May 25, 2016

A New Clay Relief: "Points"

Points, painted porcelain, 7 1/4 x 10 1/4 in.

In developing compositions for my recent clay reliefs I've alternated between images that were invented abstractions, worked up from thumbnail sketches, and those that were inspired by photos of agricultural implements, like the ones I use for my paintings. Points is one of the invented ones, and it's possible it will be the last. I think that my "found" images have more unusual juxtapositions of forms, so are more interesting to me. Another thing I realize is that I love working with complexity in these reliefs: multiple forms overlapping in various depths; it is challenging and engaging. The thought of doing very minimal compositions in clay does not interest me at this time, as much as I love minimalism.


I am showing two photographs of this piece, shot in different light, each of which highlight a certain part of the sculpture. The top photo makes the outward-angled horizontal in the center more clear, while the second photo, with its light coming from the left, shows the curved form of the main downward truncated triangle.

Points detail

While sculpting this piece I attempted to have a contrast between the crisp clarity of the triangular shapes and the somewhat softer surface and edges of the background spaces. In this detail, you can see the sharp edge on the bottom left and the irregular edge on the right. I am feeling my way, with much uncertainty, as I work on these reliefs.

May 22, 2016

At the Met: The High Art of Low Relief

Limestone footstool, Cypriot, 1st half of 5th century B.C.

Sculpture in low relief is both real––in the sense of its actual three dimensionality––and illusionistic, in that it shows us forms that are abbreviated, and asks us to imagine them in the round. In this way it stands between painting and sculpture, which is likely why it has fascinated me for so many years. On my most recent trip to the Met, I decided to find various examples of low relief, from different countries and different periods of time. The footstool above has simple decorative elements, slightly raised and incised, their floral pattern contrasting strongly with the violent scene between them.

Limestone relief, Cypriot, end of 6th century B.C.

The herdsman Eurytion, carrying a tree as a weapon, moves his cattle forward. Their forms are barely indicated yet are full of life. Although the animals are shown overlapping, moving back in space, their hooves march along all together in a line.

Marble stele (grave marker) of Eukleia, Greek, 4th century B.C.

Some reliefs are very simple: the rounded form of a loutrophoros, a vase to carry water....

Upper part of the marble stele of Kallidemos, detail, Greek, ca. 350-325 B.C.

....or the decorative element of a rosette, clearly geometric in its parts.

Front of a coffin platform, China, 6th - early 7th century.

A beautifully modeled winged horse prances within a roundel.

Marble panel with Two Griffins Drinking from a Cup, South Italian, 800-900.

Two facing griffins are flatly modeled, and are decorated with pattern in the symmetrical design. Its structure is explained by its probable derivation from Near Eastern textile design.

Marble panel with a Griffin, Byzantine, 1250 - 1300.

Here is another griffin made several hundred years later, but still richly patterned, surrounded by floral motifs. It's interesting to compare the way the griffins are carved with the Chinese horse, which is so much more rounded.

Ivory Icon with Christ Pantokrator, Byzantine, 1000-1200.

In this small icon, a great deal of detail and a grand sense of presence is achieved in a very shallow space; clothing, hair, and book are simplified into patterns, while the stern visage of Christ adds the spiritual.

Door Panel, French, ca. 1520-40; oak

Returning to animals, this beautifully carved door has a representation of a salamander, the letter "F" and a crown, all emblems of King François I.

I love the elegance of the rounded tail, the raised bumps along the spine, the haunches and the toes; the clarity and description of form are a marvel.

Fragment with the head of a goddess, Egypt, ca. 2353-2152 B.C.

I'm ending this post with a detail of an Egyptian relief, a tender and lyrical depiction of an ear. It is Egyptian relief carving that is my greatest love in this medium; seeing a great show of Middle Kingdom art, which I wrote about here, inspired me to begin my attempts at clay reliefs. It is wonderful to be able to wander through the Met and remind myself of all the approaches to, and possibilities of, this aspect of art making.

May 17, 2016

A New Painting: "Hook"

Hook, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 5 7/8 x 9 in.

A simple composition of horizontal and vertical rectangles is thrown for a loop with the addition of a curved form. I use that idiomatic expression deliberately, since the hook shape lets the mind wander into metaphor.

