Sunday, July 31, 2011

Cornfields, blue and green ...

My husband says that, for Ohio and Indiana, at least, cornfields are the answer to the vineyards of Northern California. The fields are strikingly beautiful, agriculture at its pastoral best... Here are some photographs I took of Indiana's fields:

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The "white, white" sea (Twombly's words), continued...

Subjectivity. My own... here is a short display of what I sometimes go through as I am assessing work. Start with two sketches, the paintings from photographs, like yesterday's, of the Sound peeking through:

The top drawing is, for me, too claustrophobic. I was working to "make visible" the spaces between the tree branches, to give them their own space, but, instead, they are clogged with paint. The lower sketch, however, still has both air and sky... it is, to me, a far better indicator of the "space between" that I saw on my walk.

But, then, my husband says that all argument and interpretation is made up of logic, observations, references, definitions, etc., assembled to prove, support or demonstrate ideas arrived at spontaneously, by intuition, in a flash. We feel ... and then we scramble to prove the feeling to be right or "true." So, in the case of the drawings above, I say that the top sketch is claustrophobic because of clogged paint. I want to try to "explain" my feeling.  Perhaps, in art, that isn't always possible.

Monday, July 25, 2011

"The Mediterranean is always just white, white, white..."

-- or so Cy Twombly told an art critic (quoted in The Guardian's Twombly obituary) as they were discussing his series of 24 drawings "Poems to the Sea."  Sometimes the sea is white. The Long Island sound was white this morning, on my walk, and I was seduced by the spaces between the houses, where the sea gleamed through, whitecaps on pale greys and blues. Here is my photograph:

and the same photograph, painted, to show the "white" sea:

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Lucian Freud has died...

We went to the Freud exhibition years ago at the Met in New York. The paintings that I remember now seem impossibly large; every "naked portrait" (Freud's term) stretched out before the viewer as if it were a landscape: a wrinkled forehead, a rolled tummy, a pale, dimpled bottom, huge as landmarks. Here is a link to an intimate photograph taken by Bruce Bernard of Freud with his very best subject, Leigh Bowery:  Freud made Bowery's majesty come through the work (there is a wonderful film, "The Legend of Leigh Bowery," available to rent -- no-one else you know will ever inhabit this contemporary-Renaissance-man-of the-moment-party-guest world, ever). Freud was, by all accounts, a really good friend.

Many of the non-Bowery works by Freud were somber, depressing studies of men and women, the models contemplative, but depressed. It was as if the artist captured them through a keyhole. We aren't supposed to see strangers so closely; it's rather like seeing someone all alone, on the street in front of you, burst into tears. Portraits promise proximity in that way. It's difficult to know what to do. (My recollection of the pictures is that even the plants are portrayed as dying).  These "naked portraits" succeed in breaking  the spell of the "male gaze."  I suspect that is a large part of the point.

My husband says that it isn't what the works show us, exactly; it isn't about the subject, he insists. It's about the paint.  And that paint is as thickly applied as it is in a skyline by Constable. It's wonderful, tactile, and I suspect that this may be why it is so disturbing to see roomsful of Freud.  I'd like to see them again, however; it strikes me that there is much I missed years ago... there is a beauty to this man's seeing the ungainliness in people and setting it down, forever. There are hints that I may have missed some playful artistic references, too. Look at the background of this detail from a 2002 self-portrait, printed in yesterday's New York Times; isn't it a Jackson Pollock?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Studies in figure/ground

First, a Picasso-esque sketch:

And a day-lily:

And a painted-over Watteau, a study in form....

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Sky is the Stuff of Dreaming....

