April 22, 2014

A New Textile: "Divided Circle"

Divided Circle, hand dyed wool on linen, 12 in. diameter

A few months ago I made a round textile, Color Circle, and I thought I'd try the form again. In that piece I used curved lines to demarcate color areas, so emphasizing the round shape. This time I thought I'd stay flat, making clear color divisions: the main one is down the center, and on the right a horizontal below center. Then I added a diagonal, crossing the blue and green, changing their hues, which I hope looks like a transparent dark plane. Something I found very interesting is that I tried sketching the same composition as a square instead of a circle, but it just did not work for me; there is a tension that comes from the curving lines of the circle, their pushing in against the straight lines, that makes the composition more energetic.

Divided Circle, detail

I hooked the wool in straight lines, vertical for blue and horizontal for green, and then used curving lines for the smaller yellow shape. To me it makes the yellow appear to be behind the other colors. For the value shift in the blue and green, I just added more dye of the same hues to make the wool darker. I enjoy working with circles, in the Renaissance known as a tondo; I should make one every few months. 

April 21, 2014

Work That I Liked at the Whitney Biennial: 6 Artists

Ricky Swallow, Reversed Pitcher 1, 2013; patinated bronze, 10 x 6 x 7 1/2 in., unique.

Here is a little tour of the Whitney Biennial, one that is very personal; only work that made me take out my camera with an "ahh, I love this" is included, so the list is very short. I find myself with less patience for work that doesn't interest me, less patience to try to understand it, find a way into it. I suppose that's a failing, but it's also a prerogative of age. On the fourth floor of the museum I wandered through a couple of large galleries and then into the smaller space, where I was immediately struck with joy at seeing the small sculpture by Ricky Swallow. Perfectly elegant in form, but ordinary in material––or so I thought––they sustained intense looking.

Ricky Swallow, Skewed Arches/Tall 1, 2013; patinated bronze, 36 x 9 x 7 in., unique.

It turns out that these modest sized pieces, seemingly made out of cardboard (and you can imagine how much that interested me with my use of cardboard for prints) were actually bronze casts from cardboard. The use of bronze might have disappointed me, but it struck me that the idea of using an ordinary material, not disguising it but turning it into something more permanent, is a way of honoring it. And the fact that each piece is unique is important: each one is itself, an individual and not a replica.

Ricky Swallow, Chair Study/Ripple (soot), 2013; patinated bronze, 25 x 9 x 2 1/2 in., unique.

The simplicity of the curves of Chair Study were beautiful in front of the trapezoidal Marcel Breuer window. (Oh, how I will miss this building when the Whitney moves!)

Ricky Swallow, Z Sculpture with String, 2014; patinated bronze, 3 1/2 x 10 x 5, unique.

This piece, with its rich color, its sense of folded tension in the interior creases, all held together by a simple string: what a delight. There's not much to it, yet at the same time the work feels emotionally complex and compelling.

Ricky Swallow, Stair with Contents, 2013; patinated bronze, 22 x 35 x 22, edition 1/1 plus 1AP.

This last work from Swallow is quite different, an accumulation of strange and interesting forms, somewhat reminiscent of Giacometti's early sculpture, with a touch of the surreal, of ordinary objects transformed. Just wonderful work.

Paintings by Etel Adnan

Another artist previously unknown to me whose work I loved was Etel Adnan, a Lebanese painter and poet living in California for many years. Her small paintings are vibrant with touch and a very personal sense of color.

Etel Adnan, Untitled, 2013; oil on canvas, 13 3/4 x 17 11/16 in.

Shapes pile one on another, jostling for space in a place that seems to be toppling but is firmly held in place.

Etel Adnan, Untitled, 2013; oil on canvas, 13 3/4 x 17 11/16 in.

Colors are always surprising, subtle mixtures of hues next to those of more brilliance.

Etel Adnan, Untitled, 2013; oil on canvas, 9 7/16 x 11 13/16 in.  

Many of the paintings reference landscape, sometimes obliquely and sometimes, as here, very clearly. But it is a landscape of the mind and of paint juicily applied, of forms found in memory. 

