We drove from Macon to see family who live
between Annecy and Geneva. We drove up into the Alps in Haute-Savoie for a day
of seeing goats, cross-country-skiers, and to eat in a small and friendly
restaurant. It was very friendly, that is, until the table next to ours was set
on fire (by the meats-over-coals dish the couple had ordered). The customers
were not worried... as the waiter was putting out the fire, their only remark
was “more sauce, please.”
After our two days there, we left for
Freiburg, a city that was re-built (after WWII) according to its original city
plan. The streets are narrow and lovely, the store- and hotel-fronts blend old
with new, and there is a canal running down one side of all the walking and
biking streets. Our hotel has been running on Oberlinden for (roughly) 700
years. Here was the view:
The city’s people are very friendly, and the
shops very interesting—do you need an
or a lovely restaurant?
Moving north, farther into Germany, we
noticed that the houses became more concerned with rooflines... that is, each
house and barn seemed hugely roof, against the snow to come. And there seems to
be some interest in trapping the sun through solar panels:
We had planned to visit more cities, but, on
finding that our next hotel had lied to us (they were not in Heidelberg, so it
was impossible to find them there), we decided to change our plans. The
autobahn is awe-inspiring; if there are no work-stations or problems, the speed
limit is up to the driver, who can go as fast as desired, as long as s/he
maintains control of the car. We were also seeing that cities seem more alike,
from one country to the next, than countryside, and we thought the German countryside
utterly gorgeous, so, why not slow down and see the landscape?
As we drove, we saw geese and swans and
hawks, and chased down hotels (that we sometimes could not find) and small and
interesting villages. “It’s a wild goose chase!” my husband said, and, yes,
that’s what we have begun.
Logs are being harvested and stacked for
pick-up. These smaller roads are accompanied by walking and biking paths. It is
late in December, but the fields are still green, or ploughed up for the next
crop. Vineyards are stacked up on careful hillside shelving. We pass a
glassblower’s huge compound, an Audi factory, a “polizei” speed trap (cars here
blink their lights, too). Someone has died along this road and her family has
left candles and a white marble angel. We stay in two hotels in a row run by
families; one speaks English, the other does not.
We drive by the town of Speilberg. It is 7
degrees Celsius. We stay in another hotel and leave the window open. The church
bells ring all night. When it is 2:00 in the morning, the louder bell rings
four times for the hour, then a smaller bell rings twice, then the louder bell
rings once to say it is the quarter hour, then twice for the half hour, then
three times for three-quarters of the hour, then at 3:00 the whole cycle begins
A covered bridge: “Did you think they
started in Vermont?” my husband asks. We are driving in and out of the
Schwarzwald, the Black Forest. Woodpiles become very important:
Two shaggy cows. Muddy sheep by a beautiful stream. We drive
higher into the mountains, and see snow, ravines, waterfalls, and our car tells
us “Risque de verglas” (black ice). The woods are dark and deep... again,
Robert Frost didn’t invent these forests... these are fairy-tale forests, thick
with moss... and dragons. I start reading Grimm’s
We stop for a Renaissance castle, WasserSchloss
Glatt, with moat and timbered buildings:
And a town, later, on the Bodensee, called
Meersburg, with defensive walls:
This is a fairy tale. Charley looks
at the orchards, bare branches now, with a few scattered apples left:
and he says the apples seem to have given
way, over the years, to decorated shiny balls and the Christmas tree.
We left Paris and drove the A6 past Fontainebleu... the forest goes on forever. The shadows of the trees lengthened as we drove. It was 2 degrees centigrade when we started in. We saw turned-up fields with frost settled into the lines of the tractor's tires. Just outside the péage (toll gates) at Fleury-en-Biére, we saw a huge abstract painting-- something along the lines of a Joan Mitchell. Just there. We headed deeper into Burgundy, and the road is now called The Autoroute du Soleil (the highway of the sun). A church with a pitched slate roof tells us we are still pretty far north. Clustered village and two distant farms, a yellow "la Poste" truck on the parallel little road.
Mistletoe clusters in bare trees... the mistletoe is green against the greys and browns. More frost, now on the grasses near the highway. A fat French hawk on a fence. The greens in the field sparkle... melting frost? Shadows of trees stretching down their hill.
Then, a "Pays de Charolais" sign, and up come the white cattle against the brown and green grassy hills. We see two more hawks.
Then the "Côte d'Or." Tidy little (trimmed?) hedgerows around planted fields, and more white cattle. Two trees, nearly disappearing under the mistletoe. Then we see our first field of rolled hay bales.