Two things. I was reading Gertrude Stein today -- Everybody's Autobiography (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Exact Change, 1993).  And Stein is discussing the flat surfaces of painting and wooden houses and skyscrapers which

is a wrong name because in America there is no sky
there is air but no sky of course that has a lot to do with
why there really is no painting in America no real painting
but it is not necessary when there are houses and windows and air. (p. 188)

And I began, naturally, to wonder what Stein means.  The definition of air seems always to be caught up in scientific language -- gases -- and then the definition of sky is visual -- appearance, expanse. And perhaps it seemed to Stein, visiting America in the 1930's, that we were progressing from wood to steel, and becoming more industrial than agricultural, where air and space would be more useful and appropriate terms than sky.  But France, where Stein chose to live, still identified itself by referring to farms and villages; in fact, it still does: every Parisian has a home village.  And Stein, of course, famously said that her country was America but Paris was her home town.

Why set up these opposing forces -- sky and air, home town and country, France and America?

Stein herself must have needed sky rather then air.  (I could say something here about how she abandoned her scientific studies for literature, but I won't).  The sky changes from place to place. The clouds in Normandy are different from the clouds in Alsace, and different still from the skies of Mystic, Connecticut or Napa Valley.  The way we look up changes. What we are looking for changes,  depending upon where we are doing the looking. The sky is what we look at when we are dreaming about ourselves being here or there; the belonging thing.

The second thing today was a house, a former school house, on the sea. It has always been the one house in America that we dreamed about. Yes, it appears to have sky.  Today, my husband was invited into the dream house.  Perhaps, the tenant said, the house might be for sale.  My husband drew me a diagram of the house to show me where the bedrooms were tucked away and where the glass wall faced the sea.  We traced the house to its current owner; he is not selling. But for just a few moments there, we lived by the sea.

So here is a drawing-painting for Gertrude and for the house by the sea; the sky is on the right.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Few (Playful!) Ideas on Perspective and the Fourth Wall

 "Me to play" (Hamm, in Samuel Beckett's Endgame)

In the first chapter of her book, The Originality of the Avant-Garde, Rosalind Krauss mentions perspective. She is working on detaching perspective’s crossed wires (the ones we all remember from Art History blackboards) from her reader’s impressions of the grid, which she wants to discuss at much greater length. It may not be fully polite to pull these few brief phrases on perspective away from their context for greater attention, but I do believe that Rosalind Krauss will understand. I am playing with what she says here, starting with her entirely authoritative view on the subject....

A young model and painter recently remarked that she was collecting books about perspective. She doesn’t mention why. I believe that we do not think about the ways we “assume” perspective, any more than we think about the fourth wall between us and actors on the stage -- until a dramatist calls our attention to it. Modernism and post-modernism and post-post were the arts meant to wake us up -- but we still see those lines in our dreams.

Here is the core of what Krauss writes: for fifteenth- and sixteenth-century artists, “the perspective lattice is inscribed on the depicted world as the armature of its organization …. Perspective was … the science of the real, not the mode of withdrawing from it.  Perspective was the demonstration of the way reality and its representation could be mapped onto one another, the way the painted image and its real-world referent did in fact relate to one another – the first being a form of knowledge about the second …” (10). 

The “lattice” of perspective is “inscribed on” a picture as the “armature of its organization,” Krauss says. She is perfectly right; the “lattice” is not integral to the scene the artist wishes to portray. Lovely word, lattice, but, architecturally, it is meant to separate the man or woman at the window from all that he or she surveys, as with these women in John Frederick Lewis's "Indoor Gossip, Cairo" from 1873:

 And, as Krauss notes, perspectival lines must be “inscribed” by the artist’s hand, imposed from without; the landscape is branded, really, re-organized, so that we can readily trace the object back from our marked spot as viewer to the vanishing point.  

We have been taught to see. We imagine the horizon line, and not only when we look at a painted landscape.  As we go on vacation, and gaze at sunsets, we sketch in the diagonal lines ourselves, and see the two rows of trees, or the grapevines, or the jetty, stretching to that imaginary horizon, each tree or rock diminishing, one after the other, in precise rhythm.  As we do this bit of artwork up against real horizons, we must not move, ourselves, as that would completely spoil the lines.

