Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Plus Ca Change

During the last studio session, I did something loose and bold with the picture that used to look like this:

After adding acrylic grey paint, squeezed out of a nozzle-dispenser, it now looks like this:

I hope I didn't spoil it. What I need to do is to mount it on a panel or canvas, bring it home, put it on a wall, and live with it for a few weeks to see.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Six of the Best, Part 21: Andrew Crane

Part 21 of an interview series in which I invite artists to respond to six questions about art, process, and creativity  (previous interviews: 123456789101112, 13, 141516171819, 20).  The subject this time is painter Andrew Crane, whose work I've been enjoying via Google Plus for a while now. His paintings have echoes of the mark-making of Antoni Tapies, while still recognizably part of Andrew's own visual language. He lives in Northumberland, in the UK, which coincidentally is where I was born.

4e6 - Red step paint and graphite on hemp paper, 420 x 297mm
Philip Hartigan: What medium do you chiefly use, and why? 

Andrew Crane: Mmmm…tricky question. I'm a bit gregarious when it comes to media, especially if there's a hardware store nearby. Right now I'm using varnish with step paint on hemp paper - last week it was tile cement on panel. I love to experiment with the 'untraditional' but oil paint and acrylics are never far from reach. 

Philip Hartigan: What piece are you currently working on? 

Andrew Crane: I'm working my way through 250 sheets of A3 hemp paper at the moment. These pieces can take a couple of days or less than an hour. The process is quite spontaneous but more than likely some numbers or letters will show up. 

Explaining the Tao - oil with varnish on hemp paper, 420 x 297 mm
Philip Hartigan: What creative surprises are happening in the current work? 

Andrew Crane: With this current series I've been learning to trust my intuition - it feels very expansive. Also, I'm embracing 'ugly' marks and keeping the 'darlings' to a minimum. As a result, the work feels more authentic - closer to the core. Perhaps this is old-age - a devil-may-care attitude. Whatever it is, it feels liberating! 

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

Andrew Crane: When I'm painting I find Gershwin and Bach equally sparky. J.S. Bach nurtures my love of mathematics and Gershwin, my romantic side. Sometimes I may have some spiritual discourse playing in the background. The Gospel of Thomas is a favourite. Don't get me wrong though, I'm not into religion - it's more a combined process of uncovering who or what I am. Or if, indeed, I am at all! 

Manuscript - cement, varnish and house paint on canvas,122 x 183 cm
Philip Hartigan: What's the first ever piece of art you remember making? 

Andrew Crane: My dad was very good at drawing - he would sit me on his knee and say 'What shall we draw?' Now, even at that age, I had an idea of what might be tricky. 'How about a donkey playing cricket?' Sure enough, he gave me a donkey, hitting a glorious cover drive. Drawing for me came harder. I struggled (still struggle) with representational drawing from memory but I remember during one family outing being quite pleased with my riverbank sketch: the trees were quite believable. 

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

Andrew Crane: I think 'I Am', therefore I'm an artist.

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.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Images of Darkness

When I was walking around the Dallas Museum of Art last week, I saw a small section in a bigger gallery that had one of the best things on show (see photo, above). The space was only about 10 feet wide and less than 20 feet long, basically just three walls, but it was displaying African masks and sculpture together with some of the western artists who were influenced by that, such as Picasso. Pride of place was one of Picasso’s first Cubist pictures, flanked by a grouping of masks, and a photo showing Picasso in his Bateau Lavoir studio surrounded by his own mask collection. All it takes to make a strong exhibition, sometimes, is just three or four things.

At the same time as I saw these works, I was re-reading Joseph Conrad’s “Hearth of Darkness.” I am struck by the connections in thought between Conrad the writer, and artists such as Gauguin, Picasso, and Braque. First, their interest in what they called “primitive art” grew almost at the same time. Conrad wrote his novella in 1899, and Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (with its African-mask-women-faces) in 1907. Their ideas about Africa had this in common: they were filtered through the white colonial exploitation of African countries that was still in full force at the turn of the twentieth century. So at worst, this means that black Africans were seen as inferior subhumans, who could be given the choice of dying immediately in defence of their land, or dying later as part of a subjugated labour force. At best, you get Picasso’s idea of the “noble primitive” who is more in touch with his natural instincts because he hasn’t been “corrupted” by civilization. Both views make patronizing assumptions about non-white people of the time, mainly that they are somehow not as “advanced” as white Europeans. From an artistic point of view, historians now tend to acknowledge the limitations of the assumptions that underlie the idea of “primitivism”, and then proceed to analyse how Picasso’s (erroneous) assumptions influenced his art. That’s fine. But it’s interesting to read Conrad, and to see both sides of that contemporary view struggling with each other.

“Heart of Darkness” is suffused throughout with all the ugly, despicable parts of colonialism, as told through the brutal Belgian regime in the Congo. At times, Conrad’s narrator Marlow seems to sympathize with the plight of the black people who are virtual slaves:
They were dying slowly -- it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now -- nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom.
Then, as Marlow reaches the ‘heart of darkness,’ the land and the people become a metaphor for all that is destructive, malicious, and ugly in human existence:
The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there -- there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were -- No, they were not inhuman . . . They howled, and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity -- like yours -- the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar.
To modern ears, the ugliness is in the vocabulary that equates dark skin colour with “blackness”, and “evil”. The power of the writing is that it compels an aesthetic assent, even as we nowadays attempt to resist its ethical implications. Whatever we think of Conrad’s real feelings about Africa, my point is that it is a more extreme version of the thinking that led to Picasso’s interest in African art. It’s an uncomfortable fact that we still need to wrestle with when we look at Picasso’s so-called “African-ized” art, or when we read Conrad: that great works of art can have unpleasant origins.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Dots and Lines

I glued lots of black dots onto one of the paintings on paper. Each dot is an individual collage element, glued down one at a time:

I'm in two minds about drawing all the spidery thin lines all over this one. I might just leave it as it is.

The accordion book now looks like this:

Here is a picture of it standing up accordion style:

Friday, October 26, 2012

Paper Works

Today (Thursday) in the studio I added lots of linework to this painting, using India ink and very fine nibs:

There's a long way to go still - lots of space to fill up.

When my wrist got tired, I painted the recto side of the accordion book I started the other day ...

... then added some thin India ink lines to the verso side:

The dried layer of acrylic gel medium makes a perfectly smooth, non-absorbent ground for this sort of drawing.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


Working on some of these coal circle-acrylic collage-airbrush drawings yesterday, things went a bit mental with one of them:

Compare this to how it use to look:

This new one is proceeding in a calmer manner:

It's all painting so far, with thick brushes for the circles in the background, and a thin brush for the linear shape floating on top. The next step is to collage some of the poured acrylic shapes on top of this. Dimensions on this one: 28" x 42".

Before I left, I started the same process going on an accordion book, dimensions 8" x 40" unfolded:

In the close-up photo, the shiny reflections are because I poured some acrylic gel medium, mixed with a little white paint, and squeegeed it across all the pages. When it dries, I will be able to draw on it and collage stuff, as I am doing with the bigger works on paper.

Monday, October 22, 2012


Now that I'm back from Texas, it's time to get into my studio again. Tonight will be the latest of the Klein Artists Works online seminars that I signed up for, during which art consultant/writer/gallerist Paul Klein gives a bunch of artists advice on their careers. A major aspect of my participation in this 12 week course is to reassess the studio work I've been making for the last five years. I am entirely open to staying with what I've been doing, but I am also open to the possibility of changing course entirely. Actually, the work that I have been looking at is a strand that I have been working on for a few years, too, so it would be a reconsideration of existing things, rather than a wholesale change of style. But the things that are taking my attention most strongly as a result of the Klein seminars are these works on paper:

Here is a diptych that I did at the end of last year, which kicked off this interest in circles underneath twisting shapes and black dots (it's worth clicking on the image below to display a full size version):

My current thoughts are: do I work with these shapes in their abstract possibilities, or do I try to push their relation to personal memories a little more (coal mountains, the mining town of my childhood, etc)?

