August 20, 2014

A Matter of Taste

Criticism would perhaps be simplified if, before setting forth an opinion, one avowed one's tastes; for every work of art contains within itself a particular quality stemming from the person of the artist, which, quite apart from execution, charms us or irritates us. Hence only those works which satisfy both our temperaments and our minds arouse our unqualified admiratiion. The failure to make this fundamental distinction is a great cause of injustice.
––Preface to Dernieres Chansons by Louis Bouilhet

Louis Bouilhet was a great friend of Gustave Flaubert. Mario Vargas Llosa opens his marvelous book, The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and Madame Bovary, with this quotation as a way of beginning a conversation on why he has been so in love with Emma Bovary, and the book she inhabits. The title of Vargas Llosa's book comes from an 1858 letter by Flaubert: 
The one way of tolerating existence is to lose oneself in literature as in a perpetual orgy. 
It's the question of taste that I began thinking about after reading the Bouilhet quote. Wouldn't it be interesting if, after the critic's name, there was a short statement (ah-hah! a critic's statement; how about that along with the constantly demanded artist's statement?) setting out their ideas of what makes good art: cutting edge; traditional; political; formal; especially interested in gay/women's/outsider etc art. Vargas Llosa sets out very clearly what his likes are in literature, and why Madame Bovary satisfies them so abundantly. So I thought I should try to articulate my taste in painting; why is it that I love certain artists and loathe others? The following is a brief description, though I must state beforehand that categories are not hard and fast; sometimes I like something that surprises me because I shouldn't. 

Fra Angelico, The Decapitation of Saints Cosmas and Damian, ca 1440-42; tempera on panel; 14 11/16 x 18 1/8 inches.

I love the paintings of the early Renaissance, the 14th and 15th centuries. I believe that I am essentially a classicist. On its classicism page, Wikipedia describes it as "formal and restrained". Even though the story Fra Angelico depicts is one of horror, the clarity and balance of the forms and composition allow us to enter the picture and move through it calmly; like life, the painting contains both beauty and cruelty.

Matthias Grünewald, Visit of St. Anthony to St. Paul and Temptation of St. Anthony, c.1515
image courtesy Wikiart

Is expressionism the oppositie of classicism? If so, it makes perfect sense that I can't stand the work of Grünewald, a German Renaissance painter. It is overwrought to my eye, excessive in its writhing forms and copious details. Then why do I love Brueghel? I believe it's because his form and composition are essentially classical in nature; though crowded, his paintings are clearly ordered.

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818
image courtesy Wikipedia

Then we come to Romanticism, which I generally despise. In my work I want to take a backseat to the thing described, not to call attention to myself as the maker. I want to see the world plain, without the heightened emotions that are called for with a romantic attitude. But here I'll be a little confusing, because I do like the work of Friedrich, although he is certainly a romantic. It is because the form and space in his paintings are clear and defined and the emotion isn't overdone. A painting like Wanderer is a little schmaltzy, but not over the top....

Philipp Otto Runge, The Morning, 1808
image courtesy Wikipedia

...while this Runge is most positively so, as corny as it gets. Not quite a fair comparison, because this painting is so silly, but other romantics "irritate" me.

Samuel Palmer, Garden in Shoreham, 1820s or early 1830s; opaque watercolor and gouache, 
11 x 8 1/2 in.

William Blake, Albion Rose, 1794-5
image courtesy Wikipedia

Samuel Palmer was a student/acolyte of William Blake. I adore Palmer's work and can't bear to look at Blake's. Palmer's small paintings of the area around Shoreham show a great love for a place, an attentive approach to his subjects. Blake is a great romantic, and his grandiose visions are completely foreign to my temperament.

Franz Kline, Mahoning, 1956; oil and paper collage on canvas, 80 x 100 in.

When it comes to the Abstract Expressionists, why do I not discard the entire bunch? why do I love de Kooning, Kline, Pollock, Newman, Mitchell? It's because the "expressionism" in the catch-all name does not mean that the work is full of excessive emotion. The brush may move with energy, but there is structure guiding it. I remember going to a Franz Kline retrospective at the Whitney many years ago and being startled to see small studies for large paintings that were exactly the same composition; the paintings were carefully planned, not frenzied expressions.

Clyfford Still, Untitled, 1951-52
image courtesy SFMOMA

Here is where taste becomes unreasoning: though Still's paintings seem to have much in common with those I mentioned above as loving, I really hate his paintings. To me they are overlarge canvases covered with mush, with no reason for being other than the artist's ego. If I try to be rational about why I dislike his work so much, I would have to say that it has to do with the romantic aspects of it, untempered by a structural rationality, or any sense of humility.

So, if I were a critic, I think you now might have a sense of my likes and dislikes, though again I'll state that my opinions are not fixed. I do have a sensibility, which I believe we all have, that colors how we look at art. I imagine you can come up with your own categories of love and hate, as much as we all try to be open and welcoming to all art.

August 19, 2014

A New Painting: "Blue Verticals"

Blue Verticals, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 8 1/4 x 6 1/8 in.

What is it about Cobalt blue that is so appealing? is it because it is close to the color of a bright sky, so our association with it is positive? Or maybe for you it is not; it could be sad, like "The Blues", or feeling blue. It is curious to me that such melancholic emotions would be given the name of such a lovely color. It may be because it's the coolest of colors on the spectrum; both green and purple have some warmth added to the blue: yellow and red. I might be thinking about this because the vertical forms in this composition remind me of figures; the central rectangle is like a person squeezed into a line or in a crowd. The metaphoric readings of my paintings generally stay in the back of my mind; this painting has pushed them forward.

Blue Verticals detail

August 17, 2014

Indian Pipe: A Strange and Ghostly Plant

July 11

Last month I spotted some odd white forms on the forest floor. I thought that they might be eggs of some sort, but when I touched their smooth surfaces, I could feel that they were stuck to the ground, not moveable as you would expect eggs to be. I turned to my friend Susan Sawyer, a naturalist on the staff of the Four Winds Nature Institute to solve the mystery. She guessed that they might be the beginnings of Indian Pipe, a plant lacking in chlorophyll.

July 23

Sure enough, as the weeks went by, it became clear that these were indeed the Indian pipe plant.

July 31

As they raised themselves further above ground, their shapes became familiar to me: a stem, with a few white leaves ending in a drooping white flower. The plants are white because they lack the energy-making chlorophyll, so instead they are parasites, like fungi, and their hosts are fungi.

August 5

It is very startling to come across these white flowers, the only white, except for the occasional pale mushroom, in an environment of brown and green. They are graceful, and seem so incredibly vulnerable.

August 10

Indian pipe seems too strange to be like other flowers, having stamens and pistil, but one day I happened to see a bumblebee in the woods, going from one flower to another. This prompted me to take a look inside, and sure enough, those flowering parts were there. I learned from the Indian pipe link above that the plant, pollinated by the bumblebees, will later form seeds. A flowering plant, ordinary and wondrous.

August 13, 2014

The Story of the Toothbrush at the Museum of Everyday Life

I have a vague memory that as a child I had a toothbrush like one of these, with an animal charmingly perched on its handle or case. How wonderful to have this called to mind, something I would never have thought of, as we rarely think about ordinary items in everyday use. The Museum of Everyday Life remedies this situation by looking at a different object each summer and exploring its history and culture. This year it's "Toothbrush From Twig to Bristle in all its Expedient Beauty". Last year's subject was the pencil, which I wrote about here. The museum had exhibits on the safety pin and the match. In the lively introduction to the show––you can read the entire essay at the museum link above––the curators point out:
Arguably one of the most basic and intimate of human tools, we place the toothbrush actually inside our bodies daily.....This object grooms and massages and maintains in good working order the parts of the mouth that articulate our desires and dreams, the key to our agency.
....we also remember that the rise of the toothbrush and ritual toothbrushing was born and grew hand-in-hand with the ascendancy of refined sugar in the modern diets of rich and imperialist nations. 
That sugar is part of the story relates this exhibition to the recent one by Kara Walker, "A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby", an installation at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn.

This miswak, or chew stick, is a devotional object in the Islamic world. Made from the Salvadora persica tree, it is effective as a toothbrush and related to the earliest known teeth cleaning artifacts, such as Babylonian chew sticks from 3500 BCE. A hadith (teaching) of the Prophet Muhammad concerning the miswak states:
Make a regular practice of Miswak for verily it is the purification for the mouth and a means of the pleasure of the Lord.
The first bristle toothbrush, I learned, was invented by the Chinese during the Tang Dynasty (619-907). They probably used the hairs of the cold-climate hog inserted into a bone or bamboo handle.

These are bone handles from early 19th century toothbrushes that were found in a dump in Scotland. It turns out that it took many centuries for the bristle toothbrush to arrive in Europe; previously people cleaned their teeth with rags. The invention is credited to William Gaddis, who in the year 1780, while in jail because of a dispute, came up with the idea of sticking bristles into holes drilled in a bone. The company that William Addis founded still exists: Wisdom Toothbrush.

This is the first US patent for a toothbrush, filed by H.N. Wadsworth.

Anything to get us kids to brush....those animals up above, books about cleanliness, a toothbrush handle in the shape of a bulbous cartoon character....

....and lines of drum majorettes proudly holding toothbrushes instead of batons.

Toothbrush handles came in all sorts of shapes, from a hand grasping the handle.... a clear naked woman.... a red stocking that held a small tube of bubble gum toothpaste. There was even a toothbrush handle in the shape of a penis.

Toothbrushes traveled in lipstick cases.

And unfortunately, toothbrushes had their terrible side: they could be racist....

....and they could be transformed into a bladed weapon, called a shiv, in prisons.

But here, an unknown woman proudly and happily holds up her toothbrush in a photo taken in post war France. She later married the American soldier who took the picture and moved to the US with him. Perhaps to her, the toothbrush symbolized the return to normal life, to routine and to cleanliness, and to peace.

August 11, 2014

A New Painting: "T-Square"

T-Square, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 9 x 9 in.

My last painting was all about Curves, but this newest work is all straight lines, except for the curve of shadow on the central rectangle. This frontal image––close to symmetrical but not quite––of receding planes is rather austere with its horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines.

T-Square detail

Some light-hearted color, pink and green, counter the solemn mood.

I've been thinking about how my paintings have changed over the past few years, changes that might not be evident in online photos, so here are four works to illustrate the shift. The two above are from 2011, the two below are my most recent. My paintings have gotten gradually larger, with a larger internal scale, by which I mean larger forms and less small detail. The painting on the upper left, Yellow Tilt, is close to the size I'm working with now, but you can see that there's a lot more going on in it. With the blue painting, Plus Minus, the composition is pared down, but the size is a lot smaller at 5 x 6 inches than my current work. It's a subtle change, but to me it feels like an important one. I am aiming for drama within simplicity and intimacy.

August 8, 2014

The Webs They Weave

The moisture of foggy mornings earlier this week settled on spider webs, highlighting their delicate structures. The lawn was dotted with fine, lacy handkerchiefs, the webs of grass spiders, who hide in funnel-like holes until their prey is spotted.

The silk of this orb web....

....and this is dotted with beads of moisture making them glitter like a crystal chandelier. (click on images to enlarge and see the details)

A tiny red spider is at the center of an elegant web in the raspberry patch. These tiny creatures, and so many others, are usually unseen, unnoticed; the sparkling of the moist web points them out.

Another small spider is centered in its web, but as I came close to photograph it, it took off quickly and hid amid some flowers.

I don't know what kind of spider made this sheet web, a thin net catching water, soil, debris, and a strand of hair. Spider silk is amazingly strong, with greater tensile strength than the same weight of steel, as I learned on Wikipedia.

Here is one of my grand spider residents, a barn spider, Araneus cavaticus, made famous by the marvelous story Charlotte's Web by E.B. White. These spiders weave sometimes spectacular webs and some years my shed is festooned with the stretching silk. My Charlotte, who lives on the porch, usually works at night, but one afternoon she appeared so I could take her picture. If you enlarge it by clicking, you'll see the silk coming out from the end of her abdomen, and she adroitly uses her legs to put it in place. Watching this spider, it is easy to imagine how White was inspired to think of the barn spider weaving words into its web.

I wanted an excuse to share a favorite haiku by Issa, translated by Robert Hass, so here is a web, with its spider, in the corner of the doorway to the cellar:

Don't worry, spiders,
I keep house

August 6, 2014

A New Textile: "Red Sector"

Red Sector, hand dyed wool on linen, 8 x 19 1/2 in.

When I was thinking of a title for this new textile, I kept looking at that red slice of pie and wondering if there was a name for it, and it turns out that there is: it is a sector, a shape formed by two radii of a circle and the arc of the circle between them. What a nice, useful word. As for the composition, I wanted to try an elongated rectangle, which I haven't done since I made a failed piece a couple of years ago. Red Sector has a proportion of close to 1 to 2 1/2 while the earlier one was 1 to 4, so I was more conservative in my lengthening. I decided on a bright orange for the long rounded shape with a dark red for the sector, and blue for the little triangular bits of background. When I was finished with the dyeing and the wool was drying, I realized that the red and orange weren't working well together: I had to either tone down the orange or darken and brighten the red. I thought that a bolder choice would be to intensify the red, so it went back into the dye pot; I think the result works fairly well. 

Red Sector detail

Red Sector detail

In these details you can get a better idea of the hooking patterns. For the two large shapes I followed their outlines: the orange shape is curved and then straight; for the sector I emphasized its being part of a circle by having the lines of hooking follow the outer curve. I think of the blue as background for which I often use a random hooking pattern because it is less insistent of a shape. Although the actual hooking process in my textile work doesn't take a great deal of attention (I do it while watching tv in the evening), its other aspects are similar to making a painting: establishing a composition, working out the color, figuring out the facture, with the direction of hooked loops being like brush strokes. I love doing different kinds of handwork.

August 4, 2014

Powerful Presences at the Bread and Puppet Museum

Walking into the Bread and Puppet Museum in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont is an uncanny experience: large and small masks and figures crowd the bays and loft of a huge barn, silent yet filled with animated life. It was as though the puppets had imbibed the life force of those who had made them and worn them in performances; it was as though they could begin to move and dance and sing and declaim on their own. My photographs cannot convey the remarkable scale and profusion of these beings, all having taken part in past shows put on by Bread and Puppet. The female figure above, for instance, a "Domestic Resurrection Goddess", reaches from the floor of the barn to the rafters; is that 20 feet? 30 feet? She has a benign, enveloping presence, for me almost like Piero's Madonna della Misericordia, who shelters her followers under her ample cloak.

In another art history reference, writhing figures, many in the pose of a crucifixion, are spread across the ceiling of the barn, a Sistine Chapel for northern Vermont.

All the masks, including these evocative faces which are over 3 feet tall, are made of paper mache over clay sculpted by Peter Schumann, the founder and director of Bread and Puppet. The museum website describes the work process this way:
The vast contents of the museum are the result of a half-century of creativity and hard work, which began in New York City in 1963. Peter Schumann, founder and director of the Bread and Puppet Theater, is the artist, but the actual production of the puppets in mostly the result of extraordinary communal efforts. A core group of dedicated, experienced puppeteers, joined by friends and neighbors and apprentices build the puppets and the masks, applying layers of paper mache over Peter Schumann's sculpted clay models. And then, using simple materials like cardboard, poplar saplings, and rummage sale clothing, construct figures of impressive size....And since this museum replaces the traditional museum's ideal of preservation with acceptance of more or less graceful and inevitable deterioration, consider making your visit sooner rather than later. 

I loved the different expressions on these enormous, elongated heads, and their rich coloration.

You can get a sense of scale with masks that are displayed with clothing. They are caricatures, yet somehow seem true to life.

This delicate, wistful face was very touching as it was partially hidden by a lace curtain.

The quiet white face and hands float dreamlike between dark sleeping heads.

The figures in this tableau are from the play "The White Horse Butcher", performed in 1975. The black clothing and white faces are graphic and dramatic. It was seeing this that made me think "of course! German Expressionism is a strong influence on this work". Peter Schumann was a sculptor and dancer in his native Germany before coming to the US in 1961. And just as German Expressionist artists such as George Grosz, Otto Dix, and Max Beckmann were acidly political in their work, the core meanings of Bread and Puppet performances are also political art at its best: humanist, pacifist, environmentalist, engaged.

They also look at ordinary life, in a room with puppet women engaged in sewing, washing dishes, and ironing.

There are masks that are humorous.....

.....and beasts that are frightening.

As an label explains, "the giant grey fellow is the prophet from "The Fight Against the End of the World", and the women are from "7 Grey Lady Cantatas". The soft expressions of the women are beautiful and calm while their hands are large and expressive.

There is such a feeling of woe and despair in this grouping of dark figures. The rhythms of arms and hands and side-turned heads are like those of dancers, or a Greek chorus.

For me the most beautiful, the most touching, group of figures are these Vietnamese women with their pale faces framed in black. They are from the play "Fire", a very early work from 1968 that was about the Vietnam war. Through all these years, Bread and Puppet Theater has kept true to its vision, and it is thrilling to see the emotional presences that remain after the plays are over.