January 29, 2015

A Walk in the Woods: Tracks

It was a beautiful day today, mild enough, with temperatures in the teens, for me to take a snowshoe. The storm earlier in the week brought only a few inches of very fluffy snow, so it wasn't a strenuous walk. The world looked beautifully pristine with the new whites brightening the landscape. It was a fresh canvas for the marks of animal tracks, laid over the pentimento of earlier passings. Deer tracks wandered across the woodland path, curving and crossing.

My snowshoes and pole marked a trail alongside that of a large mammal....

....who I can't identify although I was taught the difference between canine and feline tracks (my mind is a sieve).

What I most enjoyed were the wandering tracks of small mammals, adding another linear element to the landscape, across tree shadows. This animal went into the old sugarhouse, and I could see its tracks leaving on the other side; perhaps it sought shelter there.

The rhythmic line of tracks flows up to the tree, around it, and up and down across the drifts.

Here an elegant curve from rock downwards, and around a small tree. These are lines worthy of Matisse.

Then there are wide tracks made by small mammals; it's possible that because the snow is so soft a wider track is formed.

With the track above and with this, there is a look of a railroad, a highway, as opposed to the thinner lines. It's wonderful to think of the hardiness of all the wild creatures, who make it through bitter winters. The woods come alive with the crisscrossing of many tracks.

I took this photograph a couple of weeks ago, not in the woods, but in front of my house. A mouse headed across the snow to my compost pile, which is behind me. All winter I see small tracks leading to the compost, a feast for winter survivalists. Some come from my shed; as my FedEx driver put it "everyone needs a home". A couple of mornings ago, early, while it was still quite dark, I looked out my kitchen window toward the garden. I saw a large shape on top of the post near the compost pile. It was an owl, waiting for his rodent meal. He noticed me and flew off. I hadn't seen an owl there in several years, so it was exciting; it was also a reminder of how precarious life is for all wild beings, especially in winter.

January 28, 2015

"Chasing Ice": The Tragic Sublime

Meltwater on surface of Columbia Glacier, Alaska, June 20, 2008 (detail)
All photographs are by James Balog and are from the following three sites:

The word "sublime" has become a commonplace––"oh, that pie is sublime!"––but to philosophers of aesthetics and to 19th century landscape painters the concept included horror. To Kant (I quote from the Wikipedia link on the sublime) it included "the noble, the splendid, and the terrifying". For Schopenhauer beauty was pleasure in seeing a benign object, while the sublime was seeing "an overpowering or vast malignant object of great magnitude, one that could destroy the observer." It seems to me that nothing could express this idea of the sublime better than the icy regions of the globe, terrifying in their grandeur. These regions of glaciers and frost are now also frightening to contemplate, in that they are giving us disastrous news about the state of our planet.

Lindblad Cove, Antartica, January 11, 2011

James Balog, a photographer concerned with environmental issues, went to the Arctic to photograph glaciers on assignment for National Geographic. He was so struck by the evidence of climate change there that he made it his mission to document the changes happening, much too rapidly, to the world's glaciers. From this idea came the Extreme Ice Survey, and Chasing Ice, a stunning documentary about this important project; you can see the film on Netflix. Thanks to my friend, the artist and very concerned citizen, Ravenna Taylor, for alerting me to this beautiful and horrifying film. The beauty of these places is astounding, surprising; Balog's eye for pictorial drama makes the story so much more compelling.

Jokulsarlon, Iceland, "Icebergs that originated in the vast expanse of the Vatnajokull decay and melt in a tidal lagoon." March 4, 2005

Balog began the Extreme Ice Survey in 2007 to document the changes in glaciers over several years. There were many technical challenges in setting up cameras in severe climates that would automatically photograph the views in front of them over months. You can see some of the videos made by time-lapse techniques at the Extreme Ice Survey link above. They clearly show glaciers in retreat.

Ilulissat Glacier, Greenland. "A helicopter flying past a half-mile wide section of the Ilulissat Glacier calving face gives perspective on the staggering immensity of this ice wall (in some places it may be 70 stories tall)."

The enormous size of the glaciers seems boundless, immutable. But in fact, although glaciers always retreated a bit during summer and reformed during winter, now they are simply in retreat.

Ilulissat Isfjord, Greenland, August 24, 2007

Icebergs are pieces of a glacier that have broken off and floated out to sea.

Ilulissat Isfjord, Greenland. "Icebergs that have rolled over and been scalloped by waves metamorphose into fantastic shapes." August 24, 2007.

This has always happened, but the rate at which it is now occurring is much faster than in the past. In the film Chasing Ice, we see an entire wall of a glacier collapse, an astounding sight.

Ilulissat Isfjord, Greenland; Iceberg, July 17, 2007.

The fabulous forms of ice are wondrous and like nothing else. I can understand why artists such as Frederic Church in the 19th century went to the Arctic to paint icebergs:

Frederic Church, The Icebergs, 1861; oil on canvas, 64.5 x 112.5 in.

Svinafellsjokull Glacier, Iceland. "...a massive landscape of crevasses". February 12, 2008. (detail)

The intense blue of some of the ice is a marvel....

Greenland Ice Sheet, "Adam LeWinter surveys Birthday Canyon". June 28, 2009.

....as is the tremendous size and dwarfing scale of glaciers and ice sheets. They are among the great wonders of the earth, and they are surely disappearing due to our actions, and to our inaction about climate change.

Greenland Ice Sheet, "Bubbles of ancient air, possibly 15,000 years old, are released as the ice sheet melts." July 14, 2008.

The Greenland ice sheet is littered with dark holes in its surface, holes that attract more and more heat, and that release eons-old air from its depths. It is melting at a rate of 47 cubic miles per year. If the entire sheet of ice melted, sea levels would rise 24 feet, but that would likely take hundreds of years, though there is disagreement about it among scientists (see the link). It is clear, though, that even moderate melting would not be a good thing. James Balog and his Extreme Ice Survey are performing a great public service in making us aware, by luring us with beauty, of the danger that comes with it.

January 26, 2015

A New Painting: "Angles and Bar"

Angles and Bar, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 9 x 6 1/2 in.

What interested me in this image was the concentration of small angled forms at the top contrasted with the large simpler space below. And then their were the holes: an ellipse at the top and three descending circles, adding accents to the yellows.

Angles and Bar detail

It's always a juggling act to get the color balanced and the light believable. Warmer/cooler, lighter/darker: I often have to repaint areas several times. Because egg tempera is translucent, the repainting is easier than with opaque oil paint. The layering of color adds depth, a depth the Old Masters knew how to achieve with their glazing techniques in oil, but few of us use now. People tend to think egg tempera is a finicky medium, but I find it very easy and forgiving; and full of light.

January 24, 2015

Delicious Salmon (or Vegetable) Cakes

I love simple recipes, of course delicious ones, and healthy adds another plus to the equation. Although I have previously shared only vegetarian recipes, in keeping with the "garden" theme, these fish cakes by Jamie Oliver fit the requirements of taste, ease, and health. Instead of bread crumbs as a binder, Oliver suggests mashed potatoes, a lovely idea. I use canned salmon, which makes the preparation very easy, and it's a great way to get our Omega-3s. Here I'm going to do a little preaching: I buy only wild salmon although it costs more. Farmed salmon are fed an unnatural diet, are given antibiotics, and pollute the waters they are grown in. According to this article from EcoWatch, fish farming is becoming more environmentally responsible, but I'll still hold off and stick with the wild fish. Another nice thing about this recipe is that Oliver points out that since the potatoes and egg act as a binder, you can substitute any cooked vegetables or other ingredients for the fish in this recipe. The recipe serves 4 according to Oliver, but only two according to me; well, I did use a smaller amount of fish, but no wonder I'm gaining weight this winter!

10 oz Yukon gold, russet, or other mealy potatoes (I use my favorites from the garden, Carola)
2 x 3 3/4 oz cans salmon (my can of wild salmon was 6 oz, so I used a smaller amount of potatoes)
a small bunch of fresh parsley (I left this out, not having any)
1 large egg
2 lemons
all purpose flour for dusting

  • Peel the potatoes, and chop in even sized chunks. Boil under cooked, then mash and allow them to cool.
  • Chop the parsley, zest one lemon.
  • When the potato has cooled, add the salmon to it. Add the egg and parsley and lemon zest and mix well; season with salt and pepper. 
  • Divide the mixture into four, then form into patties about 3/4 inch thick. Dust with flour and place on a floured plate. Put into the refrigerator for about an hour to firm up. This is a really helpful hint; cooling the patties makes them much easier to cook without falling apart. 
  • Heat some olive oil in a wide skillet. When hot, add the patties and cook about 3 - 4 minutes on a side, until richly golden and crisp.
  • Enjoy with a sprinkle of fresh lemon juice.  

January 22, 2015

A New Textile: "Shield"

Shield, hand dyed wool on linen, 19 1/2 x 14 in. 

While doing some thumbnail sketches, finding ideas for new textiles, I kept coming up with separate panels, two or 4 part pieces, either related or attached. Then, with the diptych idea above, came the notion of pulling the two panels together by adding a shape behind, something like the curved form of a shield. I liked the way it added a new element to my way of composing. The color is  red/yellow/blue, but not pure hues. 

Shield detail

When I wrote above of the "shape behind", it is only illusionistically behind, since all the hooking is on the same plane, on a flat surface. The two squares seem to be floating on top of the dark red background shape: by having their edges overlap the dark red, by hooking the wool in different directions on the shield and inside the squares, an illusion of depth is created. Fun!

January 21, 2015

At the Brooklyn Museum: A Wandering Eye

Figure of a Cat, Saqqara, Egypt, 350 B.C.E. - 1st century C.E.; wood, gilded gesso, bronze, copper, pigment, rock crystal, glass; 26 3/8 x 7 1/4 x 19 in.

I love wandering through museums without a goal, being surprised and delighted by objects on view. Recently, after seeing the Judith Scott exhibition, which I wrote about here, we had some time for a little stroll through a few galleries; the miscellany of what caught my eye follows. The Brooklyn Museum is the museum of my childhood; my parents would often take us there. I still miss seeing the totem poles in the Great Hall, but the Egyptian collection, a favorite of my early art viewing years, has been beautifully reinstalled. In the Egyptian wing I saw a small show "Divine Felines: The Cats of Ancient Egypt", a treat for anyone who is fond of cats, or of Egyptian sculpture. The cat above was a dramatic presence, lit as she was from above, making a mystery of deep set eyes.

Statuette of a Seated Cat, Egypt, 664-332 B.C.E.; bronze; 5 1/4 x 1 5/8 x 3 3/4 in.

This little sculpture has an alert charm, and a flowing form that would not be surprising to see in a 20th century work. From the wall label at the museum, I learned that felines were not worshipped, but they were associated with various gods and goddesses, who were represented as cats.

Cat with Kittens, Egypt, 664 - 30 B.C.E. or later; bronze, wood; 2 3/8 x 3 7/16 x 1 15/16 in.

One of the feline traits that was highly regarded was fertility, so cats were associated with women and with divinity: "....many peaceful, caring, and protective goddesses were represented as a female cat.....

Face of a Lion, Karnak, Egypt, 1390-1292 B.C.E.; syenite; 9 13/16 x 10 1/4 x 6 3/16 in.
Recumbent Lion, Giza, Egypt, 305 - 30 B.C.E.; limestone; 11 x 27 3/8 in.

".....Yet Egyptians also admired domestic cats predatory aggression...In addition, powerful and majestic lions were venerated as symbols of pharaoh or manifestations of gods..." The beautifully sensitive carving shows an intense level of attention to the characteristics of these marvelous creatures.

Statue of a Seated Man, Egypt, 1759-1675 B.C.E.; quartzite; 27 1/2 in.

Egyptian sculpture was meant for eternity; its simple and clear form, stylized yet observant, has a quality of transcendence.

Louis Sullivan, Elevator Door, Chicago Stock Exchange, 1893; wrought iron, cast bronze, copper; 84 1/2 x 41 x 1 in. 

 To jump a few thousand years, which we can do at a museum, we land in an era of innovative design. I love the repetitive pattern of crosses and spheres and ovals in this Sullivan door. The cast shadows bring additional liveliness to it.

Gerrit Th. Rietveld, Dutch, Armchair, ca. 1917-18; painted beechwood.
Gerrit Th. Rietveld, Child's Wheelbarrow, designed 1923, made 1958; wood, pigment, metal.

Here are two marvelous De Stijl objects, like geometric paintings come to life.

Gio Ponte, Bottle with Stopper, ca. 1949; glass.

This lovely bottle, with its satisfying curves, accented by the green sphere, caught my eye among all the glassware on view.

Ilya Bolotowsky, Opalescent Vertical, 1955; oil on canvas; 34 x 11 in.

I didn't walk through the painting galleries, but while wandering across the Beaux Arts Court, this painting, subtle as it is, jumped off the wall. Its long thin shape carefully balanced delicately colored rectangles of all sizes, geometry into atmosphere.

Chopine, Italy, 1550-1650; silk, metal.
image courtesy Brooklyn Museum.

Winde Rienstra, Bamboo Heel, 2012; bamboo, glue, plastic cable ties. 
image courtesy Brooklyn Museum

Another complete shift in viewing came on the first floor, where the exhibition Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe was installed. That show was an eye opener: I had no idea that contemporary design––and most of the show focused on recent shoes––had such a sculptural approach to the shoe. The shoes were inventive, outrageous, sexy, fetishistic. It was fun to visit the extremes of high fashion, if only to gawk and gasp....but I also admired. I enjoy mixing it up: fine and applied art, painting and sculpture, recent and the far distant past; all have visual pleasures.

January 19, 2015

Snow Lines

Along with the trials of winter come its delights. Some are rare and fleeting, like hoar frost; we hope others are lasting, such as a blanketing of snow. One of my favorite aspects of the season is what I might call the "Winter Wonderland" effect: snow that clings to every surface, branch and bough and grass stem. If the weather conditions are perfect, this can last for several days, but more often the trees are bare within a few hours. Yesterday we had a brief January thaw, accompanied by rain; this after a bitter cold beginning of the month, which I wrote about here. Overnight the rain turned to a heavy wet snow, and I woke this morning to a white world. When snow clings to branches, there is a doubling effect: the dark lines of branch are emphasized by their ghostly twin. An apple tree tree becomes a welter of lines.

Branches are highlighted against the dark wood, their more delicate lines encased in soft covers.

The curves of hydrangea branches become clear and rhythmic with the snow.

Even a slanting support wire cover has its snowy twin.

In the woods, the crisscross of branches is brightened by the lines of snow.

With a bit of sun peaking out from scudding clouds, snow-lined branches are haloed.

The spaces in the woods shift and sparkle; instead of browns and gray-greens above, there is white, white that encloses the thin lines of dark, and it makes a fairyland.

This magical kingdom did not last: the temperature rose and the wind blew, and by late afternoon much of the snow had fallen off the branches. Earlier, frozen droplets of moisture dangled poignantly from the ends of evergreens. Snow, water, ice: winter's varied precipitation.

January 16, 2015

A New Painting: "Upright"

Upright, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 6 x 8 3/8 in.

I realize this is pretty ridiculous, but while I was painting Upright, I kept thinking of Steve Martin and his "A Wild and Crazy Guy"....because I felt a little that way. "Why?" you ask: it's the color. I changed the the color of the source photograph, which was a John Deere green, into a color that was inspired by a new pigment I bought last spring, Ultramarine Red. I felt alternately elated by the wackiness of the color and despairing of the ridiculousness of it. It was also one of those paintings that didn't make sense until the final form was painted and it all snapped into place. In retrospect it was fun, not so much while painting it. I think I like it, though the color still throws me off a bit. 

Upright, detail

January 14, 2015

Matisse: Shaped Color

Memory of Oceania, summer 1952 - early 1953; gouache on paper, cut and pasted, and charcoal on paper, mounted on canvas, 112 x 112 7/8 in. 
(I took all photographs from the catalog of the exhibition.)

If you can somehow ignore the crowds, Matisse: The Cut-Outs at MoMA is an exhilarating exhibition, an apotheosis of Matisse's work with color and line. Each shape is bounded by fluid lines, each shape carries strong color, and they play with each other across a surface, abutting, overlapping, full of energy. You can understand why this show was such a crowd pleaser with its bright colors and cheerful shapes, but the work is more complex and full of interesting tensions than mere decoration. The monumental Memory of Oceania, in the collection of MoMA, has long been a favorite of mine; to see it in the company of a hundred other works which lead up to, and accompany, its accomplishment is a joy.

The Sails, The Propeller, Composition (Red Circle with Four Black Triangles), Ace of Clubs;
all 1945-6; gouache on paper, ca. 20 x 16 in. 

Matisse began using cut paper as an aid to composing large works, such as the Barnes Collection's The Dance. During the last 10 years of his life (he died in 1954), he worked exclusively with cut paper. Earlier works are small, but none are as simple in form as these four pieces, which were among my favorites in the show. They have the air of icons, of meditative aids like Tantric paintings.

Cover maquette for the journal Verve, ca. 1954; gouache on paper, cut and pasted, 14 1/8 x 21 5/8 in.

Most of Matisse's work, however, has more "verve", more elements in buoyant relationships. I especially love some of the maquettes for book covers. Using the close warm hues of orange and red seems very audacious to me.

Cover maquette for the book Les Fauves, 1949; gouache on paper, cut and pasted, 12 3/4 x 20 in.

From organic forms for Verve, to geometric ones for Les Fauves, both have a quality of lively experiment.

Destiny, maquette for plate XVI from the illustrated book Jazz, 1947; gouache on paper, cut and pasted, mounted on canvas, 17 1/2 x 26 3/8 in. 

The Heart, 1943, maquette for plate VII from the illustrated book Jazz (1947); gouache on paper, cut and pasted, mounted on canvas, 17 1/2 x 26 1/2 in. 

 Then there are the illustrations for the book Jazz, so many of which have brilliant juxtapositions of shape and color. I love the deep violets that Matisse uses. His assistants would paint sheets of paper with gouache colors, usually straight from the tube, but sometimes mixed; he would choose papers and cut them without drawing or tracing on them first. At the link for the show at the beginning of the post, you can see photos and read more about the process.

Composition (Tahitian Harmony), 1945-6; gouache on paper, cut and pasted, 22 1/4 x 143/8 in. 

Two organic forms float on a loosely brushed purple ground; their weightlessness is emphasized by the stable circle enclosed in an orange square.

Negro Boxer, 1947; gouache on paper, cut and pasted, 125/8 x 10 in.

The image and the color are very powerful in Negro Boxer, as black flowing forms rise on top of an irregular red rectangle, all backed by a strong green; Matisse must have been thinking of the Pan African flag. You can see a bit of the three dimensionality of the papers in this photo since some areas were not glued flat. If you see the works in person, their tactility is much more evident; the photographs in the catalog make all the work look very flat. The shapes were pinned to surfaces to work out their positions, making it easy to adjust the compositions. Matisse would direct his assistant to move pieces around until he was satisfied. If you enlarge this photo you can see evidence of many pin holes.

Alga on Green Background, 1947; gouache on paper, cut and pasted, 9 3/4 x 5 3/4 in.
Palmette, c. 1947; gouache on paper, cut and pasted, 28 x 21 in. 

The long fronds of an aquatic plant and of a palm wave elegantly on their colored grounds. All the leafy, wiggly shapes that Matisse worked with speak of life. When I wrote above that his cut-outs were not merely decorative, I should now add that some of them were done with a designed purpose: for textiles, and some of his later large works were for stained glass or ceramic walls. 

Michael Sima, Matisse's studio wall in Vence, 1948

It must have been thrilling to see a wall of these works tacked up casually, the texture of the paper more evident, making one grand statement. The images were later separated and framed separately, as those above. 

The Japanese Mask, early 1950; gouache on paper, cut and pasted, 31 1/4 x 19 1/2 in. 

In some ways The Japanese Mask is so simple––two colors on a white ground, shape and shaped line––but the inventiveness of the shape and line, their offbeat quality, engages the eye in a dance.

Blue Nude 1, spring 1952; gouache on paper, cut and pasted, mounted on canvas, 41 3/4 x 30 3/4 in. 

Matisse did a series of large blue nudes, with variations on this pose. What I find especially intriguing is the way the white line left between shapes clarifies their form; again, a simple complexity. The way Matisse cut the shapes implies volume enclosed by a fluid line.

Acanthuses, 1953, maquette for ceramic (realized 1953); gouache on paper, mounted on canvas, 122 1/2 x 138 1/2 in. 

The last galleries in the exhibition contained very large works, including a couple of maquettes for ceramics. I loved Acanthuses, the clear color-shapes separated by hue, floating on a large white ground; the few charcoal lines added looser movement. It seems so perfectly balanced, so full of joyous life. And why not joy in art?

The Snail, 1953; gouache on paper, cut and pasted, on paper, mounted on canvas, 
112 3/4 x113 in. 

Seeing The Snail and Memories of Oceania (posted above) in the same room, on nearby walls, was exciting for me. They are very large works, over 9 feet, and are sure in their arrangements of shapes and color, their tipsy but ultimately perfect balance. I am so admiring of Matisse to have turned a restriction of age and health into a leap into something new. Only a great master could have produced a late body of new work so full of beauty, as though effortlessly.