Monday, March 5, 2018

Shelter in Plates

There's an excellent show of five contemporary New England artists at the Fitchburg Art Museum titled Fantastical, Political. As I wrote in my review for Art New England, the show features "appealing surfaces and seemingly quaint ornamentations that disclose charged political statements and barbed social commentaries that linger like unhealed wounds." You'll have to wait for the issue to come out to read the rest (I know, you CAN'T WAIT!!!), but while I was checking out the show, I also discovered a treasure of Boston contemporary art of which I knew nothing. It wasn't part of my piece for ANE, so I decided to document it and share it here.

“Shelter in Plates” is displayed in a small adjoining room in the back where the Fitch is showing works from the permanent collection that relate to their main exhibitions. The work consists of six fancy-looking “commemorative plates” that Chantal Zakari and Mike Mandel created, much like those nice ceramics that are made to commemorate world fairs, national events, or public ceremonies. But these plates riff brilliantly on that hokey tradition to memorialize the mood of anxiety and fear and the “shelter in place” tactics used by police to lockdown Watertown during the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bomber. 

Mandel, a photographer, documented the scene as the police moved through their neighborhood, and Zakari, a visual designer, turned the photos into at-first-glance "souvenirs." I've got pix of the wall text, so there's no need for me to babble on. Enjoy. Each plate is followed by a closeup showing the details. As always, click on the images for higher res (readable) versions.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

A very special paint box

Gearhead warning! I'm the proud owner of a brand new custom-made antique-hardwood paintbox/sketchbox that a friend of mine crafted for me.

Longtime followers may recall that some time ago I found a palette in the attic of the farm house we live in that my wife Anna's great-grandparents built in 1872. The palette could only have been Hilda's (Anna's grandmother). It's a beautiful tool - a small, thin slice of hardwood (not plywood) in an unusual shape, light as a feather, and seasoned to beat the band. 

I asked Michael Ready, a Lowell friend and master woodworker, if he could build a paintbox around it. I acquired a reclaimed barn board of 400 year-old chestnut at a local lumberers and Michael worked his magic. It took a while, but last week the prophecies were fulfilled, the skies parted, and my newly inseparable companion arrived to the fanfare of heavenly trumpets and angelic choirs and trailing clouds of glory.

Michael secured the box with a precise solid brass English latch and attached a vintage oxblood leather handle I'd been saving for just such a use.
To finish it, he didn't stain or varnish - he rubbed the wood with linseed oil and wax to bring out the natural luster. The grain is gorgeous!

Here it is open. You can see Hilda's palette is secured with a little wooden turn-latch and thus perfectly housed (serendipitously, it matches the wood's color, too). 

The palette comes down and rests on supports so I can pop a canvas into the lid and go to work. 

Here it is filled with my painting supplies.

I added a crimson liner to the bottom using some found fabric. It looks big, but it's only 11 inches across - perfect for the 8" x 8" and 8" x 10" panel studies I do in the studio and at home.

I also added a matching detachable leather shoulder strap.
I got the hardware for the shoulder strap from an old French easel.
Gorgeous ain't it? It's always with me, so I'm always ready to paint. It comes with me to the studio in the morning and travels back home with me at night. They say you have to love your tools, your materials, your instrument, so that you always want to play it. I certainly feel that way about this little number. Many thanks to "Mr. WorksWood," aka Michael Ready, for bringing such beauty into my life!

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Pop Art explained in two sentences

.... and dismissed utterly (but not by me!) as a big part of what's wrong with the art world.

Claes Oldenburg, “French Fries and Ketchup” (1963), vinyl and kapok on wood base
What is Pop Art and why would someone pay millions of dollars for a reproduction of something from a magazine that's not even made by the artist himself but by assistants working in assembly-line fashion at the artist's "factory?"

Andy Warhol's "Cow Wallpaper" from the 1960s, installed with five silkscreens from his electric chair series.

Well, because art history has enshrined the work. But why is that? Because as Shakespeare said, art holds the mirror up to nature. Stay with me. In the very same way that exquisitely detailed Dutch still life painting reflected the urbane cultural values of Northern Europe in the 17th century, the Pop Artists showed us how shallow and commercialized American culture had become, all the while riffing on and exploiting the rich colors, bold contrasts, and "of the moment" energy of commercial graphic design. Here's an excellent two-sentence definition of why art historians (and those who "get" Pop Art) care:

"(The Pop Artists') rise in the 1960s perfectly echoed the banal consumer society that exploded as the post-war economy prospered. They typically represented everyday objects and the signs of popular mass culture through representational techniques used by advertisers and comic strip commercial artists." Bam! There you have it. 

