Saturday, March 30, 2013


While at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art last Monday, I saw good things and bad things. Bad: the room of mainly British art from the last twenty years (above), in a room stuffed with Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Jenny Saville, and some others. Also bad: painting from the 80s, with the exception of Basquiat:

There's a big argument to be had here, but my patience was worn thin this time with work that I've tolerated more in the past, and I think it was because of the tedious unseriousness of the work, particularly in the painting of LaSalle, Clemente, Schnabel, and others. The slapdash nature of their whole enterprise just seemed unacceptable after looking at rooms with pictures by artists like Diebenkorn and Thiebaud (joky, but also serious):

And a classic Philip Guston abstract painting:

Even the Piet Mondrian picture, unfinished at his death, was fascinating because it still had the tape that he applied to the canvas and moved around to fix the composition:

And a set of Ray Johnson collages:

He's described as an outsider artist from the 70s, but his work seems more sophisticated than that to me. I first heard of him only recently via artist friend Bill Evertson, who met Johnson in Paris and is an enthusiastic proponent of Johnson's work. It was a surprise to see the work for the first time, and to discover how complex and layered it is.

There's also a big retrospective of photographer Garry Winogrand's pictures, which is worth seeing if you're in 'frisco before June 2013. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

Back in San Francisco

I'm back in San Francisco for four days, with esposa-escritora Patty who has some readings here and in Chico this week. On Sunday the 24th, we were at the Portuguese Artist Colony on Sutter Street, for a reading and live writing event:

"Live writing" means that audience members voted to select a writing prompt, and then the four invited authors were given ten minutes to write something, which they then read back to the audience, who voted again on which one they liked best.

That last picture shows the four writers writing, while the girl on the right sang some light hip hop songs to keep the audience entertained in the meanwhile. Three of the four drafts were actually pretty good, considering the conditions of writing. Naturally I'm biased, but Patty's was still the best, as I indicated on my voting slip:

Hers didn't win, but it was a fun thing to do. And in the second half of the evening, she read from The Temple of Air, held people spellbound as usual, and sold some books.

I haven't had time to research the history of the Portuguese Artist Colony yet, but there were framed drawings all over the room and the adjacent bar and library by some pretty solid artists from a hundred years ago, such as Ernst Stoltz:

What I do know about Stoltz is that he was born in Augsburg, Germany -- the same town as Bertolt Brecht -- then he immigrated to the US in the twenties. You can tell even in my average looking photos that he was a talented exponent of German expressionism.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A Painting by Ravenna Taylor

Decay of Sound, 2013, 22 x 24 inches, Oil, Canvas, Wood
This painting by artist Ravenna Taylor is currently part of an online exhibition of her work, which you can see here. In an exchange of comments via Facebook, Ravenna mentioned that a lot of people liked her older work better, so I decided to do an experiment: I went to the online gallery, looked through the images on show without looking at any dates or titles, and chose the first few that caught me eye. It turned out that in each case, I was drawn to the new work.

There are many things I like about this painting. I like the way it plays with geometric abstraction, but loosely -- nothing is drawn with a ruler, nothing is rigid or too straight, all is marked out by the patient movement of a hand and a brush, putting down mark after mark. It's possible that the idea or the selection of shapes starts out planned, but it doesn't look that way in the execution. It all looks like the artist was alive to how putting one shape against another shape might change the balance of the composition, so that one or two shapes found their way onto the surface unannounced, like last-minute guests at the party who arrive with just the right bottle of wine in their hands. It's a contemplative painting: the squiggly shapes on the left (which might be derived from sound waves, maybe not) move the eye quicker over the picture plane than the squares and segments on the right, but on the whole it's a slow picture. A picture that takes its time. I like the colour selection, too, with the muted, bleached out tones inviting sensations of rest, and just a couple of lines of dark red to provide a hint of warmth.

Matthew Collings said something recently about how abstract painting often depends on context for its effect and its meanings. So that patterns and forms that are unbounded by the edges of a picture do indeed look like they might come from a pattern-catalogue, but once they are surrounded by some white space, the eye reads them differently, and looks for values in them other than the pleasure of pure repetition.This painting does that for me: enough balance to satisfy the human need for proportion, and enough space in it to invite that urge to return to the site of something inexplicable.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Six of the Best, Part 25: Kevin Swallow

Part 25 of an interview series in which I invite artists to respond to six questions about art, process, and creativity  (previous interviews: 123456789101112, 13, 14151617181920212223, 24). Kevin Swallow is a Chicago painter and printmaker who works in several subjects at once, mainly depicting the urban landscape (I have to confess that I own one of his screenprints). If you are in Chicago on March 22nd, you can see Kevin's work at an open studio event in the Cornelia Arts Building, on Chicago's north side.

