Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Edge: Abstraction vs. Realism in Two Irish Painters

I love abstract art; it turns out that I also love art that rests on the edge between abstraction and representation.  The two approaches are often defined pictorially, because they are, after all, pictures, but I think it might also help to find that edge between the two if we look at examples of prose from a master of each style.

Here is Henry James, in a passage from The Golden Bowl:

He saw the sleeves of her jacket drawn to her wrists, but he again made out the free arms within them to be of the completely rounded, the polished slimness that Florentine sculptors, in the great time, had loved, and of which the apparent firmness is expressed in their old silver and old bronze …. He knew above all the extraordinary fineness of her flexible waist, the stem of an expanded flower, which gave her a likeness also to some long, loose silk purse, well filled with gold pieces, but having been passed, empty, through a finger-ring that held it together. It was as if, before she turned to him, he had weighed the whole thing in his open palm and even heard a little the chink of the metal. When she did turn to him it was to recognise with her eyes what he might have been doing.                  (from the novel, first published in 1904)                 

And here is Gertrude Stein, writing about the increasing dangers of World War II, in Mrs. Reynolds:

It was getting pretty serious, nobody saw anybody they used to see and it was getting pretty serious, oh dear me said Mrs. Reynolds and when she said oh dear me she wanted to say to Mr. Reynolds that it was getting pretty serious but she did not say that it was getting pretty serious she did not say it just then she only said that she was not seeing any one she used to see no not any one, and Mr. Reynolds said and what then but what he really meant to say was that he still saw her and she still saw him, so what then.  (published posthumously, 1952)

James appears, as a realist, to be giving us more details of the moment he describes, but when we look again at this passage of his, we see that the only actual details are:

--the Prince sees that “the sleeves of her jacket [are] drawn to her wrists”
--he notices that “[her] arms [are] rounded”
--he observes her waist

All the rest is metaphorically described. Charlotte is compared to three things: an “old” bronze or silver Florentine sculpture, an “expanded flower” and a “long, loose silk purse.”  These sound like lovely terms, and no doubt we are meant to think that the Prince sees them as desirable and sensuous objects, objects that he thinks may describe perfectly his need for her, and yet… we are, as readers, also supposed to pick up on the fact that these are incredibly vague ways of describing true feeling. Kenneth Burke wrote, in A Grammar of Motives, that "Metaphor is a device for seeing something in terms of something else. It brings out the thisness of a that, or the thatness of a this."  But it isn’t, importantly, the “thisness of a this.”

Stein’s writing may, in contrast, intially strike us as … simple. But perhaps it would be too easy to say just that. Simple, stark, repetitive thinking is a very human response to tragedy, when words seem wholly inadequate and silence, horribly, seems easier.  We do not say what we are thinking. And this passage from Stein ends with a statement, “so what then,” that stops the motion of all the previous thoughts; we are stilled by those words. She has exposed us for our said and unsaid words of fear and love. We stop and think, held in the moment, dreadful… or seemingly inconsequential… as it is.  

And I think that, finally, this is the difference between realistic and abstract artists: that representative painters form reference points that outline recognizable things, but these realists can not produce the things themselves; instead, they have perfected linear description.  Abstract artists produce something that, in itself, stops our usual referring back to an “other” object or state of feeling. Abstraction is meant to arrest our attention in the moment, as our attention would be held as we fall into extreme joy or sorrow. Painting at this moment in our history often seems confused, torn between the two approaches, neither of which is wholly adequate. It may be that the best of current art must bridge these two methods of perceiving and creating: the outline of the familiar combined with a more abstract grasp of feeling.

To enter into this struggle, to create something that is, itself, arresting, a painter needs to be able to pull together aspects of a place or a sensibility that will still be accessible and enthralling to a potential viewer. It is an incredibly difficult task, this kind of painting.  Robert Motherwell talked about recognizing the many “internal relations” in painting:

I always looked at just the total over-all effect. And apart from the obvious sensuality and color… there's something in Matisse that is as remorselessly, relentlessly adjusted in terms of internal relations as somebody like Piero della Francesca…. That's why all painters really love him - well, not the only reason, but a reason. He's as strong as Piero, and it was that double aspect that I liked- the sensuality, and the color and the so-and-so plus this thing that is almost - well, Georges Duthuit wrote … "Matisse is as strong as the mosaics of Ravenna" - I've never seem them -- and whatever he's trying to say by that, in my own way, I also saw.    (Oral history interview with Robert Motherwell, 1971 Nov. 24-1974 May 1, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution).

The Ravenna images, while realistic for their time, have a kind of simple direct nature that does freeze us in our tracks:

Rather like this Matisse, “Open Window at Collioure,” a view into another space:

We can see “the sensuality, and the color” and the sheer strength of these works; they come from the same intense scrutiny and sense of space. Two painters here in Ireland have landed in that terrain between Piero della Francesca and Matisse, the kind of “relentlessly adjusted” work that pulls the viewer in: Keith Wilson and Donald Teskey.

Keith Wilson’s work, “A Change in the Air,” is showing through October 25th at the Oliver Sears Gallery in Dublin.  In the catalogue, Oliver Sears writes That Keith Wilson, who lives in North County Mayo, has given us “changing time, light and place …  in [his] finely honed mark making.”  But the works are not pure recording, or metaphorical references. As Sears says, they are “part real, part imagined” in what then becomes, for the viewer, “a distinctly contemporary construction.”  Let’s take a look at Wilson’s painting, “A Change in the Air, 8,” (oil on panel, 21.5 x 19.5 cm):

Wilson lived for a time not far from Assisi, where he could hear the bells from two churches as he painted, and “Doves here too that sing one extra note than the ones at home.”  We can see the influence of Italian arches and loggias in this painting, which opens through to a garden.  And yet, while we could, potentially, “see” the outlines of trees and branches and bushes and blossoms, we don’t actually see them… we see the traces they have left behind, traces offered by an artist who has lived with them for a long time. They become familiar to us – even though we don’t yet “know” them.  When I see a photograph or a very realistic painting of a place (for example, Canalettos’ Venice) I can feel regret that I am not there. With Wilson’s paintings, I am there. No need for regret. I am looking through that archway. I am, in short, involved.

