February 29, 2016

Two New Clay Reliefs

Circles, porcelain with acrylic paint, 8 1/2 x 9 3/8 x 3/4 in.

There's still so much about clay that I have to learn, but I'm beginning to get an idea of where I'm going with it and how to use the material, with which I'm still in passionate love. Things I've learned: making the piece in two separate panels and joining them after firing looks better and works better in terms of keeping slabs flat-ish; acrylic paint is the perfect paint for fired clay, handling beautifully; working on a damp plaster bat keeps the clay from drying out as I work with it; I'm figuring out how to dry the clay slabs slowly so they won't warp; sanding the bone dry sculpture and framing slab helps in refining the form and smoothing it, using 320 then 600 sandpaper. That's some of the technical stuff, and there's a lot of that for a neophyte such as myself to figure out. But then there's the big question of form and of content: what to depict? The first piece I did that I felt good about, which you can see here, was a detail of an Egyptian relief; I learned a great deal about making three dimensional form by doing it. I now have pages and pages of thumbnail sketches and drawings for possible relief sculpture. What I'm doing right now is alternating imagery that comes from the same sources as my paintings––agricultural machinery, seen abstractly––with purely abstract forms. Circles is based on a machine, and Swerve, below, is just me playing about with form. I will pursue both and see where they take me. 

Circles detail

I want to make works that are interesting to look at, even compelling, but for me the main reason I want to do this clay work is the deep pleasure I get from creating form, from making different kinds of lines, from adding and subtracting clay as forms recede and advance. I do this in painting, illusionistically; low relief sculpture is as close to painting as sculpture can be: there is real physical form, but it's so minimal as to allude to illusionism. I find that fascinating.

Swerve, porcelain with acrylic paint, 11 1/4 x 9 3/8 x 3/4 in.

I wanted to do a piece with curves, which have a very different feeling from the geometry that tends to come with machine images. When I begin to work on a slab, I incise the design traced from a drawing onto the clay, then begin to carve it. I don't have a clear plan of action beforehand; I don't know what kind of edges I'll use or how I'll sculpt the form. It's a process of figuring it out as I go along, though the figuring is getting easier as I become more accustomed to the process. Color is something I work on after the piece is fired, and it's a bit arbitrary: oh, I'll try yellow for this, blue for that. So far I've been thinking that lighter colors show the form better, but I may in future push into darker hues. 

Swerve detail

Some edges are rounded, and others are more crisp; some deeper and some shallow.

I hung three clay reliefs in my studio alongside paintings to see how they conversed with each other. The drama of color in the paintings seems to be balanced by the three dimensional form of the sculpture. It's funny: as I'm working on the sculpture I feel as though I'm channeling some early 20th century modernism, like American work from the 1930s, the machine age.  "Cutting edge" is not something I'll ever be.

February 25, 2016

A New Painting: "Angled Bar"

Angled Bar, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 8 7/8 x 6 1/2 in.

I feel as though I put umpteen layers of paint on this piece, trying to get to a color that worked: I wanted it somewhat dark in value, but at the same time intense in color. Because it's a cool blue-green, it wasn't easy. I often had to go back to a much lighter color, then layer a darker one over it in order to achieve the intensity I wanted. Then there was the triangle of another color at the upper right: it went through many iterations, from a darker hue of the main color, to an almost black, like the shadow at the lower left, to different blues. I settled on a blue that had a green cast to it. The black shape adds another element that balances the deep dark below it. I painted that dark using layers of color––ultramarine blue, phthalo green, quindo red––and because egg tempera is translucent, the layering of colors can result in a near black, a color that is deeper than a straight black would be. This painting is the second in a group of four vertical images that are primarily one color. You can see the first one, Tall Red, here.

Angled Bar detail

February 22, 2016

A Beautiful Grief: Petrus Christus' "Lamentation"

Petrus Christus, The Lamentation, ca. 1450; oil on wood, 10 x 13 3/4 in.
My photograph.

My favorite European painting galleries in Metropolitan Museum of Art are those that contain early Renaissance and Medieval painting from Italy and the Netherlands. The art of the 14th and 15th centuries has a clarity that I admire: forms are defined by crisp lines, and compositions are ordered in receding planes using geometry for placing elements. There is emotion, but it is contained, making it, for me, more convincing than overt passions. In one of those galleries, 641, is a favorite painting of mine: The Lamentation by Petrus Christus. I love the beauty of its refined forms, the sensitivity of the portraiture, the figures within a landscape, the attention to detail, but most of all I love the repeating curves of the Christ figure and the grieving Mary above him. The curves seem emblematic of grief, and they are enhanced by the arcs of supporting arms. 

Petrus Christus, The Lamentation
The Met's photograph, from their website

I have posted two photographs of this work, the first my own and the second from the museum's website. I did this to show two different color renditions of the same painting; I have no idea which one is closest to the real thing. Reproductions are useful, but are not truth. If you go to the website link you can see the high resolution photo, which enables you to wander through the painting. All the images below are from the museum's website. 

The curve of his body is repeated in the curves of Christ's face: eyebrows, eyes, mouth are eloquent shapes, their poignancy enhanced by lines of blood and the spikes of the crown of thorns. The faces of Christ, Mary, and Mary Magdalene are archetypes, symbols of faith and compassion....

....while the portraits of the men in this painting, who are Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, and John, who is supporting Mary, are specific individuals. Joseph, with his fur hat and his beard and his intent look.....

....is very different from the smooth capped face of Nicodemus, who has an inward expression of concern.

The story of the Lamentation is also told through objects in the landscape: the cross being held up by rocks piled against its base; the scattered bones reminding us of the transience of life.

The terrible tools lie on the ground near Christ's feet, ordinary-seeming objects.

Petrus Christus paid great attention to the elegant details of clothing. 

Behind the figures on the right, an imagined landscape opens to a distant castle and hillside village, dotted with blue lakes....

....while to the left a road swerves up to another castle, with two figures anchoring its curves. The simplified treatment of the distances contrasts with the very precise detail of the foreground, creating a believably deep space. But I come back to the figure of Mary Magdalen, with her pained expression, and, surprisingly enough, I focus on the white cloth on her head whose folds, exquisitely painted, are so touching and true.

February 17, 2016

A New Textile: "Four Triangles"

Four Triangles, hand dyed wool on linen, 18 x 20 in.

Three equilateral triangles, sewn together at their corners, create a fourth triangle with their negative space. There's a complication thrown in by the gold arcs which break up the triangles and carry the eye around and about with their curving lines. When I put this piece together––I hooked and finished each triangle separately––I was surprised at how strong the negative space became: it insists on its importance; the clarity and simplicity of the empty rivals the tactility of the colored wool. 

Four Triangles detail

I followed the form for the hooking pattern: curving yellow and triangular green. The bulging edge at the center of each yellow shape comes from the hooking pattern as the small arcs press against that straight edge. The unplanned plays with the planned, and a piece emerges that is never quite what was expected.

February 13, 2016

A New Painting: "Tall Red"

Tall Red, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 9 1/4 x 6 1/2 in.

Red is a difficult color because it is both dark and intense: go too light in the lights and it becomes pink; go too dark in the shadows and it loses life; it's quite a balancing act. On top of that, for me red is incredibly tricky to photograph. I hope all my paintings look better in person than in an online image, but with red images I'm sure that they do because subtlety is lost in a photo. This painting is the first in a group of four vertical images that are primarily one color. I like the big empty middle––empty except for light and shadow––a tall cylinder flanked by buttresses and topped by circular disks. 

Tall Red detail

February 10, 2016

Some Contemporary Painting at the Met

Lee Krasner, Rising Green, 1972; oil on canvas, 82 3/8 x 69 1/4 in. 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently reinstalled their contemporary galleries and the curators have shaken things up a bit. There are, of course, major abstract expressionist paintings, but there are also more works outside the accepted canon; there are more works by women; there are surprising paintings by artists I thought I knew. This exuberantly lyrical painting by Lee Krasner is nothing like the more formally complex paintings of hers that I know.

Mark Rothko, No. 21, 1949; oil and acrylic with powdered pigments on canvas, 80 x 39 3/8 in.

It is good to see a Rothko painting with saturated color that points to where is going in his more famous works; here there are smaller forms and a meandering line that marks a boundary between two different hues of red.

Helen Frankenthaler, Stride, 1969; acrylic on canvas, 117 x 94 in. 

And this Frankenthaler really knocked me out; it is so different from her stain paintings, which I don't much like,. The simple, grand gesture, the sweep of orange paint, are full of movement, clarity, and buoyancy.

Willem de Kooning, Easter Monday, 1955-56; oil and newspaper transfer on canvas, 96 x 74 in. 

I love de Kooning's paintings and Easter Monday is a brilliant example of his work of the 50s. When I look at his paintings I am in awe of the the way the fierce energy is controlled and balanced.

Easter Monday detail

Small incidents are compelling, such as newspaper transfers that came from de Kooning's painting process,

Jasper Johns, White Flag, 1955; encaustic, oil, newsprint, and charcoal on canvas,
78 5/16 x 120 3/4 in. 

The Met has a great Jasper Johns on view, White Flag. Its gorgeous surface plays with image and symbol and abstraction.

White Flag detail

White is made up of many colors.

Conrad Marca-Relli, The Battle, 1956; oil cloth, tinted canvas, enamel paint, and oil on canvas, 70 1/2 x 130 1/2 in. 

I haven't seen much of Marca-Relli's work, but I very much like this large painting with its myriad forms angling towards the center, implying deep space. Its title The Battle, makes me think that it might refer to the Paolo Uccello panel paintings The Battle of San Romano.

The Battle detail

The painting is made up of complex layers of paint and pasted shapes.

Al Held, Mercury Zone III, 1975; acrylic on canvas, 96 x 143 in. 

Al Held's painting has a different kind of space, one seemingly simple but made up of illusionistic forms floating and overlapping; they defy rational understanding.

Julian Lethbridge, Untitled, 2003-4; oil on canvas, 85 x 76 1/2 in. 

I'm sorry to admit that I don't know Julien Lethbridge's work at all because I think this is a beautiful painting. I like the layered weaving of lines....

Untitled detail

....as though in a dense forest.

Alex Katz, John's Loft, 1969; oil on aluminum. dimensions variable. 

This wonderful painting by Alex Katz was in a gallery adjacent to those of the permanent collection installation. It consists of several cutout figures and parts of figures; it echoes the sense of the bouncing-around perception we might have at a party, with figures close and far, alone and in pairs.

John's Loft detail

It's beautifully painted, with perfect economy. How nervy it is to juxtapose a partial closeup of a face with a figure far behind it.

I enjoyed my visit to the contemporary galleries at the Met, and I look forward to seeing what the museum will do with its new space, The Met Breuer....I'm excited!

February 7, 2016

Adventures with Clay: Trial by Fire

Porcelain, 8 3/4 x 9 3/4 x 7/8 in.

This does not happen with painting! when a painting is done, it's a success or a failure, but it doesn't crack down the middle; the paint doesn't fall off (well...many years ago I had problems with a white oil paint that yellowed and cracked). But when this piece, which I happen to have liked, cracked in the kiln, my friend and clay mentor, Deborah Jurist, told me "now you are a real potter". These kinds of disasters happen with clay. In this case, it was probably because the piece hadn't completely dried at the center. I prepared the image panel and frame panel separately, then put them together with slip. Happily, I realize that I prefer the clean look of the two panels fired separately then glued together––you can't see the attachment edges in these photos––so a problem like this is less likely to happen in future (I hope). I like the angled planes of this image––it's based on a farm machine photo––so I will probably attempt a re-do. 

with acrylic paint

I know that some may prefer the sculpture in its original white as it comes out of the kiln, but for me white is too pure and modernist, and I enjoy color too much, to leave it unpainted. The good thing about having a ruined piece is that it allows me to feel free to experiment with paint. I was having something of a hard time using egg tempera on the fired clay, so ordered some acrylics which are recommended for painting ceramics. I tried both heavy bodied and fluid paint, regular and matte, using Golden acrylics. I found that I prefer the thinness of the fluid paint; as for finish, I like a little more gloss in the matte, and less in the heavy body, both of which can be fixed by adding some medium. I've never used acrylic paint before––I've worked with oil, gouache, watercolor, and egg tempera––so this too is a learning process. 

In making relief sculpture, my greatest pleasure resides in line: in getting lines just right; in making them with straight or curved or beveled edges; making them deep in the move from one plane to another, or thin; assertive or hardly there. I love sculpting lines, the descriptors of form.

February 3, 2016

Retreating Snow

Last winter was a season of bitter cold and snow; this year winter couldn't be more different. I wrote happily about the late arrival of winter in a blog post dated January 5, and now, a month later, the landscape looks as though it might be mid March. The snow is disappearing and the sap has started running.

The small incidents of melting snow show little beauties, which I'm determined to enjoy although they are much more joyous after three months of cold and deep snow. The warmth of plants melts the ice....

....and they appear as though framed in glitter.

A still-green fern pops up above the snow alongside a graceful dried leaf.

I love seeing the leaves and branches that have fallen on the snow begin to settle into it....

....as their warmth creates a surrounding bed, perfectly proportioned.

There are circles clear of snow around tree trunks, warming for the spring season.

And on the front lawn patches of snow invite imaginative visions, of a horse....

....or a swaying figure. Of course winter is not yet over, and we may have more cold and snow, but it's good practice to enjoy whatever comes.

February 1, 2016

New Hooked Wool Drawings

2016 #1, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 17 1/2 x 15 1/2 in.

Sometimes when I make a new group of hooked wool drawings I am interested in having a similar theme in all four pieces; at other times, as with these works, I aim for variety. In #1 there's an illusionistic painted form circling a solidly hooked rectangle.

2016 #2, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 15 x 12 in.

Paint and wool describe shapes and a dividing line.

2016 #3, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 12 1/2 x 23 1/2 in.

The solidity of hooked wool shapes surround a thin painted one; but that pale yellow arc has been accorded some presence by the shapes around it.

2016 #4, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 18 x 15 in. 

Two outlined shapes wobble atop a painted one. These pieces are a balancing act: of color and shape, and the weights of forms painted or in the low relief of wool loops.