January 28, 2016

"There has to be a mystery...."

"The sun has changed position. 
No going back.
But the canvas remains warm."

A man wanders, as in a dream, through landscapes, towns, cities; he meets a monk, and a man in a roadside diner who needs to speak of his philosophy of life. Finally, he arrives at a building full of paintings, paintings that he describes as though they are real life: of a landscape he says: "If I just enter here, I will never come back". The Russian director Alexander Sokurov's Elegy of a Voyage, 2001, which you can watch online here, is a reverie, as this unknown man, mainly hidden from view, tries to find his place in the world. He finally discovers it within paintings, remembering himself to be at the site of the Pieter Saenredam painting shown above, there when it was painted, where he knew the people, the window, the light. Sokurov, who was the director of the brilliant Russian Ark, has a remarkable approach to paintings; I've never seen any depiction of them which brings them so close to actual life. For him, a painting is the same as a film; they are as real as each other, and as much of an illusion.

In an interview on the dvd containing two short films, Elegy of a Voyage, and Hubert Robert, A Fortunate Life (1996), Sokurov discusses the connection between painting and cinema: they are both flat:
....therefore all the talk of the third dimension in film is a game and a mistake. I think that one must do his utmost to achieve the same results artists manage to obtain while creating a painting.  
A flat image has something. Something that we hold back from the viewer. A reticence. And art is only where this reticence exists. A limitation of what we can actually see and feel.

There has to be a mystery, and the flat image provides this mystery.
I find this analysis of the heart of painting's magical nature fascinating. I've long felt that one of the things that is most compelling to me about doing my own paintings is creating an illusion of tangible reality; that the painting is actually flat makes this an uncanny process. Sokurov very emphatically state that he has no interest at all in 20th century art; for him, the greatest art was made during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. But I think that the idea of reticence also applies to 20th century abstraction, to all painting really. It all holds something back; it all asks us to think, to imagine, to feel. And what about realist sculpture? I wonder what Sokurov would say about that. Does providing a lot of information in a three dimensional work negate reticence, and therefore mystery? I would think it's a different kind of mystery: one that wonders how wood, clay, stone, can be transformed into an object that pulses with life, such as this ancient Egyptian portrait head of Senwosret III:

Is art "only where this reticence exists"? In the sense that artists are not gods, are not creating "reality"––though reality itself is something to argue about––yes. Yes, something is held back, and in that is art's mystery.

January 26, 2016

A New Painting: "Yellow/Green Diptych

Yellow/Green Diptych, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 2 panels each 8 3/4 x 6 1/2 in. 

I like diptychs and other multi panel works: form and color leap from panel to panel, creating a more complex relationship than in a single panel; it is a kind of conversation. I've done many multi-panel textile works, but not so many paintings, which are, for me, more difficult to compose. I did one diptych last year, which you can see here, and one the year before, here. My previous diptychs were horizontal, and I thought I'd try something quite different with this painting, having the two panels aligned vertically. (In the transfer from actual painting to photograph, the space between panels, which was 3/4 inch, appears too wide.) I like the way the large green planes jump from one panel to the next, and have opposite diagonal directions. 

Yellow/Green Diptych detail panel 1

There is a curve in the top panel....

Yellow/Green Diptych detail panel 2

....and several repeating ones on the bottom. These curves also introduce more color. This work was a challenge for me, and I'm not quite sure it's a success, but I intend to keep trying multi-panel paintings.

January 24, 2016

At the Met: The Presence and Clarity of a Medieval Sculpture

Virgin and Child in Majesty, French, ca. 1175-1200; walnut with paint, tin relief on a lead white ground, and linen; overall 31 5/16 x 12 1/2 x 11 1/2 in. 

I love wandering about in the medieval galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Form is stylized for maximum expression, but the feeling is contained; there's a powerful emotional reserve. Virgin and Child in Majesty is such a beautiful work, one of my favorite medieval sculptures, so on a recent visit I took several photographs of it. Its frontality and symmetry are arresting, as are all the rhythmic curves as they descend over the Virgin's arms and flow like a halo around the head of the child Jesus. Her headdress encloses the oval of her face; folds of cloth are poignantly draped over feet.

The clear and simple forms of the heads bring quiet, calm, and inward expressions to the faces of Virgin and child. The child Jesus has the proportions of an adult's face; according to the Met's web page on this sculpture, Jesus "the son of God is Wisdom incarnate". This type of sculpture is known as a "Throne of Wisdom". The still intensity of these figures reminds me of statues of the Buddha. 

