October 31, 2012

A New Painting: "Curves and Dips" (What's in a Name?)

Curves and Dips, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 5 1/4 x 6 1/2 in. 

In all my years of painting, I've generally titled works very mundanely, using plain description: Right Angle, Grays, Rocks and Concrete, Red Tanks. That practice has continued with my textile and print works. I have to qualify that as "mainly", or "on the whole", because occasionally I've come up with a title that is more metaphoric, as when a few years ago I titled a painting of an open Ag-Bag Cornucopia, or a clutch handle Pyramid. Occasionally I can't resist humor, as in Middle Squiggle. On the whole, though, I prefer a simple title that doesn't push the viewer in a certain direction, but leaves her mind open to interpret the painting as she wishes. What I liked about this image, aside from the very saturated yellows, was the play of large curves with small ones, hence the title Curves and Dips (which itself is a little bit humorous). Now I'm going to admit that a couple of other titles were in the running, funnier and more imagistic: Clamp––as expressing the sense of the curve chomping down on the teeth below––and even more silly, Jaws. I've spilled the beans...but see what happens? now it's become a cartoonish image of a ravening fish. I don't at all mind if you see that painting that way (it's kind of fun), but I don't want to push anyone there. This is why neutral titles usually work best for me. What kind of titles do you prefer for your work?

October 30, 2012

African Art at Yale

Mask, Teke, Tsaayi subgroup, Congo, late 19th century; wood and pigment

I am so often stunned by the power of African art. So many of the artists seem to have an unerring sense of pattern, and a way of stylizing human and animal shapes that transform them into objects of magic and mystery. I was lucky enough to see the fine collection of African art at the newly enlarged Yale University Art Gallery. I had gone there to see the Robert Adams retrospective, which I wrote about here; I also wrote about the "angels and demons" in their European collection. I'm hoping to explore more of the museum in the future.

African vessels, late 19th-early 20th century

Vessel, Zulu, South Africa, late 19th-early 20th century; clay

These African pots have dramatically beautiful patterns and shapes. In the black Zulu vessel, I love how the circles of the lid sit atop stacked triangles. I was especially taken with the pot above having all the small protuberances popping from its surface. I've been trying to think of what natural occurrence could have inspired those bulges, but couldn't come up with anything; I guess it's pure wacky inventiveness.

Headrest, Kenya, early 20th century; wood, beads, and metal

This headrest is like a sassy figure (I'm thinking male), with its arms akimbo, ready to strut about.

Grave figure, Bongo, Sudan, late 19th-early 20th century; wood and pigment

When I look at a piece like this grave figure, it seems obvious how much African art influenced modernist artists; just look at Brancusi's Endless Column.

Mask, Igbo, Afikpo subgroup, Nigeria, early 20th century; wood, fiber, and pigment

Helmet mask, Sierra Leone, early 20th century; wood, raffia, metal, and pigment

Here are two more masks; each of the three I've pictured have very different ways of approaching form, but each one is startling in its directness and imaginative transformation of the ordinary world.

October 28, 2012

A New Cardboard Print: "Green Rounds"

Green Rounds, ink on Sansui SH8 paper; image size 10 x 10 in, paper size 18 x 18 in.

After making a number of prints with regular forms, I thought I'd work with some squishy shapes. I pulled this print at the end of September, during the same session in which I made these potato prints. Working from a gouache study of overlapping circles, I decided to make the circles irregular, slightly flattened, with their edges having varying widths. Usually when I work with circles I rummage in my kitchen for the sizes I need; the rims of bowls and pots, glasses and mugs, cookie cutters and other odds and ends become my templates.  For this print I drew the circles freehand. Is that too much imperfection, of medium and of design? I hope not. 

October 25, 2012

Nature's Circle of Life and Death

 There is no season as poignant as autumn, carrying with its glorious color the feeling of sadness as leaves fall, plants die back, and birds depart. In his perfect poem, Robert Frost wrote that "Nothing Gold Can Stay". We are entwined in the cycles of green and gold, dawn and day, decay and renewal. Within the little death of autumn is the promise of spring's rebirth, a process the ancient Greeks personified in the goddess Persephone, who is both the queen of the underworld and the goddess of vegetation.

I have been watching this stump of a grand tree, one I think of as "the throne", over many years, as it sinks slowly into the ground, its disintegration adding nutrients to the forest soil.

