June 29, 2015

New Hooked Wool Drawings

2015 #9, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 15 x 12 in.

Like my last group of hooked wool drawings, which you can see here, hooked wool lines anchor the structure of these new compositions. Using line alone, without hooked shapes, is not something I set out to do; it just happened. In the piece above, I used a sinuous double line, more curvy than my usual curves; the color emphasizes a bit of cartoony goofiness.

2015 #10, for Ellsworth Kelly, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 20 x 19 1/2 in.

These simple curves are an homage to Ellsworth Kelly, a great artist, who has continued to paint and advance his work at the age of 92. At first I thought I'd make four separate pieces, but then felt that the work would be more compelling on a single piece of linen. Each section is one color with white, and a Kelly green line.

2015 #10 detail

When I photographed this detail, I realized that I'd left the little tails of the wool dangling at the top and bottom of the green line to the left. Taking photos can focus the attention.

2015 #11, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 19 x 15 in. 

Primary colors; lines straight and curved, isolated and interlocking; all floating on a linen ground. 

2015 #11 detail

Lines can do such different things, and can evoke different moods and qualities. 

Here are the three pieces hanging together on the wall, to give a sense of their sizes, which is hard to tell from individual photos.

June 25, 2015

Allium Antics

Of the alliums in my vegetable garden––garlic, Egyptian onions, scallions, onions, chives––chives are the most conventionally ornamental. Their flowers are lovely puffs of pale violet, whose florets decorate salads beautifully.

Then there are the small explosions of scallion flowers, bristling with energy.

Form becomes much more complex when we get to the garlic. Stiff-necked garlic sends up scapes that curl into rounds....

....and interact rhythmically; they seem as though they are describing musical notes. The scapes will eventually flower at their ends, but I cut them off so all the plant's energy goes into making larger bulbs. They are good to eat; see, for instance, the recipe for Garlic Scape Pesto.

The prize for grand gestures, however, has to go to the Egyptian, or Walking, onions, which writhe and twist and curl into the strangest of shapes.

In early spring, they are the first greens, like fat chives. Then there are thicker leaves (or are they scapes?), some bound into a tight package....

....and they break free and squiggle about: up, down, across.

Each green undulating line ends in a white dome, that opens to small bulbs, called bulbils, some of which will sprout in turn; if they flop over onto the ground, new plants will grow, hence their other name of "Walking Onion". There's nothing regular in these meandering forms; they are delightfully wacky. I can't think of any other vegetable that takes quite so much liberty, and is so wildly varied, in its form; I love having them in the garden just for the visual pleasure that they give me.

June 22, 2015

A New Painting: "Bar and Shadow"

Bar and Shadow, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 9 x 6 3//4 in. 

Every once in a while I do a painting that pleases me; its form, color, structure, light, feels especially satisfying. It's not that I don't like other paintings; if I didn't like them they would be wiped away. I can hardly explain why Bar and Shadow is one of those paintings that affects me in this way, but I am happy looking at it. It's not a matter of quality, which I am not judging; others may think differently about this painting. I think here it is the blue-gray color, almost neutral but not quite, and the angled bar which becomes a curving shadow, the balance of elements, which pleases.

Bar and Shadow detail

I also enjoy the warm reflected light in the recessed area. I'm not trying to toot my own horn here: I imagine that those of you who make things––whether art or gardens, meals or ukeleles––experience a particular satisfaction from time to time. 

June 17, 2015

Alex Katz: The Expansive Landscape

4 PM, 2014; oil on linen, 144 x 108 in.

Alex Katz's landscape paintings are a paradox: as large as they are, they seem intimate; they portray ordinary views, yet are surprising and extraordinary. This feeling I had while seeing Katz's exhibition at Gavin Brown's Enterprise reminded me of a favorite quote from the writer Jean Rhys, from David Plante's book Difficult Women:
I think what one should do is write in an ordinary way and make the writing seem extraordinary. One should write, too, about what is ordinary, and see the extraordinary behind it. 
Katz's simple titles––a time of day, a description of place––tell of noticing something marvelous within an everyday world. It was a stunning experience to see the painting 4 PM, glistening on a back wall, seen through doorways.  The painting seemed as alive, and its subject as real, as the bars of light cast onto the polished floor: a hazy sun, leaves back lit, flickering in moving air.

