July 19, 2021

Borders, Boundaries

 



I walk across a small field in full sunlight. The light touches leaves and grasses, shifting with the breezes; it sparkles on the tall, thin grasses and glows on leafy surfaces. There is a trodden path through the growth, but the 4 foot tall flowering grasses still brush against my skin, with a slightly scratchy feeling. (I'd like to use the word raspy, incorrectly, as I think of a wood rasp, with its small holes, tickling away the edges of a wood panel.) Ahead of me I see the dark edge of the woods.



When I cross that border from bright fields to shadowed woods it is as though I am in a different body, one that is cooler, cradled, limited in sight. From a horizontal world, open and expansive, I enter one that is vertical, where I look up to treetops and down to the ground. I often think of the words of Robert Frost, which come to me unbidden: 

The woods are lovely, dark and deep

This line is from his poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening". In it he speaks of that most unforgiving of borders, that between life and death, in saying

But I have promises to keep, 

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.




In the woods are many stone walls, walls that used to be the borders between property owners, separating long-gone open fields. A few days ago I noticed the red boundary marker for the southwest corner of my property; I hadn't paid attention to these boundaries for years. 




Many of the walls have fallen apart; stones are no longer piled one atop the other in an orderly fashion; trees grow through them. The hard labor of transporting and placing large rocks and huge boulders is undone.  Another Frost poem, "Mending Wall", has a phrase that echoes through my head:
Something there is that doesn't love a wall
The poem is a wonderfully wrought, simply put questioning on the necessity of walls, because even though his neighbor insists
Good fences make good neighbors
Frost wonders why a wall is needed between an orchard and a pine woods. And we can now take that questioning out into the larger world. 




The curved line of metal is all that remains of a gate that stood in the southeastern corner of my field, a forlorn reminder of the futility of fixed boundaries.

July 11, 2021

At the Met: Egyptian Relief Sculpture

Relief with a billy goat ca. 2551–2528 B.C. Old Kingdom



I am in awe of ancient Egyptian sculpture. The sensitivity to line and form, and rhythm across a wall, that is sustained across centuries is remarkable. It's hard to imagine a culture that stayed so consistent over this length of time, with small variations in style. The close attention to the volumetric shapes of this goat bring it fully to life, even though the representation is simplified and in low relief. Ah, those elegantly curved horns! 


 Relief fragment showing a pile of offerings and part of an offering list ca. 2010–2000 B.C. or ca. 2000–1981 B.C. Middle Kingdom Egypt

Many of these sculptures were found in chambers in pyramid temples, and were offerings to the king, The bounty shown above was thought to provide for life everlasting. This work doesn't have the realism of the relief of a goat shown above, but the abstracted forms and color are very satisfying. This fragment is a clear illustration of how the medium of relief carving is between fully rounded sculpture and painting.


Relief depicting an offering table and part of an inscription ca. 2010–2000 B.C. or ca. 2000–1981 B.C. Middle Kingdom Egypt


Although the details in this relief are more crudely handled, I love the pile of shapes and the duck's head alongside them, resting on curves An exhibition of Middle Kingdom art at the Met several years ago pushed me to start doing low relief sculpture in clay; I wrote about the show in an earlier blog post. As an artist I feel totally inadequate when comparing my reliefs to those from ancient Egypt; mine seem clunky and inelegant. Oh well, I try my best, and it's good to aspire to these role models.


Relief Fragment Showing Waterfowl in a Clapnet ca. 2020–2000 B.C. Middle Kingdom Egypt


This fragment depicts a stack of ducks in repeated curves. I can see that they are different species from the shapes of their heads and the varying curves of their beaks. I couldn't figure out how they were in a net until I looked at the description of this piece on the Met's website. It pointed out that there was till a faint tracery of paint on the ducks' bodies, indicating the net; you can see this if you click on the image to enlarge it. 


