Studio notes and news

Since no one is commenting on my Art Thoughts, I thought perhaps a few photos from my studio would whet your commenting tongues. Above, you see the outlines of numerous prescription slips which I've been painting in latex over the last few weeks (both sides). After both sides are painted different colors (pink/green; red/blue; yellow/orange, etc.) I fold the sides in 3/4" and then fold the top down 3/4", so that the resulting paper object is like a extremely simple origami of a post-and-lintel doorway (you can see a grid of them on the left of the second photo, being flattened under glass). My idea is to eventually glue or otherwise affix them to a larger, finer piece of paper (such as Arches).

My emerging concept is loosely doorways/passages, a reoccurring theme that's been in the back of my mind for years, but it has not amounted to anything terribly concrete so far... this is definitely one piece in which the form is emerging before the concept. I habitually make notes and lists for myself on random pieces of paper, then folding them and putting them into my pockets, so that has something to do with this idea, I think. In fact, that might be where the idea came from for this project...I folded the paper in a way which made me think of doorways, and realized the visual possibilities of having two-sided/two-colored papers. And I had been pondering what my next use of these prescription slips should be...

Anyway, above picture is of the attractive marks leftover from painting the paper slips; this photo shows the results, and the last photo shows a close-up of the painted slips.

This photo is of a different project which has just recently begun. My studio mate, Mark brought these great panels in for me; they are from old shipping crates for GE refrigerators. I've begun trimming off the battens, and hope to eventually make these all (there's more) the same size, and do a large series on them. I'm pretty sure I want to continue with my use of cloud-shapes on these. In front of the panels is a recent painting; I thought I was done with it, but just this morning changed my mind; I'll post a picture of that later.

Now for the news: my friend and Chicagoan Dayton Castleman has included me in a group show in a Chicago gallery; the show is being called The Strange Place, and opens April 5th. I won't be able to make the opening, but if you're in the Windy City then and see it, let me know how it was. Here's the gallery's website:

That's all for now; stay tuned for Art Thoughts for Week 8 (hopefully actually posted in the week this time...)


Art Thoughts, Week 7 – Prendergast & Balance

(note: the above painting pictured is not from the Barnes Foundation, but it does exhibit the same characteristics as the one I discuss below...)

Beach Scene with Donkeys (or Mules), Maurice Brazil Prendergast, American 1858—1924, c. 1914—1915, oil on canvas, BF 116.

My first time hearing the name Prendergast was on an art-handling delivery trip in Delaware. My co-worker Dan and I were leaning on a chest-high crate, and he mentioned in passing that he thought the boxed painting was a Prendergast. After this fleeting introduction, I didn’t encounter the Prendergast brothers (Maurice the painter and Charles the frame-maker) until I began working at the Barnes Foundation. Dr. Barnes collected many fine examples of Prendergast’s painting, including several framed in his brother Charles’s Arts & Crafts frames. Now, after about three years of admiring the acuity of Maurice Prendergast’s craft, I would count him as one of my favorite American painters. He had an incredibly atypical style, and exhibited a preternatural sense for pattern, gesture, and meaningful color relationships.

In Beach Scene with Donkeys (or Mules) he is indulging in one of his favorite settings – a crowd in a defined space. These were usually beaches, picnic grounds, or other large gathering areas, where small cliques joined to make a larger pattern vacillating between connectedness and disconnectedness. And as much as Prendergast is not really interested in the facial expressions or emotions of the figures he paints, neither is he interested in their human interrelationships: he is simply interested in how they look together in the given space (including the canvas size). In essence, he is reducing his chosen scene to what any artist needs to reduce an observation to: the point at which what is being painted is in equilibrium with the artist’s own aesthetic aims (read: abstraction).

For example, in this painting, not a single figure’s face is dealt with in any more than a cursory interest – a quick, inch-long brushstroke from a filbert loaded with creamy-rose paint is all that suffices for one young woman’s face. What is really important to Prendergast, however, is her relationship (compositionally, as well as spatially and color-wise) to the adjacent figure, and her canary yellow dress opposed to that companion’s steel-blue dress… And so on it continues, to the weight of that particular corner of the painting to the rest of the painting, etcetera. There is a careful, overall balance to how Prendergast has arranged his brushwork, gestures and colors. Too many people on the left; too heavy a leaf texture on the right; too many blues on the top, and you’d expect the painting to suddenly tip over.

There is also a discreet balance between depth and shallowness. On the right, a seated man has his back to us, and his leg, back and neck positions are utterly convincing – he seems to be literally filling space, in a 3-D sense. On the other hand, the filled-in, coloring-book look of his clothing keeps him very flat, and close to us. Similarly, the side-to-side band of ocean clearly tells us it’s “out there”, but our eyes counter that it simply looks like a blue wall directly behind the figures. Again, there is a great stability among all the relationships in the painting, and perhaps this is why crowds had a continuing allure to Prendergast – they were a challenge to his innate desire to balance relationships within the intimate life of a painting.