The rounded forms of puffball mushrooms are gone, leaving behind the rich purple spores which will blow like a fine dust across the grass, a promise of spreading life.

At the cemetery where my father is buried, the graves of my grandparents tell a story of family and memory. It was strange and beautiful to see my own name on a memorial stone; I am honored to be named after my father's mother. I don't believe in either an afterlife or in reincarnation, but I know that we keep people alive in our hearts and minds. In his late novel, Death With Interruptions, José Saramago imagines a country in which death for humans has ceased. After the initial elation, the grim reality of the situation becomes evident. But death, in the end, is vanquished by love, and by art. We also carry within us what we've learned from our forebears. The most beautiful saying I heard last week was from the Mishnah, read by my brother in law as exemplary of my father's life: "Who is rich? he who is happy with his portion." If my way of being in the world is being satisfied, and taking pleasure in small things, it is something my father taught me, his most precious gift. 

Yesterday I saw this beautiful darner on my front door. It stayed remarkably still long enough for me to take several pictures of it. When I posted the photo on facebook, I got several comments from friends telling me that visits from dragonflies were auspicious. This, from David Forlano, especially touched me:
It is a common thing that the animals and insects and even blooming flowers out of season are a visit from a recent lost loved one. 
My pragmatic nature makes me want to doubt this, but I have never seen this particular insect before, and I had another uncanny experience after my father's death, making me believe that life and death are more of a mystery than I could ever have imagined.

October 14, 2012

Raymond J. Sultan, 1917-2012

My beloved father died peacefully, at home, last night. He was a kind, just, warm, and loving man who had a rich and full life. He will be missed by his large and devoted family. I wrote a blog post in his honor this summer, which you can read here.

I will resume blogging in a couple of weeks. I wish all my readers well and thank you for your attention and kindness.

October 6, 2012

A New Textile: "Shield"

Shield, hand dyed wool on linen, 12 1/2 x 10 1/2 in. 

In this new work I've gone back to an idea I used once before––see Arch and Point below––of an illusionistic form in front of a flat shape; I can probably say that these two works are the beginning of a new series. The sense of volume is enhanced by the shape's move into surrounding space, not held in place by a rectangle.

Arch and Point, hand dyed wool on linen, 12 x 10 in.

The medium of rug hooking allows for this shape shifting.

Shield, detail

In this detail you can see the irregularity of the color and value shifts; although the transitions aren't smooth, I think the illusion of a rounded form moving from light to dark is fairly effective. 

***I am going to see my family on Sunday and my blogging schedule in the near future will be uncertain. I hope you all have a beautiful Fall until I next see you.

October 5, 2012


Every morning I have the same thing for breakfast: two slices of my home made sourdough bread, one with gjetost cheese and one with homemade jam; I occasionally vary this by having waffles for a few days. I've always considered myself rather dull, set in my ways, because of this habit, and others of mine, but it turns out that according to the philosopher/psychologist William James (1842 - 1910), habits, unless they are destructive, are a good thing, in that they free the mind. I read a wonderful excerpt from James' essay "Habit" on Andrew Sullivan's blog The Dish recently:
The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of ever bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation. 
This except was so interesting and cheering (maybe I'm not such a dull stick in the mud) that it sent me to read the whole essay, which is included in a book I have on my shelf (actually on my table, among a large pile of to-be-read-but-just-started books), The Heart of William James edited by Robert Richardson (you can read the essay at the link above). James posits that habits create physical pathways through the nerve centers and brain:
a simple habit, like every other nervous system event––the habit of snuffling, for example, or of putting one's hands into one's pockets, or of biting one's nails––is, mechanically, nothing but a reflex discharge; and its anatomical substratum must be a path in the system.
Habits are very practical:
..habit simplifies our movements, makes them accurate, and diminishes fatigue.
..habit diminishes the conscious attention with which our acts are performed.
We all have a definite routine manner of performing certain daily offices connected with the toilet, with the opening and shutting of familiar cupboards, and the like. But our higher thought-centres know hardly anything about the matter.
He goes on to describe how a habitual act goes from A to B to C, from beginning to completion without us being conscious of the the chain of action. His description reminded me of something I learned when I used to horseback ride, and which articulates James' ideas perfectly: First we have unconscious incompetence (not knowing what we don't know), then move on the conscious incompetence, then to conscious competence, and finally achieve the goal of unconscious competence. I used to tell my art students this, as it's a useful way of thinking of the learning process.