Peter Schuyff, Sans Papier, 2004-2014; carved pencils and sticks. 

These giddily turned pencils were a real surprise, coming from an artist known for his large geometric paintings. I loved learning from the museum label that he carves the pencils and sticks while watching television, holding a knife in place and moving the pencil along it, not looking at what he's doing. What results is a wild variety of forms, though closely related; seeing a large group of these carvings was a treat.

Shio Kusaka, porcelain vessels.

A long shelf held numerous vessels of porcelain, smaller and larger, flaring and straight, covered with marks painted with a light and fluid touch. Kusaka, a Japanese artist living in Los Angeles, makes modestly sized vessels that are beautiful in groups.

Shio Kusaka, porcelain vessels.

Her forms, colors, marks of the brush are engaging, tied to a tradition yet full of personality. I love the slight wavering of the tall black vase alongside the also not-perfect form of the tall blue; the bulbous yellow makes a threesome of odd body shapes.

Shio Kusaka, porcelain vessels.

Simple organic geometries play off against solid colors, each form wavering yet marvelously present. Ceramics such as these by Kusaka are modest objects that seem sculptural to me in their explorations of form.....

John Mason, Blue Figure, 2002; ceramic, 59 x 23 3/4 x 23 3/4 in.
Spear Form, Soft White, 1999; ceramic, 66 x 28 x 28 in.
Vertical Torque, White, 1997; ceramic, 58 3/4 x 12 x 12 in. 
The Wall, 2010, ceramic.

....and that feeling is enhanced, not lessened, by seeing the large ceramic pieces by John Mason at the Whitney. These are dramatically shaped works full of energy, of tilting planes. I especially love Blue Figure with its curves and large diagonals, its outlines like a Seurat woman in a park. There is a brief video of Mason on the Whitney website in which he says that whatever surrounds us becomes part of our exploration, "like pages in a book". And that "what we see, we also feel". And then he says something, that you have to walk around the sculpture, that opens to a complaint I have about this show, which is that some of the installation is awful. With Mason's work on a platform against a corner wall we cannot walk around it. There is a room with very strong painters––Dona Nelson, Jacqueline Humphries, and Amy Sillman––and you cannot see the work because it is crowded together, and too similar in tone. These are only two examples of poor installation. I think I would have liked more work if it had more room to breathe, but then of course there would have had to be fewer artists in the show. 

Rebecca Morris, Untitled (#14-13), 2013; oil on canvas, 101 x 101 in. 

Another painter whose work I hadn't known and really liked was that of Rebecca Morris, another Los Angeles artist. Her paintings are a marvelous amalgam of funky and formal, of various kinds of marks: lines and blobby shapes, all freely handled with transparent layers of paint.

Rebecca Morris, Untitled (#15-13), 2013; oil on canvas, 119 x 97 in. 

 A central image is surrounded by a patterned frame, like in a Persian or Indian miniature; the use of patterns throughout seem to point to miniature painting. The shapes inside allude to a kind of narrative, with #14-13 having the stability of the receding planes of classical landscape and #15=13 looking more like a deluge, an upending of elements. There's a serious lightheartedness to these paintings that I truly enjoy.

When I spend several hours looking at galleries I feel I've had a good day if I've seen 2 or 3 or 4 shows that I like, so I feel quite happy with my visit to the Whitney with liking the work of 6 artists, all new to me....what could be better than that?

April 19, 2014

Concrete and Flowers: Early Spring in Brooklyn

What is more cheering than a daffodil in early spring? Its brilliant color announces a season of hope, of bright light and long days. Here in Vermont the daffodils are just beginning to send their green shoots above ground, but in Brooklyn spring was further advanced. In my mother's small front garden, a few daffodils were blooming alongside the geometry of concrete and brick.

I took a walk through the neighborhood, looking for spring blooms, and found this lovely weeping cherry, its bright pink blossoms beautiful against the blue sky.

Farther down the block were these delicate white blooms, opening from pinkish buds, a tree contrasting with the lines of sidewalk and contained grassy verges.