Wilson says that he discovered that “I might study places in order to figure out where I am” (from his catalogue essay).  We all try to figure out where we are, but Wilson has achieved his “place” to a spectacular degree. His work is of Ireland and Italy, but it is also of the mind. With some perspectival landscapes, we feel rooted to one spot. With Wilson’s work, on the other hand, we feel as if we could continue to walk through. Here is “Across the Field,” (conté crayon on gessoed paper, 56 x 76 cm) in full and then in a detail:

Yes, it’s descriptive. But it’s what he leaves out that allows this drawing to give us the feeling of the air around the grasses, the trace of weight under the tractor-wheel imprints… painters since Vermeer have contested with ways to re-introduce breathing into their art.  It’s happening here. The viewer is invited in.  Here is one more painting, “Days Ahead, 5,” (oil on panel, 36.5 x 40 cm):

This has the quality of a beautiful morning after a fresh rain. We all can “see” what’s here, and imagine what isn’t. We have a job to do, to look, imagine, and be in the moment.  This is Wilson’s gift.

The second artist I would like to discuss here -- an artist working on these very same connections to “place” and fine evocation of feeling-- is Donald Teskey. His show of paintings, “Nature Reserve,” has been at the Town Hall in Macroom, curated by John P. Quinlan.  Teskey spent several weeks as an artist in residence in the Gearagh. The name comes from An Gaorthadh, meaning the wooded river. This is a valley just west of Cork City, on a bed of limestone, the oak trees having formed in the basin of the Lee River in the last Ice Age. This is the “only significant alluvial forest in Ireland” (information from the plaque on site).  Here are two photographs I took, in early morning:

Close to, the wooden oak remnants appeal to you in an almost human way -- faces, expressive shapes -- but from a distance, through the filter of the light, you can see the mystery and the majesty of place here.  Donald Teskey wrote that he worked “amongst the tangle of trees and grasses, on the mudflats and from the higher vantage points on the surrounding hillsides and side roads. The light on the Gearagh can, at times, be extraordinary … It is an inscrutable and fascinating place for a painter” (, 2008).  Or a printer. We can see the lines here that cross over between printmaking and painting (both areas of expertise for Teskey), and see the space between the lines for what it is, an entryway. Here is “The High Road 8” (30 x 30, acrylic on paper -- images courtesy of John P. Quinlan):

This is that crossover between the familiar and the imagined: we see rooflines, the vertical presence of trees, but we don’t really attend to these, past the initial glance: we become lost in the wild markings of the painting’s lower half, fabulous things. This is not a nostalgic view. This is an explosion of feeling and mood, directed at us, inviting a response. Teskey has noted that “keeping the spontaneity and urgency in the mark is vital” (interview with Mike Fitzpatrick, 31 January, 2005,  Done.

My particular favorite from Teskey are the paintings that reach a little bit further into abstraction, almost daring us to “see” as he does. Here is “The Gearagh Study VI”:

Yes, we can see the reeds, the oaks, the water, a little. But what is that scattering of pale blue? And the underlying scraped white? Part reflection, part “urgency.” I know, from my own painting experience, how much of a risk he takes here. One foul scrape or too broad a gesture with the brush and the work could easily be ruined.  This is painting on the edge, indeed.  One more, called “The Gearagh IV,” gives us both earth and water and yet…

Both Donald Teskey and Keith Wilson explore this territory between the two warring forms of the twentieth century, abstraction and representation, a place “between” that is unresolved for so many painters. These two have come to terms with their inheritance, and have achieved their own “way” onto the edge.  One of Ernest Hemingway’s characters in Across the River and Into the Trees said that “terrain is what remains in the dreaming part of your mind.”  Both Wilson and Teskey merge the terrain, and the mind, in paintings that stay with the viewer. Seek out their work. 

Thanks to both Oliver Sears and John P. Quinlan for their generosity.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Murmuration of Starlings: The "Whitewashing the Moon" Exhibiton in Dublin

This is a still photograph of starlings moving in unison, something called a murmuration, (see my source website, with video and explanatory text:; the film was taken over the River Shannon by Liberty Smith and Sophie Windsor-Clive).  Last week, we were visiting County Clare, along the beautiful, rugged Atlantic coast, and our hosts mentioned the murmuration, a word I’d never heard; we had all been discussing swallows and starlings and jackdaws, all of them flying by the window at one point or another, looking as if they were trying to beat the thunderstorm that came a few minutes later.  If you watch the film of the starlings, or have seen them fly in these rapidly-changing patterns yourself, you can then re-imagine all sorts of ways of seeing them: architectural blueprints, graphs, elements of physics and biology, an arc of paint thrown by Jackson Pollock, waves breaking over rocks, and the trust and belief inherent in moving together in a project that has no obvious pattern or end.

The beauty of the murmuration came back to me as I was thinking about having seen “Whitewashing the Moon” at the Project Arts Centre. Taken as a single moment of delight, we know that the murmuration of starlings is beautiful; the art in this show, taken both individually and as a group, similarly compels us to respond and reminds us what art is for.

