Thursday, March 31, 2011

Nothing but... kestrel.

“I lingered at the gates; I lingered on the lawn; I paced backwards and forwards on the pavement; the shutters of the glass door were closed; I could not see into the interior; and both my eyes and spirit seemed drawn from the gloomy house – from the gray hollow filled with rayless cells, as it appeared to me –to that sky expanded before me – a blue sea absolved from taint of cloud; the moon ascending it in solemn march …. Little things recall us to earth: the clock struck in the hall; that sufficed. I turned from the moon and stars, opened a side-door, and went in.”  Chapter xii, Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte

Rosey, Sarah and I went to see the film Jane Eyre a few days ago. I thought it a very fine adaptation, though perhaps unnecessarily frightening – or slow-going! – in spots.  I thought perhaps I should re-read the novel, remembering that I had thought it astonishing, wonderful, seen myself in its heroine, back in 1983. I began the novel, coming back to it twice to re-engage, and was surprised at the intensity of my response this time around. “No,” ran my feelings this time. “No.” I couldn't continue to read this world ... it felt claustrophobic to me. The passage above more than exemplifies the world of Jane’s thoughts and her physical limits. She is always pacing. She is only occasionally able to be distracted … here, by the beauty of the moon … which is in a sky that is --  she cannot help but observe  -- “absolved from taint of cloud.” What kind of talk is this? Our heroine is utterly un-able to observe a clear blue sky.  However far her artistic observations may wander, Jane is always brought back to her tiny prison-cell of a world by something very like the ticking of a clock. She cannot stay in the world of the moon, even if, as one can hope, her creator could. I am sure that Bronte intended to provoke reactions like mine... but I just cannot read her any further.

There is a very slim volume by Iris Murdoch, called The Sovereignty of Good. Murdoch taught philosophy at Oxford (in addition to writing several well-received novels) and this book is about seeing, and then experiencing, “good.” She writes that “we are anxiety-ridden animals. Our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, usually self-preoccupied, often falsifying veil which partially conceals the world.”  [Example before us? Jane Eyre]. Murdoch says that what is needed is a change of consciousness. She says that, following Plato’s Phaedrus, she wishes to discuss what she calls “an occasion for unselfing,”  and she means that we can change how we perceive our world when we encounter… beauty. [Yes, beauty!!]. She gives an example, so that we may better understand this concept of change as she wants us to see it: “I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige [Jane Eyre lingers]. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important. And of course this is something which we may also do deliberately: give attention to nature in order to clear our minds of selfish care.” But she says we may not be able to try to “enjoy” nature … that may seem too "forced." Rather, following the Romantic poets, “we take a self-forgetful pleasure in the sheer alien pointless independent existence of animals, birds, stones and trees. “ ’Not how the world is, but that it is, is the mystical.’ ” (pp. 82-3, my copy, from Routledge Classics, 2001).

Jane Eyre does not move in these circles… She looks so far inward, and remains there. Jane Austen [I throw this in] writes characters who can move… I can still read her... Austen and her women see the kestrels all the time.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

yellow + blue = green

We have a friend, an art collector, with a fabulous eye, who doesn't like paintings with a lot of green and she doesn't much like paintings with words ... (we love her anyway).

It's true that if I had to choose, I would probably say I like to paint with blue, or orange, and white and black... green may be low on my preference scale... and yet. There are so many greens, if we are lucky:

These are from a five-minute period of pretty intense sun around the house this afternoon.

I once audited a class where the professor had a direct translation, he said, for all the key terms in e.e. cummings' poems.  The word"green" in the phrase "All in green went my love riding" meant, as I remember: youth, naivete, beauty, ripeness... (possibly, he drew these descriptions from Shakespeare's Cleopatra, who says she could only have ever been in love with Caesar when she was in "My salad days/ When I was green in judgment").  And yet, in the cummings poem, green isn't so naive; "my love" wears a hunting "horn" and a "bow" and arrows fill the air and, in the end, "four lean hounds crouched low and smiling/ my heart fell dead before." Dangerous, for the narrator, and dangerous, too, for the professor to claim too much.

Here are my means of making at least a few greens:

And here is a detail from a painting... decidedly not exactly "youth, naivete, beauty, ripeness" alone:

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Driving through a landscape

Here is a photograph from the side of the road, cropped to capture the light in the sky:

It is hard to know what to look at here... the clouds, formed from perfect children's-storybook pages, or the sky, many blues, from Matissean to Cy Twombly.  Or the trees, just beginning to soften with new growth,  majestic, totally dissimilar shapes and leaning along different angles, one horribly cropped.

