April 22, 2015

Three New Book Paintings

Book 3, cover; egg tempera on Sekishu natural paper, 7 x 6 3/8 in.

A month or so ago, I began a new series of works, which I've found tremendously interesting: small books which I think of as paintings. They are a kind of serial painting, where one page engages the next in a pictorial conversation.

Book 3, pp. 2, 3

This particular handmade Japanese paper is quite translucent, so I discovered that I could paint shapes or lines that related to the pages before or after, increasing the complexity of the image.

Book 3, pp. 4, 5

This book consists of mainly curved forms, that cross the page....

Book 3, pp. 6, 7

....or form a vertical line. Page 7 consists of just the yellow circle, but two other shapes from the back cover show below it. 

Book 3, back cover

The orange circle doubles the yellow one on the page before. I am trying with these works to keep the images quite simple, using the paint to animate a lot of blank space. With Book 3 I began using embroidery floss for the binding of the book; it comes in many colors and is more attractive than heavy thread.

Book 4; cover, egg tempera on Sekishu natural paper, 5 5/8 x 6 in.

Except for one circle, Book 4 consists of fluidly drawn lines, which sometimes cross each other through the translucency of the paper. One of the pigments I used for this piece is Iron Glimmer, which has a subtle warmth to it.

Book 4, pp. 2, 3

I tried to keep the marks fresh, which meant working quickly. It also meant that several books got tossed in the trash; they were too strained, or too complex.

Book 4, pp. 4, 5

The first two sets of open pages have one or two marks, which become more as seen through the paper.

Book 4, pp. 6, 7

The final set of pages has two and three lines....

Book 4, back cover

 ....and three lines are repeated on the back cover. Crossing lines are palely seen, looking almost like a pictogram.

After completing my first couple of books, I thought it would be fun to try painting on different colored papers. I put in an order for handmade Japanese paper from the online catalog at New York Central Supply, which has a remarkable selection. I tried to choose papers that were listed at lighter weights, but I discovered that there's nothing like being there to handle the actual paper. I love all the papers I bought, but some will not be suitable for books as they are too heavy, so I'll likely use them for prints.

Book 5, cover; egg tempera on Mitsumata pink paper, 6 1/8 x 5 3/8 in.

Mitsumata is a gorgeous paper with a delicate feel; it has striations on the surface that are marks left from the boards on which the paper is dried. The paper is named after the plant Mitsumata, whose fibers are used in its making; the stories of the papers can be as interesting as handling the papers themselves. For Book 5 I began with rectangular and curved shapes. I was afraid that the cover was too fussy....

Book 5, pp. 2, 3

....so when I painted the second and third pages, I kept them simple.

Book 5, pp. 4, 5

A line from page 3 extends into page 4, and page 5 reprises the theme of the cover.

Book 5, pp. 6, 7

You'll notice that this paper is not translucent, so the book is missing the very interesting interactions of ghost images. This is now a decision I have to make: will I only use paper that allows for seeing through pages, which is kind of magical, or is there enough interest in a paper such as this––as delightful as it is to handle––to continue to work with it? 

Book 5, back cover

But it is also marvelous to work on a colored sheet, which asks for, and allows, a different use of color. Such fun!

April 20, 2015

At the Met: The Whorls of Ancient Southeast Asia

Armlet, Thailand, ca. 300 B.C.-A.D. 200; bronze, 6 1/16 x 3 in.

On my most recent visit to the Met, because of some closed galleries in the Asian wing I wandered into a gallery I'd never seen before––gallery 244––comprising early Southeast Asian art. You can see all the objects in the gallery at the link. What most interested me were the objects with curvilinear patterns that flowed across forms. In the armlet above, bands of thick curves, looking like unceasing waves, are repeated from the top to the bottom of an indented cylindrical form. The rhythm is enhanced by thicker horizontal lines breaking the pattern and thinner lines across it. There's a lilting movement in this ancient bronze.

Container with Spiral Decoration, Thailand, ca. 500 B.C.-A.D. 300; bronze, H. 8 7/8 in.

Here is another marvelous use of curves on flatter surfaces. The interlocking linear circles are full of energy, and remind me, oddly, of van Gogh's Starry Night. The reference isn't too surprising, though, since I'm sure that the artists who made these works were tied to a long tradition of referring to the natural world.

Bracelet with Conical Spirals, Thailand, ca. 300 B.C.-A.D. 200; bronze, diam. 3 15/16 in.
Bracelet with Conical Bosses; Thailand, ca. 300 B.C.-A.D. 200; bronze, 2 1/8 x 3 3 1/6 in.
Small Cuff with Concentric Circles, Thailand, ca. 300 B.C.-A.D. 200; bronze.

I loved seeing the inventive expressions of curved forms, from a wacky bracelet bristling with spirals, to multiple protuberant cones, to a more simply designed cuff. 

Pair of Pellet Bangles, Cambodia, ca. 500 B.C.-A.D 300; bronze, 1 1/16 x 2 15/16 in.

Five little spheres attach to rounded bracelets; raised lines formed like woven rope connect them. I think that the rope-like lines must refer to a form before bronze, perhaps a basket.

Bracelet (or anklet) with Two Spirals, Thailand, 300 B.C.-A.D. 200; bronze, 1 3/4 x 4 in. 

I love these coils, like ferns about to unfurl. In this piece too are delicately incised lines on the double band. They may refer to rope, or it could be part of a desire to decorate, to not leave a surface unadorned.

Five Earrings, Thailand, ca. 500B.C.-A.D. 300; glass, ivory (white disk), ca. 1 in.

I was completely delighted by this group of earrings, especially the curved glass pieces, with their cheerful air. According to a wall label in the gallery, not much is known about this period of Southeast Asian art, but it is very clear that the artists/artisans working then had a finely tuned sense of design.

April 18, 2015

A New Painting: "Orange, Light and Shadow"

Orange, Light and Shadow, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 6 1/2 x 8 3/4 in.

This painting is on the same panel as another that I struggled with and finally gave up on. It was a relief to work on this image after the fight with the previous one, though it wasn't at all easy to balance the hues and values to achieve convincing light; each rectangle of color was repainted several times. For me the image is calm and satisfying: balanced geometry can be a balm. 

Orange, Light and Shadow detail

April 16, 2015

The Gardening Season Begins

What a difference a week makes! Last week, in my "Spring Hope" post, although there were small signs of coming spring, the ground was still mainly covered in snow. Now, after a few days of mild weather and bright sun and brisk winds, the snow remains only along shaded areas. The snowdrops, those delightfully hardy little blossoms, have opened to inaugurate the flowering season.

Parsnips are the first vegetable of spring, which I dig after the ground thaws and dries out a little. The freezes of winter sweeten this delicious root. I had a bountiful crop this year: I made some roast parsnips earlier in the week, and a pot of curried parsnip soup (recipe here) this morning.

 Most of the perennials are still asleep, but some fresh green leaves of Oriental poppy have appeared.


Of course, daffodils are early risers, and they are coming along well, even showing buds.

Tulips have also come to life, with early leaves bright red. I've tried to research why this happens, and it may be protective. There is a double file of tulip leaves in my vegetable garden, where I plant them for cutting, and for protection since deer love them. Now that they're up, I have to put up the garden's electric fence.

Alongside the tulips, the garlic has also emerged.

Another allium in the vegetable garden, Egyptian onions, will soon be adding flavor to dishes. These very early greens have a sprightly onion flavor.

Last year I planted some scallions, and they too are emerging, though I imagine it'll take longer for them to mature than the greens of Egyptian onions.

Sorrel is another plant with young leaves that have a red coloration. They look beautiful at this young stage of life, but will soon be green, and large enough to pick for meals. I love its lemony taste.

Lastly, the sexy red knobs of rhubarb are coming up. The plant is marvelous at all its stages: knobby, young frilly leafy, enormously grand. It will be the first fruit of spring in June (though not actually a fruit since it doesn't have seeds), a treat in pies and made into jam. It's been so thrilling to feel spring actually begin––to hear all the birds that have now arrived, to sit outdoors with the sun on my face, to do yard work of various kinds––that I've had a hard time staying indoors to do artwork. Oh well, it's okay to enjoy this fleeting feeling and take some time off from the studio...until it rains, which it's supposed to do tomorrow.

April 15, 2015

Walter Darby Bannard: Minimal Form, Lush Color

The Model #3, 1961; alkyd resin on canvas, 66 3/4 x 62 3/4 in.
Flanked by Alexander #2, 1959 on the left; Alexander #3, 1960 on the right.

When I think of minimalist painting, colors that come to mind are primaries and black, as in Mondrian, red/blue/green as in Ellsworth Kelly, white in Robert Ryman: simple clear colors. Robert Mangold uses some offbeat hues, grays and oranges and lemon yellows. But Walter Darby Bannard's color is unique and surprising. In the exhibition at Berry Campbell Gallery "Walter Darby Bannard: Minimal Color Field Paintings, 1958-1965" there are pinks and warm reds and cool greens, and all colors confound expectations with their pleasurable seriousness.

The Model #3 detail

After all...pink? When I think of a great painter using pink, Philip Guston comes to mind; in his works pink becomes a subversive color. Bannard's pink isn't brash and saturated, but subtle; it looks like a mixed hue. The circle sits solidly in its field, perfectly balanced, slightly above the midpoint of a rectangle slightly taller than square. The pink becomes transcendent. In a recent interview, Bannard describes that making these works was very labor intensive:
They required layer after layer of paint. Otherwise you wouldn't get the simplicity and the lack of brushstrokes. It was like Chinese lacquer, you needed the layers to make it work. 

Alexander #2, 1959; alkyd resin on canvas, 66 3/4 x 60 3/4 in.

Another of Bannard's formats is a horizontal rectangle situated high on the vertical rectangle's field. The weights of color and form feel very satisfying. The color is beautiful, tertiary reds that carry a lot of light. (The gallery is small and the lighting was uneven, so we have to imagine perfect viewing conditions.)

Marriage #3, 1961; alkyd resin on canvas, 66 3/4 x 62 3/4 in.

Another circle painting shows how color changes the presence of a simple shape. Even in its simplicity, the color turns the painting into something lyrical. We can compare this to Malevich's Black Circle to see a very different expression with the same form.

Cherokee Blanket #1, 1960; alkyd resin on canvas, 66 x 62 in.

I love the nerviness of using a thin shocking pink border (or cherry red; I'm not sure how accurate my color is) for a large field of pink. There is some subversiveness to this use of pink, different from that of Guston: a color usually decorative and frothy is here an atmospheric bounded field, tied to its geometry.

Pacific Glass, 1961; alkyd resin on canvas, 66 3/4 x 62 3/4 in.

Pacific Glass has a similar structure to Alexander #2 above, but a very different sense of light and weight. Like its title it feels translucent.

Aqua Same, 1962; alkyd resin on canvas, 66 3/4 x 62 3/4 in.

Another circle, difficult to see in the sea-colored field. The surfaces, glossy and matte, are what differentiate figure and ground; they create a shifting visual experience, a poetry of color and light.

Yellow Rose #1, 1963; alkyd resin on canvas, 66 3/4 x 62 3/4 in.

A semicircle sits at the bottom of a canvas, yet because of its golden color, does not weigh the work down. It sits, it also rises; it animates the space above it.

Seasons #1; 1965; oil on canvas, 66 3/4 x 62 3/4 in.

This painting indicates a different direction in the minimalist series. The forms bulge, swerve, float, bend. In the interview mentioned above, Bannard says that he became bored with doing the laborious work needed for these paintings. Seeing Jules Olitski's paintings showed him a different way forward.

Bildad's Garden, 1980; acrylic on canvas, 11 1/4 x 34 3/4 in.

Bildad's Garden, a later painting, has the same wonderful sense of color of the minimalist work, with more complexity in the relationship of hue and value. The poured surfaces are rich and varied. I saw this painting last year in a show at the same gallery, titled "Walter Darby Bannard: Dragon Water", which included works from the 70s. There were a lot of beautiful works in this show, which you can see at the link. Both bodies of work show a keen sensitivity to surface and paint, and a vivid and personal use of color.

April 13, 2015

A New Textile: "Two Rectangles and a Trapezoid"

Two Rectangles and a Trapezoid, hand dyed wool on linen, 11 1/2 x 13 in. 

Three shapes, an illusion of overlapping; three colors, cool and warm, each one mixed with a bit of one of the other colors to harmonize them. This overlapping idea is similar to the one in another recent textile, Shield, although not as dramatic. 

Two Rectangles and a Trapezoid detail

I use different directions of hooking the loops of wool in order to enhance the illusion of overlap. I often use a random pattern for backgrounds; its overall-ness works well for that purpose. It is the most labor intensive of all hooking directions; straight lines are the easiest, angled lines and curves in between. It's all quite relaxing handwork, done while I sit in front of the tv in the evening, a nice way to wind down the day.

April 10, 2015

James Siena: Grids of Sticks and String

Freeman Dyson, 2014; bamboo, string, and glue; 20 1/2 x 7 1/4 x 21 1/4 in.

I love seeing everyday materials––in this case toothpicks, bamboo skewers, string––transformed into art. It is a reminder that art making does not have to be a grand and exalted process, but can be one of imagination and invention, couched in everyday-ness. In his show at Pace Gallery, James Siena presents small marvels of sculpture made of thin sticks of wood, held together by glue and string. The gridded forms are complex and varied, and in that way are similar to the paintings and drawings that he's been making for many years.

Richard Feynman, 2014; bamboo, string, and glue; 21 1/2 x 21 x 21 in.

There is order of a very personal sort, a measured regularity that is lightened by the wavering lines of bamboo. The structure of some of these sculptures reminded me of the space in Giacometti's The Palace at 4 a.m., though without any of the surreal elements. I do feel that I want to wander into Siena's spaces to try to decipher them.

Richard Feynman detail

To me, the simple wrapping of string to hold crossing sticks together emphasizes the handmade, the artist's close attention to detail, and in its fragility is very touching.

Barbara Tuchman, 2014; bamboo, string, and glue; 21 1/2 x 21 x 3 3/4 in. 

I love that Siena has titled his pieces using the names of (mostly) famous people, scientists as in the case of Richard Feynman and Freeman Dyson, or writer and historian for Barbara Tuchman; it's a wonderful way to pay homage to their work. Barbara Tuchman has spaces that feel very architectural, as though this is a model of the interior of a building, with divisions and subdivisions.

Just the Washing Instructions on Life's Rich Tapestry, 2013 - 14; bamboo, string, and glue; 11 1/2 x 
5  3/4 x 5 3/4 in. 

In this dense little piece, the tight rounds of string become prominent: points marking a journey, stars in constellations. The title––which I hope is correct since my documentation isn't perfect––is one of the more rare metaphoric ones, and it's very funny.

Katherine Dalsimer, 2013; bamboo, string, and glue; 5 3/4 x 4 3/4 x 5 in.

Katherine Dalsimer (who by the way is a psychologist and author who wrote a book on Virginia Woolf [I had to look that up]) is another very small piece which makes us very aware of the joining of elements; their tightly bound crossings are poignant, as though overcoming the natural desire of things to pull apart.

Dorothy Vogel, 2013-14; toothpicks and glue; 3 x 5 1/4 x 4 1/2 in.
Anthony Braxton, 2013; toothpicks and glue; 2 3/4 x 3 x 3 1/4 in.
Terrance McKenna, 2007; grape stems, toothpicks, and glue; 2 1/4 x 2 1/2 x 3 1/2 in.

There were several tables in the exhibition on which were very small pieces, whose structures were dense and irregular; they were like little explosions of line, full of vibrant energy.

Terrance McKenna, 2007; grape stems, toothpicks, and glue; 2 1/4 x 2 1/2 x 3 1/2 in.

In some of the small pieces bits of grape stems or wood are embedded within the toothpick structure, as though captured. This early piece leads me to imagine how Siena began making these sculptures: sitting at the dinner table, looking at discarded grape stems and some toothpicks scattered about, he picks them up and thinks....hmmm....then goes and gets a bottle of Elmer's glue and starts building.

Eschatologist (First Version), 2013; toothpicks and glue; 4 1/4 x 4 3/4 x 4 in.
Villa Aurelia (one), 2013; toothpicks, wood, and glue; 4 3/4 x 7 1/4 x 4 1/2 in.

There is so much life and energy in these tiny works. Siena seems very at ease with their bursting structures. This type of form also shows up in his large bronze works, but for me what begins as an idea with fragility and the handmade as main components is ruined by casting into hard bronze. The bronzes held no interest at all for me.

Richard Rand, 2014; bamboo, string, and glue; 12 x 16 1/4 x 12 in.

In Richard Rand, the spreading circles of string holding the bamboo together become almost decorative; they make us aware of the crisscrossing of line on this tilted grid.

Richard Rand, another view.

Seen from another angle, the sculpture is completely different: from seeing flat planes to being aware of the two long points that support the structure made of of three squares on its face. With his toothpick and bamboo sculpture, James Siena is finding wonderful new possibilities for the medium, and expanding his sensibility into new forms.