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


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. 

(A note to my email subscribers: I've moved my email list to a new platform, follow.it, and hope that you get this post, fingers crossed. It's scheduled to go out at 7PM. You should also check your spam folder.)

June 3, 2021

At the Met: Faces

Head and Neck from a marble figure, Cycladic, 2700-2500 B.C.

While wandering through the Metropolitan Museum of Art I was struck by the inventiveness and varied approaches to abstraction when it came to depicting faces, both human and animal. In this very early small Cycladic head, all we see is the shape of the face with a protruding nose, yet it is distinctly human, We read this as a face even with minimal information; its forms are simple and beautifully rendered. 

Spouted Vessel, Mexican, Huastec, 13th-15th century

This decorated Mexican vessel depicts a face with an expression of wide-eyed surprise, emphasized by the eyelashes surrounding the protruding eyes and the dark, upturned nostrils. The piece is decorated with elegant abstract designs, moving it away from any perceived naturalism.

I love this wacky bird, eyeing me intently. His polka-dotted neck and abstracted feathers, along with the handles as wings, add whimsy. Of course, I don't know if that interpretation is that of the artist; perhaps they saw this bird as threatening. 

African artists from all over the continent had a marvelous ability to simplify the human face into beautiful shapes, lines, curves, volumes. With its perfect oval form, closed eyes, and calm expression it could almost be the head of a Buddha, as well as a ruler of the Akan people. 

Mask, Cote d'Ivoire or Liberia, Ku peoples, 19th-mid 20th century

From serenity in the work above, there's a shift to an elongated fierceness in this mask with jagged teeth and cylindrical eyes, and a knife-edge slice of a nose. The forms are softened by the gentle curves of the mask's outline.

This headdress is called Janus-faced because there's a similar face backing this one. The eye shapes remind me of the ovals of the memorial head above, but this face is more aggressively abstract; the long, protruding nose with lips below balance the eyes beautifully. I find the saw-toothed edge very interesting; I don't think I've seen that before. At the top of the headdress are two horns, and etched into the wood below them are two ovals for the eyes of an animal. 

I'm fascinated by the upturned head of this magical power figure. He seems to be quietly beseeching the gods. Although the form of his head is stylized, and his body is hung with strange (to me) objects of prayer, he is so very alive. 

With these two masks we are back in the Western hemisphere, but as I look at them I might think that they're African. It makes me wonder whether there is a universality of form in this stylized  type of art, tempered by cultural differences. The move away from naturalism toward simplification brings great power to this imagery that a more delicate realism cannot match, although that has its own strengths. 

This sculpture of a woman's head with its clear, bold features and stylized curls is more naturalistic than the works above, but still quite simplified. Her head rises above a plain sarcophagus (see in link) whose only details are the wavy lines at the top. This makes for a startling apparition when seeing the actual work.

A style closer to a Western idea of realism is evident in this sensitively rendered funerary portrait of a young woman. The flesh appears soft, the features delicate and particular to an individual. Only the hair is abstracted, with the curls as tightly wound circles. 

Portrait of a Carthusian, Petrus Christus, 1446

I had to include one painting in this post, and that of a face that I find intriguing. The heightened realism of Christus' painting invites me to attempt to understand the character of this monk. He is looking out with an expression that is somewhat askance, solemn and questioning. The portrait is so carefully observed, from the features to the delicate, cascading beard. Christus also plays with illusion by painting a fly on the edge of the frame.

Woman's Head, Amedeo Modigliani, 1912

Modigliani's modernism takes us back to an abstracted vision, inspired by the art of Africa. Those oval eyes, long nose, and slitted mouth can be seen as direct descendants of some of the sculpture pictured above, with his personal touch of elongation. 

**I enjoyed thinking about and seeing how differently faces can be appear in art. The Met allows for that with its extensive collections. I would like to remind you that clicking on an image will show it enlarged. I've provided links to the Met's descriptions of some of the objects if the information on their website is especially elucidating.