Glimpse into the studio

Eve and Adam, latex, spray paint and enamel on found panels, 2009.


Art Thoughts, Week 38 -- Braque & Trickery

Still Life with Knife, Georges Braque (French 1882—1963), oil on canvas, BF546.

Trickery has a long history in art – both in simple fun and for ulterior motives, artists attempt to manipulate and subvert the viewer’s actions and opinions. Trompe-l’oeil (in English, “fool the eye”) is one of the oldest names for this type of trickery, though the concept is immemorial. In a way, every attempt at mimicking visual reality is a form of trickery. Art, and even novels, have been derided or condemned as immoral, since the artist or author was attempting to co-opt the creative supremacy of God – that is why some considered fiction to be “lying” and image-making to be “idolatry”.

Braque, the father of Cubism, is participating in a parallel mode to trompe-l’oeil, but not in any way in which eyes (or vision in general) is being fooled. He is, in essence, employing in Still Life with Knife a painting technique which could be called “fool the painting” rather than “fool the eyes”. And, it looks exactly the opposite of a typical trompe-l’oeil work. Instead of the viewer being fooled, we are in on the action: it is the scene – the painting – which is being tricked. This is akin to the playwright’s technique of an aside, in which the audience is given information by a character in the play, which one or the rest of the characters do not know. Now, this may sound fantastical when applied to a painting, but suspending disbelief for a bit by personifying this painting, we may discover the effect of certain modernist painting techniques on the very idea of painting, and the nature of its relationship to the reality to which it’s linked.

There are several distinct things that Braque has employed in this painting which will help explicate what is meant by “fool the painting”. For one, he has mixed sand into his paints, or the ground. It’s a little hard to tell which, but for all intents and purposes, the effect is largely the same: the sand – through the paint and under the image, emphasizes the flatness of the picture plane, and de-emphasizes all manner of illusion. So, if for a second we switch places with the painting, it may be expecting to be painted with at least a modicum of reality. But because we can see the sandy layer clearly, thrown into relief by reflection, we know that Braque is not concerned about the reality itself; but rather in creating an interpretation of the scene that has a deliberate life of its own – obviated by the sandy layer. A second technique that Braque uses to make it clear to us this painting is unrealistic (surface) is a pattern similar to faux graining on painted woodwork or furniture in the lower left hand corner; a dragged fork or other tined tool has created the faux wood grain of the table. But not only is it not really a table, it is a faux representation of a fake table: it is doubly fake – the point is reiterated. Again, the painting itself has been tricked, and we are in the know.

Still another way in which Braque is fooling the painting, and emphasizing surface, is through painting a black halo around the still life arrangement: the glass, knife, pears and napkin – all making clear that the painting is nothing but surface. The halo establishes the two-dimensionality of the scene, sliding the surrounding negative space – what the painting is assuming to be made to look “further back” – up to the forefront, equalizing it with the positive shapes. It’s almost as if this table is being tipped up and everything is coming straight toward us at the same speed, regardless of distance. In this feeling alone does the painting seem to be defying its materiality...and Perhaps in its "fakeness", this painting appeals to the more conservative viewers, purely for it's obvious disconnection from reality?


Art Thoughts, Week 37 -- Toulouse-Lautrec & Place

Figure (“A Montrouge”—Rosa La Rouge), Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, French (1864—1901) 1886—1887, oil on canvas, BF263.

Every painting has its place. It’s impossible for an artwork not to be a product of its time; no matter how futuristic, unprecedented or astounding it may seem close to its inception. Revisit it in a year; a decade; even a century later, and with hindsight, definite links can be made with undercurrents – sometimes latent, yes – in the larger culture. This is why I think the common modernist distinction of avant-garde – literally, “edge of the knife”, predecessor of the anglicized version “cutting edge” – can be so misleading: it pushes an artwork out ahead powerfully, before other elements of culture, without acknowledging its being part of the era’s larger web. On the other hand, the avant-garde is a reality. Culture is like an icebreaking ship: there are some components that are as hard and uncompromising as a steel bow and others that are in more supportive roles, like a rudder or hull: what good, after all, is a knife without a handle? Regardless, however, of a painting’s level of connectedness to a particular culture, there are always associations which jump timeframes, eras and cultures.

