Monday, June 22, 2015

Moving the Eye - A Study in Sargent

Though known for his masterful paint handling and virtuosity in rendering light and texture, John Singer Sargent created striking, original compositions that did not rely on previous models or inherited rules of thumb. In fact, all of the "bravura brushwork" for which he is justly celebrated would be for naught -- if not for the unsung abstractions beneath those gorgeous surfaces.

John Singer Sargent, Venice boats, a watercolor

For me this painting by Sargent suggests the state of feeling very much alive, as when visiting a new place on vacation, where one's transported out of the everyday dullness of ordinary life. It's a moment of mild astonishment at the sparkling visual spectacle of life fully lived and fully seen.

The motif matters little (he has invested Venice's harbor with no metaphorical or symbolic value). Yet Sargent firmly places the moment's lively, semi-chaotic (physical!) properties fully at the service of the overall feeling expressed: the jostling boats, with their counterpoised rigging, prows, and sails, the gondolas' sweeping shapes, the marching masts' verticals vs. the rounded ropes and gondolas'  horizontality, and the arabesques of light and shadow on the water together convey visual excitement and beautifully "capture the moment" (a phrase I abhor, as it pretty much glosses over the whole astonishing reality that is painting).

Rather than teach my students the stock of familiar compositions, I try to encourage spontaneity within certain limits. By "stock" compositions, I'm thinking of the type illustrated in the pages of Edgar Payne's overpriced and out of print Composition of Outdoor Painting, the diagrammatic heart of which I've posted here for your downloading pleasure (it's a PDF of four pages of illustrated compositional strategies and if you don't know it, you should - it's definitely worth internalizing).

Creativity loves limits. The limits I impose on myself and my students are pretty simple, and come down to 1. fit the form to the content, but move the eye through the painting (and not out of it) and 2. create variety within unity (vary everything - size, shape, color, placement, temperature, tonality, marks/strokes, etc). I try to resist known compositional strategies, but I'm not often as successful as I'd like to be. Let's look at how Sargent accomplishes these things in the watercolor above.

Sargent's composition is original; he isn't repeating the successes of others. He always seems to bring out and cunningly arrange intriguing tensions and rhythms within his motif.

Sargent has set the gondola in the middle of the painting apart by contrasting its light with the more shadowy forms surrounding it. He has placed the greatest point of contrast here as well. And while there's no "rule of thirds" here and no obvious "point of interest" these help create a subtle one, as we'll see. Instead, there's a virtual choreography of the surface that I've tried to indicate with arrows and numbers.

At 1 or 2, the bottom of the canvas, the eye enters the painting and jumps toward the center cluster of connected shapes via the strongly directional prow of the boat on the lower left.  Much of the painting's immediacy and excitement come from the way "our" boat's prow is jutting up from the viewer's space into the picture plane - a hallmark of Italian Baroque painting.

at 2, a directional line (perspective is used to create its directional thrust INTO the picture) along the rope swoops in from the right like a roller coaster with enough propulsion to carry us up to the far left corner and then, at 3., down again and to the right.

At 4, we might end up leaving the painting if not for the masterful use of the gondola's graceful curving shape to scoop us up and cary us to the top right until gently returning us back to the center and starting point, which we now realize happens to be...

5. one of two figures, not at all visible at once. It's true the painting's lightest lights and darkest darks are here, in one of the "power quadrants" of the picture. And yet, the figures are only suggested (the female, to the right, though dead center in the painting, is so enveloped in light that I only noticed her after doing this analysis). In fact, it's so subtle a "point of interest" that it becomes only a brief resting place for the eyes which immediately continue circulating in and around the picture, creating that lively feeling of interest and dazzle we identified at the beginning.

It's a good idea to do studies like this of great painters' compositions once in a while, I think. I think it's preferable to memorizing lists of basic "design principles" said to inform good composition, especially as no one can seem to agree once and for all what those principles are anyway. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Wonders, A Prose Poem

I have a special affection for the giant salt piles in Portsmouth Harbor. 

Carl Austin Hyatt, from the Portsmouth Harbor Salt Piles series

The first time I saw them I was struck by the spectacle, the oddness of these large white pyramids perched at the edge of the Piscataqua River. I now know the salt is shipped and piled here to be loaded into trucks for de-icing wintry roads in New Hampshire and southern Maine. But that doesn't quell my fascination.

Carl Austin Hyatt, from the Portsmouth Harbor Salt Piles series

Photographer Carl Austin Hyatt is currently exhibiting large-scale prints culled from an ongoing series of photographs that he's been making on the site over the last several years. 

Carl Austin Hyatt, from the Portsmouth Harbor Salt Piles series

The show opened at Portsmouth's Banks Gallery yesterday, June 18th and will run for a month. You can read a mini-essay I wrote about the series here.

Carl Austin Hyatt, from the Portsmouth Harbor Salt Piles series

Hyatt’s salt piles magnificently transcend the actual. His lens documents a striking spiritual geometry. Removed from their everyday context, their scale rendered ambiguous, the images in Hyatt’s Portsmouth Harbor Salt Pile Series have an epic quality, a sense not just of grandeur, but of the cosmic and the impersonal. 

Seeing Hyatt's images reminded me of a poem I wrote about the same salt piles in the mid-1990s called "Wonders."


Among the heaps of scrap metal and salt, pyramids of a neglected Giza, the Bently 799MW caterpillar boom-crane is a motionless sphinx. The pale blue columns of the suspension bridge are the new monuments of kings. Ships depart. Boxcars rumble off on their tracks. The tracks disappear. But which gods are theirs? O slag heaps, crushed Plymouths and cranes! One expected to find a last dark exotic queen dressed for ceremony falling on her sword in your shadows.

Carl Austin Hyatt, from the Portsmouth Harbor Salt Piles series

I highly recommend you see Hyatt's monumental prints in person if you can.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Hats Off to Picasso (and Noguchi)

It's easy to mistake the intensions of certain "edgy" artists for obnoxiousness. But keep looking and thinking, and what at first seems like a childish flip-off to aesthetic conventions gradually reveals itself as deeper than that - so deep in some cases as to approach the universal.

To the casual eye much modern and contemporary work looks like a cheap shot - apparently unskilled, unnecessarily cryptic, or smugly inexpressive. But once you wrap your head around the idea at its heart,  it becomes perfectly clear that such works simply dispense with the comforts of traditional representation in search of something more authentic, more pared down: The "shocking" and ungainly modes of expression that arose with 20th century modernism were and continue to be about the search for authenticity.

Some of the best artists of our time are trying to go beyond convention to somewhere prior to the slickness and sophistication of post-Renaissance Western art.

Don't get them wrong - mostly they aren't flouting convention just to be shocking or different - their works are meant to be visceral, profoundly "human," as universal as paleolithic sculpture and cave paintings - full of the rarely encountered, raw, hand-hewn sense of something real, carved from the bedrock of human reality.

Pablo Picasso, Blue Nude, 1902

Pablo Picasso painted "Blue Nude" in 1902 after close friend's suicide, which is pointed to as the psychological motivation for what's known as the painter's "blue period." Mortality literally colored all of Picasso's painting at the time; his blue period paintings view a basic, common humanity through an essentialist lens of deepest emotion expressed through gesture and mood, an emphatic and pointedly bare and unpretentious line, and of course that stony, cool, melancholy and nearly monochrome color. Although these are among his most popular works today, at the time nobody wanted to buy the pictures, and Picasso became as nearly poor as the "street people" he was painting. 

In "Blue Nude," everything is stripped to essentials - the isolated figure, the dispensing with conventions of Western representation such as modeling, realistic color, and figure and ground. This masterpiece has the splendidly rude (in the word's original sense of uncultivated - in Anglo-Saxon, rudus literally meant "broken stone"), elemental character of a universal summary of humanness scratched into a rock wall with a charred stone tool. What could be more "real?"

Isamu Noguchi, Gray Sun, marble, 1967

Speaking of rocks and stone, Japanese American Isamu Noguchi is considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, American abstract sculptor of the 20th century.

In "Grey Sun," the large gray marble minimalist work above, Noguchi "made visible the basic forms and forces of nature, using natural materials and fundamental shapes," as critic Miranda McClintic aptly writes. "Noguchi frequently used the circle as a timeless, universal symbol, related to the sun, origin of life, and basis of numerical systems." "Gray Sun" engages sculpture in a very primal, foundational sort of way - this to me looks like something an isolated, primitive tribe might craft in honor of some god or goddess responsible for the cyclical nature of the universe. 

Isamu Noguchi, Mother and Child, onyx, 1944-1947
Human emotion radiates from the smaller yet beautiful "Mother and Child." A mother tenderly presses her child against her forehead, elevating the child to her care-worn gaze; in counterpoint, the simple circle denoting the child's face suggests its blank-slate innocence and openness to existence. This tender object has a simple, yet mysterious elegance, much like the neolithic pre-Greek "Cycladic" figurines or the paleolithic figures of archaeology. It seems at once ancient and modern, abstract and timeless. Both works "read" like haiku - lyrical and subtle meditations on universal humanness.

Moving into the present, engagement with basic humanness lies at the heart of the best contemporary sculpture and painting, for example in the work of Richard Serra and Cecily Brown.

There's a great short summary of Cecily Brown on this blog.Here's most of it: 

"Cecily Brown  (b. 1969, London) holds a place of honour among contemporary artists who work with painting, contributing to its continuous rebirth and experimentation.... Brown is an extremely expressive painter whose work is characterised by an intense chromatic language, mid-way between abstraction and figuration. Dialoguing with the history of painting, the English artist creates tangled compositions where distinctly identifiable and loosely outlined human figures sink and emerge from a chaotic, physical background."

Painting by Cecily Brown
"The distorted naked bodies with their fleeting nature and the overall structures reveal the influence of several artistic experiences, from Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon to Willem de KooningEl Greco or the Impressionists, giving life to a piercing, gestural and layered painting. Brown’s wild, animal-like dimension is both suffering and joyful, there is no space for romanticism, while sexuality and eroticism prevail in most of her works. Sex and death are connected in acts of orgiastic pleasure, carnivals where rude and sharp emotions seem to carry on and enhance the “de Kooningesque” rule of paint as flesh." (de Kooning famously said flesh was the reason oil paint was invented.)

Cecily Brown, The Fugitive Kind
"The Fugitive Kind," the painting above, represents a pretty tame yet brilliantly abstract example, and here's what Saatchi Online has to say about it: "Taking its title from Tennessee Williams’s play, Cecily Brown’s The Fugitive Kind is as seductive as southern gossip. Brown uses the painterliness of Abstract Expressionism to convey not only raw emotion, but a corporeal sense of connection between painting, idea and viewer. Cecily Brown capitalizes on the fleshiness of her medium: paint’s ability to replicate physical sensation: and the dramatic illusion of motion. Within her voluptuous surfaces, epic fantasies spontaneously unfold, as if each brush stroke contains a dark secret: opulent, gritty and tainted with sin."

The title also refers to how oblique the sexual references are - many of her other works riff on pornography explicitly ("radically pornographic images put through an Osterizer of pink and red flesh tones, a transgression that is deliciously, stridently vulgar," one critic enthused)

Cecily Brown, The Quarrel, 2004
More recently, she's dialogued with the grandfathers of English painting, Poussin, Rubens, and other Old Masters. Her best work is summarized by another critic who connects the dots and succinctly hits it spot on: "turbulent brushwork fusing naked flesh with fecund nature."

de Kooning had reunited abstraction with Western figural painting in his "Woman" series of the 1950s. These paintings mirror the human soul's "wild, animal-like dimension," where sex and death (yeah, the Big Themes!) merge and emerge through expressive gestural painting.  

For his part, de Kooning wanted an art that would "comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable." Why? Because, as he said (in 1950 in a lecture at Studio 35 on Eighth Street in New York City): "Insofar as we understand the universe - if it can be understood - our doings must have some desire for order in them; but from the point of view of the universe, they must be very grotesque." Search your heart - you know it's true!

Cecily Brown, The Girl Who Had Everything, 1988. I know, how rude!

Brown managed to push even further than de Kooning or Bacon into the Heart of Darkness. As a female painter mindful of the uncomfortable truths of Bacon and de Kooning, where do you go? Viewing Brown's work will tell you. In Thomas Hess's words about de Kooning in 1959, "There is no place where you could say, 'this is in between.' . . . Backgrounds and foregrounds still exist, but they are consistently interchangeable. There is a Gordian fugue of ambiguities." It's pretty obvious to me which of the two painters has taken up the theme of the encounter of humanity with the world and composed a more complex, inextricable "Gordian fugue." It's not pretty - but it's real. In fact, it's raw, unflinching, uncomfortably close to the bedrock of human reality.

So, do you have to engage the "grotesque" to be great? Apparently a lot of contemporary painters think so (just do a Google image search for contemporary figurative painting). For relief, let us turn to the massive steel sculptures of Richard Serra. 

Exploiting the three-dimensional nature of the medium, Richard Serra sculpts interactive space. He began as a Minimalist artist during the 1960s who explored unconventional, industrial materials and accentuated the physical properties of their art. Since then he has pushed further than any sculptor in history into the mediation of human beings and lived space; the work is about the engagement between viewer, site, and work

Richard Serra, Sequence, 2006
This is art that engages being directly, from the inside. His sculptures always imply interactive human space, even when, as in the work below, they deny it.

Richard Serra, East-West/West-East (2014)
In his latest work, “East-West/West-East” (2014), he has assembled four steel plates that will oxidize in the salty, wind-blown, sandy air of Qatar and go from gray to orange to brown, until they turn a dark amber. I think Serra is commenting brilliantly on humanity's habitation of the earth. From the killingly arid and empty desert rise massive steel monoliths arranged in a mysterious procession across the void. The raw, closed, Euclidian, slabs appear industrial, obviously and monumentally manmade; they stand, like homo erectus, in vertical opposition to nature's horizontality. At the same time, as they rapidly weather, they seem somehow vulnerable, almost desperate even. To interface with this work is to contemplate the "nature" of human existence in a completely experiential, visceral way. This is epic minimalism and wholly new territory for sculpture. 

Richard Serra, East-West/West-East (2014)
Thankfully, Serra evidently couldn't care less about the political or sociological situation in the Middle East. When asked by a critic writing for the New Yorker, he just said, "You know, I come here and work. That’s what I do." Obviously the work goes to a much deeper, more universal, more mysterious place - the place where great art goes.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Painting & Place (an American tradition)

Marsden Hartley, Snow, 1908

"Place is not a static mental or perceptual construct converted to paint and canvas. Place is the vehicle by which the artist moves out from his own creative center to discern the universal truths of man and his environment." - Marsden Hartley scholar Gail R. Scott

George Inness, c. 1885

Albert Pinkham Ryder, Moonlit Cove, c. 1880s (Armory Show 1913)

Walt Kuhn, Morning in Nova Scotia, 1912 (Armory Show, 1913)
Arthur Dove, Sunrise III, 1937
Marsden Hartley, from the Dogtown series, 1937

Richard Diebenkorn, Berkeley #59, 1955
John Laurent, Three Rocks, 1960s

Willem de Kooning, Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point, 1963

Eric Aho, Beach, c. 2012

John O'Reilly, Dogtown - Hartley series, 2008

Stuart Shils, Rain Passed, the Bay with a Touch of Sun, 2007