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Showing posts from 2020

Melissa Stern at Firecat Projects, Chicago

  DUTCH SHOES, 27 inches high. Clay, wood, objects, charcoal, graphite Melissa Stern is a New York-based artist and writer who is exhibiting work at Firecat Projects in Chicago, in a solo show titled Does She or Doesn't She? The art consists of paintings, drawings, ceramic sculptures and found object assemblages, in all of which we see a common feature: hair. Specifically, a female face or head or form with the hair styled in every imaginable fashion (and probably some beyond imagining). The theme is both playful and serious. Serious, because the idea underpinning the subject matter is the way in which a woman's hair has, since time immemorial, been one of the key ways in which female identity is determined. The title of the show derives from an old advert for hair products, and the unsubtle message that when a woman "fixes" her hair, her personality is completed, which comes with the opposite corollary that "unfixed" hair leads to a socially incomplete wom

A Decade of Praeterita

It's actually eleven years and one day since I published my first post on this blog: that doesn't sound as bookendish as "decade", which clearly I forgot to celebrate a year ago. This is the text of what I published on December 21st, 2009: Praeterita was the title of the great English writer John Ruskin's reflections on his life. In a sense we are always looking backwards at things that are now past as soon as we try to describe our experience. Ruskin's choice of the Latin word, with its archaic and somewhat grandiose feeling, was well-suited to his manner of thought and his writing. I have chosen to echo it not just from philosophical principle, but because my work involves reflections on personal narrative - mostly a childhood growing up in an English mining town in the 1960s and 1970s. 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 silen

Work by Participants in my Online Classes

 I'm now entering my sixth month of teaching online classes from home. It's all been an enjoyable experience so far, with the exception of the reason for why we're all doing this, of course. And sometimes the participants in my classes send me photos, such as this great one of Tula the cat giving her owner the "why aren't you petting/feeding me?" look over the top of the laptop: Then here are the books created by someone in my Beginning Bookbinding class: And more by another person: Clockwise, from the bottom right: a 5-hole Japanese stab binding: a 9-hole Japanese stab binding; a mini-accordion fold book; a soft cover pamphlet stitch; and a hardcover book with a chain link stitch binding on the spine. As I've said in earlier posts, everyone is patient with the circumstances of this kind of teaching, both with the technology, and with each other (because everyone works at a slightly different pace). I also get the sense that I will continue to do online te

Eden Unluata Foley's Staffs of Memories and Knowledge

Between 2011 and 2018 I was the Chicago correspondent for Hyperallergic , the New York-based art blog read throughout the global art world. This post is part of a series on my blog devoted to writing about artists in Chicago. Eden Unluata-Foley is a multi-discplinary artist based in Chicago. He is currently (summer 2020) taking part in a city-wide exhibition of public art called Art in Place , for which artists exhibit work outside their homes as a way to continue connecting their practice with the community during the extraordinary circumstances of a pandemic-induced social lockdown.  Unluata-Foley's work is a sculpture titled Staffs of Memories and Knowledge . All kinds of common and unusual objects (household items such as buckets, old cameras, a model car, a Moorish-style lamp, gourds, cans) are glued together in seemingly random chains around lengths of wood. The ensemble is then painted a uniform yellow that serves to harmonise the mix of items and render some of them difficu

New painting, new video

I've been working on painting lately that is in the same vein as the others I've posted (crows, hands, memories from childhood) but this stays more closely to the colour scheme of the original oil sketch, part of which is visible in the right hand side of the above photo. It also ends up being more representational and less abstract. Here too is a quick video compilation of the most recent session spent working on it:

In the Studio

I've returned to my studio a couple of times in the last few weeks (masked and wearing latex gloves whenever I am in the corridor of the studio building, or moving between building and car.) I took advantage of the new equipment I bought to setup my online classes to record a timelapse of me painting. The piece is a 5 feet x 4 feet canvas, brushing a texture layer of Prussian Blue over a ground of Naples Yellow. The video is a 60 second condensing of several hours of work. What interests me when I watch it is that I notice things that I'm only semi-conscious of during the painting process, such as how I vary the direction of the brush all the time, and the pressure, and the kinds of marks (linear vs. brushing), to create a lively surface.

