April 30, 2014

"The Great Beauty": "...roots are important"

The camera flows through the city of Rome, watching a woman with a sculpture, a man washing his hands in a fountain, a group of tourists, one of whom faints after joyously photographing this grand view.

There are also sounds: The Great Beauty opens with the booming of a cannon, then the ringing of church bells. We then hear a haunting, incredibly beautiful chorus of women's voices, a theme that returns through the movie. With a little research I found that the music is John Taverner's The Lamb, which you can hear at the link. The words come from a poem by William Blake, a religious poem referring to Christ as the innocent lamb. This ethereal music, this hymn to innocence, is a strong counterpoint to the raucous goings on throughout the film.

For we go from the sublime to the pounding rhythm of rock at a huge dancing party, a very sexy coming together of bodies.

It is at this wild party, on his terrace overlooking the Coliseum, that we first see Jep Gambardella, the "king of high society", the heart of this film. I have to admit falling in love with this mobile face, that of the actor Toni Servillo, whose expressions of amused detachment, of kindness, of irony, of love, are mesmerizing. Paolo Sorrentino, the director of The Great Beauty, has created an homage to Rome, to memory, and to the great Federico Fellini.

Early in the movie, we see a sequence of images through a fence, of young innocent girls, of the beauty of nature, of Jep separated from these things. He is the consummate flaneur, the stroller, the "passionate spectator" as Baudelaire described it. Jep's wry, quizzical expression separates him from surrounding life. He is a man who wrote one brilliant novel when he was young and never wrote another; when asked why, he never explains. But one person tells him that it was clear that he was very much in love when he wrote it.

We slowly discover that there is a great deal of hidden emotion in Jep's life: the husband of his first and only love, a lost love, the love who inspired his novel, comes to him with the news that she has died, and he grieves. This image of curving staircases with the two men who loved Eliza bowed together is to me a picture of understated grief.

After lecturing a new love (a love he never thought he'd find again....and who died, also leaving him as Eliza did) that one should never cry at a funeral because it would be upstaging the family, Jep breaks down in tears carrying the coffin of a good friend. He sees the dissipation and meaninglessness of his life and that of his friends, but he also feels great affection for them. After tearing a woman friend to shreds, in a way forced to do so by her insistent arrogance, he remarks:
We're fond of you.....with a life in tatters like the rest of us. So instead of lecturing us you should look at us with affection. We're all on the brink of despair. We can only look each other in the face, keep each other company, kid each other a bit. 

And then there's art. Earlier in the film Jep goes to see a performance piece and tries to interview the artist (he writes for a culture magazine). She refuses to describe what she means by "vibrations" that she receives in her work, and we can feel his amused disdain. At a large party (there are lots of parties in this movie, all peopled with the rich) a young girl is forced to perform a painting ("she's making millions"), the ultimate degradation of art into spectacle. Jep then goes to see an exhibition of photographs, hundreds of photos mounted in the arches of an old building. When the photographer was a boy, his father began taking a picture of him every day, and he continued the practice when his father died. We see him as a boy, a teenager, a young adult, into maturity. Here is life, fleeting, changing; here is memory and loss. Jep is very moved by the photographs and it is a joy watching his mobile features express tenderness and sorrow.

After presenting all the cynicism and wasted lives of Rome's high society, Sorrentino introduces a Mother Theresa-like character, Sister Maria, a sainted 107 year old woman who worked with the poor in Africa. I was inclined to think her presence was going to be one to be mocked, a false saint, but instead she was a quiet rebuke to the religious around her, especially the Cardinal, said to be in line for Pope, who could only talk about recipes for duck. When explaining why she would not do an interview with Jep, she said:
I took a vow of poverty. And you don't talk about poverty, you live it.
In the one magic realism moment of the film, in early morning, Jep's balcony (Sister Maria had slept on his floor after a dinner party) was filled with flamingoes. The sister said that she knew the Christian names of all these birds, and I believed her. She had read and loved Jep's novel, and when she asked him why he never wrote another, he finally gave an answer:
I was looking for the great beauty but I never found it.
Then asking him if he knew why she only ate roots, she turns to him and says:
Because roots are important. 
Then she smiled and with a gentle exhalation, blew the birds on their way.

