Friday, August 28, 2015

Fifteen years ago

This is Honduras, not Vermont. Close enough, though.
Fifteen years ago today, I woke up in a hotel room in Boston, quite close to the art museum and Boylston Street. I went to the bus station, dragging a duffle bag on wheels that contained enough clothes to get me through two months in the USA , and a boxed set of my James Joyce Ulysses etchings. I boarded a bus going to Burlington, Vermont, and I settled into my seat with a John le Carré novel to pass the time. I recall how bright the sunlight was, how leafy and beautiful the interior of Massachusetts was, how green and hilly Vermont was.

Fifteen years ago, I arrived in Johnson, Vermont, after being picked up at the bus station in Burlington by someone from the Vermont Studio Center. I think there were three or four other people being picked up at the same time, all heading to the VSC to start retreats ranging from 2 weeks to 2 months. I remember arriving in Johnson and checking into my tiny room in an old 2 storey classic New England house, and meeting Brian from New York, and the weird guy from Kenya who later turned out to be the sort of person who never flushes the toilet.

Fifteen years ago, I finished unpacking and walked along the street to the main residency building, a converted red barn by a stream, where I had been told there would be a get together when all the new arrivals and the current residents could all meet. One of the interns wrote my name on a tag and stuck it onto my shirt. I poured some wine into a plastic glass and looked around. I think that I spoke to a young woman with dark hair, and a writer called Andrew who later became a good friend.
She was wearing a wine colored dress and holding a beer bottle with long fingers that extended well past its curved sides. Her hair was blonde, and she wore some sort of reactalite glasses that were still dark from being outside in the sun. She smiled when I said hello, with the sort of smile that looks like someone turned on a light in an unlit room. She didn't say a lot, and I couldn't tell if she was still being reserved or not. So I made a stupid joke: staring obviously at her name tag while asking "what's your name?", she said "Patty," I said in a heavily patronizing way "OH REALLY?", mugging at the name tag with her name on it. It was fifteen years ago this happened. We talked for a few minutes, I don't remember about what, probably about whether we were writers or artists, where were we from, how long were we going to be in Vermont.

I took in everything about her in a few seconds. We clicked, as they say, but we both clicked with lots of other people during that residency, and there was nothing you could put your finger on and say : Yes, that's the moment, that's the glance, that's the phrase that meant we would find our way to each other in the next few days and weeks, past the other people claiming our attention, both in the US and the UK, across the many parties and bonfires and gatherings by the river in the darkness with the flames in the oil drums, the guitars, the six packs from the local gas station, the singing, the loud laughter in the summer air, the intense conversations while pressing shoulders against one another.  Yet this is the moment, fifteen years ago, at 6 p.m., on August 28 th, 2000, that we return to in our memories, and our private talk, and our public talk when people ask us "How did you meet?" The start, the moment of ignition. Our foundational story.

Fifteen years ago, long enough to get married and build a new life. Short enough that it seems to have passed in the blink of an eye. Long enough to fall and stay in love. Short enough to say to each other, We just met yesterday, didn't we? And to realize with deep wonder, No, that was fifteen years ago.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Exhibition news

These two paintings are on show in Chicago for the next four months as part of a group show at Robert Morris University Gallery, in the heart of the downtown loop district:



The reception for the show is on October 15th. Links describing the show:

Chicago Artists' Month
Exhibition Blog

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Water Towers and Kevin Swallow's Urban Landscapes

"Andersonville Water Tank," oil on canvas (click to enlarge)
As a foreigner living in the United States, I can attest that one of the most striking features of the urban landscape in America is the water tower. European cities may have walls built by the Romans, medieval palaces, and grand eighteenth-century neo-classical boulevards, but as far as I’m aware you can’t look up from a street in Paris, Rome, or London and see these giant wooden cylinders with their little caps, standing on a rickety framework and silhouetted dramatically against the sky. The Chicago water tower, for example, may have been referred to by Oscar Wilde as “a castellated monstrosity with pepper boxes stuck all over it,” but it is revered in the city as one of the few buildings to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and it’s just one of several hundred that are still dotted around the city.