5 Lintel of Amenemhat I and Deities ca. 1981–1952 B.C. Middle Kingdom Egypt



Relief block from a building of Amenemhat I ca. 1981–1952 B.C. Middle Kingdom Egypt, with god Horus

The two reliefs above are from the same building, the king's mortuary temple. The artists who carved these reliefs––all the reliefs shown in this post are carved from limestone blocks––were very skilled. The hieroglyphs at the top are especially beautiful in their simplification of objects, which turns them into language. I find that lintel so very beautiful; I want to run my hand along the edges of the forms, to feel their subtle distinctions.


 Reliefs from the North Wall of a Chapel of Ramesses I ca. 1295–1294 B.C. New Kingdom Egypt


This more recent relief made during the New Kingdom is more crowded with activity than earlier works. There are piles of provisions atop piles of provisions, and below, many workers preparing food or libations. The sculpted forms are more rounded than those in the Middle or Old Kingdoms, which increases the feeling of a bustling, overstuffed storehouse. Rhythms are varied and I see a rich visual polyphony.


Relief plaque with a swallow, and with Face of an Owl 400–30 B.C. Late Period–Ptolemaic Period


There's a heightened sense of realism in these two small plaques, made much later than the works above. At this time Egyptian art was influenced by that of Greece; Alexander the Great had conquered Egypt in 332 B.C. An article on the Met's website explains the history and artistic interchanges of this period. I see the Egyptian style in the basic simplification of form, and the carefully observed details; the relief is higher, as is common with Greek sculptural reliefs. The owl is a marvel, a compelling portrait of an inscrutable bird. I know I just wrote that these works are more realistic than what came before, but paradoxically, they are also wonderfully stylized: the artists managed to portray creatures that are both real and ideal, perfect of their kind. It is so interesting to think about this delicate shifting balance between naturalistic representation and abstraction that is evidenced across the centuries in Egyptian art. 


July 1, 2021

At the Met: Abstraction, Modest and Monumental


Piet Mondrian, Composition, 1921


One of the great joys of wandering the galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is seeing art that spans centuries. There is Egyptian sculpture from 2,000 B.C., through and up to contemporary art of the 20th and 21st centuries; this range of style and content and culture and meaning opens my mind. Oh, I admit there are areas of art that I don't think I'll ever like––Italian 16th century mannerism, for instance––but I admire most everything; that certainly includes modern and contemporary abstract painting. I loved seeing this small––19.5 inch square––painting by Mondrian in the Modern and Contemporary galleries. It has great presence in its simple structure of rectangles divided by heavy black lines. What's especially interesting about this painting, which is early in Mondrian's exploration of Neo-Plasticism, is that the color is mixed, as different from that in his later work, when he used only primary colors. 


Leon Polk Smith, Accent Black, 1949


Leon Polk Smith's geometry is more lively than that in the Mondrian. The diagonal placement of rectangles and squares emphasize movement; the composition is then stabilized by the black at the bottom, holding the earth-red shapes in place. 
 

Carmen Herrera, Iberic, 1949


With Carmen Herrera's Iberic, I see yet another approach to geometry, using curves and points and shapes of different sizes. The composition is anchored by the slightly squashed divided circle at the center, held up by a thick line of horizontal black that angles into a vertical and meets orange. The color is both somber––black, and dark red, with deep orange––but also hot, in the warmth of red and orange. For me, Iberic is quite playful in its rhythmic shapes. 


Joan Snyder, Smashed Strokes Hope, 1971


After seeing the three paintings above, I walked into galleries that contained paintings which had been part of the exhibition "Epic Abstraction". The three following paintings are certainly epic in their size, and they are all "painterly". To be clear,  I am not equating size with quality; it is simply a different characteristic. Joan Snyder's 6 x 12 foot canvas is covered with joyous paint; I see it in that spirit because of its color, like an explosive spring garden, and in the exuberant paint handling. There is open space, as in a Chinese landscape, and my eye follows paths across the canvas.


