October 27, 2015

World Figures....at the Davis Museum

Tomb Figure of an Entertainer, Eastern Han Dynasty, China, ca. 25-220; gray pottery with remains of pigments. 

This fellow would certainly enliven the afterlife; it's no wonder a powerful person wanted him in his tomb. Seeing a figure like this is one of the reasons I love going to small museums that are new to me: there are always delightful surprises. I recently visited the Davis Museum of Wellesley College––I wrote about a Kathe Kollwitz show there––which had a mixed group of works from all over the world, very loosely tied to a theme of "Stories, Ideals, Beliefs". So this post gathers the images of objects depicting the figure that tickled my fancy, without a strong theme uniting them.

Tanagra Figures, Greece, 3rd century BCE; terracotta. 

These small figures have a range of gestures, some quite natural, some classically reserved. I love the saucy hands on hips attitude. From the museum label I learned that these works were highly coveted when they were discovered in the late 19th century. Unfortunately, there were a lot of forgeries, but the label doesn't indicate which pieces in this display are genuine and which are fakes; I couldn't begin to figure it out.

Haniwa Tomb Figure of a Soldier, Japanese, ca. 300-710; earthenware.

This figure is so simple that it looks like it could be a modernist sculpture, such as one by Elie Nadelman. A soldier with his arm raised may be saluting.....

Tomb Figure of an Astronomer, Chinese, Han Dynasty, 206 BCE - 220 CE; gray pottery with pigment. 

.....while an astronomer points to the stars.

Standing Noble with Feather Shield, Maya, ca. 700-900; earthenware with paint.

Beautifully idealized form enhances the proud stance of this figure, whose shield has the appearance of a large flower.

Tripod Vessel with Ballgame Scene, Maya, Early Classic, ca. 400-700; burnished ceramic.

This vessel has a very different kind of stylization from the noble above, one much more based on dense pattern.

Tusk for the Royal Benin Ancestral Shrine, Igbesanmwan Carvers Guild, Benin City, Nigeria; ca. 1851-88; ivory.

Elaborately adorned figures climb the cylindrical column.

Corbel with a Green Man, French, 1210-40; limestone.

From Wikipedia I've learned that a Green Man is a depiction of a face surrounded by leaves; it's a symbol that exists in many cultures, and across hundreds of years.

Capital, (Musician Playing a Vielle), French, ca. 1125-1150; limestone.

Here's another wonderful medieval architectural ornament, with a man soulfully playing his stringed instrument.

Gelede Mask, Yoruba, Nigeria, 20th century; wood. 

I am ending with this mask from Africa that has spectacular sculptural form. It is from a powerful tradition honoring the
primal creative force of women. The Gelede spectacle venerates female elders and is dedicated to Iya Nla, the maternal principle in the Yoruba cosmos, who unites culture with nature and the sacred with the profane. 
We can think of great art as having some of those magical properties.

October 22, 2015

A New Painting: "Blue-Green Rhythm"

Blue-Green Rhythm; egg tempera on calfskin parchment; 2 panels, each 5 x 5 in. 

When I was out scouting for images last spring and summer, I had a bee in my bonnet about finding some multi-panel compositions. I came up with ideas for two diptychs with fairly large panel sizes, and two others with 5 x 5 inch panels, one a four part and one a three part painting. Well....what you see above is what remains of the four panel idea; it did not work as four, but did as a diptych, I think. The diptych is painted on two of the three panels of a failed triptych, which I wiped away. In this painting I like the horizontal and vertical movement of the wide bars, and the repeated verticals on the left of each panel. The angles of shadow set up a different movement; I added the diagonal shadow and light on the lower part of the left panel to emphasize that tension (it was entirely shadowed in the source photo).

Blue-Green Rhythm panel 1

The color changed many times while I was painting this, always in this range, but going lighter or darker, bluer or yellower. The primary pigment was Phthalo green, a cool, bright green. The space of this panel is quite flat....

Blue-Green Rhythm panel 2

....while this one has some depth, so I'm not sure that they work perfectly well together. Is the contrast a good or bad thing? I tried switching the panels around, but didn't like that arrangement: I felt that the right side of the painting needed the exclamation point. So it often goes: making art is full of uncertainty.