Roy Lichtenstein, BAM! - 1960s
Look, art imitates life. If you don't like what you see, blame life! Blame the 1960s: consumer products, sexual liberation, rock music, drug use, tragic death, and a heavy dose of shopping—the cultural phenomena that defined the decade. Above all, Pop art is a reflection of the American cult of consumerism. It confuses those who like a high-brow, refined definition of art as "high art" because it blurs the lines between fine art and popular culture.

The writer of those two sentences above, Joseph Nechvatal (writing as a correspondent for the excellent online art mag Hyperallergic), was reviewing a Pop Art show currently in Paris and ruefully reflecting on the "Ugly American" stereotypes this brand of art exposes (or "celebrates," depending on whether you like Pop Art or not - Nechvatal decidedly does not).

The writer notes that the Paris show, Pop Art: Icons that Matter, regrettably reinforces the "Ugly American" stereotypes which, he says, are being reinvigorated in France by the behavior of Donald Trump, whom he describes as "a loud, arrogant, white, sexist, racist American president who reportedly never reads or works on a computer, but watches hours of television a day, drinks around 12 Diet Cokes and chows down Big Mac cheeseburgers for dinner while endlessly talking on the telephone with friends (all activities conspicuously right in line, he notes, with the self-confessed personal habits of Andy Warhol).

Andy Warhol, Coca-Cola 3 Bottles, 1962
He chides Pop (which extends from the Warhol/Lichtenstein/Rauschenberg 1960s through the 1970s,  '80s, and '90s to the contemporary neo-pop that Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst are producing and selling for millions today) because it does nothing to resist what he sees as consumer culture's oppressive failings. 

Jeff Koons, Ballon Dog (Orange) 1994-2000 mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent coating. Auctioned at Christies in 2013 for $58 million.
Instead, he argues, pop art is complicit in consumer culture and doubly damnable for denying us, its audience, art's ability to engage human subjectivity - Pop Art is just "there" ("I like boring things," Andy said. "I am a deeply superficial person"). He blames Pop for the rise of the bloated prices and over-commercialization and hollowness of much contemporary art on display at celebrity-studded art fairs and stratospheric auctions. Pop, he says, "greased the chute for the price-porn piggies and their abuse of art as a luxury/lifestyle/investment device that has lately been deforming culture as never before." Dude has an axe to grind - but when a single painting sells for $450 million (more than the GDP of the world's smallest seven countries) he does have a point.

Andy Warhol, Flowers from the1960s
In condemning Pop Art on numerous levels (or rather dismissing it as something that "doesn't matter"), he argues for a "darker, more indeterminate" and "enigmatic" art that forces us to to interpret it and in so doing empowers us to "re-appropriate (our) capacity to see on a personal basis." In saying that, he is a theorist after my own heart.

I don't think that in order to "matter" a work of art has to be "a site of cultural resistance," as Nechvatal seems to believe, but I do want to create art that does exactly what he describes: "It invites the viewer into the position of an active visualizing participant" and "rewards the inner (private) human condition or resists the social/political/commercial spectacle that tries to consume it." That's the aesthetic of my Loomings series in a nutshell.  

Andy Warhol, Jackie, 1964
Actually, a good deal of Warhol's lesser-known work is gritty, darkly ironic, and legitimately full of meaning and at times touched by actual emotional pathos, personal reflection, and the twinning of beauty and sadness, IMHO, Mr. Nechvatal.

The whole article is a very stimulating read and I recommend you check it out if you have a few extra minutes of web time. 

Andy Warhol, “Electric Chair,” (1971), silkscreen

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Dennis Miller Bunker - An American in Medfield

Dennis Miller Bunker, The Brook at Medfield, 1889 (click for high res closeup)

Though his life would be tragically cut short just six years later, Dennis Miller Bunker at the age of 23 was one of the most promising of the young American Impressionists who sprang up in Boston toward the end of the 19th century. Bunker and other Boston painters mentored by William Morris Hunt - including Tarbell, Childe Hassam, Wm. Merrit Chase, and Frank Benson, became avid disciples of Monet. Collectively they’re referred to as the “Boston School.”
Bunker learned Impressionism from John Singer Sargent in England and while spending a summer painting with Monet. But in 1889, when Bunker couldn’t afford to return to England with Sargent, his patron Isabella Steward Gardner (who’d lost a young son, who had he lived would have been Bunker’s age) recommended the young man go and see Medfield, Mass.  

