Friday, September 30, 2011

Pairs: Two letters of Jane Austen and one Matissean nude (alone)

Jane Austen writes her sister Cassandra to say there has suddenly been quite a bit of company, "an accidental meeting & a sudden impulse produced Miss Benn & Maria Middleton at our Tea Table"  (Wednesday 29 May 1811). I love the idea of both the "accidental meeting" and the "sudden impulse," as well as the two guests, (and we hear nothing of them!).

Later, she writes, in mock-complaint,  about her brother Edward's "taste": "Edward is no Enthusiast in the beauties of Nature.  His Enthusiasm is for the Sports of the field only. -- He is a very promising & pleasing young man however upon the whole .... & we must forgive his thinking more of Growse & Partridges than Lakes & Mountains ..." (from Edward's house at Godmersham Park, Sept. 25 1813, to her brother Frank). Again, the lovely, unusual pairings, "Growse & Partridges" and "Lakes & Mountains," sounding a bit like a passage from one of her novels ...

Extra guests do appear at Tea, and people will have differing tastes ... and in Napa, the vendange has to begin now before next week's rain, whether people are ready or not ... so my "here and there" odalisques are progressing nicely, right at home among all these unsettled pairings, judgments and weather patterns. Below is a glimpse of the lovely, strange angles of Matisse's "Blue Nude," who will need something other than the palm fronds and tropical greens of the original:

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Anger and "aesthetic celebration"

Three encounters in the past couple of weeks... the first a get-together with a friend who was betrayed: magnificently, horribly, off-the-charts betrayed.  In the time since we last saw her, she has come back to her "self," the intense, energetic, contrary and fabulous person we knew. Maybe better. She says she isn't spending time anymore with  people who are, underneath it all, angry about something... and it's funny, because if anyone ever had the right to be angry, it would be this woman, but that isn't the way she went.

The second encounter was with the writings of an artist -- someone who is successful, even revered -- but angry, so angry, all the time. So angry that the art -- the thing we all live for, no? -- gets lost in the venom.  Wasn't there any option?

Third encounter: My husband set a couple of books on the table this morning. One of them was Richard Foreman's Unbalancing Acts, plays and essays published in 1992. And I picked it up and began to re-read it. I had forgotten how persuasively he discusses his approaches to his art. And it is a way of thinking that wakes up the artistic voice and uses any found anger as a dancing partner. (The only other book that gave me back a sense of perspective in hard times was Gertrude Stein's Mrs. Reynolds. More on that another time).  I have written here about Richard Foreman before (May 16 and July 2, 2011), and his website is -- do visit!

Foreman describes what he wants to do in "the rhythm of" his plays: to "induce a fast scanning mechanism in the spectator's brain, a hum in his consciousness akin to the Om of the universe in the eastern tradition. To attain that hum, you might first voraciously pursue all the baubles the world offers, look at each for an intense moment, and then throw it aside." And then, he says, you keep looking and replacing each new thing until what you discover is that it is "the hum of the movement that engulfs you" (22).  His art, he says, is the art "that focuses on the hum, the energetic blur, of ... [a] spinning top, rtaher than on the pictures [that would be] visible after it has come to rest and died" (23). And I think this is how our friend played it... she could have focused on the individual pictures, the freeze-frame of the betrayal, now a dead thing,  but instead she has continued to move forward and make her own humming world.

And then Foreman notes that we often see our lives, in the current cultural context, as heading somewhere, progressing towards some specific goal, and we tend, unfortunately, to concentrate on all the big stuff that gets us to the goal-line. But the writers he sees as his influences knew that "every detail of life, including everything usually dismissed as irrelevant or marginal, is of mind-blowing importance .... the incidental stuff left out of the goal-oriented narrative of your life is actually the crucial, potent, soul-making material" (26).  And I remember that when a friend died, what got to me was not remembering his lovely, generous way of bringing people on two sides of an argument together; it was seeing his open, worn, brown leather key-case lying next to his casket.  So are friends remembered, and so are people healed, with the small, almost over-looked, fragments of life. Foreman says this is just a way of teaching yourself to see, all over again: "you want to realize that the world you see is made by the way you see it" (26).  You can do this.  It's a way of seeing.

And the angry artist? It's a question, Foreman says, of "scale": "looked at from the proper distance -- if you are properly detached, and able to compassionately identify with the passions that may be driving [an argument, an obstacle] ... -- the hexagons of conflict may either enlarge, or reduce, until you find you're suddenly viewing them on a different scale, tuned into the harmonic hum of the universe" (28).  Our society, Foreman says, is not really good at "manifest love."  But "the monoliths you perceive as blocking your path to happiness are, in fact, clouds of language and impulse in continual circulation; and you can enter inside these clouds, and dance with these elements" (29-30).  So this is what I would wish upon my artist -- whatever it is that underlies this anger, it cannot make it past your own determination to transform your perception of it.... let go, make it into a dance, a painting, a poem.

One last note: my mother was diagnosed with polio in 1946 at the age of 26. Again, if anyone should have been angry, it should have been her.  But I never saw her angry about what had happened. And  after she died, I kept her writing-case, and inside her address book was tucked this quotation, in her handwriting, lines she wanted to remember:

This is what Richard Foreman calls "aesthetic celebration."