October 21, 2015

Käthe Kollwitz's Krieg (War): The Power of Images

Frontal Self Portrait, 1922-23; woodcut

The horrors of war are unfortunately ever present; Käthe Kollwitz's images of the emotional and physical ravages of WW I could represent many wars, and they are harrowing. A large group of Kollwitz's drawings and prints associated with her series of seven prints––Krieg (War)––is now on view at the Davis Museum of Wellesley College, and I was very lucky to have had the opportunity to see them. I had previously seen one or two, and many in reproduction, but standing in front of actual drawings and prints on the theme of war was very moving. You can see from her self portrait that she has an uncompromising vision.

Pensive Woman, 1920; lithograph

Pensive Woman is a heart rending image, so simple yet speaking so clearly of hopelessness. The evening before seeing this show I watched the Netflix film Beasts of No Nation, an overwhelmingly horrifying view of war in an unnamed African nation, and the child soldiers forced into that war. Still shaky from that experience, the Kollwitz works struck me even harder than they might have otherwise.

The Widow, 1918; soft-ground etching with hand additions in graphite, charcoal, and brush and gray wash.

The slightly open mouth, the sunken eyes, the large open hands, all express grief; that expression is heightened by the depth of black of the widow's dress.

Three states of The Parents, 1922-23; woodcut

Kollwitz's youngest son was killed at the beginning of WWI, in 1917, on a battlefield in Flanders. A few years later her grief became art: two parents supporting each other in their mourning. The exhibition was interesting in that it presents various states of the final prints for the series, plus drawings. They are a worthy companion to Goya's Disasters of War.

Trial proof for a discarded version of The Parents, 1922-23; woodcut

I love this deep deep dark version of this image. In her diary she noted that "pain is very dark".

 The Parents, 1922, Plate 3 from Krieg; woodcut

However, the version Kollwitz chose for the series was more open, though still powerful.

Mothers Protecting Their Children, 1918; charcoal on laid paper.

Another strong theme was mothers trying to protect their children. In this drawing the composition is spread outwards.....

The Mothers, 1921; india ink and opaque white watercolor.

.....but we can see how Kollwitz intensified the image by having the women huddle together, trying to form an impenetrable mass.

The Mothers, Plate 6 from Krieg, 1922; woodcut

In the final woodcut, the whites highlight the fearful faces, the enclosing hands.

The Widow II, Plate 5 from Krieg, 1921-22; woodcut

This is the most awful image of all....

The Survivors, 1922-23; charcoal on laid paper.

....and for the survivors, pain and grief, though with a steadfast will to survive. Why oh why do we do this to ourselves over and over and over again?

October 19, 2015

A Show of My Textiles

It is always wonderful to see your work on a wall outside your house and studio, where it takes on a life apart from its maker. I'm so pleased that my textiles are being featured in a solo show at David Hall Fine Art in Wellesley, MA, from Oct 16 - Nov 20. You can read the catalog essay and see images of work at the link. I was there on Saturday and took these not very good installation shots so as to give a sense of scale, since on this blog I usually show works individually. The image above shows the wall of the gallery facing the entrance, with one fully hooked work flanked by two hooked wool drawings.

The wall jogs out, where a four-part piece is hung, then three more on its continuation.

Here is the side wall.....

....then the wall opposite the first shown. Here there's a table with three on my book paintings on view.

2015 #12 is hanging above another table.

This wall is to the left as you enter, and the hooked wool drawing on the left, with its bouncing circles is in witty conversation with the bubbles of seltzer below.

This triptych from 2007, Primary Colors, is hanging to the right of the two hooked works in the photo above.

2012 #3 is hanging alone on a small wall.

And here is David, a wonderfully enthusiastic art lover. I am very grateful to him for being so supportive of my work. He's put together a mini retrospective of sorts: the piece on the left is the first art textile I made in 2006, and the work in the show spans the ten years I've been working with textiles. That first piece was inspired by having seen the show of Tantra Drawings at the Drawing Center in 2004-5. After making some rugs for my old house, I was poring through the catalog from that show and realized that rug hooking provided a perfect medium for my to explore abstraction. The medium has continued to be a rich one for me.

October 15, 2015

A New Textile: "Excavation"

Excavation, hand dyed wool on linen, 15 x 11 in. 