Krauss says that perspective was  [and many would say, still is] “the science of the real, not the mode of withdrawing from it.”  And yet, think of that lattice: a means of withdrawal; again, John Frederick Lewis, in "The Siesta," from 1876:

(See... isn't this fun?) We must remain motionless, on its other side, just as we must remain motionless in our seats and imagine that “wall” between us and the very-contemporary human onstage playing the role of the king, the one written in the 16th century.  And yet, even Shakespeare wrote in asides, the little winks to the audience that broke the wall.  Aren’t we able, then, to move from our rooted spot in the landscape, as Constable did when he packed up his brushes and went in to lunch, after painting "Hadleigh Castle, the Mouth of the Thames -- Morning After a Stormy Night," in 1829:

Wouldn’t movement be more scientific?

Krauss ends the remarks on perspective by saying that “reality and its representation” were, for these early artists, “mapped onto one another,” since they saw perspective as a “form of knowledge” about their “real-world referent” (10).  It was, for a long time, a required way of knowing. But it should not carry such pure authority now. David Hockney has said that the problem with perspective is that “it stops time. …. Space has become frozen, petrified” (from True to Life: Twenty-Five Years of Conversations with David Hockney, by Lawrence Wechsler, published in paper by The University of California Press, p. 66).  And that same critic who interviewed Hockney, Lawrence Wechsler, quotes an earlier artist, Jacques Riviere, who said in 1912 that “perspective is the sign of an instant, of the instant when a certain man is as a certain point …. But in reality, we can change position: a step to the right, a step to the left, completes our vision” (Wechsler, 197). 

So, wouldn’t it be fun to really think about perspective; if we do use it, as painters, let’s play with it, let’s break it down, the way a Shakespearean actor breaks down that final wall, with an aside to our audiences…. As Hamm would say, "Me to play."

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Friday, July 15, 2011

A day of seeing far-away and close-up horizons...

The marsh and osprey nest:

The neighbor's chairs lined up to make way for the lawnmower:

And asparagus, fresh basil & tomatoes from our local farm stand, along with bread crumbs & pesto, for a bluefish dinner (said to be a Martha's Vineyard favorite, an idea from a local chef):


Thursday, July 14, 2011

Not entirely destroyed, but changed utterly.... for a "Landskip"

So, the "Silks up against grass" and the "Untitled: Figure/ground" paintings (see posts from the last few days) are unrecognizable. I have painted white over them, and over a third 18 x 24" wooden base that I had not yet touched, and started a new problem.  The paintings felt too tight, and they were beginning with a theoretical problem (figure/ground, alternating which recedes and which comes forward) instead of my usual idea of "place."  The Yale Center for British Art fixed a label next to a painting that quoted Thomas Gainsborough (whose portrait, "Mary Little,"  I talked about yesterday) as having lamented: "I'm sick of Portraits and wish to ... walk off to some Sweet Village where I can paint Landskips & enjoy the fag end of Life in quietness & ease." And, you know, there is nothing like seeing a group of magnificent works like the ones Mellon collected to make me think "I can do better."

So I am looking here for "quietness & ease." I painted out the other work, but left a few signs of the earlier two paintings underneath the white.  Then I painted myself a problem. This morning, Long Island Sound was so blue that it was positively Mediterranean. So, for the Sound, a triptych's beginning, 18 x 72", in paint:

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Paul Mellon and the Queen's Skirt... and an exception!

We went to the Yale Center for British Art, a compact, but wonderful collection of work from Paul Mellon's collection. We were lucky, someone told us, because there were no large special exhibitions, so more of the collection was on view than is normally the case. And what a collection ...  I took notes and photographs. Back (in this blog, in some detail) on June 7th, I had written about my Queen's skirt theory, where I argue that, often, portrait painters are more taken by the silks, the pearls, the furs, the embroidered details of dress, than they are by the wealthy or royal sitter's face.  And I found a couple of paintings that seemed to confirm my theory, nicely. The first is by Frederick Sandys, from 1866, called "Grace Rose":

