Saturday, July 22, 2017

Seven Doors (Sandra Muss, Artist)

New York and Miami-based assemblage artist Sandra Muss's series Permutations begins with 19th Century industrial doors left scarred, worn, scratched, and etched by decades of factory life. Transformed by art, the doors become "gateways to other dimensions," says one of her gallerists. "They represent new experiences in life, both spiritual and emotional."

Door One: Water
(click on images for larger file)

In paintings, doors (like windows) can function almost like an analogue for the mysterious process of looking and making or viewing art itself. The door or portal is a potent archetype, an ancient symbol resonant with deep memories and dream logic associated with passage from one state to another, one dimension of being to another, the vault of the tomb that is also the womb, the womb that "drives in death as life leaks out," in Dylan Thomas's phrase ("a weather in the flesh and bone/Is damp and dry; the quick and dead/Move like two ghosts before the eye.")

Door Two: Bouquet

"Openings and spaces in her work connote possibility, the potential to enter into new realms and transcend quotidian experience," says her gallerist. "The artist weaves her insights learned from studying shamanism and Kabbalah into the work to create gateways to greater knowledge of the universe and one’s self."

Door Three: Underneath

Muss messes with (heh, couldn't help myself) oil, paint, photographs, and found materials like wood, metal, bird feathers, tortoise shells, flowers, horseshoes, building rubble, whale bones in the service of a sense of time and transformation. 

Door Four: Desert Meditation

"With these pieces, Muss reasserts herself as a visual alchemist who evokes the different pathways we take throughout our lives with her doors," wrote another. "Each door holds the potential to bring us love, growth, and life-transforming opportunities."

Door Five: Quarry Angel

The gate or door as archetype of initiation, "symbols of transformation" (for Jungians, all symbols are  about transformation, because they figure in the psychological "Hero's Journey" of self-individuation). The "quarry angel" is the sublime essence, the spiritual "philosopher's stone" that the artist as alchemist liberates from the prima materia, or base matter of life. Intense materiality creates the conditions for changing places, however faintly, with the divine.

Door Six: Floating

"If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear as it is: infinite." - William Blake

Door Seven: Shutter
Art should always be about transformation; it should shake us from slumber and carry news of our enormous potential. Art should lead us to the edge of being so that, again in the words of the Bard,

"taken by light in her arms at long and dear last [we] may without fail
Suffer the first vision that set fire to the stars." 

Thursday, May 25, 2017

George Hendrik Breitner - Dutch "Impressionist"

Art historians call George Hendrik Breitner (1857-1923) one of the "Amsterdam Impressionists." However, his paintings don't align with the kind of artwork commonly associated with Impressionism. Yet, his approach to painting arguably remained more authentic and true to the basic tenets of the movement than his better-knows French compeers like Monet, Renoir, and Pissarro. 

One of Impressionism's guiding principles (inherited from the Barbizon painters of the 1830s) was the direct, unmediated depiction of contemporary life. For the pioneering Barbizon painters, that meant rejecting official Academic painting and turning to the observed rural landscape and the life of the "common" people who worked the land. 

In contrast, the French Impressionists largely focused on the urban scene, and, as did leading American Impressionists, often on the leisure activities of the middle- and upper-classes. They also strayed from realism (though they'd argue they were being faithful to how vision actually processes what the eye takes in, according to the new science of optics and color) by way of technical developments such as the translation of light into broken color (the reason for the characteristic flecks and dots of paint). 

Breitner, like others in the Dutch Hague School, seems to have digested the basic premise of painting life as at is really lived and seen but rejected the technical flash and polish of the French school as a too-sophisticated mannerism for contemporary life in all its jumbled, gritty reality. The paintings he made remain startlingly fresh and gloriously un-idealized.

According the Rijksmuseum, "Breitner was born in Rotterdam. In 1876, he enrolled at the academy in The Hague. Later, he worked at Willem Maris's studio. In this early period he was especially influenced by the painters of the Hague School. Breitner preferred working-class models: laborers, servant girls and people from lower-class neighborhoods. He saw himself as 'le peintre du peuple', the people's painter. In 1886, he moved to Amsterdam, where he recorded the life of the city in sketches, paintings and photos. Sometimes he made several pictures of the same subject, from different angles or in different weather conditions. Photos might serve as an example for a painting, as for his portraits of girls in kimonos, or as general reference material. Breitner often collaborated with Isaac Israels; both painters are referred to as Amsterdam Impressionists. Conservative critics called Breitner's style 'unfinished'."

He also took powerful photographs and worked with them for reference. The Rijksmuseum has a nice selection of his work on this page.

