Art Thoughts, Week 43 -- Pissarro & Screens

Garden, Camille Pissarro (French, 1831—1903) 1876, oil on canvas, BF324.

As spring approaches and the atmosphere gradually warms, our thoughts return almost automatically to outside activities. It’s becoming more habitable out there, after all. Screens play a large part in this re-experiencing of a newly warmed season – they offer a way of having your cake and eating it too. The sun-baked zephyrs can be allowed to waft in through screens, until the sun shifts and the air chills – then the window or door is easily closed. Rather than going outside, we can let the outside in. Screens are a literal and metaphorical compromise. They are semi-transparent layers which allow us to keep two disparate worlds separated but accessible and approachable. They are like a wall, but more flexible; like a door, but more subtle and gradual.

Screens in art, again both literally and metaphorically, are also great compromisers. In Pissarro’s Garden, there are several types of screening existing simultaneously. The trees, on the sides of the picture and wrapping around towards the rear, in front of the village buildings, are a screen to that village, emphasizing the state of the cultivated garden as being its own compromising dynamic between wilderness and civilization. The paint that Pissarro has dabbed on indefatigably is also a screen, and an enigmatic one at that: it fluctuates – in consistency, color and transparency – in accordance with Pissarro’s modulation of his brush work and hue choices. An important characteristic of oil paint is its opacity – previously applied darks can be covered with whites and other much lighter colors, by virtue of that extreme capacity for opacity. Pissarro creates a screen by taking advantage of this very thing; constantly adjusting his application as the light shifts; covering over previous brush marks with new ones, fine-tuning his screen of intent; bouncing us back towards his eventual direction in the image, and away from what he’s decided were his missteps or glitches. The paint is pushed, pulled, dragged and scumbled, to turn our perceptions in a certain way; to help us not just see, but feel a scene in an 1876 park in France, through Pissarro’s physiology, wrought in paint.

And that is another screen – the artists’ craft; the painting itself. Here, it exists between the “reality” that enveloped Pissarro in the park, and Pissarro’s wishes, hopes and skills as a painter and portrayer. It also reminds us that he was, after all things considered, simply a man in a park on a spring day, breathing in a place as well as he could, and scribbling it down for posterity. This is a screen, then – we get, as viewers, a little sense of both that “reality” as Pissarro sensed it, and the resulting record or interpretation of it – but not fully either. To have a door to this scene, we’d need Jules Verne’s time machine. As it is, we have the painting as a permanent screen, allowing us limited access – enough to catch that warm breeze; the scent of earth softening in gentle sun; and brushes soaking in turpentine. To have a screen, in art at least, is a far more subjective – and therefore richer – experience than it would be to be standing there in the flesh. The actual scene might be beautiful; perhaps even transcendent – but Pissarro, even though he might be there painting beside us, would not be part of it, and in essence it would be an entirely different experience than looking at his painting, now residing at the Barnes Foundation. We would have unavoidably placed our own screen in front of the park scene, and a new perception would have been born. Art is always a screen; a grid of selections and choices: if it doesn’t seem to be, then perhaps you have simply slipped back in time.


Picnic Table Naturalist, Page 1: Uprisings

(Picture from:

(Introducing: my new occasional - hopefully bi-weekly - blog journal series for 2009...)

The Picnic Table Naturalist, Page 1 – Uprisings

Have most revolutions begun in the spring? It seems like the ripest time for them: our blood, having been chilled by winter, begins stirring and is ready to once again course freely and warmly, like the sap rising in the trees. We speak of “spring fever”, evoking the sudden flush of anticipation and activity. Societal uprisings aside, the word “revolution” also has a more workaday, but no less radical, sense to it. It simply means to come around again; to spin around, like the rotation of the seasons. In this way, it deals directly with the thawing of winter into spring. Many things are on the rise this time of year. The sap is rising, readying for the faster-paced arboreal growth of the warm seasons. Insects are steadily making their ways out from under bark and rock, to also warm their carapaces and cold fluids. No less than three downy woodpeckers were drumming for their dinner on some deadwood, taking advantage of the insects closer at hand, while I listened from the picnic table.

In the Christian tradition, another type of uprising, the resurrection of Christ, comes this time of year, symbolizing for many the reality of not only a new, but also a recycled and renewed life. And it is no accident that natural symbols of renewed fertility, building towards the summer’s fecundity, are prevalent this time of year: the egg; the chick; the rabbit fawn; the perennials rising from their chthonic beds.

Another symbol of the newly uprising season you can find in the Northeast is the Mourning Cloak butterfly. From my table, I noticed a distinctive motion several yards away, more noticeable through the crushed and sparse undergrowth. Thinking I knew what it was, I went to inspect, and found it indeed was a Mourning Cloak. This dark and beautiful butterfly overwinters in hideaways like fallen, dry logs, and as soon as the wood warms in the spring sun, emerges as one of the first of the Nymphalidae (brush-footed) butterflies to be spied in the woods or suburban areas. This particular butterfly seemed a bit wrinkled, as if it had just unfurled itself like a flag from storage, airing out its winter folds of velvety brown with yellow and blue purfle.