Powerfully large hands hold the infant. Although they are almost flat, more the idea of hands than actual representations, their large size makes them as important as the faces. It is the Virgin as compassionate, as a mother and caregiver,.

From the side (sorry about the reflections), we can see the repetition of forms, the simple upright postures.

I love the opposing curves; such fluid elegance.

The curves meet the beautifully patterned cushion in a sensitive sweep. The upward curves in the throne repeat the curves of the figure's clothing. This is a piece where abstract form carries so much feeling: I am moved at the way lines meet, and shift, and describe a volume. I am also moved by this portrayal of humanity.

January 20, 2016

Adventures with Clay: A Steep Learning Curve

Egyptian Curves, porcelain with egg tempera paint, 9 1/4 x 7 1/2 in.

I have learned so incredibly much since I last posted about my first attempts with clay reliefs about six weeks ago. I've been working hard, I might even say obsessively, nose to grindstone, on my clay projects. It's been a long time since I've cursed as much while making art; it's so easy to make mistakes: drop a tool and make a hole, cut off an important bit of form, ruin a perfectly good line, etc. If it wasn't for the helpful advice of my sculptor friends––Sam Thurston and Harry Roseman––and the knowledge and generosity of my ceramicist friend, Deborah Jurist, who has fired this work for me, I would still be messing about with air dried clay. And if it wasn't for the brilliant exhibition of Middle Kingdom Egyptian art at the Met, I wouldn't have begun working with clay in the first place. 

I'm beginning this post with my most recent piece, and the one I think is most successful so far. I puttered with abstract imagery, as in Reliefs 8 and 9 below, but it wasn't until I copied details from Egyptian relief carvings that I began to get an idea of where I was going. First of all, I found out that carving the clay would work better for me that what I had been doing: layering thin slabs. 

Egyptian Curves detail

 Looking carefully at the detail of an Egyptian headdress, I tried to copy the subtle plane changes, and the sensitive curves and lines. Doing this gave me a three dimensional vocabulary, something this two dimensional artist sorely needed.

Egyptian Offerings, 1st version

Then there was the issue of color. I didn't want to leave the pieces white, as beautiful as that is; I love color too much. I wanted to use paint, so as not to have to fire the work again, and also to have more control. There was a problem with the porosity of the clay: at its full firing temperature, it was too vitrified to accept egg tempera; the paint didn't stick. Deborah tried placing the pieces in a cooler part of the kiln, so they would be a bit under-fired, therefore more porous, and that helped a lot. Then there was my decision on how to use the paint: transparently or more opaquely. Decisions, decisions, lots and lots of figuring things out. My first attempt on Egyptian Offerings was using transparent paint; I put a second layer and didn't like that at all: too much showing of every little imperfection on the surface; that's all you noticed, instead of the form.

Egyptian Offerings, porcelain with egg tempera paint, 10 x 8 1/16 in.

So I took a deep breath and went back at it with thicker paint, using several layers, as I do with my paintings on parchment....and....it made me happy. I made the surrounding "frame" a slightly different color than the image panel, as I did with Egyptian Curves. That was another set of decisions: whether to have the frame at all, whether to make it the very same color as the image. For me, the image panel looked kind of naked without a surround, and right now I like the slight color variation, though I might not do that all the time. 

Egyptian Offerings detail

One of the great pleasures for me in doing these reliefs is playing with line and edge, and paying attention to the way one form meets another. There are infinite variations in these aspects of three dimensional drawing.

Relief 8, porcelain with egg tempera paint, 9 3/8 x 7 1/2 in.

Relief 9, porcelain with egg tempera paint, 9 1/4 x 8 1/2 in.

The two pieces above were made using slabs, which I found hard to keep smooth and flat. I originally thought I'd make only abstract images, like these two, but since doing the Egyptian pieces I realize I can also use imagery from my machinery files. Relief 8 was done with transparent paint, and 9 with thicker paint. I used a wider framing panel in Relief 9 wanting to see if it was more effective, but I don't think it is, so I'm sticking with a frame that's a bit more than an inch wide. Although sometimes I've felt like a dumbbell while working with clay, it is deeply satisfying, and I look forward to seeing where it will take me.

January 18, 2016

Orange and Almond Cake, "Tarta de Naranja"

An intense orange flavor combined with the texture of ground almonds makes this cake a delicious treat for a winter's day. The recipe comes from Claudia Roden's Mediterranean Cookery; she writes that the recipe came from a Spanish travel companion. It is a flourless cake, consisting of only almonds, eggs, sugar, and orange zest; it is then impregnated with an orange syrup, so it becomes very very moist. It's quite simple to make, the only complication being separating the eggs and beating the egg whites till stiff. The cake was a hit at my art group yesterday.

4 eggs, separated
125 g (4 oz) sugar (note: I always used a kitchen scale for measuring, so I looked up the equivalent in cups: it's about 1/2 cup)
grated zest of one orange
50 g (2 oz) ground almonds
50 g (2 oz) blanched almonds, finely chopped (2 oz equals 2/5 cup, so a little more than 1/3, a little less than 1/2 cup)

For the syrup:
Juice of 3 or 4 oranges, equaling about 300 ml, or 10 fl oz)
75 g (3 oz, 3/8 cup) sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1 Tbs orange liqueur (optional; I add the zest from 1/2 orange for more flavor instead of the liqueur)

  • Preheat oven to 350º
  • Mix egg yolks with sugar, orange zest, and all the almonds.
  • Beat egg whites till stiff; fold gently into the egg yolk mixture. 
  • Pour mixture into a greased and floured non-stick 8 inch cake pan. 
  • Bake for 30-35 minutes, until lightly browned. The recipe calls for 45 minutes, but that's much too long, at least in my oven. The cake will puff up in the oven and sink back down as it cools.
  • Allow the cake to cool, then transfer it to a serving dish.
  • For the syrup, simmer the orange juice with the sugar and cinnamon stick (and orange zest if using) for a few minutes until the sugar is melted. Add the liqueur if using. 
  • Prick the cake with small holes, for instance using a toothpick, then pour the syrup over it. It takes a while for the syrup to really sink in. Roden suggests eating the cake the day after it is made, which is what I've done. 

Serves 6-8 hungry people, or 8-12 with smaller portions, which I think are quite sufficient.


For my newer readers, here's a link to more of the recipes on this blog.

January 16, 2016

A New Textile: "Back and Forth"

Back and Forth, hand dyed wool on linen, 13 1/2 x 15 in.

I titled this piece Back and Forth because of the figure/ground flipflop that occurs. I had expected something like that to happen within the lime green and black rectangles––which shape dominates, the black one or the green one?––but what came as a surprise was the prominence of the central aqua rectangle, and its insistence on popping forward, probably caused by the contrast with the enclosing black. Because of this, every shape seems to be in flux. Another aspect of changeability: when I first did the studies for this work, I had four equal squares around a central square; that would have been more stable, but I opted for some variation, with overlapping and with size differences. This piece doesn't sit still, and I enjoy that about it. 

Back and Forth detail

January 11, 2016

Mary Heilmann: Life into Art

Rose Wave, 2013; oil on canvas, 20 x 24 in.

With a quick glance, we might think that Mary Heilmann is a formalist abstract artist, concerned with issues of shape and color, with the unity or breaking of the picture plane. But, what to make of shocking pink stepped forms....

By the time I get to Phoenix, 2015; acrylic on canvas, 30 x 30 in.

....or of perspectival rectangular shapes, disappearing like road markings into the distance, and titled after a popular song? Heilmann uses the language of formalist painting to deny the formal: to evoke memories, allude to stories, to activate the sensuous. In her recent show, Geometrics: Waves, Roads, etc. , at 303 Gallery, there was so much pleasure in paint, and in the images and objects that color transforms. The overlapping square format of the painting above is one that Heilmann uses often. It has a way of confusing space, which seems to be clear––the white line stops at a horizon––but the entire surface is flat, so it confounds the illusion.

Highway, My Way, 2015; oil on canvas, 18 x 30 1/8 in.

This is a geometric painting, but it's also a poem, an ode to night travel, to headlights in the dark.

Slides from Her Life 

In the catalog for Heilmann's solo museum exhibition To Be Someone, which I saw at the New Museum in 2008, there is a description of the slide show she gives, called Her Life. In it she juxtaposes two images, sometimes her work and a photo, as above, sometimes two photos, which can be of traffic, of architecture, of neon signs. They can allude to childhood memories, a childhood she spent in California. She gives clues about the paintings, though the paintings aren't simply illustrations.

Green Room, Turquoise Lights, 2015; acrylic on canvas, 18 x 24 in.

Heilmann's paint is always luscious, with fresh strokes that play with the geometry, never taking it too seriously.

Geometric Right and Geometric Left, 2015; acrylic on canvas 30 x 30 in.

These two paintings, like By the time I get to Phoenix above, are shaped canvases; they are flat. Like the three shaped paintings in the photo below, they play with color and shape and illusion. The shapes are crisp, the paint fluid. 

Sunny Chaises, installation; painted plywood, each 25 1/2 x 20 1/8 x 24 1/4 in.

Heilmann ventures into the actuality of the everyday, by designing simple chairs that are brilliantly painted abstract sculpture, and an invitation to sit and enjoy being at this show; they tell us that we should linger. A grouping of similar chairs enlivened one of the terrace spaces at the new Whitney Museum of American art

Family Tree, 2015; acrylic on paper, 6 1/8 x 6 in.

Paint moves across irregular surfaces, in irregular squares, with three primary colors playing with two secondary ones. I love seeing the different grounds and mediums that Heilmann uses––canvas and paper and wood and ceramics––and her inventiveness with all of them.

First Date, 2015; oil on handmade paper (Ruth Lingen and Akemi Martin), 12 1/2 x 15 5/8 in.

The energy of a first date is sizzling in this work on paper, with two characters, each very different, interacting; one certainly takes over. Even with these disparate elements, a whole is surprisingly created.

Two Logics, 2013; oil on canvas with handmade paper and epoxy, 15 3/4 x 11 3/4 in.

Two Logics has more play with offbeat rectangles and different materials. Another aspect of Heilmann's work that I admire is the modest sizes of her works; all are physically appealing, with a sense of the hand and of the body; none are overpowering, all invite personal attention.

San Andreas, 2012; glazed ceramic on painted wood, 8 3/4 x 9 in.

A sizzling molten core shows beneath the green earth of glazed clay.

Cups on a Table, detail, 2009-2015; painted wood, glazed ceramic, 28 1/2 x 48 x 48 in.

Clay, in the form of thick, brightly painted teacups covers a low red table (see the entire piece here). As with her chairs, Heilmann makes art out of the very ordinary. Her open geometries were a joyous tea party, roads to adventure, waves of color, painterly rectangles. Heilmann's work is a serious delight.

January 7, 2016

A New Painting: "Black Form"

Black Form, 2015, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 6 3/4 x 9 in. 

This is a simple frontal painting, with very few elements: red planes, shadowed, and a long black form. The drama is in the shadow and in the black that so strongly contrasts with the bright red. I have a story about painting that red, which clearly illustrates Josef Albers' Interaction of Color. I worked away on the red shapes––the shadow colors were just sketched in––painting them several times trying to get a color that worked. The red continued to look dull, without any light in it. Frustrated, I was about to try yet again when I thought....hmm, I'd better paint the shadow first, before repainting yet again. When I got that shadow done, with its cool darks and some bright reflected light, the reds suddenly popped, got bright, looked like they were lit by sun. Color only exists in relationship, and every once in a while a painting gives you a strong reminder of that fact.

Black Form detail

The only small details in the painting are those on the black form: lines that describe indentations and overlaps, plus a small curve. These small incidents engage the eye and play off against the big simple red shapes.

January 5, 2016

Ah, Winter!

Winter has finally arrived after weeks of worryingly warm weather. Although there were some cold days and some winter phenomena––such as the rime ice I wrote about and photographed here on December 6––most days were milder than normal. The New York Times published an article on December 30 titled "Climate Chaos, Across The Map", detailing anomalous weather across the globe. So it was a relief to have cold and snow and sleet. And to see the beauty that is reserved for winter with white ground and laden trees within a neutral landscape, as seen above on the last morning of 2015.

There were continuous soft snow flurries on the first day of the new year. I love winter days like that, with the snow adding some brightness, and deepening the quiet. A day of light snow, watching the flakes fall, is a soothing one.

Quirky small events happen during winter's cold, such as oddly shaped icicles....

....and branches encased in sparkling packages....

....and conifer needles delicately enhanced by icy caps.

A tiny brook in the woods runs a rich black between white banks.

Sometimes geometries appear, such as a dark icy circle surrounded by snow.

 There are poignant details, such as tiny seeds scattered alongside the deep footprint of a deer....

....and fine lines of grasses barely marking the expanse of white. I love the hiatus of winter, the suspension of the growing season; it makes spring all the more precious. Winter can be a difficult season, but I would hate to be without it.

January 3, 2016

A New Textile: "Bound Circle"

Bound Circle, 2015, hand dyed wool on linen, 12 inch diameter

A circle is not a sphere, but this circle tries to be one. I am playing with flatness and illusion in this piece, using the direction of the hooked lines, and the dyed color of the red band, to emphasize each. I thought of the curving green lines as something like a cup, which the straight dark blue lines entered; in those two color-forms is a sense of shallow space. Then the curving red shape, in its movement from dark to light, becomes an illusion of a rounded form, entering the dark.

Bound Circle detail

Even in this detail, in which all the hooking is on a flat plane, the illusion insists on its reality. It is the magic of two dimensions becoming three.