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Scottish Highlands Call

I’ll be leading a plein air workshop in the Scottish Highlands during the week of October 8th - October 13th, 2017. We'll be painting and staying near Inveraray Castle, which was featured in an episode of "Downton Abbey." 
As for painting locations, in addition to the castle grounds and the impressive loch, locals we’re in touch with are ready to show us the best, easy hiking trails through ancient woods, over hills dotted with ruins, opening out on amazing views.
We will take inspiration from the rolling hills, mountains, lakes, valleys, and coasts of the Scottish Highlands, which have captivated artists for hundreds of years. High Romantics who’ve preceded us, such as Wordsworth, Keats, Byron, Mendelssohn, and J.W.M. Turner, will be our spirit guides. We’ll be headquartered at and around the Duke of Argyll's castle, near the picturesque small quaint town of Inveraray, perched beside Loch Fyne, the largest loch in the country.

The final day, reserved  for exploring, painting solo, or joining the planned sketching trip to Fingal's Cave, will also include stops at Oban and Islay, about three hours to the west.

The workshop fee of $1,650 includes accommodations in a beautiful waterfront cottage, four full days of painting instruction and an optional sketching trek, and daily tea at Castle Inveraray with the Duke and Duchess of Argyll.

This workshop is filling and will fill be full soon, so if you’re interested, shoot me an email and let me know right away.


Fingal's Cave

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Field Report from Smuggler's Notch Inn, Vermont

"When you climb to the top of the mountain
Look out over the town.
Think about all of the strange things
circulating 'round." - Bowie

At 4,393 feet, Mt. Mansfield is the tallest mountain in northern Vermont. I'm told that after a certain chilly point in the year, the clear days are vastly outnumbered by the cold, gusty, gray ones. There's snow all winter, of course, which is why the area (Stowe) is known primarily for skiing (Stowe's also the home of The Alchemist brewery, producing the majestic Heady Topper, one of the highest ranked beers in the world, and certainly America's most coveted brew - but that's a story for another day).

Generations of American landscapists have gathered about the base of this mountain, often en masse, since the early 20th century, major names in mid-century landscape painting like Aldro Hibbard, Chauncey Ryder, Emile Gruppe, and John Carlsen.

Aldro Hibbard in Vermont, dressed for success.
Lugging big easels and bundled in greatcoats and hunting caps, they tramped through the hills and valleys (where extended gusts of icy wind can reach 120 mph). In the evenings they huddled near the fireplace at "base camp," aka, the Smuggler's Notch Inn in Jeffersonville, VT.

Intrepid winterist Stapleton Kearns has continued the tradition. He knew many of the painters I'm talking about and works within that genre. This March, he sent out word that a group was again to convene at said tavern for a week of working outdoors. It wasn't a workshop, just a gathering of landscapists willing to set up and paint in some of the poorest conditions possible (the names of all on Stapleton Kearns's FB page). The camaraderie was great, and the landscape was spectacularly inhospitable.

Stapleton Kearns listing off the names in a toast to the Great Ones in whose snow-prints we were walking.

I went out solo the three days I stayed, because early on I found a spot that felt right and decided I'd have a better shot getting to what I wanted to say about it by painting it multiple times. I learned later it was one of the classic views that several of the old-guard guys painted from pretty much the same spot. Here are two of them, the first by Gruppe, the second by Hibbard.

Mt. Mansfield, Aldro Hibbard

Mt. Mansfield, Emil Gruppe

I may have been further up the rutted mountain road than those guys. At any rate, it was all raging winter and cloud cover on the hilltop. It felt like floating around in a cold, primal soup.

 Mt. Mansfield from my chosen spot.
Every now and then a blizzard-like gust of wind would come roaring by and last for several minutes, during which time I'd "shelter in place" in my faithful Eurovan.

 The way I've been working with the landscape lately, I'll go for a sort of campaign in one spot, returning to the same location to paint it several times. You could call these studies, but while I'm doing them, I think of them as complete paintings. Each one embodies its own ethos, its own set of parameters and aspirations. The process helps me work toward a more complete articulation of what I'm feeling or think I'm trying to say. It's like each new painting shines a light into another corner of the cave.

My set up for the first painting.

All this, though, is preparation for a much larger painting (or if I'm lucky, a series) that I'll undertake in the studio from memory and imagination, without looking at the smaller "studies" made on site.

This 16"x12" is as far as I got on that first one. I'll try finishing this one in the studio.
The plein air paintings are usually 12x16 inches or 14x11 or so. I'll work up in scale in the studio, starting in the 20-30-inch range and go larger if it turns out there's enough coming through to justify working it out further at scale.

This 14"x11" is the next one from the same spot the next day. It's even further from what I wanted to say, but at least it's done ;-)
This time though, the larger studio painting still didn't get all the way to what I thought needed to be said.

