March 2, 2015

Waiting Patiently

We are still in deep winter here in northern Vermont: today the wind is howling and snow is blowing. But there are tight little packages on trees and shrubs ready to burst into flower and leaf when the time is right. A pair of American Cranberry buds stand up tall, their rounded shapes coming to a point like onion domes.

In the woods, the buds of beech trees are long and elegantly wrapped.

The lilac has large rounded buds, which look as though they're ready to open, but it will be two months before that will happen.

Branches and buds of blueberry bushes are a vivid red, pulsing with life next to the cool white snow.

Small buds climb raspberry canes.

Two red apple tree buds point downwards, but hold up hope.

The apple trees, with their pointing red fingers, look like they are celebrating their good fortune on a bright and cold day. Some day in May, the buds will open, leaves will begin to form; this year there will also be flowers, and if all goes well, fruit in the fall. The trees and shrubs know that winter will end and the growing season will begin; they remind me to be as calm and patient as they are.

March 1, 2015

Merlin James: Paint as Love

Single Flower, 2014; acrylic on canvas, 18.9 x 18.1 in.

A painting of a pink flower in a bright green vase on a table: what could be more silly or clichéd? And yet, through Merlin James's brush, it becomes a touching image, a sign of the fleeting tenderness of beauty. The green-spotted vase is like a figure holding aloft a delicate gift.

Single Flower detail

The painting's surface is built up of marks and drips and stuff stuck in the paint, giving a sense of the intense involvement of the artist's hand and eye, his joy in the surprising things that happen: a leaf-shaped drip, a stem sinking into paint, pink petals both light as air and physically solid.

Still Life, 2014; acrylic on canvas, 23 x 30 in.

Merlin James's show "Genre Painting" at Sikkema Jenkins was a wonderful surprise for me (there are excellent images at the link; the photos in this post are my own): I hadn't seen his work before, and when I looked at the show online it seemed to me to be too much of a grab bag of styles and ideas and subject matter and form; this made it look as though it were held together solely by an intellectual construct, a theoretical way of approaching painting, a high-handed cleverness. Oh, how wrong my assessment was! I have several times been disappointed by seeing work in person that I very much liked online, but I don't remember such a turnabout from skepticism to love when in front of actual work. It is the quality of the paint––its searched-for texture and touch––and the artist's sensibility, that pulls it all together into a celebration of painting.

Of the genres that James tackles, one is still life: the dark mood of Still Life is very different from the optimism of Single Flower. In both paintings there is a thing-ness to the objects depicted, a palpable presence in a built environment. In both paintings, and in others in the show, the vertical sides are bowed inwards, as though yielding to the pressure of the external world. We tend to ignore the rectangle of most paintings; it's a neutral space. The bending of the rectangle adds energy to the picture plane; it asks us to notice the window.

Moon, 2014; acrylic on canvas, 22 x 19.5 in.

Another genre: landscape. A silvery moon, reflected in some clouds, hangs above a sweep of greenish land. The simplicity of the image is punctuated by a line of green and dabs of paint at the bottom. This added gesture both removes the painting from ordinariness, and interjects the artist's personality. It allows a closer look at the transparent layers of paint above, the little dots of imperfection.

By Marshes, 2004-14; acrylic on canvas, 33 x 23 in. 

Another painting approach that James takes is that of the abstracted landscape: an image, appearing non-objective, yet based on something seen, as we are informed by the title. This painting has a luscious surface, but not in the sense of juicy; it's actually very dry, looking like sand or cement, but holding lots of color.

Abstraction, 2002/2015; acrylic on canvas, 19 x 27.5 in.

On to pure abstraction, shapes and colors without reference to objects in the world. In this oddly balanced painting, every element feels perfect, even the rough dark canvas used as a ground.

Abstraction detail 

The painting support is very irregular, and I wonder if it's just a burlap sack. The touches of color on it are so carefully placed, so richly brushed, that they transform the disheveled surface into a thing of beauty. 

Red, 2013-14; acrylic on canvas, 17.5 x 26.5 in. 

All the works in the show are labeled as being on canvas, I believe to assertively identify them as paintings and not as constructions or anything else. Whatever the support, traditional or not, opaque or transparent, the paint on it has great sensitivity and thoughtfulness. There is also tremendous charm in a work such as Red.

Red detail

The brilliantly colored support, with shiny threads, looks like nothing more than a sack that holds oranges or other produce. How magical to transform this bit of detritus into a painting both serious and playful; I honestly can't say how James does it.

