Archive for Abstract Art

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

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

Venetian Red in Berlin: John Finneran at Upstairs Berlin

Posted in Contemporary Art, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Travel with tags , , , , , on October 27, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

John Finneran, Night Fence (Backgrounds), 2008,
Oil and enamel with nails on aluminum, two panels, each approx. 84 x 96 cm.
(photo © Liz Hager 2008)

John Finneran, Night Fence (Backgrounds), 2008,
Oil and enamel with nails on aluminum, two panels, each approx. 84 x 96 cm.
(photo © Liz Hager 2008)

Berlin is on its way to becoming the Hauptstadt of contemporary culture. It’s already a magnet for collectors and young American artists, many of whom call it home, if temporarily.

John Finneran seems to be an example of the kind of younger American artist who has found Berlin a sympathetic milieu.  His work is physically big in the way that so much of gallery-oriented emerging art so often is, and he’s clearly focused in on the elements that tend to facilitate commercial success (one of which is good representation in the European markets). Since completing his BFA at Cooper Union in 2002, he’s kept to a rigorous schedule of a show a year, mostly in New York, where he lives. Admittedly I was unfamiliar Finneran’s oeuvre, when I walked into Upstairs Berlin.  His new work definitely caught my attention, and prompted me to investigate more deeply.

Finneran’s use of aluminum as a substrate, while no longer revolutionary in the world of art, achieves what a similar work on canvas could not—it provides a subtle luminosity that perfectly complements his overall somber palette. The glazing technique seems to be new in this year’s works, though not with these pieces in particular.  It’s a technique that is extremely effective in creating an overall murky, if not mysterious, tone in the work. Vestages of figural gestures remain embedded in the abstraction—noses, mouths, eyes—although they are more shrouded by the abstraction than in earlier work. Further, in stapling or riveting the sheets together to form a larger surface, Finneran proves (once again) that craft can be an eloquent partner to abstract art. Additionally, the canvases are irregularly-shaped—some sport mildly uneven edges, others, like the one above, sprout cock’s combs. This adds a modicum of whimsy to the pieces, a sly antidote to his restrained palette. Finally, the artist has dispensed with the frame, a time-honored technique that breaks down the barrier between canvas and viewer, by suggesting an endless picture plane.

Finneran’s execution engaged me, and I paused a bit more than usual to ponder what the artist might be trying to communicate with it. In this department I admit difficulty. I could quickly summon the panoply of artists that might have influenced Finneran, but was having trouble figuring out whether what he appeared to be saying was new or unique.  Still I remain interested enough to see where the artist might go from here.

Upstairs Berlin certainly took a risk in mounting this young artist’s first solo exhibition. My sense is that it might not have paid off today, but certainly Finneran is an artist to watch. His willingness to experiment with a range of media and techniques will serve him well as he continues to develop his voice.

Wider Connections

More Finneran images

Saatchi & Finneran

Upstairs Berlin

Barnett Newman—”The First Man Was an Artist”

Posted in Artists Speak, Contemporary Art, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , on October 10, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Barnett Newman, Onement III, 1949,
Oil on canvas, 71 7/8 x 33 1/2″
© 2008 Barnett Newman Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York;
(Photo courtesy MoMA)

Barnett Newman deeply believed in the spiritual content of abstract art.  Superficially, his work appears to focus on issues of form, such as shape and color. However, as the essay below makes clear, those forms carried symbolic meaning weight.

What was the first man, was he a hunter, a toolmaker, a farmer, a worker, a priest, or a politician? Undoubtedly the first man was an artist.

A science of palaeontology that sets forth this proposition can be written if it builds on the postulate the the aesthetic act always precedes the social one. The totemic act of wonder in front of the tiger-ancestor came before the act of murder. It is important to keep in mind that the necessity for dream is stronger than any utilitarian need. In the language of science, the necessity for understanding the unknowable comes before the desire to discover the unknown.

Man’s first expression, like his first dream, was an aesthetic one. Speech was a poetic outcry rather than a demand for communication. Original man, shouting his consonants, did so in yells of awe and anger at his tragic state, at his own self-awareness and at his own helplessness before the void. Philologists and semioticians are beginning to accept the concept that if language is to be defined as the ability to communicate by means of signs, be they sounds or gestures, then language is an animal power. Anyone who has watched the common pigeon circle his female knows that she knows what he wants.

The human in language is literature, not communication. Man’s first cry was a song. Man’s first address to a neighbor was a cry of power and solemn weakness, not a request for a drink of water. Even the animal makes a futile attempt at poetry. Ornithologists explain the cock’s crow as an ecstatic outburst of his power. The loon gliding lonesome over the lake, with whom is he communicating? The dog, alone, howls at the moon. Are we to say the the first man called the sun and the stars God as an act of communication and only after he had finished his day’s labor? The myth came before the hunt. The purpose of man’s first speech was to address the unknowable. His behavior had its origin in his artistic nature.

Just as man’s first speech was poetic before it became utilitarian, so man first built an idol of mud before he fashioned the axe. Man’s hand traced the stick through the mud to make a line before he learned to throw the stick as a javelin. Archeologists will tell us that the axehead suggested the axehead idol. . . (A figure can be made out of mud, but an axe cannot.) The God image, not pottery, was the first manual act. It is the materialistic corruption of present-day anthropology that has tried to make men believe that the original man fashioned pottery before he made sculpture. Pottery is the product of civilization. The artistic act is man’s personal birthright.

The earliest written history of human desires proves that the meaning of the world cannot be found in the social act. An examination of the first chapter of Genesis offers a better key to the human dream. It was inconceivable to the archaic writer that original man, that Adam, was put on the earth to be a toiler, to be a social animal. The writer’s creative impulses told him that man’s origin was that of an artist, and he set him up in the Garden of Eden close to the Tree of Knowledge, of right and wrong, in the highest sense of divine revelation. The fall of man was understood by the writer and his audience not as the fall from Utopia to struggle. . . nor, as the religionist would have us believe as a fall from Grace to Sin, but rather that Adam, by eating from the Tree of Knowledge, sought the creative life to be, like God, “a creator of worlds,” to use Rashi’s phrase, and was reduced to the life of toil only as a result of jealous punishment.

In our ability to live the life of a creator can be found the meaning of the fall of man. It was a fall from the good, rather than from the abundant, life. And it is precisely here that the artist today is striving for a closer approach to the truth concerning original man. . . for it is the poet and the artist who are concerned with the function of original man and who are trying to arrive at his creative state. What is the reason d’etre, what is the explanation of the seemingly insane drive of man to be painter and poet if it is not an act of defiance against man’s fall and an assertion that he return to the Adam of the Garden of Eden. For artists are the first men.

—Barnett Newman, “The First Man Was an Artist” (1947)

Wider Connections

The Nation—“Barnett Newman and the Heroic Sublime”
Melissa Ho—Reconsidering Barnett Newman

Higher Aspirations

Posted in Contemporary Art, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , on May 29, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Sean Scully, Wall of Light, Alba, oil on linen, 2001  (©Sean Scully)

While I was writing recently about the quilts of Gee’s Bend (see “Inner Sympathy of Meaning”), I couldn’t stop thinking about Sean Scully’s work. One of my  initial thoughts was to pair the two bodies of work—there seemed to be a lot of fodder for discussion. But the expansive scope of that endeavor quickly became apparent and I wasn’t seeing a way to rein it into a blog entry.  So, I left the comparisons for another venue, acknowledging that Scully’s work would stand alone in its own entry.

Still, as I start out on this discussion, I can’t help but note perhaps the obvious— that despite the difference in materials and process, and beyond their similarity of design (i.e. rectangular blocks of color), both the quilts and Scully’s paintings share a spirituality that derives from a deep connection to the universal human condition. My guess is that the Gee’s Bend quilters were just following their hearts, taking pride in making something beautiful out of a utilitarian folk form,  unconscious of any “deeper” meaning all of us might ascribe to the pieces.

Sean Scully, on the other hand, is very deliberate and passionate about using abstract form to explore our Ur-emotions. He once explaned:

“I’m interested in art that addresses itself to our highest aspirations. (Abstract art) allows you to think without making oppressively specific references, so the viewer is free to identify with the work. It’s a non-denominational religious art. I think it’s the spiritual art of our time.”

Not bound to figurative references and the biases each of us harbors about them, Scully is able to explore all aspects of humanity untethered.  As a lover of patterns, I marvel at the way he creates complexity by repeating a simple shape without succumbing to repetition itself.  I respond on an inexplicable, instinctual level to his use of layered color.  There’s something at once both vibrant and soothing about the combinations. Further, in applying the paint so that vestiges of layers beneath show through, Scully has created a sort of living, breathing thing.

Look at them long enough and the compositions begin to suggest places you’ve been. In Wall of Light, Alba (above) I can see a sunny harbor on the Mediterranean (millions of geraniums) or perhaps the pine-scented mountains of Eastern Turkey with their chalk-y outcroppings.  His Figure in Grey series remind me how grey New York can be.

Sean Scully once confessed: “Every day I look at the sky to capture the colour of the day with an anxiety to achieve a synthesis between the cultural world, natural world, and personal world.” High aspirations indeed.

Inner Sympathy of Meaning

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Fine & Decorative Arts, Folk & Tribal Art, Liz Hager, Quilts, Textiles with tags , , , , on May 27, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Lorena Pettway, Quilt (Gee's Bend)

Loretta Pettway, Quilt (4 block strips), ca. 1960
78 x 73 inches
(Courtesy Quilts of Gee’s Bend).

Loretta Pettway has spent her whole life in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, a tiny rural community largely cut off from the rest of the world since after Civil War by a cruel trick of nature. The Alabama River meanders around the town in a horseshoe shape creating a virtual island out of the community. Ferry service ran sporadically until the 1960s, when it stopped altogether. This physical isolation guaranteed that generations of Gee’s Benders would remain wretchedly poor and pretty well ignorant of the world at large—much less the New York art scene.  Ironically, it was this very isolation that enabled the Gee’s Bend women to preserve their rich and beautiful tradition of quilting, passed down through four generations of mothers and daughters.  In a further twist of irony, the quilts themselves have become the means by which the contemporary community has reconnected with the world beyond the bend.

At the de Young exhibition of the quilts last year, I vividly remember the moment when I turned the corner from the hallway into the first exhibit room. That first group of stunningly bold pieces took my breath away.  I was dumbstruck. How could so traditional a folk form created by a group so isolated from the modern world appear so. . . well, strikingly modern? In their abstracted and geometric patterns, the quilts displayed an uncanny kinship to the  60s and 70s paintings of Frank Stella or maybe even Barnett Newman.

As I moved through the exhibition, the quilts offered me something that most of the work of Minimalists never has—quiet and intense joy. It’s the same emotional chord struck in me by a Rothko painting. Perhaps its that large blocks of color function as a long forgotten, but deeply-ingrained, juju on the human psyche. In their uniquely exuberant, yet dignified way, the quilts connected me the wonder and bliss of being human. I felt a kinship to the Gee’s Bend artists, even though I’d never met them. Ultimately, given the evidence of this beautiful handiwork, should it be such a surprise that despite, or perhaps because of, their separation from the world, the quilters of Gee’s Bend had a profound and universal connection to it?

In the early years of the last century, Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), one of the first truly emotive abstract painters, wrote: “the relationships in art are not necessarily the ones of outward form, but are founded on inner sympathy of meaning” (Concerning the Spiritual in Art). Kandinsky believed in the artist as a spiritual teacher.  He strived hard to express the soul of nature and humanity in his work. I believe he would have found true “sympathy of meaning” in the works of Gee’s Bend.

Wider Connections

Mark Rothko (Taschen 25th Anniversary Special Edition)

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