Saturday, November 11, 2017

What Dreams May Come: Michael Dandley

Before and After, by Michael Dandley, 10 x 9 inches, gouache on paper
Michael Dandley creates vivid renderings of a transforming planet. The paintings in Dreamscapes (at Portsmouth NH's Nahcotta Gallery through Nov. 26), are postcards from a future in which the natural landscape has gone on without us after we're gone. They're suspiciously gorgeous to look at in person, as if meant to grip and hold us like a car crash from which we can't look away. 

Dandley's gouache technique (gouache is like watercolor but opaque, like acrylic) is masterful and the drawing precise. The colors are saturated, "fearless in hyper-pigmentation," as Nahcotta puts it. It's what draws one in to understand that Dandley "consistently renders what could have been misconstrued as a straightforward and quotidian landscape, cityscape, or tableau, into something paranormal and fantastical.... Everything feels just a bit hallucinogenic."

In Inconvenient Innovation, a school of nautiluses sport an unlikely adaptation - or is it a mutation? - in the form of a fusion between the animals and some kind of industrial scaffolding. 

Inconvenient Innovation, gouache on paper, 4 x 7.5 inches

The title brings Al Gore's work on climate change to mind, and the image, like much of the work in Dreamscapes, evokes the increasingly uneasy relationship between modern civilization and the natural world. The irony in "Inconvenient Innovation" is that many scientists agree we have initiated a new, human-dominated geological era, the Anthropocene, and that we are accelerating the planet’s sixth mass extinction. Huge amounts of the planet's life don'thave enough time to adapt or evolve. We are destroying entire species at a rate between 1,000 and 10,000 times the normal "background" extinction rate and virtually eliminating the prospect of human survival as the planet’s environmental changes outpace scores of species’ ability to "innovate" a way out. (Read more about that here.)

Swamp Rising
In Swamp Rising, nature seems to be reclaiming a decaying, perhaps post-apocalyptic trestle. But nature in what form? A golden, acidic-looking liquid pours from a broken pipe, irrigating a sickly green swamp from which ghostly vegetation, drained of color, rises against a clouded, violet-gray sky.

Blue Skies

Though dark in subject, the work itself is radiant, almost whimsical; the bright colors are anything but morbid. The combination of whimsey and dread is a rare one.

Dandley lives and works in Portsmouth, and while he has shown in group shows at Nahcotta, this is his first solo show.

The rest of this writing quotes Nahcotta's wall text: 

"These works explore lands fatigued from human use. After we have touched a landscape, the landscape still has a future. Echoes of today resonate within these spaces - looming anxieties of war, environmental disaster, and commonplace infrastructure give the impression that the scenes represented are not too far from our own."

One Plot
"Many are cast in a future where people are gone, but their footprints remain. Physical structures crumble, yet emotional energies remain - depicted by surreal color and lighting. If places know they have a purpose, Dreamscapes imagines they carry that memory into the future even after we have forgotten them."

The Scene

Monday, October 23, 2017

Scotland Workshop 2017

I led a group of 9 painters and their spouses, kids, etc., on a five-day plein air workshop to the Scottish Highlands in October, 2017. 

We stayed in Inveraray, a village lost in time on the shore of Loch Fyne, a saltwater inlet of the sea.

The town is known for its extraordinary castle, the home of the current duke and duchess of Argyll, which was featured in a special holiday episode of Downton Abbey. We annoyed people by painting on the grounds and later toured the castle and had lunch in the tea room.

My base camp was Stronshira House, owned by the folks with the castle.

 There were paintings in every direction from Stronshira House.

While the weather was damp, the accompanying clouds, mists, and fogs in the mountains made for spectacular, ever-changing subject matter.

'Rest and Be Thankful'

We painted the view down a glen in the area of Loch Lomand and the Trossachs (above). The spot is known by a wonderful name, Rest and Be Thankful, after the words on an old stone monument up there. One of my renderings of the place, done later, is below. The little white dots are cars (you can see them, barely visible, in the photo too).

At a Scotch whiskey tasting in Inveraray. We had to.

We painted this ruined castle, a favorite of landscape painters for almost two hundred years.

 Believing the weather "oracle," the day we decided to check into one of our rainy day options, St. Conan's church, nestled in the countryside, turned out to be one of the sunniest of the whole trip. 

A group of us made a pilgrimage to Bridge-of-Allan, a former Victorian spa town where the great American painter George Inness died.

On our final day, a few of us set up in Ardkinglas Gardens in Argyll, home to some of the largest trees in all of Britain.

Hard at it.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017


Early on in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Ishmael encounters a strange painting hanging in The Spouter-Inn, an old tavern in New Bedford. “Thoroughly besmoked,” all he can see in it at first are “unaccountable masses of shades and shadows," as if it were a picture of “chaos bewitched.” 

But the painting soon resolves into an even more puzzling composition, featuring “a long, limber, portentous black mass of something hovering in the center of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast. A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly,” he calls it, but he can’t help speculating about what it might represent: 

"It’s the Black Sea in a midnight gale. – It’s the unnatural combat of the four primal elements. – It’s a blasted heath. – It’s a Hyperborean winter scene. – It’s the breaking up of the ice-bound stream of Time.” 

Ishmael finds the painting’s key in “that one portentous something in the picture’s midst. That once found out, and all the rest were plain….” and at last decides that “The picture represents a Cape-Horner in a great hurricane; the half-foundered ship weltering there with its three dismantled masts alone visible; and an exasperated whale, purposing to spring clean over the craft, is in the enormous act of impaling himself upon the three mast-heads.”