She's lovely, but the vase and the roses and her necklace outshine her rather distant expression. Here is another, by Thomas Gainsborough, "Mary Little," from 100 years earlier, in 1763:

Again, lovely, a little more facial activity, but still, look at where he lavishes his attention:

The hand is like marble, perfect, but the poseys and the lace are alive. But, now, for the exception to the rule, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, "Mrs. Robinson," from a few years later, in 1784:

The clothing is, you should pardon the pun, immaterial.  Even the elaborate wig is scrubbed of extra details... what matters is this woman's profile.  She is herself, alone. She lived to be 42, and was painted by everyone .... but this has to be the definitive work. Go and see her. (There are hourly trains from Manhattan to New Haven, and the museum is free).

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Silks up against grass ... new layer

So, as I said yesterday, I thought the work was growing a bit too tight, so I have gone back over the last two "shadow" additions and softened them so they are a bit more ambiguously figure/ground:

Monday, July 11, 2011

Loosening the lines...

after the shadows appeared on the paintings, I realized that they are composed of pretty tight outlines and brushstrokes, so I played with a different approach:

Friday, July 8, 2011

By chance, again....figure/ground

I have applied the sunlight and shadows to the "Silks up against grass" painting, because it seemed to me unfinished, still:

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Francis Bacon said "I want a very ordered image,

but I want it to come about by chance."

Sometimes, I throw paint at one canvas and splatter a photograph on the wall as well. Or, I come home from a Matisse show and paint over everything in the studio with his blue. The photograph is still on the wall, rather intensified by its new blues and reds; the Matissean blues had themselves to be painted away.

But that sunlight and shadow that I photographed two days ago? It was a lucky accident. Something was missing from that painting -- I was tending towards too much middle ground -- that came back into it when the light and shade hit, so I have painted it in. The painting had reached this point:

But now is here:

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Cy Twombly has died in Rome...

His style of art, for abstract painters, is so influential. His art can look like elegant graffiti, as he carves into white paint or a black "chalkboard" as if the canvas were marble.  Somehow, he makes scrumbled, layered, almost "erased" paint look beautiful. Twombly also is less well-known, I think, than some of his contemporaries, like Jasper Johns; he is something of a painter's painter, perhaps.

My husband has written a piece of tanka-prose poetry about Twombly:

Some Lost Dialogue from Catallus’ Leaving

Cy Twombly died yesterday — the great scribbler line-drawer smudge-maker magician.  Watch that circle going up, coming over, down.  Roller-coaster art.  How little suggestion a flower takes, how little influence a single brush-stroke makes: two dollops of red, yellows, greens violet, and white daubed on and you have the idea, the idea of a great bouquet but he drew no flowers.  A large red circle and he lay down for a nap.

speaks in infinitives,
where motives spring
origins of things to do

to and fro trancelike
ebb and flow
you look in
just your running through

a few at a time
abandoning them
you look in
search for the plot

but there’s none
this fruitless searching
did you know
a secret
did you have one?
---Charles Tarlton

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Sun and shadows ...

just showed up, on a newer version of the untitled figure/ground ... (Must remember that Manet and Braque show us what blacks and browns can do and for whites: Joan Mitchell, Cy Twombly, and Julie Mehretu) ... When I see these overlays of sunlight and shadows, it makes me wonder: the painted figure and ground, the object and its setting, are here covered over by patches of sunlight which is, in turn, covered over by the shadows of the brushes... where is figure and ground now?

Monday, July 4, 2011

Figure/ground seeks title....