This 24"x24" is what I did in the studio from memory, without looking at the plein air studies.

In desperation, I tried it again at a smaller scale in charcoal. Finally, the charcoal piece came closest of all to where I wanted to go. It captures that sensation of "primal soup" I had when I was out there, coupled with a sense of foreboding, I guess, that's part of my personal baggage. I'm not sure I can translate it into a large studio painting, but I'll have to try.

This 8"x8" charcoal interests me the most of all of them so far, but I have doubts about translating it into a large-scale oil. 
While I found myself doing the patchwork-like strokes in the charcoal drawing, I realized I was recalling Cezanne's paintings of Mont St. Victoire. 

Cezanne, Mont Sant Victoire
Now that's a great "mountain painting" - primarily because it's NOT "a painting of a mountain" so much as a testament to what in his Cezanne's time was a wholly new order of beauty. For me, just knowing that's possible makes painting worth doing.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

A Birthday Present (A Painting for Sylvia Plath)

Christopher Volpe, A Birthday Present (Plath), oil

A Birthday Present

by Sylvia Plath

What is this, behind this veil, is it ugly, is it beautiful? It is shimmering, has it breasts, has it edges? I am sure it is unique, I am sure it is what I want. When I am quiet at my cooking I feel it looking, I feel it thinking 'Is this the one I am too appear for, Is this the elect one, the one with black eye-pits and a scar? Measuring the flour, cutting off the surplus, Adhering to rules, to rules, to rules. Is this the one for the annunciation? My god, what a laugh!' But it shimmers, it does not stop, and I think it wants me. I would not mind if it were bones, or a pearl button. I do not want much of a present, anyway, this year. After all I am alive only by accident. I would have killed myself gladly that time any possible way. Now there are these veils, shimmering like curtains, The diaphanous satins of a January window White as babies' bedding and glittering with dead breath. O ivory! It must be a tusk there, a ghost column. Can you not see I do not mind what it is. Can you not give it to me? Do not be ashamed--I do not mind if it is small. Do not be mean, I am ready for enormity. Let us sit down to it, one on either side, admiring the gleam, The glaze, the mirrory variety of it. Let us eat our last supper at it, like a hospital plate. I know why you will not give it to me, You are terrified The world will go up in a shriek, and your head with it, Bossed, brazen, an antique shield, A marvel to your great-grandchildren. Do not be afraid, it is not so. I will only take it and go aside quietly. You will not even hear me opening it, no paper crackle, No falling ribbons, no scream at the end. I do not think you credit me with this discretion. If you only knew how the veils were killing my days. To you they are only transparencies, clear air. But my god, the clouds are like cotton. Armies of them. They are carbon monoxide. Sweetly, sweetly I breathe in, Filling my veins with invisibles, with the million Probable motes that tick the years off my life. You are silver-suited for the occasion. O adding machine----- Is it impossible for you to let something go and have it go whole? Must you stamp each piece purple, Must you kill what you can? There is one thing I want today, and only you can give it to me. It stands at my window, big as the sky. It breathes from my sheets, the cold dead center Where split lives congeal and stiffen to history. Let it not come by the mail, finger by finger. Let it not come by word of mouth, I should be sixty By the time the whole of it was delivered, and too numb to use it. Only let down the veil, the veil, the veil. If it were death I would admire the deep gravity of it, its timeless eyes. I would know you were serious. There would be a nobility then, there would be a birthday. And the knife not carve, but enter Pure and clean as the cry of a baby, And the universe slide from my side.


Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Herman Melville (a poem) by W.H. Auden

Whalers, by J. M. W. Turner, 1845
Herman Melville
by W.H. Auden

Towards the end he sailed into an extraordinary
And anchored in his home and reached his wife
And rode within the harbour of her hand,
And went across each morning to an office
As though his occupation were another island.

Goodness existed: that was the new knowledge.
His terror had to blow itself quite out
To let him see it; but it was the gale had blown him
Past the Cape Horn of sensible success
Which cries: 'This rock is Eden. Shipwreck here.'
But deafened him with thunder and confused with
--The maniac hero hunting like a jewel
The rare ambiguous monster that had maimed his sex,
The unexplained survivor breaking off the nightmare--
All that was intricate and false; the truth was simple.

Evil is unspectacular and always human,
And shares our bed and eats at our own table,
And we are introduced to Goodness every day.
Even in drawing-rooms among a crowd of faults;
he has a name like Billy and is almost perfect
But wears a stammer like decoration:
And every time they meet the same thing has to happen;
It is the Evil that is helpless like a lover
And has to pick a quarrel and succeeds,
And both are openly destroyed before our eyes.

