Friday, September 29, 2006

How far back do I look, or, How far afield do I look?

How far back do I look? Very. Now that I think about it, a few weeks later after asking you the question, Joanne, I'm wondering if a better question isn't, "How far to the side do you look? What's your field of vision? How good is your peripheral vision?"

A few stories. It's all about art.

I've kind of had it with pro sports. I haven't really been a sports nut anyway since I was about fourteen. But I do like sports. I especially like baseball. And once upon a time baseball really was a pastoral sport. For the spectator, at the game, the action was compact with spaces in between, and long breaks between innings. It's a game you give your attention to in little bits, and between pitches and innings you can comment to your companions, gaze over the crowd, look up at the sky (where instead now flies an airplane trailing a huge banner for a local auto dealer).

But now, and for some time, you go to a game and there is constant entertainment. It's loud all the time. You're never alone with your own thoughts. It's pop entertainment. You really are a spectator far removed from the action because of the artifice surrounding the game: it's harder to hear the crowd; the amounts of money involved are insane; the demographic of the players is far removed from the demographic of the fan. It's basically show biz, but less predictable- they really are playing, though it's not very playful.

Instead, I see much more of the game when I watch college or high school ball. My favorite is to watch women's college softball- intense, fast, high level playing. Even at the high school level the game is fun to watch- the game itself is more open, more porous, closer to an ideal of baseball. There's no money involved and less racket. The pace of the game is more natural because there are fewer distractions to assure me I'm getting my money's worth. But the players still want to do well- they want to win, they want the attention, there's always the dream that some scout is out there.

Somewhere in here is an idea about purity and purpose, about the potential to do something for itself, and for oneself, and for the team. Sometimes you watch a game and things flow- a double play, a player's swing, a beautiful duel between the pitcher and batter, or a moment of blind, intuitive movement of a body in space that turns out absolute, as in the picture of Willie Mays above making the famous over-the-shoulder catch.

Sometimes you see a painting and there are parts where you can see that the painter was in a groove, what Ron Gorchov called, "hallucinatory and difficult to explain." I like seeing that, and even more so, I like experiencing that. I am always looking for that, and it's possible to see it in all kinds of art, even in art that may not really be what one favors. That's the periphery I'm interested in. I am not opposed to, for example, the Leipzig painters, John Currin, Takashi Murakami, and so on... these are names that might go on some people's hit lists, we all have them. But I am not terribly interested in art that wants to act all big league, and tries to distract me with issues and entertainment.

A few years ago I was in the optometrist's office waiting for an eye exam. There were a couple of large paintings on the walls, pastel colors, pictures of little blonde children out in nature, under trees. And they were kind of not so good, but they had enough going on where they were bumping up against being competent.

Rather than read Time or Sports Illustrated, I'd rather stare at paintings. And after a minute I noticed they were signed with the same last name as the optometrist. Turns out, his wife is the painter. And I kept looking.

I realized after a couple of more minutes of looking that these paintings were actually quite ambitious, at least compositionally, and the drawing was good enough not to interfere with the painting as a unit. They'd almost just about be passable at one of those wine and art festival things that the Chamber of Commerce likes to put on before Labor Day where women can wear their white dresses and men can wear their polo shirts and khakis and people can come out and see their friends and have a glass of chardonnay and feel cultured and civic minded. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

The wait at this particular office, to which I'd been a few times, can be a little long. That's part of why I don't go there anymore. This particular wait was close to half an hour. I just looked at those paintings, and gave them time, and got involved, and saw how the artist had to get involved, too. I saw her drawing problem, and got attuned to her palette, which although kind of predictable was also very consistent, and really got into her brushstrokes, and how she put on paint. And I could see that, despite the shortcomings of her subject, the predictable colors and the sentiment implied, that this artist was trying to seriously deal with these paintings. I realized that paintings which I wouldn't ordinarily give the time of day to still had a lot to offer if I'd just give them time. And I remember thinking, well, this is kind of like watching little league. The level of play isn't as high, but the game is still there, and I like the game.