Here's one I worked on before I went to Texas, and will continue with today:

Thursday, October 18, 2012

At the Dallas Museum of Art

I spent the afternoon at the Dallas Museum of Art with my hosts, Ava and Robert Everett, Carter Scaggs (printmaking professor at Collin County Community College where I am doing the workshops), and the lovely Karen and Amy (printmaking students). Funny thing, something I didn't expect, is that people were trying to play down my expectations for the museum -- funny, because the cliche of the Texan is that they boast about how everything is bigger and better. It turns out that in this case, the museum may not be a mega church for art like MOMA in New York or the Art Institute, but it is a very good museum indeed. On four floors, it houses collections of ancient Mexican art, Greek and Roman art, polynesian art, American and European art, with fantastic examples of each kind. As I wandered around from gallery to gallery, I decided to take pictures not just of complete paintings, but of sections of paintings that caught my attention.

For example, the DMA had a few really early paintings by Piet Mondrian (from 1916 or so) near one of his classic geometric paintings from 1938. I saw marks in the early paintings that were pretty similar to the classic abstract style:

I loved this loose section of a picture by Manet:

The contrast between the abstract solidity of the apple and the loose impressionism of the tablecloth in this 1924 painting by Matisse:

The unexpected red in the bottom left of a seascape by John Marin:

The complexity of the intersecting shapes in a great south-sea painting by Gauguin:

Well done, Dallas!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

In Texas

I am spending four days this week in Texas, where I have been invited to teach a solarplate intaglio workshop to printmaking students at a community college just outside Dallas. I've been to Texas a few times, but this is my first time in this area. From my twenty four hours here so far, Dallas appears to be an endless veldt of single story buildings, covering every inch of a gently undulating ochre coloured landscape, in every direction, as far as the eye can see. As my hosts drove me back from the airport to their home in a suburb forty miles away, I saw the same thing you see in every American suburban streetscape: highways thronged with cars, driving past shopping malls with Best Buy and Target stores, Starbucks, Radio Shacks, clothing stores, and so on. And megachurches -- so many of them that I lost count, behemoth constructions capable of holding 6,000 people, sometimes standing two abreast on the highways. That equals a lot of evangelical Christians, my friends. Supply equals demand for the Lord's work.

The houses where my hosts live are all very nice, situated on tidy tree lined streets, with sidewalks where I took a walk earlier this evening (and I was the only one doing that). I'm not trying to say that this is some hideous suburban nightmare, because in its featureless way it's sort of interesting. It's like everything that's bland and comfortable about modern American materialism, but just far more of it than anywhere else I've ever seen. And everyone who lives here is probably just the same as everyone else -- they are where they are because of jobs, housing, schools, and so on. 

And colleges. There's a branch of the University of Texas up the road, but I am here as a guest of Collin County Community College, in Plano, just outside of Dallas. They have a great little printmaking program, run by a fine teacher and printmaker called Carter Scaggs. Today I took his printmaking I and II students through a demonstration of solarplate intaglio etching, preceded by an artist's talk. The photos in the slideshow above show: me talking about how I started printmaking, the master printer I worked with in London, his connection to Crommelynck and Picasso, and how printmaking has informed my artistic work ever since; then you see me working with the students on aquatinting and etching their solarplates on a big UV light table, inking up their plates, wiping the plates, and finally printing the plates. All of the students were talented, willing, and interested. I got to speak a little Spanish with Maurizio, too -- originally from Paraguay, now living in Texas. I was pleased to see that almost every print came out well, and the ones that didn't still provided an opportunity for the student to learn something to carry forward to the next print.

Altogether, it was a very tiring and very rewarding day. Tomorrow: a trip to the Dallas Museum of Art.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Some New Prints

Here are a couple of prints from the last time I was in the studio, which was over three weeks ago. Media: linocut, collagraph, solarplate intaglio, monoprint. Each one 4" x 12".

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Writing and Art

Well, I only managed two weeks of attending a fiction writing class before my back gave out, and I had to drop out while I see a chiropracter (and in November an orthopedist) to sort it out again. I'm not as disappointed as if I'd been one of the real students attending as a fully paid up member of the grad program, but I am pretty disappointed, nevertheless. But the fact is, I have been unable to sit for more than an hour at a time without being in some discomfort, so it would be impossible for me to sit on a plastic chair for the four hours that the fiction writing classes take. And I fully approve of the Columbia College Fiction Writing Department attendance policy, too, by which four absences means an automatic fail -- and again, I wasn't doing this to receive a grade, but I already missed two, and would have to miss at least two more because of out of town commitments, so if for no other reason it's only fair to the other students that I withdraw, and not be an annoying person who just drops in when he feels like it.

I am taking full part in the Klein Artist Works, though, an online art career seminar hosted by Chicago art wizard Paul Klein. It's more directly relevant to my main creative activity, of course. There are several physical meetings, too, one of which was held today at the Carrie Secrist Gallery in Chicago. I'm still not sure what the outcome of this 12 week course will be, but there shouldn't be any interference from my back to prevent me from finding out, and perhaps writing about it here.

Monday, October 1, 2012

A Studio Visit with dm simons

dm simons is afraid.

He's afraid of the sudden knock on the door, the strangers with ill intentions who might burst in, drag him away from his work, his life. Afraid that at any moment the whole thing will be over, like it was for Aunt Mimi and Aunt Bertha when they got that knock on the door, in the 1940s in Europe, and ended up fighting for their lives in a Nazi death camp with six numbers tattooed in blue on their forearms.

"I remember seeing those numbers on their arms when I was a kid," says simons. "What struck me was that over time they'd become smudged."

In his studio in the DUMBO area of Brooklyn, simons talks about the direct influence of that memory on the way he makes his huge pastel drawings--drawing and pressing the chalky pigment onto the prepared surface, then smudging, blending, erasing, so that the edges of forms become indistinct, and the volumes of forms start to move slightly out of focus.

I first discovered simons' work online in 2011, and I responded immediately to the way that he combines bits and pieces of disparate images in ways that make surprising transitions from one part of the picture space to another. The content seems almost banal -- famous faces, dogs, people glimpsed at night in taxis, a pair of feet enclosed in dress shoes -- but I found myself thinking of them days later. My visit to his studio last week was the first time I saw his work in the flesh, so to speak, and their size (most of them are over 72 inches square) adds to their queasy, hypnotic power.

Asked about his process, simons replies with long discourses about his reading -- Hawthorne, Poe, Borges -- and the philosophy of vision. We move over to an area where there is a laptop, and he shows how he finds images online, from magazines and newspapers. "Something has to hit me," he says. "And then when I start drawing it out, it becomes a process of reducing the information, of working on the volumes, moving an edge back and forth across the picture."

We go to two new pictures pinned to the wall. Indicating an area in the image of a baby's head, he states: "I really need to rework this form here, until the volumes really start to emerge. This part is too pink, so I may even have to change the colors entirely."

Asked about the narrative content of his work, he replies: "It's true that I work with fragments, but I like to leave stuff out. If the viewer has to fill in some of the content for themselves, it actually helps the story."

For the next twelve months, simons will work out of this studio at the Marie Walshe Sharpe Foundation, which every year gives studio space to 17 artists out of over 1,000 applicants. Simons was the recipient of the Richard Florsheim Art Fund Studio Award for Older Artists, and he says that he has some grand plans for his work in the coming year. "I'm thinking of doing a panorama, something that goes around all the walls, which would give me space to have even abstract areas in the middle of all these images."

It's another commendable lesson from this remarkable artist: always continue to explore new possibilities, new moments for your art, no matter what your age.

For more about dm simons, here is my online interview with him from 2011.

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