Five artists, from Ireland, France and Mexico, have created art in "Whitewashing the Moon" that works. The curators, Tessa Giblin and Kate Strain, selected the pieces for this show. I think the art has been chosen because it speaks to our desire to believe in the "impossible," a desire that is central to a short story that is also part of this exhibition, "The Brick Moon," by Edward Everett Hale (originally published in serial form in the Atlantic Monthly in 1870, now published in its entirety at ).   In this story, a group of students imagine “the poor little fishermen … the bones of whose ships lie white on so many cliffs” and think …. what if the students could launch an object over Greenwich that would then pass by “the axis of the world” and would then “forever revolve, in its obedient orbit” as “the blessing” of these sailors (and anyone else, for that matter, who wanted grounding).  In order to survive the power of its launch, the object could not be “lathe and plaster,” but would need to be brick, which, sliced through at any angle, would resemble “an immense rose-window, of six circles grouped around a seventh,” all kinds of arches for internal support, but enclosing, mostly, air.  Two gigantic fly-wheels would propel it into orbit.

Eventually, after seventeen years, the students grow up, funding is found and the Brick Moon is begun.  The last months of work is undertaken by a group of some of the original friends and their families; they live in the cavernous center of the completed part of the moon. The fly-wheels are finished.  The hope is that the moon can be bleached white after it is completed so that it will resemble a moon more fully.  But this never happens; the Brick Moon is launched prematurely, with the workers and their families still inside.  The narrator and those who remain on land are in despair.  They cannot see anything in the skies for over a year; but some time later the Brick Moon appears to the narrator as he looks through the lenses of a deserted observatory.  The Brick Moon was “Red no longer, but green as a meadow in the spring” with “hemlocks” visible and his friends were visible, “going and coming on the surface of their own little world.” 

They are able to communicate with the narrator by a series of signals, and he can signal to them.  He hears of weddings, births, Shakespearean productions, and readings of Austen and Thackeray. Much relieved, and sounding rather envious, the narrator says, “The truth is, that silence is very satisfactory intercourse, if we only know all is well.”  Silence -- to the earth-bound people -- had meant only dread of what might have happened; silence from the Brick Moon, it turns out, had meant only contentment.  The narrator says that, having helped launch the creation, he can only say that it now “is there in ether. I cannot keep it. I cannot get it down.”  And, most of all, he cannot visit, something he really seems to regret at the end, as the world of the moon seems nearly perfect.

The art show is simply titled, “Whitewashing the Moon.”  While this final artistic gesture never actually happened in the story, artistic transformation certainly does happen in the gallery, which the brochure calls a “twilit garden.”  And it is.  Walking through this room, we feel that same energy and flow as we would beneath that starling “murmuration.”  Each work of art offers a way of continuing and connecting to the themes begun in "The Brick Moon." There is no “ending” here, in the “twilit garden,” only multiple continuities of the themes (dreaming, scientific discovery, the "negotiation" between artist and material, and reaching -- perhaps too far?) that are also introduced in the story.

One of the pieces I really liked is by Caroline Achaintre, a ceramic, titled “Looney”: 

The piece suggests a mask (both feudal and futuristic) or a rock covered gently with cloth; it offers the fissures of brick, but the shape also brings to mind the green world of the orbiting Brick Moon.  Another work, “Wadder,” seems to spill over, growing outside of its form:

Are we seeing one moment in a rush of water, transparent over limestone? -- this form has stilled movement, is silent, needing us to work through its layers.

In one corner of the “garden” is a spotlit sculpture, cast in obsidian, by Eleanor Duffin, who lives and works in Dublin. Duffin’s website says that she “focuses on the way in which ideas are conceived” and from that she creates a visual “hypothesis.” Here is “Tephra,” both spotlit from above and from an angle close-to:

The five forms seem to lie on the surface of a moon and sparkle like glass. Duffin’s art also appears across the room, in a video installation of a revolving rock, called “Which do you believe, your eyes or my words?”  The rock is oval, smooth-edged, and appears to be both revolving in place and moving towards us and away from us, a perfect parallel to the story’s idea of locating ourselves by virtue of another object.

Barbara Knezevic seems to have taken the idea of Daedalus and Icarus (that also glimmers inside Hale’s story) and created her own cautionary tale, called “An Exercise in Self-Destruction,” below, in a photo from across the gallery, and then in a close-up:

When I first saw this piece, I thought it was a pink-patterned marble, but it is wax, changing shape daily under the heat lamp, dying quietly, in place.  It seems conceptually far away from the sudden Brick Moon launch that we read about in the story. But, as I think about it, the work does call to mind the narrator’s disquiet when he cannot see the Moon or his friends, that quiet moment that we all know happens after a disaster, the moment when no-one can reach out to do anything, because the damage has been done.  This is a poignant piece.

On one wall, a video plays; “Rhombus Sectus,” by Raphael Zarka. The brochure tells us it is a 16 mm film transferred into HD. It portrays the National Library of Belarus at Minsk, a building shaped like a Rhombicuboctahedron, which is close to the shape described for the original Brick Moon. Zarka says that “the real subject of my work” is “the migration of certain forms through space and time” ( which is an apt description of the video, which I won’t try and reproduce here – it needs to be seen in its space. The video has the weight of a documentary, until we see it revolve around that central shape from many angles.

The fifth artist, Jorge De la Garza has created an installation called “Untitled (Missing Links)” – it is both a nineteenth-century “desk” and a twenty-first century objet d’art, quite beautiful:

Each object is placed and lit as if it were a shard of mosaic from Pompeii, or a rare Chinese vase, and these objects are just as elegiac, calling out to us from another time; they wait for us to come and complete them, as a group, and fill them with the narratives we re-construct.