A mass of purple pansies were hidden within a rectangular opening of hedge.

A pot of pansies graced a front porch on Ocean Parkway.

Magnolias sparkle in the afternoon light.

Hedges, formed into small rounds, filled a front garden, nature coaxed into a regularity like that of the surrounding brick.

With all these early spring plants, here is the official flower of Brooklyn, the forsythia, blooming in Brooklyn fashion alongside a concrete driveway. Like the daffodil, they bring thoughts of sun and buoyant spirits. This post from the Brooklyn Public Library tells the story of forsythia and Brooklyn, whose Borough president declared it to be its official flower in 1940. The woman who lobbied for this honor, Florence A. Blum, stated that the flower was "a symbol of unity and brotherhood at a time when world conflict is in force". A native of China, specimens were brought to England and later found their way to the United States, so uniting three continents. I have forsythia plants here in Vermont, but because our weather is so much colder, the varieties that grow here have much smaller flowers. It was a treat to see the grand golden glories of Brooklyn forsythia, and see a preview of a northern spring's coming attractions.

April 12, 2014

A New Cardboard Print: "Circled"

Circled, ink on Gifu green tea medium paper; image size, 10 1/2 x 10 1/4 in; 
paper size 18 1/2 x 18 1/4 in.; ed 3

The triangle and partial half-circle are inscribed within a 12 inch circle, and nestle against an overlapped rectangle; the circle is there and not there. This is my second try with this cardboard plate: I did another version with similar colors––a pinkish and a green, on white paper––but I wasn't at all happy with the color: the green was too cool and the pink too strident. So, I tossed those and tried again, this time on a green paper, and I'm much happier with the results. 

Circled detail

This paper has wonderful surface texture, with little flecks of color. One of these days I'm going to get the viscosity of the ink right, and be able to replicate it each time I print. I use a transparent medium and water with the water-based inks to thin them; the trick is thin enough not to be tacky, yet thick enough to cover the surface moderately well. In this print, I realize that the ink is a bit too tacky. My use of cardboard, and of potatoes, for printing yields a rough, imperfect print, which is an essential aspect of their character, but I would still like to have better control of the ink, and over time, I expect that I shall.

April 10, 2014

The Spring Melt

When the snow starts to melt away, what is revealed is not a beautiful sight, although there are moments of loveliness, such as the subtle early morning reflections of birch trees on the icy pond, in parts bare of snow.....and, there's water.

I look out on ground covered with dried and matted grasses, just beginning to green, and extensively dotted with the turned up earth of molehills, and a tiny rivulet rising from underground.....

.....where it runs amid all the mud.

Springs meander into the pond, where the water creates small channels and churns up mud.

At the western edge of the pond, more water flows, and small green shoots of Yellow Flag iris emerge.

Water flows into my cellar in spring, and also into the shed where I store wood. This spring the water is as high as I've ever seen it.

A tiny stream runs from the well at the upper right, down the lawn, and finally into the pond.

When I looked in my well this morning––an old dug well, lined with stones, 13 feet deep––the water reached the top, close to level with the ground outside. I think of the terrible drought in California, where they will be missing this important aspect of spring: melting snows filling water tables. It is wonderful to see the water moving across the landscape, the water that means life.

And finally, the snow melted down to a thin icy layer, and snowdrops were able to push their way through, the first flower, aptly named, to show its blooms in spring. It is a happy sign that plants are rising from their winter sleep.

April 8, 2014

Paul Edlin: Pieced Pictures

Ochres, Tans, and Greens, 1996; postage stamp fragments on board, 16 x 20 in.

Years ago, when I was visiting the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I saw some near-miraculous micromosaics in their collection, 19th century works whose images were made up of tiny bits of glass, so fine that they appear to be paintings unless looked at very closely. Paul Edlin's (1931-2008) recent show, "Family Business", at Andrew Edlin Gallery, had something of the same sense of wonder in its technique. Made of tiny bits of postage stamps, the images fairly crackle with the tension between variable color and precise form. 