Occasionally it happens that a metaphor rises unbidden while I'm working on a piece, no matter the medium. Once it's stuck in my brain, it's hard to dislodge. With this piece, I had the feeling of hidden chambers below ground, as in Egyptian burial chambers within pyramids; I even have a triangle above ground! Please believe me when I say I had no notion of this until midway into the making of this piece. It was simply three basic shapes, cut away from the wool, with two colors. The colors, by the way, came by way of thinking of Matisse's cutouts; he often used a violet like this one. So....I called the textile Excavation, with a sense of humor, and with a bow to de Kooning's great painting of the same name; I hope I'm not being sacrilegious. 

Excavation detail

The differentiation of forms come from two things: the direction of the hooking of the loops of wool––I followed the forms, while the backgrounds use straight lines––and cutting away the tops of the loops, to create a sunken relief.

Excavation detail

In this detail you can see the different directions of hooking in square and circle, and how they are set apart from the horizontal lines of the surrounding plane. I had briefly considered having the three shapes a different color from their backgrounds, but then realized I wanted a more subtle effect. The two colors are not at all subtle, so to balance their intensity, the shapes are embedded within them.

October 13, 2015

Tony Smith's Gouaches: A Minimalist at Play

Untitled, ca. 1960; gouache on corrugated cardboard, 5 1/4 x 6 1/8 in. 

I love being surprised by a new aspect of an artist's work. Tony Smith is known mainly as a minimalist sculptor who worked with simple, monumental, black-painted geometric forms (see the last image in this post). These seven very small, colorful, informal gouaches were therefore quite unexpected. They were on view at Matthew Marks Gallery's small space  at 502 W 22 St (until Oct 24); the show is not mentioned on the gallery website, so I am grateful to the artist Cary Smith for telling me about it. They are painted on ordinary materials––cardboard and brown paper––and are wonderfully casual. Shapes––curving and straight-sided, all quite irregular––are contained within loosely drawn rectangles whose boundaries are marked with charcoal. The drawing on cardboard is the only one to combine several shapes within the rectangle. Three shapes are geometric, with one, an intense blue, allowing a curling curve within its square. Smith worked as an architect for many years, and this drawing seems almost like a fanciful floor plan.

Untitled, ca. 1960; set of six gouaches on paper, 6 3/8 x 5 1/2 in.

Although there's a casualness to the drawing, the color relationships are sensitive and spot-on. The blue-gray and the cool dark red are perfectly matched: the dips into blue become red breasts, the blue curve a head with raised arms. Or...just an amusing shape, however you see it. The brown paper––which has laid lines on it, so maybe it was a little fancier than cut from a bag––has a delightful dip at its lower right, and its edges are far from straight. I imagine Smith, quickly cutting a bunch of small pieces of paper, not caring that the edges wobbled, piling them up to be ready for small sketches.

Untitled, ca. 1960; set of six gouaches on paper, 4 1/2 x 5 in.

This drawing is the only one that in its geometry refers to Smith's sculpture. The rich red and brown, the searched for edges, the small reddish rectangles within the brown, move the drawing beyond a simple study.

Untitled, ca. 1960; set of six gouaches on paper, 4 1/2 x 5 1/2 in.

There's a beautiful balance between the forms and their placement on the paper. With work this seemingly simple, it's tempting to think it's easy to do, but I think that its very simplicity makes it much harder to pull off successfully; each element can go wrong with just a slight shift, throwing off the drawing's balance.

Untitled, ca. 1960; set of six gouaches on paper, 6 x 5 in.

This drawing is the quirkiest of the group, with a tension between the jagged outline and the inward curve; it feels ready to explode.

Untitled, ca. 1960; set of six gouaches on paper, 6  x 5 3/4 in. 

The gray form is another architectural reference, as in the first drawing above. Any somber reading of it is belied by the pink surround.

Untitled, ca. 1960; set of six gouaches on paper, 7 1/4 x 6 in. 

Lastly, intertwined gray and red spirals; first the red takes precedence, then the gray. The drawing is off-beat, not smooth and regular, which gives this small work tremendous energy, and charm.