Molly and Bloom... two people, in one. Molly, in James Joyce's Ulysses, stays at the center of Bloom's moving world. One part of us moves, one part of us stays. This is the time when we are moving, and loving the moving.
It is so beautiful here. Charley sees a hawk hunting.
Fifth hawk, passing the Chateau d'Eguilly. A broken, but still imposing, fort/castle. A village behind, still protected. A hillside, all snow. Clumps of grass sticking together, iced and green all at once.
"Chateauneuf" village off to our left. The canal de Bourgogneon our right. Then, the valley of the Ouche River, all white hills.
"Alert Meteo: Nuit Prochaine Verglas" the sign says, warning that the roads will freeze tonight.
All of a sudden, everything is mist. Like a fairy tale. Then, at the Beaune exit, grapevines covered in white frost. It is now -2 degrees centigrade outside. Sixth hawk. Department: Saône et Loire. Seventh hawk, huge and shaggy. 8th hawk, then birches, with some yellow and some frosted leaves. -1 degree centigrade. A row of farmed poplars.
Now it is 0 degrees. The grass is green again, but anything standing up in the air is white: bushes, vines, straggly grass, trees, fences. The houses remain grey and beige. Ninth and tenth hawks.
Our diesel Citroen C3 has used 1/4 of its little tank in 4 hours.
11th hawk. 12th hawk. Charley says they are watching the cars.
13the hawk. 14th hawk, wings spread, looking down at his claws.
Fifteenth and final hawk.
We arrive in Maçon. We fall, somehow, into the best, smallest, warmest restaurant in town.
This is lapin en gelée with mâche salad and onion confit at "le Carafé: Les Vins en Liberté," a bistro-cave in Maçon. There are three choices of first course, three choices of second, three desserts. The wines of the night were Minervois and Morgon. A man came in from his vineyard with a bottle of Volnay and gave us a taste... we then talked with some of the customers about wines and Maçon.
I have this idea that the world of art
divides into monuments and archways. I think of a monument as something created
at the peak of an artist’s desire to solidify every artistic achievement that
has occurred up to the moment of signing the art work. Up against monumental
art work comes the archway piece, the one that an artist makes as s/he looks
towards an un-realized artistic future.
I’m going to take two small works, both in
London’s National Gallery, as examples. John Constable’s “Cenotaph to the
Memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds, erected in the grounds of Coleorton Hall,
Leicestershire” (from 1833-36) helps my theory by being a painting of a monument,
but that’s not why I chose it. Constable has
put everything he knows into this painting, everything about every leaf, the
way light falls within a cluster of trees, the way dead leaves blow onto
stones... it’s a memoriam to everything he would have us know that Reynolds
means to him, but, more than that, it is everything, down to the stag, pictured
in an almost photographic perfection.It is letting us know that a painting of a landscape deserves the same recognition as a painting of a battle.
The second painting, my archway painting, is
Camille Pissarro’s “Fox Hill, Upper Norwood,” from 1870:
It, too, is a landscape, but something is
different. There is a tree, but it is sketched in, a fence, caught in a few
brushstrokes, dirty lines of snow where the carriages have come, a man meeting
women... nothing is firmly placed. This is not aiming at grandeur. Blink and it’s gone.
Even though the Constable places us in the
center of his personal artistic debt, and it’s a beautiful and arresting work,
the Pissarro feels more personal to me. The viewer is invited to walk
down that same road, in that same contented mood, crossing through the archway that
links us (impossibly, but artistically) to a country road in 1870.
Playing. Cole Porter's song "Get Out of Town" (Ella Fitzgerald singing, of course) is playing in my head, against my photograph with iPad sketch-markings:
WHY WISH ME HARM
WHY NOT RETIRE TO A FARM AND BE CONTENTED TO CHARM THE BIRDS OFF THE TREES
Watching the birds whirling around the sky... some migrating, others flying up, dark against the pinks and greys of the now-receding fog. Our hummingbird is still for about 5 seconds, taking a very small rest on a branch, then visiting the flowers on the tree outside our window. His body is again on a branch, but his head is constantly moving; he is perched for longer now, 10 seconds, perhaps... tiny movements of the natural world silhouetted on the greys of more distant pipes, air conditioners, stuccoed walls of the apartments across the way.
And now lines from an old Seals and Crofts song from my college years come back:
.... I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey
I hear it in the deep heart's core.
