Archive for September, 2010

Notes from the Studio: Wise Athena

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 11, 2010 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Adolf Furtwängle, Lemnia Athena (reconstruction), 1891
Marble
Staatliche Museum, Albertinum, Dresden, Germany

For the past several months Athena, the Greek goddess of war, civilization, wisdom, strength, strategy, crafts, justice and skill (a versatile goddess if ever there was one) has been much on my mind. In fact, she’s become the central energy source of a commissioned piece I am now completing, a digital montage which owes its technical inspiration to the work of Hannah Höch. I’m hoping Athena will stick around even after our work together is completed; I’d be grateful if a bit of her majesty, grace, and wisdom would rub off on me.

Although best known as a Greek goddess, the cult of Athena predates the ancient Greeks. Perhaps she was brought to Greece from Egypt in the 2nd millennium BCE. Classicist Robert Graves tags the “birth” of the Athena myths to Crete as early as 4,000 BC. Nevertheless, the Greeks embraced her wholeheartedly; as early as the 7th c. BCE she had become a central player in the pantheon of the Gods and patron of city of Athens. On the Acropolis, besides the Parthenon, she has two other temples—the temple of Athena Nike and the Erechtheum. The epithet Pallas frequently added to her title derives either from the Greek “to strike” or (more probably) from the Greek “girl.”

Athena Parthenos (replica)
Marble
Parthenon Museum

Throughout antiquity Athena (Hellenizing Romans turned her into Minerva) assumed many sculptural guises; undoubtedly the most famous of which is the Athena Parthenos, a massive ivory and gold statue (36 meters high) located on the Acropolis from the 5th century BCE to the 5th centure CE. The sculptor Pheidias set the Athena standard—in adition to the Parthenos, he also crafted a reputedly even-greater bronze statue, made out of the spoils taken by the Athenians in the battle of Marathon and a small bronze statue called the “beautiful” or the Lemnian Athena, as it  originally was dedicated in Athens by the Lemnians.

Alan LeQuire, Athena Parthenos (life-sized relica)
Steel, resin, paint
Nashville, USA

Helmeted Athena is the most common rendering of the goddess, likely to personify her mythic origins. Traditional stories recount that Zeus was warned by Gaia and Uranus that his children by first wife Metis would be dangerously clever. Fearing that Metis would bear a son mightier than himself, Zeus swallowed her. No doubt envisioning the power her daughter might possess, Metis immediately began to fashion a robe and helmet for her. The hammering of the helmet caused Zeus such great pain that he called out for his skilled son Hephaestus to split open his scull with an axe. As a result, Athena emerged, fully grown and wearing her mother’s robe and helmet. Eternally a virgin deity, Athena never took a lover or consort.

Athena
Ceramic
Pella Museum, Greece

Athena is an unusual goddess, as female deities are rarely depicted in full armor. Armored Athena wears any of a number of different types of helmets—the gorgeously-shaped Corinthian with its distinctive bubble; a Roman-type galea with plumage; and sometimes just a small cap-like covering. Traditionally, Athena’s shield and aegis (collar/belt) bear the face of the gorgon Medusa. Medusa serves a double purpose—as a reminder of Athena’s involvement with Perseus’ defeat of the famous monster and as device in battle with which to transfix her enemies with fear (Medusa is reputed to have turned men to stone as they looked on her). For followers of Athena, inclusion of the Medusa iconography  would have served as a reminder to visiting foreigners of the military power of the city.

Armored Athena is usually depicted with an extended right arm supporting a small representation of Nike, the Goddess of Victory, in the palm of her hand. Often she is also accompanied by the snake Erichthonius, whom she adopted. The first virgin mother?

Athena, ca. 350
Bronze
Piraeus Museum, Athens

Athena di Mirone
Vatican Museums, Rome
(photo ©Liz Hager 2010)

Sculpted versions of the armored Athena perfectly portray the androgyny of the goddess, who traditionally embodies both feminine and masculine attributes. Although girded for war, Athena disliked fighting without a purpose, preferring to use wisdom to settle disputes.

Athena, strong and sensible woman. The shrewd companion of heroes (Odysseus, for one). The goddess of heroic feats. Patron saint of the “useful and elegant” arts—weaving, pottery and music at any rate.

Ongoing visitor to my studio, please.

Bust of Athena,
Glyptothek, Munich

Athena (Lanckoronski relief)
University of Haifa Library, Israel

Mattei Athena
Louvre, Paris

Wider Connections

Robert Graves—The Greek Myths: Complete Edition

Sheila Dillon—The Female Portrait Statue in the Greek World

The many faces of Athena

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Mimi Jensen’s Week at the Met: New Work at Hespe Gallery

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Christine Cariati, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 1, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Mimi Jensen, A Week at the Met (Lunch With Andy and Marilyn), 2010
Oil on canvas, 12″ x 20″

San Francisco artist Mimi Jensen updates the traditional still life—incorporating humor and visual puns in her arrangements of non-traditional subjects. Jensen’s love of language is apparent in the witty titles she chooses for her work, which add a layer of meaning to the imaginative narratives she portrays.

Jensen’s still life paintings contain an intriguing mix of everyday objects—things she finds at thrift stores, estate sales, farmers markets or at a friend’s house. Jensen takes a playful approach to her compositions, arranging and re-arranging until the conversation among the objects has just the right balance and chemistry. Objects  clearly relate to one another, and exist in distinct harmony—even when the placement is a bit precarious. Jensen is very interested in reflective surfaces (silver balls and sugar bowls, martini glasses) and saturated color, and the balance of these elements also play an important part in her work.

Mimi Jensen, Love Letter, 2006
Oil on canvas, 22″ x 28″

Once Jensen completes the set-up—a process that she says can either be quick or agonizingly slow—she dramatically lights the composition, putting it “on stage.” Jensen works in a darkened room to highlight the drama. I asked Mimi to explain what happens next:

VR: Once the composition and lighting are set, how do you get started?

MJ: After choosing the correct size canvas for the final set-up, I give the canvas a sepia wash of raw umber to make it a mid-range tone so that both light and dark marks will be discernible. Using a straight-edge I draw a line where the objects will sit (a tablecloth, a shelf) and I mark the inches along that line to help me place the objects in the painting. I also mark the inches on the actual still life set-up so that when I start laying it in, the objects on the canvas correspond exactly to the placement in the set-up. I paint the objects in true life size, so this method works well. Of course, I cheat a bit when needed—I’ll make a bottle taller or shorter if it serves the composition.

Next, still using raw umber, I loosely sketch the objects with paint, mostly just outlining their shapes at first. After I am content that the composition is good and that the objects are about the right size and shape, I start to refine the images, still using raw umber.

Next I paint the entire scene, covering the whole canvas in raw umber and white, painting everything realistically and getting the correct lights and darks established. This is a technique called grissaille. Traditionally, grissaille is followed by many transparent glazes, and although I use glazes later in my process, at this point, after the grissaille is finished, I almost always start painting in color rather than glazes.

Mimi Jensen, Limoncello, (detail in grissaille stage)

Mimi Jensen, Limoncello, 2003
Oil on canvas, 10″ x 20″

Once I am satisfied with the painting in monotone, I start applying the color, essentially repainting the entire canvas. Sometimes I like the painting so much in its monochromatic state that I am reluctant to paint over it in color. Once or twice I’ve completed a painting in umber and white.

Mimi Jensen, Sepia Dream II, 2006
Oil on canvas, 16″ x 20″

From there it’s a matter of refining all the objects depicted, making sure they look right to me—blending, blending, blending. Sometimes I notice some new detail even after becoming so familiar with the object. Finally, I glaze any parts that need a color adjustment, e.g., putting an even brighter red over a tomato, or a brown glaze over a metal object to give it warmth. It’s easy to go too far at this stage. In the very last session, I paint the background, adjusting the depth of color from the initial wash to the otherwise finished painting, cleaning up the edges while trying to keep them soft, slightly blurry. I try to avoid the hard-edged look. Most paintings take me about a month to complete.

Mimi Jensen, A Week at the Met (Midnight Supper), 2010
Oil on linen, 16″ x 20″

VR: You’ve been exhibiting your work for twenty-five years. When did you settle on still life?

MJ: For the first 15+ years, I kept admonishing myself to loosen up. Finally, after a two-week intensive workshop with John Morra in 2003, I gave myself permission to paint realistic, detailed paintings, and started concentrating on the still life. I think as artists we don’t necessarily value what comes easily to us, but I finally started to value my ability, allowing myself that pleasure, realizing that painting “tight” suits me.

I’m often reluctant to say I’m a still life painter because people have misconceptions about what a still life is—they imagine dead pheasants, bottles of wine, half-peeled tangerines. I find these boring and often merely a vehicle for exhibiting technical skill. I like to paint found objects and things like jars of olives, cigar boxes, martini glasses, toys—and, of course, post cards of famous paintings. I often reuse the same objects again and again, like old actors appearing together in a new play.

VR: Which still life painters do you admire?

MJ: Still life (historically) became interesting to me around the time of Cezanne—beginning in the late 1880s and increasingly to the present day. Painters whose work I return to again and again are Bonnard, Cezanne, Morandi—simplicity made interesting—and Paul Wonner. Fairfield Porter who said: “I don’t arrange them….it strikes me suddenly and so I paint it.” I also admire the work of Mark Tansey, who stages scenes with visual puns that poke fun at art and historical cliches. Also Jane Freilicher and Nell Blaine, who both studied with another favorite of mine, Hans Hoffman. Richard Diebenkorn‘s abstracted still lifes. Vija Clemins. Martha Alf (pears, pears, pears.)

Other contemporary favorites are Norman Lundin, a Seattle artist who paints realistic objects in abstracted settings and Bay Area artist Donald Bradford—there is a serenity about his books.

VR: What would you like people to take from your paintings?

MJ: I’m a realist and I am fascinated with the way things look. For me, painting is all about seeing—acute observation and attention to detail. Which is why I work from life, never from photographs. I want to create images that the viewer will linger over—I want to show them something they may otherwise have overlooked.

Trompe l’oeil or illusionism doesn’t hold my interest for very long unless there’s an idea behind it. It is important to me for the spectator to bring his own narrative.

I always enjoy when people “get” my jokes and allusions, which often involve the title. I presume an audience that is familiar with the reproductions I use because they are by well-known artists, but I also include what I hope are subtler references or jokes. For example, the recent painting The Blues, a painting of blue bottles, includes a black and white tablecloth that suggests piano keys, which I hope causes the viewer to wonder if the title refers to the color of the bottles or the music.

Mimi Jensen, The Blues, 2010
Oil on canvas, 16″ x 20″

VR: Six of your new paintings are titled A Week at the Met, what’s the story behind that?

MJ: I love the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and never felt I had enough time to spend there on my visits to New York. Recently, I was able to spend an entire week—all day, every day—at the Met (with some side trips to the Museum of Modern Art.) This resulted in an on-going series of paintings, the first six of which are in my current show at Hespe.

Mimi Jensen, American Idol, 2010
Oil on canvas, 12″ x 12″

Mimi Jensen’s new work will be on exhibit at the Hespe Gallery, 251 Post Street, Suite 420, San Francisco, from September 1-October 2, 2010. The opening reception is from 5-7 pm, Saturday, the 11th of September.

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