Saturday, December 29, 2012

1000th Blog Post!

After three years, thousands of words, dozens of interviews, 100 web videos, thousands of photos uploaded, it's finally here: this is the one thousandth post on this blog.

In my first post, at the end of December 2009, I quoted John Ruskin, from whose great autobiography I borrowed the title for my blog:
Ruskin also said that he would write "frankly, garrulously, and at ease; speaking of what it gives me joy to remember at any length I like ... and passing in total silence things that I have no pleasure in reviewing."
I think by and large that I've followed through on that. My reason for starting this blog at all was for the purposes of self-marketing, to talk about my studio work and to lure potential buyers of my art (complete failure on that score, so far). But I quickly started using it not only to record my thoughts about my own work, but to seek out other artists and invite them to talk about their work and process, as a way of finding out about creativity in general. One of the things I'm most proud of is that list of interviews, all collected on one page (above).

Another thing that started because of the blog is the Meditations, short recorded talks about art and artists I love, illustrated with an image of the work in question and uploaded to their own YouTube channel. I did one hundred of them, adding up to 30,000 words, three hours of video, and currently 123,000 views. One of my particular favourites is the one on  Alexander Calder. The story of how the series got started is here.

Here are the 10 most popular posts from the first 1000:

1. On Kensington Gardens and Anish Kapoor: contains an amusing near-personal anecdote about the great one.
2. Is Jenny Saville Any Good? I'm still not sure, though I'm in the clear minority.
3. Painter/Printmaker Nathan Oliveira Dies: a eulogy to a great American artist.
4. Artist-Writer-Artist Fiona Banner: an appraisal of a writer who combines text and image closely.
5. On reduction linocut: the closest a blog post containing a mention of my own work gets to the top 10!
6. On visiting Bath, England, again: very popular, for some reason.
7. On David Hockney's iphone and ipad drawings: the venerable British master's recent foray into new drawing technology.
8. Brancusi in Plastic: discusses my Chicago friend Mary Ellen Croteau's sculptures made from recycled plastic.
9. On Jack B. Yeats: one of the earliest posts, written after seeing Yeats' paintings in Dublin.
10. Interview with writer Katey Schultz: on the occasion of the sixth anniversary of her blog.

My own favourites would include these:

On Returning to Paris.
The series looking at my old sketchbooks.
This post about Van Gogh, which kicked off a series of daily quotations from his marvellous letters.
Guest posts like this one by Deborah Doeringthis one by William Evertson, and this one by Susan Shulman.
The series that documented my first public art project.
My many daily process posts.

After about a year of blogging, someone asked me why I did it, when there seemed to be so little reward for it? At the time I wrote a blog post in reply, saying that the rewards were all in terms of the wide variety of people I had encountered because of this blog, and the things I was able to learn about myself, too. And then, at the end of 2011, I became a regular (paid) contributor to the great New York art blog, Hyperallergic. That blog posts six or seven articles a day, and is read all across the USA, as I have had museum and gallery people tell me when I mention its name to them. One of the people who was reading my Hyperallergic posts was the art and design editor of Time Out-Chicago, who invited me to start writing (even better paid!) freelance articles about the Chicago art scene. These gigs came about as a direct result of this blog.

But even if that hadn't happened, I would still have continued writing this blog. And the fact that they take up some extra writing time is the reason why I didn't reach the 1000-post milestone earlier, and why my posting has become lighter in the past year. In the future, I imagine that I will migrate the contents of Praeterita to another platform, most likely Google Plus, once G+ integrates the blogging platform more smoothly with its social network platform. Until then, I intend at least to post one interview a month, a couple of posts about my work, and one longer form piece of writing which doesn't fit into Hyperallergic or Time Out.

And if you've been reading this blog for all three years (thanks, Kim Thomas!) or you've only just started recently (thanks, Jim Serrett!), I want you to know that I am extremely grateful that you have given my thoughts a little of your time. Ultimately, that's what this is all about for me: sharing what I've discovered about the creative process over several decades of professional work, and finding out more from the many, many of us who are out there.

"Praeterita" literally means "things of the past", but let's end by saying: here's to the future, and the next 1000 blog posts!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Last 2012 Studio Session

My trip to the studio this Christmas Eve will be my last for 2012. I used the time to work on some panels that I have been adding to for a long time, some of them from the beginning of 2011.

The ghostly 'coal circle' forms you can see are buried under many layers of slightly opaque white paint, acrylic gels, moulding paste, covered over and excavated lots of times. Today I painted those dark circles in a mixture of acrylic paint and airbrush pigment. When they were dry, I erased them slightly with wire wool:

And then squeegeed over a fresh layer of matte medium mixed with a little white paint:

When that layer is dry, I want to paint more circles and partially erase them with the wire wool, too. The idea is to create this effect of a small panel from the middle of last year, which I still like:

And that's it for 2012. Last year I got to the studio 70 times, this year I feel it was slightly less, though I did finish a public art project away from Chicago, and organised a show in collaboration with 14 other people. At the beginning of 2013, I am moving studios, which may enable me both to hone some of the work done in 2012, and to work on some new things.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

How Can it Be Right When It Looks So Wrong?

A couple of posts ago, I wrote something about seeing Matisse's "Bathers with a Turtle" in the St Louis Art Museum, and how it's only now being acknowledged as one of the seminal works of early twentieth century art. Right in front of it is his sculpture "Decorative Figure", which was modelled around the same time, in 1908, and is as revolutionary for the language of sculpture as "Bathers" was for painting. It's another of those works that I have known about for decades, but only saw in books or online before. Being in front of it is an experience akin to seeing the Empire State Building or the pyramids for the first time: it both fulfills and exceeds your mental picture of it.

It's an extraordinarily bold piece of work, almost breathtaking in the liberties Matisse took with the figure. Every proportion is 'wrong', with the head being too large for the body, the hands and feet only approximately and occasionally fashioned, the breasts like two bronze globes, the swelling hip like a rock formation in the desert, the surface rough and unsmoothed. It goes far beyond the sense of volume that preoccupied Maillol, or the idea of fragments (the part standing for the whole) of Rodin. Yet it struck me as beautiful, and powerfully erotic.

I was looking for writers who expressed this better than me, and I thought of what William Tucker said in his "The Language of Sculpture" about how, in sculptures like this, Matisse's feeling for form and mass is guided by the purpose of his attention at any given moment, a response in clay to his sensations, rather than conventional proportions or angles or spaces. I couldn't find the exact quote, but I did find this, from Matisse: Painter as Sculptor, by Dorothy Kosinski and Jay McKean:

Friday, December 21, 2012

Every artist needs a cat

I finally watched the documentary about Chinese artist/activist Ai WeiWei, Never Sorry. I thought it was terrific. I've liked his work for a long time, though not all of it. A lot of the 'confrontational' gestures, like raising the middle finger in front of monuments, are hardly outrageous in any part of the globe - unless there was a society that was isolated from the rest of the world for so long, and kept under the iron control of a totalitarian regime, that it simply had no contact with the social and artistic trends of, say, the USA, and so flipping the bird seems to be incredibly brave. Oh, wait ...

But I think his installations, when they hit the mark, hit it big, like the Sunflower Seeds at the Tate Modern that I did a piece about. And in watching this film, you realise that his opposition to the Chinese government is sincere, and that he has genuinely put his reputation and even his physical person in danger by pursuing it. I expected to finish watching the film having less respect for him, but instead I admired him a hell of a lot more.

And also, too: his home/studio compound in Beijing has dozens of resident cats, some of them even capable of opening doors. I have two cats, too, and for this reason, if for no other, Ai WeiWei is now in my top ten list of Great Artists and Yooman Beans.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Six of the Best: Part 22

Part 22 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, 21). I am honoured this time to post an interview with +Juanli Carrión, a multimedia artist who was born in Spain and now resides in New York City. I was fortunate enough to encounter him when I entered a silent auction and won the right to commission a small print from him. іGracias, Juanli!

Flyer (performance)
Philip Hartigan: What medium do you chiefly use, and why?

Juanli Carrion: My main medium is site-specific interventions, and then photography, video, installation, sculpture and drawing as a result of the mentioned interventions. My creative process works as a reaction to a situation or in some cases as an encounter between a pre-existing idea and the location of the right place at the right time. For these reasons every project talks about a specific concept in place and time, and that's why site-specific is the medium that better fits my practice.

Philip Hartigan: What piece are you currently working on?

Juanli Carrion: I just finished my new project Opus 2012, a multimedia art project that brings together video, music composition, performance, photography and site specific intervention in the landscape to stage the current situation of Western society on a political and existential level via the union of the universe (as macrocosm) and the theatre of politics (as microcosm). Opus 2012 uses Mozart's opera Don Giovanni as a basis for its development. It presents President Barack Obama's 2012 State of the Union Address as an opera performed in the North Mexican desert.

Individual (installation)
Philip HartiganWhat creative surprises are happening in the current work?

Juanli Carrion: I have a background in music as a piano player, but it's been more than 10 years since I played. With the last project I have rediscovered music as a medium for visual art. It's a medium in which I am still very comfortable, and which I am already thinking about using for upcoming projects.

Philip HartiganWhat other artistic medium (or non-artistic activity) feeds your creative process?

Juanli Carrion: Literature, for its ability to create new realities that can be interpreted in so many different way for each reader. That's probably what feeds me most these days.

Kei Seki (installation)
Philip HartiganWhat’s the first ever piece of art you remember making?

Juanli Carrion: It was actually an installation I did in college in which I created a cubicle made of wood and fabric with a  pool three inches deep inside it, and a chair inside the pool. Visitors were invited to take off their shoes and take a seat in the chair, then put their feet in the water and watch a series of videos projected in three of the fabric walls of the cubicle. The videos I projected contained images that questioned the idea of memory.

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

Juanli Carrion: I am an artist because if not I would be in jail.

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.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

From the Studio

It's probably a mistake to have posted so much work in progress here in the last two years, when my work is so much in flux at the moment, and what you see here might not even exist next year. But anyway, I'm doing a few things that I will keep on file, even if they don't develop into extended projects.

Here are the latest 'swirling shapes over coal circles':

I drew over the collaged coal shapes with a fine pen and India ink. I notice that as soon as I picked up a brush, I started creating these bounded forms, which take on a sculptural quality. Frankly, I think it was a way of not drawing so many circles and spraining my wrist.

I did some pours on another picture, using thick pools of acrylic gels with micaceous pigment in them. The following pigment shows how the poured shapes sit up off the surface of the picture:

Friday, December 14, 2012

Matisse Now and Forever

During a quick visit to St Louis last weekend, I dashed into the Art Museum for a few hours before joining my wife for her reading late Sunday afternoon. The museum is not easy to get to on a Sunday, without a car, being in the middle of a park on the western side of the city. It was worth trekking across the fields from the metrolink station, though. It’s not just the high quality of the collection that amazed me, but the fact that there were three or four works that I was seeing for the first time, more than thirty years after becoming introduced to them from an art history teacher in my high school.

One of them was the head of a peasant woman, by Van Gogh. My impressions: smaller than I imagined, only 14 inches by 10 inches, maybe; very dark earth tones, just like my teacher talked about; a feeling of painful honesty in the expression of the face, partly due to the labour, the slight lack of ease, in the way it was painted; the way that the left side of the face (to the right as you’re looking at it) is bigger than the other side, like the side of the head has been pulled round and flattened.

Another was Matisse’s “Bathers with a Turtle,” which is one of those paintings (like Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon”) to which I responded positively when I was sixteen, even though I didn’t fully understand it. For the longest time, I thought the Picasso painting was clearly the better one, the best of the early twentieth century, perhaps. Now I’m not so sure. Now I think that Matisse’s “Blue Nude”, and this painting of the three lumpish nudes and one crudely drawn turtle, may be just as significant as Picasso’s African mask-brothel picture. It’s to do with the sheer daring of Matisse’s manner of painting. It may look like indecisiveness, and hesitation, and things that are left out, but I think the surface of the painting is alive with many hundreds of decisions, all playing in constant tension with an awareness of the guidance of the unconscious hand. There is thick paint, thin paint, scumbles and glazes, different widths of brush, areas that seem filled in by a child’s hand, impasto repainting, strokes with a gestural strength that could only come from an adult’s energy, sgraffito marks from a brush handle, areas of almost pure geometric abstraction (the head of the kneeling woman on the left), the way that the paint at the bottom of the painting is a wash, and contains a stain that looks like it was produced by a stray drop of turpentine.  And always the colour, flooding your visual zone, always subject to some sort of organizing principle.

It’s daring, because this was a commissioned painting, and in it Matisse was thinking back to Cezanne’s “Bathers”, and the whole tradition of the female nude in a landscape that stretches back through Titian and Tintoretto to the ancient Greeks. And for his high-paying Russian (?) client, Matisse conjurs up this pressure-cooker of blue, green, and pink that calls into being a new future for painting, without quite being able to shake free of its past.