Marriage, 1961; steel, painted black, 120 x 120 x 144 in. 
image courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery

The sculpture above is more typical of Smith's important work. His sculpture has tremendous presence and power, but I'm glad he also did some lighthearted, buoyant drawings.

October 9, 2015

An Autumn Treat: Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Garlic

I have a bumper crop of Brussels sprouts this year, and I love going out to the garden to snap some off the stem for dinner. I usually just steam them and eat them with a little butter, which is delicious, especially after the sprouts have been sweetened by frosts. But last week I was in the mood for something different, so I went looking for new recipes. I found this scrumptious and simple recipe from Mark Bittman at the NY Times. The sprouts are first browned in a cast iron frying pan and then put in the oven for finishing. A cast iron pan is important so it can go from stove top to a hot oven (I have four, in different sizes). If you don't have cast iron, or a pan that can go in the oven, you can brown the sprouts in a pan then transfer them to a baking dish of some sort. 
The recipe notes that it serves 4, but the way I eat, with vegetables as the entree, it made 2 servings. I had these yummy sprouts last night with a big pile of Spicy Indian Potatoes, and it was a very satisfying meal.

Mark Bittman's Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Garlic:

1 pint Brussels sprouts, about 1 pound
4 to 6 Tbs extra virgin olive oil, to coat the bottom of the pan
5 cloves garlic (the garlic I grow has huge cloves, so I use 2 or 3 and cut them in pieces)
salt and pepper
1 Tbs balsamic vinegar (I forgot the vinegar last night and the sprouts were delicious)

  • Preheat oven to 450º
  • Trim bottom of sprouts, and slice in half from top to bottom
  • Heat oil in pan until it shimmers; put in sprouts cut side down in one layer, add garlic, sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  • Cook, without turning, till sprouts begin to brown on the bottom, then transfer the pan to the oven. 
  • Roast in oven, turning occasionally, for about 15 minutes, until the sprouts are tender and nicely browned. (Bittman says to cook for 1/2 hour, but when I did that the vegetables were burnt, so I'd start at 15 minutes, and check them.)
  • Taste, and add more salt and pepper if needed. Stir in the balsamic vinegar and serve hot or warm.

October 6, 2015

A New Painting: "Line-up"

Line-up, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 5 x 10 3/4 in. 

This painting nearly got the better of me. While working on it, I didn't think I'd be able to finish it without pulling my hair out. The problem was all those black hoses––whose long cylindrical forms most interested me about this image––making them regular enough and at the same time alive enough to make a decent painting. After a bit of struggle and much despair, I was able to whip them into some kind of shape. I still feel a little wishy washy about this painting; it's not one of my favorites. But at least I didn't wipe it off, like I did with the previous one I began, and as I'm about to do with a just-finished triptych that just doesn't work. Life in the studio doesn't always go swimmingly. 

Line-up detail

October 4, 2015

Some Fall Color

Every season has its pleasures, but fall in the northeast is a visual marvel. When the chlorophyll which keeps leaves green departs, it leaves behind the yellows, oranges, reds, and purples of carotenoids and anthocyanins. Go to this website for an explanation of the fall color change. In this part of the world, we think mainly of sugar maples, with their brilliant oranges and reds, as emblematic of fall; and looking at the colors above, there's a lot to learn about color mixing from Ma Nature.

But there are many other plants that have beautiful color changes in fall, such as the golden red-spiny seeds of the beech tree.

There are the seed heads of perennials that sometimes show delicate, lovely color, such as the spire of the Cimicifuga racemosa.

The Miss Kim lilac has another season of interest, with its leaves turning to a deep purplish burgundy red.

And the Euonymus alatus has leaves that become fiery crimson, hence its common name "Burning Bush".

In the yellow range are the milkweeds, a bright greenish yellow against the darker grasses.

The ferns beside the pond are now golden and rich rust colors.

There are still some apples hanging in the trees, orbs of color amid still-dark leaves.

But ah! the maples, flaming at their edges, are still the stars of the show. The color is not yet at its peak; in another week or so there will be more red and orange in the landscape.

Right now the hills are brushed with red. The reds will spread a bit and then, as leaves fall, only the dark greens of conifers remain, with the grays of the deciduous trees; winter will add whites. How I missed the seasons when I taught in California for three years! life is so much more interesting with their changes.