Monday, May 16, 2016

Charles Tarlton and the Changing Nature of Ekphrasis

Ekphrasis may have started with Homer, describing the "mighty and peerless" Achilles in The Iliad, Book XVIII, 1- 617.  At this moment, Achilles ia "a fallen giant" in despair, "enraged" and "idling": he failed to protect Patroclus, "he whom I honoured as my own self," who has been killed by Hector. Patroclus's body is being dragged through Troy. The time is ripe for a hero, but Achilles has lost his armor, which appears to symbolize his will. As they do, the gods intervene: Hephaestus is charged with creating new armor, in particular a new shield:

.... On the shield also, he portrayed in gold a fine vineyard laden with grapes, though the clusters of heavy fruit were black, and the vines were tied to silver poles. Round it was a ditch of blue enamel, and outside that a fence of tin and a single path led to it, that served for all the coming and going of harvest time. Girls and youths, were joyfully carrying off the ripe grapes in wicker baskets, while in their midst a boy sang .... Then on the shield he showed a herd of straight-horned cattle, in gold and tin, lowing as they trotted from their byre to graze at a murmuring stream beside the swaying rushes. Four herdsmen, also in gold, walked beside them, and nine swift dogs ran behind. But in the next scene two savage lions in amongst the leaders were gripping a bull that bellowed loudly, dragging it off, pursued by youths and dogs .... On the shield, also, the lame master-smith added meadowlands full of white sheep, in a fine valley, with sheepfolds, huts and pens ....

These are only a few lines, describing, apparently in direct fashion, rapidly multiplying images on a shield, images so many and so detailled that this shield would have needed to be the size of the earth. And, of course, that is the point. This is Homer.

We know other instances of ekphrasis. W.H. Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts" discusses this Breughel

in a mere two sentences:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

The soldiers surrounding Achilles may have worried for his sanity; Icarus's flight to the sun, a man trying to be a god, could not succeed. And yet "children [are] ... skating on a pond," and in the painting's foreground "the ploughman may/Have heard the splash" but it was not his own death, so he continues on, the "sunshone as it had to" and the "expensive delicate ship," closest to Icarus, neglects him altogether. The world continues on its axis, as we weep.

My husband, Charles Tarlton, composes poetry about painting, probably because he has been with me as I paint for the last 27+ years. He says:  "ekphrastic poetry should aim to illuminate aspects of the painting that might elude a more conventional prose description.  It does this by setting up illuminating images and associations to make us see the painting differently.  Like any form of commentary, it is meant to broaden our view of the subject work. But, importantly, it aims to do this by creating further art within which the painting is an element.  It is art about art, locating the painting within the poetic field in such a way as to suggest almost a third synthetic work, a work that is neither the painting nor the poem."

I think his poems strive, not to describe the undescribable, with Homer, and not to unlock the meaning of the art, as Auden has done, but to describe artistic process, a thing that is, in its way, also indescribable and filled with meaning. Here is an ekphrastic poem that he has written about my work.

Ekphrasis #1
Ann Knickerbocker’s Dappled

“Although I know it’s no way to look at abstract paintings,” the ekphrastic docent said,  “still I see a raven here, on the dead burned stump of the last tree somewhere in an ominous desert.”
[Yellow stripes, pink and orange ones, too, and some blue perpendiculars, faded blue against a beige sky.]
“It’s not about anything, “ I said, “and that’s not a crow!”
 [A patch of royal blue and some wide brushstrokes coming out of it.  One turns quickly up, and voilà, a crow.]
“He is looking across to a red butte,” the docent continued,  “rising up into a wild pink and shadowed sky; rain or worse is draining out of the clouds. 
[She has slashed back and forth with a loaded brush and now she lets the drips run down.]
“A layering of pastels,” I said, “see, a working of quick red strokes, and only then does the red spill.  Why does it need a name?”
We both focused then on the middle and to the right, where, completing the mystery, the word “DAPPLED” was stenciled in and then faintly painted over in white.  
[It was that word, but you know, in this context, it’s hardly a word.]
“I know...I know it’s none of these things,” the docent cried, “that it’s even wilder than I’ve said, but I’m trying to get you to see it.”