---From W.B. Yeats's "The Lake Isle of Innisfree"
Mary Mountcastle Eubank is presenting a show called
"Edges and Flows" at Gallery Route One in Point Reyes Station, where
I am an artist member. Eubank is a founding member of the gallery, now in its
thirtieth year. Here are two installation views of her show:
"Out of Nothing," a small (18" x 24")
painting near the entrance, feels to me the way the pistil and stamens of a
flower might look to a visiting honeybee.The ceramic shards come cleanly out of the
blurred surface of the canvas, but we feel so close, as if zoomed into that
surface, and it's as if some small, silent explosion has just happened, and we
have landed in its center:
Eubank wrote in her artist's statement that "I want to
imagine a replica of a landscape that is not an imitation, but a reflection of
my inner response to landscape and place." Pure imitation would be
photographic; a reflection of a response is a purely intangible thing,
something to take a lifetime reaching. Like Yeats, Eubank seems to be able to
reach across pavements and time back into this reserve of blue water and red
sands that she so ably portrays in this show. Eubank has written that hers is
"a sensuous relationship to the natural world." To be truly sensuous,
I think! one must hold nothing back, and that is just what we see here.
Here is a piece without title or price, representing,
perhaps, some of the ingredients in the work on display:
Reminds me of something... My husband, our two children and
I lived for a year and a half on the island of Malta, located in the
Mediterranean between Tunisia and Sicily. In winter, the mistral blew the red
sands up from Northern Africa, and the particles fell on cars, roads, tree
limbs... And it was just this color; desert sand could blow right by us, so the
world was very small, wasn't it?
Eubank would seem to agree. Yes, the natural world is vast,
but each piece of it, each fragment that makes up our world, is part of us, can
be small enough to be seen and understood, if only a little, by each of us. The
artist has explained that her works "develop with alternating layers of
thin washes and heavy impasto, often laced with organic materials, such as
sand, decomposed granite and wood ash."It is an unusual set of tools for painting, but one that
echoes the colors of earth and water in Eubank's home, West Marin.
"Passage," a monumental mixed-media painting(49" x 72"), could be a
landscape. I could say it looks like a cold morning pathway seen from The deck
of a ship, with icebergs threatening on either side:
But, for this artist, the painting is far more likely to
refer to an interior journey. Possibilities are there, rich in color and warmth
and light, if you can just steer clear of those icebergs. Those two brown
built-up paper objects -- or obstacles -- are deeply etched. We know these
rocks and shoals. We have been on them ourselves, marooned for a time until
that bit of light at the bottom breaks through and sets us free.
There is another Irish poet whose work has been running
through my mind these last few days. Seamus Heaney wrote a poem called
"Postscript," published in his book "The Spirit Level." He
talks about driving in a car past the kinds of landscape we see in Northern
California (or, in his case, the West of Ireland):
....So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans....
Useless to think you'll park and capture or
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
We viewers are "A hurry through which known and strange
things pass." If we are lucky, we stop in front of one of Eubank's
paintings of the landscapes of the "deep heart's core," and we feel
our hearts blown open.
“The care with which the rain is wrong and the green is
wrong and the white is wrong.... The care with which there is incredible
justice and likeness, all this makes a magnificent asparagus, and also a
fountain.”Gertrude Stein, the final
Consider the work of Gertrude Stein and David Hockney, and
you will realize that neither artist is afraid to fail nor afraid of happiness.
For both, I get the impression, happiness
The De Young Museum in San Francisco is showing "David
Hockney: A Bigger
Exhibition," (his recent portraits and landscapes),
through January 20, 2014. Hockney's landscapes are the thing, though. At the De
Young, the show moves almost entirely chronologically, tracing Hockney’s
movement through one medium after another in his portrayal of his Yorkshire
woods and fields - water colors, oil, video, iPad drawings and charcoal, and, full
circle, beginning and ending with classical tools. The classical approaches
present Hockney’s art-school credentials.
But, much like his hero Picasso, Hockney appears to find
that Raphael or Rembrandt pretty much had the classical thing covered, and he
pours his passion into making us see – “how we see.” The works on video and
iPad stop viewers in their tracks.
