Wallow in your subject

Pat Steir started her waterfall series over 30 years ago and continues with it today. This work also seems very topical with current worldwide water shortages and drought situations. I always encourage students to work on a series because when you immerse yourself in one thing, whether it be one subject or one idea, that is when you truly find your own voice. VISA instructor, John Luna describes this as a “necessity to wallow”. It is necessary to wallow in a subject matter in order to find a unique way of expression. When you make work that is a one-off (not part of series), you are only touching the surface of content, and the work will most likely reflect a lack of commitment and involvement on your part.

An article in Art News addresses some specifics of Steir’s process. She says the paint and gravity make the picture for her. She stresses that her role is a secondary one. The paint does create the waterfalls, but this is only possible because of Steir’s intense involvement with her subject and her advance preparation and ability to handle her materials and surfaces. Through her seemingly endless repetition of the same subject matter for several decades, Steir has developed an intense understanding of what her materials can do. Her waterfalls are created by letting the paint fall as if it was the water in the waterfall. While these works might have a similarity to them, endless variations are developed through choice of colours, layering, density of paint and gravity. Steir’s waterfall series consist of dozens and dozens of similar, but very individual works that all speak with a slightly different voice.

A walk through of a 2007 Steir exhibition can be seen here: James Kalm at Cheim & Read.  In a 2008 interview in Bomb magazine, Steir discusses the origin of the waterfall series which started around 1985. Her most recent work, which still engages with the waterfall theme, can be seen on the Cheim Read website. In addition to painting, Steir also uses the printmaking process to further investigate the relationship between material, process and content in continuing with her waterfall theme: Crown Point Press.

I came across a surprisingly good article on the importance of making a series on artbusiness.com. The author explains why working in a series, contrary to the popular perception by many art students, is the opposite of boring:

“The idea of working in series or in distinct purposeful directions is actually the opposite of condemning oneself to a life of sameness or repetition. The process is not about repetition at all, but rather about being able to explore, investigate, examine or address particular ideas, themes, compositions, concepts or topics in progressively deeper and more meaningful ways, and from an increasingly greater variety of perspectives than just one or two. It’s like looking at something under a microscope as opposed to giving it a casual passing glance. The closer you look, the more you see, and the more you see, the more fascinating it gets.”

So the next time you think you need to come up with a new idea. Stop. Rework your last idea. Then do it again. And again. Eventually you will come up with something that will amaze you. And if you want instruction on the process of working on a series, enroll in Barrie Szekely’s upcoming Painting: Nature as Series workshop that starts this coming Monday, August 17.


Seeing things as more than they are

I love simple paintings of simple things. The artist who is most beloved for his paintings of simple objects is Morandi. This Italian artist (1890-1964) devoted his life to making still life compositions of bottles. So it was with delight and pleasure, I came across the work of Leanne Shapton, writer and painter, and former art editor of the Op Ed section of the New York Times.

Shapton did a wonderful series for the New York Times called A Month of which consists of paintings on one subject done every day for 31 days. The series consists of a range of themes from random patterns, to potted flowers, to trees, to bottles on a bathtub ledge. The image on the right is from a series called Monday Shower Songs. (Fans of Gordon Lightfoot and Johnny Cash will recognize the lyrics). These poignant paintings make me think of a contemporary take on Morandi’s bottle paintings. Both these artists are using things we see every day and making us reimagine them to be beautiful abstract shapes existing in a rectangle.

In a book called Trees of Canada, Shapton used the images in a book with the same title as a point of departure for her own interpretative paintings of leaves. There is a harsh review about her book on amazon.ca that reads: “The Native Trees of Canada is a hand painted exercise that has little or no value as a reference book. The pastel water colours do not represent the true colours of what are purported to be leaves nor do they represent the proper shapes . The book may have some value to the parent or grand parent of the child that drew them.” Obviously the reviewer was confused and did not understand the artist’s intent. His comment reminds me of the people crying out to the guitarist in the Wallace Steven’s poem Man with the Blue Guitar (a poem based on Picasso’s painting, The Old Guitarist).

They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

Artists, like the guitar player in the Steven’s poem, change things as they are, and make us see things in a new way. Simple things such as plastic bottles or drawings of leaves, or sounds from the blue guitar are changed through the artists use of their imagination (and could one expect anything less from a guitar player who himself is the colour blue?). The ordinary is transformed into the extraordinary. So while Picasso’s guitarist isn’t playing things as they are, and Shapton’s leaves cannot be used as a reference to understand the true shape of leaves, or Morandi’s bottles do not hint at their actual content or use, these artists are making us look at simple and ordinary things in new ways and in doing so awakening our imagination. Shampoo bottles on the side of your bathtub will never look the same after Shapton’s Shower Songs series.

Art that tells more than a story

Great art reveals many things.  One-way Ticket is an exhibition of Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series currently at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The story of the Afro-American migration from the south to the north is told in these 60 small works made from tempera and gouache on board. The narrative is illustrated with strong compositions that reflect early modernist trends in painting.

Discussion of this work, such as in Peter Schjeldahl’s New Yorker article Telling the Whole Story, or NPR’s All Things Considered tend to focus on the narrative component. The story told in these panels is an immensely important part of the work, in particular because issues surrounding racism are as relevant today as they were back then. Lawrence wrote out all the text prior to making the work: complete text from Migration Series. He then he went back and illustrated the words with the images. This is an unusually literary approach to painting. A short video on the narrative from the KhanAcademy gives a good overview, with a reference to the text being like a poem. The text on its own can read as a poem in that it is often comprised of short concise sentences. One tries to imagine how the artist formed these sentences: were they written in one sitting as a continuous story, or were they jotted down as they randomly came to mind?

While the narrative content is definitely powerful, I was equally intrigued by the abstract nature of the work and how it relates to the artistic developments of the time (1940-41). The work reveals the influences of early American Modernism, in particular artists such as Arthur Dove and Marsden Hartley to come mind. You can also see evidence of the strong graphic style of Charles Sheeler and Stuart Davis. European influences would have been Picasso and Braque, especially in terms of the ambiguous perspective in cubism, as well as Matisse with his use of flat colours. A description goes into more detail than most about the formal artistic qualities of the work can be found here: American Art @ the Phillips Collection

The work is striking because while the message is dark and stark, Lawrence’s captivating graphic approach, including the velvety smooth finish of the medium used, allows the viewer to shift from the narration to the abstract qualities contained in the picture plane. The vitality of the images makes them strong enough to stand on their own, but the texts transform the work into a living document of history. If you can’t make it to New York this summer, an excellent catalogue has been produced to accompany the exhibition: Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series.


Art that makes you stop in your tracks


The Art Institute of Chicago. Wow. What can one say? There is so much art there it is hard to know where to begin the discussion: Manet, Monet, van Gogh, Cezanne, Matisse, Courbet, just to name a few. I spent six hours in the galleries taking in as much work as I possibly could. I decided to write about two pieces that really made me stop and wonder. The works are The Banquet by René Magritte (right) and Shattered Tree by Otto Dix (below). These are both pieces I have never seen before, and I wouldn’t have immediately recognized them to be by those artists. I am familiar with Magritte’s more common themes such as sky and bowler-hat-clad men and Otto Dix’s harsh and darkly expressionistic portraits. These two fiery red images stayed in my mind days after leaving the Art Institute.

The works both appear to be landscape paintings of trees. But they are so much more. The paintings convey the visible and invisible; the expected and the unexpected. The orange-red hue might have initially attracted my attention because it reminded me of the fires in Montana that I recently saw on the train to Chicago (and now from seeing photos of a red sun in a smoke riddled sky from Victoria and other parts of B.C). Did I gravitate to these works because of what is happening to our part of the world this summer? What happens in our lives changes how we see and read paintings.

In Magritte’s oddly named painting The Banquet, everything seems like it is in the right place and yet of course things are not right. Is that a sun in the middle of the painting? Its hard to tell if it is the sun in front of the trees, or if a hole has been cut through the trees, and we are not looking at the sun at all, but rather an orange sky through a negative shape. And what does the title have to do with anything? We associate banquets with times of plenty; not somewhat dark and stark landscapes. The painting is not giving us a straight answer to any of the questions it imposes.

The Dix painting of a tree is similarly striking because of the intense orange-red. It doesn’t seem right. The trees seems as if they are the colour and shape of flames. The title Shattered Tree indicates that something catastrophic has taken place. The viewer is made to imagine what kind of force could be so great as to shatter a tree? Dix, a German, served in WWI and was very traumatized by his experience. He was forced to join the Nazi government’s Reich Chamber of Fine Arts and was made to promise he would only do innocuous landscapes. But as you can see from the image below, he was not interested in, nor probably capable of, making a typical landscape painting. Thus Shattered Tree depicts an environment in upheaval and distress.

Both these paintings feel as if they are depicting the world as it is right now; they evoke a sense of imminent danger. While they may be painting of trees, the results are unsettling depictions of something that is not right with the natural world. These works are examples of artists going beyond what they see in front of them, and how colour and design can be used to create an uneasiness, giving a true sense of how the artists perceive the world around them. The work is as relevant and striking today as it would have been sixty or seventy years ago.

Otto Dix, The Shattered Tree, 1941

Is art really in the eye of the beholder?

fischl Yesterday I was part of our tour at the Seattle Art Museum called “People and Places”, we passed a room with recent acquisitions by David Salle and Eric Fischl. One of the women on the tour, pointed to a room with an exhibition called The Remains of the Day, and said “I just don’t get that work”. I could tell our tour guide didn’t want to deal with that particular exhibition, and responded by saying “sometimes art is in the eye of the beholder”.  I’m uneasy with this cliché, as it puts a lot of pressure on both the art (to appeal to the beholder) and the beholder (to have enough knowledge to understand what they are looking at).

Unable to  keep my educator’s hat off, I told the perplexed woman the names of a couple of the artists in that exhibition as we passed by it. The woman seemed eager to know more about the strange, seemingly incomprehensible work by Salle and Fischl. Her questions and dis-ease, brought me back to the first time I saw the work the work in the mid-1980s when I was studying art at university. I didn’t get them at that time either. What was with this awkward painting and strange compositions? At the time they were known as good “bad” painters, which as you could imagine was a challenging concept for a young artist; we learned that their work wasn’t about skill, but rather about ideas and meaning, and more specifically psychological content. They were considered to be definitive examples of postmodernism in painting. I began to find these artists both perplexing and intriguing, and as I spent more time engaging with the work, I could see Fischl’s roots in Edward Hopper, and Salle in Max Ernst and but felt that something else was definitely going on here.

The robust economy in the 1980s enabled these artists to rise to fame quickly and they became relegated to the stature of “art stars”. In light of their seemingly instantaneous notoriety, the depth and complexity of their work is often overlooked. Both Fischl and Salle are extremely articulate and thoughtful artists. Fischl has recently written a memoir called Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas (named after one of this paintings), and it is easily one of the best written artist memoirs I have ever read. This book presents a captivating narrative not only of Fischl’s journey as an artist, but also to the meaning of what it is to be a painter. An interview of Fischl discussing his book and creative process can be found here: Here’s the Thing. Much of the imagery in Fischl’s work is the result of his complex relationship with his mother and the unspoken dysfunctional family dynamics that went on behind the curtains of banal of suburban living.

Salle, whose work often gets accused of containing images from soft porn magazines, has been involved in theatre and dance productions since the 1980s. The figures in his work are models who he hired and photographed to achieve a performative quality in his work. Salle speaks of relating the disparate images in his work to the various characters that might exist in a novel. Salle compares his images to the way a novel can work with many unique characters existing at the same time; instead of working through consecutive time (or “pages”), images (or “characters”) in a painting are seen at all once. Salle’s paintings are complex because of the varied visual images, and also because they are made of many separate physical components. The piece below consists of four panels carefully inserted into a rectangular frame, perhaps to emphasize the separateness of the individual ideas; giving the viewer the opportunity to see the images as individual chapters that make up a whole. A recent exhibition and catalogue of his Ghost Paintings reveals Salle continues to explore the psychologically enigmatic with visually complex imagery.

My experience with these two artists is that that art exists beyond the eye of the beholder, and that an open relationship between the viewer and the art needs to exist before a true understanding and appreciation can come forward.