A century ago, almost every apartment building had a water tower sitting atop the roof. As modern plumbing was installed, most of these water towers were disconnected or demolished, to the point where there are currently fewer than 200 left. It is against this backdrop of urban renewal (which some might call destruction) that artist Kevin Swallow’s recent exhibition, “This Must Be the Place,” can be evaluated. In this show of some fifteen paintings at Firecat Projects, the water towers of Chicago are the central feature. Some are depicted from close up, as if viewing them at eye level from the rooftop. Some are shown from below, as if the viewer is looking up from the street. In some pictures, the skyline takes up most of the space, and the water tower becomes a bit player in a larger architectural ensemble. Most of the paintings are executed in bright colors and picture-book style contours, giving them a child-like or cartoonish feel. The better painting occurs when Swallow uses a more subdued palette, as in "River North Electricity", and instead of using quick flat strokes, spends more time framing the water towers against curling entanglements of power cables, or the intruding bulwark of an El track’s support. This seems less like a postcard than many of the works on display, and more like the work of someone whose visual interest in the shape of the water tower has begun to encompass how that shape interacts with its environment.

"River North Electricity," oil on canvas (click to enlarge)
In November 2014, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks redefined its list of what should be preserved, and the water tower was deemed unworthy of preservation. From now on, if there is no other compelling reason for historic preservation related to the specific building or district in which the water tower is located, that list of 200 or so surviving Chicago water towers could shrink to just a handful in the coming years. Kevin Swallow’s paintings of water towers, then, are hymns to a notable American structure, and quite soon they could also be elegies to something that’s disappeared for good.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Six of the Best, Part 34

After a long break, here is the return of the interview series in which I pose the same six questions to different artists. Today's contributor is Krista Svalbonas, a mixed media artist who is based in Chicago, USA. Beginning September 29th, 2015, her installation Home is a Name will be exhibited at the Spartanburg Art Museum, South Carolina.

"In the Presence 16"
Philip Hartigan: What medium do you chiefly use, and why?

Krista Svalbonas: That’s a difficult question for me to answer. I paint, I photograph and I create installations. I have a hard time remaining true to one medium and find myself often mixing or moving fluidly between media depending on the focus of the work. Recently, I completed a series of large-scale paintings on industrial felt that combined silk screens, slats of wood, rusted metal and oil paint. At the same time, I was working on a photographic body of work using aluminum dibond, CNC routers and gold leaf. I find that very often the ideas in the work are what help dictate the execution. I started working with felt when I began tackling issues of modernist housing and its use of industrial cheap materials such as concrete, stucco and brick. I wanted to use a material that spoke to industrialization in its use and color, but at the same time offered me the flexibility to carve, build and cut away the surface much like a architectural rendering. My residency at Bemis, directly inspired this new series on dibond. I began researching Omaha’s first public housing development, the Logan Fontenelle complex. Created by Roosevelt’s New Deal, it was among the first public housing projects established in the United States. Getting my hands on the original architectural plans was what led me to using metal, in this case dibond, a material often used in architectural and commercial applications.

Philip Hartigan: What piece are you currently working on?

Krista Svalbonas: I mentioned above the two bodies of work that I have been working on, one in painting and the other in photography. I have some small touchups and tweaks along with some laborious gold leafing to get the work where I want it to be, but mostly I’m in finalization and digestion mode. I find that it can take me some time to process a body of work, what it means to my practice and me and then have that inform the next series of work I do. I’ve often reminded myself that just because I’m not “making” in the studio it doesn’t mean that I’m not working on the next body of work. Looking, jotting notes, staring out the window, reorganizing my studio, making studio visits all counts and are all necessary steps in the start of the new.

"In the Presence 20"
Philip Hartigan: What creative surprises are happening in the current work?

Krista Svalbonas: For a while now, I had been very curious about experimenting with laser cutting. Although for this newest series on dibond that wasn’t possible because there were issues with formaldehyde gas, I did use a similar process with the CNC router. Working in a new way always creates surprises, some frustrating and some enlightening. There will always be a learning curve. Having a design background, I rather enjoyed the labor in creating the precision files that are used in both of these processes. This experience has made me more open to using fabrication tools in the future.  I love the feeling of “what if”. To me, that is one of the best surprises a work can give you.

Philip Hartigan: What other artistic medium (or non-artistic activity) feeds your creative process?

Krista Svalbonas: Teaching. I’ve been teaching at the college level for almost 10 years now, and it’s always fed my creativity in one way or another, whether by learning or being surprised by my students, or by constantly keeping up with the ever-changing medium of Photography. It can be exhausting, time consuming and frustrating, but also amazingly rewarding. One thing has always remained true: it keeps me on my toes. I’m constantly thinking, considering, questioning and staying alert.

"New Deal 06"
Philip Hartigan: What's the first ever piece of art you remember making?