Joan Snyder, Smashed Strokes Hope, detail


The paths are created by paint that is slathered, wiped. dripped; it is thick and thin; put on with brushes? hands? palette knife? The variety of marks, their physicality, adds energy to the painting; the brushwork lends such immediacy that it feels as though it's still in the process of being made.


Joan Mitchell, La Vie en Rose, 1979


Joan Mitchell creates an atmospheric landscape-like space across the four panels of this large painting. The upper area of the panels are gently violet-tinged; they contrast with the aggressive, agitated marks below. Because the painting is divided into four parts, with no continuity between them, it reads as a narrative, with four events unfolding over time; each panel has a slightly different emotional register, but all are passionate. 


Joan Mitchell, La Vie en Rose, detail


In this detail we can see much more complexity than when looking at a small image of the entire painting. Blacks and blues are layered over ochers and pinks, The brush jabs and sweeps, and the paint drips; there are thickets of strokes, evoking trees and brush. La Vie en Rose is an immersive experience, as though being within Mitchell's sense of space.


Willem de Kooning, Easter Monday, 1956


Ah, de Kooning! Even though I've seen many of his paintings over the years––including this one, and the great retrospective at MoMA in 2011-12––I stood transfixed in front of Easter Monday during my recent visit to the Met. I felt that I was exploring an actual physical space, complex and shallowly layered. Although the painting appears frenzied––on the Met's website they cite critic Thomas Hess, who likened this group of paintings to "abstract urban landscapes," and "Easter Monday does seem to reference the whirling pace and gritty detritus of the modern city"––its structure is solid and balanced. 


Willem de Kooning, Easter Monday, detail


As with the two paintings above, it's impossible to get a true sense of the physicality of paint in a photograph, but if you enlarge the images by clicking on them, you'll get a better idea. In this detail we can see an transfer from a newspaper pressed onto the canvas. As explained on the MoMA website: "De Kooning often used newspaper in his painting process. He pressed it against the surface of his canvases to keep the paint wet." This adds an unexpected element to the painting, which is at odds, in a fascinating way, with its abstraction. 


Willem de Kooning, Easter Monday, detail


Willem de Kooning, Easter Monday, detail


The brushstrokes are edgy, yet luscious. When I think of de Kooning's process, it brings to mind a quote of his in an interview with the critic Harold Rosenberg, about the uncertainty of making art, and I believe this to be true no matter the style or medium of the artwork: 
De Kooning: If you yourself made a sphere, you could never know if it was one. That fascinates me. Nobody ever will know it. It cannot be proven, so long as you avoid instruments. If I made a sphere and asked you, 'Is it a sphere' you would answer, 'How should I know?' I could insist that it looks like a perfect sphere. But if you looked at it, after awhile you would say, 'I think it's a bit flat over here.' That's what fascinates me––to make something I can never be sure of, and no one else can either. I will never know, and no one else will ever know.
Rosenberg: You believe that's the way art is?
De Kooning: That's the way art is.


 

June 22, 2021

At the Met: Animals


Storage Jar decorated with Ibexes, Central Iran, 4,000-3600 B.C.


Humans have lived with, worked with, observed, worshipped, made myths about non-human animals for millennia. When I look at this elegantly delineated ibex, it's hard for me to comprehend that this pot was made 6,000 years ago. In John Berger's elucidating essay, "Why Look at Animals", he describes how humans and animals had lived parallel lives in the past, before the 19th century, in which 
every tradition between man and nature was broken. Before this rupture, animals constituted the first circle of what surrounded man. Perhaps that already suggests too great a distance. They were with man at the centre of his world. Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises. 

Berger goes on to describe various ancient myths centering on animals, and how this human/animal relationship changed in modern times. Thinking of that closeness it's not at all surprising that there should be so many depictions of animals in art and artifacts. 

 

Weights in the shape of a frog, Mesopotamia, Iran, or Cypress, early 2nd millenium B.C.