The photograph captures stillness. Over time, it may become what I remember from that afternoon. But it is important, too, to work on memory, to try to see if it isn't possible to place more of your own perceptions into the picture... abstract paintings sometimes can do that... sometimes, it takes a few realistic details to pull the viewer in.  Look at a recent David Hockney stand of trees: it is of the imagination, but it is of the land, as well.

Monday, March 28, 2011

About that belonging thing...

I do wonder about how it is a person knows where s/he belongs.  Agnes Martin was born in Canada, lived in Manhattan, and eventually became part of her Taos surroundings. Gertrude Stein said that she liked working in France, in isolation, late at night, in a place where English was not generally spoken, so that her native language was "fresh" as she composed. Paul Bowles moved between New York and Paris for awhile, but spent fifty years in Morocco.

*******"to be in different states without a change is not a possibility"--- Charles Olson**********

We thought we had moved to France, definitivement ... We stayed, the last time, nearly two years. We had bought a house and a car and fresh sheets and a farm table. We knew that, in recent years,  it had become more difficult (legally speaking) to simply move away. But we felt prepared for that, and we had always dealt well with bureaucracies, we thought.  (The representative at the French Consulate on East 74th Street in New York told me that I had put together our visa applications so beautifully that "it is just as if my mother had done it").  And in the end, it wasn't the paperwork.  While I will always wonder how exactly to put a ribbon around the whole process and put it away on a shelf, I do think that it was, as Gertrude Stein might have written about it, that "we did belong visiting to France, but we did not belong living there." I do believe it was the difference between exclaiming how marvelous and beautiful, strange or crazy, lovely or inscrutable things were ... and then, living in that same place, running out of discoveries, yet not quite being at home there either.  Not belonging. Not able to quite reconcile our French and American selves.

So, we are no longer near the Atlantic Ocean or the Mediterranean. We never saw redwoods in France, but we did see poppies. We drink the occasional Bordeaux now, but we are more likely to drink Cabernet Sauvignon; it is our "local" wine.  And objects and landscapes and people and life are all still here for the knowing.  A West Coast skyline (this one from Carmel Valley) can look the same as the skies above Saint-Tropez:

And we can find a door-panel in Carmel, below, just as if it were actually found around a corner, on an old house, on a back street in Paris:

But, in France, we never would have found a street sign -- that leads to the sea -- with Charley's Maltese nick-name stencilled brazenly on one side:

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The idea of belonging... the first verse (of many to come!)

It was always about belonging.

We were four. It was 1989. Our house in upstate New York was for sale because we were moving to Europe. Our son Jim was four, our daughter Kate was one and a half. After a few days in France, Jim remembered that he had left an important toy truck behind in our house.  We told him no, that the house was empty, but he was inconsolable for a time, so we sat him down, filled him in, and said that we lived here now.  And for months afterwards, whenever anyone asked him where he was from, he would name the village where we had rented that first French house: “La Neuville-sur-Essonne.”  And here is a photograph of Charley, Jim and Kate, in the French village where we were "from":

 Our daughter adapted from the first (she was so young!) except when she developed a fever, in Tanneron, a small town at the peak of a hill above the Mediterranean. We took her to a doctor, gave her baths … only children’s Tylenol from the States brought down her fever. And the next day she was happily eating the tiny wild strawberries (fraises des bois) carried upstairs by our landlady. 

We would enjoy six more summers in France (we went as often as we could afford to) in rented houses, and spent one sabbatical of eight months there before we moved, definitivement (for good!), to France. In the meantime, we brought back pillow cases, battered restaurant silverware from flea markets (always held together with slim pink ribbons), postcards, menus and recipes from one-star hotel dinners, the odd wooden tool for my father, the plastic bags shaped to hold exactly two baguettes... We had very little money in those days, but we felt rich, and we felt lucky:

We had exported so many little pieces of things, and memories, and phrases (we knew that a point du jour meant "at the first light of day," for instance). And we looked forward, always, to the living-there. 

It was always about belonging, making the nest.  And I think it still is.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Paint Splatters and Artists' Books and High-Stepping Deer

I had changed a painting -- one that was finished, I thought, about a year ago -- because it didn't seem to me to be working anymore. I changed it until it was unrecognizable, almost back to the wood, virtually blank. I painted and scraped and -- my favorite -- dripped and threw red and blue paint.  Since the original painting had disappeared, I figured that I was absolutely free. Fun! (yeah, and a little scary!)