Capriccio, 2014; acrylic on canvas, 41 x 31 in. 

Yet another body of work in this show are the transparent paintings, in which we see a frame, and through the transparent material, the support and construction behind it. The first thing to notice is the composition of the wooden structure, but then....

Capriccio detail

....there are small bits of paint here and there, circles repeating the cut circles in the four corners. A special surprise is the tiny "cityscape" tucked away in a corner.

Old Kiln, 2012-15; acrylic on canvas, 28.5 x 33.5 in.

In Old Kiln, pools of color flow across an acrylic surface. Here too a small construction shifts scale: pieces of wood closer to and farther from the surface create a visual depth; their geometry plays with the organic movement of paint; their softening with distance becomes fading memories, just out of reach.

Sunset, 2014; acrylic on canvas, 26.6 x 22 in. 

Sunset's "window" is strongly curved, making an elegant surround for the pink glow of the "canvas". There's something almost Renaissance-architectural about it for me.

Sunset detail

There is very little paint on this work, just enough to make it intentional, to show that there is a surface to paint on and that paint changes what it touches. Paint carries emotion, whether delicately on a transparent surface....

Marine Painting, 2014-15; acrylic on canvas, 28 x 21 in. 

...or gesturally in a still life....

Tree and Wall, 2014; acrylic on canvas, 24.375 x 22.375 in.

...or thickly painted and scratched in a landscape....

Old Fortified Buildings, 2010-14; acrylic on canvas, 40 x 24 in.

....or richly painted on layered materials in an abstracted landscape. Merlin James uses paint with reverence and with delight and love.

February 26, 2015

A New Painting: "Archway"

Archway, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 6 5/8 x 8 /1/4 in. 

Sometimes metaphor is too much.
I was very attracted to this image, with black hoses disappearing into the dark of a curved opening. A trapezoid leads into it; a partial circle at the upper right repeats the curve. as I look at it, the image is too loaded with metaphor: the depths, the "figures" swallowed by it, emerging to light. Many paintings can be read metaphorically––an image meaning more than what it literally shows––but in this case it seems heavy handed to me, a little over the top. So, at this point I don't know what to think of it.

Archway detail

February 24, 2015

John Zurier: Poetic Reticence

Hearadsdalur 3, 2014-15; oil on linen, 22 1/16 x 24 13/16 in.

This has rarely happened to me, but when I saw John Zurier's show "West of the Future", currently at Peter Blum Gallery, my awed reaction wasn't just "I love these paintings", but "I want to make these paintings". Their quiet attentiveness, simplicity, attention to surface and materials, their qualities of light and mood, led to a physical longing on my part: a longing to feel the paint, whether distemper (glue size and pigment) or oil; to make the marks; a longing to mix the colors and spread them on fine or coarse canvas. In Hearadsdalur 3, the blue ground is a translucent dark, as of a luminous evening. Each line, each small mark of white, although looking casual, feels carefully considered, and very alive.

Hearadsdalur 3 detail

You can see different qualities of light in each element: line, thicker white irregular dots of paint, the blue expanse. Zurier has spent time in Iceland; the landscape and culture has influenced his work. Some of the titles in this show are Icelandic. His last show, which I wrote about here, was very much influenced by his visits to that starkly beautiful country.

At Havalsnes, 2014; distemper on linen, 24 x 28 in.

There is a deep sense of naturalness in the paintings, as if Zurier quietly observed the surface and found what was there.

At Havalsnes detail

The small rectangles of blue paint in At Havalsnes are bright bits of light, perfectly balanced, in a mysterious fog.

Four Times, 2015; distemper on linen, 21 5/8 x 29 5/8 in.

On surfaces that look almost unworked, are simple lines, crossed.....

Hearadsdalur 13 (Avalanche), 2014; distemper on linen, 27 1/2 x 19 5/8 in.

....or floating horizontally....

Where Time Sleeps, 2014; distemper and oil on linen, 78 x 48 in.

....or at slight angles. There is something so poignant about these minimal marks: they speak of much more than line and color; in their understated way they touch on life, on decisions made, on paying attention, on being open.

Afternoon (S.H.G.), 2014; distemper on linen, 28 x 35 in. 

The thin whitish paint settles to the lower right, as atmosphere swirls above. Lines––one darker and more present, one sinking into the air of the painting––move forward and back, adding structure.