Medfield had already been immortalized after George Inness moved there with his family and began painting it around 1860. It was there, a few years later, that Inness, moved by the onset of the Civil War, created his first great, fully realized spiritual visions of the American landscape, paintings that would eventually give birth to the Tonalist movement, including his celebrated Peace and Plenty.

George Inness, Clearing Up (Medfield)
Isabella was in the habit of taking Boston socialites there for parties and concerts at the summer cottage of her friend Charles Martin Loeffler, a well-known composer and concertmaster for the BSO. Bunker fell in love with the place and, while staying at a congenial boarding house, painted dozens of canvases over the the summers of ’89 and ’90, his most productive years ever.

You can see examples of these paintings at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Boston Athenaeum, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The public saw the first of Bunker's Medfield paintings in 1890. 

Dennis Miller Bunker, The Pool, Medfield, 1889 or '90
A reviewer for the Boston Evening Transcript wrote: "The skies are represented only by reflection in these interesting freaks of painting and they may be classified as bold and original experiments in the representation to that eternal phenomenon which possesses such a powerful fascination for all painters—sunlight."*

Dennis Miller Bunker, The Brook at Medfield
Those words are still true today. Bunker’s paintings of the brook at Medfield are unlike anything else of the time and instantly recognizable as his own. 

Dennis Miller Bunker, The Brook at Medfield, 1889/90
Evidently, he went at this most humble and ordinary subject with the same intensity of observation and execution that Monet lavished on his haystacks and Giverney. To my mind this is what makes Bunker's Medfield paintings seem so much more “American” than the more conspicuously European-influenced landscapes and parlor pieces of his Boston School peers (Tarbell and Hassam especially).

Dennis Miller Bunker, The Pool, Medfield, 1889
I was reminded of Bunker’s Medfield brook paintings when I cropped a photo that I snapped of work a friend showed me by contemporary Cornwall landscapist John Brenton (I’d classify his work a kind of neo-Impressionism). It’s going to be the starting point for a lesson on palette knife painting in my every-other-Wednesday painting classes in Exeter, NH and Lowell, Mass. 

The composition of the entirety of Brenton's painting, compared to Bunker's, is more conventional:

Meanwhile, I’m in touch with the Medfield Historical Society to see if the exact location of Bunker’s brook still exists. If so, I foresee a field trip this summer!

Dennis Miller Bunker, The Brook at Medfield, 1889
*My source for the historical background on Bunker and Medfield is town historian Richard deSorgher, writing for the Medfield Patch


David Temple of the Medfield Historical Society has informed me that plenty of farmland and marshy grounds still exist in Medfield, all equally likely locations for Bunker's endeavors. According to him, there's a great book on Bunker by Erica Hirschler that I need to get hold of and which may well yield more info. Temple suggested that wherever Bunker painted would have to have been in walking or bicycling distance from where he was staying. He told me that although Hirschler believes Bunker boarded at 109 Main St., Medfield, the large c.1800 Goldthwaite family farmhouse that's there would be an unlikely candidate for a boarding house. According to Medfield historian Richard DeSorgher, Charles Martin Loeffler (Isabella Gardner's Medfield connection) was renting a cottage at 661 Main St., and Bunker stayed next door at Sewell's Tannery Farm, which is still there, at 663 Main St., "just before the vast open meadows of the Charles River." That sounds like the right place to look for Bunker's "brook." According to DeSorgher, Bunker wrote to Gardner: "You should see the Charles River, it has dwindled almost to a brook—and has lost all its Boston character. It is very charming—like a little English river—or rather a little like an English river. It runs here through the most lovely meadows, very properly framed in pine forests and low familiar looking hills — all very much the reverse of striking or wonderful or marvelous, but very quietly winning and all wearing so very well that I wonder what more one needs in any country. … The calmness of everything here — its roughness and simplicity is to me most charming and restful — and I feel more happy and in better courage." Sounds like marching orders to me - come summer, that is.


Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Panel (a poem)

(W. W. I Engraving)

Why does the one heave between his shoulders
a sack full of bees, staggering under the  imperious din
of their queen, or is the infliction simply fatigue
which has laid down fully the one face up
while the others obey an obscure command, leaving
under the shaded blur of the tree the trench
which might actually be a grave, but no, this is wartime
a trench then, gaping but not a grave, the difference,
just timing or chance shaking blossoms
from a dogwood full of daylight in spring, the difference
mere words, yet how we name the dead, build the given:
poppy and love-letter, pepper, and neck-bone,
so the head might turn at mention of the far,
which as we know takes root finally, one way
or another, the distance which blossoms in the body at last:
wide shore, dazzling kingdom, a friend or an older brother
pausing ahead, still waiting to be caught up to. 