Krista Svalbonas: At Bemis the artists have opportunities to engage with the local community now and then when a tour group passes through. Tours range from grad to elementary students. On one occasion I was speaking to a group of elementary students aging from 5-8 years old. Among questions about length of time to make a work and when I first thought of being an artist, this same question came up and I drew a blank. I wasn’t quite sure how to answer it and I’m still not quite sure. It’s been in the back of my mind ever. First piece… was that the popsicle sculpture I made at an after school program, the snow sculptures I made ever year in the yard, the jewelry I made at a metalsmithing class in 8th grade… or is it the first time I realized I was making something I wanted others, in a broader sense, other then my mother, to appreciate? I suppose High School was when I really began to start making with a more critical awareness. My parents helped me set up a darkroom in an alcove under the stairs and I spent hours there developing images. The camera always gave me a license to explore. One series I particularly remember was of industrial buildings in York and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. I created a hand bound book with each image printed as a Van Dyke Brown or Cyanotype on watercolor paper. I remember that feeling of magic watching each image develop in the sunlight.

Philip Hartigan: Finally, and you can answer this in any way that's meaningful to you: why are you an artist?

Krista Svalbonas: Is there a choice? She asks with a smile.

If you liked this interview, and you'd like to keep up to date with the series, why not Subscribe, or sign-up via Google Connect, using one of the options over on the right? Thanks, and keep creating.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Three Books about Picasso

Le Bateau Lavoir from the rear, c. 1900
Continuing my Picasso obsession, I've read three books recently that focus on Picasso to a lesser or greater extent. Given how many books I've read about Picasso and his milieu (particularly in the early years of the twentieth century in Paris), my judgement usually rests not so much on whether I find out new information, but how well the author treats very familiar and often told stories.

The first one is In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse, and the Birth of Modernist Art, by Sue Roe.


I bought this one because I read a book by the same author about five years ago, The Private Lives of the Impressionists, which was full of interesting biographical information about Monet, Renoir, Degas, Pisarro, and others, a vivid recreation of Parisian life before and after the time of Commune (1871), and a real sense of the struggles of these artists during the early years of the first Impressionist exhibitions. Sadly, that perceptiveness seems to have deserted her when it came to talking about the artistic life of Montmartre thirty or so years later. She recounts familiar stories (Picasso's friendship with Apollinaire and Stein, his rivalry with Matisse, the chaos of the Bateau Lavoir) in a clumsy fashion, moving quickly from one thing to the next without adding new insights  or even perceiving the possible meanings and motivations of each outrageous incident. And she seems too often to end an anecdote with the most worthless and trivial descriptions of art, as if she has no understanding of Cubism except to say things like "and with one stroke of the brush, Cubism was born."

Dan Franck's book Bohemian Paris: Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, and the Birth of Modern Art is the polar opposite:


He takes familiar stories and retells them in a way that constantly reveals new facets to the relationships of the people involved, or he conveys a wealth of unfamiliar information and fits it neatly into a painting of the people and the time. He is actually a French writer who wrote a novel set in the bohemian Paris of the early 1900s, and this non-fiction book is basically a creative recreation of all his research. Perhaps the fact that he is a novelist, and clearly a gifted one, gives him the edge in storytelling, as he approaches even the tallest tales and the most often-told stories by looking for the oddest angle to approach it from, so that you feel you're hearing it for the first time. A great example occurs right at the start of the book, when he jumps right in to the scene of two young men walking up the rue Didot to visit a tattered old man dying in the Broussais Hospital. He describes their walk, the archway they enter through, the walls of the hospital, the old man lying in bed with his name written on a sign above his pillow, the newspapers strewn over the bed, their conversation in the courtyard, their farewell, then a year later, one of the young men seeing the old man in the street and barely recognizing him. Then the identities are revealed: one of the young students was Andre Gide, and the old tramp-like man was Paul Verlaine--two of the most significant French poets and writers, one at the end of his life, one at the beginning.

Franck uses similar shifts of perspective when he recounts the Picasso and Matisse stories. Again, I know most of them as if they had happened to friends of mine, but Franck seems to give you the feeling that they are happening for the first time, and he puts you into the world of 1905 or 1906 and makes you forget that you know what lies ahead (World War I, for example). Perhaps the greatest contribution that this book makes to one's knowledge of the era is how much time he spends on Modigliani's brief life, placing him on an equal footing to Picasso, Braque, and Matisse. You come away from this book feeling that Modigliani was key to Montparnasse becoming an artistic centre, in the way that Picasso became associated with the bohemian world of Montmartre. And although his behaviour was pretty self-destructive, you do feel a sense of loss at his early death, a mourning at the final passing of Bohemian Paris.

Final note on this book: the photographs he dug up for illustrations are superb, and include the rear view of the Bateau Lavoir that I included at the top of this blog post, and which I had never seen before.