If you are anywhere near Dublin, or can be, the show runs through the 27th of October.  This is art that reverberates, stays with you, demands your attention, rewards thought and participation. A truly remarkable show.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

“A Sequentiality of Improbable Possibles”: Liam Ó Broin’s Inferno Suite

Homer wrote The Odyssey in Greek. Virgil wrote the Aeneid in Latin.  Dante Alighieri wrote about the death of Ulysses in the Inferno, part of his Divine Comedy, written in the Italian dialect of Florence. James Joyce wrote Ulysses in … dozens of English languages.  The reverberations, even in this broad list, are astonishing. They fall together like the clicking of great dominoes. All of these writers are tampering with the lives of heroes and gods, making decisions, in effect, instead of gods, and playing with our collective imagination in the process. Reaching for too much, perhaps? “Man’s reach must not exceed his grasp,” wrote Robert Browning; Joyce will later come along to say that he simply wrote “a sequentiality of improbable possibles” (Finnegan’s Wake).

It is impossible to escape Joyce while walking through Dublin: Dawson Street, Davy Byrne’s, a statue, a plaque, a bookstore’s display window, a busker. 

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned
                  --Introvibo ad altare Dei.

This is the beginning of Ulysses, where Joyce has Mulligan call out to Stephen Daedalus:

--Come up, Kinch. Come up, you fearful Jesuit….
--The mockery of it, he said gaily. Your absurd name, an ancient Greek.

So Joyce brings together priests, fathers, ancient Greek myth, religious orders, bodies and morning ablutions, and the “mild morning air” surrounding the tower…. spilling over onto just… two pages.

It’s a beautiful kind of Modernist pulling-together, an equating of all things, to say that anything we notice becomes, then, notice-able.  Samuel Beckett had worked for Joyce as a secretary. He told the interviewer James Knowlson that “I realised that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more. I realised that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away.” Two Irish writers, finding and clinging to extremes.

Joycean excess may stem, at least in part, not only from the Modernist air the author inhaled (Pound, Stein, Eliot…) but from his reading: everything, including the Inferno (in the original Italian, in all likelihood).  Dante’s journey with Virgil into Hell allows the poet to create sublime cataracts and deep sorrows, to expose sins and “fitting” punishment (think of the two lovers, Paolo and Francesca, attached through eternity: “there is no greater sorrow/ than thinking back upon a happy time in misery”) and, perhaps most importantly, re-imaginings, as in a new version of the death of Ulysses. Instead of returning home to Ithaca, Ulysses and a small band of his followers continue on their voyage, leaving behind families and lovers, travelling

…. where Hercules ordained
The boundaries not be overstepped by man.
[They sail on, then ] ….  from afar
Appeared a mountain dim, loftiest methought
Of all I ever beheld. Joy seized us straight;
But soon to mourning changed. From the new land
A whirlwind sprung …. so fate decreed
And over us the booming billow closed.  (Canto XXVI)

Just in sight of an earthly paradise – drowned, down to the bottom of a funnel of water, instead of arriving at the peak of a mountain.

This is one of the 34 images that have inspired the artist Liam Ó Broin. Here is his Canto XXVI print, “The death of Ulysses” (my photograph):

Many of the other lithographs offer stark black and white contrasts, so this print is unusual for its colors. It struck me as stunningly beautiful because the lithograph seems to offer us both the mountain and the whirlpool in a few layered strokes, the greens and blues here simultaneously offering hope and despair.  

Ó Broin’s series of lithographs respond to each canto in Dante’s Inferno, part of a projected series on the full Divine Comedy.  These lithographs (singly, or in a full limited-edition book) take the inclusive nature of the works of Dante and Joyce and pare that abundance down to a spare, astonishingly stark and beautiful scene, worthy of Beckett (whose Waiting for Godot begins with the stage setting: “A country road. A tree. Evening”).

Ó Broin has selected quotations from each canto, or has interpreted for himself the essence of the vision. Here are two sample titles: from Canto X, “Heretics are people with whom we simply disagree,” and from Canto XXX, “Truth – hidden by lies, is even deeper, beneath silence.”  The artist says that this series is “not intended to be an illustrative chronology,” but it certainly feels, to me, to be a thorough, and profound, re-interpretation, pulling from the original a moment that “shimmers with ambiguity” or another that “is scathing in its condemnation” or another that is, simply, “deeply personal” to the artist (all quotes are from the artist, from the brochure called “Inferno, A Journey”). Ó Broin notes that the concerns of the 14th-century Dante “people’s aspirations, hopes, concerns, the battle against injustice, poverty, ill fortune, and an evolving process of morality” and “the human pursuit of peace, contentment, love and fellowship” resonate with us now and “that continuity makes Inferno so real” (brochure).  Dr. Riann Coulter notes that this is really a “collaboration” between Dante and Ó Broin. The images from each canto that Ó Broin has created pull Dante’s concerns into sharp focus, nowhere more so than in the final image, from Canto XXXIV, of Lucifer (my photograph):

This portrait comes from Dante’s difficult description of the three faces of Lucifer:

….words would fail to tell thee of my state….
                                    I did spy
Upon his head three faces….
At every mouth his teeth a sinner clamped [Judas, Cassius and Brutus]….
[and slowly, Virgil and Dante exit until]
Thus issuing we again beheld the stars.

The three-part print here seems both ghastly and gorgeous; in its very ambiguity it hints that, in seeing the vicious fate spelled out for Lucifer, Dante will be able to climb back to tell the story -- the story he has imagined for all of us – so that we can see in these three faces the stars beyond.

If you are anywhere near the Graphic Studio Gallery in Dublin, see these works, and talk with Ian Bewick at the gallery. He has much to say about the work.... See these prints if you can.....They are lovely "improbable possibles" that will stay with you.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

"Anything is a Mirror": "Vexed Endings" at Green on Red Gallery, Dublin, Ireland

We have moved to Dublin, Ireland, for three months of visiting (our daughter and her boyfriend live here) and to find a new perspective on art-making and viewing.