I was tempted to end the post there, but Sister Maria's mention of roots takes Jep back to the foundation of his art: his love for Eliza. Is all art based on nostalgia, the "longing for home"? the longing for roots, and the power of memory, to move us to invent, to engage the imagination? the longing to grab hold of fleeting life? I found Jep's final speech very moving, though I know not everyone would feel that way; it is emotional and distant both, direct and also ironic; are we to believe the "blah, blah, blah" or the feeling coming through? And do we see art as a "trick"?
This is how it always ends: in death.
But first there was life hidden beneath the blah, blah, blah. Everything's settled to the bottom beneath the hubbub and noise. The silence and the emotion, the excitement and the fear....The fleeting and sporadic flashes of beauty....amid the wretched squalor and human misery––all buried beneath the awkward predicament of existing in this world, blah, blah, blah.
What lies beyond, lies beyond. That is not my concern. Therefore....let this novel begin. After all, it's just a trick...yes, just a trick.

April 28, 2014

At Yale: Characters of Mesoamerica

Head of Macuilxochitl (God of Pleasure, Games, and Music), Mexico, Gulf coast, Aztec, ca.1500; ceramic

In a small gallery at the entrance to the newly, wonderfully, expanded Yale University Art Gallery is their collection of the Art of the Ancient Americas. I walked into the gallery to have a quick glimpse before going upstairs to the painting collections, but I was stopped short by this beautifully rendered head. The sensitivity of its modeling is arresting, and the fanciful headdress added what to my eye was whimsy alongside realism. The power of this work encouraged me to look more closely at the rest of the collection on view.

Deities Emerging from Flowers, Mexico, Jaina style, Maya, ca. 600-900; ceramic with pigment.

What I saw were many marvelous ceramic objects, and I focused on those that were figurative. These two small pieces are charming and contradictory: coming out of flowers, things we think of as fresh and youthful, are these two elderly visages. The label describes them as two men, but there are distinctive breasts on the second figure. It is supposed that they were "sewn to the clothing or headdress of a high-ranking individual".

Miniature Hacha, Mexico, Gulf coast, Veracruz, ca. 600-900; stone with traces of pigment

This fierce individual reminds me somewhat of Leonardo's drawings of grotesque heads. In Spanish, hacha is an axe.

Ballplayer, Mexico, Veracruz, ca. 250-400; ceramic with added pigment.

The collection includes many small figures of ballplayers, even a small model of a game, seen behind this figure to his left. This little guy is so wonderful, with his mustache (?) and decorative body accoutrements, including the sausage rows of hair.

Ballplayers, Mexico, Jaina Island, Guaymil, Maya, ca. 550-950; ceramic with traces of paint.

It's really interesting to try to figure out what the bird-shaped belts do in a ball game. It seems that the game must have been decorative and full of ritual. There's such a simple solidity to the limbs of these figures, while the faces have some of the same delicate sensitivity as that of the head that opens this post.

Seated Woman with a Child, Mexico, Campeche, Maya, Jaina style, ca. 600-900; ceramic with added pigment.

Not all the figures depicted were male. Here a woman with a gorgeous headdress cradles a baby at her breast.

Seated Woman, Maya, Jaina style, ca.600-900; ceramic with blue pigment.

A necklace of large rounded beads graces the bare shoulders of a seated woman. I find it interesting that so much care is taken in creating a naturalistic face while the lower body is crudely roughed in.

Standing Male Figure, Mexico, Campeche, Maya, Jaina style, ca. 600-900; ceramic with added pigment.