-Christopher Volpe

Monday, November 20, 2017

Beneath the Surface: Julie Mehretu in 2017

With 2017 wrapping up, I have been thinking about what might qualify as the most spectacular moment for American painting this year, for which I nominate Julie Mehretu's "Howl," her monumental commission for the lobby of SFMOMA, unveiled in June. It's a huge yet not bombastic exploration of the vast landscapes and violent history of the American West.

"Howl" installed in the lobby of the San Fransisco MoMA

As a diptych, the work, officially titled "Howl (eon), i. ii," is the single largest painting in the museum’s history. It clocks in at 1,728 square feet, spread across two 27 x 32-foot canvases, each of which weighs about 300 pounds! 

Mehretu's status as an internationally celebrated artist, the work's world-class museum setting, and its sheer outsized scale demand that anyone serious about contemporary painting give the work a look.

All I've read indicates it's hard to get the sense of them unless you experience them in person, but far be it from me to allow a little thing like that to deter me from pontification.

Vogue describes them this way: "The immense works are built up in transparent layers of visual information, ranging from the transcendent and expansive nineteenth-century Western landscapes by Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt to current news photos of urban riots, shootings, and mass protests [these are giant, and unrecognizable, pixilated black-and-white closeups that she ink-transferred to the canvas]—overlaid with her own calligraphic brush marks. She started these paintings a few days after the 2016 presidential election and worked in an abandoned church in Harlem."

Great. So that's what the painting "is." But....

Detail from "Howl"

How are we to read this painting? According to the museum, the work probes "the competing impulses of annihilation and preservation at the heart of 19th century westward expansion, and explores how the Bay Area’s history of colonialism, capitalism, class conflict, social protest, and technological innovation have transformed the social and physical landscape." 

Mehretu's a painting rockstar and also a hero of mine. Her earlier work is a dazzling mashup of post-abstract expressionism and precision architectural draftsmanship with a contemporary political edge. Her new work is a departure as much as it is a doubling down, which seems as it should be. 

"In her highly worked paintings, Mehretu creates new narratives using abstracted images of cities, histories, wars and geographies with a frenetic mark making that for the artist becomes a way of signifying social agency as well suggesting an unravelling of a personal biography." - quoted from somewhere.

To read Howl, we have to put it in the context of the rest of contemporary art and see it in relation to "post-modern" painting (since 1945) as well as American art in general since 1850, because we're getting a critique of painting on top of what used to be called a Marxist-critical reading of America's past and present history. Yes, it's all in there, and it's what raises this work to greatness.

The work's nearest relatives, I think, are Mark Bradford and Cy Twombly. While their work is very different, all three artists have pursued a complex political and/or archetypal conceptual underlayer scored by basic, human marks: graffiti and stencils (Bradford), doodles and "scribbles" (Mehretu, Twombly). Not unlike collage-abstractionist Bradford, Mehretu is carrying forward the traditions of abstract expressionism by both extending it and grounding its language in a new cultural context.

Here's Mark Bradford (it's totally different but related in concept I think):

The Devil is Beating His Wife, billboard paper, photomechanical reproductions, permanent-wave end papers, stencils, and additional mixed media on plywood

Bradford, "Devil..." detail from above.

The following is from Saatchi online: "Mark Bradford's abstractions unite high art and popular culture as unorthodox tableaux of unequivocal beauty. Working both paint and collage, Bradford incorporates elements from his daily life into his canvases: remnants of found posters and billboards, graffitied stencils and logs, and hairdresser's permanent endpapers he collected from his other profession as a stylist. In The Devil is Beating His Wife, Bradford consolidates all these materials into a pixelised eruption of cultural cross-referencing. Built up on plywood, in sensuous layers ranging from silky and skin-like to oily and singed, Bradford offers abstraction with abc urban flair that's explosively contemporary."

For Bradford the personal-conceptual context is growing up a person of color in LA. Mehretu in her new work homes in on that same context (race) and broadens it to include historical dimensions. Mehretu implicitly critiques the history of painting and its relationship to American imperialism and identity in the work by embedding pixelated reproductions of iconic American landscape paintings literally overlaid with a deeply emotional scrim of contemporary political issues (especially race and white supremacy in the Trump era, over which "howls" her painterly protest. Mehretu says the election spurred the personal sadness and rage she's channeling here.

She asks: ‘What Does It Mean to Paint a Landscape in this Political Moment?’

I'm also haunted by this question, and it's a large part of what's driving my current work, though for somewhat different reasons than it's driving Mehretu's.