A compelling show to start: an exhibition of six artists called “Vexed Endings” at The Green On Red Gallery (a beautiful, bright loft space at 26-28 Lombard Street East, Dublin 2, through August 25th). The title implies that works are incomplete until … perhaps now, when the viewer sees them, or perhaps not entirely, ever: the gallery statement says that the works here “tend toward a material condition or conceptual state that is unstable, open-ended, and incomplete …. [the] process is not concluded and very much alive or ongoing …. The room for the viewer is ample and central.”

“Unstable, open-ended, and incomplete” like light through a window … it isn’t all the available light, we know that, but it’s the light we can see … and then it shifts.  The collected works of “Vexed Endings” change with the light and with the position of the viewer. They seem to me all about reflected light, which we don’t always notice.  It reminds me of the way light works in this Vermeer, “Woman Writing a Letter, with Her Maid,” which we saw at the National Gallery of Ireland (permission pending; see www.national for their photograph).

We can see the source of the light, the window, and the women’s bodies it touches; we can sense that the maid would far rather be out in the world (where she is looking) and that the woman writing seems totally caught up in her letter. Then we can see a folded and discarded letter, lit by that same sun, on the floor; perhaps that is the letter the woman is answering so intently. The upper half of the window appears to hold clearer glass, and the sun is high enough in the sky to concentrate mostly on that higher pane. Looking again, we see that the green drapes at the left margin are lit, too, so there is another window lighting them (probably the window depicted in Vermeer’s “Music Lesson”).  The light here is shown as a single moment and we can almost trace the line from the source of that light to the forms it lights.

The works in “Vexed Endings” intensify that line because they show it shifting; for these works, it isn’t just a single moment. The line changes for as long as the viewer is in the gallery.

A photograph, “Reflecting 1 (6th Generation)” by Philomene Pirecki illustrates this shift in light; the work isn’t framed, and hangs loose on the wall, leading me to photograph it from two different angles, front (where I am the black form at left) and the side:

This is an abstract print (50.8 x 40.5 cm) that shifts, as you can see from these two pictures, depending on where we are in relation to it and to the light.  A second print of the same size, “Reflecting 3 (4th Generation)” appears to offer a little more certainty:

The artist’s studio, we think.  But each time we look, that line between the source of light and the object moves, and we are no longer certain what we are seeing.  This is, it seems to me, the essence of abstract work, that it forces us to see what we cannot actually know.  Pirecki is showing two paintings as well, but I was most intrigued by another work, “Equivalence (Copper, 3)” set on the floor that I photographed from above:

The thing itself, and its portrait. The lines of the floorboards are clearly reflected in the copper, and somewhat less clearly in the print; here, and not-here.

Dennis McNulty trained as an engineer and is a musician; his “Circuits”trails an electric wire across the floor to a digital reading that almost, but never quite, spells out the character for infinity:

The base of the piece is stacked concrete and the top, draped soft plastic, catches reflective light as it tries to create its own meaning, lit from within.  Another McNulty installation reflects light from the gallery windows and visitors and changes as we circle it. Here is my photograph of  “The time inside (the spoil)”:

The title seems to suggest the deliberate imperfections of the piece: the film twists away from the glass, as if trapped by heat or light.  I liked the way this piece brings the “outside” in.

My favorite two pieces from this show are the pair of etchings, “For Now 1” and “For Now 2,” by John Graham:

The lines have been slowly and carefully crossed, then printed, black lines against a white surface (referring back to Agnes Martin) and as we look we can see the gallery reflected:

 Or the viewer:

The lines weave in and out, gaining volume, almost becoming three-dimensional fabric.  The two prints are very similar, but the artist stresses that they are not the same; there are delicate lines across the top of the horizontal and vertical patterns so that the light is not caught in quite the same way in each form.  I kept coming back to these two; they have a calm and contented presence.

It’s John Graham’s fault that I am reminded of Agnes Martin, who wrote “Anything is a mirror…. There are two endless directions. In and out.” 

Thanks to Jerome O Drisceoil for his help! Go and see the show if you are in Dublin (there are many more fine works that I didn't get to here) and see for yourself the “In and out.”

Friday, July 27, 2012

San Francisco: The “Angular Invariability” of Day or “Groping in the Darkness” of Night?

I don’t mean when artists work. I mean… how.  I would like to propose two categories, ways of thinking about the way art is made: DAY or NIGHT.  (I like the way these seem like opposites, but as Keith Richards wrote in his song “Slipping Away,” it’s “First the sun and then the moon. One of them will be around soon….”)

This morning there was a clear silver-blue cloudy light over the Bay, the basic white light that alerts us all: it’s time to get to work. Some artists work best in this bright light of day and find stability, continuity, a kind of plotline managed through repetition, a plan approaching a blueprint.

SFMOMA has been exhibiting the notes (and lots of other things, but it is the notes that got me) of Buckminster Fuller.  He wrote a brief definition of STABILITY on an index card:  “A necklace is unstable. The lengths of the beads in a necklace do not change. Only the angles between them change. Stability refers only to angular invariability.” Surrounding this quote were endless cards with formulas and diagrams. We could probably find other ways to define stability, but stay with this idea, this single idea, just for a moment. And then think about painters who have chosen to work with “angular invariability.”  The bright light of day and of persistence, image(s) seen in the mind, a sketch in full bloom, played large on canvas. Ellsworth Kelly, for example, in this painting, “Il Cerf Volant,” looked for a particular “fit” of image and space:

Kelly said of his work that “I have worked to free shape from its ground, and then to work the shape so that it has a definite relationship to the space around it; so that it has a clarity and a measure within itself of its parts (angles, curves, edges and mass); and so that, with color and tonality, the shape finds its own space …” I hear a formal declaration here. As a painter, I see this as Kelly describing a path, a path followed in painting after painting. Agnes Martin, even more clearly, insisted that she did not begin a painting until she saw it first, entire, in her mind; here is her “Friendship,” from 1963:

Daylight, the repeated gesture, each line a familiar presence, but each its own presence.  Martin said that her works were really about “innocence,” and there is a kind of innocence in her following each gesture with another just like it until the work is completed. You can trace her progress; we can see the time she took.  