There is no description of the figure above, but I wonder if it is meant to be a warrior with its clothing that looks like armor and carrying what looks like a shield.

Standing Captives, Mexico, Campeche, Maya, Jaina style, ca. 600-900; ceramic with traces of pigment.

I learned from the label on these pieces that nudity usually "signals the humiliation of the war captive". It also says the female "may also represent one of the Maize god's attendants, who may be depicted nude". So many suppositions make us more aware of how much is conjecture when trying to understand ancient cultures. A little understanding can help with appreciation, but I also have to admit to sometimes not caring about context at all; I love the work for its pure aesthetic qualities. In these figures, the way they are solidly grounded, the limbs full and strong, the shoulders square, is very satisfying.

Carved Bone with a Man and an Inscription, Mexico, northern Yucatan or Jaina island, Maya, 
ca. 800-1000; bone (human femur)

Coming to a piece like this, however, is difficult and confusing. The carving, described as a scepter, is elegant, with beautiful flowing lines, but.....it is a human bone! So, I did some googling to find other instances of the use of the human skeleton as ritual or other objects, which I did find: this site shows ritual Buddhist cups made from skulls, and bones made into musical instruments and weapons. This is a clear instance of how we can never have a pure aesthetic experience because we carry our own cultural biases with us, which we tend to think of as neutral. With my limited understanding, I found so many of the objects on display in this collection full of vivid life, beautifully described.

April 27, 2014

A New Painting: "Red Flip"

Red Flip, egg tempera on calfskin parchment; 2 panels, each 7 1/2 x 4 in.

This painting is something of an experiment: I had a pair of small panels ready for a painting, so I went looking for an image that would work on them, which is backwards from my usual "make the panel to fit the image". As a whole image with no break, the composition of the photo source did not interest me; it lost too much energy in the horizontal stretching of the red shape. I did love that little flippy shape at the lower left, and as I played with the idea of breaking the image in two, I saw a way of working with that funny curve. With two panels, the red flip balanced nicely with the downward facing triangle of red shadow, a relationship that was a little lost when the image was continuous. I made some other adjustments, adding a background diagonal in the right panel that had a slightly different angle than the diagonals in the left panel, also different from each other. I decided to have the bottom horizontal line discontinuous, so the jump from panel to panel is emphasized. I was also thinking of Cézanne, how in so many of his paintings lines, like those of tables, did not flow straight ....

Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Apples and a Pot of Primroses, ca. 1890; oil on canvas, 
28 3/4 x 36 3/8 in. Image courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.

....but are visually interrupted by the objects in front of them. I felt that the objectness of each panel became more clear when the red line did not move smoothly across. I very much like working with diptychs; I like their sense of a separated whole; I like the energy that comes from the eye leaping from one side to the other. Each summer when I gather new images for my paintings I think about multi-panel works, but then I end up focusing on the unitary. I must open my eyes to different kinds of image structures this coming season.

Red Flip detail

April 25, 2014

The Newly Burgeoning Garden

I love the changes in the seasons, and each has its beauty, but there's nothing like the thrill of early spring, when plants finally begin to emerge, in bud or leaf or shoot. One of the most wonderful is the rhubarb, whose shiny red knobs open to display a crowded leaf, which then spreads slowly, unfolding its complex wrinkles. It is both comic and slightly obscene.

The first herbs of spring are the perennial Egyptian, or Walking, Onions. Their fresh tangy greens are welcome in soups and salads before anything else in the vegetable garden is ready for eating.

They are even earlier than the chives, which as you can see, are still very small, just beginning their growth. 

The sorrel too has only small young leaves, some still tinted their youthful red.

Garlic shoots have emerged under their winter blanket of straw, now pushed aside as a mulch for spring and summer growth.

 Each fall I plant a row of tulips in the vegetable garden, so I have have cut tulips in the house. Their leaves are above ground but they haven't begun to bud yet. I love the little red points at the ends of the leaves.