Finally, I just finished reading a huge tome called Visiting Picasso: The Notebooks and Letters of Roland Penrose:


Penrose was an English surrealist who met Picasso in the 1930s, when Picasso was himself still under the influence of the French surrealists. He wrote a biography of Picasso, published in 1957, which was possibly the first Picasso biography I read when I was about fifteen. This book presents an extensive selection from the letters and notebooks of Penrose, many of which were published here for the first time. They cover Penrose's first meeting with Picasso in 1937, and go all the way up to a few weeks before Picasso's death in 1973, then beyond, to the exhibitions of Picasso's work that Penrose continued to arrange until his own death in the early 1980s. The extracts are woven together with a narrative by Picasso scholar Elizabeth Cowling, and they are accompanied by dozens of photos taken by Penrose and his wife Lee Miller, many of which are more vivid and interesting than Penrose's over-detailed notes. I have to admit that I skipped many pages in this book, mainly because the time period it covers happens to have been the least interesting, artistically, in Picasso's long life. When they first meet, Picasso is still to paint Guernica, but after that, Picasso's painting is always interesting but rarely essential. Penrose was so devoted to the cause that he treats almost everything as a masterpiece, and his encomia start to get tiring after several hundred pages. In the middle of the details of yet another Picasso exhibition arranged by Penrose, some memorable moments do emerge, however. This one, for example: At his chateau in the south of France in the late 1950s, the artist had set up a dovecote made out of upended wooden crates, and he liked to let the doves fly all over his bedroom, to the annoyance of his soon-to-be-wife Jacqueline Roque. One pigeon in particular would peck viciously at the other pigeons, and would torment one bird by pecking him almost to death, leaving him alone, then coming back at him when he had recovered a little. Penrose recounts how Picasso didn't intervene, but would watch this cruel spectacle with a great deal of fascination, even pleasure. If you read enough books about Picasso, you can't help seeing a metaphor here for the way Picasso liked to treat everyone who came close to him. He could be kind, he could be magnanimous, but eventually everyone would be subjected to sudden stabs of his beak and claws which would leave them bloody and exhausted.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

A Gift

As you may know, I am a regular contributor to Hyperallergic, the online art magazine that has come to be a significant landmark in the artworld landscape in the last few years, as print coverage of the visual arts has shrunk dramatically. (Just last week, for example, Art in America merged with its rival, ArtNews).

One of the features I write is called A View from the Easel, for which artists from all over the world submit a photo of their studio (no people), and a short description of the space. It's one of the most popular things on Hyperallergic now, regularly getting 1500 Facebook shares. A few weeks ago, I received an envelope in the mail sent by someone whose View was published in June:


The artist is Alan Neider, and the work in the catalogue consists of assemblages of plaster and collage on cardboard. They are reminiscent of Robert Rauschenberg's assemblages, though with more colour. My quick response to the work is that the pieces that contain looping shapes seem less cohesive than the ones that consist of aggregates of more discrete shapes. I can't exactly say why: maybe the looping diminishes the visual energy a little.

Regardless, it's a nice thing to get an unsolicited gift once in a while. And it reminds me that ultimately, most artists of any calibre make art in that spirit: not as a career move or a money spinner, but as a gift, to someone they know, or to the world.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Sound as a Pound

Back in January, when I was teaching the American Authors in Paris creative writing class, one of the main assignments for the students was to do a presentation on one such author in a site in Paris related to that writer. So, for example, we had presentations on Fitzgerald in front of the first hotel he stayed in, on the Rue de Rivoli; Gertrude Stein in front of the Rue de Fleurus apartment; and one on Ezra Pound, not too far from Stein's place. A very talented student called Jesse read aloud from the Cantos while standing in front of the building where Pound spent many months. Here is a photo I took, as we all huddled close to him on the sidewalk to allow the sour-faced locals to squeeze past us:


It made me realise that I hadn't read any Ezra Pound in many years, even though I always loved his work when I was a student. So over the weekend I bought this:


And I am really enjoying getting back into the music of his poetry again, particularly the Cantos, which, even if they are not always coherent or intellectually comprehensible, sound great when read aloud, and contain passages with dazzling individual images, such as:

Panisks, and from the oak, dryas,
And from the apple, mælid,
Through all the wood, and the leaves are full of voices,
A-whisper, and the clouds bowe over the lake,
And there are gods upon them,
And in the water, the almond-white swimmers,
The silvery water glazes the upturned nipple,
                As Poggio has remarked.
Green veins in the turquoise,
Or, the gray steps lead up under the cedars.

from CANTO III

Thanks to Jesse Shackelford for putting me back in touch with this.


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