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The very air is charged....

Francis Bacon painted the body electric. The works are a gorgeous study in figure (charged) ground (not) relations.... I have discussed Bacon's work before (April 9, July 2, July 7, all 2011, here).  I love his work. But I do believe that there is room for a dialogue of sorts, an annotation, if you will.  Bodies do not always look as if they are undergoing great emotional stress. Sometimes, it is the context that has changed utterly.

We change our whereabouts, our contexts, our landscapes, all the time. Sometimes the place we find ourselves is familiar, or it may be the same place but without people we knew, or it may be the same place, but the stand of trees has been felled.  Or, we may be somewhere completely new to us -- "I have been someplace I never would go to," sings Joan Armatrading, in "Everybody Gotta Know This Feeling." So the air is different --- not always us. We carry our "person" with us. But the air? Not the same.

So I have been painting these odalisques -- my definition of the word is pretty loose, as I include Titian's "Venus" and then Picasso's Demoiselles and Lucian Freud's Leigh Bowery work among them.  Sometimes, as with Delacroix, or Matisse, the models are from North Africa. But in the case of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, the models are Parisian, or situated in Rome (when he won the Prix), and for Freud, the model is a Londoner. All these nudes that I work from are painted, very decidedly, indoors.  I pull each form out of its "frame" (the harem, Freud's city studio with skylight, Picasso's triangular blue -- but very much an indoor -- "sky").  I supply the body with a new place, out-of-doors,  "someplace ... [s/he] never would go to." I want to see what the body looks like in an imagined new world.  The body is on the canvas, pretty much in the form of the original painting, so both here, and ... there, in a clearing, or in a working port with container ships arriving, or.... anywhere but in a Paris or London salon.  Here is my latest, based on Titian's "Venus of Urbino":

Friday, September 23, 2011

Orange slices series: a change to "CRANE"

--- this is 2 x 4' --- have finished it today, I do believe (and have brought it into the living room to look at it and feel certain)...

It may not look like it, but this is a short treatise on love, loss and perspective. The scraping and sanding and over-painting is about time and its passing... as it passes, our landscape changes. We are in a different place; we have changed, and not everyone that we started with is "right here" anymore.  But that doesn't mean that we don't remember what we have lost -- as we stop for a millisecond and see what we have gained.  We are often in two places, presence and absence being something we all know ... and yet, traditional perspective doesn't allow the viewer to look back. It is not "for" movement or feeling. It is meant to be a reasonable, scientific scan of the world... but there is no method that grants every body, flower, tree, parent, child or building or pig its place.  As we move, the world blurs, and we must choose what to see. But we do choose. And we must not let perspective, well-dressed and recommended though it is, choose for us.

The painting above concerns a crane in Coyote Hills (present)... and it is also a recipe for the pie of my childhood... the recipe that came out once a year (absent).  My father was the only person who truly loved it... later, my mother would add strawberries in an effort to appease the rest of us. This came in the mail from Rob and Barbara yesterday:

We are there, in the hills of middle Connecticut, at a small summer family dinner, and here, driving to and fro in the hills and the fog:

And a CRANE "in the midst of all."

Saturday, September 10, 2011

"Maybe your Baby

done made ... some ... other plan...."  I am listening to this song by Stevie Wonder (I love it!) and working on a 4 x 6' painting; here is a detail:

Thursday, September 8, 2011

"A window on the world means you're cut off from it." --David Hockney

I still have my cold... so I watched, again, the wonderful "A Bigger Picture," a film by Bruno Wollheim, from 2009, on David Hockney, painting across the seasons in Yorkshire.  From the beginning... where Hockney shows us a folding sketchbook filled with delicate sketches of each kind of flower and plant and leaf and blade of grass that makes up the roadside splendor in Yorkshire, when he says, "When you've drawn it ... you've seen the hedgerow ... and you realize ... there's a tremendous lot to it," the viewer (also) realizes that this is Hockney, teaching us all to see. There isn't any window between Hockney and his subject ... not even in the winter cold, where he is photographed in what look to me like gardening gloves, handling the paintbrush, trying to catch the mist before the sun clears it away.

The filmmaker notes that Hockney chooses subjects for these landscapes that seem, to any of us, "unremarkable," and Hockney admits that he intends to "make something quite different out of it. "

And he does; he makes "big, dramatic landscapes," with the biggest destined for the Royal Academy of Art walls, and then, in a hugely generous move, Hockney gives the painting and its giant reproductions to the Tate ... As he is making this multi-(50?)-canvas piece, Hockney says "Time and space are not separate, are they? I used to think they were.... It's the NOW that's eternal, actually."

