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.

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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
     mildness,
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
    lightning:
--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...

Esoterica: 
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.


Saturday, October 8, 2016

Early Wolf Kahn in Boston exhibit


Acme Fine Art Gallery in Boston's SOWA district is showing a compelling group of very strong paintings from an early period in Wolf Kahn's career. The exhibit's up now through November 26, 2016.

Cypress Rows

Created during the early 1960s, these abstract landscapes reveal a moodier side of Kahn, different from the exuberant explosions of color, light, and shadow for which he is best known today. Acme Gallery obtained the work because Kahn (who's 89 years old) is downsizing his New York studio and couldn't store it any longer. Kahn's early works are rarely shown; he's reportedly been watching the auctions and buying back his initial experiments, presumably to fine-tune his legacy by removing them from the market, if not from history. (Some artists destroy earlier work they feel will dilute their overall achievement.)


Kahn made these paintings during travels in Maine and in Italy in the early 1960s. They're striking for their rich, cool blues and purples intertwined with grays, subdued greens, and only occasional hints of the high-keyed palette that dominates his oeuvre. The grays are still present in his paintings today, but primarily as foils for the flaring brights - here in the early work the roles are reversed. 


Wolf Kahn, Untitled (Landscape from Penobscot Bay), c. 1963

"I was using the language of abstract expressionism to play my own games," Kahn's said of the paintings of this period. The painting above struck me as a sort of amalgam of Claude Monet and Joan Mitchell. 


Claude Monet, Blue Waterlilies, c. 1910?
Joan Mitchell, Rufus's Rock, 1966 (with art dealer Riva Yares)

The surface is dense, layered, textured with expressive brushwork agitated by the drips and accidents of action painting.  Here are three details of the Penobscot painting:






There's a wonderful series of sailboats from this period, too. (Who'd imagine something as cliched as a sailboat would lend itself so well to a visionary, nuanced abstract treatment?)





The painting below was my favorite of the fleet. It's at first glance "just" an all-white conceptual painting. It's a radical rendering, however, of a moment of perception - sheets and waves of brilliant sunlight drenching and dancing off the white sails of a boat.


As the wall text points out, the cascading glare is actually composed of subtle tonal shifts of warm and cool color and, seen from further away, the painting resolves itself into the familiar motif. 



Wolf Kahn, Disappearing Sailboat

Closer pic of "Disappearing Sailboat"
The largest painting on exhibit, "Into a Clearing," is a delightful paradox - a representation of ebullient foliage rendered in non-representational, Mitchell-like scribbles of subdued, grayed-down color.


Wolf Kahn, Into a Clearing, closer up.
The subject matter, scale, brushwork, and overall perceptual / expressionistic character of this one put me immediately in mind of contemporary painter Eric Aho. 

Eric Aho landscape
Here are a number of closeups of Wolf Kahn's surface in "Into a Clearing":





This small-scale but no-less potent show is certainly worth a walk-through. Rumor has it this is Acme Fine Art's final exhibition before the owner retires, which is a shame because Boston needs every daring, progressive gallery of contemporary art it can get.

Wolf Kahn, Early Work, installation view.
Check here for a thorough write-up on Acme's website and here for a selection of the works on view.








Friday, July 15, 2016

Some Thoughts on Painting

Enrique Martinez Celaya, The Education, 2015
I think that, for whatever unclear reasons, artists walk through this world burdened with a feeling of unrest and dissatisfaction with the conditions of human life as it's lived day to day. 

Enrique Martinez Celaya, The Burning
Then one day they encounter a great work of art (it could be a painting, a novel, a poem, a piano concerto…) and suddenly they fall in love with the idea that it is possible to improve those conditions - to elevate humanity above its habitually low level of consciousness by bringing into existence tangible manifestations of a full life, in fact the best of human thought and feeling.

Enrique Martinez Celaya, The Confession
Something in this individual silently devotes itself to this "mission" of accessing a deeper, more meaningful reality in themselves and bringing into existence objects and experiences (works of art) that make those states both evident and accessible to others. 


Then begins a difficult but inevitable though often uplifting lifetime of trying and mostly failing to achieve something: art, the only thing worth doing.


This is often described as a "calling." - All this no matter how unlikely the odds that they will ever create anything on an equal footing with the great works of the great artists in history. This project of living a more authentic life, of really seeing and thinking and feeling and wanting to share that through the practice of art, is what inspires great artists to create. 


All authentic art - that is, art that's honest, in which the artist has created from within without relying over much on the successes of his or her predecessors - has the beneficial effect of allowing people open to experiencing the art to awaken to their own untapped potential as thoughtful, feeling individuals. 


Most people live lives of "quiet desperation" always looking over their shoulder at those around them and doing what they think they are supposed to do or what other people (i.e. society) want or coerce them into doing. 



We live in a completely commercialized culture in which nearly everyone behaves as if acquiring money is the goal (whether or not they consciously believe this, and very few actually do, nevertheless it's is how many's days are spent because so few believe they have any other choice). Strong art does what economically driven societies and communities only do as an afterthought, if at all - it creates moments of meaningful human expression and communication, celebrating the "impractical" areas of human experience (dreams, imagination, sensation, ideas) providing nourishment for thought, feeling, and perception. 


I didn't start painting until the age of 41, but I'd been on an artistic path (as a poet, in fact) since the age of 16. I fell in love with painting after discovering the great works of American painters from the 19th and early 20th centuries, which until then I had never truly seen or understood. I knew I loved it as soon as I smelled the linseed oil I use every day and saw the first colors taking form under my brush. 



I follow Gaugin’s advice as best I can:

“Paint freely and madly; you will make progress Above all, don't sweat over a painting; a great sentiment can be rendered immediately   Don't copy nature too closely. Art is an abstraction; as you dream amid nature, extrapolate art from it and concentrate on what you will create as a result."


While ordinary visual seeing is a given, artistic seeing is a matter of spirit - which is to say, the artist’s inner life of imagination, memory, and sensation, compounded with one’s highest ideals concerning art and life. These things inform the kind of work one wants to make, and this in turn literally informs what and how one sees in the world. 



One's artistic practice should always be about the struggle for self knowledge. It mustn’t revolve around technique, conception, or even perception alone.



Painting is a manifestation of being; it's a concretized form of self-development that never has to end as long as one lives. 

Enrique Martinez Celaya (studio wall)


All paintings in the post are by Cuban-American painter Enrique Martinez Celaya.