We went to an exhibition in downtown San Rafael called "The Art of the Book" at the Donna Seager Gallery. (Fourth Street, where the gallery is, has lots of interesting coffee shops, artsy stores, galleries and restaurants, and it was really fun to walk around and see everyone walking, talking, blowing bubbles... the city sponsors an art walk every second Friday of the month). The gallery show was filled with handmade and altered books -- with a really broadly-defined idea of what a book might be. There were books softened into shapes like stones, set in a bowl. There was a boxed book/puzzle/philosophical board game by the precise and inventive book artist Julie Chen. There were two accordion books, unfolded and hanging down the wall, so that they fell into a kind of vertical scroll, with Japanese characters and photographs and fabric-wrapped covers, by Howard Munson (who had also bound a book by another artist ... a self-portrait-as-cyclist... in the show).  The creativity and sheer determination (how long did that one take? how did she do that? how did he think of that?) were really inspiring. We decided that one visit wouldn't be enough; we will have to make sure we get back again (the show is there until April 30).

The thrown paint and the book-art have something in common: pattern and repetition.  The paint must be thrown in a repeated arc, so that a pattern of ribbons and dots forms. The departures from the pattern then seem to add movement:

And the artist books play with ideas of pattern and repetition, too. Here is the postcard from the gallery, with a picture of a terrific work by Daniel Essig called "Totem":

His pages pull around in the motion of a circle -- with no obvious beginning or end -- the pattern of the stitched pages forming an unfamiliar kind of binding, and yet they spring from the top of what looks like a traditional leather-bound book. The artists in this show defy expectations...

As did our resident deer, who are so interested in the fallen camellia petals that they climbed our stairs, tonight, slipping, in the rain, in an effort to find every single fallen flower:

A new pattern! We will see if they come back....

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A poem (my husband's) and a sketch (mine) despite excessive rain ...

Words of Warning

 “standing where you are
might interfere

with my wireless

block transmissions
we’re supposed

to send.  Late messages
tapped out, telepathy

                  (tap. . . tap. . . tap

here in the dark

(The poem above was written by Charles Tarlton). 
A warning! in a poem, in a season where there are far too many sounds in the dark ... the wind blows, a tree falls, the children next door go to see the roots, the water rushes down the hill, and the rain comes again.  While it has been raining, we have been writing and drawing.  The sketch below is another setting for my vase: the south of France.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

I was wondering about what to do with flowers in a vase

--- why flowers in a vase? (back on March 13). Here is the original monotype:

I made a color xerox of the print, so that I could play with it without hurting the original. I added a sketch of a French landscape (a very rural place we used to bike, that I have in my mind from 2000). I have many past sketches of it, in varying complexities, as an exercise in perspective: the disappearing road, winding down into a stand of trees. I altered the xerox with pen and colored pencil:

I like the fact that I can see the vase as an object in the center of a small French road ... it offers a kind of continuity and timelessness, I think.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

In which Jackson Pollock overcomes his shy nature

So, I have been working on a sketch, which became a monotype, from an idea I had (perhaps it was a dream).... Jackson Pollock's sketchbooks, which I have seen, are filled with very complex drawings, tight, swirling lines, symbols, strange images ... and many Picasso-esque forms.  And Picasso's sketchbooks ... well, you know. So I had the idea, probably because of both men's apparent combativeness, of dueling sketchbooks. What if I could juxtapose the two sets of obsessions ... what would happen?

Well, in this first incarnation, Pollock appears to have the upper hand. Here is a close-up of "his" section of the print:

Monday, March 21, 2011

Un train peut en CACHER un autre

This was the fanciest, and oldest, of the track-side signs we saw ... it warns that: you [in the formal, or plural, this French "you"] must not cross [the tracks] without looking in both directions [because] one train can HIDE [CACHER] another.  The first summer that we noticed the sign was 1994, and it became a phrase we all knew and used, sometimes seriously, sometimes not.   Trains in France were frequent and wonderful. My husband was only made uncomfortable once, when we rode the TGV (tres grand vitesse, or very fast/big speed) that began in a small city in the Poitou-Charentes. "It feels like an airplane that never leaves the runway," he said.  But one moment we were in the midst of beautiful yellow fields of colza (a crop which would become cooking oil) and the next we had arrived in a high-ceilinged railway station in Paris.