in the gallery
she offered to trade this one
for a smaller drawing
of a horse looking out of
a stall, waiting for visitors

why does the smaller
canvas pull everything in
closer and tighter
but the larger painting is free
to riot in all directions

it’s a dream report
of first impulses layered
over with fiercer
thoughts in depths of pentimenti
before there was anything

And again here, how and why we artists paint. Enjoy!
 Two Ekphrastic Tanka Prose

1. The Negation of Impulse

I decided to do only what I meant to do and not what other people did. When I could observe what others did I tried to remove that from my work. My work became a constant negation of impulse....
                                                            Jasper Johns

The first thing she did was coat the large canvas with a faint sort of gray all over (got by mixing a little black in the gesso).  Then with a roller she laid broad overlapping X’s from corner to corner, first in red, then brown, then orange, and finally green mixed with black.  A diaphanous layer of white put on with a foot-wide hand scraper and the canvas was ready for painting.

now go very slow
meticulously dribble
red up to a clot
with a black dot as center
setting the stage

so you just stand there
looking, and let your mind go
feel the whole idea
in your fingers, but hold it
till you just cannot resist

ideas of order
deeply felt in the layers
slow the strokes down
let your mind see a dream
let orange peek out freely

2. An Abstract Expression

“My formats are square, but the grids never are absolutely square, they are rectangles a little bit off the square, making a sort of contradiction, a dissonance, though I didn’t set out to do it that way. When I cover the square surface with rectangles, it lightens the weight of the square, destroys its power.”
                                                           Agnes Martin

The painter stood up close to the big canvas (taller than he was, though he was tall) and pressed a small thick nub of burnt sienna oil paint against the splatters and scratches with his thumb.  In his other hand he held a two-inch angled sash paint brush dripping white enamel that he suddenly swung in a long arc, like a comet of thin white mist across the upper left quadrant of the painting. In a minute there were several long feathery white drips running down and around the dollop toward the floor.

show the line run on
to the end of the hard pull
what exactly light
means, how it does or doesn’t
bend, way out to the end

look under the paint
see there’s more paint under it
and more under that
until the painting comes up
in ten dimensions at once

there is no such thing
as a straight line, the closer
you get to the light
the more the bumps and fibers twist
away from plumb, roughly

Do you have an ekphrastic poem of your own to send me? Ship it to me via the email on my website ( or send me a link in the comments section below, and I will publish the best one(s).

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Gallery One, Connecticut: To See and Be Seen

The artists of Gallery One: ten artists, working without their own gallery space, but working, as one of their members says, “with the strength of ten,” exhibiting where they will.  Their current show is on through this Sunday, May 15, 2016, at the Mill Gallery in The Guilford Art Center.

Here is what the artists say about themselves on their website, where the show is always on, :

Gallery One is an association of mid-career artists working in a wide variety of media and styles from representational to abstract, including painting, sculpture and works on paper.  Our vision is to provide Southeastern Connecticut with a stimulating resource and to support one another as artists

In the absence of patronage of church, guild or wealthy merchant, artists have to find their own way “to see and be seen.”  Commissions are rare; artists have the freedom to “see” and choose our own subjects, which sounds lovely. Yet the absence of patrons also means that, in the absence of a guaranteed space (a church window or a parlor-room wall), we must find our own ways to “be seen.”  Gallery One does not pay a year-round lease ... they move.  Their shows (every few months, as a group, and artists also exhibit on their own) exert a little more pressure on the viewing audience: find us, because here is something special. Here is a breath of fresh air, a space to wander, for two or three weeks only, for now: a terrific idea.