Ochres, Tans, and Greens detail

Yet, looking closely, it is all intensely precise: small sliced pieces of postage stamps from all over the world are fitted into carefully placed patterns on the surface. They become a mystery as I try to decipher words and images on the cut-up pieces of paper.

House of Collage, 1992; postage stamp fragments on board, 18 x 14 in.

Paul Edlin was a man who lived an isolated life because of deafness. He was given his first show at the age of 65 in 1996 at Gordon College in Massachusetts by the artist George Wingate, who had encouraged me to see this show, for which I am grateful. George met Edlin at the Art Students League, where Edlin had studied for about 10 years with Will Barnet and Henry Pearson. I see a strong influence of those teachers in the sophisticated abstraction of the two works above.

House of Collage detail

There's great pleasure in seeing the way colors and forms interact in the very small pieces that make up the larger work. I learned from the gallery press release that a 16 x 20 collage could take three months to complete. Do we view this as the obsessive work of an outsider artist, isolated and personally intent on a task? I prefer to drop the label "outsider" and call Edlin an artist who had discovered a technique that perfectly suited what he wanted to say.

Jonah's Sister, 2000; postage stamp fragments on board, 20 x 16 in.

What he wanted to say varied, from abstraction to images biblically-based, figurative, or landscape-like. Every work has a clarity of shape and is animated by elements perfectly placed across its surface. The figure in the upper left in Jonah's Sister holds bright rays from its winged arms that anchor the whale with its surprising pink passenger. An irregular rounded form––turtle? earth?––weights the bottom right. The narrative is intriguing, not fully understood.

Ghost of Ahab, 1998; postage stamp fragments on board, 16 x 20 in. 

The Ahab of this image must be the character in Melville's Moby Dick, rather than the biblical evil king Ahab, although he is dressed in ancient-styled garb. He holds up a whale and what can be seen as a ship, though a fanciful rendering of one; the ship's form balances that of the whale. But then, on a red table stands a small man; could it be Ishmael? actually, his skin is dark, so maybe it's Queequeg, acted upon by circumstances that rule his life.

Eye of a Witch, 1985; stamps, tempera, watercolor, crayon, ink, pencil, 10 x 8 in. 

This piece was one of several earlier works in the show, and one that I love. It is quite different from the controlled refinement of the postage stamp pieces, but has some of the same quirky personal imagery and love of surface texture.

Flower Village, 1993; postage stamp fragments on board, 14 x 18 in.

Giant Among Friends, 1996; postage stamp fragments on board, 14 x 18 in.

The two pieces above are very different in their active landscape space, populated by trees, animals, humans, games, buildings, a castle!, a giant!, connected by wandering paths. A first glance made me think I was uninterested in these, but that was wrong; they are vivid and charming.

Past and Present, 1999; postage stamp fragments on board, 20 x 16 in. 

Two powerful portraits, simple and direct, showed another of Edlin's approaches to the image. In Past and Present the central head is surrounded by circled vague figures, dancing as memories around the intensely staring face. Edlin's portraits remind me a little of the work of the Chicago painter Jim Nutt.

Past and Present detail

In its straightforward pose, Past and Present has an uncanny presence with its outlined eyes and blue mouth demanding a connection with the viewer.

Rebel, 1999; postage stamp fragments on board, 20 x 16 in. 

Rebel has a different quality, as the eyes looks up from a slightly downturned head, a rebel being a little sly. The great mass of yellow hair is luscious against the red face and green background; and the blue scarf/shirt is electric.

Rebel detail

Looking at the details of the two portraits I can see that Edlin was very aware of the issue of form within outlines: he used the direction of the pieces of paper to follow the form of chin and nose, cheeks, forehead, and hair, changing direction to emphasize their volumes. He used the stamp pieces as someone would use a brush and paint. I can hear myself, when I used to teach figure painting: "follow the form with your brush to describe it, as though you were caressing it". Paul Edlin loves his materials in this way, and he loves his subjects; he caresses them with his eye, his imagination, his heart, and it is a joy to to see the results.