A few lines from a Wallace Stevens poem follow up on yesterday and lead to the next version of that same untitled painting, below:

... The sky is too blue, the earth too wide.
The thought of her takes her away.
The form of her in something else
Is not enough....                   (Section IV, from "Bouquet of belle Scavoir")

The background has grown more blue, a little green, some yellows, and the form is still taking shape, and is (not yet) "enough":

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Belonging ... IS ... figure/ground

We lived in France for several summers and a sabbatical of eight months in various rented houses and, lastly, for nearly 2 years in this house in Normandy:

And through it all, we had always felt ... French.  But that wasn't right, exactly, and we didn't quite fit.  We sold the house and the car and some of the furniture and came back to the U.S., this time to the West Coast, where we had family but no real history, yet.  And, while we all know it isn't any use not moving, moving, all by itself, is interesting in a peculiar sort of way and it can make you question ... everything. California? Connecticut or New York?  where, exactly, does a person belong? I have talked about the idea of belonging here, before (March 26th and 28th, for example) but I find now that I have an artistic response...

I wrote about Francis Bacon and figure/ground on May 19 ... I do think that the idea may have been to paint all the anguish into the figures on canvas ... but I do think the ground needs its fair share of that tortured linear movement. Sometimes it is the air around the figure that moves. And it came to me in a flash that, really, figure/ground, anguish and stillness, rest and flux: these are all terms about belonging.  Really ... think about it.

And so the series of paintings that I am starting is not so much about juxtaposition ... but belonging, and figure/ground. A ground sliced by a figure, or competing for attention with the figure.  I played with one of these, the picture posted June 28th, today:

Saturday, July 2, 2011

"The 'stream' is merely going on ... by any number of means --- continuously": Kate Davy

Many years ago, (Spring 1978, actually), Twentieth Century Literature published a "Gertrude Stein Issue," which included essays by Edward Burns and Leon Katz (both among the dominant Stein scholars, I believe). But the piece that I am really enjoying now is by Kate Davy, "Richard Foreman's Ontological-Hysteric theater: the Influence of Gertrude Stein" (Vol. 24, No. 1, pp. 108-126).  I have mentioned Richard Foreman before, often in connection with Stein (see May 4, 16, 31, and also check out Foreman's site,  His work, like Stein's, stands alone. Davy works through conversations with and writings by Foreman and also explains Stein's own progress, starting with her teacher, William James.

Davy tells us that Stein is "not a 'stream-of-consciousness' writer as the phrase is popularly understood" but is interested, as James is, in "'introspective observation'" and the fact that, "'within each personal consciousness, thought is sensibly continuous'" and any "interruptions or time gaps" do not break that contiunuity. Davy says that "The 'stream' is merely going on -- intentionally or unintentionally, and by any number of means -- continuously" (110).  Stein, and then Foreman, would make use of this view of the ways we perceive, she in her poems, portraits and plays and he in his plays and notebooks.  What we each "see" in our minds, however quickly the images and ideas pass through, however dis-continuous it might seem to someone else, if they could see it, makes sense to each of us because it is our own unbroken set of perceptions. We are not sifting, remembering, worried about audience when we are most ourselves as creative beings ... we are following this continuous stream ... in the present moment.  Stein, Davy continues, "conceived the static or 'landscape play.' In a landscape composition each element has equal weight and is as significant as the whole .... [she was] eliminating progression" (116).

One of my ways of approaching painting has been to imagine myself moving through a landscape, my argument being that many painters assume a static position, tightly bound to one-point perspective, if they are painting en plein-aire.  But if we walk through a field, or along a road leading into a cluster of trees, we can turn and focus on anything that surrounds us, and whatever we do not choose to "see" is blurred. We are not stuck walking the path that Constable has suggested; we can move anywhere.

But I hadn't really taken into account what Davy reminded me about ... the walking-through that we all do in our minds.  Can this "stream" of perceptions of mine -- or anyone's -- be caught in a drawing or a painting? Perhaps one can only catch one image?  I tried to draw a series of images today at the shore, and sails, osprey, the jetty, a swimmer, the sparkles on the water's surface, the rocks that appear at low tide, the washed sands, the patterns of bathing suits all came onto the page:

Friday, July 1, 2011

knotty-pine panelling

with an unexpected ray of light on a major knot, this morning:

and me, trying to remember and pull back, a bit, in distance, from the image, a couple of hours later: