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.

April 7, 2014

A New Painting: "Yellow Teeth"

Yellow Teeth, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 7 x 8 in.

This painting is more complex than most of my recent work, so I feel unsure about it. I like the sweeping curve, interrupted by the regular indentations, straight and rounded (but is it too busy?). The large forms of shadow and curve are interrupted by a small raised form at the lower left. I tried leaving out the dark hole, but found that it anchored the composition.

This group portrait actually gives a betters sense of Yellow Teeth than the individual images, which I had a hard time photographing without showing too much texture in the darks. (click to enlarge)

Yellow Teeth detail

There is translucency in the shadows, but not quite as variable as that seen in the photo. A beautiful aspect of egg tempera paint is its translucence; with it you can get a sense of light flowing through color. Certain pigments are more translucent than others and often pose a technical challenge. Painting never allows for an easy-breezy process.

April 6, 2014

An Exhibition

I am very pleased to be having a small exhibition at a curatorial project space, Some Walls, in Oakland, CA, directed by the artist and writer Chris Ashley. On view is a small selection of some of my work: paintings, boxed paintings, hooked wool drawings, and prints. At this link for the Some Walls website, you can see the work, and read a terrific essay that Chris has written about it; I feel very humbled by his words. I hope you will click through to the link and read it, for it has insights on my work that never occurred to me, and it's beautifully written.
(Be patient; some of the images take a few seconds to load).

Any of my friends living in the Bay Area can make an appointment to see the show, via an email address that you can find on the website. Let me know what you think if you do get a chance to go, and thanks to all my readers for your kind support of this blog.

April 3, 2014

My Old Apple Trees

We have finally been blessed by a few lovely early spring days, mild (at least close to normal temperatures after the bitter cold of recent weeks) and sunny. It is the kind of weather that invites me to begin my first outdoor chore of spring: pruning my ancient apple trees. There are 15 old trees––antique varieties such as Duchess of Oldenburg, Peach, and Sops of Wine––in a small orchard behind the house, and two more in the field to the west. Each spring, as I do my pruning work, I renew my acquaintance with the trees, and each spring, I am more keenly aware of their mortality as branches, and entire trees, die.

The trunks and branches of the trees have other lives on their surfaces, creating new landscapes on uneven bark.

On the same tree, a crevice hides what looks like a slime mold, not a happy organism for a tree; it connotes decay.

Many of the trees have large cavities, and holes through their trunks....but they are still leafing out, still producing apples during their every-other-year schedule.

The evidence of decay, however, is strong: insects devouring a branch....

....a tree's interior open and worn, yet graced by a frilly dress of lichen.

The pale green lichens that decorate the trees are especially beautiful against a deep blue sky.

This small branch seems almost prehistoric, a bumpy living surface of varied colors and forms, the bark barely visible. Slow growing lichens attest to the age of the trees, and make them look more ancient, like a wizened face. I love these trees because of their aged character, and have to accept that like myself, they are closer to the end of their lives than the beginning; this awareness makes each year precious.

April 2, 2014

Sheila Hicks: Large and Small

Lares and Penates, 1990-2013; found materials, 98 elements, ca. 117 x 115 x 5 in. as shown

Sheila Hicks is an artist whose work doesn't sit comfortably and neatly in a single category; although she works with textiles, much of her work is quite sculptural, such as the stunning piece above, currently in a show of her work at Sikkema Jenkins & Co (until April 6th). She is someone for whom the fine art/craft distinction makes no sense whatever. I first learned of her work a few years ago, through a beautiful catalog of her very small works, which I wrote about here. I had recently begun my series of small paintings on parchment, so her work touched me, and its inventiveness thrilled me. I don't always like Hicks' large works, but Lares and Penates is marvelous....

Lares and Penates detail

....a meeting of almost a hundred small wrapped objects, bright and shining packages of crossing colored threads.

Lares and Penates detail

I have a bodily sensation of wrapping around and around, remembering helping my mother make balls of wool from skeins; the foundation looks soft as it pushes a little free from its binding here and there. Rather than a sense of constriction, the various sized pieces are like precious small gifts, hiding happy mysteries. Lares and Penates are Roman deities who protected the household. We might see these small pieces as votive objects, made with a kind of prayerful attention in the repetitive motions of wrapping. 

Araucario, 2011; linen, tree branches, 37 1/2 x 37 1/2 x 2 1/2 in. 

Braids of linen and and araucaria branches: overlapping long forms, delicate in color, nature and art enlivening each other. 

Araucario detail

How beautiful the forms when looked at closely! the Golden Ratio governing the growth of the plant brings a deeper meaning to the braiding of the linen.

There were several small pieces in the show, all about 8 or 9 inches in height. They weren't all listed on the gallery website and I failed to photograph the checklist, so I cannot give exact sizes and materials. I love seeing how Hicks weaves together different materials, allowing their characters to shine, and even in a more sedate piece like the one above, there are delightful surprises, like the bits of orange popping up through the darker reds.

Mauresque Etiquette, 2013; cotton, silk, paper, feathers; 9 1/4 x 5 1/2 in. 

A mass of small tags jangle above irregular lines.

An uneven rectangle is broken by an opening at its bottom edge, adding an impression of movement.

Porcupine quills are tiny barbed shapes on a waisted form; as with the araucaria branches, they are nature combined with art, and we see both with more depth in these pairings.