Archive for the Painting Category

Color in Motion: Michele Sudduth at SFMOMA Artists Gallery

Posted in Artists Speak, Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , on June 4, 2014 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2014. All Rights Reserved

Editor’s Note: Michele Sudduth‘s exhibit of new large and smaller scale paintings opens this Saturday at SFMOMA’s Artists Gallery. Late last month Venetian Red previewed the work. Excerpts of our interview with the artist follow.

Michele Sudduth— Duo 2014 Acrylic on panel, 10 x 12" © Michele Sudduth

Michele Sudduth— Duo 2014
Acrylic on canvas, 44 x 36″
© Michele Sudduth

Venetian Red: Iʼm curious about the origin of this new work and how it evolved.

Michele Sudduth: It actually started about ten years ago with the painting Blue Shift, when I projected the image of a jigsaw puzzle piece over a striped painting and noticed the sense of movement that was created when I shifted the stripes against the puzzle image.

But what also fascinated me was the humanizing aspect of the puzzle image. Over the years I’ve played with that and, most recently, I extracted one single image out of a series of puzzle paintings and used that for this latest body of work. This new work is rather figurative, but it’s also rather techno too, somewhere between figurative and architectural, which I like.

Michele Sudduth— Blue Shift, 2004 Acrylic on canvas, 54 x 54" © Michele Sudduth

Michele Sudduth— Blue Shift, 2003
Acrylic on canvas, 54 x 54″
© Michele Sudduth

VR: Did particular ideas or themes emerge as this new work evolved?

MS: This work has evolved a lot. One of the themes Iʼve consistently experimented with is making artwork that is difficult to focus on, not because thatʼs interesting in itself, but because of the movement aspect of it. Additionally, we’re always because we are always being told to look at specific things in society and quite often they turn out to be the wrong things. Beyond that, our individual perspective changes all the time, or at least mine does, whether this is a parallax thing because of the angle of viewing or just because my mind changes, or I’m feeling differently or I have new information. So for a long time Iʼve questioned the validity of having a viewpoint at all. Iʼve certainly questioned it in terms of the artwork that I make; I don’t want to root the viewer to any one particular perspective. So Iʼve been thinking about this as a kaleidoscopic perspective, where we have bits and pieces of views that overlap and coincide and keep changing. Thatʼs what Mission Boogie is for me.

Michele Sudduth— Mission Boogie, 2014 Acrylic on canvas, 54 x 90" © Michele Sudduth

Michele Sudduth— Mission Boogie, 2014
Acrylic on canvas, 54 x 90″
© Michele Sudduth

VR: How does the notion of kaleidoscopic perspective play out in the current work?

MS: I think the kaleidoscopic perspective is there in the current work but itʼs taken me a long time to see it and to become comfortable with the imagery in the new paintings. Itʼs perhaps because three years ago, a group of us set out to purchase our studio building in the Mission District. In that very challenging process with all its visceral social interactions I found that I had to move beyond my attachment to who I thought I was. Ultimately we triumphed. But the process of accommodating all of our different perspectives, fears, and hopes not only changed me personally but might also have been the genesis of what feels like a more overtly social expression in my recent paintings.

The puzzle piece can certainly be read as a figurative element and thus hints at narrative but I prefer to think of it as symbolic rather than narrative. What I can now see as consistent with my earlier work is the rhythm, repetition and movement of a world in which different views co-exist, none more important than the other, and all changing in the next second.

Michele Sudduth— London Bus, 2014 Acrylic on canvas, 50 x 74" © Michele Sudduth

Michele Sudduth— London Bus, 2014
Acrylic on canvas, 50 x 74″
© Michele Sudduth

VR: It seems to me that color is a primary way your paintings reach out to their audience. What is the role of color in your work?

MS: Color is a real challenge for me and I work very hard at it and sometimes it flows but most of the time Iʼm sort of toughing it out, trying to figure out what’s going to work. I believe Brigit Riley once said that color is the most irrational aspect of painting and thatʼs certainly true for me.

VR: And yet the results look so intuitive, so effortless. It seems like you live easily in the world of color relationships.

MS: For me in terms of resolving a piece of work—even though I’m not sure I like the idea resolution—I always want it to have a lightness and a sense of inevitability. So I think that might be what youʼre thinking of when you say the color looks effortless. I want it to look that way. I want it to look like it just happened that way and thereʼs absolutely no other way it could possibly be. In terms of color, London Bus began much differently than it ended. I conceived of the figures on a strong yellow background but that ground evolved through yellow, various oranges and reds to the final red, which now feels to me as though it was always meant to be that way.

Michele Sudduth— Mod Fish, 2014 Acrylic on panel, 11 x 14 " © Michele Sudduth

Michele Sudduth— Mod Fish, 2014
Acrylic on panel, 11 x 14 “
© Michele Sudduth

VR: Can you say more about your painting process? I feel there is more to discuss about the notion you raised earlier of “toughing it out,” to get to what looks like a very natural place.

MS: Toughing it out actually doesnʼt describe it, because sometimes I just have to relax and be easy with it but other times I find I have to push very hard. It just depends on the painting. For example, these two little new paintings, both studies, have both been lifted out of existing paintings. The first one, Mod Fish, came very easily and quickly. I worked it out on the computer and got close to the colors I wanted, which is typically how I work. But I can never translate color directly from the digital image to paint, because paint is such a different medium—the way light strikes it is different and of course scale changes everything. But this painting came easily and the colors are quite similar to my original computer sketch.

Michele Sudduth— Head Study Two 2014 Acrylic on panel, 10 x 12" © Michele Sudduth

Michele Sudduth— Head Study Two 2014
Acrylic on panel, 10 x 12″
© Michele Sudduth

The second painting has been much more challenging. I extracted this image from London Bus, thinking I would experiment with a red-on-red painting, but I havenʼt been able to get it to work at this scale and on a hard panel. So, Iʼve been thinking about the relationship between composition and color. Even though I work out a composition on the computer and then project it onto the canvas and spend a lot of time refining it—smoothing the lines and making sure the intersections work—the final resolution is actually driven by color. With this painting I donʼt want to literally change the composition,  so Iʼve been experimenting with how to change it with color, changing the weight and relationships of various components through color. Iʼm always looking for color that surprises me.

VR: In general, the exuberance of the work is largely due I think to the kind of rhythmic movement and buoyant color schemes you employ. The paintings really sing.

MS: Yes, I am very much an optimist. I donʼt need to be shown problems; I want to make art that speaks to solutions. In the end, all I can do is make a truthful painting, truthful to what the painting tells me it needs.

 The Rabbit Hole

The Eye’s Mind: Bridget Riley – Collected Writings 1965-2009
Josef Albers Foundation
Interaction of Color: 50th Anniversary Edition
Jenifer Kobylarz

VR Bookshelf: Eric Fischl’s Bad Boy

Posted in Artists Speak, Book Review, Contemporary Art, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , on December 17, 2013 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2013. All Rights Reserved

Working toward that moment—what painters call the frozen moment—led me to a new way of narrative painting. Painting is about trying to get to that instant that is pregnant with some special kind of energy. Done right, there’s an exquisite tension in the painting that comes from a precise set of relationships—between forms on an abstract level and between people on an image level. Finding where to arrest the action, where to stop time, is where artistry lives. The most dramatic moments are the moments just before or just after something happens. The viewer entering the scene at those moments rushes to complete the narrative with his or her own associations and feelings.

—Eric Fischl, Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas

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I remember when Eric Fischl first burst on the New York art scene at Mary Boone’s gallery in the early 80s. It was shortly after Julian Schnabel debuted his gimmicky broken plate paintings, which demonstrated the kind of vice grip conceptual art and non-traditional materials had on the art world at the time. By the early 80s plenty of pundits had arrogantly proclaimed painting “dead.” As if!

True, abstract painters—Bryce Marden and Elizabeth Murray come to mind—steadfastly carried a dim torch through those dark years. If the body abstract painting was anemic, the corpse of narrative painting was buried in a tightly sealed crypt, its coffin nailed by pretty much every modern art movement since Impressionism.

In 1982, it was hard to tell whether Fischl’s was a refreshing jolt of energy to the increasingly abstruse art world or just recklessly inane.

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Eric Fischl—Bad Boy, 1981
Oil on cavas, 66″ by 96″
(courtesy Mary Boone Gallery)

You know how this story plays out. Fischl stuck with his vision. Reports of painting’s demise were greatly exaggerated. During the last two decades of the 20th century, painting resurfaced with a vengeance. Resuscitated by painters like Fischl, Odd Nerdrum, Jack Beal, Alfred Leslie and others, narrative painting has been awakened from its century-long sleep.

Both memoir and manifesto, Bad Boy is a riveting read.  We know the end of the story, but getting there is fun reading. Fischl knows his share of celebrities and luminaries and many of them have contributed their own memories of the artist to the book. Everyone loves a snipe or two and Fischl proves he is not beyond snarky remarks, though not enough of them to make the book a dreary gripe.  I suppose all memoirists must “Povich-ize.”

While the memoir bits were engaging, I devoured the passages in Bad Boy devoted to the painting process and Fischl’s artistic philosophy.

In particular, this passage describing the magic that is artistic “brilliance”:

To translate vision artist uses materials that are, for lack of a better word, alchemical. Paint, for example, has this wonderful, mysterious quality—a smell and a sensuous, velvety feel an inability to hold color and light long—that  unlocks and speeds up one’s creative metabolism. Paint captures my every impulse—from my broadest conceptions to the tiniest text and tremors of my wrist.

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Eric Fischl—The Bed, The Chair, the Sitter,1999
Oil on linen, 78 x 93″

Not every image comes to life. In fact, very few do. Often my resistance is too strong. I grip my brush too tightly. Or risk too much. But then there have been those moments when I’ve felt as if I’ve broken through. Like when I made the violent swipe of white primer in the “Bed” painting. Or realized that the action in sleepwalker was taking place at night. Or that the 11 year old in Bad Boy was stealing from the woman’s purse. These moments are not the result of genius for any kind of rational intelligence. They’re more like flashes of epiphany, a desperate surrender to voices from within, usually after I’ve exhausted every other option.

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Eric Fischl—Tumbling Woman, 2002 Bronze. 37 x 74 x 50"

Eric Fischl—Tumbling Woman, 2002
Bronze. 37 x 74 x 50″

And, if I had a dollar for every artist who claims what Fischl refutes here, well then…

…The notion that artists make art only for themselves I reject totally. It is kind of bullshit an artist tells himself when he is in his studio alone. Of course he wants to see himself in his own work, but that is not what he hopes will be the end result. He is looking for other people who will see their selves in his work. Artist create art because they are seeking resonance for their thoughts and feelings. They are seeking connection. Any artist who tells you otherwise also believes that and an astronaut goes to the moon only to satisfy his own curiosity…

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Eric Fischl, Corrida in Ronda #3, 2008 Oil on canvas, 78 x 120" © Eric Fischl
Eric Fischl, Corrida in Ronda #3, 2008
Oil on canvas, 78 x 120″
© Eric Fischl

Fischl occasionally ascends to macro heights in Bad Boy:

The further art got away from the tradition of telling and retelling our dreams, reinvigorating our understanding of what it means to be human, what it means to us to be alive, the more it relinquished its central primacy in the culture. As artists focused on their own uniqueness, either as an idealization or as an existential tragedy, the language of art became more and more arcane, more private, and now can no longer claim to serve society the way it once did. Art is cultural glue. It binds us to each other by revealing what it is we share, what we have in common on the most intimate levels of our being. But in order for art to work, an audience has to be able to see themselves represented in the artist’s creation…

And every once in a while to the stratospher. This passage sounds absurdly grandiose out of context, but trust me, it works:

To rehabilitate the importance of the body in art, we have to come to terms with sex and with death. We have to come to terms with mortality, with how the body ages, with how are relationship to our needs and our fantasies in our dreams changes, with how our body deteriorates. We have to figure out what it means to die.

The Rabbit Hole
Here’s The Thing: Alec Baldwin interviews Eric Fischl
Dive Deep: Eric Fischl and the Process of Painting;
Eric Fischl: 1970-2000

Continuous narrative works—Trajan’s Column; Bayeaux Tapestry
Paul Barolsky—“There is No Such Thing as Narrative Art”
James Elkins—“Time & Narrative”
An Illustrated Dictionary of Narrative Painting

Hyperallergic: Painting on the Cusp (Abstraction in the 1980s)

The Road Through Woldgate Woods: David Hockney at The deYoung

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Digital, Drawing, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , on October 26, 2013 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2013. All Rights Reserved

David Hockney—The Black Glacier 2002

David Hockney,The Black Glacier, 2002
Watercolor on 6 sheets of paper (18 x 24″ each)
36 x 72″ overall

Six Fairy Tales, David Hockney’s pictorial interpretation of The Brothers Grimm, was my introduction to the artist in the late 70s.  Rather than portray moments of narrative action, Hockney chose to focus on the characters and their environments.  While telegraphing Hockney’s signature (and enduring) interest in places, people and certain still-life subjects, these etchings quietly enrolled me into Hockney’s view of the world—equal parts familiar, banal, whimsical, amusing, beautiful, sweet, ugly, and, sometimes, just a bit deliciously sinister.

David Hockney, Larry Gagosian,

David Hockney, Larry Gagosian, 28-29 September, 2013
Acrylic on canvas, 48 x 36″

Relentless exuberance might be the best way to describe the Hockney on view in “A Bigger Exhibition,” the de Young’s current extravaganza. The show, aptly named on many levels, features 18,000 square feet of Hockney—some 398 works. Of that number 78 were completed in this year alone, a testament to the artist’s prodigious work habits.  The show displays quite a number of huge pieces, constructed, as are his videos, in grids of smaller canvases. Plein air landscapes of his beloved East Yorkshire countryside and portraits of his friends comprise the bulk of the exhibition, though it includes other pieces, including most interestingly The Great Wall.

David Hockney at the deYoung for press preview

The exhibition spans work completed in 1999 to portraits finished this month, though 2002 might be the most important milestone. This was the year Hockney returned to painting after a multi-year investigation of the use by Renaissance artists of the camera lucida, which culminated in the release of the fascinating and controversial Secret Knowledge.

David Hockney. A Bigger Matelot Kevin Druez 2, 2009

David Hockney. A Bigger Matelot Kevin Druez 2, 2009
Inkjet printed computer drawing on paper,
mounted on Dibond
63 7/8 x 42 7/8″

Hockney facilely creates in a variety of visual media, including iPad software and video. With the digital installation room the museum’s curators have accomplished a miraculous feat—people lingered, seeming to view works for longer than the all-too-common 30 second scan. (Although on a recent visit there was still a lot of shutter snapping. Hello, would you please put your iPhone away and just really look for a moment?)

David Hockney, Karen Wright2002 watercolor on paper 24 x 18 1/8"

David Hockney, Karen Wright, 2002
Watercolor on paper
24 x 18 1/8″

Color is Hockney’s seductive Siren, and she is both an asset and a liability. Taken as individual compositions, the bright saturated colors delight. Hockney Woods is a cheery place full of daringly-deployed “tube” greens mixed to a wide range of tints and shades.   Hockney uses the complementary antidote, magenta, in just the right amount to soothe those highly-agitated greens.  This palette does not replicate the lush Yorkshire countryside so much as symbolize it.  You won’t probably recognize this as England. With a color subconscious permanently colonized by Los Angeles,  the road to Woldgate Woods runs through Santa Monica.

En mass Hockney’s saturated colors have a different effect. A room of huge paintings have the power to overwhelm. I quit one gallery with a brain stimulated into nervous excitation.

David Hockney, Woldgate, 6-7 February, from 'The Arrival of Spring in 2013 Charcoal on paper, 22 5/8 x 30 1/4"

David Hockney, Woldgate, 6-7 February, from ‘The Arrival of
Spring in 2013′

Charcoal on paper, 22 5/8 x 30 1/4″

Good thing then that “A Bigger Exhibition” contains crannies of calming black and white drawings. These oases also serve to demonstrate the fundamental role drawing has always had in Hockney’s art.  “Drawing is an ancient thing,” he wryly observed at Wednesday’s press preview. “So why were they saying we’ll give it up? After 30,000 years, why would we do that?”

I will be back to study more carefully all the landscape drawings and his 2000 portraits of National Gallery guards. (These among the very few portraits Hockney produced of people he didn’t know; just like his inspiration Ingres, Hockney invited them to tea first to get to know them.)

David Hockney, Winter Tunnel with Snow, March 2006
Oil on canvas. 36 x 48″

Beyond color, what is striking about the work on display is Hockney’s attention to mark making and decorative pattern. The spirit of Rousseau is unavoidably invoked in some of the more densely foliated landscapes.  In certain instances of mark making Hockney may even have out-Van Goghed van Gogh.

David Hockney, May Blossom on the Roman Road, 2009 Oil on 8 canvases, each 36 x 48"

David Hockney, May Blossom on the Roman Road, 2009
Oil on 8 canvases, each 36 x 48″

One viewing of “A Bigger Exhibition” was barely sufficient to get a lay of the land, nevermind formulate a concrete sense of all the things this vast amount of work says about the artist.  I will be back to the de Young in the coming weeks. Nevertheless,  I can’t help but wonder whether this show would have been aided by some judicious editing to create a tighter view of the artist.   We’ll soon know whether “A Bigger Exhibition” makes new Hockney fans or looses all but the most stalwart of existing fans.

David Hockney, Lucien Freud. 1999 Pencil on grey paper using Camera Lucida, 22 1/4 x 15"

David Hockney, Lucien Freud. 1999
Pencil on grey paper using camera lucida,
22 1/4 x 15″

The Rabbit Hole

David Hockney
Intelligent Life—“Brushes With Hockney”
Video: Hockney sketchbooks
Hockney’s multi-camera landscape video

Lucien Freud, David Hockney, 2002
Oil on canvas, 16 x 12 1/4″

From the VR Archives: Lay of the Land

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, People & Places, Photography, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 27, 2013 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2013. All Rights Reserved

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David Milne, Black and White Trees and Buildings, 1915/6
Oil on canvas, 51.5 x 61.5 cm
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

Reading landscape painter Ian Robert’s Creative Authenticity  reminded me of our post on David Milne, little known I fear outside Canada. Northern Exposure: The Landscapes of David Milne.

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Patrick Dougherty, Upper Crust

Patrick Dougherty, Upper Crust, 2009,
Willow branches,
Joseph L. Alioto Performing Arts Piazza, San Francisco

That led me to VR coverage of Patrick Dougherty’s Upper Crust,  fanciful organic site structures, staged in the Civic Center’s Aliota Piazza: Patrick Dougherty in San Francisco.

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Platon, Silvio Berlusconi

Platon, Silvio Berlusconi, 2009
Photograph

And finally to the political landscape and Platon’s photographic portraits of world leaders: Eye of the Beholder: Platon’s Portraits of Power.”

Venetian Red Bookshelf: Unpublished Diebenkorn

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Book Review, Contemporary Art, Drawing, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , on July 30, 2013 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2013. All Rights Reserved

Editor’s Note: See our companion piece,“Rambling Through Diebenkorn Country”

There is nothing I cannot paint over. —Richard Diebenkorn (from Temperaments: Artists Facing Their Work)

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Richard Diebenkorn,Untitled #23,1981 Gouache and crayon on paper © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Richard Diebenkorn,Untitled #23,1981
Gouache and crayon on paper
© The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

For many reasons works on paper can offer a more intimate viewing experience than their cousins on canvas. This is partially due to the fugitive nature of drawing materials—handmade papers, graphite, charcoal, gouache—which often keep works on paper in storage. When they are displayed, their relatively smaller sizes and their display under glass, compel the viewer to lean in to works on paper, thereby creating an exclusive relationship that shuts out the distractions of the world beyond. Further, an artist often works out his or her ideas on paper before moving to more expensive canvas. Many works on paper were never meant by the artist be seen publicly. But when they do see the light of day, collections of this kind of work can provide an exhilarating peek behind the curtain of the creative process.

Such was the case for me at the current retrospective of Diebenkorn’s Berkeley years at the de Young.

Now I have even more reasons to be cheerful, where Diebenkorn’s process is concerned. A writer friend recently sent me two exquisite visual monographs on the painter—Abstractions on Paper and From the Model. newly published by Kelly’s Cover Press. to accompany the exhibit “The Intimate Diebenkorn: Works on Paper, 1949-1992,” which opens in September at the College of Marin Fine Arts Gallery.

What’s immediately notable about these volumes is they contain largely unpublished work, “unknown” Diebenkorns, all works on paper.

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Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled, 1957 Gouache on paper © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled, 1957
Gouache on paper
© The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

The format of these volumes is a refreshingly departure from the expected catalog of artistic work. At 6 x 8″ and around 125 pages, each of these volumes can be held in the hand, put into a pocket for easy transport, pulled out to consult. Like the works on paper they reproduce these books offer an intimate and spontaneous experience.

The production value of these volumes is indistinguishable from a first-rate catalog, i.e. ample page-sized reproductions with great detail, good color veracity, coated paper stock. What a pleasure it is to have something such a beautiful book in your hand (and not anchored on a bookshelf or table)!

Kelly’s Cove Press has broken with another time-honored art publication tradition. Other than a few quotes from Diebenkorn and a biography, these volumes contain no commentary. We are free to form our own interpretations of the work, unencumbered by the flights of grandiose and sometimes tedious rhetoric that often accompany exhibit catalogs.

The volumes were conceived by editor Bart Schneider with the help of Bay Area painter Chester Arnold. I had occasion recently to discuss the project with Schneider.

VR: How did this project originate?

I’ve long been a Diebenkorn fan and in the 90s, I chose one of his paintings Large Still Life, 1966, which is featured prominently in the De Young show, for the cover of a magazine I then edited, Hungry Mind Review.

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Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled, 1956 Gouache and ink on paper mounted on cardboard © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled, 1956
Gouache and ink on paper mounted on cardboard
© The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

I happily blundered onto the treasures held by the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation, when I approached them last year about using some of his figure drawings for a book we published last fall, Poses, by Genine Lentine. When I learned that roughly 4,000 of the 5,000 known works by RD were on paper, I approached the foundation about doing a book of his works on paper in advance of the show at the De Young. Once I saw the vastness and glory of the Foundation’s collection, I realized it needed to be two books.

Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled, 1962 Graphite on paper © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled, 1962
Graphite on paper
© The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

VR: Why this particular format?

My goal is to make a more casual style art book, with which viewers can have a more intimate experience of the artist’s work. That means small books you hold easily in your hands, or take to bed with you. Also, I like the idea of having very little text to mediate the direct experience between artist and viewer. And if you can make the books so they only cost $20, you have a chance of getting them into a lot of people’s hands. I’d like people who pick up these volumes to have the experience of walking into a gallery and discovering work they didn’t know.

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Richard Diebenkorn,  Untitled, c. 1988-92 Charcoal on handmade "Hawthorne of Larroque" paper © The RIchard Diebenkorn Foundation

Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled, c. 1988-92
Charcoal on handmade “Hawthorne of Larroque” paper
© The RIchard Diebenkorn Foundation

VR: What’s next from Kelly’s Cove Press?

I enjoy exploring the interplay between literature and art. Those kinds of collaborations are surprisingly rare in publishing. At present, I’m working with Squeak Carnwath on a book that should come out in the fall, Horizon on Fire: Works on Paper, 1979-2013. I’m also working on a Jack London book with William Wiley, for which Wiley’s done 19 original drawings and watercolors.

At $20 a piece, it would be a shame not to own these lovely volumes.

The Rabbit Hole

Squeek Carnath on the creative process

Tate Debate: Do you need to know an artist’s process when looking at art?

