Archive for the Artists Speak 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

Black plug

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.

Black plug

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.

Black plug

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.

Black plug

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…

Black plug

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)

Venetian Red Bookshelf: Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

Posted in Artists Speak, Book Review, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Music & Dance with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 18, 2013 by Liz Hager

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

Recollect that only when habits of order are formed can we advance to really interesting fields of action—and consequently accumulate grain on grain of wilful choice like a very miser—never forgetting how one link dropped undoes indefinite number.   —William James

I wish I had a routine for writing. I get up in the morning and I go out to my studio and write. And then I tear it up! That’s the routine really. And then, occasionally, something sticks. The only image I can think of is a man walking around with an iron rod in his hand during a lightning storm.   —Arthur Miller

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0307273601?ie=UTF8&camp=213733&creative=393185&creativeASIN=0307273601&linkCode=shr&tag=venered-20&=books&qid=1371354568&sr=1-1&keywords=daily+rituals

Always struggling to create working discipline in my creative life, I snatched up Mason Curry’s Daily Rituals, hoping to glean a few actionable tidbits this compilation of anecdotes on the working habits of 161 writers, musicians and artists, from Voltaire to Abramović.  Culled from Curry’s blog of the name, the book is a fast and entertaining read.  Though I wasn’t struck by proverbial lightening bolts while reading, after digesting the book I did formulate one hugely-important overriding maxim for myself.  More about that below.

A disclaimer in the book’s introduction sets a modest stage:

“…this is a superficial book… it’s about the circumstances of creative activity, not the product; it deals with manufacturing rather than meaning.”

I suspect the book has been wildly popular precisely because it looks behind the curtain, so to speak, of the creative process.  Not exactly a “how to” book, Daily Rituals is nevertheless instructive.  In the introduction Curry purports to address (if not answer) the big hairy questions we all ponder:

How do you do meaningful creative work while also earning a living?

Is it better to devote yourself wholly to a project or to set aside a small portion of each day?

When there doesn’t seem to be enough time for all you hope to accomplish, must you give some things up or can you learn to condense activities, to work “smarter”?

Are comfort and creativity incompatible? Or is finding a basic level of daily comfort a prerequisite for sustained creative work?

yousuf-karsh-vladimir-nabokov-1899-1977-3-november-1972

Vladimir Nabokov
©Yousuf Karsh

The book is not organized around these questions (in fact, an organizing principle was not obvious to me), and leaves the reader to his or her own conclusions. Helpful patterns do emerge, however:

Wake Up.  Creatives rise around the clock.  At one end, rose Proust typically did not get up until 3 or 4 in the afternoon; on the other end,
Balzac rose at 1am.

Work Routine. This category too yielded no regularity.  As a visual artist, I was astonished (jealous?) to discover how few hours most of the writers purport to work day, usually just a few hours before noon. Many set word limits for themselves and then, working day completed, went on to the other parts of their lives. (To be fair, many writers held/hold down paying jobs—Trollope, Cornell, Eliot, Joyce.) Some, like Simon de Beauvoir did, work in two shifts, adding an after dinner session to the morning routine. Philip Roth reports all-day work. Conversely, Gertrude Stein habitually wrote only 30 minutes a day. Descartes believed idleness was essential to good mental work.  Henry Miller had to switch routines midway through life, realizing that he was a morning person. Francis Bacon’s routine was chaos. One look at his studio, faithfully reproduced in The Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin, tells you all you need to know.

Bed. A big part of the routine, especially for writers… Proust wrote exclusively in bed, his head propped up by two pillows. Truman Capote always wrote “horizontally.” I particularly relish the image conjured up by James Joyce’s sister of the writer in bed”smothered in his own thoughts.”

Cecil Beaton, Dame Edith Sitwell, 1962 Bromide Print on card mount Courtesy National Gallery

Cecil Beaton, Dame Edith Sitwell, 1962
Bromide print on card mount
Courtesy National Gallery

Edith Sitwell, who was reputed to have slept in a coffin from time to time (one would have thought that would be Anne Rice’s territory…), also enjoyed her bed.  “All women should have a day a week in bed,”  she quipped. At the end of one particularly long day working in bed, she observed:  “I am honestly so tired that all I can do is lie on my bed with my mouth open.”

Although Frida Kahlo is not included in this book, one is reminded of her lengthy and involuntary stays in bed. So driven to work, she rigged ingenious set ups , which allowed her to paint while nearly immobilized.

Food. For breakfast, coffee or tea, toast and, more often than not, cigarettes. It seems that hardly anyone in the book skipped breakfast or at least the first meal of the day. (Possibly the advice imparted by a recent graduation speaker—”Never start something new on an empty stomach”—is already common wisdom among creatives.)  Lunch and dinner are also recorded, mostly as social events with family or friends.

Stimulants. Daily Rituals offers irrefutable confirmation that creatives consume copious amounts of alcohol, occasionally while working. (Or used to, at any rate. Maybe that has all changed in today’s health-conscious world.)  Francis Bacon was legendary, living a life of “hedonistic excess, eating many rich meals a day, drinking tremendous quantities of alcohol, taking whatever stimulants were handy, and generally staying out later and partying harder than any of his contemporaries.”

John Deakin, Francis Bacon. 1962

John Deakin Francis Bacon,1962
© The Estate of John Deakin

Patricia Highsmithalways downed a stiff drink before starting work, in order to calm her manic energy level. Toulouse-Lautrec was well-known for his nights of binge drinking. That routine probably cost him his life—he died at 36.

Smoking. Many many cigarettes of course, but also cigars (Georges Sand famously; Thomas Mann, continuously), and some pipes.  Bathus had a most evocative description of the uses of smoking:

“I’ve always painted while smoking. I am reminded of this habit in photographs from my youth. I intuitively understood that smoking double my faculty of concentration, allowing me to be entirely within a canvas.”

Other habits & diversions:  Creative people spend lots and lots of walking. (A body in motion is a powerful ideation tool.) And working at regular income jobs. On the subject of breaks, composer John Adams sensibly says: “The problem is that you do get run out of creative energy and sometimes you want to take a mental break.”

And indulge in your guilty pleasures! PG Wodehouse reportedly never missed an episode of “The Edge of Night” afternoon soap opera.

Henri Matisse at work Photograph © Alvin Langdon Coburn, courtesy Getty Images

Henri Matisse at work
© Alvin Langdon Coburn, courtesy Getty Images

On the pain and joy of the craft. Writers compete for superlatives on the distress of working. Philip Roth: “Writing isn’t hard work, it’s a nightmare.”  Styron similarly complains: “Let’s face it, writing is hell.” Ira Gershwin observed of his brother, George: “To me George was a little sad all the time because he had this compulsion to work. He never relaxed.”

On the other hand, joyful work be yours, if you happen to be a creative Gustave. The Austrian Mahler:  “You know that all I desire and demand of life is to feel an urge to work!” The French Flaubert quipped: ” After all, work is still the best way of escaping from life!”

Among visual artists, Matisse was perhaps the most relentless worker, even telling “all sorts of tales” to get his models to work on Sundays.  “I can’t sacrifice my Sundays for them just because they have boyfriends.” Matisse had the great fortune to basically enjoy everything. “I am never bored,” he often admitted.

Chuck Close, Self Portrait,  2006

Chuck Close, Self Portrait, 2006

I’m not sure Daily Rituals provides overt answers to the big questions Curry poses at the onset.  In the aggregate, its overwhelming message is that creative work, like all work, is often just relentless grind.  One has to find the ways to muscle through. On a personal note, I try to live by Chuck Close’s well-known adage: ” Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” Amidst our creative toil, who among us has not at times felt Kafka’s lament: “Time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant straightforward life is not possible then one must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers.”

If the 161 anecdotes in Daily Rituals offer any collective wisdom, it is that there is no one way to achieve regular production.  That’s permission to engage in whatever habits work best for one’s own creative process, as long as the habit is regular.  In a 2005 NY Times article, Michael Kimmelman noted: “Out of routine comes inspiration. That’s the idea, anyway. To grasp what’s exceptional, you first have to know what’s routine.”

Find a process and trust it.

The Rabbit Hole

Twyla Tharpe—The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life
More Artist Routines—How We Work
John Deakin: Photographs
Eric Fishl—Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas
NY Foundation for the Arts—”Ten Habits of Successful Artists

VR Sees RED

Posted in Artists Speak, Christine Cariati, Contains Video Elements, Fine & Decorative Arts, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 18, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Red, a two-character play by John Logan, is about Mark Rothko and his young studio assistant (a fictional amalgam of various actual Rothko assistants) that pivots on the often-told story about the commission that Rothko undertook, and then ultimately rejected, to paint a set of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building.

At the time, around 1958, Rothko and his generation of abstract expressionist painters—Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline—were beginning to be eclipsed by pop artists like Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Through Rothko’s often-heated dialogue with his young assistant, we get to eavesdrop on his ideas about art in general and his own work in particular—and to understand how he came to reject the commission and return what was then the enormous fee of $35,000. (The paintings are now at the Tate Modern in London.)

Mark Rothko, Black on Maroon Sketch (for Mural #6), 1958

The play attempts the near-impossible task of conveying something truthful about the thought and emotion that propels the creative process—and more often than not, it succeeds. Yes, the arc of the story is predictable, as is the evolution of the father/son, mentor/student relationship between Rothko and the assistant, Ken—but I thought that Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne transcended those limitations and often seemed to be having a real conversation.

As you take your seat in the theater, the stage, which reeks of turpentine, presents a believable recreation of Rothko’s New York studio at 222 Bowery. You then notice that Alfred Molina, as Rothko, is already on stage, sitting in a chair, studying the painting in front of him. Throughout the play, Rothko and his assistant are stretching canvases, mixing paints—and in one particularly moving scene, priming a huge canvas a brilliant red.

Mark Rothko, c. 1953
Photo courtesy Henry Elkan

Venetian Red particularly enjoyed Rothko’s violent outburst when he addresses the question: what do you see? to his assistant standing in front of a blood-red canvas. When the assistant tentatively responds: red, Rothko flies into a rage at this reductive answer, and begins to passionately enumerate the dozens of possible complex colors that the word “red” could represent.

Mark Rothko, Untitled Mural for End Wall, 1959

While Rothko is accurately portrayed as monstrously egotistical, pontificating and self-involved, that doesn’t mean that he’s not right or that he doesn’t have a lot of interesting and true things to say. Going in, I was not particularly a fan of Rothko’s work, but watching the play I got a better grasp of the intellectual and spiritual motivation for his work and its underlying sense of tragedy. And, yes, since seeing the play I’ve taken the time to look at his work more carefully.

What was important to me about the play was Rothko’s passionate insistence that art matters—that the artist must believe deeply in what he is doing. He also insisted that the viewer cannot be passive, but has to bring something to looking at a work art, not merely consume. When  Rothko badgers his young assistant that he must educate himself, read philosophy, great literature, look at all the art he possibly can—before he deserves to have an opinion—he makes a strong case. Rothko’s ego is enormous, but so is his passion. It was actually thrilling to hear someone talk with such fury about their work and the importance of making art, all with a complete lack of irony.

The only thing I care about is the expression of man’s basic emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, destiny  — Mark Rothko

Crucial to the effectiveness of the play is the lighting. The canvases—all saturated blacks and reds—are luminous. They are lit so that they glow, morph and radiate energy before your eyes, which fast-forwards the experience that unfolds more slowly when you sit for a while with Rothko’s work.

Red is playing in New York through June 27th. If you’ve seen it, let us know what you think.

Wider connections:
Joanne Mattera’s thoughts on Red.
Roberta Smith, New York Times

Venetian Red Bookshelf: Inside the Painter’s Studio

Posted in Artists Speak, Book Review, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2010 by Liz Hager

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

By LIZ HAGER

Ross Bleckner, Throbbing Hearts, 1994
Oil, powdered pigment, and wax on canvas, 96 1/8 x 120 1/4 inches
(Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Gift of the artist © Ross Bleckner)

Thanks to a friend of Venetian Red, who passed along an excellent tip regarding Joe Fig’s 2009 compilation of interviews, Inside the Painter’s Studio. I casually picked up the book one evening recently, thinking it was the sort of work in which one could dabble, leaf through an interview or two, put it down, come back to it intermittently. By the second interview (Ross Bleckner, as it turns out) the book had hooked me, and I read straight through to the end. (A 90 minute investment.)

Fig asked the same 18 questions of 24 accomplished artists of different generations (with himself as the 25th). Most of Fig’s questions reflected his primary interest in exploring the nature of the creative process and the role the studio space plays in that. While he fixed-question method has its uses (i.e. levels the playing field, creates boundaries for information), it can also hinder the process of collecting truly penetrating information from interviewees.

On the face of it, some of his questions seemed banal—How long have you been in this studio?, How often do you clean your studio? Do you listen to music or have the TV on or something like that? But other queries drew out more philosophical responses, though, in a number of instances, even those just plain stumped a few interviewees (or they were just unwilling to answer). In these cases, the conversation appeared be grinding to a halt, though Fig skillfully pulled the session back the brink by guiding the artist to the next topic on his list. (That, or interviews were rescued in the editing process.)

Chuck Close, Self Portrait, 1997
Oil on canvas, 8′ 6″ x 7′
(Museum of Modern Art, Gift of Agnes Gund, Jo Carole
and Ronald S. Lauder, Donald L. Bryant, Jr., Leon Black,
Michael and Judy Ovitz, Anna Marie and Robert F. Shapiro,
Leila and Melville Straus, Doris and Donald Fisher, and purchase.)
© 2010 Chuck Close

You will find no profound revelations in Inside the Painter’s Studio. Instead, its pages are punctuated with important (and often eloquently articulated) reminders regarding the creative process (and the business of art). The artists among us may viscerally or intuitively understand these pearls, but hearing them repeated in different ways is always welcome.

More fascinating are those moments when a particular personality emerges through the interview process. Malcolm Morley comes off as a pragmatic curmudgeon; Amy Sillman appears to shoot from the hip (though looking at her paintings you don’t see how that can be true) ; Philip Pearlstein seems plainly sincere; a tinge of haughtiness colors Matthew Ritchie’s responses, etc.

And finally, because you just can’t keep track of everyone, the book was useful in prompting an exploration of artists’ work unknown to me, specifically Inka Essenhigh and Barnaby Furnas, who paints on his canvasses on the floor.

Malcolm Morley, Messerschmitt with Spitfire, 2000
Oil on linen, 79 x 111.3 inches

Following is a brief selection of extracts from some of my favorite responses:

How long have you been in your studio?

Malcolm Morley: That’s totally irrelevant.

Joan Snyder, Blood On Our Hands, 2003
Mixed media on board, 16 x 16 inches

Can you describe a typical day, being as specific as possible?

As Fig expresses surprise at Ross Bleckner’s 7-day a week work habit, Bleckner further elaborates:

Ross Bleckner: Yup. That’s the way I work. It’s very athletic. It’s just good for me, and it is the only way I can really create the rhythm of concentration. For me it is all about the process. There is no idea that I have ever had that comes to me outside the process of work. So therefore, the few months in a row I am working seven days a week—and if I am having a show or not is irrelevant—I guess the operative metaphor for me is that I am a scientist in a lab, on the verge of discovering something. Or  I am just a hound dog sniffing around trying to catch the scent. But in order to do that, I need consistency.  Then when I stop working, when I take a break, I take a break for a month or two.

Amy Sillman, Cliff 2, 2005
Oil on canvas, 183 x 152 cm.
(Saatchi Gallery)

How often do you clean your studio and does it affect your work?

Ross Bleckner: It affects my work a lot. I clean my studio many times a day. But specifically when I come in and when I leave. I don’t like to leave any traces of the day before. . . Brancusi said something that I have always felt was true, which is “All you have to do is show up. All you have to do is get to your studio and put a broom in your hand. Just by the act of sweeping and cleaning you will start working.”

Amy Sillman: I never clean my studio. I’m sure my work would be better if I would. Again, I wish that somebody could come over and help me, but I would have to tell them where everything is, every single thing. I can’t explain it to anyone. . . Once in a while I go around with a huge garbage bag and pretty much throw everything away. . .

Eric Fischl, Bedroom Scene #6 (Surviving the Fall Meant Using You for Handholds)2004
Oil on linen, 72″ x 90″
(Mary Boone Gallery)

Do you have a motto or creed that as an artist you live by?

Bill Jensen: . . . Artists are people who go in a room everyday, let the art drag them a little further, and then sitting back twenty years later say, “How did I get here?” You’ve made this whole other world. You know, there was no idea of what heaven and hell used to look like. Artists made the idea of what heaven and hell looked like. We have the same kind of job today. We’re making these worlds that no one ever dreamed of, yet they are very real. They come from reality.

Chuck Close:  Inspiration is for amateurs—the rest of us just show up and get to work. . .

Julie Mehretu: To take care of my work as best I can. . . you know, really put everything into my work, and the work would return that to me. . .

Jane Hammond, Some Species Like It Hot, 2002
Oil on wood panel, 52 1/2” x 89 “ x 6”

What advice would you give a young artist who’s just starting out?

James Siena: . . . Don’t go knocking on Willem de Kooning’s back door saying “Can you look at my work?” He’s busy!

Bill Jensen: . . . You have to spend the time and pack as much energy into the work, and it will over flow into the world.

Malcolm Morley:  . . . (A) young composer asked Mozart for advice on what he though he should write: whether he should write a saraband, a suite, a romance, a symphony, etcetera. So Mozart looked at him and said, “Well, in your case I’d write a waltz.” So the young composer was very sort of angry. And he said, “But Mozart! At the age of ten you wrote a symphony.” And Mozart replied, “Yes, but I didn’t have to ask anybody’s advice.” So any artist or student that asks advice is already a failure in my view.’

Joan Snyder: My secret is. . . well, it’s not a secret that I have never hung out too much, and I’ve just worked very, very hard for thirty-five years. It’s just a lot of hard work. That’s my secret—it’s a big secret (laughs). . .

Joe Fig, Jackson Pollock, 2008
Wood, polymer clay, oil/acrylic paint, metal, plastic, paper, canvas
(Byron C. Cohen Gallery for Contemporary Art)

Wider Connections

Joe Fig—Inside the Painter’s Studio

Venetian Red Bookshelf: Just Kids

Posted in Artists Speak, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Music & Dance, Photography, Poetry with tags , , on April 24, 2010 by Liz Hager

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

By LIZ HAGER

Just Kids could be described as the story of Patti Smith’s five-year relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe (first as lovers, then as friends), played out against the background of the post-folk, pre-punk, gritty downtown Manhattan of the 1970s. But this description doesn’t do full justice to the book, which is, by turns, a tender memoir evoking the exuberance and naiveté of youth (and of Smith); a Dickensian chronicle of a chaotic time and place, which nurtured many famous (and infamous) talents; and  a poignant eulogy to a deep and lifelong love fueled by a shared passion for art (Smith and Mapplethorpe remained close friends until his death in 1987).

The “facts” of the Smith-Mapplethorpe story are well recorded. One needn’t read Just Kids for that, although Smith’s adept juggling of the many themes gives the book depth beyond the usual “kiss and tell” narratives.

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, ca. 1969

It is Smith’s prose style that provides Just Kids with the wings to soar. Smith has a way of seamlessly weaving the banal with the profound, simultaneously grounding a scene in detail and elevating it to the realm of the prophetic. This is her signature poetry/song-writing style, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that the book is a sneaky, sometimes quiet, always powerful and, ultimately, riveting read.

Smith arrived in New York in the summer of 1967, virtually penniless and alone, having been transformed by the revelation that “human beings create art.

It was the summer Coltrane died. The summer of “Crystal Ship.” Flower children raised their empty arms and China exploded the H-bomb. Jimi Hendrix set his guitar in flames in Monterey. AM radio played “Ode to Billie Joe.” There were riots in Newark, Milwaukee, and Detroit. It was the summer of Elvira Madigan, the summer of love. And in this shifting, inhospitable atmosphere, a chance encounter changed the course of my life.

Patti Smith, Just Kids (p. 31)

Patti Smith & Robert Mapplethorpe, 1969

Actually, she encountered Mapplethorpe twice that summer. First, he simply pointed her to a place to crash. Though a brief encounter, the attraction was instantaneous and intense. Later, Mapplethorpe happened to be walking through St. Mark’s Square and rescued her from a date on the verge of going bad.

In the beginning, theirs was a life defined by near-destitution—scrounging for food and living in a string of truly grungy apartments. It’s no surprise the transformation of these spaces gives rise to their early collaborative work together.

Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith, ca 1969 (Photo by Norman Seeff)

By the time they met, Mapplethorpe had studied art formally at Pratt. He was already a confident soul with absolute clarity about becoming the rage of the art world. Smith was largely self-educated but

. . . longed to enter the fraternity of the artist: the hunger, their manner of dress, their processes and prayers. I’d brag that I was going to be an artist’s mistress one day. Nothing seemed more romantic to my young mind. I imagined myself as Frida to Diego, both muse and maker. I dreamed of meeting an artist to love and support and work with side by side.

Patti Smith, Just Kids (p. 12)

As their orbits merged, the mutual devotion to each other’s talent became lasting and unshakable.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, 1975

Smith was Mapplethorpe’s soul mate and muse. In the early years she constantly suggested he move from collages to his own photographic work. When he did switch, she was the model in his early Poloroids. These were true collaborations from choice of set up to pose. Smith would appear in his work, as he moved to formal studio work and movies.

Mapplethorpe was the more self-possessed of the two, and Smith describes him as “looking for shortcuts.” “Why should I take the long road?” he wonders. The following passage is an illuminating one:

Robert’s great wish was to break into the world that surrounded Andy Warhol, though he had no desire to be part of his stable or to star in his movies. Robert often said he knew Andy’s game, and felt that if he could talk to him, Andy would recognize him as an equal. Although I believed he merited an audience with Andy, I felt any significant dialogue with him was unlikely, for Andy was like an eel, perfectly able to slither from any meaningful confrontation.

Patti Smith, Just Kids (p. 116)

Robert Mapplethorpe, Cover of Witt, 1973, Poloroid photo

Mapplethorpe was always highly supportive of Smith’s work, pushing her to write and publish. She admits to being less confident of her own talents:

Robert had little patience with these introspective bouts of mine. He never seemed to question his artistic drives, and by his example, I understood what matters is the work: the string of words propelled by God becoming a poem, the weave of color and graphite scrawled upon the sheet that magnifies His motion. To achieve within the work a perfect balance of faith and execution. From this state of mind comes a light, life-charged.

Patti Smith, Just Kids (p. 65)

Over time, Smith’s creative force would be coaxed from her. In a poignant note,  she writes of Mapplethorpes effect on her:

You drew me from the darkest period of my young life, sharing with me the sacred mystery of what it is to be an artist. I learned to see through you and never compose a line or draw a curve that does not come from the knowledge I derived in our precious time together. Your work, coming from a fluid source, can be traced to the naked song of your youth. You spoke then of holding hands with God.

Patti Smith, Just Kids p. 276

In 1969 the two moved to a tiny room in the Chelsea Hotel, a seminal move which ultimately set their respective careers on track.

Patti Smith and Jim Carroll, ca. 1970

A cast of greater and lesser characters tramp in and out of the Chelsea’s lobby. It was here that Smith and Mapplethorpe met many of the people who would have defining roles in their careers—Gregory Corso, William Burroughs, Harry Smith, Sam Shepard, filmmaker Sandy Daley, Andy Warhol and members of the Entourage, Janis Joplin, Bob Neuwirth, Todd Rundgren, Jim Carroll—though Mapplethorpe also had a vibrant life outside the hotel.

The Chelsea was like a doll’s house in the Twilight Zone, with a hundred rooms, each a small universe. . .  So many transient souls had espoused, made a mark, and succumbed here. I sniffed out their spirits as I silently scurried from floor to floor, longing for discourse with a gone procession of smoking caterpillars.

Patti Smith, Just Kids (p. 112 and 113)

Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith, 1975

Encouraged into poetry readings and then musical performances, Smith was ultimately signed by Clive Davis to Arista Records 1975. Her 1978 song “Because the Night” (co-penned with Bruce Springsteen) made her famous, an irony that was not lost on Mapplethorpe.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, 1985
(The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation)
Mapplethorpe evoking a favorite artist, Michelangelo.

Mapplethorpe would climb to fame his own way, mostly along the rungs of high society. Under the auspices of John McKendry (Curator of Prints and Photographs at the Met), who was married to socialite Maxine de la Falaise, and later collector/curator/lover Sam Wagstaff, Mapplethorpe began to show his photographs. Though he photographed many subjects, it was his male nudes and their often explicit evocation of gay sexuality that gained him notoriety.

Just Kids reports, but does not linger, on Mapplethorpe’s journey out of the closet. Though Mapplethorpe was an expert at hiding his orientation, it’s hard to believe the Smith of the early 1970s was naive enough not to recognize the outward signs of his inner life. Evoking his grounding in Catholicism, she reports:

Later he would say that the Church led him to God, and LSD led him to the universe. He also said that art led him to the devil, and sex kept him with the devil.

Patti Smith, Just Kids (p. 63)

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, 1988
(The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation)

Inevitably,  melancholy hovers over the pages of Just Kids. The book evokes the promise, freedom and exuberance of youthful world in which, as Smith coins it “everything awaited.” But we know the adult world is coming—kids, careers, and ultimately death (AIDS). Both Smith and Mapplethorpe achieved their dreams of fame. One paid for it with his life.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith, 1986
(The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation)

Wider Connections

Patti Smith reads from Just Kids
Youtube: The Photography of Robert Mapplethorpe
Patricia Morrisroe—Mapplethorpe: A Biography
Patti Smith Complete 1975-2006: Lyrics, Reflections & Notes for the Future
Victor Bokris and Roberta Bayley—Patti Smith: The Unauthorized Biography

Robert Motherwell: “On the Humanism of Abstraction”

Posted in Artists Speak, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , on March 29, 2010 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Robert Motherwell, Summertime in Italy (with Blue), 1965-1966
Lithograph (zinc) in blue on Arches Cover paper, 30 x 22 inches
(National Gallery, Washington)

Before an introduction to Meyer Schapiro convinced him to devote his life to painting, Robert Motherwell studied philosophy and aesthetics at Stanford and Harvard. Thus, it is no suprirse that Motherwell became one of the few first-generation Abstract Expressionists who regularly made information about his art and theory publicly available through frequent lectures, writing and interviews.

He considered his essay “On the Humanism of Abstraction” (The Writings of Robert Motherwell) to be one of the most philosophical texts he ever wrote. To my mind, this essay is one of the most accessible and convincing statements I have come across on the nature of abstraction in painting.

What follows is a long excerpt from the essay.

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1954
Oil on unprimed canvas, 93 x 56 3/16 inches
(Yale University Art Gallery

As the dictionary says, the purpose of abstraction in any field —art, science, mathematics—is, out of incredible richness and complexity and detail of reality, “to separate,” “to select from” the complexity of reality that which you want to emphasize, or to deal with. . . it is not feasible to re-create the Battle of Gettysburg; yet the ultimate aspiration of that naturalistic notion of what a work of art is remains of reproduction of reality itself; hence the popularity of the cinema in the 20th century, as of the novel in the 19th.

Joan Mitchell, Land, 1989
Oil on canvas, overall size (two joined panels): 110 1/4 x 157 1/2 inches
(National Gallery, Washington)

. . . All our forms of communication are abstractions from the whole context of reality.  I have often quoted Alfred North Whitehead in what I think is one of the crucial statements on abstraction, that “the higher the degree of abstraction, the lower the degree of complexity.”  In that sense, mathematical formulae are (ironically) by nature of a lower degree of complexity than a painted surface with three lines, even it it’s an Einsteinian equation. Once one understands that every expression is a form of abstraction, then choices are made in relation to emphasis, i.e., to significance. . .


Amy Sillman, N&V, 2007
Color soft ground etching with soap ground and spit bite aquatints, 35 x 28 inches
Crown Point Press

Once one can get over one’s inherited primitive feeling that what a picture is, is a picture of something in nature, and think instead that a picture is a deliberate choice of a certain degree of abstraction (which in the case of Andrew Wyeth or Norman Rockwell, for example, is a very low degree of abstraction and a relatively high degree of abstraction, or moving from them to, say, Mondrian, a high degree of abstraction and a low degree of complexity), then one begins to view painting in an entirely different way. . .

Irene Rice Pereira, Mecca, 1953
Oil on canvas 40 1/8 x 50 in.
(Smithsonian American Art Museum)

A difficulty for an artist speaking to you (in comparison with a composer or a mime) is that they can give you a performance, and the painter cannot. . . Painting is also a language that is universal by nature, but one highly-sophisticated and elite, in terms of the general run of people. If one is a very skillful abstract painter, it’s difficult for many people to be aware of it. . .

Janet Sobel, Untitled, 1946
Oil on canvas
(Gary Snyder Gallery)

Most people have a prejudice against abstraction in anything. . . And I must say that when I look at an advanced mathematical equation, it’s meaningless to me. I can’t read it, any more than I can read Chinese. But I don’t have a resistance to it for its being abstract, because I regard abstraction as a most powerful weapon. It is also true that abstraction can become so removed from one’s experience—one’s sensed experience—that it become remote from its origins. Most people’s resistance toward abstraction is just that it is remote. . .

Willem de Koonig, Painting, 1948
Enamel and oil on canvas, 42 5/8 x 56 1/8 inches
(Museum of Modern Art, NY)

. . . You see, art is a triangle. Let’s say, in the case of painting—most people think that the triangle is composed of yourself and the canvas and “nature,” and that I, as a painter, look at nature and then stick over there on the canvas what I’m looking at. Actually, the triangle is composed of oneself, the medium and human culture, not brute nature alone, which is but an aspect of culture; the sum total of one’s human experience in relation to one’s culture in painting. So in many ways, rather than looking at a tree, one is playing a game with other painters. . .

Jackson Pollock, Number 13A: Arabesque, 1948
Oil on canvas, 37 x 117 inches
(Yale University Art Gallery)

. . . In painting or music or poetry, one is concerned with how a specific medium functions, and paradoxically, in how it is functioning, the whole human soul is revealed, more than if one tried to paint a “picture” of the soul. It’s one’s soul that’s being communicated, how one feels about the character of reality. . . In the end, more hits your heart and your gut than can a photograph of a massacre or a photograph of two lovers embracing and so on, because abstract art. . . can convey feeling in its “essence” (in the Platonic sense) in a way that “naturalism” cannot: it has far too many extraneous details, and loses its emphasis, its focus. . .

Agnes Martin, Water Flower, 1964
Pen and white and red ink(?) with gray wash, 11 7/8 x 11 15/16 inches
(National Gallery of Art, Washington)

. . .In this sense, abstract art is active and decisive, not passive and undifferentiated, and only becomes remote, by definition, when it becomes too distant from its original discriminations among the complexities of concrete reality.

Wider Connections
Mary Ann Caws—Robert Motherwell: What Art Holds
Hello Monday: “The Rothko Chapel

Artists in Conversation: Joanne Mattera’s “Journey of Visual Pleasure”

Posted in Artists Speak, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , on February 6, 2010 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Author’s Note: Unless otherwise attributed, all remarks by the artist were made in a recorded conversation between the author and the artist on 1/27/10.

Joannne Mattera, Silk Road 115, 2009
Encaustic on wood panel, 12 x 12 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

Joanne Mattera’s most recent workthe ongoing Silk Road series—is a manifold tribute to the eponymous trade route. In these mostly 12 x 12 ” paintings the artist has deftly exploited the encaustic medium to opulent results.  By applying thin layers of individual and highly-saturated color repeatedly on top of one another, Mattera has captured the exquisite iridescence of raw silk. Additionally, the luscious texture created by remnant brushstrokes of molten wax subtly suggests the warp and weft of the woven material. And even the detritus Mattera has left in the wax (“schmutz” she would “normally strain out”) subtly mimics the imperfections of raw silk.

Joanne Mattera—Silk Road 5, 2005
Encaustic on wood panel, 12 x 12 inches
(Adler Gallery)

Yet, appreciating this series of 129 paintings solely on the basis of its tour-de-force technical achievement would be to miss the richer sphere that the work inhabits. Each painting contains the inherent mystique invoked by the series; which is to say, each piece promises a journey full of visual delights without a specific roadmap.  The most exhilarating revelation for this viewer is that color on the scale of intimacy that Mattera achieves is a powerful experience.

Silk Road installation view

Mattera clarifies her intention:

I wanted to work with color in a really reductive way and make something beautiful without making it pretty . .  .

It’s strictly a journey of visual pleasure. . . I love beauty, I paint beauty, I’m not afraid of beauty. . . Beauty is color. Sensuality. The material that I am using is a sensuous material.  And the combination of sensuous material and color is what makes beauty for me.

Joanne Mattera—Uttar 286, 2002-2005
Encaustic on panel, 32 x 32 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

Beauty in color is a journey that Mattera has been on explicitly through most of her adult artistic career. But the search was clearly influenced early on by a childhood filled with the family textile legacy. Her great-grandmother was a weaver in Italy; her grandfather a tailor. Growing up as the eldest of five children, Mattera spent a good deal of time with her two maiden aunts, themselves emigrées from Italy. From them she learned the traditions of the needle arts. More importantly, they stimulated her creative soul:

So I was surrounded by all these fabulous colors and textures and processes. . . And it was only later, that (sculptor) Nancy Azara pointed out to me that I had made in my childhood a connection between creative expression and unconditional love.

Joanne Mattera, Uttar 296, 2006
Encaustic on panel, 24 x 24 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

The artist was introduced to the paint media at Massachusetts College of Art, but it was encaustic that made an indelible impression on her.

Once I got past the process of preparation [applying multiple layers of hide glue gesso] and I started actually painting with encaustic, I loved it. I loved the process, the smell, the physicality and materiality of it, the almost alchemical thing that happens when you put your brush into the molten wax. You dab it on the surface—you have to be quick, otherwise the wax hardens on the brush or even worse the brush gets stuck into the painting. It’s the rhythm of brush strokes fused with heat, brush strokes fused with heat. . .

Mattera didn’t choose encaustic as her primary medium right away.  “I knew I wasn’t ready to pursue it then—I didn’t have the painting chops and I didn’t have the patience certainly. I always knew one day I would go back to that.” Once beyond college, she committed herself to continuing her artwork,  supporting herself through a variety of jobs, eventually full-time writing and editing (which included stints at Women’s Wear Daily, Glamour, and Fiber Arts).

Joanne Mattera, Open Book 23, 1992
Thread and wax on Twinrocker paper , 6.5 x 6.5 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

Through the late 1970s and early 1980s, Mattera developed an increasingly reductive abstract style, using geometry as her underlying organizing principal. Even before Mattera returned to the encaustic medium, she was testing the grid—its grounding foundation, as well as its limits.  Early experimentation with thread and paper (an early expression of the textile “gene”?) found full articulation in the 1992 Open Book series.

Jasper Johns, Winter, 1986
Encaustic and collage on canvas
(Private Collection)

In 1986, the world shifted for Mattera,  as a result of interviewing Jasper Johns for Women’s Wear Daily on the occasion of his print retrospective at MOMA:

So I found myself in this bank-turned-studio on the Lower East Side, maybe around the Bowery, talking with Jasper Johns about his work. Here along one long wall were these four paintings in mostly grays. And it was his Four Seasons quadtych. We looked at the work, we talked about it, and he allowed that, yes,  that was his silhouette.

I could see his set up, which fascinated me. He had a little old-fashioned hotplate with the four legs, you remember those? He’d not changed his set up for a very long time. .  .

But after having been in Jasper Johns studio, and being so up close to the work, I found myself setting up the hot plate.

Joanne Mattera, Vicolo 54 (Paul), 2009
Encaustic on wood panel, 18 x 18 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

Certainly, Mattera is part of the painting tradition that includes “Color Field” painters like Morris Louis and Helen Frankenthaler. One cannot help but think also of Rothko’s explorations of color (albeit on a grand scale Rothko’s work achieves different ends), as well as Agnes Martin‘s minimalist grids as potential influences on her work.

Morris Louis, Where, 1960
Magna on canvas, 99 3/8 x 142 1/2 inches.
(Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)

In the properties of encaustic, however, Mattera has found unique ways to explore the chromatic and geometric realms. Though she does not always work in encaustic, she’s especially attracted to the refractive quality of pigments suspended in wax. Further, her choice of a highly-saturated color palette—which references but does not copy Indian miniatures—automatically means that she’s playing in the bold realm of maximum vibration to the eye.

The Heroine Chanda fanning her beloved, Laurak, under a tree, from a manuscript of the Chandayana (The Story of Chanda), 1540
Pigments on paper
(SF Asian Museum)

Her work has been influenced by artists outside the painting medium.  Eva Hesse (“Here was someone working reductively and materially and working experimentally with materials. It was textile, sculptural.”); Martin Puryear, particularly his adeptness at “weaving together art and craft;” and Louise Bourgeois.

Mattera prefers to work in series, because they allow for the unfolding of the initial idea in both structured and unpredictable ways. In 2000 she embarked upon the longest running series to date, Uttar (2000-2007), in which she explored the effects of geometric repetition—a stripe or block repeated within a grid. In Vicolo, the series prior to Silk Road, she scraped back the surface to see how revealing different traunches of color would effect the grid.

Although Mattera does not always make the connection to textiles explicit in her work (the Silk Road title aside), in one way or another aspects of the textile tradition are faintly present in all these series.

Helen Frankenthaler, Nature Abhors a Vaccuum, 1973
Acrylic on canvas, 103 x 112 inches.
(National Gallery of Art, DC)

Along her aesthetic journey, Mattera necessarily dove deeply into the technical aspects of painting with pigmented wax. Encaustic is a venerable medium, older by a millennium than tempera and oil. Although a few modern artists (most notably Diego Rivera) worked in the medium, it was all but sidelined in the 20th century, until the 1960s, when Jasper Johns restored it to prominence.

As she started again with encaustic, Mattera felt a need to re-educate herself about the technique. Finding no available texts on the subject, the artist put together her own notes from conversations and her own experimentation. These later became the basis for her authoritative monograph on the subject, The Art of Encaustic Painting.

Mark Rothko, Orange and Yellow, 1956
oil on canvas, 91 x 71 inches
(Albright-Knox Gallery)

With regard to what’s next, Mattera asserts:  “My intention is to continue with Silk Road, but as I’m working on them, looking on them, I’m thinking ‘This may be a byway, a road off the Silk Road.’ ”  One thing is certain—there are still chromatic places left for her to explore.

Joanne Mattera, Silk Road 127, 2009
Encaustic on wood panel, 12 x 12 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

Wider Connections

John Russell (NY Times)—“The Seasons: Forceful Paintings From Jasper Johns”
Taschen Art Series — Jasper Johns: The Business of the Eye
Mark Rothko (Taschen 25th Anniversary Special Edition)
Alison Rowley—Helen Frankenthaler: Painting History, Writing Painting
Joanne Mattera Art Blog

Artists on Making Art: Bourgeois, Freud, Arbus

Posted in Artists Speak, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Sculpture with tags , , on December 18, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Louise Bourgeois, Seven in Bed (detail), 2001
Fabric, stainless steel, glass and wood.
Courtesy Cheim and Read, Galerie Karsten Greve and Galerie Hauser & Wirth, © Copyright Louise Bourgeois.

Louise Bourgeois
Louise Bourgeois (born 1911) studied art at various schools in Paris (where she was born and grew up), including the École du Louvre, Académie des Beaux-Arts, Académie Julian, and Atelier Fernand Léger. In 1938, she emigrated to the United States and continued her studies at the Art Students League in New York. By the 1940s she had turned her attention almost exclusively to sculptural work. Greatly influenced by the influx of European Surrealist artists, who had immigrated to the United States after World War II, Bourgeois’s early sculpture was composed of groupings of abstract shapes, often carved from wood. By the 1960s she began to execute larger pieces in rubber, bronze, and stone, and later fabric. Bourgeoise draws extensively from her childhood for inspiration. Deeply symbolic, her work uses her relationship with her parents and the role sexuality played in her early family life as a vocabulary in which to understand and remake that history.

I have never mentioned the word dream in discussing my art, while they (the Surrealists) talked about the dream all the time. I don’t dream. You might say I work under a spell, I truly value the spell. I have the privilege of being able to enter the spell, to enter this very arid land where you are likely to find your birthright. To express yourself if your birthright…

Art comes from life. Art comes from the problem you have in seducing birds, men, snakes—anything you want.

What modern art means is that you have to keep finding new ways to express yourself, to express the problems, that there are no settled ways, no fixed approach. This is a painful situation, and modern art is about this painful situation of having no absolutely definite way of expressing yourself. This is why modern art will continue, because the condition remains; it is the modern human condition. . .

All art comes from terrific failures and terrific needs that we have. It is about the difficulty of being a self because one is neglected. Everywhere in the modern world there is neglect, the need to be recognized, which is not satisfied. Art is a way of recognizing oneself, which is why it will always be modern.

—From an interview with Donald Kuspit (1988), excerpted from Bourgeois.

Lucian Freud, Two Men, 1987/88
Oil on canvas, approximately 48 x 36″.

Lucian Freud
Born in Berlin in 1922 (the grandson of Sigmund Freud), Lucian Freud is indisputably one of Britain’s most powerful figurative painters. Portraits and nudes are his forte, and his subjects are more often than not observed in arresting close-up. His early work was so meticulously painted, that Freud was often labeled as a “realist” or “superrealistic.” However the intensity and subjectivity of his work has sets him apart from the comparatively emotionless British figurative art of the post WWII era.

The painter makes real to others his innermost feelings about all that he cares for. A secret becomes known to everyone who views the picture through the intensity with which it is felt. The painter must give a completely free rein to any feelings or sensations he may have and reject nothing to which he is naturally drawn. It is just this self-indulgence which acts for him as the discipline through which he discards what is inessential to him and so crystallises his tastes. A painter’s tastes must grow out of what so obsesses him in life that he never has to ask himself what is suitable for him to do in art. . .

. . . People are driven towards making works of art, not by familiarity with the process by this is done, but by a necessity to communicate their feelings about the object of their choice with such intensity that these feelings become infectious. . .

—excerpted from Lucien Freud, “Some Thoughts on Painting,” Encounter III, no. 1 (July 1954).

Diane Arbus, Triplets, black & white photograph, 1963.

Diane Arbus
Best known for her pictures of dwarves, transvestites, nudists and circus performers, Diane Arbus (1923-1971) was one of the most influential American photographers of the 1960s. She was a pioneer, photographing those things that the public of that era would not otherwise have seen.  Though the settings appear casual, there was nothing improvisational about Arbus’ shots. She spent great amounts of time getting to know her subjects before photographing them, and they often collaborated in the picture-making process.

The younger sister of Poet Laureate Howard Nemerov, Arbus and her husband Allan started out as fashion photographers. In 1959, however, under the tutelage of Lisette Model, Arbus began to pursue her own work. Arbus loved photography for the miracles she felt it performed by accident.

Invention is mostly this kind of subtle, inevitable thing. People get closer to the beauty of their invention. They get narrower and more particular in it. Invention has a lot to do with a certain kind of light some people have and with the print quality and the choice of subject. It’s a million choices you make. It’s luck in a sense, or even ill luck. You can’t avoid it. It’s what’s left when you take everything else away. I think the most beautiful inventions are the ones you don’t think of. . .

. . . There used to be this moment of panic which I still can get where I’d look in the ground glass and it would look all ugly to me and I wouldn’t know what was wrong. Sometimes it’s like looking in a kaleidoscope. You shake it around and it just on’t shake out right. I used to think if I could jumble it up, it would go away. But short of that, since I couldn’t do that, I’d just back up or start to talk, or, I don’t know, go someplace else. But I don’t think that’s the sort of thing you can calculate on because there’s always this mysterious thing in the process.

—excerpted from Diane Arbus, catalog for Museum of Modern Art exhibition, 1972.

Artists in Conversation: Stephanie Peek’s Uncertain Riches

Posted in Artists Speak, Bay Area Art Scene, Christine Cariati, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Flora & Fauna, Painting, XC with tags , , , , on September 23, 2009 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

This is the first in an occasional series in which Venetian Red interviews a contemporary artist about recent work.

PeekGlimmering,jpgStephanie Peek, Glimmering, 2009
Oil on linen, 30″ x 30″

Venetian Red: What was the inspiration for the paintings in Uncertain Riches, your current exhibition at Triangle Gallery?

Stephanie Peek: When I was looking for ways to add color to my Dark Arcadia series (night garden paintings done at the American Academy in Rome and during a Borsa di Studio in the gardens of La Pietra in Florence), an old friend emailed me images of Dutch still lifes he had recently collected, which I have dropped into the dark atmosphere of the night gardens.

I have floated tulips, roses and other flowers from 17th century still life paintings through the dark smoky atmosphere of my earlier paintings of night gardens. The dramatic light and rich colors refer to the work of Dutch painter Rachel Ruysch. The softer, lighter paintings reflect the melancholy of early 18th century French painter Jean-Antoine Watteau.

Peek, Watteau IIStephanie Peek, Watteau II, 2009
Oil on panel, 20″ x 20″

Venetian Red: Why are you painting flowers at this time in your career?

Stephanie Peek: I find that painting can be a site of meditation, suspending time, making time irrelevant, and can put me in touch with that which does not decay. Suspended in silence, flowers speak for me—of fragile beauty and the ephemeral nature of worldly delights.

Venetian Red: This work creates an extremely elegiac, contemplative mood.

Stephanie Peek:  These paintings refer to the tradition of memento mori (falling flowers being more subtle than skulls), The Embarrassment of Riches by Simon Schama, and our contemporary version of “tulipmania.” Materiality cannot be trusted—and yet, how beautiful, even luscious, painting can be. Vita brevis, ars longa.

Venetian Red: Can you talk about the source material for these paintings?

Stephanie Peek: Referring to the hybrid nature of our culture, I used as sources not only photographs of paintings of flowers, but also photographs of flowers in my neighborhood, actual live flowers in my studio, artificial flowers from roadside memorials—and a few invented ones too.

Peek, RequiemStephanie Peek, Requiem, 2009
Oil on panel, 30″ x 30″

Venetian Red: In your work you return again and again to nature and the garden. Tell us about how these themes have evolved over recent years.

Stephanie Peek: After working with the idea of the garden as a refuge for several years, it was natural for me to return to that safe place after 9/11. I “protected” this space by camouflaging the garden, dissolving the edges of the forms and bringing the background to the foreground, going simultaneously flat and deep. Thus an overall pattern of marks developed on the surface which became increasingly complex.

This led me to the study of the history of military camouflage in a series called Uniform Language. At the beginning of the 20th century, American painter Abbot Thayer had introduced his studies of the “concealing coloration” of animals and birds in nature to the United States military for use in concealing ships, weapons and soldiers. Governments throughout the world hired artists to design a wide variety of camouflage depending on the environment.

My intent was to reclaim these patterns of concealment by re-contextualizing the camouflage of countries in the news into abstract paintings, translating these patterns from military usage to a more peaceful purpose.

PeekSurvivalTacticsStephanie Peek, Survival Tactics, 2002
Oil on canvas, 80″ x 70″

Venetian Red: I’m very interested in the way you explore nature as pattern, can you talk a bit about that?

Stephanie Peek: For years the subject central to my art practice has been nature: from gardens as refuge, camouflage patterns and the complex compilations of fragments of color seen in leaves.

A spray of dried eucalyptus leaves in my studio was my subject for three years, and heightened my attention to the most minute of differences and variations in shifting viewpoints with each painting.

In revisiting the classic genre of still life my project was to translate light into color.

These leaves provided the occasion for a study of the subtle shifts of hue from dusty roses to cool green. Analyzing colors in these leaves, in their shadows and reflections, in the grounds, resulted in multitudinous color patches which formed patterns of brush marks on the surface of the paintings.

When I pulled back from a concentrated focus on the color relationships, I was surprised to see a kind of joy in these paintings. The melancholy quality of evanescence implicit in the subject of dried leaves was transcended through attention to the colors right in front of my eyes.

Peek, Dark LightStephanie Peek, Dark Light, 2005
Oil on canvas, 45″ x 45″

Stephanie Peek’s current show, Uncertain Riches, is at Triangle Gallery in San Francisco through October 17, 2009.

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