Hook detail

May 14, 2016

The Magic of Sunset and Mists

It was serendipity that got me out of my indoor cocoon last evening and gave me the gift of a beautiful sunset. I was watching the remarkably beautiful, moving, and tragic film by Ettore Scola, A Special Day. Taking an intermission to get some fruit and see if Blinky the cat was back from his evening rambles, I stepped out on the porch to let him in and gasped at the color suffusing the landscape. Mists rising after an afternoon rain created layered veils of distant trees, turning the views into visual poetry. I got my camera, put on my gardening shoes and wandered outdoors until the light faded from the sky. Above is a view of my vegetable garden, facing west; it was my first shot, taken at 8:04 PM.

My favorite old apple tree had a strong presence silhouetted against the misted background trees. As I was photographing, I knew that these images couldn't come close to the experience of being in the landscape: they simplify in lights and darks; the richness of color in the foreground is flattened into dark drama; the soft haze of distance is partly lost. The air, the scents, the sounds are gone; the translation of a three dimensional world into two dimensions leaves out so much, but I wanted to try to record this nonetheless.
(I recommend clicking the images to enlarge them so as to see more detail.)

Coming closer to that apple tree a few minutes later, the emerging leaves were tinged with the sunset's glow.

Still facing west, a large crabapple tree against the brilliant sky.

The same tree a little later, with the ever changing clouds.

From the backyard I looked towards the east, where distant trees faded into pink haze.

This last shot was taken at 8:17 as the sky began to darken but color remained in the clouds. The telephone pole is holding up the world as wires cross the sky. In a brief quarter hour I was in an earthly heaven.

May 11, 2016

A New Textile: "Red/Brown Ground"

Red/Brown Ground, hand dyed wool on linen, 11 x 10 in.

I had a yen to revisit an occasional series that I worked on in 2012 and 2013: my figure/ground series. You can see an example here and here. My aim is to have shapes and colors equally balanced so that no one shape takes precedence as the "figure" which then relegates the other shape to the background. In this piece the circular brown shape pushes into the red, a red which would ordinarily be much stronger because of its intensity of color; here, because of the sense of movement of the warm brown, I hope they are equalized and become interlocking. 

Red/Brown Ground detail

I hook a line around each shape––both the red and the brown––so that one doesn't appear to be slipping behind the other, and use horizontal and vertical lines of hooking to keep the shapes differentiated and flat. This is a fun and interesting challenge.

May 5, 2016

At the Met: The Ordinary Becomes Extraordinary

Walter Dorwin Teague, "Bluebird" Radio, 1934; manufacturer: Sparton Corporation; 
glass, chrome-plated metal, fabric, painted wood.

I love good design, and seeing the attention paid to all aspects of a manufactured object: a thing in everyday use can be beautiful. Currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a display of American modern design from the John C. Waddell collection, gathered in a couple of cases in the contemporary galleries. The wall label informed me that modern design in the US was in a sorry state at the time of the Exposition International des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925, but afterwards, with the inspiration of that exposition, a new effort was made by artists and designers and they produced "strikingly innovative objects". The radio above certainly is a stunning thing....

Walter Dorwin Teague, "Bantam Special" Camera, 1936; manufacturer: Eastman Kodak Company; 
metal, enamel. is this camera. They were designed by Walter Dorwin Teague, who was considered the "dean of industrial design", a leader in the field along with Henry Dreyfuss, whose objects are below, and a few others. These modernist objects have a dramatic and satisfying aesthetic presence. It would be nice to own this radio and this camera just to be able to look at them. 

Henry Dreyfuss, Electric Toaster, 1932; manufacturer: Birtman Electric Company;
chrome-plated metal, plastic, glass.

This toaster is an inventive combination of flat black planes and a big rounded chrome belly topped by an open rectangle. It's an improbable combination of elements that's visually exciting.

Henry Dreyfuss, "Big Ben" Alarm Clock, 1938; manufacturer: Westclox Company;
metal, chrome-plated metal, enamel.

I'm pretty sure I had one of these clocks when I was young. It's one of those everyday things that we wouldn't pay any attention to, but shown in a museum we take another look and notice its crisp design. Dreyfuss also designed the Princess telephone.