“The abolitionist movement, the Civil War, the move towards emancipation, all of these social dynamics that are a part of that narrative we don’t really talk about in regards to American landscape painting. And so what does it mean to paint a landscape and try and be an artist in this political moment?” — Julie Mehretu

As such, "Howl" stands out as a powerful visual statement, especially in a 21st century art world that often views painting as less relevant than conceptual, performance, multimedia,  and interactive installations.

Julie Mehretu at work on "Howl" in a disused church in Harlem, NYC.

"Howl" is different from Mehretu's earlier abstractions, in that here her marks are calligraphic, and not so much graffiti-like (Bradford, Twombly) as raw, expressive, and primal - willfully crude. Here is her earlier work:

Julie Mehretu, Black City, 2007 (click image to enlarge)

In 2017's grittier, more gestural "Howl," amid the tightly knitted scrawls and slashes, imagery emerges and recedes, suggesting the primacy of the spontaneous, and the emotional authenticity of the "artist's hand." 

This kind of scriptural, handwriting-like mark-making was Cy Twombly's signature style (heh). Consider Twombly's "Leda and the Swan (Rome, 1962)" for example. Twombly, who died in 2011, was an ex-pat second-generation AbEx painter (like Rauschenberg and Milton Resnick, say). While at first glance it appears to be art by a naughty child of Jackson Pollock, it is nothing of the kind.

"Leda," again like "Howl," is at first glance a palely backgrounded cloud of apparently meaningless scribbles. But closer looking sees recognizable images beginning to appear - hearts, a window....

Cy Twombly, Leda and the Swan, Rome, 1962

Given a chance, the title of course contributes to the work's meaning, and as we look again with that in mind, the whole's revealed as far from meaningless indeed. "Leda and the Swan" is a well-worn neoclassical theme: the Roman myth of Jupiter's rape of Leda (the beautiful mother of Helen, over which the Trojan war would be fought) in the animal form of a swan. The great 20th century poet William Butler Yeats, for whom art and politics were always inextricably linked, treated the theme Leda and the Swan as an archetypal cycle of violence and cultural conflict:

Leda and the Swan

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
                    Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power 
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

  - W. B. Yeats1865 - 1939

Like Yeats's poem, the painting is an unflinching contemporary take on the old-world European theme - what's more, it's got arguably more energy, violence, and "truth" to the theme than any of its forebears. Western artists for hundreds of years just used the myth as an excuse for a blatant hetero-eroticism in which the female is always a passive, willing participant - of which Rubens's, below, is probably the most famous example (if only because Rubens stole the anatomy from Michelangelo's work, but that's a story for another day).

To me, Twombly's painting seen this way has almost a grim inevitability about it - How else could you so effectively portray this effed-up foundational myth of Western culture for the 20th century?

In Twombly's "Leda," everything contributes as a strong coherent meaning emerges:  the painting's whiteness becomes resonant with other whitenesses, the swan's white feathers and the marble-white Greco-Roman gleam of human flesh, scratched and clawed-at with gouging yet somehow elegant traces of gestural energy ... the whole a violent tussle of animal and human body parts (I see feathers, a talon, breasts and/or buttocks), scored by understated blood-red slashes and drips. As the MoMA catalogue entry has it: "Twombly's version of this old art-historical theme supplies no contrast of feathers and flesh but a fusion of violent energies in furiously thrashing overlays of crayon, pencil, and ruddy paint. A few recognizable signs—hearts, a phallus—fly out from this explosion, in stark contrast to the sober windowlike rectangle near the top of the painting." Could the hearts be a nod to Yeats? 

Twombly's version, as a rebuke to art history's "refined" aristocratic European renderings of the myth, is like a drawing or a narrative crashing to pieces because of its inability to contain the content's irrepressible, almost super-human power. What we took at first to be childlike insignificant "sound and fury" we can now read as a layering of time and history: brilliant, erudite, sophisticated, and emotional painting that extends and re-invigorate the western tradition.

"My line is childlike but not childish. It is very difficult to fake... to get that quality you need to project yourself into the child's line. It has to be felt." -Cy Twombly

It's that difficult line that Mehretu takes up in 2017's "Howl." I meant to discuss Mehrtetu more but ended up tackling Twombly because it took me a while to come around and see the value of his work, and it was knowing Twombly that, in my case, provided an immediate path to understanding "Howl." It would be great to go deeper into "Howl" in a future post if I can get good enough photos of it online, but I doubt it'll happen. If you're still reading this, wow, you must truly believe in painting. Keep the faith.