I was fascinated by the description, and wanted to try to make this painting, so I Googled it to see if it had already been done. I found a blog suggesting that of all the 19th century painters likely to have painting something like what Melville describes, there is J.M.W. Turner

and 19th c. American “visionary” painter Albert Pinkham Ryde. Eitehr would be an excellent candidate to have provided the model for the Spouter-Inn painting. 

As longtime readers may recall, I’d been blogging already about Ryder and his use of unconventional substances in his paintings, in particular his notorious use of tar. So I tried my hand at Melville's fictitious painting, in tar. 

Purposing to Spring Clean Over the Craft, 2015, tar and oil paint on canvas
That initial effort led to “Loomings,” a series combining oil paint, tar, and sometimes gold leaf. Titled after the first chapter of Melville’s apocalyptic vision of the American quest, the series piggybacks on a darker, under-recognized counter-tradition in American art and literature, one referred to by Clement Greenberg (writing of Jackson Pollock’s early work) as “that American chiaroscuro which dominated Melville, Hawthorne, Poe.” This lineage, to which we could add numerous other American artists and writers (19th century landscapist Ralph Albert Blakelock, Emily Dickinson, late Rothko and Barnett Newman, and contemporary novelist Cormac McCarthy come to mind) winds like a stark thread through the history of American arts and letters. 

Any Human Thing ("I promise nothing complete;  because any human thing supposed to be complete, must for that very reason infallibly be faulty"), 36 x 48 inches, oil paint and tar on canvas

All of the paintings' titles refer to a line or chapter-heading from Moby-Dick. They owe a lot to the gestural abstraction I admire in Abstract-Expressionists like Pollock, Lee Krasner, Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg, and Franz Kline. By loading them with ambiguous, yet at times metaphoric or archetypal imagery, I hope to connect the abstraction to nature, ideas, and emotion. 

The medium itself, appropriated from the industrial world, points to the triumphs as well as the failings of modern human achievement, including, through its association with fossil fuel burning, accelerating climate change. (“Metaphor is always created out of materiality,” says painter and writer Enrique Martinez Celaya, “not the other way around.”)

Acushnet (Melville's brig), 48 x 36 inches, tar on canvas
Ryder, the one American painter that Pollock revered, is a major influence on the “Loomings” series, in terms of both medium and motif. 

T'Gallant Sails, 36 x 48 inches, oil paint and tar on canvas

Like Ryder’s marines, many of the “Loomings” paintings depict solitary ships on unquiet, or disquieting seas. I agree with Phong Bui, who wrote of Ryder in the Brooklyn Rail, “Ryder’s unique vision is as important to American painting as Herman Melville’s to American literature” (and, I’d add, as important as Pollock’s is to contemporary practice). I'm drawing from all of these important strains of American art and literature.

* * *

Flukes, 24 x 36 inches, oil paint and tar on canvas

In our time, petroleum oil, from which the tar I use is derived, is the successor to whale oil and the object of our own largely self-destructive, Ahab-like quest. Industry bellwether Oil Market Report forecasts world demand will reach 100 million barrels a day in Q4 2018. Meanwhile the atmospheric concentration of carbon in the atmosphere has surpassed 405 ppm, higher than at any time during the existence of humanity, with consequences yet to be known. 

Leviathan ("Surely all this is not without meaning"), 48 x 60 inches

Moby-Dick is the cautionary epic myth of America. Melville is our Milton, our Shakespeare, holding up the mirror of art to our problematic desire for more and more consumption and the incessant domination of nature even at our own expense. They’re also about what Melville refers to as “the inscrutable,” that is, the problem of representing reality itself: “That inscrutableness is chiefly that I hate,” says Ahab.

Westward II, 17 x 24 inches, oil paint, tar, gold leaf on canvas

Melville already in 1851 recognized American industrial history as a never-ending pursuit of wealth and the domination of "savage" nature by the “all-grasping Western world." 

Dive ("Oh, Ahab! what shall be grand in thee, it must needs be plucked from the skies and dived for in the deep, and featured in the unbodied air!"), 48 x 60 inches, oil paint and tar on canvas

However, the works are not intended to be either narrative or predominantly political, much less to illustrate the novel. The paintings, like the book, are for me largely about the confrontation of our own ignorance, our melancholy quest for knowledge, reality, and enlightenment in an "inscrutable" universe.  

To the Sea in Ships, 36 x 48 inches, oil paint and tar on canvas, private collection

I hope that “Loomings" invites viewers to reflect upon our moment in Western history, to examine our aspirations and our limits, and on the archetypal level, to stop and consider our relationship to ourselves, each other, and to the earth itself.

Corpos Santos - the Saint Elmo's Fire ("Oh, thou foundling fire, thou hermit immemorial, thou too hast they incommunicable riddle, thy unparticipated grief"), oil paint, tar, gold leaf on canvas, private collection
Abysm, 48 x 60 inches, oil paint and tar on canvas
“But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.” - Melville, from Moby Dick, the Loomings chapter

The Muffled Rolling of a Milky Sea, 36 x 36 inches, oil paint and tar on canvas

* * *

Paintings from the "Loomings" series are currently being exhibited in three separate locations: 

PLUNGE (group show, three paintings), New Bedford Museum of Art
May 26 - Oct. 8, 2017

Signs & Wonders (selections), lobby of the John Joseph Moakley Federal Building, Boston
July 4 - Oct. 15, 2017

LOOMINGS (solo show), Taylor Gallery, Kimball Union Academy
Sept. 8 - Oct. 14, 2017
 (opening reception 9/8, 5:30-7p.m.)

* * *

Works from the series have won the St. Botolph Club's "Outstanding Painting" award for 2017 and received the venerable Boston art organization's Nellie Taft Grant for visual arts.

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."