Very simple lines and minimal form are all that's needed to sculpt the essence of an attentive frog. Upraised head, folded legs, bulging eye; she's ready to leap forward. And her rounded volume asks for a caress.


Wall painting from a bedroom, Roman, last decade of the 1st century B.C.


A sensitively rendered bird stands alert in the center of a dark swath of wall, warmly glowing against the polished surface. Someone who knows bird species could probably identify this one since it is so specific in its details.


Figure of a Hare, Egypt, 11th century


Such a lively little hare, with those large ears pricked and the tiny tail raised. I can't help but think that the maker of this piece particularly enjoyed sculpting that alert expression of anticipation.   


Statue of a Predatory Bird, Iran, 12th-13th century


There is a range of depiction from naturalism to abstraction that is very interesting to me. Different cultures have different approaches, all valid, all producing beautiful work. This predatory bird, with its large head and simple sweep of wings is closer to an abstract rendering, but I can still feel his aggressive posture.  There's a fluid line from the jutting beak to the swelling breast and back through the wings which is very satisfying. 


Bowl with fish motif, Iran, 13th century



Dish, follower of Bernard Palissy, French, late 16th century


Here are two favorite ceramic pieces at the Met, a bowl from Iran, and a later dish from France. They show very different approaches to decoration: one simplified and the other complex and full of detail. I love them both. The Iranian bowl has a clear design, having linear elements contrasting with the circling fish at the center. The French dish also has a central element, that of a looping snake, but surrounding it are fish and crustaceans and shells and foliage and an overall texture. It's as though these two pieces provide a clear illustration of abstraction and realism, and how effective each approach can be.

(I highly recommend clicking on the French dish in order to see more of its details.)


Power Object, Republic of Benin, Fon peoples, 19th century


An elephant is a symbol of strength for the Fon peoples, and silver makes the work a prestige item. In the museum description––link above––it is stated that precious objects such as this are filled with "supernaturally potent materials to protect the monarch". This is a culture in which the magical power of animals had not yet receded. 


Flat Bag, Coeur d"Alene, Schitsu'umsh, Coeur d'Alene artist, 1895-1905


We can compare this simplified beaded image of birds with the more realistic Roman wall painting of a bird above, but I don't see that either one is stronger than the other; they are simply different. On this bag, I especially like the way the artist made patterns out of the wings and tail feathers; those diagonals play against each other, creating an animated design. 


Bronze statuette of a horse, Greek, lat 2nd-1st century B.C. 


I've posted all the works above in historical order, but kept this horse for last. This elegant and proud small stallion, sixteen inches high,  presents me with an opportunity to speak of my relationships with animals. I live in a rural area, so have lots of animals nearby: deer, moose, bear, turkey, woodchuck, raccoon, birds of all sorts, and other small creatures. I love having this animal life around me, unless they help themselves in my vegetable garden. And of course I have pets, which John Berger in his essay says are one result of animal marginalization in our culture. I do treasure my inter-species interactions. My most intense experience of working with an animal, though, came when I had a horse. There was a remarkably sensitive communication with this large animal when I was sitting on her back, speaking to her with the weight of my body, the pressure of my legs, the touch of the bit in her mouth, and also with my voice. It was magical, and made the image of the centaur––the human/horse creature––completely understandable. It also made me feel closer to a time when non-human animals were an integral part of our lives. 

Altoon Sultan, Heifers, Pawlet, Vermont, 1987, 30 x 72 in.


I've worked on this post for a couple of days, and this morning I remembered that I too have a painting of animals in the collection at the Met (not on view). I painted Heifers during a time when I worked on agricultural landscapes, and many of them, being dairy farms, included cows. Cows are curious, and I feel that they wonder about me, as I do about them. This mutual regard across species, this wonderment and magic, makes it clear why artists have wanted to depict animals from the time of the earliest paintings, many thousands of years ago. 


June 13, 2021

June!