Afternoon (S.H.G.) detail

I love the way this line touches the top of the rounded canvas edge and makes a little angle back down again; it disrupts the expectation of regularity; it becomes a personnage.

Hearadsdalur 21, 2014; distemper on linen, 17 3/4 x 21 5/8 in.

A field of painterly blue is broken by white shapes, and by corners of canvas. The delicate handling, the seemingly casual yet carefully placed shapes, the importance of materials, reminds me of the Japanese 20th century craft movement, Mingei, and especially the paintings of Lee Ufan. There was a show of this work last year at Pace Gallery, which I wrote about here.

Before and After Summer, 2014; oil on linen, 78 x 48 in.

Zurier sees the world as a poet does, distilling experiences into essences of color and light, touch and air.

Before and After Summer detail

Although his brush is always fluid, it doesn't call loud attention to itself.

Untitled (Spring), 2014; oil on linen, 25 x 16 in.

 The seasons, the landscape, are evoked by color, and by the light that flows through the color as it moves from dense to translucent. Like in the works of Joan Mitchell, the landscape is a poetic reference, not a representation.

Northern Morning Light, or Dalalaeda, 2014; oil on linen, 22 x 29 in.

The pink glow of morning as the sun rises, the cool pale blue behind: a beautiful memory of light, a touching and surprising painting.
Who wouldn't want to make work as sensitive, quietly graceful, and alive as these paintings?

February 18, 2015

The Wonders of Winter Survival

A couple of days ago I was amazed and elated watching this little creature––a wooly bear caterpillar––move in my hand; it waved its little legs and raised its head. Oh wow! OMG!! It's alive!

Why was I so thrilled? because a couple of days before I'd brought it inside from the shed, where it was curled up frozen solid from winter's cold. For me this was a little experiment, a test to see if it really was true that some animals survive winter by freezing. I just read a wonderful book about animals in winter––Winter World: the ingenuity of animal survival by Bernd Heinrich––which described the various strategies of getting through winter, from using anti-freeze, to powering down into torpor, to huddling together, to shivering, to lowering body temperature. Any one of those things is amazing. We homo sapiens survived moving north by using fire, wearing clothing, finding shelter; for animals other than us, only shelter is a survival mechanism used by some.

Regarding insects Heinrich writes:
Insects exhibit an exhilaration and a celebration of the exceptions, where anything goes that can.
Each insect species has a life stage at which it gets through the winter. For the Isabella Tiger moth, it is its larval stage, the wooly bear caterpillar. For the beloved Charlotte the spider––the barn spider––it is its eggs; you can see a dead spider at the bottom right, egg masses at the top of the photo above. The insects use a substance in their tissues––glycerol and sorbitol, which are alcohols, converted from glycogen––that act as antifreeze.

A couple of well-loved frog species in my area––wood frogs and peepers––survive winter by freezing solid, just like the wooly bear. It's hard to believe that this plump and active leaper becomes a block of ice in winter. Toads dig themselves into unfrozen ground and hibernate, keeping their body temperature a little above freezing, but the wood frog, gray tree frog, chorus frog, and my favorite spring peeper, all can be frozen in winter with no ill effects. Similarly to insects, they use alcohols to allow ice to form between the cells, but not inside them, which would be deadly. Heinrich describes the miraculous:
In about fifteen hours, the frog is frozen solid except for the insides of its cells. Its heart stops. No more blood flows. It no longer breathes. By most definitions it is dead. But it is prepared to again revive at a later date. 

I saw this black bear in the field in front of my house last spring. During the summer into fall, it likely ate ravenously, storing up lots of fat for its winter hibernation. When the weather began to get cold, it found a nice den in which to spend the cold months. There are interesting things about bears in hibernation: their body temperature does not go down more than a couple of degrees but they don't drink or urinate all winter; although they are sedentary for months, they don't lose bone mass. How, Heinrich asks, are they able, after five months of rest, "to get up and walk up a mountain"? No bed sores, no major loss of muscle mass, no hardened arteries from all the fat they consume.
We inadvertently simulate a hibernation-like state of inactivity in our modern environment, a new state of nature to which we are not well adapted.

