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." 

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.