And it seems to be working rather well.  I have just seen their show in The Guilford Art Center, up through this weekend. I wrote about one of the gallery artists, Judith Barbour Osborne (this blog, May 10, 2016).  At Guilford, I spoke to another of Gallery One’s artists, Diana Rogers, who explained about the gallery as a group and then talked about her own process.  Rogers says that she does a layer of “underpainting” with her pastels first, which, I think, makes her final version that much more open to suggestion.  Here is her “Marsh Grasses, Mid Summer,” a work in pastel on sanded paper:

I am drawn to the separate, abstracted bits of color here.  The materials and gestures suggest flowers and grasses without going into fussy detail; the mix of colors allows viewers to create the final mix of colors and shapes themselves, as they would if they were walking through the landscape.  Here is another pastel, “Marsh and Sky, Summer Palette”:

and a detail:

The marks have a beauty and a depth all their own.  Close to, we can see the artist’s hand and her view as she was creating this piece; farther away, the colors merge in our minds into those watery paths to the sea.  It’s very hard, a collector friend of mine said once, to get the greens right in a painting; Rogers has captured them perfectly, without using every other color to rein them in. This is a limited palette that busts with color.

Another painter who suggests -- without filling in every line -- is Catherine Christiano. Her cottages have that summer haze over them, the one we all find at the Connecticut shore. She’s got it just right, here, in “Cottages, Hawk’s Nest #4”:

I was lucky enough, a million years ago, to stay in that red cottage for a week; I would look back from the Sound and see the house shimmering in the heat.  We don’t need to see each individual shingle in these paintings, because we don’t when we are looking, even if we are really looking. We put the picture together in our heads.  And we are grateful for the chance to make that momentary image.

And then, moving around in the gallery, I see glowing abstract works. Gray Jacobik says, on her website ( , that “my art is two-fold: imagination-brought-to-bear upon received images joined with the rapidly transforming events of process, the entirety a means of making sense.”  Jacobik arrives at her worktable with ideas and expectations, but does allow the materials (encaustic on cradled panel, most often) and accidents to move the work forward, and the exchange continues, back and forth: “ I may go through 4-5 metamorphoses before the final work emerges,” Jacobik says. Her titles sound as though she paints realistically, and, in her own way, she does. Here is “The Sea Mollified”:

I had to look up “mollified”; it isn’t a word I use every day! Jacobik is also an award-winning poet, with a national reputation, so the wording of her titles is quite deliberate.  But “mollified” means appeased, soothed... can the sea be mollified?

Is this painting calling up the image of a calm sea? The work is beautiful; I stood before the painting for a long time. Turquoise waters, pictured (abstractly!) here, generally offer an invitation to wade in and cool off.  Serenity. Yet this water is reaching upwards, moving in a great wave.... in life such a wave would make lifeguards nervous and vigilant.  But the title is the one certainty we have, so the soothing of the sea must come from treating the work of art as itself.  This is a mollified, imagined, controlled sea, on a canvas small enough to carry.

Jacobik’s painting “I Saw It Raining Fire from the Sky” is also a beauty with a puzzling title:

If I were to begin a conversation with the sentence of this painting’s title, “I Saw It Raining Fire from the Sky,” I would frighten my listeners.  But, viewing the painting, we see a gorgeous combination of colors at ease with one another, filled with energy, yet well-matched in their opposing reds & oranges, blues & purples. Perhaps we have wandered into a dream that has been (encaustically) executed into a small portion of space. Jacobik’s paintings come from deep within, from experience and from art itself.