Henry Dreyfuss, Kitchen Utensils, 1934; manufacturer: the Washburn Company;
metal, painted wood.

I love the shapes of the handles on these kitchen utensils; they're utilitarian and amusing at the same time.

Henry Dreyfuss, Thermos Bottle and Cups, ca. 1933; manufacturer: The American Thermos Bottle Company; metal, glass, plastic, paint, cork.

This thermos features another surprising combination of shapes, as in the toaster above: a long, flat-sided body topped by a rounded cup, all painted red and black, like a harlequin.

Wolfgang and Pola Hoffman, Cigarette and Match Holder with Ashtray, ca. 1930; manufacturer: Early American Pewter Company; pewter. 

I wonder if designers these days are spending any time working on cigarette accoutrements. But these two pieces....

Donald Deskey, Cigarette Box, ca. 1928; manufacturer: Deskey-Vollmer Inc.; 
painted wood, silver leaf.

....are beautiful examples of the former glamour of smoking cigarettes. For a fascinating look at good contemporary design, see the film Objectified, by Gary Hustwit, which I wrote about here. An industrial designer has a difficult task: to make the object both useful and attractive; I'd like to honor those who achieve it.

May 2, 2016

A New Painting: "Hidden Bolt"

Hidden Bolt, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 6 1/2 x 8 1/4 in.

I love shapes: their juxtapositions, their color, the way one balances or is in tension with another. Their taut, precise edges excite me; the light flowing over them carries an added drama. I am offering a defense of painting that is not painterly, not "expressive", not about the figure or narrative events, but is restrained and is focused on the formal elements of painting. I am writing this now because while this painting was in progress I felt a passion for its shapes, a delight and an exhilaration that reminded me why I continue with this subject matter. 

Hidden Bolt detail

And, there are metaphors within the most straightforward of images.
I paint, after all, for myself; if others like what I do that is a wonderful bonus.

April 29, 2016

At the Met: Capital Inventions

Marble Double Capital with Masks and Birds, French, Languedoc; ca. 1140-60

Medieval artists had wild and inventive imaginative powers, often pointed at the varied tortures of hell, but also showing marvelously in the carvings of churches, such as gargoyles and the capitals of columns. On my recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, while I was wandering through the medieval galleries, I began to look up more attentively. Above my head were five capitals, each a fanciful composition of human, animal, and plant forms. A man's open mouth spews forth stylized curving forms, which wrap around birds eating grapes. There's a symmetry which rationalizes very strange imagery.

Limestone Capital with Samson and an Attendant Fighting a Lion, North Spanish, ca. 1175-1200

I love the simplification of form in this capital and the one below. The lion's mane becomes a pattern of overlapping shapes, like roof tiles; the carving of Samson's clothing and his hair and beard form linear patterns. There's a solid stillness to the struggle of man and lion.  

Limestone Capital with a Centaur Battling a Man with Bow and Arrow, Northern Spanish, 
ca. 1175-1200

There's no indication on the wall labels at the museum that this capital and the one above are from the same church, but they do seem very similar in the way form is treated. It's interesting the way the upper body of this man-beast is facing backwards, creating a flowing line from underbelly through the head.

Limestone Capital with Lions Mounted by Nude Riders, North Spanish or South French, 
ca. 1200

Here is another image of a man on the back of a lion, like the capital with Samson above. Here the lion's mane has more volume, and flows like little waves on a choppy sea. The curve of the man's back echoes the decorative curve alongside him. There is a snake winding up towards his head in an uneasy dance. 

Limestone Capital with an Angel Emerging from a Cloud, French,Burgundy; ca. 1150-1200

A wide-eyed angel soars above a complex design of beautiful leafy forms; this capital is sheer delight, with no intimations of violence or fear. As aesthetic objects all these capitals are heavenly.

April 27, 2016

Four New Hooked Wool Drawings

2016 #5, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 17 1/2 x 16 in.

When I am working on studies for new hooked wool drawings, a theme sometimes emerges; with this group it might be "line and shape". Each work has a line––or double line––of hooked wool along with painted and/or hooked shapes. Above, two divided circles, half painted and half hooked, are held together with the blue line of a square.