To the video presentations, first. 18 video screens, 3 high
and six across, are combined in a
single space, although the boundaries of each camera’s view prevents the
screens from fitting exactly, a slight tradeoff for having each angle and
distance within the 18 screens in perfect focus. Hedgrows wave lazily (here is a still from the catalogue... May 12th, 2011, Rudston to
We look first at one screen, then another, then the time
passes and we see we have stood there watching time, watching wind, watching
air. We are surrounded, even though we are responding to just one wall of flat
screens. We then move to the room of “trees down the tunnel” that Hockney painted over and over
again, here in nine screens (Woldgate Woods, June 2nd, 2010). Here
is a still from the catalogue:
Cars pass, unevenly from screen to screen. Snow falls
delicately and slowly from tree branches, leaving one screen’s border, and then
entering another ‘s, just a little askew. Here is Woldgate Woods, November 26th
2010, a still photograph, from the catalogue:
The artist told Lawrence Weschler that mounting these
cameras onto his car and driving through the fields meant "at least
eighteen different vanishing points, and all of them moving" (catalogue
essay, p. 39). Or, in the case of
the room that surrounds us with the four seasons of Woldgate Woods in the De
Young, nine screens, nine moving vanishing points.
So what? you say. Hockney has spent his life as an artist worrying about how to
make art that makes us feel the way we feel when we are walking through the
world. The now-famous photocollages (here, a detail of Grand Canyon from North Rim Lodge, Arizona, 1982):
offered up multiple (but rather fragmented, like broken
glass) perspectives.Thelater paintings moved along further-- here is a detail of "Mulholland Drive: The Road to the Studio," 1980:
He has come all his life to this point... where he shows us
how we can see the world we know. It’s a
little neglected corner. It isn’t Claude Monet’s towering sharp-edged cliffs at
Etrétat, or Caspar David Friedrich’s Alps and fog in “Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer“ (The Wanderer
Above the Sea of Mist) or any other landscape that would add drama all on its
own.Hockney’s landscapes are where
you walk the dogs, where you go to play hide and seek, where you go for a quiet
... anything.We all know this
place. We begin to find that we love it, in all its powerful humility.
Hockney said, in 2004 (I cannot find the reference!)
that“I can get excited watching
rain on a puddle. And then I paint it. Now, I admit, there are not too many
people who would find that exciting. But I would. And I want life thrilling and
rich. And it is. I make sure it is.”
And the puddles? Well, they come into play in the iPad drawings. Here is 18
December, from the catalogue:
I remember when, at 13, I first noticed raindrops on a puddle,
walking to the bus-stop. But
somehow I remember thinking about the dropping water and the “plop” sound it
made, hitting the puddle on the asphalt.These are very simple things Hockney offers us; simple, yes, but so hard
It was a quiet Friday lunchtime. Some of the galleries at
the Geary Street buildings in San Francisco had closed their doors. But some doors
to fabulous shows were open. The
three artists below seem to me to embody something a critic once wrote about
“Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” that it is “about the image in its otherness
locked in with the real world” (Lisa Florman on Picasso in “The Difference
Experience Makes in ‘The Philosphical Brothel,’” The Art Bulletin, Vol. 85, No. 4, Dec. 2003, p. 777).
The “image in its otherness locked in with the real world”:
what, exactly, is “otherness”? Difference… distinguished by achievement or characteristics?
or simply non-conforming? Strange? or distinctive, memorable? Me, and not-me. The expected. The unexpected. I want to take us into “otherness,” step
by step, through the galleries, and return to Picasso at the end.
First, Ian McDonald offers a show of ceramic pieces at the Rena
Bransten Gallery (77 Geary, San Francisco, through August 17, www.renabranstengallery.com). Ceramics are often viewed as purely utilitarian.Museums offer rooms of early functional
vessels created by hunter-gatherers and then, over time, we all begin to see a
departure, finding artists who are searching for beauty and meaning: a fragile
vase, a transformative mask, or Judy
Chicago’s “The Dinner Party.”
Ian McDonald’s chosen “difference” in this show (called,
tellingly, “Parts and Pottery”) is not the province of the totem or the icon,
but total, brazen, sensuality… the unexpected aesthetic pleasure of clay nearly
morphing into iron. A gleaming crankshaft,
a rusting piston, screws, nuts and bolts laid out for a repair, looking under
the hood of a ’65 Mercury … all these implements in the idea, now made soft and
quiet and things-in-themselves by the touch of a hand:
This is my favorite of the 12 exhibits in this show, “Arrangement #3 (Split Shelf).
The materials list reads “glazed ceramic, powder coated
steel, wood and paint.” The show is calming, surprising, beautifully lit,
wonderfully sculpted. It is “otherness” because it brings the pistons and
crankshafts of the “real world’ into a soft, silent rebirth.
