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.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Restoring my Printing Press

I've just finished restoring and assembling my large etching press -- a six week process involving lots of rust removal, scrubbing with steel wool, and repainting. Here is a photo of the same kind of press from the Chicago Printmakers Collaborative:


And here is a short YouTube video of me testing the press, making sure the motor still works after nearly seven years of lying in storage:


Thursday, August 14, 2014

At the Detroit Institute of Art, Part I

Two weeks ago, I made my first visit to the Detroit Institute of Art to see a collection that has to be described as 'fabled.' My first art history class was in my teens, and some of the very first pictures my teacher made me look at and consider are housed in the DIA, and here I was, many decades later, finally getting to see them for the first time. The collection is also great enough to catch the rapacious eyes of the city's bankruptcy manager, so perhaps this might be the last opportunity I get to see the collection in one place.

The first painting that caught my eye is this one:


Clearly the Renaissance (perspective, depth of planes, rounded modelling of figures, close attention to the detailed surfaces of things), probably from the Low Countries, good enough to be by Van Eyck or an earlier master. But the painter is virtually anonymous, known only by the name "Master of the Embroidered Foliage." So what is decoration, and is it more than just patterning on a flat surface designed to produce a pleasant sense of order?

The question becomes louder with Bronzino:


Painted about 1540, half a century or so later than that Netherlandish painting. It seems to be nothing but decoration, especially comparing the figures to the clothes. Figures: smooth like marble, airless, almost, unbreathing, so still that they could be statues, cold, withholding. Clothes: compelling, astonishingly rendered, so that when you look up close you can see the individual textures of braid painted with unerring and repeated perfection dozens of times over. Decoration as portrait, a portrait of wealth and power and privilege, a statue of a painting that suggest the permanence of temples.

Is Bronzino cold, unemotional? I respond positively to his work. As I was standing in front of it, I thought of contemporary painted Kehinde Wiley, and how heavily he draws on Bronzino for his effects. Sure enough, I found this painting by Wiley in one of the contemporary art galleries:


It's a big canvas, maybe eight feet square. Self-consciously baroque, from the heroic 'general-on-a-rearing-horse' pose to the superimposed floral pattern, and the gold-gilt frame. Highly skilled, but essentially flat and lacking in tension compared to the Bronzino. We approve of the idea -- appropriating the heroic styles of painting from the past to raise to consciousness a people under-represented in the western art canon -- but everything in the painting arrives very quickly at just that, an illustration of The Idea. I'm not trying to fault Wiley's project, merely trying to suggest the difference in effect between Bronzino-decoration and Post-Modern-Irony-decoration. 

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