Sunday, January 31, 2010

On a new design for the public art project

I just created a new design for the public art/community memoir project for the Carroll County Historical Society in northwest Illinois. I'll be presenting this to the CCHS board on Tuesday morning:

Images and text supplied by the community will be printed on plexiglass panels, which will be illuminated at night in the manner of a luminary. The building shown above is the HQ of the CCHS, in a nineteenth century Italianate house that is on the National Historic Register (I believe).

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

On teaching

I've taught printmaking on and off before, usually in small groups or one on one, and quite enjoyed that. When I first had to teach a large class about five years ago, I nearly had a nervous breakdown, and it took me a long time until I wasn't completely terrified of going into a room to teach to ten or fifteen people. About once a year for the last few years, I've co-taught a class with my wife, called Journal and Sketchbook: Ways of Seeing (that's what the class is called, not my wife). She is a very experienced teacher, and is Associate Professor in Fiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago. Even having Patty as the lead pilot wasn't enough initially to quell the terror.

But here we are in 2010, and tomorrow (Thursday) we begin to teach this class again, for fifteen weeks, and for the first time I am not unduly nervous. Practice makes for - well, less imperfect. There'll be a few nerves in the hours before the class, but once it starts, I know it will go fine. And who knows? Maybe the students will enjoy it, and feel at the end of the semester that they've learned something of value.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

On Anselm Kiefer's 'Seraphim'

A new meditation, this one on Anselm Kiefer's painting 'Seraphim', painted in 1983-1984. Kiefer was a huge influence on me when I was at art college. For several years after I graduated I painted nothing but big canvasses clotted with dense pigment.

Meditation on Anselm Kiefer's 'Seraphim' from Philip Hartigan on Vimeo.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

On Mozart's string trios and duos

Even in these lesser known, if not obscure, parts of Mozart’s work, you can hear all that Mozart is and could be. His writing for string trio (violin, viola, cello) and string duo (violin and viola) consists of a six movement divertimento, a couple of sonatas, and a set of preludes and fugues. In them you hear the different facets of his talent: the inventiveness with simple themes; the extraordinary slides into chromatic harmony, and then back to conventional figurations and cadences; the way he takes simple devices, such as a sustained dominant note, then a four note descent to a trill, before landing on the tonic, and does something a little different; the agonizing sweetness of his adagios, which someone has compared to a grieving widower who falls in love with his own sorrow; his sensitivity to the sounds the instruments are capable of making, alone and together; the brightness of the timbres, the attack, the flow and the ebb of music; the operatic alternation of comedy and drama that informs all his music, whether it's his symphonies, his concerti, his sonata writing, and of course his operas; and all shot through with that note of yearning—for what, we can’t identify, yet for which the lack of a name only makes us desire it more.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

On Goya's 'El Tres de Mayo'

Meditation on Goya's 'El Tres de Mayo' from Philip Hartigan on Vimeo.

This is the first of what will be a weekly series of short meditations on individual works of art. Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

On a Public Art proposal

One of my projects for 2010 is a public art-community history project in a small town in northwest Illinois called Mount Carroll, where my wife Patty and I own a house that we use for weekend/summer getaways. The project is a collaboration between me and Patty, who is a writer. We just received news that the Carroll County Historical Society will be our not-for-profit sponsoring organization, which means we can now proceed to apply for state grants, etc. The art part of it will consist of large lightbox columns, with photos of people's faces and quotations from their writing workshop material printed on the sides. Here is a Photoshop photo of what the columns might look like at night:

The shape might change, but the basic idea will look something like this. Keep checking in for further news on the project, including links to a forthcoming Facebook page.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Opening night at Finestra Art Space, Chicago, April 2009

A two-person sound/print installation with Patricia Ann McNair, based on letters and photographs of her grandfather, who was a Methodist missionary in Korea from 1911-1926.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

On Jack B. Yeats

Two whole rooms in the National Gallery of Ireland are dedicated to the paintings of Jack B. Yeats, brother to the great poet W. B. Yeats. Jack Yeats is another painter whose work I've loved since I was in my teens, but this is the first time that I've seen so many all at once. In fact I think I may have only seen a couple of his pictures prior to this. In contrast to Caravaggio and Vermeer, who I talked about in an earlier post, Yeats style is all about loose paint, thinned with turpentine or linseed oil, applied on the canvas with rags, the ends of brushes, and lots of short brushtrokes. Actually, it's probable that Caravaggio started his big canvasses in this way too, by blocking in large shapes with a wide brush and rags dipped in paint. But he would 'work up' those first gestural shapes into highly finished surfaces. Yeats, being the good twentieth century painter that he was, ultimately developed a style where the surface gives the appearance of being in a highly unfinished state.