And he does do it... he makes you see "the NOW." Here is a still from the film, looking through Hockney's windshield at the Yorkshire countryside, quickly painted over, by me, to show you what a painting of an "unremarkable" Yorkshire road might have looked like if Hockney were an average "Sunday" painter:

And another:

But below is (a rather well-worn) example of what Hockney painted of this same Yorkshire in 1997, from my poster (which has, as you can see, been hanging in my studio ever since) from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts show in 1998. Check out the way the landscape in front of us seems to move towards us. It defies single-lens perspective. It will not confine the viewer. It rises up at us just like Cezanne's fruit-laden tables, but on a far larger scale, and without fear. It pulls painting away from camera obscura and allows you to see far more than the canvas's four sides would normally allow. You see the sweep of Yorkshire. You feel as though you are turning in a big circle. Look!:

And as for this latest effort, twelve years later, documented in the Wollheim film from 2009, here's a link to an article on it from the Guardian newspaper:

Just astonishing. And that's just one of the walls with the reproduction... here is a wrinkled and bent ad from an art magazine, showing another smaller (!! --108 x 144") work, "Bigger Trees Nearer Warter,"  that was shown in 2009 at Pace Wildenstein (copyright for all work retained by David Hockney):

At one point, near the end of the film, Hockney gestures at one of the paintings and asks the filmmaker "Does that seem like an empty wood to you?" ... The answer from Wollheim comes slowly, because he says there are "no people" in it, but after some consideration, no, it doesn't look empty.   Hockney continues, in almost the same breath, that it's "because somebody is looking at it ..." and then he adds, with a smile, "do we know what an empty room looks like?"

Well, of course not. And that's a large part of the point. Looking brings things into being. That's what we can do, here, now. And yet, we won't always agree on the final representation of the thing. And that is going to have to be alright, because, this painter says, we all see things differently. Hockney says that even when we are in the "now," two or three of us standing looking at a road, a tree, a hedgerow, that what we each see is different, because we each have our own distinct memories that crowd into our sight. There's a sadness  -- but also a sense of quiet triumph -- in his saying, that, because of this, "we're all on our own." This is a great, great movie. And I will not give you the last lines of the film, so that you will be sure to go and see it.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Richard Holmes, on the biographer's art ... not unlike the painter's

I have been reading Richard Holmes's Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (N.Y.: Vintage Books, 1985) and he is a splendid observer; we go into the Cévennes on the trail of Robert Louis Stevenson and into Italy with Shelley (and that is only the first half of the book). Holmes finds an aspect of the landscape that existed in Stevenson or Shelley's time and works to imagine that world; instead of photographing the outside of Shelley's rented house, he looks from the windows out to the sea... seeing Shelley's view.  Or, having waited in vain for a taxi of any sort, he walks up the path Shelley would have taken from the station at the Bagni:

"I passed through the long colonnades of chestnuts and plane trees, the leaves dropping around me, the smoke rising white and blue in the light, the sky full of leaves, beautiful and purgatorial. Shelley wrote at length in his letters about these trees, the water, the sky, the stars at night, entranced by them" (p.145).

But, as he has already warned us, this kind of tracing footsteps, turning corners, almost seeing his quarry, with something like a child's joy in the game of hide-and-seek, has its limits and its responsibilities. He discovers that the modern bridge he crossed with great glee is not the bridge Stevenson used... that bridge stands, broken, neglected, further down the road. So then he reminded himself, he tells us, that:

"You could not play-act into the past, you could not turn it into a game of make-believe .... Somehow you had to produce the living effect, while remaining true to the dead fact. The adult distance -- the critical distance, the historical distance -- had to be maintained. You stood at the end of the broken bridge and looked across carefully, objectively, into the unattainable past on the other side. You brought it alive, brought it back, by other sorts of skills and crafts and sensible magic" (p. 27).

I paint many working-through-the-past landscapes; this always begins as great fun (which day? which beach?) and ends with my working to pull "the unattainable past" into a "true" version of itself in the present... And I like seeing it as "sensible magic"; that appeals to me as a description.

Here is the next version of my "Stone" painting in the "orange slices" series. This series came into being from Van Gogh's idea, (quoted in the "Every Painter Paints Himself" blog), that as we paint a bird's nest, say, we also hold in mind the outline of a cottage; this hidden second idea enriches the painting. And so I am taking this literally, and bringing to the surface two simultaneous images.  This draft of "Stone" is made of the memory of walking along the beach at Watch Hill, and, at the same time, remembering a room overlooking the sea on the Western coast, at Pacific Grove:

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Kouros, a Demoiselle and a cold....

Couch-bound with a cold, I was leafing through a year-old journal from a trip to Los Angeles and found a postcard of a Kouros from our visit to the Getty. I noted in the margins that the museum says that the authenticity of this statue is in question -- and may be for some time -- so this might date from 530 B.C. or perhaps much, much later.  But I do think that, despite its questionable age, this statue is representative, perhaps because he was created by a very careful forger, but ... certainly he is typical of his fellow young males in marble, one foot forward, upright, shoulders back, some generic muscular definition, without any distinctive facial characteristics (not an unforgettable face, for example, like the Fayyum portraits--see my entry of 5/15/11). Here is the Getty Kouros:

And, because I never forget the Demoiselles,  I think of the young woman to the far left of that painting:
The Kouros, turned sideways? The fist, the foot forward, the mask-like face, the strong shoulder?