The show included ten member artists and two invited guests, Steve Llloyd and Deborah Hornbake.  These guest artists fit in perfectly as they, too, give us original and imaginative art. Here is Steve Lloyd’s “Forest Edge,” in full and in detail:

Again, he is... and isn’t... realistic. He makes the air circulate here.
And Deborah Hornbake’s “Caldaria Basin,” (ceramic with wood-ash glaze) is organic but somehow totally new; here it is from the side and then over the top:

There is much more to see on the Gallery One (Ct) website and at the show! I will be watching the artists of Gallery One. This was a wonderful day.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Judith Barbour Osborne: "Synchronized with ... head and heart"

“A really good picture looks as if it’s happened at once. It’s an immediate image ... one really beautiful wrist motion that is synchronized with your head and heart, and you have it, and therefore it looks as if it were born in a minute.”
                                                                                                            Helen Frankenthaler

“Really good” pictures tend not to happen “at once,” though, as Frankenthaler knew better than anyone.  Her “Madame Butterfly” woodcut, below, is composed of 102 colors, from 46 woodblocks, and measures 2 meters (6 ½ feet) wide ( The print is far wider than one wrist motion, and took a bit longer to put together than one minute. And yet, when we look:

 ... this woodcut doesn’t make us feel anything that isn’t in this moment, right now. All we see is that Frankenthaler had a way of making paint and inks float away from their supports, whether she poured or printed.   And somehow you don’t want to solve the mystery of those floating images. You fall in with them, as you would any compelling natural landscape. 

Her work is sometimes critiqued as “just too pretty,” a damning phrase designed to undercut the work and its maker, yet artist Amy Sillman says there’s no “just” about it:

Frankenthaler’s taste and grace are tough, like ballerina grace: those women aren’t sugarplum fairies but muscular athletes, with machinelike, disciplined bodies. Frankenthaler is in an incredible athletic decision-making process while working... It’s an experiment with the alchemic and extreme reliance on color as material and as optics...
                                    “House of Frankenthaler,” printed in The heroine Paint,  p. 267

Sometimes, it takes another artist to see the underpinnings of a work, along with the artist’s consciousness and experience that remain (almost) invisible.  When I see work this strong, I want to know that some artist, somewhere, has seen the work and is willing to try and take on its challenges.                                                                                                                                                                                               
Judith Barbour Osborne is a likely suspect.  She has several shows on at the moment in Connecticut galleries.  I have just come from her Exit Gallery show at the Essex Art Association (an opportunity given as an award, the highest the gallery offers), and then I visited more work in a show at the Guilford Art Center. 

Osborne has worked with poets and musicians...  She works with words as well as paints, choosing to bring meaning into the light, to make “aspects of non-visual reality visible, as if staining the wind” (JBO artist statement).  Judith  Barbour Osborne’s compact show in Essex, “Staining the Wind,” is a master class in making an intimate space feel immense. She works in smaller spaces than Frankenthaler, yet she manages to create huge effects with her close studies. I think she has found the very next level after Frankenthaler, and pushed it to its very limits. Here is her “Revelation # 4”:

 It has a calming presence, for me, although Osborne says that she generally hears people talk about the energy in her work.  It may be that calm and energy come from the same core place, in us, the place that relaxes by the sea or in the mountain air. In the artwork before us we find words, too, embedded in the paint and inks, just barely there, like a whisper or the strain of a song being sung far away. Osborne says this is an integral part of her work: “My artwork is text-based and utilizes elements of chance and intention. I abstractly write text with tools ranging from small hand-made brushes to mops and brooms, from syringes to batiking tools”  (see the site where she has worked together with a poet on an artist’s book:

Here is
“Revelation # 3,” also at the Essex Art Association:

 and a detail:

All the marks Osborne makes seem interconnected, indivisible from one another. As we stand before them, we see that there is no looking at one mark, or one place in the painting. The eye moves over the whole surface, the whole “landscape.”  She has made a whole world, here.

Osborne is not only connected back to painters like Frankenthaler, though. She is thinking forward, so she is also the director of a group of ten artists, Gallery One ( and they are exhibiting work at the Mill Gallery of the Guilford Art Center (through May 15, 2016). They support and encourage one another, a gallery without walls. The works as a whole make a very strong showing. Here is one of the pieces,  Osborne’s “Revelations # 1”:

and a detail:

This is a painting created with transparent inks, brushstrokes, and splattered marks, and it is luminous.  It was a rainy and gray day outside, so we lingered indoors as long as we could, staying with the art. The courage it takes to leave all that “blank” space in an artwork... fierce.  The words and the strokes from the artist’s hand somehow turn us inward, crawl inside some empty space we must have been leaving there, a space exactly as big as art.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

What a Thing Is, Until It Isn't: Nava Grunfeld and The New Still Life

In a letter to T.W. Higginson written in August 1862, Emily Dickinson wrote:

I think you would like the Chestnut Tree, I met in my walk. It hit my notice suddenly – and I thought the Skies were in Blossom.

Dickinson came upon a chestnut tree in Amherst, Massachusetts and sees it, “suddenly,” which is odd.  She was likely to have traveled the same paths on her walks, so she would have known the pattern of trees, the hedges, the houses and winding drives, and how to step around onto slate where the mud might be thick. So she was probably thinking -- rather than seeing -- as she walked, not noticing, until she did see, all at once. And it’s the sudden-ness of seeing that she writes about here. She looks up and (possibly in a moment of poetic license) sees a flowered sky, not a blossoming branch. And it is that moment -- of the breath being stilled by beauty, or love, or truth -- that this poet catches so frequently in verse. Perhaps, the next time you look up, the sky will be blossoming.

Whites and pinks against green against a blue sky, with clouds travelling past...It isn’t often that we allow ourselves to come at something from a “different” angle.  But it does happen! I went to an opening recently, in Northampton, Massachusetts, (the town next door to Dickinson's Amherst) having met the artist, Nava Grunfeld, in passing, at our local printer’s... and this show was gorgeous, just like those chestnut blossoms against Emily Dickinson’s sky.

Nava Grunfeld’s show, “The Language of Color,” will be at the Smith College Alumnae House through December 9th (weekdays 8:30-4:30).  If you are anywhere nearby, I urge you to visit. Here is a detail of her painting, “Pellegrino,” in acrylic and pencil:

In this part of the painting, it is possible to see both a delicacy and a burst of emotion: the artist is working in the lines and out, it’s careful but it’s got life, it’s something we see everyday, but, here, it has been given its moment.  There is an exuberance to this work that really catches the viewer and pulls... Part of this pull is the technique: the brushwork that allows for the sunlight to catch an edge. The other parts are probably equal for me: color and size.

Here is “Citrus,” at the opening, with me on the left and the artist to the right, just to give you an idea of scale:

and here is the painting itself, acrylic on canvas, and keep in mind that size:

 Look at that delicate series of violets and whites and blues to the right of the farthest right orange. This is acrylic paint made delicate, light, so difficult to do, so rewarding in the doing. I have an art collector friend who thinks green ruins paintings. But the greens of these leaves, especially the duo in the upper middle, give us both weight and reflected sunlight.

Grunfeld also works in watercolor, which, around the eastern seaboard, is often used to paint lobster shacks and buoys and marshes in pale, ghostly washes. But this artist transforms the medium into her own limitless still life, as here, in “Dragonfly Bowl”:

Yes, Matisse is in there, and Cézanne’s tilted tables, and every pattern Grunfeld could imagine... but it works, the way a Lichtenstein’s “Still Life with Lemons” works:

Lichtenstein took Cubism and Warhol and Cézanne and fused them into a new world order. Grunfeld takes the same artistic liberties and blows them up, larger and larger, until you won’t be able to see a table setting in an Architectural Digest in quite the same way again.  Check into “Rainier Cherries”:

This is acrylic, bursting with enthusiasm. yes, those are blossoms, but only just. They are not overworked, but they have those little white forms that refer to reflected light (more than they represent that light).  This is painterly, referring to the brush, the easel, the objects carefully placed to be pictured, and yet, while we know all that, we are transported, despite our knowing, into the colors and into the moment.

It’s a very grey morning in Western Massachusetts. The leaves have mostly fallen, the days are short, but if you need a sharp shot of color and painterly excellence, if your sky needs to be blossoming, come to Nava Grunfeld’s show. She has a website, as well:  I will leave you with her "Matisse" in detail and in full:

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Rhys Davies at Hope and Feathers: "When All My Five and Country Senses See" (Dylan Thomas)

Rhys Davies is the exhibiting artist in a rather unusual “residency” at Hope and Feathers Gallery in Amherst, Massachusetts. Davies’ plan is to honor both his home country -- Wales -- and his new Western Massachusetts home. Throughout the month of June, he will paint the likenesses of Dylan Thomas and Emily Dickinson onto papers mounted on the gallery’s largest wall. That wall of new images will be in constant view of Emily Dickinson’s bedroom windows, the room where she wrote all her poetry, in her home across the street. No pressure.

The gallery will be posting new photographs daily of the portraits-in-progress (at The photograph below shows the wall when we visited with the artist (all photographs here are my own). From my photograph’s angle, the Dylan Thomas portion (empty beer mug and Old Holborn box, so far) is shown in the foreground, and the Emily Dickinson is off to the left. This angled photograph will, I hope, display the artist’s lines and shadings, attached papers and textures:

As of this morning, the Emily Dickinson portion of the ongoing painting (posted online by the gallery) shows the view from her bedroom window over the family fields (where the gallery now stands). Davies works with papers on the gallery floor, roughing in images with charcoal and paint, and then places each well-worked fragment of the painting into its chosen spot on the wall. The artist and gallery have set up the space so that Davies is working, as much as possible, within his own regular studio surroundings, which include a teapot and cup, books from his studio, sketches, and drawing and painting materials. There is a bench for visitors to watch as Davies works each day.  Here is Rhys Davies in his gallery “studio”:

The portraits are progressing in dark charcoal, browns, greys and blacks, growing from small details to a larger-scale vision. Here is the finished portriat of Emily Dickinson:

This is serious life and art at the edge. Davies’ (completed) work on the same wall, called “Tryweryn,” [Dryweryn, in the Welsh language] is also created in this emblematic, nearly mythical approach. Davies has pictured the people of a small, agricultural, Welsh-speaking area, displaced by a distant governing body that legislated a dam:

The campaign to save the Tryweryn Valley and the village of Capel Celyn
 from being flooded to supply water to the city of Liverpool began on 20
 December 1955....The personal impact on the residents of Capel Celyn was
 enormous; many were forced to leave homes that had been in their families for
 generations.  Their loss, and all that it represented, has become iconic in Welsh
 politics and in the struggle over the Welsh language.  ‘Cofiwch Dryweryn
 [Remember Tryweryn] remains one of the most powerful slogans in the Welsh
 language and is seen as a rallying call of Welsh nationalism.

Not all the houses were completely destroyed before the construction began and, when the water levels decrease, some become visible once again. Ghosts. Here is Davies’ “Tryweryn”:

Davies first tackled this theme in art school in London, where the distance between Parliament and Wales must have seemed all too real. He says he felt hiraeth, a really deep longing, for home. The paintings then were blue, “large blue graveyard paintings,” he says. Years later, he has returned to the depths of Welsh identity in “Tryweryn,” but, I suspect, with rather more ferocity. Davies has portrayed these people with recognizable features, but these are not exacting portraits: the features are deepened, exaggerated. The heads are like carved stone, with strong expressions; they are both sad and frightening. They are painted at just a bit more than human scale, and yet they are so much larger than we are. Because of the way they are drawn, and the reason that they were drawn, this man and woman stand for a great deal more than themselves. A simple “lifelike” commissioned portrait might only have meaning to those who know the subject. But Davies’ emblematic drawings transform these faces through their particular context. These people stand for the village of Capel Celyn and its valley, gone forever.

“Tryweryn” offers a powerful reminder. Nature, in the form of those gathering clouds, can be indifferent to humans and their fragile farms, but humans often do greater damage. Another work, in the Hope and Feathers Gallery window, drawn in these same dark colors and scale, with figures framed by large, Gothic forms,
seems cut of the same Welsh stone.

This is one style of work by Rhys Davies. But across the room, there is an abrupt shift:

These paintings offer a changed subject, color, and medium; and there’s a foreground-background shift, just for starters. Here is “Mwyar Duon I,” which refers to realism without being, exactly, realistic:

This work reverts to light and flowers, beautiful flowers. We can feel the light hitting the petal and berry shapes and the leaves between them. Then there is a middle band of darker greens (and very delicate blacks). It’s the intricate underlayer and tangle of seeds and twists of stems and flowers reaching past one another to come into the light. The shapes are just heading into the abstract: still organic, but when we concentrate on any specific shape, we find it might just be un-definable as a flower or leaf that we know. The imagination here is heady, free, and fully at play, in ways that are different from the paintings on the adjoining wall.

The second large painting (the two bookend some smaller studies) “Mwyar Duon II” enters into a deeper color palette of greens and deep blues, with deeper shadows and many crossings-over of insistent lines.

These are flowers, too, but these have an abstract majesty to them. It is as if we wandered into a ruined church, only to be confronted suddenly by a massive window of dignified stained glass. Take any small section of this work and it won’t look like flowers at all... it will be deep imagination...  but, back up and see the whole and suddenly we are confronted by that insane overgrowth of green and riots of color that happen in New England every spring.

I asked Davies what accounts for the variation in subject, from “Tryweryn” to these thick explorations of natural growth? He seemed surprised by the question. “It’s all one, for me,” he said, “ the same.”

How is it the same? How does an artist go from one set of topics to a very distinct other, sharing only a time frame and a formal technique?

We can say it might be the artist’s common source, that the story of the flooded village told in blacks and browns is, of course, related not only to the Welsh people there but to its farms with their colorful crops; the dirt and plants, flooded in shadows or surviving in pinks and bright pinks, blues and greens, all part of Davies’ growing up with a consciousness formed by Carmarthen (Caerfyrddin).  Two subjects, presented through the eyes of one consciousness.

Or it could be an interesting “other.”  A woman who was visiting at the opening said to me, in an offhand way, “these seem Rousseau-ian.”  “Yes,” I said, “they are.”  And then I forgot about it until this morning.

And I looked through all my art books and throughout the web, because Henri Rousseau was not one of “my” artist people.  I do believe now that my oversight was a big mistake. Rousseau wanted to be William-Adolphe Bourgereau, a traditional painter of nudes accepted and lauded by the French Academie. But he wasn’t; he was much more. Picasso praised him during Rousseau’s lifetime, then disowned him later (as he would anxiously disown all of his important influences). Take a look at Rousseau’s first “jungle” painting, from 1891, “Tiger in a Tropical Storm: Surprised!”:

There was a show of Rousseau works, “Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris,” at the National Gallery of Art in 2005, and it travelled to the Tate Modern in 2006. It was a revelation to the critics, many of whom, like me, never thought much of Rousseau’s influential art-historical place. Here is a perceptive critic on the Rousseau he saw at the Tate:

[these were] pictures created on the scale of salon historical paintings, yet in a style calculated to resemble children’s illustration run amok.... There was a method, and an ambition, behind his assumed naivety .... [the paintings] are self-evidently too artful, too carefully conceived, to have been the products of mere unformed impulse .... No-one, before Rousseau, had made painting look so much like dreaming. 
                  Andrew Graham-Dixon, “Henri Rousseau, Jungles in Paris”
                  06 Nov 2005,

And suddenly I saw it. I saw the connection. Both Rousseau and Davies paint “on the scale of salon historical paintings,” but they both play extravagantly with subject matter. Rousseau painted jungles he never saw (he never left France, and visited botanical gardens and relied on postcards and the zoo for his inspiration). Davies begins to paint where Rousseau left off, dreams of jungle tangles he has never seen, exactly, either, and monumental faces that represent, but do not precisely resemble, the troubled farmers of his corner of Wales.

It’s the imagination, stupid.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Line Between the Abstract and the Figurative, at The Greene Art Gallery

The Boston Post Road through Guilford, Madison, and Clinton, Connecticut is filled with elegant 18th- and 19th-century houses, many with private beaches; the two-mile long Hammonasset State Beach is the best point of public access. But for sightings of marshes and birds, New England houses, and a beautiful village green, you must consider visiting the Guilford Green and walking down the lane to the Greene Art Gallery.  You might know Guilford from the arts and crafts fair, held on the green each summer (this year, its 58th,  July 17-19, 2015).  Whether or not you visit the fair, come and see the works at this gallery, year round; the range and quality of work is exciting to see.

Richard Greene founded the gallery in 1977, and his widow, Kathryn, continues to engage a fine and varied group of artists.  And she is happy to talk about the art on display, or to invite visitors to wander through quietly and take in the artists’ work. The gallery is located in an updated, bright and (recently expanded) barn, and the art spills out to the quiet side lawn with several sculptures that move in the breeze.

Greene has chosen several strong pieces of representational art. One that stays with me, “First Light,” an oil by Connecticut painter Susan Fehlinger, is a small, stunning work, capturing a soft New England morning before the shoreline is awake:

The porch is empty, the sea just visible, and the hints of purple and red set off the overall rich greens beautifully.  And the multiple shades and shadows of yellow and green paints pull the angles of the house into clearer focus and also ... pulls us in.

A west-coast artist,  Matt O’Callaghan, presents photographs that are printed on metallic paper.  All we see, initially, is a clear surfer’s wave:

 But then, we step closer, and we see the reason for the photograph’s title, “South Shack, San Diego.” 

Houses bathed in yellow and white light cling to the Southern California cliffs, palm trees waving overhead: we can SEE these through the curve of the wave.  Yes, it’s a real photograph, the moment of time on camera catching the glimpse in a way the eye can’t quite do.

Further playing with the ways to “re-present,” Clio Newton’s portraits (along with an amazing still life, pewter arranged over shelves) are featured this month in the gallery extension. Her work seems, from a distance, to be photorealist, but as the viewer comes closer to the work, the brushwork is fully evident and the details of the painting lean towards the abstract. Here is a charcoal drawing, “Girl in Chair,” by Newton which might illustrate this combination of a work that is figurative-from-afar, yet, as we study the effects, we can see traces of the artist’s skilled hand:

This is from; available paintings by Newton at the Greene Gallery can be viewed at (and, of course, in person).  Clio Newton is working full-on illusion; is the girl here? Will she step out from the canvas?

Newton’s figures contrast with those painted by another gallery artist, Dolph Lemoult.  His works play more fully on the boundary, leaping between abstract and representational. These portraits are immersed, in context, in a kind of foreground-background dance. The artist (a former ad man) is not trying to give us “real” human faces; he has chosen aspects of “face-ness” to give us.  Here is “American Mezzotint: Bad Girls”:

The women are not coming away from their nightclub stage; they take us, instead, into the painting, onto their stage.  The painting called “Say Goodnight, Gracie” offers a sensual Gracie Allen:

 As you can see from the detail, the lines trail off, into the imagination. He is working that (unsee-able) line between what we know and what we cannot see. My favorite work of his at the gallery is “American Mezzotint: Silence.”

There is something haunting about these figures, and about their very specific enclosure. Is that a city back to the left? Are these Depression-age babies? Is the face in close-up softening into layers of personality and experience? or into paint? as we look... It’s really an extraordinary grouping.  How abstract can a work become before it loses its representational “edge”? 

I think this is a rewarding direction to head into... Go. See. This gallery is a solid presence.