For now he was awake and knew
No one is ever spared except in dreams;
But there was something else the nightmare had distorted--
Even the punishment was human and a form of love:
The howling storm had been his father's presence
And all the time he had been carried on his father's breast.

Who now had set him gently down and left him.
He stood upon the narrow balcony and listened:
And all the stars above him sang as in his childhood
'All, all is vanity,' but it was not the same;
For now the words descended like the calm of mountains--
--Nathaniel had been shy because his love was selfish--
But now he cried in exultation and surrender
'The Godhead is broken like bread. We are the pieces."

And sat down at his desk and wrote a story.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

On "Seeing like an Artist"

Alberto Giacometti at work in his studio.
I'd love to hear some thoughts about this idea, "seeing like an artist," which I for one have been turning over in my mind for some time.

Of course this is all about finding a key to unlock the secrets of art-making, a key that doesn't exist. But that's what philosophy is for!

I've been invited to speak at Rye Art Study, a long-running group of artists and art appreciators (formed in 1963!) that meets once a month at the library in Rye, NH. My talk is scheduled for December 18. I've given this subject (On Seeing like an Artist) as the title of my presentation to force myself to focus and articulate my assumption and ideas about what artists do and why. 

What is "artistic seeing?" At the simplest technical level, it's reducing raw visual information into the components of art. For a painter working from life (e.g. plein air), this could mean a series of questions such as:

  • how can I visually parse - and effectively simplify - what I'm seeing?
  • what are the big shapes and how do they relate to each other?
  • what is the light doing and where are the shadows?
  • what colors predominate and how relatively dark or light, cool or warm, are they?
  • how does texture play into this?

A step beyond technique would involve a different series of questions, such as:

  • what do I want to convey about this subject?
  • what's the best composition for what I want to convey?
  • what will be my "point of interest?"
  • which details of the things I'm looking at serve my intended "story" and which do not?
  • how could I modify what I see to better fit my purpose?

Alberto, aka The G-Man.
As a starting point for deeper enquiry still, here's a quote from modernist sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti that delves into the topic a bit more suggestively than most I've encountered:

"One should draw and paint one’s model the way one sees it - simply the way one sees it. Simply? That of all things is the most difficult! To draw something the way one sees it, not the way one knows it, not the way one thinks it looks, and not the way some others saw it! Only then, when one forgets what one does not actually see, can a resemblance - which is the essential thing - emerge."  - Alberto Giacometti, 1953 

Giacometti's kinda bleak at times...

It seems to me Giacometti is suggesting that a painter somehow literally sees the object as a combination of what’s there and what imagination/emotions/ideation projects onto the object - which means what’s “actually there” for that artist, and him or her alone. The artist’s job is to work to discover and convey that. That’s art. 

Hallelujah! I've got it ALL figured it out!
He could also have said, however, that the artist begins his work only when she no longer sees “what’s really there.” Instead, the painter paints something that is not there - which is to say she conveys a belief, a feeling, or an idea - the artist’s hand “realizes” (1. comes to understand while 2. making real in the form of a material object) how she actually feels about it. The subject or, if abstract, the work itself, then, is a a kind of metaphor or symbol, more or less consciously chosen, for a more or less deeply held belief about life/human nature and conveys in paints a close equivalent of that feeling/idea about the world.

We're all just alienated wanderers, really. -Love, The G-Man.

It's been my experience that the procedure for doing that is to have spent years in touch with the feeling to be conveyed, and to envision, often in a “flash,” a subject that embodies it coupled with a type of treatment (e.g. subjective color and paint handling) that conveys it, and then to set an intention and simply begin painting, surrendering complete control, allowing a combination of impulse and judgment (some call it “intuition”) to guide your choices - you “order it” from your unconscious the way one does in a restaurant and then become the handmaiden of its emergence on the canvas. In this way, the artist "sees" both with the physiological and the "inner" eye. But then what is it, actually, that is "seen?"

More to follow but I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Is this man falling or flying - or neither one? Hmmm...

That idea in the last paragraph of not being the controlling agency of the work is one of the very oldest and most constant in western aesthetics. For Plato, the poet/artist is entheous - (the root of our "enthused") - inspired (in-spirited, breathed into) by the gods (theo), via the Muses - a case of possession by "divine madness." As Shakespeare describes it: “The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,/Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;/And as imagination bodies forth/The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen/Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing/A local habitation and a name."

We're all beasts of burden, and hungry too.

Surely German philosopher Martin Heidegger had something similar in mind when he spoke, in The Origin of the Work of Art, of the original meaning of the word "technique," the Greek techne, as a partnership between the artist and the material that achieves a showing forth or "unconcealment" of Aletheia, the truth of Being that is always there but which we rarely experience or perceive.

"Visit me here any time". -The G-Man.