As we visited galleries in San Francisco, I found several artists who follow this architectural structure as they paint. One artist, who marks over graph paper, Indira Martina Morre, says she uses the images she sees on computer screens:  “Dots, circles, lines, crosses, arrows, … networks … departing onto canvas where it all disintegrates to become a psychological map, to become a hand-made document of a presence in time, to become a mark” (artist’s statement,  Here is one of her works representative of those we saw at K. Imperial Fine Art, this image from her site:

The characters Morre chooses are carefully delineated; the soft paint around them diminishes the contrast between each mark and the “screen” or background here…. The fading towards the bottom gives you a sense of perspective from across the room.  Morre says: “Rendering perfect, utilitarian, and timeless signs by hand is a consequence of my desire to access an imperfect, contradictory, time-bound being on the other side of a screen” (artist’s statement on her site).  This “rendering” takes considerable forethought and time, just as Agnes Martin’s did.  Another artist whose marks add up is Teo Gonzalez at Brian Gross Fine Art; here is his “Untitled #618” from 2012 (the photograph is from

We can see calm and perfection here; time, the time taken to create the work, slows and passes.  From a distance Gonzalez’s work, like Morre’s, takes on a softness, but, also like Morre’s paintings, Gonzalez’s paintings change subtly when viewed close-up: we can see the surface bristle and shimmer with each little mark, as we can see here in my "detail" photo:

Judith Foosaner, also at Brian Gross, repeats motifs, here by stopping and starting with forms that seem torn and re-grouped from a precision die-cutter. Here is my photograph of “Breaking and Entering #17,"  36” x 72” collage and acrylic on canvas:

This seems to me to echo Picasso’s “Guernica,” in its majesty and its carefully-blocked spaces. Here is a detail:

There is a steady movement here, a planned progress, that has then been deliberately undercut in the tough light of day.

A different kind of daylight comes about in Patrick Wilson’s “Slow Motion Action Painting” at Marx & Zavattero.  Here is his 17” x 17” painting “La Estrella,” photographed by Alanna Yu:

If the painted surfaces appear to be coming at you online, wait till you see them in person.  We first thought the work was painted on layered supports and pieces of angled mirrors, but they are not; the works are simple layers of paint, glass-smooth and softly-graded color across some parts of a piece, rough and bumpy in other sections.  Here is another, “Mixed Greens,” (30” x 72,” my photograph):

This is a light-of-day, blueprint painting. Here is what Wilson says about his process: “I am a painting junkie. I am a slow motion action painter, trusting my gut and my eyes. My paintings are intuitive, built one shape, one color, one line at a time. They are meant to be experienced at a leisurely pace. I am in pursuit of beauty, but well aware that pleasure is the more likely outcome. Pleasure is good too”  (from the gallery website,  He says his work is intuitive, which would lend it spontaneity, and perhaps that’s the way it seems to him – but to me, this looks as though no brushstroke could move out of its planned space.

“Pleasure is good.” And with that thought in mind, let’s move to the next group of artists.


I have been reading the new edition of A Farewell to Arms, which includes drafts and several endings Hemingway considered for the novel; here is an excerpt from the novel (that remained): “I know that the night is not the same as the day; that the things of the night cannot be explained in the day because they do not exist…”  (p. 216, Scribner Edition, 2012).

We tell ourselves stories about these “things of the night.”  They go bump. Sometimes we paint or write these “things.”  Rauschenberg wrote that he “always felt a little strange about the fixedness of a painting” and if you look, you might perhaps see what we can call the night-time of his works: the shifts, the shadows, the objects, the sweep of the brush, the partial print of a photograph all conspire to suggest working in the moment, without the help of a blueprint. Here is Rauschenberg’s “Prize,” a lithograph from 1964:

The work is filled with chances taken, with creating in the moment.  Alberto Giacometti said that "When I make my drawings ... the path traced by my pencil on the sheet of paper is, to some extend, analogous to the gesture of a man groping his way in the darkness." Here is Giacometti’s portrait of Jean Genet:

The portrait “cannot be explained” logically but has its power because of its freedom.  I found three artists whose work is on show in San Francisco whose lines and paints are not coming from the precise light of day, but of this un-fixed night.  Marilyn Levin at Toomey Tourell dazzles with “Morning Offerings” (my photo):

The dripping gold, both banner and airy light -- that gold wouldn’t have its power if not for the layers beneath it and the power of chance, of accident. The way the gold paint has congealed in spots, remained soft and unlined in the round line of “tassels” at the bottom, the way Levin has managed to conjure the feeling of night receding, it’s all gorgeously tumbled together.  The power that stems from these layers does not seem like the result of a clear plan to me.  This power comes from experimentation, taking chances, working with the materials, but letting the hyper-self-critical faculties of day go on vacation for a few hours. This is the gesture or footprint that falls and is not taken back….

Lora Fosberg’s work is at Jack Fischer. She has a series of paintings in gouache, collage and wax on panel called “The Miracle of the Actual.”  These are humorous, ironic, skilled (“she has a fine way with line,” says the gallery owner) and yet the works I want to talk about somewhat different. Fosberg has taken a large, heavy German world atlas from the early twentieth century as her canvas, and sketched in many of the pages (175 drawings, roughly), and these works collectively are called “The Way of the World.” Here is the cover, from the gallery’s website:

This studied collage is in the mode of “careful,” and would fit nicely with the “day” works above. But not so once we page through the book.  There we can see Fosberg’s inventive and knowing hand pulling together threads that, as I see it, she isn’t sure of until they land on the paper. These seem to be freer, looser, drawings that show her hand leading her brain.  One drawing shows logging trucks pulling across an index, sandwiched under “INHALT” and above “Sud Und WestEuropa.”  My favorite is the four Eiffel’d power-towers apparently installed at (the) “Nordpol”; here is that double page, again from the gallery website:

Visit the gallery and leaf through the book with the owner. These are delightful innovations, and make great use of the contrast between the maps and labels and Fossberg’s inked overlays. The Jack Fischer gallery also has a promising show coming up in August by the artist Lauren Dicioccio (see her “cross stitch into found book”: (Probably a “day” artist).

