Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Paintings About to Dissolve in Light

Peter Doig, Reflection (What Does Your Soul Look Like) 1996

Recently, by chance it seems, I've stumbled over several paintings in various states of being overwhelmed by diffused, reflected, and in the case of the Peter Doig above, cascading light.

Fairfield Porter
Fairfield Porter's porchscape above is a fine study in light-filled "transparent shadows." Oil painters use transparent shadows as opposed to just dark or colored blobs of paint so create the sense of visible, textured surfaces modulated with a combination of shadow and reflected or ambient light.

It's so believable we don't give the reality of anything else in the painting a second thought, but look how much the pines are softening in the glow, and how about that chair on the right - it appears to be dissolving completely!

Israel Hershberg
Painted shadows become more convincing when filled with light that's bouncing into them.  Israel Hershberg's cityscape above serves as an illustration, and the whole thing is a delightful study in how light melts matter. Here the light is direct, ambient, reflected, diffused, and atmospheric all at once! Hershberg had been experimenting with very distant landscapes, as seen through a telescope. What he's really interested in isn't the city but the light-diffusing atmosphere itself.

Monet's cathedrals are unbelievable in person.
Like poetry that (according to someone somewhere I'm sure!?) gains in purity as it approaches the condition of silence, such paintings seem like objects nearing a sort of sublimation, a trans-substantial, self-luminous state. Monet's cathedral paintings come to mind.

At their most extreme they're like diaphanous veils shimmering between nothingness and being, wavering at the uncertain boundary of matter and light: physical and spiritual, real and imaginary at once.

Monet again. Show me the Monet!

In this below one by contemporary Dutch plein-air artist Roos Schuring, the diffused light from the winter sky and the snow create a nice balance between ambiance and substance, don't you think?

Here's an Aldro Hibbard in the same category.

Aldro Hibbard, February Orchard
And here to take us out are three diffused-light-filled landscapes by contemporary Russian plain-air painter Bato Dugharzhapov.

Dawn, Bato Dugharzhapov

Bato Dugharzhapov

Winter Dawn by Bato Dugharzhapov
It's the way the light values threaten to overwhelm even the midtones in these that I love, I think. The loose paint seems almost a metaphor for matter dissolving in light.

J.M.W. Turner, Sun Setting Over a Lake, 1840

Turner's another painter whose subjects are often being overtaken by luminescence. I imagine the air in the painting above to be saturated with moisture suffused with sunlight.

I'm sure some of you can think of others that I should add to this collection?

Lee Mullican, Space, 1951

Friday, January 25, 2013

Richard Serra on Becoming an Artist

"When you become interested in the investigation of process, you aren’t concerned with the psychology of what you’re doing nor what it’s going to look like when it’s done. It gives you a way of proceeding in relation to the material, the body, and making, that divorces you from any notion of metaphor, any notion of easy imagery.

Watch the segment on Richard Serra from Art21's "Space"

What artists do is they invent strategies that allow themselves to see in a way they haven’t seen before, to extend their vision. Various artists do it in different ways: Cezanne did it in his way, Pollock did it in his way… 

What’s interesting about artists is they constantly come up with ways of informing themselves by inventing tools or techniques or processes that allow them to see into a material manifestation in the way that you would not if you dealt with standardized or academic ways of thinking…. 

One constantly tries to invent ways of seeing into what one is doing so you don’t get into some lockstep notion of how to do what you do. I have to invent new strategies in order not to go back to something that’s just a reflex motion."

- Richard Serra

The Serra quote above is transcribed from "Richard Serra: Tools and Strategies," a short video spot in which Serra explains his way of working as an artist and the specific methods involved in creating his art. Click the caption beneath the screen shot below to view the clip on Art21's "exclusives" page.

Richard Serra Spills the Beans

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Why Does It Work?

Wild Surf at Ogunquit by Edward Henry Potthast

Here's a painting of the crashing surf and rocks in the small coastal town of Ogunquit, Maine. It's by Edward Henry Potthast, an American Impressionist whose popularity peaked around the turn of the 20th century. To my eye, this painting is strong and exciting. Now, there are plenty of paintings of crashing surf and rocks in the world, but this one happens to work.


Perhaps it's that the loose, juicy paint handling is particularly well suited to the subject of wild waves rushing between jagged rocks.

Maybe it's the design - the sweeping horseshoe of the shoreline rocks spiraling around the agitated waves. There's a wild counterpoint between the brushstrokes that follow the planes of the rocks and those that define the breaking waves.

Is it the color? I keep coming back to those fluffy blobs of white paint in the foam, the ambiguous dabs of muted cobalt in the rocks, the rich tones of blue and green in the waves.

My suspicion is that every painting either "works" to a sufficient degree or doesn't because of the relation of all of its parts to themselves and to the picture's central idea. I also suspect this notion is just as weak as any other that aspires to uncover "the key" to beauty in art and why a work moves us. We know this much, that great art cannot be reduced to any absolute formula. 

Still, I think questioning what moves us about a work of art deepens our appreciation and serves us as we look at other paintings or attempt our own. 

Why do you think the Potthast works?

By the way, in April I'm leading a one-day workshop in Ogunquit, where Potthast painted (as did Edward Hopper, Childe Hassam, Emil Carlson, and many others). There's info about it on my Website if you'd like to try to unlock Potthast's secret by trying it yourself.