Monday, November 26, 2012

Same problem, different solutions

I have a strong memory of mountains of coal standing next to the pits in the area where I grew up.The problem: how to take the different shapes and marks derived from those memories, extend their abstract possibilities, and organize them in a flat space.

One way: keep adding collaged layers and painted layers (using a nozzle and paint-tube) until the space fills up completely:

A second way: drawing only, using airbrush pigment, fluid acrylic and brush, followed by the paint-nozzle:

Another way: nozzle only:

And yet another: take poured and dried shapes, and collage them on top of and around each other:

I keep trying to cram all these ideas into one picture, but maybe the better thing to do would be to allow them each their own series.

Saturday, November 24, 2012


I have a shelf of the Penguin paperback edition of Shakespeare's plays in the hallway of the apartment, and the one I picked out at random the other day was The Tempest. Leafing through the introduction, I read that the play has always been considered one of Shakespeare's "problem plays", because it puts aside the deep psychological complexity of his great tragedies in favour of almost mythic and allegorical ways of telling a story. Prospero is an exiled aristocrat who in his exile has mastered sorcery and magic. He is possessed of powers to summon the spirits of the air to do his bidding, to cause a great storm that wrecks a ship at the start of the play, yet also with enough power to prevent most of the people on board from drowning:

                                                   Have comfort.
The direful spectacle of the wrack, which touched
The very virtue of compassion in thee,
I havewith such provision in mine art
So safely ordered, that there is no soul -
No, not so much perdition as an hair
Betid to any creature in the vessel
Which thou heards't cry, which thou sawst sink.

It's a rescue play and a trial play: Prospero and Miranda are ultimately rescued from the island, enemies are vanquished and then reconciled, two young lovers are put through tests by Prospero who finally is persuaded that they are worthy of each other.

By coincidence I have also been listening a lot Mozart's The Magic Flute. I now see that it has lots of features in common with The Tempest: a mythic male figure who possesses power over others (Sarastro), magical elements and magical beings, and of course a series of trials that the hero undergoes before he wins the girl. Intriguingly, Mozart was about to be asked if he would write an operatic version of The Tempest by some patrons, but died before the request could be made. Clearly, the would-be commissioners were on the right track.

As far as the stories go, I don't see the allegorical nature of the material in either case as a problem, or a disadvantage: it only means that we are called upon to experience time, place, and character in a different way, not as profoundly as when we watch the fall and death of a great person, perhaps, but no less satisfying.

And of course, with Mozart, there is the music. The first clip is the incomparable Fritz Wunderlich singing one of my favourite arias, Tamino's "Dies Bildnis". The second one has the words subtitled:

Friday, November 23, 2012

Imagism and Beyond

I saw a fascinating exhibition in Chicago that is ending this month, devoted to the work of the Chicago Imagists and their heirs. The Imagists were a group of artists living in Chicago who started to exhibit together as a group in the 1960s, at first under the auspices of a curator from the newly-built MCA. Their work was notable for its use of comic book imagery, and indeed some of the artists, like Jim Nutt, worked sometimes in the counter-culture comics scene.

People think of the Pop Artists as appropriating imagery from popular culture, but as the notes to this exhibition pointed out, Warhol, Lichtenstein et al usually referred to commercial imagery. It was the Chicago Imagists who really went all in for the comic book look, a strand of art that has emerged in many forms since then (street or graffiti art, to name only one).

This exhibition was divided over three venues: The De Paul Art Museum, the library at the School of the Art Institute, and the Book and Paper Center at Columbia College Chicago. In particular, the CCC part of the show had lost of good work by contemporary artists who made work that paid homage to the original imagists:

I particularly liked one artist who did an animation using crude cut out shapes:


As usual, there's something more developed going on when someone coming from the tradition of western art (even in a contrarian frame of mind) appropriates pop imagery. It stops being about the content, and you get the sense of a larger organizing power at work. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The William S. Paley Collection, de Young Museum

I have seen many good exhibitions this year, but one of the best is at the de Young museum in San Francisco, which I visited on Sunday: "The William S. Paley Collection: A Taste for Modernism." Paley was one of the founders of CBS, and when he began collecting art in the 1930s or so, it was still possible to get great examples of works by the likes of Gauguin, Cezanne, Picasso, and Matisse, for relatively little, because not many rich collectors wanted those works at the time. And it's not just that he got a few good pieces: it seems that almost everything he bought is a superb example of each individual artist. Just look at the pictures below: many of them are iconic pieces that are considered key to the work of the artist:

Paley's discerning eye was evident in the small works that he collected, too, such as this painting by Vuillard, and this small drawing by Picasso:

The quality of the work is, to us, self-evidently very high. But it took a particular eye to discern what Paley called the sensuous quality in these works, which were considered barbarous by most people until well into the twentieth century. That is indeed what lies on the surface of the pictures, despite their crudity compared to nineteenth century painting: look closely, and you can see the painter's delight in oil paint, in the placement of different kinds of marks, the aligning of different sorts of colours.

And another remarkable thing is that Paley was collecting for the sake of work in which he found pleasure. There's a dispiriting tendency lately for museums to mount exhibitions devoted to the private collections of billionaires, and you get a completely different feeling from looking at their collections of Koons, Orozco, Kiefer, et al. All fine artists in their own way, but you get the feeling that the actual collecting of them has much more to do with an investment portfolio, rather than Paley's way of collecting. Maybe the difference is that we are seeing Paley's collection after he died, so it becomes a historical monument, rather than a contemporary advert. In any event, it's a remarkable exhibition, and well worth your time if you get to San Francisco.

Runs until December 30, 2012.

Monday, November 12, 2012

A Visit to the De Young Museum

I think that if I didn't live in Chicago, I would live in San Francisco (if I was richer, of course).

Another reason to add to the long list of things that would entice me here is the De Young museum, the one in the Golden Gate park that had the redesign by Herzog and De Meuron a few years ago. This is my third visit to SF, but my first to this area. The museum is, quite frankly, outstanding. I love the building, I loved the current exhibitions (one of which I will be reviewing for Hyperallergic), and I loved the permanent collection.

Instead of showing whole pictures, here are the details of some paintings that caught my attention.

A Willem de Kooning from 1977. What I notice: the dragged paint (squeegee, maybe), the collaged paint (he liked to press newspapers against the surface and then drag), the brushwork with a 1 inch brush, and then that heavy impasto that has crackled over the decades as it dried. A collection of mark making, his entire process displayed in a few square inches.

Same idea with a Diebenkorn. Thin paint, thick paint. Glaze and scumble. Quick areas and slow areas. Lines and dabbed points of paint. Aqua blue, blue, yellow, purple, more or less within the same tonal scale. A real painter at work.

But also a Diebenkorn from the early 1950s, paint thinned with turps to make pale stains on the canvasm slightly thicker splodges of paint with a round point brush, and then these lines that meander and drop and end in emphatic pressure of the brush.

Picasso, from the Willam S. Paley collection. Immense variety of mark making. A quarter inch brush, Picasso's favourite during his Cubist period, making well chosen and varied strokes in one direction and another, in grey, ochre, black, and white, pure paint straight from the tube, ending with thinned black paint and a pointed brush for details of tassels, the odds and ends of furniture.

What do you think? If you can identify the painter, I will send you one of my prints.  If you can identify the painter AND the painting, I will send you two of my prints.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Mount Tamalpais

A few years ago, when I started teaching reduction linocut classes in the summer, I researched different artists who used this medium, and came across the work of Tom Killion. He makes beautiful multicoloured reduction linocuts in the Japanese style, of views of the Pacific coastline. They are remarkable examples of the process. I remember reading that he lived in the bay area, but I didn't know how closely he was associated with the area where we are staying this weekend. When we were in the bookstore in nearby Mill Valley yesterday, I saw a book of his prints of Mount Tamalpais -- which I can see from the window of our hotel!

Here is one of his views of the mountain. It's worth checking out his work on his website.

Friday, November 9, 2012

In California

I am in California with Patty for four days, accompanying her to a reading a book signing in Marin County, just over the Golden Gate bridge from San Francisco. Apart from the fact that I keep calling it 'Frisco, which Patty finds very annoying, I think she's glad that I am here. Actually, I know she's glad. We had a great time last night in Sausalito, at Studio 333 and its Why There Are Words reading series. There were six readers, all of them very accomplished writers. But I think Patty sold the most books at the end. Tapas at a nice restaurant/bar beforehand. Strolling outside in the night afterwards, the indigo shapes of the darkened mountains visible darkly against a sky of visible stars. 

Today, we drove the short distance to Mill Valley, one of those older northern California communities of brick and wood buildings organized around a square -- like Sonoma, most famously. It has a loose, informal feel, which on closer inspection you realise can only be sustained by very high levels of local disposable income. Patty was signing books and promoting "The Temple of Air" and Elephant Rock Books at Depot Bookstore, in the middle of town. Result: more books sold, lots of cards handed out.

I love California.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

And again

I've only been back to the studio once since the last post, during which I mixed paints, poured pools of acrylic onto a plastic sheet and left them to dry, started a few things but didn't like them, and came to what I think is a conclusion on the piece that has featured in the last few posts:

Actually, now that I look at it, I realise that I still want to add one more thing to that black circle on the upper left: a grey shape, to clarify that area one last time. 

And I also now see echoes of the work of Yves Tanguy, a Surrealist painter, whose work I never used to like. And yet some of those dots and lines seem to have crept in. The trouble is I never know if I'm doing anything that has meaning, or whether I'm just adding stuff to fill in the space and to keep myself from being bored. Which is better: to try and make everything have an explicable meaning, or just to push blindly forward and hope for the best? Or something else?

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