4 PM detail

Another paradox: the brushwork is loose and painterly, yet conveys the specifics of light and place.

12:30 PM 2, 2014; oil on linen, 108 x 132 in.

At midday the light is very different from later afternoon. Through a wall of trees is a bright yellow band (flowering grasses?); a sweep of grass leads up to them.

12:30 PM 2 detail

The leaves are painted as fluid masses of varied greens, the tree trunks vertical striations of color.

Black Brook 18, 2014; oil on linen, 96 x 120 in.

This painting is compelling for a very-little-there-ness that is rich in effect. Brilliant yellow greens bounce off a dark expanse of water.

Black Brook 18 detail

There is such economy in the marks of the brush, and such grace. I think that one thing that makes the viewing of these paintings an intimate experience is the pleasure in walking up to them and getting an almost physical sense of paint as object, paint as light.

Fog, 2014; oil on linen, 108 x 216 in.

With Fog, Katz painted a very different landscape, one barely visible.

Fog detail

To convey trees lost in mists, he used broad strokes of the brush with very little detail. It is a haiku of a painting.

Untitled Landscape 1, 2014; oil on linen, 96 x 120 in.

A hillside is shadowed against a bright sky with clouds shaped like scudding raindrops. The black hill is subtly painted with variations of tone on its surface.

Untitled Landscape 1 detail

A long lifetime of painting––Katz is 88––has led to a fresh assuredness in making images.

Night House 1, 2013; oil on linen, 126 x 96 in. 

There are also paintings of night: a house dwarfed by trees is welcoming with warm light pouring forth.

Untitled Cityscape 5, 2014; oil on linen, 108 x 84 in. 

In a dark city a beautifully modulated gray sky is lit by a band and triangular shapes of light. It floats above a dense building, drawn on the opposing diagonal to the light band. It's a mood very different from the wooded dark.

Untitled Cityscape 5 detail

The gray sky is translucent because of the way the color is laid on the canvas. A lit window anchors the painting at the lower right, and is a quiet counterpoint to the bright areas of sky. The dark mass of building has weight even though it is flatly painted.

Luna Park, 1960; oil on masonite, 40 x 30 in.

From this early, relatively small painting, we can see that Katz's approach to the landscape hasn't changed that much over the years, although his primary focus was for many years on the figure. As good as those figure paintings are, there was a coolness in his approach; his concern with "style" put them at something of an emotional remove. The landscapes, though, are full of poetic sentiment: of beauty, of air and light, of memory, of tenderness.

June 15, 2015

A New Textile: "Two Curves"

Two Curves, hand dyed wool on linen, 14 x 16 in.

From time to time I enjoy making an illusionist textile, with its challenge to create an sense of volume moving in space. My idea was to have two curves cupped towards each other, but I don't think it quite works. The blue curve is very clear, but the brown wiggles in space, not settling down with one clear reading. Sometimes I see it curve as I intended, but more often I see myself looking down at a curved bridge. I don't understand why this flip-flopped the way it did, but I suppose it's okay; it's just one of art's surprises. 

Two Curves detail

Although the work is completely flat, it can seem as though the blue shape is in front of the brown one. To get a range of values I dipped a long piece of wool into the dye, letting one end get darker––dipping it in the dye more often––while gradually dipping more and more of the fabric, until the other end gets just a little bit of dye. Making an illusionistic textile is a laborious project: the dyeing is not simple, then I have to separate sections of different values, keeping them organized and numbered. After doing a piece like this, I'm happy to move to something more direct.

June 11, 2015

A Delicious June Morning

This morning the air was mild and sweet, and the raking light glowed warmly. It felt like the beginning of a perfect spring day, and it would have been heavenly to walk around the garden photographing the abundant flowers of June if it wasn't for the swarms of voracious black flies. I tried to ignore them as I watched the light illuminate flower and leaf. The heads of the snowball flowers hung down on their delicate stems.