Golden-crowned kinglet
Photo by Gary Irwin, courtesy of Wikipedia

One of Heinrich's favorite mysteries is how a tiny bird––the Golden-crowned kinglet––with so little body mass to keep it warm, can survive northern winters. It is smaller than a warbler, not much larger than a hummingbird. They have to eat constantly in order to have enough weight to make it through the losses of the cold nights. They do things that other birds do: fluff up their feathers to create air pockets and thus more insulating warmth, huddle together in a shelter, shiver to warm the body. In the end, Heinrich believes it's a matter of luck for individual survival, with a good balance of various strategies. I love what Heinrich has written about these birds, ending his fascinating book:
Undampened enthusiasm and raw drive would matter. I do not and cannot ever know the combination of happiness, hunger, or emotions that energize a bird. But whenever I've watched kinglets in their nonstop hopping, hovering, and searching, seen their intimate expressions, and heard their constant chatter of tsees, songs and various calls, I've felt an infectious hyperenthusiasm flow from them, and sensed a grand, boundless zest for life. They could not survive without that in their harsh world. Like us, they are programmed for optimism.
....They defy the odds and the laws of physics, and prove that the fabulous is possible. 

*I'll be away for a few days; see you next week. 

February 16, 2015

A New Textile: "Two Ovals"

Two Ovals, hand dyed wool on linen, 12 1/2 x 14 in.

One of the things I like about the medium of rug hooking is the ease of working with shapes other than the usual rectangle. Two ovals: an oval contained within the rectangle has a different energy from one that has escaped.....or perhaps it's seeking its way back inside. 

Two Ovals detail

I chose to work with earth colors and black for this piece. I like the sumptuous dark of the black wool; it enriches the sienna and ocher with its contrast. I had to dye the wool twice for this piece: the first dyeing of all three colors came out too light. I never know exactly how the color will look until the wool is rinsed and dried, as it dries lighter than it looks in the dye pot. I'm glad I took the trouble for a re-do.

February 15, 2015

Hiroshige's Snowy Landscapes

 The Kiso Mountains in Snow, 1857; triptych of woodblock prints, ink and color on paper; each 14 1/4 x 9 3/4 in. 
All images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You can see more Hiroshige snow prints 

Those of us in the Northeast are so tired of winter's cold and snow that I thought I'd use a "hair of the dog" remedy and spend some time looking at beautiful images of snow. Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) was one of Japan's great artists of Ukiyo-e. The grand triptych above was completed in the year before his death, showing that his power was not diminished with age. The monumental mountains glow in their snowy blanket. 

Evening Snow on Hira, Lake Biwa, ca. 1835; polychrome woodblock print, 8 27/32 x 13 23/32 in.

In winter there are still thoughts of spring, yet there's a desire to love the cold season. The poem inscribed on this print reads:
When the snow has ceased falling
The whitened peaks of Hira toward evening
Surpass in beauty the cherry blossoms. 

Snow on the Sumida River, ca.1835; polychrome woodblock print, 14 29/32 x 4 7/8 in.

Sparking flakes of snow descend on the landscape.

Kinryusan Temple at Asakusa, 1856; polychrome woodblock print, 14 1/16 x 9 1/2 in.

Hot red frames the white scene.

Evening Snow at Uchikawa, ca. 1836; polychrome woodblock print, 9 x 13 7/8 in. 

It seems that for Hiroshige, evening is the best time to observe the snowy landscape, since so many of his prints have evening in the title. Here is a translation of the poem in this print:
The pine trees are so deeply covered with snow
That there is no shelter under them.
The evening comes and the road to the harbor
Cannot be traced under the white snow.

Evening Snow at Kanbara, ca. 1833-34; polychrome woodblock print, 8 7/8 x 13 3/4 in.

Figure move through the snow with bent backs, umbrellas and hats, echoing the shapes of mountains and roofs, shielding them.

Asukayama in the Snow at Evening; 9 1/4 x 14 1/4 in. 

A poem by Gantantei adds tactility and delight to this image of snowcapped trees and weary travelers:
Snow falling on Asuka Hill
Is as fine as goose feathers
This evening.
A Wild Duck near a Snow-Laden Shore, ca. 1843; 14 7/8 x 6 3/4 in.

A intricately patterned duck floats alongside snow covered branches, is dusted by snowflakes.

Pheasant Among Snow-Laden Bamboo on Hillside, ca. 1840; polychrome woodblock print, 
10 3/8 x 7 1/4 in. 

To remind us to see beauty even in this oh-so-wintry winter, this is written:
Even more beautiful than the crested bird with his plumage like brocade, is the exquisite pattern of the fresh snow.