched the plate in a tray of ferric chloride, I could tell that the lines were not going to be narrow and thin, which holds the ink in a more uniform way. My first proof of the plate after I'd cleaned off the resist, inked it, and printed it, looked like this:

Those white spots you can see, that seem to sit on top of the drawing, are caused by the etched lines being a little wider than they should, so that the ink spreads under the pressure of the press and fails to register a true, uniformly black impression. Thanks to many years of experience, I was able to make several adjustments and try again. I inked the plate, wiped it less than the first time, increased the pressure of the press, and padded the plate with lots more paper on top so that it would withstand the extra pressure. The next print looked like this:

Not bad. But the way the plate etched can be traced back to the acrylic resist (a problem that I've documented several times in the past). If I use the same resist again, I'll probably shorten the etching time, and add drypoint to beef up the drawing later.

Monday, March 9, 2015

A Weekend of Good Art

From last Thursday through yesterday, Sunday, I had a weekend that was filled with lots of good art, and a feeling of advancing significantly with my own work. The fact that the clocks went forward in the USA and that the temperatures rose after a horrible February helped, too.

First was the A+D gallery, for a group show called Scaped that included an artist whose work I know, and whom I am acquainted with personally: Neha Vedpathak. I met her via the Paul Klein art advisory seminars, and her stunning work is in good company in this show organized by curator MK Meador. Neha is an artist who is clearly going somewhere big, so make note of her name now.

Next, on Saturday, I had a great studio visit with curator Teresa Silva, who is writing a catalogue essay for my upcoming show at Corner. It's not just that she's a great person to talk to: she says things that reflect your work back to you in a way that makes you subtly improve it. 

On Sunday, I met someone who can assemble little motors that will make the models you see in the following photo move in a diorama I'm creating for my Corner show:

Then later that same afternoon, Patty and I finally made it to an opening at Terrain, an outdoor project space that the phenomenal Sabina Ott has been operating from her home in Oak Park for nearly four years. The piece on display was by another friend and studio mate, Josh Garber:

I'm not saying much in detail about this piece or the A+D gallery show, as I am working on reviews for each one for Hyperallergic (the world's greatest online art magazine). Suffice to say it was a good way to end the weekend on a high note of brilliant creative energy.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Google map of my recent Paris trip

After I got back from Paris on January 18th, I tried to cure some of my withdrawal symptoms (NB: didn't really work, but please read on) by creating a Google map of my 16 days there. Each point on the map has some notes attached, most have photos with them too, and there's a video I shot from a moving Metro train. I also discovered fun functions like being able to trace and highlight different walking routes, each with its own colour of line. For some reason, the photo links work best when you click on a point in the left-hand list, rather than the point on the map itself.

Anyway, I had a blast creating it. It's kind of like an alternative photo album of a short and intensely-lived trip.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

A Picasso pilgrimage

Me outside the Bateau Lavoir, and (top) the building
in about 1905.
You know those people that are completely obsessed fans of Star Wars, Game of Thrones, or any other kind of chronicle/team/celebrity/et cetera? The ones who secretly hoard collections of memorabilia, who consume everything created by the object of their obsession or written about it? The ones who, when asked a question about their pet subject, find it hard not to start gabbling wildly, trying to tell everything they know as fast as they can, in a way that makes the person who asked the question freeze with a ghastly smile on their face and wide, unblinking eyes that cannot hide their deep regret at starting a conversation with this complete and utter nutter?

That's me, when it comes to Pablo Picasso and his early years in Paris.

Picasso on the Place Ravignan, in front of
Le Bateau Lavoir, in 1904.
Thankfully, it started with his paintings, and later the other kinds of art he made, so at least my obsession is moored in what really matters. I understood the importance of his painting, and quickly grew to love a lot of it, long before I read any biographies or visited any of his haunts in Paris or Barcelona. Yet ever since I began learning about his life in Paris, and particularly the years he spent in the Bateau Lavoir, it's a story that I keep returning to, reading about, and often re-reading accounts that I've already read several times before. Whenever I return to Paris and visit the area where the studio stood, I realise that I've spent so much time there in my imagination that I know it almost as well as places I've actually inhabited. What is it about that place and those times that compels me to such a degree?

The story of the Bateau Lavoir and its residents has been told many times, but it's always worth hearing it again. It started life as a piano factory, then started being used by artists in the 1880s. It's an odd shape, with a long, low, single story front facade on the Place Emile Goudeau in Montmartre (formerly the Place Ravignan). Because it's built on the side of a steep hill, the other floors behind the front door drop sharply away, so that the courtyard at the rear is three storeys lower than the front.

The back of the Le Bateau Lavoir in the 1960s.
There was no plumbing in any of the studios, and only one cold water tap to serve the entire building, which you can see at the bottom of the entrance stairs in this photo:

The poet Max Jacob coined the nickname Le Bateau Lavoir (the laundry boat), because he thought it looked like the long, creaky washing-boats that crawled past on the Seine every day. An entire generation of more conventional artists had already made the studios their homes before Picasso moved in in April 1904. His first studio was on the upper floor: you can see the narrow balcony immediately to the right of the main entrance in that photo above, which led to the door of Picasso's studio:

The roof of the studio was all glass, as you can see in this photo that Picasso took from the roof:

This made the studio steam like a hothouse in summer, and freezing cold in winter. Most of the residents had wood or coal burning stoves, but this was often not enough to stop water from freezing if left out in bowls overnight. It was in this room that Picasso lived and worked from 1904 to 1909. Within a few months of moving in, he met and fell in love with Fernande Olivier, and she moved in to this studio-hovel with him in 1905. Within a year of moving to the Bateau Lavoir, writers Guillaume Appolinaire and Andre Salmon became, along with Max Jacob, part of Picasso's gang. They saw each other almost every day, and for years they would eat lunch and dinner together, go to Gertrude Stein's salons together, and hang around in Picasso's studio until late into the night, getting drunk, horsing around, dreaming of success, or frequently getting wasted on opium, For the first couple of years, Picasso was so poor that he sold small paintings and drawings for a pittance just to get by. The Steins paid more for his Rose Period paintings, as did a few dealers, but it was still hand to mouth until about 1907-1908. By that time, of course, he had met Georges Braque, had painted Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, and had taken the bewilderment that greeted that painting and doubled down on it, creating paintings of radical distortions of traditional themes and methods, and in the process finding a market, at least outside France. By 1909, he was financially stable enough to rent an apartment on the Boulevard de Clichy, not far away from the Bateau Lavoir at the foot of the hills of Montmartre, but a decisive step away from the world of the bohemians. He kept using the studio at the Bateau Lavoir for a few more years, and rented additional space there too, before finally moving studio and home altogether in 1912, to the world-away climes of Montparnasse.

Most of it is vicarious wish fulfilment, of course. I read about the studio, the daily life inside those rooms, the daily life in the streets outside it, the circle of poets. painters, and lovers Picasso inhabited, the growing succession of buyers and dealers that began to come there, the lows and the highs of working in poverty yet being sure of your talent, and of course the revolutionary art he made while there--and there's a part of me that wishes I'd been there, that I'd been that person, that my career and life had proceeded like that. Yet I'm sure I'm not the only person who becomes fascinated by biographical details as an extension of an enthusiasm for beloved works of art. In the case of Picasso et al during these years, there are several other factors in play: with a great degree of self-belief, but with a huge amount of accident and luck, these artists fashioned one of the most revolutionary shifts in visual art that had occurred since the Renaissance, probably surpassing even the Impressionists in the effect it had on all the art that came after; and we are fortunate enough to have a large amount of documentary evidence about those years that puts us right there, in a particular place and time. There are very few seismic movements in art to which we can draw so close, to witness the almost daily unfolding of a new art coming into being.

Let's close with some art. Here is one of the first paintings Picasso finished after he moved to the Bateau Lavoir in 1904:

And one of the last, from 1912:

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Delacroix Pilgrimage

Me outside the studio building.
I didn't go into the Louvre during my recent Paris trip. But I did visit the Musee Delacroix, which is in the house-garden-studio occupied by Eugene Delacroix at the end of his life, between 1857 and 1863. Even if you don't know Delacroix's work that well, or you only know him as the painter of the big historical canvas Liberty Leading the People, it's still worth visiting, for a variety of reasons:
  • You get to see some fine smaller paintings and statues.
  • You see sketches and sketchbooks that give you a glimpse of his working process.
  • You see lots of the personal objects he collected, particularly from his life-changing visits to north Africa.
  • You get to stand inside his studio.
  • And all this without the crush of crowds inside the Louvre.

From top: two of Delacroix's painting toolboxes,
including a palette; one of his sketchbooks
For someone like me, who feel in love with Delacroix's work shortly after I left art college in the 1990s, going to this museum was like a religious zealot going on a pilgrimage. My enthusiasm for his painting was boosted by discovering about the same time Delacroix's Journals, an almost daily diary that he kept at two periods of his life: as a young man in his twenties, leading up to his first visit to Morocco and Algiers in 1832; and as an older, highly successful, established artist. Things that stand out in my mind if I try to recall the Journals:
  • His detailed descriptions of his ideas about local colour and reflected colour, the idea (fact, actually) that most objects placed very closed to each other will pick up some of the colour of the object nearest to them. This seems obvious to us now, but Delacroix was considered a crackpot at the time for trying to paint that way.His unashamed hints of sleeping with his models.
  • His account of a fight between two horses in Algiers, a subject that he painted and returned to often throughout his career.
  • Attending concerts in Paris, his love of Beethoven and his bemusement at the music of Berlioz.
  • Visiting the composer and pianist Frederic Chopin, feeling moved to tears by his suffering at the end of Chopin's short life.
  • The disillusion with his own work that he felt towards the end, even as he was executing a huge commission to paint murals in the church of Saint Sulpice.

From top: inside the studio; my drawing of a painting in the studio;
my drawing from one of Delacroix's sketches, which I drew on the
museum's hand-out then glued into my sketchbook.
The studio is a  square structure in the garden behind the modest three story mansion that was Delacroix's home. How can I describe the feeling of walking those few short steps from house to studio, entering a high ceilinged room that is about 25 ft x 25 ft, with a glass roof and a wall of windows on one side? Then to stand there in front of one of those paintings of the fighting horses, and do a crayon sketch in the very space where the master himself painted, drew, erased, smoked, stood back, appraised, decided, started again or carried on? I was very moved, actually. And I think it wasn't just because of the physical presence of the artist all around you -- his paintings, his studio, his painting equipment. It's also having read those journals, that marvellously written testament to a particular sensibility existing at a particular time. Unlike many artists, even ones living today, you feel that you've listened to Delacroix's voice, that you've come closer to him as a human being. So even 160 years after his death, a visit to his studio, more so than many shrines, makes you feel that he's still alive in some ways.

N.B. A few years ago, shortly after I started this blog, I posted a long series of excerpts from Delacroix's Journals, which you can read by entering "journals of eugene delacroix" in the Search Box, in the right-hand column, above, of this blog.

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