We don't have too many uses for the saying here ... but I have been moving my paintings and prints around a lot, and we have now been here long enough that the boards I paint on are acquiring their own (mostly hidden, by other paintings) painted life. Un (painting) peut en cacher un autre:

Sunday, March 20, 2011

a moment with a Gertrude Stein (about time)

Gertrude Stein gave a lecture in June 1926, first to an audience at Cambridge University and then, 3 days later, at Oxford. The lecture was later printed by Leonard Woolf and was then titled Composition As Explanation.

Stein's explanations are never exactly that. But she is talking about time and art... just as Hiroshige was (see yesterday's notes).  She is looking hard for an audience (this was before The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, when she found them) and in her search for acceptance, she says that the avant-garde writer or artist (with whom she obviously identifies) is not living in some different world... everyone lives in the world of the avant-garde; they just can't always see it that way.  She says that "the creator of the new composition in the arts is an outlaw until he is a classic, there is hardly a moment in between and it is really too bad very much too bad naturally for the creator but also very much too bad for the enjoyer..." I should have liked to hear her saying this that day.  [Picasso, her friend, was someone who was just such "an outlaw" and then, just as suddenly, a "classic." Stein tells the story, in the Autobiography, of a burglary at Picasso's Paris apartment... they took sheets and shirts and spoons... Picasso said he was hoping for a day when someone who understood its true value might come to steal the art]. 

Stein writes that "the only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends on how everybody is doing everything.... the only thing that is different is what is seen when it seems to be being seen, in other words, composition and time-sense."  If we could just "see" the work or read the writing as it it is first "seen" for what it is...  if we could understand "how everybody is doing everything," instead of dismissing it entirely at first.... I think Stein is saying that good art is a true reflection of the feelings of that artist's own time, but so few people, in the time period, can "see" it that way.  She says that "it is so very much more exciting and satisfactory for everybody if one can have contemporaries..." She wants her audience to share her "time-sense." I wonder about the reception she received; I think Stein's work always makes more sense when read aloud, so perhaps the reception gave her a few knowing contemporaries. I hope so.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Creating a moment in time....

The artist Hiroshige printed a series "One Hundred Famous Views of Edo."  The editors of a book of these plates, Melanie Trede and Lorenz Bichler, discuss features of these prints that influenced Western artists, from Van Gogh and Whistler (and, in her current New York show, Helen Frankenthaler). One of Hiroshige's trademarks is the object along a left or right margin of the work, shown in part and closer to the viewer. This larger, partial object is called a repoussoir. The editors say that the scholar Henry D. Smith called the use of this technique "proto-filmic," because the cropped object brings in the idea of time... we must be, or the object must be, moving through time in order for us to see it in this state. Here is the example from the book:

The editors note that the person being carried has just left his sedan chair (the object to the right) and is now moving through the landscape. This seems to me to be an idea that leads directly to abstraction; the painter is not painting an object in order to capture it, in all its dimensions, but rather to say something about the moment of looking.  I have never thought of this marginal hovering, exactly, as a way of portraying movement. Here's a photo with a large-ish object on the right-hand side:

A new camellia blossom... not moving.  Let's crop it and try again:

Maybe it's just the juxtaposition of the two photographs, but this looks like movement to me!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Summer Journals: French and English inspiration

I was just looking back at a journal from nearly 10 years ago, when we took our children overseas for the summer. Our son was heading to soccer camp in England, so we discovered a few places there --- just beautiful -- that we had not seen before. Our favorite was probably the area around Dartmoor, with its wild moors and sheep and gorse and hedgerows (which I had never really seen, but only heard about from poetry, Wordsworth's "hardly hedgerows..."). Here is a sketch from a morning walk in the rain:

This was one of those spots that was lush and gorgeous, even in the rain....

We drove across France ... the autoroutes there have art near the roads for drivers, and then there are signs telling you that you are near Cezanne's mountain, or here is that chateau or that wine-growing area that you have been looking for ... we had a dashboard picnic at a rest-stop chosen by our daughter. It overlooked Carcassonne:

The food was good ... the view amazing. Photographs just weren't working, because the castle/town walls are so enormous, so it had to be sketched. After lunch, we got off the main roads for a bit and found another amazing sight, fields ploughed as they would have been ages ago:

We landed at a gite on a small river; it had been a mill and there was a clear area of plexiglass floor (maybe 18 inches square) in the kitchen that allowed us to see through to the churning water below, and when the doors and windows were open the water roared in our ears. It was a very calming sound, somehow! It was here that we finally figured out the French washing machine, which had always seemed to us to run nearly all day in pursuit of cleanliness:

It may not seems as inspiring as a castle or a Roman field or an old mill-house or a Sherlock-Holmes style moor... but, to me, laundry hanging out on a line, blowing in the breeze on a sunny day, is quintessentially European, an important piece of the day, and a beautiful, completely ordinary sight.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

I transferred the piece of painting from yesterday to a digital format (Brushes, which I know about because of David Hockney -- his exhibition of iPad drawings was shown in Paris), and I played with it last night and this morning. Then I was ready to work on keeping my promise... the paper went through the press twice, and I added a bit of collage to it.  Here it is:

I am happy... and I think the print is, too. Now I just need to fix the original painting! (Over the next several days ... tonight it's corned beef hash for dinner, in honor of St. Patrick's Day tomorrow).

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A "petite" note on the space between...

Something small ... thinking about "between" things. 

A little distance between me and a bird I am trying to photograph is a good thing ... the white pelican (who knew?) is too far away to be worried about my movements.  Some time between the writing of an essay and handing-in-to-a-professor -- or publishing, or between the painting and its delivery to a gallery can be good things, allowing for some last-minute scrutiny (and maybe helpful/brilliant changes).  Too much time between courses at a restaurant? No, not good. Too much space between lovers? Not, generally, a good thing. 

And yet ... space inside works of art is really important. Sometimes, drawings flourish without much air... think of the album cover for the Beatle's "Revolver."  But, often, I think that when viewers see too much ink, paint, charcoal, embellishment, varnish, whatever, that turns the whole experience claustrophobic. 

I was sitting drinking coffee with my husband, waiting for our daughter. I looked out the window and saw this amazing space between two buildings. It has to go somewhere. I sketched the space out in a painting, but I have since whited out that early draft. I think I will work on reviving it, in the interests of this new thinking about the spaces between. Here is its former self:

My promise: you'll be back!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Flowers in the rain, Lathe and Plaster, and Wars I Have Seen

So, it rains a lot more... but the camellias like it. French pansies withstood everything the Normandy winter threw at them, and these flowers are just as robust, and they, too, are very beautiful, and tall enough to be out of the way of the deer:

There is a lot of color in California in late winter... there is a tree here that looks like mimosa, with yellow cascading flowers, and we just saw the orange poppies by the road the other day, and the mustard-flowers are all over Napa Valley.  The colors just come at you, right through the rain.

I have been working on a painting for months. It is 3 x 3 feet, on wood, and it was inspired by seeing a British artist, at home in his studio, discussing some very serious thing, but over his shoulder I saw the wooden frames and the bare walls of the place where he works, together with a couple of paintings hung up for the sake of the camera. It was the walls that got me... so I drew them, even though I am not usually a painter of straight lines, and I drew him new paintings (because his were not abstract enough for me)  and I have been working to tone up and trim down the geometry of the space... and I think I have it. The studio walls reminded me of our house in Upstate New York... when we bought it, my husband stripped the living and dining rooms down, pulling out all the lathe and plaster until all we could see was the original framing of the house (it turned out to have been built in 1858). I was pregnant... until all the lathe and plaster made it out of the house in boxes and into a dumpster, we had one path from the one working downstairs room (the kitchen) to the one working upstairs room (the bedroom). I still have a picture of Charley, covered in dust ... we thought the bare walls and the new start was all very romantic. So, I was working between the video of this artist I did not know and the memory of the house we lived in for so many years with our children... and the "walls" had to somehow combine the two. Here is the finished work:

If we were still in New York, I would be going to this fabulous combination of sound and sights, and orchestra lit by bedside-table style lamps from the 40's, with the female musicians speaking sections of Gertrude Stein's book of war experiences (almost the final thing she wrote) Wars I Have Seen, together with baroque music and the Sampler Suite (cantors singing songs from the 30's and 40's) and staccato machine-gun fire ... so many things to hear and to see, live on stage, and created with music and direction by Heiner Goebbels.  The piece was originally commissioned by the Southbank Centre in London, but is going to be in New York at Alice Tully Hall, on March 18th... I am sorry I will be missing it! Here is the ad, with a smiling Stein, a survivor of WW II:

Wars I Have Seen is good reading, but if you like Stein's experimental writing, try Mrs. Reynolds! It, too, deals with waiting through the war, and somehow it encourages, calms, makes better....

Sunday, March 13, 2011

It was a dark and stormy night....

Well, it isn't really dark yet, but it is raining, the squirrels are not cavorting* on the roof,  the tops of the redwoods are leaning gently back and forth, and the sky is bright gray. The view is really pretty, with the light reflecting back inside:

The weather has changed several times today, from windy to just a bit cool, to sunny, and finally to this uniformly-colored (but still oddly well-lit) sky. Our Buddha (who bears some resemblance to Gertrude Stein) has been watching over all these changes with the usual calm demeanor:

I am using the quiet time in the rain to look at a copy of a monotype that has been sitting in our living room for some time now, an experiment with acrylic paints run through the press. (The paints worked better after a few tries, once I understood the right amount of glaze to add to slow the drying time...  acrylic dries much faster than oils, and it needs help to allow it to remain damp enough to print properly).  The print itself is quite realistic, for me, and shows a glass vase, the stems of the flowers underneath the water, and delicate pink roses against green leaves above the rim of the vase.  I had copied the forms from a lush and nearly perfect painting by Edouard Manet, "Moss Roses in a Vase."  I grew curious about this late still-life -- there aren't many still-life works by this artist.  Manet is more famous for his large-scale figure studies and commentaries on the nude and riffs on the narrative painting: "Olympia," or "Luncheon on the Grass," or "The Bar at the Folies-Bergere" -- this last painting was finished in the same year as the flowers, 1882, one year before he died, in 1883, at the age of 51.  I think the very pale, tame roses were a deliberate choice; a still-life of fruits or cut flowers will deteriorate as it is painted,  and if the artist needs a perfect model, the objects will be replaced, or, if the artist is painting the changes, when to stop? How quickly can someone paint before the "changes" change again? These roses are still live, still softly glowing, yet the petals are just on the edge of being tipped with brown. He knew.

Where it is possible to photograph roses, perfectly-painted flowers -- in any stage -- are no longer easy subjects for painters. Walking through galleries, we do see ironic paintings of flowers, or perhaps flowers in the background of something more important, or, if we are lucky, we might wander into David Hockney's iPad paintings of flowers in vases, exhibited in Paris. What to do with these roses?

I am still working on that....

*in the meantime, one added note: perhaps "cavorting" seems excessive to describe squirrel movements... but that's how it sounds, to us, living under a peaked roof.  Language is worth playing with, despite the comment I heard from a character in the first season of Bones. The FBI agent Booth says, in response to an observation by his female companion, Bones, the forensic anthropologist (who often says things that are "too" truthful or too likely to send listeners to a dictionary): he looks at her and says "You have to quit using the words 'segue' and 'eschew,' alright? They sound French." (They're not, but it was a very funny moment).

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Benday and the Jets....

I do think I have figured out the Benday dot painting. If you know the close-together dots of the comic book and (particularly the early) Roy Lichtensteins, you may not recognize the influence, since the dots here are "so spaced out" (that phrase always reminds me of Elton John and Bernie Taupin's "Bennie and the Jets," I can't help it)... but the fact is that Lichtenstein, even though his art doesn't have as many (apparent) followers as Cubism, created something just as radical, a kind of departure for how we perceive space. And when you see his work in person, it gets to you. It certainly got to me. And so I have moved the dots away from each other to see if that would make that "space-between" any more visible. And then inside each dot is a piece of landscape, the skies, the grasses, the mustard flowers and a bit of vine from driving through Napa... and the mist, because it was raining, is everywhere else... and the tiled border, the three white squares, is for safety. And the painting seems joyful to me... I am delighted with it... I think it is done!

Friday, March 11, 2011

"through glass so bright..."

In the newest New York Review of Books (3/24/11), Edmund White reviews a new edition of Parade's End and, in the process, discusses Ford Madox Ford's artistic connections and approaches. Ford and Joseph Conrad collaborated on three novels and on the primacy of "remembered or invented images" over fact. White includes this wonderful quote from Ford: "'Impressionism exists to render those queer effects of real life that are like so many views seen through bright glass -- through glass so bright that whilst you perceive through it a landscape or a backyard, you are aware that, on its surface, it reflects a face of a person behind you.'" So, in this one sentence, you are separated from what you see, by this glass, and yet it frames what you see before you at the same time as it frames you, and anyone who happens to be in range (and looking over your shoulder).  You have a through-line, then: the landscape you see, the glass, you, your shadow or friend.... all of it glittering because of the shiny glass. (And, if there were a mirror behind you? or a camera? or another window?) Who needs the facts to be recounted when there is all this possible light and image and form and closeness and distance and reflection and shadow....

It keeps coming back to the space between ... and so I am back to the Benday dots (not, now, reflected in my monotype, but I am working on them in a painting). Do they represent a form of continuity, the dots, because they are reproduced over and over again?  In his later work, Lichtenstein would shift away from the comic-book world and instead portray (things I think I remember) a room where a sofa and coffee table lines up against a mirror, and then the scene shifts to another world entirely, maybe a Picasso-esque model.... Lichtenstein had said that he intended his work to be "anti-contemplative, anti-mystery, anti-paint quality."  Yeah, that's what he said, but his work is that shiny glass, putting you up against it and beside it and looking through it... at yourself, and maybe some other people (in your world? or in your memory?). That's plenty contemplative and mysterious for me....and here are the journal entries to prove it:

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Napa, crossing York Creek

The rain seemed to bring out the patterns of the vines. The branches were all trimmed to the same height, the rows were impossibly even, wires and posts ensured that nothing would escape. The grass in some vineyards was trimmed or pulled; in others, grass and yellow mustard blossoms took our attention away from the gray skies and the bare branches. No leaves yet. Mists rose partway up the mountains, peaks still visible, nearly a Japanese print. It was really really pretty.

So, given that this world was so lush, I felt I had to take another run at my Benday dot monotype. I decided to try something I had heard that Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg had each done: re-visit a print and add layers ... not via the press, but by adding oil-stick or acrylic paint ... I have re-worked prints, but never so thoroughly ... so I sanded the interiors of each "dot" and then painted over the sanded circle, following the colors of the wet wine country and leaving the initial blue of the print alone.  The monotype has new life, I think:

The sky, the clouds, the mists, the grasses, the quiet vines, the mustard flowers are all there.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Throwing Paint

It has been awhile since I have cleared enough space in my studio to throw paint, and I had forgotten how much fun it is! Above is a small space of a larger painting, with thrown paint and pen outlines...

Off to work on the Benday dot painting and more monotype sketches....

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Agnes turned her back

I was watching a documentary, by Mary Lance, about the painter Agnes Martin; it is called "With my back to the world." Early on, the (then 86-year-old) artist explained that she did turn her back... she said she needed a quiet mind for inspiration to enter in, and that she only began a painting when she could see an image of it fully-formed in her mind (and then she begins the mathematical calculations to expand it to 5 x 5 feet).  Martin's paintings are, for some people, very difficult to love. They are composed largely of horizontal lines, begun in pencil, and then painted in with thin lines of very pale shades of paint. She said that she considered herself to be an Abstract Expressionist (but her work is very different from the extravagant splashes we usually associate with AbEx work... think Robert Motherwell or Joan Mitchell). But many people must love her ... the books and catalogs that remain in print are rare and pricey, and her work sells rather well.  Martin seemed to feel that her work may be accessible, if people give it a chance: "if you wake up in the morning and you feel very happy -- about nothing -- no cause -- that's what I paint about -- and I'm hoping that people when they ... respond to [these paintings] ... will realize that they make responses ... that are completely abstract, you know, and that their lives are broader than they think."

Do artists need to turn their backs in order to create work that people can respond to? Martin said that her past -- over twenty years of trying to paint and living among other painters and traveling -- gave her enough experience to work from for the rest of her life. And so she preferred living on her own. Gertrude Stein said (maybe in Alice's voice, in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas?) that she liked a view, but she liked to turn her back to it. She wrote after everyone else went to bed, sometimes until the birds began singing in the morning. Focus is important ... but Stein did set up her Paris apartment as a place to meet artists and writers and encouraged conversation, and only wrote after everyone had left.

This less-isolated way of working, Stein's focused moments in an otherwise social life, is also my husband's way ... Charley calls it working "in the interstices," stealing little moments "between" peeling the onions or returning the phone call or writing a Tanka prose piece or ... whatever. He came up with it as an expression long ago, in New York, as we were raised our two children, because, while he was sitting at the kitchen table or standing making dinner, he wrote a number of essays "between" talking with me or the kids. But his political theory essays (then) and his poetry (now) came of lived experience, drew images and life from everything going on around him.

Much as I like Agnes Martin's work, and the feeling in her work, I think some rhythm, some contact, is pretty crucial ... at least for most of us! Most of my work comes from thinking about the landscape as we (together) have walked or driven through it, and then I can "see" images later to bring back that experience. Everyday things, but with people.