Smithsonian magazine—Q&A with William Wiley

Brewster Ghiselin—The Creative Process: Reflections on the Invention in the Arts and Sciences

Rambling Through Diebenkorn Country

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Drawing, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , on July 24, 2013 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2013. All Rights Reserved

Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position. —Richard Diebenkorn, from “Notes to myself on beginning a painting”

Richard Diebenkorn, Bekeley #57, 1955 Oil on canvas Courtesy SFMOMA

Richard Diebenkorn, Berkeley #57, 1955
Oil on canvas
Courtesy SFMOMA

An acquaintance of mine used to stage an annual Christmas dinner, which was followed by a raucous gift exchange game.  Guests were required to bring a wrapped gift, anything with a price tag under $10 (less inflationary times). Numbers were picked from a hat and lucky Guest #1 kicked off the game by selecting a package from the pile. Guest #2 could steal #1’s gift or pick a new one. Guest #3 could steal either of the previously opened gifts or choose a new one. Etcetera, until all gifts were opened and spoken for. Invariably someone would unwrap a package to find a really awful gag gift, at which point the crowd would gleefully crow “YOU’LL BE TAKING THAT HOME!”

Richard Diebenkorn, "Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad," 1965 Oil on canvas © 2013 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Richard Diebenkorn, Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad, 1965
Oil on canvas
© 2013 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

I often play this game while wandering through art exhibits.  Or, rather, a version of the game in which I am the only player (stealing from myself as I proceed through the exhibit), who actually DOES want to take that gift home. Such was the case recently as I toured the Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years 1953-1956 (at the de Young Museum until September 29th).

Richard Diebenkorn, Seated Woman No. 44, 1966 Watercolor, charcoal, gouache and crayon Courtesy Fine Arts Study Collection, University at Albany, State University of New York

Richard Diebenkorn, Seated Woman No. 44, 1966
Watercolor, charcoal, gouache and crayon
Courtesy Fine Arts Study Collection, University at Albany, State University of New York

“The Berkeley Years” offered many possibilities for my imaginary wall. I admit, the breadth of what was on offer—landscape, figurative, still life, canvas, paper—forced me to cheat a bit. I broke the rules to select multiple gifts.

To me, there is no painter who more evocatively captures the essence of the California landscape. Through a palette that embraces both intensity and subtlety—bright greens and oranges, warm pinks, yellow ochers, cool muted blues, purples, turquoises, and greys—Diebenkorn creates landscapes that evoke the polarity of the Bay Area environment—the intensity of the California sun and that particular quality of our fog, which shrouds but doesn’t always conceal. Pretty much every landscape/abstraction was a candidate for my wall.

Richard Diebenkorn, Figure on a Porch, 1959 Oil on canvas © 2013 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation.

Richard Diebenkorn, Figure on a Porch, 1959
Oil on canvas
(Oakland Museum of Art)
© 2013 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation.

The figurative work did not resonate as strongly. The second time through the exhibit another artist accompanied me. We both agreed that, for a variety of reasons, many of the figure sketches were downright awkward and, had they been our own pieces, they might have ended up in the trash bin. Still, I appreciated seeing the missteps intermingled with the  successes. Diebenkorn was not afraid to try different subjects and styles. Courage, mistakes can be made.

That doesn’t mean that there weren’t some exquisitely elegant figural statements on the walls. I understand the complaint that some critics have about Diebenkorn forcing figures into landscapes; indeed, the more successful works for me focused on either the figure or landscape, and, in the case of the former, my favorites were the intimate works, made with gouache (and and other drawing materials) on paper.

Still, we don’t often get to peek behind the curtain that cloaks the artistic process. “The Berkeley Years” offers an incredible opportunity to observe Diebenkorn’s relentless experimentation with underlying structure, form, line, subjects. The development of his stylistic vocabulary unfolds before us. I found this truly the most exciting aspect of the show.

Richard Diebenkorn, The Drinker, 1957 Gouache over graphite Courtesy Yale University Art Gallery

Richard Diebenkorn, The Drinker, 1957
Gouache over graphite
Courtesy Yale University Art Gallery

Which works will I be taking home? Top of the list: Berkeley #57. Its “plate techtonic” structure creates a forceful metaphor of the fault line. Also, Seated Woman, No. 44, for the curve of her calf (even though I’m sure the tibia is in the wrong place) and the simple treatment of the pattern on her dress. (Note to self: simplify patterns!) Figure on a Porch—I’m not bothered by the appearance of a figure, who for me becomes another abstract structural element. And finally, this gem:

Richard Diebenkorn, Berkeley #33 , 1954 Oil on paper © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Richard Diebenkorn, Berkeley #33 , 1954
Oil on paper
© The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Get up close to this study to see the multitude of sensational ways that Diebenkorn uses the paint to create form and substance. See what happens underneath and in between the shapes.

One last ramble: Diebenkorn’s “Notes to myself on beginning a painting”— a good manifesto to live by or a reminder to compile your own list. (Spelling and capitalization his.)

      1. attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.
      2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued — except as a stimulus for further moves.
      3. Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for.
      4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.
      5. Don’t “discover” a subject — of any kind.
      6. Somehow don’t be bored — but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.
      7. Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position.
      8. Keep thinking about Polyanna.
      9. Tolerate chaos.
      10. Be careful only in a perverse way.

Richard Diebenkorn, Interior with Doorway, 1962 (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts) © 2013 Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Richard Diebenkorn, Interior with Doorway, 1962
Oil on canvas
(Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts)
© 2013 Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Down The Rabbit Hole

Kelly’s Cove Press

The Richard Diebenkorn Catalog Raisonné

SF Arts Quarterly—“The Diebenkorn is in the Details”

CatalogRichard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966 (Fine Arts

Museums of San Francisco)“The Unknown Diebenkorn”—L.A. Times

Grace Glück—“A Painter Unafraid to Change Styles”

More California landscape—Early California Art (blog)

Paintings Of California

A fantastic plein air pastellist—Bill Cone

Hope and Despair (and Géricault) in 2012

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Pop Culture Miscellany with tags , , , , on January 9, 2012 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2012. All Rights Reserved.

Jean-Louis André Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1819
Oil on canvas, approximately  16 x 23.5 feet
(Louvre, Paris)

Over most of my adult life, I have habitually devoted sizable chunks of time at year’s end compiling a well-reasoned list of New Year’s resolutions. The best intentions were poured into these annual exercises.  Not surprisingly, however, very little ever came of my earnestly-wrought declarations. Invariably, by mid-to-late January I had put most resolutions quietly aside. In February, the lists themselves had become loathsome to me, glaring signposts on the pathway to personal defeat.

This year I finally resisted the urge to make a list.  Perhaps not so coincidentally, on New Year’s Eve, in a last ditch effort at helpful guidance, a friend suggested he read the Tarot for me.  Three cards pulled from his Buddhist-inspired deck provided an elegant composite answer to my burning question: “What should I focus on this year?” In order, they were:

Patience
Alertness (Technically, the card is “Laziness” but, ever the optimist, I prefer a more positive meaning. . .)
Inner Voice

We flail about during our blip of a physical lifetime.  Julian Barnes forcefully captured the emotions that shape our existence in his fictional treatment of Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (from  A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters)

All that straining—to what end? There is no formal response to the painting’s main surge, just as there is no response to most human feelings. Not merely hope, but any burdensome yearning: ambition, hatred, love (especially love)—how rarely do our emotions meet the object they seem to deserve? How hopelessly we signal; how dark the sky; how big the waves. We are all lost at sea, washed between hope and despair, hailing something that may never come to rescue us.

In point of fact, M. Géricault, the real Medusa castaways were, at long last, rescued.  Fittingly, my Tarot reading suggests hope in the face of existential despair. Snippets include:

We have forgotten how to wait; it is almost an abandoned space. And it is our greatest treasure to be able to wait for the right moment. This card reminds us that now is a time when all that is required is to be simply alert, patient, waiting. . . The poolside resort is not your final destination. The journey isn’t over yet. Your complacency might have arisen from a real sense of achievement, but now it’s time to move on. No matter how fuzzy the slippers, how tasty the piña colada, there are skies upon skies still waiting to be explored. . . There are times in our lives when too many voices seem to be pulling us this way and that. Our very confusion in such situations is a reminder to seek silence and centering within. Only then are we able to hear our truth.

My takeaway for 2012: The seas of life may toss me, but all there is to do is wait patiently, on alert, for the arrival of my next Argus. My life raft is beneath me.

Wider Connections

“Art & Perception”—The Raft of the Medusa
Adad Hannah’s Raft of the Medusa tableau vivant
Osho Zen Tarot CarddeckOsho Zen Tarot: The Transcendental Game Of Zen

Life? or Theater? at the CJM/SF

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2011 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Above average.

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper
(Courtesy Contemporary Jewish Museum)

From 1940 to 1942, while hiding in the South of France from the worsening situation in Nazi Germany, Charlotte Salomon devoted herself wholeheartedly and relentlessly to the realization of a fictionalized autobiography, Life? or Theater?: A Play With Music.  The resulting opus—769 of gouache paintings with text and musical references (edited from the over 1,300 pages she completed) —is a triumph of mixed-media storytelling, a richly thematic and profusely imaginative narrative.

The marriage of Franziska and Albert, Charlotte*s parents, imagined to the tune "We twine for thee the maidens wreath" (from von Webers "Der Freischütz")

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper
(Courtesy Contemporary Jewish Museum)

The 300 pages currently on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (through July 31) encapsulate the essence of the work well enough; I wish there had been some of the pages from Salomon’s art school days. They evoke a happy sense of belonging that was missing for me in most of the rest of the work. Viewers hungry for more may want to consult Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre?, which catalogs the entire oeuvre.


Charlotte: Why doesn*t she come, my Mummy—she promised.

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper
(Courtesy Contemporary Jewish Museum)

Life? or Theater? traces the arc of a fictional Charlotte’s (Kann) life from infancy to young adulthood. On the simplest level the narrative is about the close relationships of her life, though it actually begins before the fictional Charlotte’s birth with the courtship and subsequent marriage of her parents.  Like her creator, Kann lives in Berlin between the wars. She is the only child in a prosperous middle-class German-Jewish family. The people who intersected Salomon’s real life are given similar aliases here—Papa and Mama Kann (like Salomon’s mother, Mrs. Kann commits suicide while Charlotte is a young child); stepmother, Paulinka Bimbam (Paula Salomon-Lindberg); grandparents Knarres (Grunwalds); and perhaps most importantly Paulinka’s voice coach Albert Daberlohn (Albert Wolfsohn) with whom Kann/Salomon becomes utterly infatuated.


I*ve no one left now. Fate, fate, how harsh you are. And. . .

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper.
(Courtesy Contemporary Jewish Museum)

I’ve no one left now. Fate, fate, how harsh you are. And. .

Throughout Life? or Theater? the tension is palpable—between Charlotte and her family, between her and Daberlohn (it’s not clear whether her infatuation was ever more), between the Jewish struggle for acceptance through assimilation and impending destruction.  On a deeper level Life? or Theater? operates as subtle commentary on the range of culture available to middle class German-Jews in Berlin between the wars. Trips to Venice and Rome, recitals and concerts, schooling in art, literature and philosophy are all referenced in Life? or Theater? with imagination, poignancy and sometimes even sarcasm.

The German Jews, of whom each one is so preoccupied with himself that at a dinner party a silent observer feels as if he were in a goose pen. Albert—"First of all I*m sending away my daughter." Woman to his right—"And were going to Australia!" Man to her right—"And what will you do?" Sculptor—And I*ll go to the United States and become the greatest sculptor in the world." Paulinka—"We*ll be staying here for the time being." Mr. Blähn—"And I*ll go to the United States and there Ill become the greatest singer in the world." Daberlohn*s fiancée—"And were going to American, aren*t we Mucki. . ." Maid—"Take this piece, Professor, it*s the best one."

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper
(Courtesy Contemporary Jewish Museum)

In the main section Life? or Theater? is punctuated with references to the growing persecution of Jews. While sometimes direct, they are just as often oblique, such as the series of paintings depicting Charlotte leaving Berlin for France. Salomon was apparently a quiet and timid girl; the paintings are commentary, not the biting satire of Georg Grosz.

Der Stürmer, organ of popular enlightenment. The Jew has made only money from your blood. The Jewish bosses financed the World War. The Jew has deceived and betrayed you, so— German men and women. Take your revenge!!! Once Jewish blood spurts from the knife, you*ll have by far a better life. Hunt the swine until he sweats and smash his windowpanes to bits. April 1, 1933—Boycott the Jews! Whoever buys from any Jew, himself a filthy swine is too.

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper.
(Courtesy Reading Charlotte Salomon)


Amadeus Daberlohn, prophet of song, enters to the tune of the Toreador*s Song from Carmen.

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper.
(Courtesy Reading Charlotte Salomon)

True to her rich cultural upbringing Salomon was said to have an endless repertory of musical references in her head, and was observed singing while she worked.  No doubt this is why conceived of music as an integral part of the experience of Life? or Theater? to recall musical bits.  In the Prologue,  Salomon describes the role of music in her work:

The creation of the following paintings is to be imagined as follows: A person is sitting beside the sea. She is painting. A tune suddenly enters her mind. As she starts to hum it, she notices that the tune exactly matches what she is trying to commit to paper. A text forms in her head, and she starts to sing the tune, with her own words, over and over again in a loud voice until the painting seems complete. . . The author has tried—as is apparent perhaps most clearly in the Main Section—to go completely out of herself and to allow the characters to sing or speak in their own voices. In order to achieve this, many artistic values had to be renounced, but I hope that, in view of the soul-penetrating nature of the work, this will be forgiven.

While his face is being worked on, the following is taking place in his mind. The vision dominating his senses blends color and music: out of a confusion of swirling lines a theatrical mask of Paulinka takes shape.

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper.
(Courtesy Reading Charlotte Salomon)

At first go around, one might be tempted to judge Salomon a naive painter. She did have formal training in art, however, through enrollment in both arts high school and college.   Possibly she rejected more academic styles for this intimate work. Though very little of Salomon’s other work survives to compare, on the Life? or Theater? pages one clearly sees sophisticated influences—of the Expressionists, post-Impressionists, Fauves—and stylistic similarities (to Chagall in particular, as well as references to Michelangelo and Giotto.

And again, when I saw these two pictures, I was reminded of the essay by that other young girl. She makes it very clear: when she is happy and begins to paint, bright colors and red and yellow dots flow from her brush, and when her mood is dark her colors turn dusky gray. And it should of course be noted that this applies regardless of the subject the artist has in mind. When, as in these two pictures, the spiritual mood at the moment of creation happens to coincide wit the despair-filled theme "Death and the Maiden," the result, together with the optimistic "Meadow with the Yellow Flowers," is—on a very minor scale of course—true art. . . My discovery of the similarity between what young girls produce and what certain geniuses produce is completely justified. Like young girls. . .

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper
(Courtesy Contemporary Jewish Museum)

Amazingly, Salomon used just the three primary colors and white for her paintings. The blue of depression, the yellow of joy, the red of passion were her pictorial language. The 769 compositions are amazingly varied—scenes move freely between achingly intimate tête-à-têtes, sequential scenes bound together on a single page, boisterous group gatherings, “talking head” monologues and crowd activities.

For a long time I was covered by the earth. And I woke up among the corpses. And when I then miraculously came home again, I had partially lost my memory.

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper.
(Courtesy Reading Charlotte Salomon)


High on a cliff grow pepper trees—softly the wind stirs the small silvery leaves. Far below, foam eddies and melts in the infinite span of the sea. Foam, dreams—my dreams on a blue surface...

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper.
(Courtesy Reading Charlotte Salomon)

Beyond the thematic complexity, the inventive compositions and fetching use of color the most intriguing aspect of Life? or Theater? is the message embodied by the work itself.   Four-months pregnant, Salomon was murdered, almost certainly upon her arrival, at Auschwitz in 1943.  Thus, Life? or Theater? exists as a most poignant reminder that art is tangible evidence of a life lived. Art  affirms life.

The circumstances of Life? or Theater? suggest another, equally significant, nuance—the power of art to affirm life as it is being lived. Salomon conceived Life? or Theater? in the throes of deep despair. Having learned of the dark secret of her family—the suicides of many of her female relatives—Charlotte felt a mounting pressure to do the same. This project saved her. As she recounts in the Epilogue: “And with dream-awakened eyes she saw all the beauty around her, saw the sea, felt the sun, and knew: she had to vanish for a while from the human plane and make every sacrifice in order to create her world anew out of the depths.”  Perhaps then it should be no mystery why Charlotte Salomon named her fictional protagonist “Kann,” the first-person conjugate of the German verb können. I can, affirmation of being alive.

Charlotte Salomon gave herself to this work with the ferocity of someone fighting for her life.

. . . there awoke in a suffering yet somewhat aloof creature a sense of helplessness of all those who try to grasp at straws in the most violent thunderstorms. Despite her utter weakness, however, she refused to be drawn into the circle of the straw-graspers. . . and remained alone with her experiences and her paint brush. Yet, in the long run, to live day and night like this became intolerable even to a creature thus predisposed. And she found herself facing the question of whether to commit suicide or to undertake something wildly eccentric.Thus in the presence of the scorching sun, purple sea, and luxuriant blossoms, the memory of an experience of her fervid early love came back to her. And she tried to visualize that face, that figure. . . For she discovered that her figure might possibly preserve her from suicide inasmuch as she remembered one of Amadeus*s favorite utterances: Love, know thyself first in order to love thy neighbor. And then: one has to go into oneself—into one*s childhood—to be able to get out of oneself. . . then she did not have to kill herself like her ancestors, for according to his method one can be resurrected in fact, in order to love life still more, one should once have died. . . And with dream-awakened eyes she saw all the beauty around her, saw the sea, felt the sun, and knew: she had to vanish for a while from the human plane and make every sacrifice in order to create her world anew out of the depths. And from that came: Life? or Theater?

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper.
(Courtesy Reading Charlotte Salomon)

Charlotte and her father Albert Salomon, ca. 1927-28

Wider Connections

The complete Life? or Theater? opus—Reading Charlotte Salomon

Michael Kimmelman— The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa. Among the 10 essays in this book “The Art of Maximizing Your Time” offers a  most beautiful mediation on the redemptive power of art, as evidenced through the work of Salomon, Eva Hesse and Jay deFeo.

Venetian Red“A Different Canvas: Raoul Dufy”

Venetian Red Bookshelf: Headlong

Posted in Book Review, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 13, 2011 by Liz Hager

Venetian Red Bookshelf is a monthly feature, which highlights books of interest from our bookshelves and studio worktables.

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2013. All Rights Reserved

There are some paintings in the history of art that break free, just as some human beings do, from the confines of the particular little world into which they were born. They leave home—they escape from the tradition in which they were formed, and which seem at first to give them significance. They step out of their own time and place, and find some kind of universal and enduring fame. They become part of the common currency of names and images and stories that a whole culture takes for granted.   —Michael Frayn, Headlong, p. 53

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Harvesters, 1565
Oil on wood, 45 7/8 x 62 7/8 inches
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Who says art history has to be boring?

I recently reread Michael Frayn’s contribution to the artwork in fiction genre, Headlong (1999), curious to revisit what I had remembered as a thoroughly engaging tale of the easily distracted and ethically challenged philosopher, who convinces himself that he has discovered a “lost” Bruegel.  I’m happy to report that the novel is every bit as fun the second time around.

Headlong pits the distinctly unheroic Martin Clay against his aristocratic neighbor. Residing temporarily in the country to work on a long-delayed book, Clay and his wife are invited to dine with Tony Churt, the penurious squire next door. In the process of opining on a few of Churt’s Baroque paintings, Clay views a grimy canvas stored behind the breakfast room firescreen of the tattered estate.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Haymaking, 1565
Oil on wood, 28 x 39 inches
(National Gallery, Prague)

It’s a thrilling moment. Readers familiar with Bruegel especially will appreciate Clay’s description—

The high air is still cold, but as you move down into the valley the chill dies away. The colors change, from cool brilliant greens to deeper and deeper blues. The season seems to shift in front of you from April into May as you travel south into the eye of the sun. Among the trees just below me is a group of clumsy figures, some of them breaking branches of white blossom from the trees, some caught awkwardly in the middle of a heavy clumping dance. A bagpiper sits on a stump; you can almost hear the harsh pentatonic drone. People are dancing because it’s spring again and they’re alive to see it.  (Headlong p.39)

Though an admitted hack when it comes to art history, Clay nonetheless pompously declares (to himself and to us, though not to the picture’s owner): “I recognize it instantly.” In the next second, he qualifies: “I say I recognize it. I’ve never seen it before. I’ve never seen even a description of it. No description of it, so far as I know, has ever been given. No one knows for sure who, if anyone apart from the artist himself, has ever seen it.” (Headlong p.40)

One minute Clay acknowledges that he is “way out of his period with this one” and in the next he manages (in flowery abandon) to persuade himself of the painting’s authenticity:  “Already, even as I look at it in those first few instants, what I’m contemplating is not the picture but my accumulated recollection of it. . . All the same I know. It’s a friend, No, it’s the long-lost brother of a friend. A long-mourned child walking back into our lives the way the dead do in our dreams.” (Headlong p.40)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Return of the Herd, 1565
Oil on wood, 26 in × 62½ in
(Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Delusions of grandeur sweep over Clay. He imagines himself as the cultural commando who will rescue this public treasure from private obscurity. Fame and fortune are not far behind in his thoughts.

I feel a flash of pure savagery. I’m going to have his property off him. He can’t make good his claim to it. It’s written in a language he can’t read, because the only language he can read in his necessity is money. If he knew what it was, he’d hold the world to ransom. And if the ransom wasn’t forthcoming, he’d sell it to any money that presented itself—to a Swiss bank, an American investment trust, a Japanese gangster. It would vanish even deeper into the darkness, even further from the light of common day. . .

. . . So I’m going to have it off him. I’m not going to do it by deceit. I’m not going to stoop to the kind of methods he might use himself. I’m going to do it by boldness and skill, in full accordance with the rules of war. —Headlong, p. 44-45

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Gloomy Day, 1565
Oil on wood, 46½ in × 64⅛ inches
(Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

With the stage thus set, the remaining 290-odd pages present a pyrotechnic extravaganza of storytelling. The elaborate scheme Clay conceives unfolds.  Though a reader will realize early on (spoiler alert!) that this scheme can only end in failure, he or she will be gripped by the twists and turns of the plot until the denouement.

Success of Clay’s scheme depends on authentication of the painting. Equal in skill to the plot manouevering is the deftness with which Clay/Frayn, though painstaking research, fashions a highly readable and engaging tour through the critical canon on Bruegel’s life and works (and politics), 16th-century Nederlandish art, and the Spanish subjugation of their Dutch and Flemish lands.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Hunters in the Snow (Return of the Hunters), 1565
Oil on wood,
(Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Turns out, the canvas of Headlong is based on a real painting, one missing from Bruegel’s only surviving cycle of paintings, commonly known as The Seasons. The six paintings of the cycle were completed in 1565 for a wealthy Antwerp merchant,  Niclaes Jongelinck.  By 1659, the set had been broken up and one was already missing. Five in the set survive —e.g. Gloomy Day, Return of the Herd, Hunters in the Snow, Haymaking, and The Harvesters.

The novel closes with an astute observation that could well apply to scores of other works of art:

And what happened to the pictures themselves, those six historyless panels painted as the torrents of history swept around the studio door in 1565? They were swept headlong into the current like everything else, and tumbled into the world’s changing politics. —Headlong p. 305

The Rabbit Hole

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Wine of St. Martin’s Day, ca. 1565
Glue-sized tempera on linen, 148 x 270.5 cm
(Museo Nacional del Prado)

Simultaneously with my plunge into Frayn’s fictitious world The New York Times published “When Overlooked Art Turns Celebrity,” Michael Kimmelman’s musings on the very real The Wine of St. Martin’s Day, the new-attributed Bruegel rescued last Fall by the Prado from the “proverbial dark corner” of an ancient family’s collection in Córdoba.

Ian Buchanan—“The Collection of Niclaes Jongelinck: The Months by Pieter Bruegel”

W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” (“About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters. . .”)

A short list of art and artists in fiction: Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth; Irving Stone’s Lust for Life and  The Agony and the Ecstasy; Tracy Chavalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring; and (gasp) Dan Stone’s The Da Vinci Code.

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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