One last “night” person; here is Reed Anderson at the Gregory Lind Gallery, “To All a Good Looking Stranger” (66” x 72,” acrylic, block cut and collage on cut paper, taking up most of a wall; this photo is from

And, smaller, but very similar, “Lady Faces,” acrylic on cut paper, 29” x 27,” (photo also from the gallery site):

What I love about these works is that Anderson has given us precision and spontaneity, certainty and the unknown, clean cuts and awkward drips. He has cut the scallop shapes cleanly and created these mapped planes, yet they are against a border of un-carefully-muddied thick paper…. These are good images to end with, because they combine the planning of the first group of painters with considerable devil-may-care, a kind of Hemingway bravado… who else would cut paper and lay in geometric shapes and create something that looks as though it ought to be set carefully on a side-table in a drawing room, and then allow drips and footprints and coffee stains around the perimeter, doilies and warts all in one? Anderson neatly pulls together both categories of day and night.
“First the sun and then the moon, one of them will be around soon…”

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

"Too Olympian"? or, Use Your Words, Dammit: What is the Effect of "Gerhard Richter Painting"?

I recently saw the film “Gerhard Richter Painting” with my son and his fiancée in Los Angeles; it is still showing through the summer in some cities. I urge you to see it or, failing that, find and go to see his newer work, the big abstractions.  My husband and I just visited the Hess Collection in Napa, again, and saw “S.D.I. 1986” (painted in 1993, 126” x 157 ½”):

“S.D.I.”  is really made up of many paintings: on the left lower border is a soft, smooth abstract (of the sort I was being taught to paint in the early 70’s, “no visible brushstrokes, uniform color, please”) where Richter has placed black, grey and red angles against a gentle blue. Then there are the layers, moving left to right, rough strata, scraped, with the interaction of paints and new combinations of colors, each new formation captured as it dried. The horizontal lines mark the artist’s movement, while the vertical red and yellow columns, holding their own, seem to refute it.

Smooth agreement or jagged layers: Richter’s critical reception also splits just this way, neatly into two.  One camp, the smooth-agreement people, simply review the film, positively, offering a paragraph or so of amiable enthusiasm.  The best remarks from this group are true observations, and were written by Kenneth Baker (The San Francisco Chronicle, posted May 3, 2012) and Alissa Simon (Variety, posted online 9/19/11).  Baker says that “the film’s second portrait subject is Richter’s studio … immense …. The viewer finally experiences it the way the painter must: as playroom, as production site, as hideout and as prison.” Perfect.  The huge, clean, white, silent studio is filmed with Richter moving through it (mostly immaculate himself, in creased slacks) with the occasional presence of the two assistants or a gentle question from the director, Corinna Belz.  And it is clear that Richter alternately has fun, works very hard, looks for calm or isolation in the studio, or feels trapped by a painting that will not work.  Alissa Simon notes that the film is “intelligently assembled,” and is an “intelligent pic,” (she is writing for Variety) with a “sparsely modernist score” assisted by “birdsong from the garden.” The film disturbs the process as little as possible: even the birdsong goes on despite the lights and cameras. Here is a still from the film’s website:

But these brief critiques of the film offer little insight into or discussion of Richter’s work.  The second camp, critics who do write about Richter’s paintings, all seem to offer us one point of view: jagged layers.  Richter’s painting is dismissed as one thing after another, changeable, un-categorizeable. He is seen as relentless, an unfeeling, forward-moving painting machine, emotion-less, merely an “industry.”   The fact that Richter rejects inclusion and labels irritates people who like them.  The lack of an attempt, on the part of the painter, to seduce the critical world leads the critic to spurn the non-seduction with a nasty review.

The most thorough essay on Richter’s work that I have seen falls into this angry camp. In its defense, the essay is, at least, a real attempt to sum up his legacy.  T.J. Clark gave us “Grey Panic” (The London Review of Books,, posted 17 November 2011). It is ostensibly a review of the Richter retrospective, “Panorama,” at the Tate Modern (last October through this January).  This is a review that deserves attention, because it appears to recognize Richter’s massive achievement and influence (the Tate show is a “great event,” he assures us), but, really, Clark undercuts Richter’s artistic efforts, first in a kind of code and then … openly.

Clark approaches the retrospective by first praising, at some length, a concert he had attended two nights before: Boulez’s Pli Selon Pli , and his feeling that the music he had heard that night represented the “last intransigence of modernism on the wing.”  Now, that description sounds so lovely and seductive, but “intransigence” is … negative . Had Clark written “the last obstinate note of modernism on the wing,” the intention behind this juxtaposition of Boulez and Richter would have been a bit less poetic. That “thud” we hear, the clash of the end of modernism with Richter’s body of work, should set us up nicely to read on.  