His early work consisted of scenes from Dublin life, painted with a magazine illustration style solidity. From the late 1920s until his death, his subjects were drawn from imagination and literature, and the application of the paint became looser and quicker. They appear to be hastily done, which may be the case, but the best of them are tightly organised in terms of their colour harmonies. Take 'The Singing Horseman', above. Despite the scribbled style of the brushwork, and the freshness and spontaneity that results, the picture consists of a simple contrast between blue and yellow. The green tones might come from a mixing of blue and yellow on the canvas itself. The figures in this picture are quite clear, but some of his pictures of crowded rooms are a riot of squiggles, slashes, and jabs--yet the pictures will still resolve into one or two tones when you look at them from a few steps away.

It was a great pleasure to see so many of Yeats' pictures in one go. They are full of life and colour, and a sense of poetry and mystery that comes from a mind as immersed in literature as it is in looking.

Monday, January 4, 2010

On The National Gallery of Ireland

I'm in Dublin for the first week of the decade, taking the photos for a travel article that my wife is writing. On our first full day in the city, we went looking for the appropriately campy statue to Oscar Wilde, and found ourselves right next to the National Gallery of Ireland. After a few minutes inside its marble-floored rooms, I realised how many paintings that have been familiar to me for years are actually here in Dublin. The first major sight was Caravaggio's "The Taking of Christ":

It's true, but banal, to say that Caravaggio's art is based on extreme chiaroscuro, and startling transitions from light to dark areas. The eye is immediately impressed by the way light on objects is represented: the dazzling light on the centurion's armour, the light on the folds of skin on the furrowed brows of Christ and Judas, the glints on the fingernails and in the corners of eyes. It's the eyes in particular that drew me. The pattern of looking in the painting points towards the philosophical principle, unconscious perhaps but undeniably there, that arises as a result of Caravaggio's supreme mastery of surface. The eyes of each figure are more or less on the same horizontal line, and this combines with the thrust of the armoured arm to create a terrific right-to-left motion. The eyes of the two key people in the story, Judas and Christ, are not clearly visible. Christ is looking down, his eyelids almost closed; and Judas' eyes are obscured by shadow. The effect would be very different if we could see their eyes clearly. Because we cannot, we are forced to look at the shapes made by the figures, the gestures of the arms and hands, the folds made by the draperies, to feel the full force of the story. Simply put, amidst the tumult and hectic movement in the moment at which Christ is apprehended, the two main actors are veiled and withdrawn, as if the betrayal is too awful to look at with eyes wide open.

Then there was this Vermeer:

The first thing you notice about a Vermeer is the appearance of absolute fidelity to reality, to the position of things in space and the close record of light and shadow. The more I looked, the more I started to see that the edges of things are far less sharp than they appear. Photos such as the one I've inserted here give the impression that each shape is painted with razor-sharp drawing. But it seemed to me that Vermeer stopped just short of that, possibly by feathering the edges of every shape with a blending brush. There is thus an odd effect of photographic realism when you step back, but when you go in close, there is a slight blurring at the edges. I thus started to see how this 'realistic' painting is composed of many abstract shapes, with echoes across the entire picture--for example, the floor tile, observed in proper perspective, creates a lozenge shape that is repeated in the angles of the chair to the right, and the curtain on the left. Patterns emerge in the sleeve of the woman writing, created by the motion of a brush going up and down, back and forth, in a slow, confident, hypnotic rhythm, creating the sense of a mind spellbound both by the reality of a thing, and the pleasing pattern that it makes. The same dual sense of observing and losing oneself is there in the patterns of the leaded window, and the rug that hangs over the table, and the painting on the wall behind the two figures. Again, there is a whole phenomenology here, ideas about what constitutes the essential or the contingent attributes of things--but worked out by years of looking at the world, combined with a physical exploration of the tactile possibilities of a hand moving pigment across a surface.

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