Brilliant yellow flag iris glowed against the shadowed pond.

It is the season for irises, including these delicate flowers aptly named Summer Skies.

An old fashioned pale yellow bearded iris is one of the few flowers that were growing at my house when I moved here. It is illuminated by a ray of sun while the stone wall behind it remains deep in shadow.

Another flower I inherited is this pink single rose, growing tall on arching canes between the rocks of the stone wall. It is just beginning to flower.

More pink shows amid the abundant foliage of Bleeding Heart.

Although June is their blooming month, the herbaceous peonies have not yet opened. Ants are busy on the buds, gathering the nectar on their surface.

Some plants naturalize well in the landscape, such as this Dictamnus with its elegant spires of pink flowers. They have a delightful sweet lemony scent.

The morning light touches the complex hooded petals of the wild columbine. It grows here and there in the backyard, adding a startling color to the greens around it. There's something about a strong blue in the landscape that makes me catch my breath, like seeing the flitting intense blue of a bluebird.

Another shrub with white flowers blooms appropriately in June: Bridal Wreath spirea. I love the month of June: its warmth before the heat of summer, the clarity of the air, the fresh greens of grass and leaf, and the glory of the June flowers.

June 10, 2015

Cecily Brown: Painterly Thickets

Cecily Brown's beautiful show, "The English Garden", currently at Maccarone gallery at 98 Morton Street, was a lesson to me in slowing down, looking carefully, and being open to new work. I had just seen the Alex Katz show around the corner, which I loved, and will write about; my familiarity with his pared down landscapes made me resistant at first to the painterly complexity of Brown's small paintings.

Rainy Day Women, 2007; oil on linen, 12.5 x 17 in.

As I looked, I became entranced by the welter of brushstrokes; their layering is full of life and delicate energy. Each painting contains a particular quality of light and air, and most refer to a landscape space, one that asks us to make our way through dense paint to the spaces behind.

Rainy Day Women detail

There's a sense of working and reworking, of time changing what is seen. There is an abundance of mark making, always sensitively sought, and tremendously varied. The grays of the rainy day....

Red me no green, 2008; oil on linen, 12.5 x 17 in.

....give way to lush colors in profusion. 

Red me no green detail

The brushstrokes are juicy, in character with the color. Looking at these paintings, artists who have worked abstractly with the landscape come to mind, such as Willem de Kooning and Joan Mitchell.

All Souls' Eve, 2014; oil on linen, 12.5 x 17 in.

A dark turbulence is like a storm at the seacoast. I so admire Brown's ability to call up different landscapes in different weather.

Untitled, 2015; oil on linen, 17 x 12.5 in.

Most of the paintings in the show are the same 12.5 x 17 inch dimension, either horizontal or vertical. The vertical orientation squeezes space in a different way from a horizontal expanse; we climb the painting, going upwards as we go deep. The larger marks and more intense color at the bottom of the canvas emphasize the spacial effect.

Untitled, 2006; oil on linen, 17 x 12.5 in.

I love this painting and its transparent use of paint. It is light-filled, and like a bright spring day.

Untitled, 2006 detail

The mark-making and the color seem intuitive, yet informed by an intense working understanding of constructing a painting. This approach––with such a wide range of brushstrokes and multitude of color––could end up with a mess, but Brown is in total control of her material.

Untitled, 2007; oil on linen, 17 x 12.5 in.

Again, different kinds of marks allude to a different imagery. Here I feel that I am looking closely at things in the winter woods, the grays broken by bits of color. Brown is mainly known for her large figure paintings, which I've never seen so I'm unable to say anything about the relationship of the two bodies of work, large paintings and small. This show emphasizes that small can be complex and ambitious.

Untitled, 2010; oil on board, 8 x 6 in.

Finally, a very small work, painted very sparely and fluidly. It brings de Kooning's late paintings to mind. The painting holds the wall with simple strength, and adds another way of seeing to this rich body of work.