The “Grey Panic” of the review’s title refers, in Clark’s view, to Richter’s work of the 1960’s, the “mostly monochrome oils done from photographs.”  Clark feels that Richter’s softened and neutered palette here is not any kind of definitive answer to the problem of painting vs. photography [oh, were we looking for that?], and that, in fact, “the drawing away of chroma is a figure for a general lapsing out of spatial (and therefore social) relationship.”  Clark goes on to say that Richter has a “fundamental, and persistent, sense of his own time” [which sounds like a good thing] but goes on to say that painting is, for Richter, “essentially a way of keeping that sense from overwhelming him.”  I think, first, that “drawing away of chroma” isn’t really the way to describe Richter’s grey work.  Perhaps Clark does not know that grey paint is mixed by combining opposing colors on the wheel: red and green, or yellow and purple, or blue and orange -- the opposite, then, of “drawing away of chroma.”  And, next, Richter told an interviewer (Irmiline Lebeer) that “space in painting …. doesn’t exist. It’s a false problem” (Gerhard Richter Writings 1961-2007, d.a.p. press, 2009, p. 81).  Two dimensions, whatever they might offer, are never three -- I thought that was a modernist tenet? Perhaps we have not heard the death knell of modernism just yet. Richter is not worried about space. But I do believe that he is worried about “his own time” and the “society” he lives in; he is hardly “lapsing out.” Look at Richter’s “Miland: Dom” (Milan Cathedral) from 1964 (from the artist's website; this may not have been in the Tate show, but it is representative of the “grey” 1960’s work):

This is still a kind of extension of modernism, I think. One feels that the “Grey Panic” is not Richter’s, but Clark’s.  “Grey does the work of mourning,” Clark says.  “It and the blur stand for dirty, but also sterilized, secrets.”

Clark continues: “the big colored abstracts [that] emerge in the following decade … make no sense unless they are seen against this background of grey panic.”  Clark ends the review in a kind of unlovely series of personal reactions to the work: the paintings offer only “heavy impenetrability” and “parody.” Any kind of “vividness for Richter, if it comes, will have to have falsity written deep within it” and Clark says of one of the works of the 18 October 1977 series that it “brings on (in me) a feeling of utter impotence and incomprehension” and that this “nihilism” is “too Olympian.”  [The series -- 18 October 1977 -- was based on photographs of the German Baader-Meinhof Group, who kidnapped and killed their targets; three of the four were captured and later found dead in their cells. It was never made clear whether their deaths were caused by suicide or murder.] Here is a painting from that series, from MOMA’s collection:

I don’t know; this does not seem at all “too Olympian” to me.  And maybe “utter impotence and incomprehension” in response to paintings about Baader-Meinhof is really appropriate.  I don’t see “deep falsity” here; I see a very human face, presented for scrutiny.  Richter said in 1981 that that “I want pictorial content without sentiment, but I want it as human as possible” (GRW, 119).

Can the film do anything to change the minds of people like Clark, who believe that Richter has broken modernism through “parody” and “Olympian” indifference??

I think it can.  This artist is no parodist. “Gerhard Richter Painting” shows us that he keeps just five or six postcard-size reproductions above his work table.  One is a chipped statue of a nude woman, seen from two angles: “The scarring is brutal,” he says.  Another picture shows a tree painted by Courbet, which I think might be this, “The Oak at Flagey”:

He keeps these works, he said, as a kind of motivation; they are works that have moved him. Another of the pieces was a drawing by Picasso, a woman’s head, that looked something like this “Head of a Woman” from 1933:

Richter carefully traces the “deformed, squashed” features, tracing them and marveling at the imperfections.  The one documentary photograph on his wall is a picture of Nazi soldiers at a concentration camp, behind a pile of naked dead bodies and wafting smoke from a fire.  The bodies will all be burned, it is clear, and Richter points to the men smoking and talking in their long dress coats: it looks “so normal,” he says. 

Perhaps Clark is right: Richter does have a “sense of his own time,” of his own country’s history, and perhaps his paintings are a way of “keeping that sense from overwhelming him.”  He tells the film’s director that the 18 October 1977 series was “very difficult,” but that “doing it makes you feel good.”

The “doing” of painting is what this film is, in essence, about.  The noise of the squeegee he uses to scrape paint across canvas seems enormous; the sound of the artist’s movements in his studio has been amplified.  The first shots of Richter at work show him straining with the big squeegee, but then stopping, looking, and going over minute details with a delicate paintbrush. “They do what they want,” he says of the primarily neutral-colored paintings in these first shots. “I planned something very different … very colorful.”  Here is a still from the film’s site, showing the massive squeegee:

The film shows Richter preparing for a show at the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York; Goodman comes to visit during the filming to discuss the hanging of the show.  We see tiny, perfect models of each work hanging on tiny perfect walls. The film also brings in some older photos and films; one movie dates from 1966, and in that film Richter says that “Painting is another form of thinking.”  Yes.  And Richter does all the thinking.  His two assistants do not paint.  They mix paint, clean up, and worry. For these larger abstract works, the paint has to be “clean” so that the only “grooves” come from deliberate movements by Richter, so the assistants stir the paint -- only white, back, red, ultramarine and yellow, no earth tones, they say -- with an electric stirrer and strain it through … cheesecloth?  (They mention that the photo-based realistic works merely needed tube paint).   We see Richter working on several canvases.  Sometimes the squeegee is dragged with great force, completely crossing the canvas, and other times the artist uses only a small, light gesture.

He shows us disappointments; “I don’t know what to do next,” he says, of a painting that he dislikes.  If they make it past the point where he thinks they might be finished (“When I feel it’s right, then I stop”), then, he explains, still, paintings sometimes only look good for a couple of hours, or perhaps a day or two.  If they last longer than that, they are hanged on white walls in a portion of the studio that looks like a gallery; if they make it there, they can make it anywhere, he must reason.  But my son was stunned when Richter approached a painting that seemed to our audience perfect, and pulled a canvas-high squeegee across the length of it.  Gone.

He obviously was concerned about painting before a camera: “Painting is a secretive business,” he says, “between being caught and being seen, something you do in secret and then reveal in public.”  But we get to know a lot about him, through this film, and it’s clear that, as he says in GRW to an interviewer, that art is “the highest form of hope” (488).   I will leave you with an abstract from 2009, taken from Richter’s site, from 2009, the time of the filming: