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.

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.