Once the tulips have emerged, I put up the electric fence so the neighborhood deer don't make a meal of them. The little packet of aluminum foil is spread with peanut butter inside it, a strongly scented treat for any animal; if they come for a nibble, they'll get a shock and won't return. 

On Monday I planted some lettuce and arugula in a coldframe, and today I planted the cold-loving crops of peas, above, and spinach. A little of the arugula has already germinated....soon fresh salads! Next up for planting will be early carrots and beets. After many years, I still find vegetable gardening remarkably rewarding.

To end with a flower: the first daffodil to bloom, an early variety, "February Gold". None of the bulbs in my border are blooming yet, so the pond water may have a warming effect on this group. But in a few days their will be lots of yellow as more daffodils, and the forsythia, begin to bloom, sunshine brought to earth.

April 24, 2014

Howardena Pindell: Aesthetic Accumulations

Untitled #19, 1977; mixed media on canvas, 93 3/4 x 74 1/2 in. 

Walking into the Garth Greenan Gallery's large room, I saw a group of seemingly monochromatic paintings, irregularly shaped, hanging like fabric, held to the wall by nails. These intriguing paintings are the work of Howardena Pindell, made between the years of 1974 and 1980, and are full of light and air and shimmering surfaces. 

Untitled #19, 1977 detail

Untitled #19, 1977 detail

It was not until I walked up to the paintings that I got a sense of the intense process by which they were made: the canvas sewn together from smaller pieces, the paint laid on over and under bits of punched paper circles and sequins, adding to a complex, yet subtle, layering of color and texture. Different incidents of color, shape, and texture occur across the large surfaces, rewarding an eye wandering about.

Untitled, 1976; mixed media on canvas, 91 1/2 x 93 3/4 in.

What appears at first to be a formalist exercise, is more one of making, with ties to repetitive handwork, as Pindell punches out paper and adds it to the surface of the painting. A delicate, nearly white painting....

Untitled 1976 detail

...has a landscape of forms scattered across its surface. Circles are covered by paint or are attached as tiny rounds of color. 

Untitled #20, (Dutch Wives Circled and Squared), 1978, mixed media on canvas,
86 x 110 in. 

In this painting (it helps if you click to enlarge) you can more clearly see the grid that is created by Pindell's sewing canvas pieces together for a large work. It makes an underlying structure for the fluid handling of paint and paper.

Untitled #20, 1978 detail

I love seeing the rounds of sequins or paper embedded in paint, looking like a molten surface, seething with movement, the circles embedded this way and that, creating hillocks and valleys and dark hidden places.

Untitled #4, 1973; mixed media on paper mounted to board, 10 x 8 in. 

In another room in the gallery were several small works, which bring us closer to Pindell's technique. In #4 we see the punched circles of paper, many of which have numbers written on them, as though they are labels for some unknown items, found on some shop floor.

Untitled #7, 1975; ink on paper collage, 6 x 10 1/4 in. 

But all those circles were punched out by the artist, all the numbers written by her.

Untitled #98, 1977; mixed media on paper mounted to board, 10 x 9 in. 

The sense of a gorgeous accumulation was most in evidence in this work, which is more like a relief sculpture than a painting, the various hues of blues and greens, punctuated by warm colors, creating a shifting space.

Untitled #98 detail

The papers are held in by thin red threads, which like the squares of canvas in the large painting, add a subtle grid.

Untitled, 1973; ink on paper collage, 17 1/2 x 90 3/8 in. 

Finally, there is this stunning work, which looks like nothing much in a photo, though a little better if you enlarge it. Standing in front of it, however, you first see what looks like a minimalist work, with lines running across its long surface.

Untitled, 1973 detail

But up close, we see that the lines are created by text: numbers written on small punched circles laid out by the hundreds in rows. The prodigious amount of work that had to have gone into making this piece is overwhelming to contemplate. Since I am an artist who also does a certain amount of repetitive handwork in my textiles, I do understand that there's a certain kind of satisfaction in the process of making, a process that becomes calming and meditative; we don't have to think much about what we are doing, just do it over and over. Howardena Pindell's work of this period combines that meditative quality along with one of turning ordinary materials into an extraordinary presence, an aesthetic experience of a high order.

April 22, 2014

A New Textile: "Divided Circle"

Divided Circle, hand dyed wool on linen, 12 in. diameter

A few months ago I made a round textile, Color Circle, and I thought I'd try the form again. In that piece I used curved lines to demarcate color areas, so emphasizing the round shape. This time I thought I'd stay flat, making clear color divisions: the main one is down the center, and on the right a horizontal below center. Then I added a diagonal, crossing the blue and green, changing their hues, which I hope looks like a transparent dark plane. Something I found very interesting is that I tried sketching the same composition as a square instead of a circle, but it just did not work for me; there is a tension that comes from the curving lines of the circle, their pushing in against the straight lines, that makes the composition more energetic.

Divided Circle, detail

I hooked the wool in straight lines, vertical for blue and horizontal for green, and then used curving lines for the smaller yellow shape. To me it makes the yellow appear to be behind the other colors. For the value shift in the blue and green, I just added more dye of the same hues to make the wool darker. I enjoy working with circles, in the Renaissance known as a tondo; I should make one every few months. 

April 21, 2014

Work That I Liked at the Whitney Biennial: 6 Artists

Ricky Swallow, Reversed Pitcher 1, 2013; patinated bronze, 10 x 6 x 7 1/2 in., unique.

Here is a little tour of the Whitney Biennial, one that is very personal; only work that made me take out my camera with an "ahh, I love this" is included, so the list is very short. I find myself with less patience for work that doesn't interest me, less patience to try to understand it, find a way into it. I suppose that's a failing, but it's also a prerogative of age. On the fourth floor of the museum I wandered through a couple of large galleries and then into the smaller space, where I was immediately struck with joy at seeing the small sculpture by Ricky Swallow. Perfectly elegant in form, but ordinary in material––or so I thought––they sustained intense looking.

Ricky Swallow, Skewed Arches/Tall 1, 2013; patinated bronze, 36 x 9 x 7 in., unique.

It turns out that these modest sized pieces, seemingly made out of cardboard (and you can imagine how much that interested me with my use of cardboard for prints) were actually bronze casts from cardboard. The use of bronze might have disappointed me, but it struck me that the idea of using an ordinary material, not disguising it but turning it into something more permanent, is a way of honoring it. And the fact that each piece is unique is important: each one is itself, an individual and not a replica.

Ricky Swallow, Chair Study/Ripple (soot), 2013; patinated bronze, 25 x 9 x 2 1/2 in., unique.

The simplicity of the curves of Chair Study were beautiful in front of the trapezoidal Marcel Breuer window. (Oh, how I will miss this building when the Whitney moves!)

Ricky Swallow, Z Sculpture with String, 2014; patinated bronze, 3 1/2 x 10 x 5, unique.

This piece, with its rich color, its sense of folded tension in the interior creases, all held together by a simple string: what a delight. There's not much to it, yet at the same time the work feels emotionally complex and compelling.

Ricky Swallow, Stair with Contents, 2013; patinated bronze, 22 x 35 x 22, edition 1/1 plus 1AP.

This last work from Swallow is quite different, an accumulation of strange and interesting forms, somewhat reminiscent of Giacometti's early sculpture, with a touch of the surreal, of ordinary objects transformed. Just wonderful work.

Paintings by Etel Adnan

Another artist previously unknown to me whose work I loved was Etel Adnan, a Lebanese painter and poet living in California for many years. Her small paintings are vibrant with touch and a very personal sense of color.

Etel Adnan, Untitled, 2013; oil on canvas, 13 3/4 x 17 11/16 in.