This painting, Figure, by Toulouse-Lautrec, first struck me as being something which could have been painted by a member of Pennsylvania’s first family of art, the Wyeths. The emotionally melancholy pallet; the reliance on draftsmanship in painting method; the sudden psychological twist of the head and hidden facial features; the figure stuck in an interior from a different century: all these things seemed to cry out Brandywine Valley to me, having a familiarity with Wyeth works since childhood. (Funnily enough: another association that hadn’t occurred to me until a colleague mentioned it is that this pose is characteristic of Michael Jackson, circa 1990 – sans only the white glove.)

And even though this painting is somewhat uncharacteristic of Toulouse-Lautrec’s other paintings – and even of portraits in general up to this time – there are elements of it that relay some things we know about Toulouse-Lautrec. He was essentially a cripple from childhood, victim to aristocratic inbreeding and alcoholism; the latter to which he succumbed at the age of thirty-six. So many of his paintings exude an escapist wish; they depict the dancing, faux glamour and alcohol-fueled vivacity of the Parisian nightclub scene. “Rosa La Rouge” was one of his favorite models, and seems to have been the object of his desires, unrequited as they may have been. Here in this painting is the true emotion behind the nightclub glitz: a melancholic depiction of a woman laborer in her workaday world, depicted by a depressed man desperately grappling for a place in his world, through the medium of incessant artistic production. Thus an irony of this painting: in the very place where the glossy finish is chafed off of the artist’s life, the object of his affection’s face is obscured, perhaps by her own inhibitions, limitations; the necessity of hard labor. And while so much of Toulouse-Lautrec’s production is happy and colorful on the surface, knowing something of his history seems to suggest that this is the truer to his underlying, core emotions.

Perhaps a final suggestion that could be made is that Andrew Wyeth throughout his life in art was truer to his own interior tendencies, and thus his oeuvre feels comparatively consistent in emotion and revelation to Toulouse-Lautrec’s…but that wouldn’t be entirely fair to the very different places which the hobbled Frenchman and the melancholy Pennsylvanian found themselves within. Freedom to find their place made an enormous difference.


News Flash from Brandywine

Breaking News Alert

The New York Times

Friday, January 16, 2009 -- 9:27 AM ET-----Andrew Wyeth, Painter, Dies at 91

Mr. Wyeth portrayed the hidden melancholy of the people and landscapes of Pennsylvania's Brandywine Valley and coastal Maine in works such as "Christina's World."


Art Thoughts 2009!

No, I haven't forgotten about my promise last year, around this time, to do a weekly mini-essay on an artwork at the Barnes Foundation...called Art Thoughts. Though many weeks were really tough on my discipline, I did finally get to number 36, and I plan on plugging away on this project in the new year, until it is done (week 52: the equivalent of a year's worth of weekly essays).

So, next up is my reflections on one of the Toulouse-Lautrec paintings here at the Foundation: enjoy! I will have it up by Friday, early-afternoon at the latest.

After this project is finished (probably by mid-March), I hope to begin another series of these miniature art-essays. If anyone has read these, and thought, "I wish he'd write about ____", or "I wonder if he's ever thought of ____", please send those ideas my way, and I will consider them.

As the series went on, I realized how much I was becoming interested in how what I was seeing at the Foundation resonates with much older artwork, and conversely, more contemporary artwork (for example, the Jacques-Louis David + Bonnard, and the Vuillard + James Castle). This might be a focus of a new series. It's hard to not use such an immediate source as that right outside my office door!

In other arenas, I made some informal resolutions with myself this new year: firstly, to pursue my small business ideas; and secondly, to pursue my artwork with more gusto and determination, becoming more assertively and boldly self-promotional. I've heard too many stories, yes even in Philly, of artists who simply befriend gallery and arts professionals, talk about and ask for a project or show, and end up getting it...seems they've learned the lesson of "ask, and it shall be given you" more quickly than I have.

Additionally, I hope to be more resolute in my posting updated pictures of current work in the studio. For now, I just updated (slightly) my website with some new images and news items, so go and check that out.

Here's to success in 2009! >clink<

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