Siberian iris Summer Skies


There have been glorious days this past week, with bright sun, low humidity, and perfect temperatures for spring. As I walked around my garden, admiring all the flowering plants, I kept singing to myself June is bustin' out all over..., that wonderful Rogers and Hammerstein song from Carousel: 
June is bustin' out all over
The feelin' is gettin' so intense
That the young Virginia creepers
Have been huggin' the bejeepers
Outta all the mornin' glories on the fence!
Because it's June!
The flowers in my garden are at their height this month. I look out the back kitchen window and see a mass of the perfectly named Summer Skies iris, with pale blue and white petals floating above green. 


Peony Charlie's White


The peony is the queen of the flower garden.  They have a frothy exuberance, and if I would describe their character, I would say that they have a great generosity of spirit.


Korean lilac Miss Kim, with Swallowtail butterfly


One of the delights of lilacs, aside from their form and delicious scent, is that they are very attractive to swallowtail butterflies. This late-blooming Korean lilac is a butterfly magnet: I see several of them at one time, fluttering around the shrub, landing and sipping, and fluttering and sipping again. 


Wild rose


This small pink rose with a delicate sweet perfume was growing in my backyard when I moved here over 25 years ago. It has since become a lovely large mound, which is dotted with bright color in June. 


Rosa Rugosa


I planted Rosa rugosa along the side wall of my studio, and it has since grown into a wide hedge. When it's blooming in June, the delicious scent wafts into the studio building, and I hear the sound of bees buzzing as they gather pollen. When I watch them inside the flower they seem to be ecstatically wallowing in its center, drunk with pleasure. 


Honeysuckle Dropmore Scarlet


A honeysuckle climbs alongside my front door, blazing orange. I do love the honeysuckles we can grow up here in zone 4, but I miss the ones of my youth, those with scent and taste. During summers at the Jersey shore, we saw masses of the white flowers with a delicious smell. I'll never forget how my father taught us to remove the end of the flower, pulling out the pistil with its drop of nectar. Tasting that was a magical treat. Whenever I see that variety of honeysuckle I'm moved to enact that same ritual. 


Daylily Lemon Lily


The Lemon Lily is the earliest of the daylilies to bloom, and its bright cheerful face is very welcome in June. It too has a lovely scent.


Yellow Flag iris


Another intense yellow flower blooming near the pond is the Yellow Flag iris. It loves wet spots and can grow in standing water. Its form is beautiful, with large drooping petals. It is thought to be a possible model for the design of the fleur-de-lis.


Wild Strawberries


June is also the month for strawberries, both cultivated and wild. The teeny berries have begun to color in my lawn and field.


Cherry tomato Sungold


The garden is producing asparagus, lettuce, and lots of spinach. One thing that I find very exciting is seeing the cherry tomatoes begin to form. Up here in northern Vermont, the growing season is short and tomatoes don't come into full production until August, but here is a sign that I may have ripe Sungolds in 3 weeks or so, depending on the weather. Events like this are what keep me gardening. 

There is a famous Henry James quote about a season: 
Summer afternoon, summer afternoon; to me those have always been the most beautiful words in the English language.

I would like to add to that "June day, June day..."

 

June 9, 2021

At the Met: Wondrous Clay

George Ohr, Vases, 1898-1910


Clay is a mundane, common material, in use for millennia. Its characteristics allow it to be transformed into shapes both ordinary and extraordinary: into objects of everyday use or into fine art sculpture. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has mounted a thrilling exhibition that shows us the range of lively possibilities present in the medium: Shapes From Out of Nowhere: Ceramics from the Robert A. Ellison Jr. Collection. Mr. Ellison has made a generous donation to the Met of 125 works from his modern and contemporary ceramics collection and we are all richer for it. 

Looking at the George Ohr vases, I might think that they were made by a contemporary artist, but no, the "Mad Potter of Biloxi" (see link above) was pushing the boundaries of ceramic art over a hundred years ago. 
 