2016 #6, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 15 x 12 in.

A curved line touches the point of a yellow rectangle, while a second line encloses an implied oval.

2016 #7, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 2 panels each 16 x 7 in.

Double-lined circle and oval float on blue fields in this diptych. The curved outlines of the blue against the unpainted linen are different in each panel, creating an offbeat rhythm.

2016 #8, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 17 3/4 x 18 in.

A thin oval plays off against dense curved shapes inscribed within rectangles. Of course there is always the question the balance of all elements: color, line, shape, and their relationship to the surface of unpainted linen. All artmaking is a juggling act.

April 19, 2016

JMW Turner's Leap into Modernism

The Thames above Waterloo Bridge, ca. 1835-40,

Paint becomes atmosphere and light; land and water dissolve into a fluid presence. Joseph Mallord William Turner's late paintings are beautifully expansive, with open paint handling that comes close to eradicating image and leaving just painted light. In the current exhibition, Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible at the Met Breuer, are five of these paintings, hung together in a small room. They were part of the Turner Bequest, in which he left 300 paintings and 30,000 sketches and watercolors to the British nation. Many of the paintings in this bequest stayed in storage for years, not shown in public, such as these, some of which are assumed to be unfinished.

The Thames above Waterloo Bridge detail

In this painting, there is a briefly sketched image of a manned boat with oars; it is in the lower right of the painting. It is clear that there is an unfinished portion in this painting.
(I recommend clicking on the images to enlarge them in order to see more of the detail.)

Sun Setting Over a Lake, ca. 1840,

But then there's a painting such as this, which to our 21st century eyes looks quite complete and balanced: a dense saturated red with a bright spot holding its center is surrounded by lighter grays, all seeming to swirl around that intense light. What more could he have added? Some of his contemporaries, however, "accused Turner of extravagance and exaggeration, outdoing each other with comparisons of his pictures to lobster salad, soapsuds and whitewash, beetroot or mustard..." (quote from the Turner link above)

Sun Setting Over a Lake detail

Turner applied paint with tremendous freedom. This detail reminds me of Philip Guston's abstract paintings.

Margate From the Sea, ca. 1835-40

The luminosity of the paintings comes from a deep understanding of color and contrast: the light glows as though the canvas is lit from behind. Another painter of the 1950s that this brings to mind is Mark Rothko who also had a subtle control of light and color, and whose canvases also glowed. I chose to show images of Turner's paintings with the frames included because the contrast brings out their light; I felt that having the paintings against a white page removed some of their drama.

Margate From the Sea detail

In this detail you can see how Turner layered the paint, as though he was physically creating space.

Rough Sea, ca. 1840-45,

Rough Sea dissolves into turbulent paint into light, the paint becoming the thing. Seeing the painting flattened as a small image on a screen doesn't give the viewer a true sense of its dynamic presence.

Rough Sea detail

Turner plays with paint in a very open way, as though his subject is only a useful pretext. Though of course, this painting may indeed be unfinished, with Turner planning to add a ship tossing on the sea. With our modern sensibility, though, it looks done.

Sunset from the Top of the Rigi, ca. 1844

This light filled, delicate canvas is based on a view from Mount Rigi in the Swiss Alps. Of all the paintings I've shown, this one might seem to be the most unfinished because of its minimal handling and close tonality. But according to the Met's label it was finished and offered to a collector, but it was rejected. I suppose that a painting made in 1844 but looking like it was made in 1954 was too much for a collector to handle. Sunset was part of the Turner bequest but it was not seen by the public until 1974, when it was shown at a bicentennial celebration of Turner's birth at the Royal Academy.

Sunset from the Top of the Rigi detail

When I see these paintings I wonder how Turner did it; how did he make this imaginative leap into a different kind of painting? John Constable, another English landscape painter, lived at the same time as Turner and he too made some quite wild paintings at the end of his life, with white paint flying, standing in for light; but Constable kept a tight grasp on his subjects. England does produce some eccentric artists: Richard Dadd, Samuel Palmer, William Blake, and in the 20th century Stanley Spencer, which makes me think there is something there that allows for unusual approaches. Turner was certainly a unique genius, a master of color and light who made paintings that were far ahead of his time.