Also, I thought: how did this end up in St Louis? But then again: why not end up in St Louis? A hundred and ten years ago, most European art collectors and patrons thought the painting of Picasso and Matisse et al was completely barbaric and utterly without merit. It was left to a few Russians and Americans to follow their passion for the new and to pay the price that was demanded for this art. The money came from new world tradesmen, and their money was just as good as the money of a rich Frenchman or Englishman. So that’s why some of the greatest works of art of the early twentieth century are in places like Philadelphia, Cincinnatti, St Louis, and Chicago. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Recycling old prints

Last year, when I was making the 100 page accordion book of prints, I took a long signature of folded paper and did a few trial prints, to test that the colours were right and that I had mixed up the lithographic materials correctly. It was just a set of offcuts, really, that I put aside because they were not bad enough to throw away.

Well, recently I tried to add some stuff to these pages. I first covered them in the coal-circle pattern, using thinned acrylic paint. Then I drew some abstract shapes on them in ink, using a fine point steel nib. The combination of these different things produced something not too bad:

The brown and blue lines are the paper-litho transfer prints from last year. Everything else was added on top of them.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Do Exactly What I Say

Continuing with my following the recommendations I've given to students:

This is what I added to those 5" x 4" circle drawings:

That is, swirly drawing with airbrush pigment, thin lines with India ink, and a bit of poured/dried acrylic paint collage. Bish bosh, sorted.

In other news, I added a coal circle pattern to something I started a few weeks ago:

Friday, December 7, 2012

Do As I Say

When I teach, one of the pieces of advice I often give to students, if I think they're developing a good idea, is: That's Great. Now do 20 of them.

So I decided to follow my own advice. I took up about 20 offcuts of various bits of printmaking and watercolour paper, and drew the coal-circle shapes on them in thinned acrylic paint:

Each one will end up as miniature (5" x 4") versions of the larger works on paper that I have been writing about in the last few months.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Good/Bad Public Art?

I saw this sculpture on Clark St., Chicago, just south of Diversey Avenue. It's just been placed there in the last few weeks, and all credit to the city again for continuing with its huge drive to install sculpture all over the place in the last few years.

I don't know its title or who the artist is, but I assume it's made from steel. I sort of liked it, at first, until I began to see a sort of Halloween witch emerging from it, particularly that pointy-hat shape at the top. For some reason, I was disappointed as soon as I began to 'read' it as something representational, and something representational in a banal way. Is this fair or unfair of me?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Too Many Notes, Herr Mozart

The title of this post is from "Amadeus", and according to Maynard Solomon's superb biography of Mozart, the film at that point reflects at least a partially accurate view of how Mozart's music was considered towards the end of his life:

"The later 1780s really were for him a period of consolidation, during which the splendors, challenges, and sometimes unbearable beauties of his work were being confronted and assimilated. This was not an easy process, even for sensitive or professional musicians, for whom Mozart's music was somehow profoundly disturbing in ways that could not be quite explained. 'Mozart is unquestionably a great original genius,' wrote Dittersdorf, 'and I know of no composer who possesses such an astonishing wealth of ideas. I only wish he were a little less prodigal of them. He gives his hearers no time to breathe; as soon as one beautiful idea is grasped, it is succeeded by another and a finer one, which drives the first from the mind; and so it goes on, until at the end not one of these beauties remains in the memory.' Audiences needed a little more time to come to terms with Mozart, and indeed within only two or three years Europe was gripped by an extraordinary Mozart enthusiasm, the start of which he was still able to witness."

Of course, the succession of beautiful melodies, and the startling detours they sometimes take, is exactly why we love Mozart now. But that thing about "unbearable beauty" still seems right to me. There is something almost excruciating in Mozart's music, sometimes. I'm listening to "Cosi fan tutte" a lot now, and that's what I hear in moments such as the lovers' farewell in Act I, "Soave il vento":

Monday, December 3, 2012

Writing and Printmaking

I've just spotted two things in my internet RSS feeds that are close to my heart. The first is an article from the excellent blog about printmaking, That's Inked Up. It's a long, informative, nicely illustrated piece about British engraver Clifford Webb. Here is one of his book illustrations:

And the winners of the Arts Writers Grants for 2012 have just been announced. Here are the winners in the blog categories (with links, where available):

Caryn Coleman, The Girl Who Knew Too Much.
Farrah Karapetian, Housing Projects.
Meg Onli, Black Visual Archive.
Harbeer Sandhu, Critical Condition.

By the way, it seems weird that two of the winners in the blog category have blogs that are difficult to find! But as an erstwhile art writer myself, it's good to see this format being recognised in this way.

UPDATE: A reader pointed out to me that the AWG also awards grants to blog proposals, so that's why there might not be any links to some of them yet.

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