James believes in a cold turkey treatment of bad habits:
provided one can stand it, a sharp period of suffering, and then a free time, is the best thing to aim at...
Interestingly, he exhorts us not to allow a resolve or "fine glow of feeling" dissipate without action, even if the action is small––"speaking genially to one's grandmother, or giving up one's seat in a horse-car, if nothing more heroic offers", so that we form a habit of effort. James makes us feel that habits can be a moral force for good in the world, and good in ourselves, if we only work at them.
As we become permanent drunkards by so many separate drinks, so we become saints in the moral, and authorities and experts in the practical and scientific spheres, by so many acts and hours of work.

October 3, 2012

New Potato Prints (I am a Thief, or maybe a Borrower)

Green and Yellow Lines, ink on digital print paper, 13 x 11 in.

Sometimes when I do new prints or textiles, I have my artistic antecedents vividly in mind. Richard Tuttle  has long been a favorite artist of mine, whose work has inspired me; for instance see this blog post on a textile I did in his honor. Before beginning this session of potato prints, I'd seen some prints of his that used small line-like shapes (similar to Edges below) and they got me thinking of using printed lines. They are actually more like elongated rectangles than lines, but lines is how I think of them. 

Hourglass, ink on Gifu green tea medium paper, 20 1/4 x 12 in.

The interesting thing about the potato lines that I discovered while putting them into the ink was that they are flexible.

Downward Diptych, ink on Akatosashi paper, two panels each 19 1/2 x 4 1/4 in. 

Lines are not fixed; they can curve this way and that.

Linked Diamonds, ink on Gifu green tea medium paper, 21 1/2 x 13 in.

They can add rhythm to a composition...

Scattered Circles with Three Lines, ink on Masa dosa paper, 20 x 15 in. 

or variation and emphasis. I've posted these new pieces in the order in which I feel that they are successful, from most to least. With Scattered Circles above the Tuttle suite Edges, you can see why I might be thinking of borrowing or theft, even though I wasn't conscious of these particular works last week. I found them at Brooke Alexander Gallery while doing research for this post.

Richard Tuttle, Edges, 1999; suite of 13 color aquatint and etchings a la poupee, 12 1/4 x 12 1/4 in.

Richard Tuttle, Galisteo Paintings; suite of 7 woodcuts with handcoloring, 12 x 16 in. 

I think most of us are familiar with the supposed Picasso quote "good artists borrow, great artists steal". It turns out he never said that according to research done by Nancy Prager at her blog Protect/and/Leverage. It was T.S. Eliot, also was thought to have said the same as Picasso using poets, wrote a more nuanced view of artistic borrowing:
One of the surest tests [of the superiority or inferiority of a poet] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has not cohesion. 
I don't know if I'm borrowing or stealing, imitating or defacing. I do know that I love the emotional quality of small Tuttle works and would hope I can achieve something similar yet my own. Do you have an artist whose work you steal? do you feel you've welded your "theft into a whole of feeling which is unique"?

October 1, 2012

Local Color

Recent days have been gray and wet, but the persistent gloom could not diminish the intensity of the advancing fall color. The color always seems more saturated to me on days without sun; there is less sparkle, but there are more intense hues. I took a stroll around my house this morning with my camera, to see what was there. The shrub that wins the prize each year for most brilliant scarlet coloration is the Euonymus compacta, Burning Bush, which always lives up to its name.

Many ferns simply turn brown in the fall, but these alongside the pond glow with warm yellows and reds.

The dying rosa rugosa leaves are a rich earthy red, while the hips have paled and shriveled.

The very annoying Virginia Creeper (which goes everywhere and anywhere, attempting to smother trees and shrubs) puts on a gorgeous show.

The fall color of peony leaves adds another season of interest to my favorite flower; not only are the leaves fresh and bright all summer after flowering, they also display a range of reds, oranges, burgundies and yellows as their chlorophyll disappears. The color of this "Charlie's White" rivals that of the sugar maple in the distance.

Here, a view over the browning grassy field adjacent to my barn to a group of trees that each year flames with colors, colors that seem impossible, that always amaze me. It's as though nature's symphony is at its crescendo, before the diminuendo of approaching winter.