Shapes pile one on another, jostling for space in a place that seems to be toppling but is firmly held in place.

Etel Adnan, Untitled, 2013; oil on canvas, 13 3/4 x 17 11/16 in.

Colors are always surprising, subtle mixtures of hues next to those of more brilliance.

Etel Adnan, Untitled, 2013; oil on canvas, 9 7/16 x 11 13/16 in.  

Many of the paintings reference landscape, sometimes obliquely and sometimes, as here, very clearly. But it is a landscape of the mind and of paint juicily applied, of forms found in memory. 

Peter Schuyff, Sans Papier, 2004-2014; carved pencils and sticks. 

These giddily turned pencils were a real surprise, coming from an artist known for his large geometric paintings. I loved learning from the museum label that he carves the pencils and sticks while watching television, holding a knife in place and moving the pencil along it, not looking at what he's doing. What results is a wild variety of forms, though closely related; seeing a large group of these carvings was a treat.

Shio Kusaka, porcelain vessels.

A long shelf held numerous vessels of porcelain, smaller and larger, flaring and straight, covered with marks painted with a light and fluid touch. Kusaka, a Japanese artist living in Los Angeles, makes modestly sized vessels that are beautiful in groups.

Shio Kusaka, porcelain vessels.

Her forms, colors, marks of the brush are engaging, tied to a tradition yet full of personality. I love the slight wavering of the tall black vase alongside the also not-perfect form of the tall blue; the bulbous yellow makes a threesome of odd body shapes.

Shio Kusaka, porcelain vessels.

Simple organic geometries play off against solid colors, each form wavering yet marvelously present. Ceramics such as these by Kusaka are modest objects that seem sculptural to me in their explorations of form.....

John Mason, Blue Figure, 2002; ceramic, 59 x 23 3/4 x 23 3/4 in.
Spear Form, Soft White, 1999; ceramic, 66 x 28 x 28 in.
Vertical Torque, White, 1997; ceramic, 58 3/4 x 12 x 12 in. 
The Wall, 2010, ceramic.

....and that feeling is enhanced, not lessened, by seeing the large ceramic pieces by John Mason at the Whitney. These are dramatically shaped works full of energy, of tilting planes. I especially love Blue Figure with its curves and large diagonals, its outlines like a Seurat woman in a park. There is a brief video of Mason on the Whitney website in which he says that whatever surrounds us becomes part of our exploration, "like pages in a book". And that "what we see, we also feel". And then he says something, that you have to walk around the sculpture, that opens to a complaint I have about this show, which is that some of the installation is awful. With Mason's work on a platform against a corner wall we cannot walk around it. There is a room with very strong painters––Dona Nelson, Jacqueline Humphries, and Amy Sillman––and you cannot see the work because it is crowded together, and too similar in tone. These are only two examples of poor installation. I think I would have liked more work if it had more room to breathe, but then of course there would have had to be fewer artists in the show. 

Rebecca Morris, Untitled (#14-13), 2013; oil on canvas, 101 x 101 in. 

Another painter whose work I hadn't known and really liked was that of Rebecca Morris, another Los Angeles artist. Her paintings are a marvelous amalgam of funky and formal, of various kinds of marks: lines and blobby shapes, all freely handled with transparent layers of paint.

Rebecca Morris, Untitled (#15-13), 2013; oil on canvas, 119 x 97 in. 

 A central image is surrounded by a patterned frame, like in a Persian or Indian miniature; the use of patterns throughout seem to point to miniature painting. The shapes inside allude to a kind of narrative, with #14-13 having the stability of the receding planes of classical landscape and #15=13 looking more like a deluge, an upending of elements. There's a serious lightheartedness to these paintings that I truly enjoy.

When I spend several hours looking at galleries I feel I've had a good day if I've seen 2 or 3 or 4 shows that I like, so I feel quite happy with my visit to the Whitney with liking the work of 6 artists, all new to me....what could be better than that?