George Ohr, Vase, 1898-1910; Elisa D'Arrigo, Blue Dyad 1, 2015


Ohr's folded forms are eccentric and beautiful, and have a sense of pulsing life. I very much enjoyed the installation of this show, especially when there was a conversation like this one between's Ohr's vase and Elisa D'Arrigo's writhing sculpture, with its pipe-forms reaching upwards. The surface appears pitted, irregular, as though pushing against a simple idea of beauty. 


Kyoko Tonegawa, Asteroidal Last Gasp, 1985


As with D'Arrigo's piece I'm not sure if this work by Kyoko Tonegawa is functional, or a sculpture...but does it matter? The bulbous form with its lush surface does ask for a touch, a caress. It could also be an ancient life form, whose texture and shape has softened over time. 


Rudolph Staffel, Light Gatherer, 1988


This is the first Rudolph Staffel piece I've seen in person, but I've loved the work I've seen online. He worked with porcelain, and in many of his Light Gatherers the clay is so thin that light shines through it, making it look magically lit from within. 


Kathy Butterly, Pony Boy, 2111


Kathy Butterly is another artist who seems a descendent of Ohr in her draped forms and the modest size of her work. This piece looks to me like it's dancing in a floppy rhythm, with a foot forward and arms upraised. The looseness is held in check with a sharp vertical line and other soft lines emphasizing curves. 



Ken Price, Untitled (Vessel), 1957


There were several pieces in the show which were built using thin slabs of clay, as with this Ken Price vessel. Price is such an interesting artist, whose work ranges across ceramic categories, from biomorphic sculpture to useful or geometric cups. I love this vessel that for me is a figure, with a head divided into shapes. It feels very cubist to me. 


Harris Deller, Suppressed Volume Series, Stacked, Vase with Key Hole Pattern, 1990


This vase by Harris Deller is another slab-built work. I admire the subtle shift in the volumes of the parts. The surface decoration doesn't seem to have anything to do with the form underneath, yet its movement and clarity enhances those minimal volumes. The lines are like contour maps, describing an imagined landscape. 


Chris Gustin, Pink Teapot with Slit #9015, 1990


Wow, I said to myself when I spotted this wacky teapot, whose spout I couldn't find. It's a fleshy accumulation of forms, looking soft and squeezable, like babies' bottoms. (Sorry, couldn't resist that metaphor.) It's just marvelous that the artist made a sculpture of fired clay, which is hard, look like we can push our finger into it and leave a dimple.


Amara Geffen, Arhkaiokurios, 1991


I sometimes have the strangest reactions to work that I assume is abstract, so odd as to wonder if I should admit to it. But here goes: when I saw this Amara Geffen piece I immediately responded to the repetition of the rounded forms, and to the slightly different form held up by the six below. I saw a worship ceremony, with figures elevating a prized member of society, or like the worship of the golden calf. Whatever the interpretation, it's a compelling piece. 


Arnie Zimmerman, Vapor I, 1992


Although I can't really say that I like this sculpture by Arnie Zimmerman––it's pretty far from my usual formalist leanings––but I truly admire its exuberant shapes and its color relationships. I think the color is quite gorgeous, and the choice to have a more neutral central color-shape is perfect. 


Stanley Rosen, Untitled, 200s


Stanley Rosen has a unique approach to making sculpture, with an accumulation of small rolled pieces of clay, one atop another and another, until the form is built. Because the pieces of clay are irregular, the result doesn't have a clear pattern, but rather a quirky description of volumes. A result of this technique is a sense of movement, with the energy of all those elements marching forward or swaying from side to side. 


Anne Marie Laureys, Cloud Unicus, 2017


I think I can say that this sculpture by Anne Marie Laureys was my favorite in the show. I was moved by its soft, billowing forms, seemingly impossible to have created, and by its subtle color. The surface appears brushed, like a velvet cloth. There is something very tender about this work; perhaps it's the deep folds gently turned in upon each other. It's a beautiful work, among many other wonderful pieces in this exhibition that I feel lucky to have been able to see. 


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