For this piece, a sculptural column at Serge Sorokko, the
Charioteer at Delphi is the first source:
but the second source layer is a pleated silk dress with
glass Murano beads hanging from the shoulders, designed and made by Mariano
Fortuny y Madrazo in Venice in 1907…. it was designed, in the era of corsets,
to be worn over bare skin:
In the “Blue Delphos Dress,” there is also “nothing”
underneath, “nothing” but air and imagination:
It isn’t just that De Borchgrave’s work is different, that
she re-interprets the fabric of painted portraits or Greek statues or fashion
designed in a Venetian palazzo and twists and irons and otherwise bends paper
to serve as her art. It isn’t, here, just about the process. It’s about the new
“real world” she makes us see.
The third artist will bring us back to Picasso and “The
Demoiselles d’Avignon.” Picasso wrestled with several sets of drawn images, at last
confining his women within a flat space, body parts touching, overlapping or
going missing in folds of drapery. I find myself disagreeing with Lisa Florman. This painting is
not about “the image in its otherness locked in with the real world”; only half of this poetic statement is true. This
painting is, instead, only “locked in with”
a strange kind of powerful “otherness” of its very own. There is no “real world” to see “locked
in” or otherwise, here.Picasso
never pursued anything with this level of ferocity again.He didn’t seem to know where to go from
this point, and so backed away from connecting these women up with any kind of
The preoccupied figures in this massive piece, “La Peche
Contemporaine,” are themselves caught up in a net (they are made of painted
wood pieces floating on string, and the piece measures 81 “ x 84”) and are
fishing for something they cannot eat, that peculiarly Western preoccupation
with getting the ball into the net.Mpane comes from Kinshasa (once the capital of the Belgian Congo, now in
the Democratic Republic of Congo).The question of exactly what one
ought to fish for -- for food, for fame, for one’s country and history or for
someone else’s profit -- might serve, all by itself, as a sufficiently pressing
subject for art.
But then there’s the larger question of identity, present
not just as an issue for the fishermen but for the rest of Mpane’s compelling
show as well. Mpane has “drawn”
portraits (with layers of glued plywood that he edges with an adze -- a tool
first used in the Stone Age), portraits of people that he knows in the
paintings/carvings are complete and missing, here and there, parts and whole,
almost giving us the rings of years in the wood.Here is my favorite single portrait, because it is so spare
and simple, “Kinoct #40”:
There is enough left of her portrait head to give the wall a
shadow.Are we looking “through”
or “beyond”? Is this woman hiding … or gone? How much do we actually see when
we look?Anything that is not a
self-portrait is “other,” another, me, but not-me as well, a person, but not my
person. How do we reconcile ourselves with the world?
Mpane’s strongest suit in the show -- for me -- is his artistic
dialogue with Picasso and his “Demoiselles,” a conversation that is very much
in “the real world.” There are seven of these two-sided masks arranged along a
shelf in the gallery’s middle wall.The wooden sides of each face are three-dimensional Demoiselles. Here is
the face Picasso painted in as he completed the painting, the face we see to
the far right:
And here is Mpane’s “La Demoiselle Perde/Masque Bi-Face:
Picasso-Pende #2,” a two-sided piece, 12” x 12.5,” in that same adze-edged
Look back and forth at these two. Picasso’s Demoiselle-face would be physically impossible, not
just for its jarring features, but because her back is towards the viewer; she
could not be cupping her chin in that enormous hand. When we first look at her face, her expression might seem
angry, but the mouth is pursed, questioning, and she could also look….
surprised. Is she about to ask a question? She has that look. Mpane’s response is to make his jagged
face seem more human, the expression even more ambiguous, and then just as we
are taking that in we see the other side of this face:
And we see the inner light. It’s an astonishingly uplifting
image. These works will stay with me for a long, long time.
Thanks to the galleries and assistants, particularly Kate and
Bewteen winter and summer of 2013, I shifted to a new landscape, concentrating on small works of art, made at my coffee table, combining text and image, as you will see on my experimental blog: asmallfineartsketchbook.blogspot.com
And here is an example of my sketchbook-sized art you may see there. I found a drawing by
René Descartes from 1644, where he drew magnetism and gravity as a lettered
diagram (the earth is the piece I have colored blue). It is filled with the excitement of discovery … his … and so
I started thinking about another favorite theme of mine, audience: who would he
have shown this to? How would he have explained it? And then I pulled in
Motherwell’s idea of the colors black and white as protagonists, fighting and
succumbing to magnetism:
But now, I am revising this older blog post, because I am coming back to "Artist in an A-Frame." Stay tuned!