Go somewhere where there is a folk art tradition. You're a tourist, and you want to buy a sample. You're going to a central market where you're going to buy a piece of pottery. A painted plate. Let's say you're going to Mexico, to Puerto Vallarta, and you decide to buy a plate, something that you know kind of gets knocked out in production. And you know looking through stacks of these plastes that some of them are painted better than the others. There's a better touch, a nicer line, a little finesse at the end of the stroke, something a little more bold and confident, a feeling that the person who painted it really has a conceptual and physical grasp of the surface of this plate and how to decorate it. I like that.

My grandmother was very supportive of my artistic inclinations. She bought me oil paints when I was eleven, the same day she took me to the Oakland Museum for the first time, during which three things happened.

A: The Oakland Museum has a typical Mel Ramos painting- a nude playmate type astride a brown bear. Certainly, for an eleven year old, I was curious about the nude. And my grandmother didn't want me looking at it. But I knew it was a painting, and that's what really interested me. I don't think she understood the difference, but I did, and I saw, besides his basically puerile subject, that there was some paint going on there. That was a moment.

B: I saw real abstract paintings for the first time. We're talking around 1968, so what I would've seen at this particular museum would've been SF Bay Area AbEx (Still, Corbett, Francis, Hassel Smith, maybe Lorser Feitelson) extending back through to California Surrealism (Helen Lundeberg, blanking on other names) and further back to a kind of late Cubism (Stanton Macdonald-Wright, Lucien Labaudt). And throw in a minimalist kind of thing, like John McLaughlin, a personal favorite. I dug it.

C: After the visit my grandmother took me to a paint store with an art section (RIP Standards Brands paint store) and bought me a set of oils and some canvas paper, and I made my first abstract painting at her house. She would've liked a nice still life, some flowers, but she didn't say so. I liked the paint; it was difficult, but it was a start.

When I paint, I often think back on A, B, and C, and all the other similar experiences and odds and ends in my periphery that have been about looking and paint.

I will write more about the question of how far back do I look, and what has been important to me.

Too Weaks (but I got Ornette!)

Huh? What happened? Did I fall asleep for two weeks? Am I Rip Van Winkle? Did aliens take me away, and then dump me off today, and now I don't know where I've been? Where did the time go? The last thing I know, I make a post "Stay tuned...", and the next thing, here it is two weeks later. Wha'happend?

Day job. I blame my day job. I work full time at a university. And not only do I have a full time day job, I have a new full time day job, with more responsibility. Lot's more. It's not that my days are that much longer, but instead it's the mental energy the job takes that has amped up, and I am woefully behind in all correspondence. I find I am simply not having extra brain power to be verbal all the time. I feel the need to shut off the verbal, which, for a visual artist, is a good thing to do.

So, I still have time to shut off the verbal. I manage to make an HTML drawing everyday at Look, See. And I have managed to make a small series of four paintings in the past week. They are each titled "Ornette", numbered I-IV. One of these, the orange one, is soon to make it's way across the Pacific to Tokyo for a little group show called Suitcase. More about that soon.

Ornette I-IV, 2006, acrylic and Rust-oleum aluminum on clear acrylic on linen with aluminum tacks, 12 x 10 inches each

"Ornette" refers to Ornette Coleman, who recently said, "Right now, I’m trying to play the instrument,” he said, “and I’m trying to write, without any restrictions of chord, keys, time, melody and harmony, but to resolve the idea eternally, where every person receives the same quality from it, without relating it to some person ("

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Stay tuned... and Ron Gorchov

Joanne- I am super busy (aren't we all?) and have not had time to have a clear mind to sit and think and write and respond. But I will.

In the meantime, consider Ron Gorchov with Robert Storr and Phong Bui in the Brooklyn Rail; it's good to see him getting a show at P. S. 1 and the attention he deserves. I remember first seeing a painting of his around 1978 or 1979; it was so good- loose and direct and almost simple, but looking unlike anything else, and feeling very much like a thing unto itself, complete.

Bui: You mean you don’t have a puritanical work ethic like most good Americans?

Gorchov: I hope not. My paintings are mostly made from reverie, and luck...

Storr: ...I wanted you to talk about what it is that makes letting go of a painting so hard, or that makes knowing where you are in the process so difficult to ascertain.

Gorchov: The biggest problem I had with letting paintings go was the feeling that there was an expense to getting a fresh canvas. And if I could make this painting as good as I could make it and keep going with it, however long it took. It’s not rational; I ruined painting after painting to get to a better one. Then I realized that I couldn’t make a painting incrementally better. If you could make it one percent better, maybe, but who cares? A painting has to evolve. With all respect to Myron Stout, I’m not that kind of an artist. Lately, I’m alone in my studio, after the preliminary marks indicate the limits of the elements, I only get one chance. I test the colors that I want, mix them, get the right brushes. I talk to myself—that form will be eight strokes; this form will be 3 strokes—and paint goes down. The next part is hallucinatory and difficult to explain. A decision will be made about adjustments later. Or it will be renovated. Or it feels perfect and can’t be changed.

BATON, 1986
oil on linen
49-1/2 x 37 x 7-1/2"

Thursday, September 7, 2006

Looking: How Far Back, At What, Why

Chris, you ask how far back I look, what I look at, and what I get out of it. The short answer to your first question is that once I leave the 20th and 21st centuries, I look as far back as there's art.
But the more specific answer is that I like Italian early Renaissance painting, particularly Sienese, not so much for the narrative--though
it's endlessly fascinating to see how flat pattern integrates with the beginning of perspective and how the stories are told with the drama of spareness punctuated by detail--but for the color. The particular luminous opacity of tempera on panel, the juxtaposition of colors, and the colors themselves--pink! coral! lime green!--and the veils of translucency, and the gilding.

Simone Martini: tempera and gold on panel, 1328. Sienese, just as Gothic is giving way to the Renaissance

Some of my favorite painters from that time and place are Sano di Pietro, Giovanni di Paolo, Sassetta, and the Master of the Osservanza. (Don't you love how that anonymous painter is not called "anonymous" but given an honorific for his talent and connected to the church where his work is located? He could easily be called the Master of the Coral Hue).

Above, Master of the Osservanza: St. Anthony Tempted by Gold, tempera and gold on panel, 1440. Below, Giovanni di Paolo: The Creation of the World and the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, 1445. Sienese.

Color aside, I guess I'm drawn to these two paintings in part because of their degree of abstraction--though I realize I'm looking at them with 21st century eyes. The di Paolo painting, in particular, rocks me to the core every time I visit it at the Met (at the spectacular Lehman Wing). Here, before Copernicus (b. 1473), before Columbus sailed off the edge of the earth and returned to tell about it, di Paolo conceived of a universe in abstract terms. I'm not a historian of art or anything else, but I think some planets had been identified by the mid fifteenth century, and that Dante had already put forth his idea of the Celestial Wheel, but here we see di Paolo's visual conception of the universe as one compact Big Bang.

I also love miniature painting from Mughal India and elsewhere in which that tradition was practiced. (I have visited the Morgan Library many times to see illuminated manuscripts, and I'm remembering a show at the Lorenzo di Medici library in Florence in which the manuscripts were encrusted with gems. Gilding the lily for sure.) Here, too, it's the color. But also the scale. Well, the relation of the colors within the scale, and in relation to the scale. These are things I think about in my own painting, too.

Portrait of a Woman, Mughal India; gouache on paper, Jahangir period, app 1605; 4" high

Farther back, I like to see the Fayum portraits. The Met has five beauties, of which Eutyches, below left, is one. The portraits, which are about life size, are the earliest surviving examples of encaustic painting. Even before I started working in wax, I used to stop by the case in which the portraits are housed. These are portraits of real people, people who looked the artist in the eye as they sat, knowing they would live again in the great Egyptian afterlife and in the meantime remain young forever in their likeness of wax on panel. The Fayums, named after a Nile Delta oasis near where many of the portraits were untombed, were painted in a roughly three-hundred-year period around the cusp between BC and AD, the product of Greco-Roman Egypt. After a sitter's death, the portrait was placed in the wrapped mummy above where the actual face would be, to look out into the world of the great beyond. Talk about multiculture: Greek colonists living in Roman-controlled Egypt, creating portraits to be placed on mummy casings for traditional Egyptian burial rites. I believe the Fayums are the earliest extant paintings made on a portable ground.

From left: Eutyches, at the Metropolitan museum of Art, New York; Isidora at the Getty, Los Angeles; Woman at the National Gallery, London

You realize I'm just scratching the surface here. I might also add Artemisia, not only as a strong painter but as a model of strength against adversity. Giotto, who with the Middle Ages at his back, opened the picture to more a dimensional space.

Changing centuries, I also like stuff we would call "ethnic" --Amish and African-American quilts (a la Gee's Bend); Navajo and Hopi textiles; the sculptures of Kuan Yin and mandalas from throughout the East, the Islamic Wing at the Met with its integration of textiles, pottery, caligraphy and architecture.

Clockwise from left: Vajrayana mandala, Mongolia, 19th century; Amish quilt, Lancaster, Pa., 1930's; Zulu telephone wire basket, contemporary; Lola Petway, Bars, 2004, Gee's Bend

Can we make a conceptual leap from di Paolo's universe to the one depicted by the mandala? And a visual one to the mandalas of the basket and Amish quilt? Can we connect the quilts to geometric abstraction from the Sixties to now?

I feel like those actors at the Academy Awards who have to name everyone who ever made a difference in their lives. My agent, my manager. I love you all.

So, what do I get out of all this? As an artist, I find it humbling that what I do, what artists in general do, is pretty much exactly what artists have done throughout history. We daub pigment onto a prepared surface, we handle clay, we stitch cloth, hammer metal, sculpt wood. I know there are 20th and 21st century mediums that don't have the same lineage, but the urge to express, to create, to make manifest is the same urge that the cave painters must have had. So, I guess it's connecting culturally to a world that is not just of this place and to a time that is not just of the present.

Shall we pursue this thread for a bit? Tell me more about what you like to look at.

Tuesday, September 5, 2006

How far back do you look?

Joanne, how far back do you look at paintings? Who/what is important to you? What do you get out of it?

You know, you'd think it would be safe to assume that painters like to look at all kinds of paintings from all eras and cultures. You'd think that painters are looking at the paint and the painter's moves, seeing into and beneath the surface, gliding across the surface, right there surfing along with the painter, really feeling along and reading the paint (but not necessarily mixing metaphors, as I just did). You'd think the painters are looking at all paintings as things to learn from, sure, but also looking at paintings, even something four hundred years old, as things that are now and alive.

Now, I don't mean to be judgmental, but I'm not convinced that all painters are as open as that. I may be wrong (there's a very good chance that I'm wrong) but it seems to me- and this is based on some observation, and hearing others talk- that lots of painters just don't suck everything they can out of paintings when they look at them. It seems that they don't feel part of a lineage that is right under their feet, that is a lifeblood that should move up into them and energize them. In particular, it seems to me that a lot of contemporary painters- contemporary artists- don't look very far back, and mostly look at work that is connected to their own. They have a narrow vision. And they tend to stay in the modern period, some even only the 20th century. I don't know- does that ring a bell?

But you and I have been talking for awhile now, and I think we both look at lots of stuff. I think we're pretty open, have a lot of influences, know a fair amount of history. I'd like to talk about this idea, about how I look at 400 year old Chinese painting and how much I get out of it. I'll do that in another post.

So I'm just wondering- how far back do you look? And besides painting, what else do you look at?

Incense burner with design of mountain retreat
by Ogata Kenzan (1663–1743; Chojiyamachi workshop)
Japan, Edo period, 1712–ca. 1731
Buff clay; cobalt pigment under transparent glaze; gold lacquer repairs
Gift of Charles Lang Freer F1898.440

Saturday, September 2, 2006

More Bad Cyber Things; Good Art Things

Sorry about your crash, Chris. Your advice is smart. Back up and mo' backup. I've taken to writing my blog in a word document and then cutting and pasting it into Two Artists Talking. That way, if I get the dreaded popup, "Windows has experienced a problem and needs to shut down," my copy will live to see another post.

In the "More Bad Cyber Things" category, I'd add this: beware security systems. I'd used Norton with no problem until I installed the 2006 update. Then, almost immediately, the walls came crashing down. Actually, the opposite happened: the barricades went up beyond all logic, shutting me out of my own files! There's no sense repeating my story here, as a full account of my problem is on the R&F Paints website: . I urge our readers to check it out.

With a security sytem like that, who needs viruses? And wouldn't you know: Norton billed me for the update, even after I removed it. Of course I didn't pay, and my credit card company backed me up.

In the "Good Art Things" category, I love the change of scale (albeit digitally manipulated) of one of your Bojagi paintings. This is a direction! I know you said, in your New Work post, "I'm liking the domestic, intimate, personal feel of what I'm doing- these are smaller issue paintings, intimate..." but seeing the work large gives it a huge presence.

Not that there's anything wrong with small. I also work small, and I like the scale. A strong small painting can hold the wall every bit as tenaciously as a big one. But punctuating small-scale works with a large scale one, or vice versa, is not only an exercise in expansion or restraint, it's an opportunity to put the work in perspective. However your work develops, it's interesting for me to see how you connect those intuitive dots.

Friday, September 1, 2006

Here's a tip

This is one artist talking to a million other artists for a moment:

Ever written a nice big fat detailed important email in your webmail and pushed send and found out that during the time you'd spent writing that email that your 24 hours login expired so that when you hit "Send" the email service said something like "Time's up, please login again" and your email was gone?

No, never happened to you? It will someday.

Ever had something similar happen when making a weblog post, like your browser froze and crashed because you had Photoshop and Excel and two different browsers and iTunes and Word and Thunderbird and five folders open at the same time?

No, never happened to you? It will someday.

Take it from someone who knows. You do more and more of your work on the web via a browser. Things happen. Get in this habit. Here's what you do:

Before hitting "Send" or "Publish" click inside the form window in which you've been typing your email or weblog post, Select All and Copy. In case your browser craps out you've still got it on the clipboard.

I always do that for anything more than four or five sentences. Except I didn't a minute ago and almost lost something huge. Fortunately, I didn't this time.

Now, if your system crashes while hitting Send or Publish, well, tough luck. If your computer is that fragile you've got other problems. You should have saved your writing to disk first. That's a little beyond the call of duty.

I have no idea

Joanne asks, "Where do you think your own work will go with Bojagi? A series?"

I have no idea. There are three so far. I didn't expect to make these three. They just sort of tumbled out. Of course now more are swimming around in my head, but I am finally learning to stop chasing the image in my head and to start finding them while painting.

Maybe that sounds flaky, but I'm serious.

Forever, I have chased after images in my head, being so sure if I just executed the thing in my head that everything would be OK. But the thing in my head is actually so ill defined. And that has resulted in a lot failures and frustration. Over the years. Many.

The translation from head to paint is not an automatic process. Which I think led to me taking a big break from painting and becoming an elementary school teacher and sending my life off on another trajectory for a long time. And being a teacher, working with young kids, with an emphasis on process and repetition and development, may have taught me, myself, eventually, and hopefully finally, that it is through the making that I will find. I have to follow the paint.

Painting, or good painting, is not the result of a concept or strategy or process. It comes out of the body. I don't mean that one can't be working on a planned image. But paint is not imagination. It's a material that we can't hold in our heads.

So I'm not sure. I'm not going to chase them. But I am going to find something.

Someone wants me to make big paintings.

And in the same post Joanne asks, "And we're about to start a new month. What direction will your HTML drawings take?"

I have no idea. I will tonight, I hope. I don't have a plan. I rarely have plans for these things. I start out making and it turns into something. At the most my thought is to make to non-photobased images with HTML, but I don't know more than that. At this precise moment I feel like making more of these doesn't have a future. I will have to work through that.

One more thing about Jasper John's crosshatch paintings- in the 1977 catalogue the connection of this motif is drawn to Munch (who I've been looking at a lot lately- I can say more later):

Edvard Munch: Self Portrait: Between Clock and Bed, 1940-42; Oil on canvas, 149.5 x 120.5 cm; Munch Museum, Oslo

Jasper Johns (American, born 1930: Usuyuki, 1979-1981, Color screenprint on buff handmade laid paper, 50/85, 27 5/8 x 45 7/16”, Purchase: Gaines Challenge Fund 1982.19.2