It can be difficult for us clock-bound humans this time of year to rise up, what with the shifting lanes of daylight-savings time occurring for many of us, messing anew with our established habits. But the rest of nature; it is oblivious to this random structuring of time, and continues on as normal, with the gigantic revolution of spring. For many of these creatures, though, it is not really a revolution at all – one among many in a lifespan – but rather the one time they will experience this season in their limited life. Seen this way, we can count it as a benefit to slog through the last bits of the winter, warming our minds with the memories of past springs, which we assume will repeat; returning with all the tiny pleasures and zephyr experiences of an ancient pattern that is created in a radically and completely different way.

This feels like the true New Year.


Studio: 3/11/2009

One part of a series of panels I'm working on (slowly) that deal roughly with the four seasons...(natural, not pop group)...this may change drastically, however...

A panel that I've been playing around with for a few weeks, with shapes inspired by hot cross buns, and satellite dishes...

And, finally, a really poor picture of a work on paper I finished last week, based on basic flag spatial's being pressed under two pieces of 3/16" glass, thus the fuzziness.
There's more to come...


"...a fuller, deeper meaning..."

A quote from Henry Moore that I stumbled upon several months ago, and then saw again yesterday, that really accentuates things I believe in:

"All art is an abstraction to some degree. Abstract qualities of design are essential to the value of a work, but to me of equal importance is the psychological human element. If both abstract and human elements are welded together in a work, it must have a fuller, deeper meaning."

Henry Moore, from Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations, A. Wilkinson.


Art Thoughts, Week 42 -- Redon & Color

St. George and the Dragon, Odilon Redon (French, 1840—1916), date unknown, oil on paperboard, BF2093.

Color has the potential to be revolutionary. Because of its central role in much artwork, that is where it’s stereotypically ascribed the most power, but it is also evident in logos, flags; etcetera. On flags, for instance, color becomes emblematic and symbolic, standing in for wide national sentiments, emotions; even monuments: think of Moscow’s Red Square; the Ukrainian Orange Revolution. Odilon Redon realized color’s power. Being associated with the Symbolists, his subject matter is the most obviously symbolical tool. But Redon just as effectively used color, and it becomes significantly more universal in its influence than pure symbols. In fact, it greatly augments the subject matter. In St. George and the Dragon, Redon has utilized a strongly assertive palette of brash primaries – red; yellow; blue – to portray an apocalyptic version of the Christian myth of St. George slaying a dragon. But this is not just any depiction; this is a revolutionary one, and is so not only for the manner of its portrayal, but certainly also because of its colors.

Primary colors are named that because they are the three colors which firstly, cannot be reduced any further; and secondly, are the colors which are the source of all other colors (as in primal). They are therefore basic, bold and assertive. They are hard to ignore, and even harder to deny. And with a basic coloring often comes base emotion. This can consist of childhood in its raw essence on the one hand, and nationalism and militant rallying on the other – both call back the basic universality of human nature. Our tendency, moreover, is to romanticize each pole of our nature, but each has its dark side as well. And primary coloring pulls no reality punches. It sarcastically accentuates our baser tendencies that we’d often like to forget. Muted pastels; earth tones; neutrals: these are nuanced and subtle in their emoting: primaries, however, are uncompromising and may be irascible or bellicose.

The subject matter painted in these primaries, of St. George and the Dragon, is also basic and bellicose. St. George is spearing a dragon, the symbol of ancient evil and anti-humanity, and is struggling utterly alone on this beach, where a brutal day is blazing out in sunset. One is reminded, casting forward to the cultural future, of Camus’ Meursault on the hot sand in The Stranger, uncontrollably shooting an Arab, and of Charlton Heston’s George Taylor in Planet of the Apes, wandering desperately upon a beached and buried Statue of Liberty, and then wailing in the realization of despair and loneliness. Both scenes are full of the ennui and hopelessness particular to naturalistic and nihilistic thought, and the drastic measures we occasionally must gather to deal with these assumed realities. And so it is with the Redon painting: though he is utterly alone – and we may of course question the purposefulness of the action – St. George nonetheless kills the dragon. But what is the meaning of this intense struggle? What lies after this action, if it is successful? Will it be the “realistic” resignation of Meursault, or the despondent fatalism of Heston? We do not receive an answer; we only bask in this incendiary tableau; this present reality painted in bold, unforgiving color; sarcastic nearly to the point of being meaningless. This painting is a question; not an answer. In this case, we may find some solace in this: the current absence of answers at least allows for their theoretical existence.

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