Art Thoughts, Week 6 – Glackens & Style

(Dear readers: apologies are due; this post is a week late, and the previous one still has no image. I had, admittedly, a great deal of trouble finding ANYTHING that looked vaguely like that painting...I'll put something up there, but if you want the real scoop, come see it at the Barnes. And since the post below is technically last week's, I'll be looking at and thinking about another painting towards the end of the week. Hey, it's only Wednesday!!)

Self-portrait (Portrait of the Artist), William James Glackens, American, 1870—1938, 1908, oil on canvas, BF 105.

How does a painting like this come about? Perhaps one afternoon Glackens arrived home; removed his hat and, liking the eccentricity of his hair, sat down in front of a mirror to do a self-portrait; arriving at a picture which would end up in the collection of his long-time friend, Dr. Albert Barnes. Regardless, Glackens as sitter has an extremely interesting loft to his hair in this painting, what my family would call a strubbelkopf, throwing Pennsylvania German phrases around as we do.

There are several things about this portrait which show Glackens’ hand, if you will – signature elements that turn up in much of his work. One is the radical shift in modeling styles that can be found, for example, in the area between his collar and his jowl. The collar follows the style of almost the entire painting – the background, his jacket, even his hair to some extent: extremely choppy and slathered, and at spots thickly knifed on. Immediately adjacent to this meaty paint is the softly toned, smooth, plastic surface of his neck; a world away from the tempestuous brushwork of most of the painting. It’s as if Leon Kosoff has suddenly begun painting over a color photograph. This is a contrast found in many of Glackens’ paintings which contributes to a fairly shallow focus in the painting, similar to the very shallow focus popular in magazine photography a few years back. His face is the only part of the painting that seems still, focused and deliberated over; the rest fuzzes into the background. (Of course, this is a bias; we know well enough that even the sloppiest paint can be deliberated over for hours.)

Another stylistic signpost is the juxtaposition of sharply contrasted reds and greens. This was a favorite practice of Glackens which can be seen, without exception as far as I know, in all of his portraits at the Barnes Foundation. Again, in the self-portrait’s colors, as in the contrasting surfaces, there is a definite minority/majority relationship. Deep alizarin, brick and umbers dominate; there are less blues, cadmium-type reds, and scant green. The greens, in fact, are relegated solely to the angles of his face (and an emerald dollop for a tie-pin) where they interact wonderfully with the roses and raspberries that are on opposing facets of the face. When seen from across the room, this contrast makes for a surprisingly-alive skin surface. In some of his portraits, Glackens played up the decorative differences in these colors, and there they seem more Fauve, but here it is for the sake of a purer realism.

The final element which could be pointed out as being a particular of Glackens – this time to his personality, not to continuity of his style, necessarily – is the marked differences between sides of his face. In this portrait, he is thirty-eight years old. While viewing the painting, I held a hand over the right side of the face: an impression of someone in the vigor of their early thirties was there…I then covered the left side, and immediately got the impression of a man ten or fifteen years older, disintegrating into the background. Did Glackens realize this possibly telling detail? Probably not; we don’t often give the artist the benefit of the doubt on these psychological issues: speaking as an artist, we don’t often consider these – or these particular – things. Critics have a way of placing a filter of themselves over an artwork, then having trouble seeing past it. The question does hang, though, and remains a good signifier for other particulars of Glackens' painting: he is nothing if not precociously aware.


Art Thoughts, Week 5 – "Unidentified" & Questions

(above, not very close to the one somewhat the same...and from the right century and continent! Gothic 15th c. France...artist named Gonsalves?))

Three Apostles with Stick, Key and Axe, unidentified artist, Northern European, possibly 15th century; oil and gold on panel, BF 845.

Facing a work of art should raise questions. And it’s only natural: unless the art was made by someone just like you, with your exact context, at least one question should emerge. (I would add, too, that if an artwork does not cause a few questions, then either the work has failed in one of its prime directives, or you the viewer have not been faithful in your visual education.)

Occasionally, though, a work of art crosses the threshold of personal questions, and jumps back even farther, so that one then needs to ask, how did the original viewers see this? That is, questions not primarily about what we’re seeing, but what others saw. Hopefully by finding some tentative answers to the first questions, contemporary ones might be answered. The painting I looked at this week, Three Apostles with Stick, Key and Axe, by an unidentified 15th century German artist, is one of these works.

This type of painting is often described as didactic; that is, it was installed in a church or chapel to either (or both) educate the congregants about those who had “gone on before”, or inspire them to emulate the devotion and passion of the church’s best. Still, this did not necessarily answer my initial question, being, how did people approach this painting? What, for example, was their first thought when they saw it with new eyes, so many centuries ago? Another way to ask the same question is: did they work? I asked this because the Barnes Foundation owns three other paintings like this one – with groupings strange to modern eyes; each with three non-contemporaneous saints, holding their objects like horribly inappropriate gifts for the viewer, and looking like somewhat awkward family-photo shoots in their arrangement. So – were the faithful indeed spurred on to greater works of sacrifice and charity?

I’ll describe the painting briefly before I continue. There are three saints in a snug composition, showing no background between them; above is a heavily-worn gilded space incised by subtle halos, showing red bole through (gilding undercoat). This creates a weirdly conflagratory space behind them. Their feet rest angled sharply on a mustard plank. (The environment is clearly not the most important feature). The figure to the left is standing with his body facing the viewer, but his head is bowed contemplatively towards the other two saints, who are more actively moving to the left, heads resolute. By far the most arresting thing about the picture is the colors of their clothing – scarlet; lemon yellow; rose; salmon and turquoise; grey and forest green. This alone would have caught many an eye, pulling them in to then focus on other aspects of the painting; namely, the personages and their objects, and what they symbolize.

I don’t have space to answer all questions. My first was, however: who are these? After brief research combined with my existing hagiographic knowledge (small!), I decided that the figures were (or might be): St. James the Greater (his symbol a “cockle” or scallop shell and pilgrim’s staff); St. Peter (holding the ornate Key to the Kingdom); and St. Boniface of Tarsus with his broad-axe and book. And, dealing with an earlier question, it is my guess that when combined originally with the other three panels, this painting would have served as an inspiration to viewers; perhaps as an interactive space where information and spiritual heritage would pass generationally and congregationally. There doesn’t seem to be much other original purpose for it – and by 1928 or so, Dr. Barnes had latched on to its aesthetic qualities, creating a new 20th century relevance. Appropriately enough, though, Dr. Barnes would return this painting and many other centuries-old pieces to a didactic use, through the lenses of science and aesthetics. In good works of art, questions don’t diminish as the piece ages; in fact, the opposite might be true.


Insanity masquerading as conservatism.

"The Pentagon would receive a $36 billion, 8 percent boost for the 2009 budget year beginning Oct. 1, even as programs aimed at the poor would be cut back or eliminated. Half of domestic Cabinet departments would see their budgets cut outright."

Ahh, fiscal conservatism...gotta love it! And whatever happened to compassionate conservatism? Guess that's what we're doing in Iraq. Yup.


God help us from "conservatives".


Art Thoughts, Week 4 – Cezanne & Contrast

Bathers at Rest, Paul Cezanne (French, 1839—1906), 1876-77, oil on canvas, BF 906.

I’ll begin with two suppositions, which will soon connect. One: Dr. Albert Barnes supposedly included “bad” (in his estimation) paintings by genius artists, mostly for didactic purposes; i.e. to perhaps illustrate the difficulties – and the interrelatedness – of not only seeing art well, but also making it well. And two: Paul Cezanne, the master of Aix-en-Provence, supposedly made two major types of paintings; en plein air, and studio. I don’t know the history of Barnes’s opinions on Bathers at Rest, but it is, in some ways, not the most beautiful painting by Cezanne. And in some other ways, it is a really wonderful picture (shown above; an unfortunately dark version).

Remember those compare-contrast papers from grade school? This painting is a study in compare and contrast; a studio painting in the true sense (studious). But most comparisons end up being contrasts. Each of the four figures is striking a different pose: stretching; supine on the grass; forward, arms akimbo; leaning against a rock. Another contrast is found in the marked variety of trees: some feathery and frond-like; others straight and spindly; one even suggestive of a spreading chestnut. These two contrasting groups seem almost like illustrations from a guidebook to tree forms, and a study book of figure drawing.

Another dominant contrast is that of dark and light. The light primarily emanates from the background – on the mountain, valley and river in roughly the center of the painting – while the rest is in shadow. The only protrusion of light into the foreground’s shade is a small triangle and a thin bar of lemon-lime colored grass, the very edge of the background’s light draped over the closer knoll.

Color too, is influenced by this bent towards contrast. The warmest of them are clustered around the painting’s center: warm bricks and terra-cottas under the spreading tree and in the central figure’s limbs and skin; Provencal reds and salmons in the valley behind the bathers. Besides the lemon-lime shafts of light which anchor the foreground to the background, the rest of the colors all around this warm core gradually grow cooler and cooler. These warm colors form a type of hub around which the cooling day rotates, connecting the heat in the figures directly to the heat from the sky and rocks. In fact, a line of light begins in the sky – a central cloud dabbed lightly with cadmium orange – and falls to the mountain’s edge, continuing through the valley and underneath the spreading tree, and then jumping the river to the triangle and bar of limey light. It then moves to the human element, in the central figure’s hands and thighs, until the very tip of the warmness in his toe touches the water at the very bottom of the canvas. Thus we’ve returned, in a way, to the warm sky: the reflection is the sky’s doppelganger.

A painting which I’m always reminded of when looking at this Cezanne, is The Mountain, (pictured here) by the Polish/French painter Balthus. In it we also have varied figures; contrasts of light and dark, cool and warm; a definite cut of light near the center of the painting. But while Balthus, as usual, is deep into his Prussian psyche, Cezanne is simply struggling to get outside his craft, while stuck inside on a rainy day – (despite what Dr. Barnes – or Freud – might try to persuade us of otherwise).

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