Here are 4 of Charley's peeled apples, waiting through the "interstices"to become a pie for company:

Monday, March 7, 2011

Benday Dots ... and Fail Better, with Sushi Boats

So I had an idea for a monotype. I started to wonder about Roy Lichtenstein's Benday dots, the ones that he enlarged from their comic book beginnings. I thought that if I could print a scattering of such dots, farther away from one another, that we might, perhaps, be able to see the colors between. And space, which, unless you are Vermeer, and so few of us are, is REALLY hard to paint.  So I imagined a back porch somewhere in the vicinity of some cabernet sauvignon vines and some sky and some fluffy white clouds and I tried for a sketch and I tried, then, for a print. Here is a corner of the monotype, run twice through the press, fastened to my drawing board:

 The dots have taken on an ugly thick impasto and are not the lovely, delicate things I had hoped for.  And they didn't take on a life of their own; rather, they just sit there, lifeless inks over ink on paper. I do toss a rather large percentage of my prints, because, sometimes, art fails. Samuel Beckett wrote, in Worstward Ho: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Fail again. Fail better."  So, since I still like the idea, my "fail better" will be a painting of the same idea, and here is the sketch:

Tomorrow, maybe. Today, instead, for a whole different kind of space, we went to San Francisco's Japantown. We ate lunch at the restaurant that apparently started the idea of the sushi boat, Isobune, and people just kept coming in, for the salmon and the eel and the seaweed salad and the octopus and the tempura rolls and the crabmeat ... and later we stopped in at two different stationers and came home with a series of clear plastic file folders because, well, they are so beautiful, and they cost, I think, $2.49 each:

And so it is now time to watch the reflections come up on our windows, as the sky darkens, and "fail better" tomorrow:

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The novelist, the coup, two poets, and a painting

We were listening to a BBC radio interview with the writer Javier Cercas, whose novel "The Anatomy of A Moment" has just come out in English (translated by Anne McLean) in paperback. It was a wonderful interview... he is a very, very thoughtful person!  Someone in the audience asked if he believed what he appeared to be suggesting in the title of the novel and in its resolution -- that everything can hinge on just one moment -- and he agreed, I think, that he did believe in seeing and exploring that moment. I looked up the novel and his prologue to it, where he writes that he has written this particular novel, based on historical events, "to understand that gesture or image" he saw -- the body language of one person, Adolfo Suarez -- as he looked at films from February 23, 1981, the day of the coup in Spain. Cercas writes that as gunmen burst into the legislative chamber that day, Suarez remained calmly seated. Everyone "saw" it, even though there was no live coverage... there was footage, that came out later, that was edited and shown that evening, and that everyone who saw those films believes that he or she saw the confrontation as it happened. Cercas suggests that people then held onto that memory, without delving into it ... and that this habit of ours, to first interpret an encounter and then box it away neatly, happens all the time. He writes in this prologue that "the truly enigmatic is not what no one has seen, but what we've all seen many times and which nevertheless refuses to divulge its significance ..."  And he decides to go back to studying Suarez and, through writing the novel, re-visiting the true import of the "gesture" seen on that film. Cercas quotes Borges: "every destiny, however long and complicated, essentially boils down to a single moment -- the moment a man knows, once and for all, who he is."

I think this is why we read and view art and why we make art ...  we are trying to find the moment.  I look for the moment when a painting resolves... it is what I hoped it would be, it is what it needed to be.  We read books or go to see films or exhibitions because we hope to find something that speaks to that moment in us.  In an interview I saw with (the photographer) Sally Mann's son, he said of her process that "she has a dream vision," and she doesn't stop refining a photograph until she gets there. And W.B. Yeats wrote, in the sequence "A Woman Young and Old,": "If I make the lashes dark/ And the eyes more bright.... No vanity's displayed:/ I'm looking for the face I had/  Before the world was made."  We are looking for that "single moment." We don't always stay with that hunt ... Yeats's woman, in the next poem of the series, says "I long for truth, and yet..."

Yes, so, to stay with it... You must look, you must hear... T.S. Eliot wrote, in "Four Quartets," that so much is "Not known, because not looked for/ But heard, half-heard, in the stillness/ Between two waves of the sea." We are so often between those "two waves," not paying attention, but then, sometimes, it comes right, because we are looking, and then we rest for just a minute, and the moment comes, and we seize it. I have been working on three paintings for a long time now, and one of them, a big one (2 feet by 4 feet), called "In Winter, The Gardener Does Not Sleep," found its moment this morning. ... I am really pleased with it: