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. But.....now 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. 

February 12, 2015

A New Painting: "Cross and Stripes"

Cross and Stripes, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 6 x 8 in.

Two bent and curving shapes cross in front of horizontal bars, earth red against a cool blue. In my original photo source, the blue stripes were as irregular––bent and wavy––as the red bars in front of them. I wanted to have a contrast of crisp horizontal and curvy cross, but I'm not quite sure it works. I think the idea in my head might have been more interesting than the painted result. 

Cross and Stripes detail

The blue forms should zigzag in and out from the flat plane; you can see the light catching the upper part of the form and the shadowed underside. I think that the striped aspect of the image, the strong dark shadows (though I lightened them considerably while working on this) might flatten the form too much. But I give up, and as my mother likes to say "it is what it is".

February 11, 2015

Icicles: Frozen Light

It's been a banner winter for icicles: they are more abundant and larger than I've ever seen them. In the early morning they glow with the warm light of the rising sun.

The temperatures have been warm enough to melt the roof snow, which drips and drips, forming more and longer icicles; the temperatures have been cold enough that they've hung on for days.

On the north side of the house, the icicles have joined forces, forming an almost solid wall of ice at the roof line.

A veil of glittering light enlivens the landscape.

Pillows of snow end in daggers of ice.

The honeysuckle at the front door is dripping with ice, while a geranium blooms in indoor warmth.

I so often wonder about the emotions of my cats. I would like to assign a wistful feeling to Poppy as she stares out at the cold and snow; does she think of summer?

This afternoon, with a loud Crash! the snow and ice came off the roof. The cats were traumatized: frozen in place, they wondered what in the world had happened. Two milder days, with temperatures around 20º (that feels warm, believe me!) and some sun, caused the snow to slide off the metal roof. I'm going to miss the light captured in those icicles.

February 9, 2015

Animal Portraits

Bichitr, Portrait of the Elephant 'Alam Guman, India, ca. 1640; opaque watercolor and gold on paper, whole page 18.1 x 12.6 in.
Image courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

We love our pets, and those of us who've had the honor of knowing and working with large animals love them too. One day at the Met I saw the painting above and was surprised that it was actually a portrait, not a generic painting of an elephant. The inscription within the gold reads:
Likeness of 'Alam Guman Gajraj [the arrogant one of the earth, king of elephants, whose value is one lakh [a hundred thousand rupees]. 
He was given to the Mughul emperor Jahangir during New Year celebrations in 1614. This painting made me think about other works that treated animals as important beings, worthy of being immortalized in art.  

Paulus Potter, The Bull, 1647; oil on canvas, 92.7 x 133.5 in. 
Image courtesy of the Maritshuis.

Although this bull isn't named, I've always thought of him as a grand character, the star of a large and detailed canvas. The painting used to be known as The Young Bull, and I don't know why the title has changed, but he is certainly an "arrogant one of the earth".

George Stubbs, Eclipse at Newmarket, with a Groom and a Jockey, ca, 1770; oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 51 3/4 in. 
Photographed from a comprensive Stubbs catalog

George Stubbs is mainly known as a painter of horses, and it is easy to dismiss him as such. But his paintings are so beautifully made, with clarity of form and structure, that they transcend their subjects. I've seen Stubbs paintings at the Yale Center for British Art, and was entranced by them. Since we're talking about the subjects, we can admire this portrait of Eclipse, a famous racehorse of his time. Stubbs was an anatomist, and did detailed studies of horses and of other birds and mammals, including humans. 

George Stubbs, Ringwood, a Brocklesby Foxhound, 1792; oil on canvas 39 1/2 x 49 1/2 in.

Ringwood was certainly a handsome fellow, and Stubbs' portrait of him shows his regal bearing and gentle expression. There is poignancy in his gaze, a bit of sadness around the lifted eyelid. In my Stubbs catalog, I read that the breeding of hounds improved greatly over the 18th century, and Brocklesby hounds were very influential; so Ringwood was an important dog, just as 'Alam Guman was an important elephant. 

American School, Cat and Kittens, ca. 1872/1883; oil on millboard, 12 x 13 7/8 in.

This intense cat with her kittens were not important, not named, yet there's a distinct sense that the unknown artist was picturing very specific animals, each with his or her distinctive markings. I get the feeling that for them, play was a very serious business.

Alex Katz, Dog at Duck Trap, 1975; lithograph in 10 colors, 29 1/8 x 43 in.
Image courtesy AlexKatz.com

When I think of contemporary artists portraying animals, this Alex Katz print of his dog came to mind. What a sweet, happy fellow (though it might be a female). From another print you can see at the link above, I learned that the dog's name was Sunny, which seems quite appropriate.

Anne Arnold, Sunny (Skye Terrier), 1978; acrylic on terra cotta, 22 1/2 x 10 x 36 in. 
All Anne Arnold images courtesy of Alexandre Gallery

Anne Arnold was a great animal portraitist; her sculpture is full of wit and charm; I am smiling while working on this, enjoying the presence of her marvelous beings. Her work is also about recognizable personalities: when I saw the image of this sculpture I thought it must be Alex Katz's dog, down to the lolling tongue, and sure enough, when I clicked on the information, there was Sunny.

Anne Arnold, Quixote (Cat), 1982; acrylic on terra cotta, 14 1/2 x 14 x 13 in.

Anne Arnold, Ishmael, 1982; fired and painted clay, 16 3/4 x 15 x 18 in.

Ishmael and Quixote must be Maine coon cats because of the ear hair and the abundant bib-like hair on their chests. They both have a stolid seriousness, and an imperious gaze.

Anne Arnold, Sitting Cat, ca. 1988; carved wood polychrome, 20 x 21 x 7 3/4 in.

This cat, not named, is more lithe; a quicksilver intelligence, ready to run and leap.

Anne Arnold, Gretchen (Dachshund), 1978; acrylic on terra cotta, 20 1/2 x 9 x 16 in.

What a sweet girl Gretchen is! She sits like a good girl, attentive to what is being said; expectant too.

Anne Arnold, Grip (Bull Terrier), 1978; acrylic on terra cotta, 24 1/2 x 34 x 10 in. 

Grip is all attention, or maybe he's actually posing for this portrait. When I first saw this sculpture, I immediately thought of the dog in Little Rascals, the white dog with a circle around his eye. It turns out that Pete the dog was a succession of American pit bull terriers, so I was correct in seeing the resemblance. Although Arnold's sculpture is simplified compared to the heightened specificity of Stubbs' paintings, it is still accurate in form and feeling, and so sensitive to personality. For as we know, animals are as varied in their characters as humans, and every bit as worthy of commemoration in portraiture.