"Golden Lights," oil on canvas, 30" x 24", 2013

Philip Hartigan: What medium/media do you chiefly use, and why?

Kevin Swallow: I spend most of my time painting. For a long time I used acrylics and recently started using oils. I also work in photography and mixed media/screen prints.

Philip Hartigan: What piece are you currently working on?

Kevin Swallow: I typically work on a few things at once which are usually part of a series. This allows me to create more harmony between each piece through color and form. I’m currently working on four different abstract paintings in oil. There are references to figures, maps, and aerial landscapes which connects these paintings to some of my other work. I’m also experimenting with a new color palette which has been fun.

"Strapped," oil on panel, 18" x 24", 2013

Philip Hartigan: What creative surprises are happening in the current work?

Kevin Swallow: I often use abstracts as a bridge when developing a new series of work. This process sometimes helps me develop a new color palette or concept. These particular abstract pieces have been freeing because I didn’t do any pre-planning or sketches for them. I’m been adding layers, drawing with oil bars, scraping and adding textures. The painting process has been more intuitive where I react to the shapes and textures -- often rotating the canvas to allow something new to emerge. Some of the surprises have been that references to figures and animals started appearing. I also recently finished some pieces using a new format; where I broke up the canvas into three sections. The idea was to combine my various subject matter -- cityscapes, rooftop water tanks, abstracts -- into one piece. I did a couple that focused on city imagery and a couple that featured cameras, but all of them had abstract sections which lead me to the paintings I’m currently working on.

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

Kevin Swallow: Music has always fueled my work and creative process -- whether it’s the stories in the lyrics or just the feel of the music itself. I also get a lot of ideas for paintings by shooting photos. I travel often and am always inspired by the different shapes, colors, materials, and styles used in architecture. Or, if I’m just looking for some inspiration, a long bike ride along the lake or walking around the city clears my head and gets me in the mood to paint.

"Transitions,", oil on canvas, 24" x 36", 2013

Philip Hartigan: What's the first ever piece of art you remember making?

Kevin Swallow: I used to draw all the time as a kid and still have some of that art. One piece that stands out for me is a large portrait painting on canvas I made when I was about 9 or 10 years old. The art teacher hung it in the school hallway with a engraved plaque that had my name and grade on it. Unfortunately, I never got to keep it and don’t know whatever happened to it. That was over 30 years ago so I’m sure it’s long gone.

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

Kevin Swallow: I enjoy creating art for myself – I feel that I need to. If I go a week or more without creating anything, I feel off. Finding more and different ways to have others enjoy my art is also one of my goals. It’s always gratifying when someone I don’t know wants to buy an artwork of mine and live with it in their home or office. I also get a lot of satisfaction from exploring my ideas and feel a sense of accomplishment from finishing a piece or series of work.

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.

Friday, March 8, 2013

My First Printmaking Class

My first printmaking class was in London in October 1995. It was in the studio of a great German printmaker called Thomas Gosebruch, which was on the second floor of a warehouse building next to King’s Cross railway station. There was no heating in the building, but thanks to England’s mild climate it never got too cold in there. It was an eight week introductory course to intaglio etching, covering the following techniques: drypoint, hard ground, soft ground, traditional and non-toxic aquatint, and photoetching. There were three other people in the class: an artist who had a studio in the same building; and a couple who came from south London and just did the course out of interest. I seem to remember they got into an argument with Thomas about money after about five weeks, and they dropped out.
The studio was in a room about 12 feet wide and 24 feet long, with windows on one side that looked straight across to another wall of warehouse windows. I can still remember exactly how the space was set up. Starting from the west end of the room: two big metal sinks, one with a wooden box above it for use as an acrylic-resist aquatint box; a cabinet next to the entry door containing little round cartons of hard ground and soft ground; and then lining the walls all the way back round to the sinks were glass-topped work tables, and filing cabinets with lots of drawers in them, topped by a variety of print drying racks, and with shelves beneath them all stacked with all the tools and supplies needed for a printmaking studio. The centre part of one half of the room also had a work-table on it, with stools along its sides where we could work on our plates. But taking pride of place in the other half of the room was the printing press: an iron behemoth, made in Germany in the early twentieth century, with a five foot long bed and giant rollers operated by a heavy, iron, hand-cranked wheel.
I think that the first plate I worked on was a hardground etching on a steel plate. I misunderstood Thomas’ instructions about drawing into the ground, and I pressed so hard that it was effectively a drypoint before I even put the plate into the acid. When I pulled a print from the plate, it looked more like a cross between an engraving and an open-bite etching. This gave rise to a moment that has become part of my stable of anecdotes: Thomas looked at the print, and said to me in his German accent: “You haf compleedly misunderstood the entire prozess.” One of the other people in the class also had something to learn. To etch the steel plates, we had to slide them gently into a tray containing hydrochloric acid (!), which instantly began attacking the surface of the plates and releasing highly toxic bubbles. Part of the process involved wearing heavy duty rubber gloves and masks while we stood over the tray and brushed the bubbles away from the surface of the plate with a feather. Well, one student forgot the instruction about “gently placing” the plate in the acid, and he dropped it straight in there, causing us all to leap back in shock as these giant waves of acid sailed through the air towards our clothes and skin. As you can imagine, you did not want this stuff to hit either your clothes or your skin.
After I finished the eight-week course, I signed up straight away for another one. By the middle of 1996 I was taking private lessons with Thomas, and within two years I was using his studio as my own printmaking studio. Now I’m in my seventeenth year of making prints, teaching some forms of printmaking, and recently I was invited to take part in one of the biggest print exhibitions in the world. And it all began on a rainy Thursday night in London, in a chilly studio overlooking the junkies and the prostitutes who haunted the streets around King’s Cross station.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Six of the Best, Part 24: Svava Thordis Juliusson