Teaching from Home

I've started teaching some of my Printmaking and Book Arts classes online, an arrangement that I can see lasting at least into autumn, possibly beyond. The photo shows my setup: materials arranged on the cutting mat, laptop to my left on which I host the Zoom session for ten people, a ring light on a tripod for illumination, and my phone (mounted in the centre of the ring light) relaying a live feed of the table into the Zoom session, so the participants can see my hands as I demonstrate the different bookbinding techniques. In terms of equipment, the laptop and smartphone were things I already had, of course. I experimented with all kinds of software for connecting smartphone-live-feed to laptop, but in the end the simplest thing was just to get my phone to join the Zoom meeting as an extra participant, and then to highlight that 'box' on the Zoom screen. The ring light is the main new investment. I decided to fork over the extra money ($130) to buy the sixteen inch diamet

Lockdown Sketchbook

On the subject of working from home, I made a timelapse video of me drawing in my sketchbook with graphite.  While we're all locked down in our apartments and sheltering in place during the pandemic, my wife and I are fortunate to be living in a high rise apartment with wide windows that provide views of Chicago's lakefront and Lake Michigan. I've been making a lot of drawings in my sketchbook of these views. The method, as you can see speeded up in the video, is one that has a long history stretching back at least half a millenium: Lay in a few guide marks. Use the side of the graphite stick to put down broad areas of tone, with a few heavier strokes to indicate darker areas of tone. Take a paper stump and rub the drawing all over, to blend the tones into smooth, continuous areas. Introduce the white highlights by rubbing areas out with an eraser. Repeat those steps multiple times until you get a satisfying balance of light and dark tones, equivalent to the scene you are d

Working From Home

Teaching is something I enjoy, but not if it means dying from a vicious respiratory infection. So I've joined the ranks of the online teaching community. My first class starts this evening. It's called Easy Bookbinding at Home, offered via Lillstreet Art Center in Chicago. The photo above shows the materials kits assembled at Lillstreet last week (by one person, alone and masked in a room). The kits were picked up by participants via kerbside pickup, exactly as if they were carrying out food from a local restaurant.  And the class list had to be extended beyond the proposed limit, indicating that there is a pent-up need in people stuck indoors to do something creative. Luckily I've worked a lot with technology in the past (I used to work full time in the IT industry), but of course there will always be glitches. But I'm looking forward to the class, and to writing up my experience later.

Blogging in a Pandemic

Graphite drawing of view from my 9th floor Chicago apartment Given that I've been working from home for the last seven weeks, and only paid a brief visit to my studio dressed in mask and latex gloves to pick up more drawing materials, you would think I would have plenty time on my hands to write blog posts. Not just one blog post, but many more than my recent average, which has been more or less one post per week. But for some reason, I have found it rather difficult to summon up the will to write much. I've tried to make small paintings each day, or to draw for an hour, but not much more than that. I can't be the only person who has felt this strange inertia during a lockdown. Why is that, I wonder? There are no doubt many reasons, many causes, for this. One that springs to mind is that I'm resisting making the adjustment to this new working pattern for writing or making art, even though I've made the adjustment for the freelance work that (thankfully) I am abl

My COVID19 Shelter-In-Place Reading List

Janet Flanner with Ernest Hemingway during WWII After I got back from the Paris study abroad program 6 weeks ago, I decided to expand my reading around the cultural life of Paris and Montparnasse in the early 20th century. I've finished the first 6 on this list, and the enforced stay-at-home policy at the moment will give me plenty of time to finish the rest. All of these books are very good, in different ways: Shocking Paris: Soutine, Chagall, and the Outsiders of Montmartre , by Stanley Meisler (despite its title, this is a well researched and well written book that is based around a sympathetic biography of the painter Chaim Soutine, who lived in Montparnasse for more than 30 years and is buried in the Cimitiere de Montparnasse.) Americans in Paris , selected by Adam Gopnik. (An anthology of writing, mainly letters and essays, by American politicians, writers, artists, etc, who visited or lived in Paris. Everyone from Benjamin Franklin to Isadora Duncan to Henry James,


Play (1963), by Samuel Beckett Three alone, condemned to speech, to utter the account of an adulterous affair, in all its banality and grievance, the suffering it caused, and not only the pain incurred at the time but the pain caused by remembering. Their voices could be those of people in therapy, obsessively returning to the trauma (whether great or petty) and unable to evaluate it differently, to see it from a different perspective, to get past the sticking points, leaving them overwhelmed by the same words as always. The urns and the encrusted faces suggest the souls of the damned in limbo, or in Dante's Purgatorio (remember that Beckett was a lifelong reader of Dante and that he underwent extensive psychoanalysis in the 1930s), souls locked forever in a place where they will relive their sins forever, knowing that hell is an eternity of repetition, never once being able to feel the sweet release into silence.


After visiting the Giacometti museum in Paris , I read James Lord's biography of the great artist. Two things stayed with me after I finished it. First, was there ever an artist in the last century in Paris whose life was as closely woven into the fabric of one district than Giacometti and Montparnasse? Perhaps the writers Sartre and De Beauvoir, or Samuel Beckett. But Giacometti's life in Paris, almost from the start, was based in Montparnasse, and in particular a building on the Rue Hippolyte Maindron to which he moved in 1926 and stayed until his death in 1967. The second thing is his absolute dedication to his work. He had a reasonable degree of early success in the late twenties and early thirties with the sculpture he made while he was associated with the Surrealists. After he broke with them in about 1935, he found himself making clay models that were smaller and smaller, to the point where they would crumble into fragments. So the next day he would start again, wor

Happy Birthday to Us

Today, January 31st, is my birthday. One of my favourite composers was also born on this day: Franz Schubert, in 1797. To celebrate at least one of us, here is a recording of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing Schubert's beautiful song An Die Musik :

Musee Zadkine, Montparnasse, Paris

Here's another museum in Paris that I have walked past many times and finally visited a few weeks ago: the Musee Zadkine, located in the house, garden, and studio of sculptor Ossip Zadkine, on the Rue d'Assas just to the southwest of the Luxembourg Gardens. Zadkine was born in Russia and emigrated to Paris in 1910, when he was twenty-two. Zadkine and his wife moved into this building in 1928. Regardless of what you think of Zadkine's sculpture (I happen to like it), the house is a lovely two storey villa, and the studio at the end of the garden is a modest-sized structure, well lit by large windows, and with a narrow staircase against one wall that rises to a small mezzanine. At the time I visited, all of the interior spaces exhibited a mixture of Zadkine's work and work by other artists, ranging from Picasso all the way up to contemporary sculptors. Dubuffet Giacometti The garden is populated with Zadkine's sculpture from the post-WWII period, arou

Paris' Newest Museum

I've just returned from Paris, France, where I was teaching for the sixth year in a row. Each time I go, I make sure to do at least one thing that I haven't done before. On this most recent trip, that new thing was visiting the Giacometti Institute , which opened to the public only a few months go and which is the newest art museum in Paris. The institute is dedicated to the life and work of the great Italian-Franco sculptor Alberto Giacometti. It occupies three buildings on the Rue Victor Schoelcher in the 14th arrondissement, on a street overlooking the eastern side of the Cimitiere de Montparnasse. It comprises a library and academic archive centre, a restaurant, and a small exhibition space located on two floors of the building at number 5bis. The centrepiece of the museum is a reconstruction of part of the studio space that Giacometti used for nearly forty years, which was in a ramshackle building south of the cemetery near the Rue d'Alesia. Visitors can walk arou