Part 24 of an interview series in which I invite artists to respond to six questions about art, process, and creativity  (previous interviews: 123456789101112, 13, 141516171819202122, 23). Svava Thordis Juliusson is a Canadian artist who takes unprepossessing objects, and makes them into installations and sculptures that magically discover their hidden sensuous capacities. You can see her a picture of her studio, too, at the art blog Hyperallergic.

"Avalanche (white)"

PH: What medium do you chiefly use, and why?

STJ: Since 2008, I have been working primarily with materials that are composed of plastic, various sizes and colors of cable ties, clothing tags, fencing and found plastic. 

The cable tie - an ordinary, utilitarian object - was the original catalyst and soon after it became the building block for constructing singular objects and/or for connecting one thing to another within installations. Because the material, in its original context, is not precious, I approach making the objects and installations in a direct and intuitive way. It’s sort of like drawing with my eyes closed, or drawing with my body. And though I have an idea/concept of what I want the work to look like, I can allow the material to dictate or guide the process until the right shape, or a narrative that makes sense, emerges. 

PHWhat piece are you currently working on?

STJ: I’m actually working out some ideas in aluminum - another abundant and ubiquitous material. It’s the start of a project/investigation, which draws from scientific graphs, charts and mythological narratives around earthquakes. 

"Install B"
PHWhat creative surprises are happening in the current work?

STJ: I am surprised by how great it is to come back to working with metal. It’s shiny - said the gold fish - and immensely satisfying to manipulate. I started my formal education as a jeweler, so the process, the material and its potential is familiar.

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

STJ: Reading, attending openings, going to the theatre and surrounding myself with other artists talking about art, feeds, not so much my process, but my need for an aesthetic experience. Sitting in my office at home or in the studio looking out the window, walking, taking long baths and/or doing laundry helps me focus and direct my energy on my work.

"Aluminum" (work in progress)
PHWhat's the first ever piece of art you remember making?

STJ: It was a pencil drawing of a scene from Chaucer on a 4 x 6 piece of drywall for a grade 11 English class project. Our teacher asked us to respond to the text in whatever way we wanted, so I drew. It was awkward and provisional but I do remember feeling confident and very happy to display it.

PHFinally, and you can answer this in any way you want: why are you an artist?

STJ: I honestly don’t know what else I would be. I am compelled to make stuff, to examine my environment and respond to it, critically and aesthetically.

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.

Monday, March 4, 2013

My First Oil Painting

The first painting I made with oils was probably when I was fourteen years old. It was on a piece of A4 (=US letter size) canvas paper, and it was a pointillist-style picture of the sea, painted from the cliff top near Whitley Bay in the northeast of England where I lived.

I don’t remember where the picture ended up, but I do remember that the paints were in small tubes inside a wooden box. I got them from the daughter of an old gentleman who was an amateur artist with lots of materials that his family got rid of after he died. The paints were in an ancient balsa wood box with a small clasp, that gave off a smell like old vinyl records when you opened it. I got some brushes and a traditional painting palette, too—the kind with a thumbhole so that it rests against your forearm.

I can even still remember the colours I used in the painting: ochre, ultramarine, and a cyan colour that I mixed from pthalo blue and white. Why do I remember that? I don’t know. It was not a good painting, not the sort of work that you would take one look at years later and say: Hmm yes, no wonder he turned out to be an artist. But I still remember that first oil painting, despite all the paintings that have come along after it.

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