Archive for May, 2010

There are hours and sometimes days in a row when you become hermetic and grubby in your concentration on your work.  You allow yourself to stew in ink, smelly solvent, graphite dust and possibly eraser noodles. Your work space turns into heaps of uncategorized paper, rags, tormented tubes and mugs with brown rims on the inside.  Your fingernails are dirty, your hair has gotten clumpy.  Such days are numbered, however, because your imagination does run dry eventually and it demands either a good night’s sleep or it directs you to take a long hot bath and then leave the house in search of conversation.  Conversation does not necessarily mean blabbering.  For the visual artist, more often than not, conversation means looking at what others have been doing.  Looking at art works in a gallery or a museum is, in my definition, a conversation:  the objects on the walls and the floor talk to you and elicit a response from you.  If you go back to the same gallery a few days later, the conversation with  these objects will have a different tone. Endlessly fascinating.  Here’s a place to go for such an endlessly fascinating conversation:  the 20th Evanston + Vicinity Biennial. Forty-seven Chicago area artists were chosen from over 500 entries.  The jurors this year were John Himmelfarb, artist, and Julie Rodrigues Widholm, curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.  The show is up til June 27.  www.evanstonartcenter.org Above, a piece by Judith Roston Freilich that particularly engaged me today when I saw the show for the second time.  In recommending this exhibit, I’m not plugging my own work.  I didn’t get in this year.  Being chosen to participate two years ago was wonderful, but the art conversation, like all conversations, is subjective.  Jurors work very hard at making their selections.  It can be an agonizing and sleep-depriving assignment,  I know that from having been a juror myself.

But speaking of conversation and, therefore, community, I want to mention the benefit we held in April at the Evanston Art Center.  Teachers and artists in our community donated pieces for auction. My painting, at right, with me reflected in it, shows the craquelure in the upper left corner of Vermeer’s View of Delft, part of an ongoing series in my ongoing involvement with Vermeer’s work. It sold. The buyer is an artist herself, I found out later.

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By Chance

My friend Marion S. has been painting and writing all her long life.  She enjoys working alone as well as in a group.  She experiments with formal, abstract ideas and also from the figure. In 2002, when she was eighty-six, she was in a painting workshop at the Renaissance Society at the Cultural Center.  At the end of a class one day when it was time to wrap up she placed a piece of cellophane over the scrap of heavy paper she had been using to mix paints and try out brush strokes.  There was enough paint on it to make this worthwhile since she would go home and continue working on her painting.  When she got home she propped up her painting in her work space and laid out her brushes and rags on her work table.  She pulled off the cellophane from the scrap paper.  She paused.  She had not paid any attention to this scrap paper before.  After all, it was just a surface for slopping paint around in preparation for working on her real painting.  Now she looked at it.  A face emerged. It had a clear contour, a hair line and a hint of a delicate hat, a nose, lips and an ochre shadow cast by the eyebrow ridge.  The face looked up out of some sumptuous red shawl. She dipped a brush into cerulean blue and dabbed in the irises.  She framed it.  It continues to be a source of inspiration to her.  And for me, whenever I come to visit.

Why is this worth thinking about?  Why would this scrap of paper with its unplanned blobs of paint be a source of inspiration?  Do you have to be a modernist to get it?   Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) who has been called an engineer with a side line in painting because he filled his notebooks with diagrams of anatomical, mechanical and architectural structures, this Leonardo also writes in his notebooks that he is fascinated by accidental occurrences. He passes a wall, he tells us, where water has dripped down from the roof and stained the plaster and he will stand there, loosing all sense of time, utterly captivated by these irrational shapes.  They fire up his imagination.  Kenneth Clark wrote about that in The Blot and the Diagram

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Drawing at the Y this past Monday I was challenged by Renaye’s averted eyes.  Since she was looking towards the window, her irises reflected the bright light.  But her irises are black. That was the challenge: to show them black, reflecting light and at the same time barely visible because the eyes were turned away from me at such an extreme degree.  That’s only the iris. Another challenge came from the fact that her eyes were slanted upward and getting the outer canthus higher than the inner–from this averted angle–took a bit of work. (Canthus=corner of the eye)

When drawing eyes, it helps to remind yourself that you’re drawing a ball.  There’s an eyeball in there even if you don’t see the whole sphere.  This is a recurring theme in my drawing class. To illustrate the anatomy of the eyeball and its eyelids, I have brought oranges to class and sliced out the stylized forms of the eyelids.   This allows you to see the thickness of the eyelids and how the eyelids hug the curvature of the eyeball.  It’s uncanny, isn’t it, how eye-like this slightly augmented orange looks.  It’s also fun to draw.  Observe the nuances of the shadow.  You can do this.  It’s only an orange. But in your drawing it will look like an eyeball, something that’s generally considered to be a hard thing to draw.  Well, it is—and it isn’t.

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Yesterday, while browsing in my favorite used-books store I came across The Expressionists by W. D.  Dube, 1972, a paperback with wonderful illustrations. One of those is by Paul Klee (1879-1940), an artist whose work we expect to look like this.

This is an artist who did extensive studies of natural phenomena, like plants and landscapes and also academic disciplines like perspective.  In 1908 he wrote: “ Given new strength by my naturalistic studies, I may now dare to tread once more my original ground of psychic improvisation…I may dare once more to give shape to what is actually weighing on my soul. To note down experiences, which could translate themselves into lines in complete darkness. This is a potentiality for original creation which has long existed, interrupted only temporarily by the timidity caused by isolation.”

But here’s a drawing, reproduced in the book I found yesterday, that takes the idea of looseness to an ecstatic level.  This is from 1911, “Scene in a Restaurant.”

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Loosen up!

Easier said than done.  A colleague of mine who also teaches drawing confesses that she loses it every now and then. In the middle of the class she will shout, all right, everybody, loosen up! If this command brings about the desired effect, it’s not noticeable.  My guess is that loosing up comes

after you’ve done an awful lot of careful drawings that taught you what you’re actually seeing. Being loose is not the same as being sloppy.  There are exceptions.  Sometimes making an expressive scribble right off the bat is a wonderful thing and you stand back and consider yourself lucky that day. But most of the time, you can be loose in your drawing when you know your subject so well that you can let your lines skate over the whole paper while keeping about thirty-nine different things in your mind simultaneously.  Drawing loose means you’re thinking fast. That comes with time and practice.  Not only in the sense of your drawing career, but it can happen within one drawing session. Today, for example, I was at the Y again, drawing a twelve year old as part of that after school program I’ve written about earlier.  In one hour I did six drawings of the head.  My model, T.P, was pretty fidgety—hey, sitting still is hard work. So I had to work fast and I worked with China marker, a waxy thing that doesn’t allow for any erasing. Here are  drawings two, three and four.

You can see the progression from hard to soft, from deliberate, careful lines to more scribbly,  gestural lines. The first drawing attempts a definite study of the features. By the third drawing  I have a pretty good reading of the features.  Now I’m more interested in the mood, the feeling.  This happens by itself.  I’m not aware that I’m switching gears. It’s only later, when I line up the finished  drawings, that I can see what happened. Keep in mind, these drawings took about seven or eight minutes each.  The originals are on 8½x11 paper, or a little bigger.   Here’s drawing five.

It’s important NOT to erase.  That, I think, is the key to loosing up.  You just draw, filling one page after the next. If a drawing  doesn’t come together, you abandon it and start another one.  Erasing puts you into an error-alert mode. When you have an eraser in your hand, you keep thinking, “oops, wrong, no good.”  No good. You want to keep drawing. You want to keep the momentum.

This was the last drawing in a one-hour session.  It is 14 x 11, very fast, about 7 minutes. He liked the first drawing and this last one best.

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We’ve all lived with modern art all our lives.  Our parents lived with modern and, if they were lucky, our grandparents.

It’s easy for us to forget what a momentous achievement that was. And it was the achievement of just a handful of artists: Cezanne, Manet, Van Gogh, Picasso, Braque, Matisse,  Klee and some early followers. These artists worked against discouraging odds, societal opposition and financial insecurity. With the exception of Braque, all these men came from professional, middle class families.  If you think Matisse painted the way he did because, well, because that’s just how modern artists paint and you take his work for granted, please, consider the fact that he was born in 1869.  He was a Victorian!  Try to refresh your mind on what the Victorian world looked like and what these middle class people valued.  Victorian means heavy carved dark furniture and tasseled maroon velvet curtains; gilded bric-a-brac and ghastly flowered wall paper; strangulating whale bone corsets, humongous hats with dead birds on them and respected men going to brothels with everybody knowing about it; the inevitability of child abuse and the nobility of women dying in childbirth; the romance of tuberculosis; authoritarianism—everything operating in a rigid hierarchy; the rightness of racism; the glory and grandeur of warfare—dulce et decorum est pro patria mori; and the heroism of being able to sit through long operas without the need to get up and pee.  Victorian art authorities liked to look at sumptuous bulging fabric, pink nipples, the tense glutimus maximus of a Roman soldier who had the good sense to at least wear a helmet  and long dead mythologies that offered more opportunities for the  display of nubile mammary formations and an oppressive, anemic compulsiveness in technique.  All of Gustave Moreau’s art looks like this.  In Hilton Kramer’s words, it was “excessively elaborate, precious, morbid and ornamental–and about as remote from the modernity of Matisse as the mind can imagine.”  (http://www.observer.com/node/41576)   But Gustave Moreau was Matisse’s teacher.

Even if you didn’t know this, Matisse’s energy and virility is riveting. When you contemplate the world he came from—Victorian repression and Moreau’s impotence—his achievement is unexplainable.  Unlike Picasso, he didn’t think of himself as a revolutionary.  He didn’t think he was against anything. “It has bothered me all my life that I don’t paint like any one else,” he said.  I interpret that to mean, painting truthfully is hard work and painting like every one else would be more comfortable.

I wish we could draw a lesson from Matisse  about how to become an artist.  But there is no prose translation of his work.  You can only experience it, if you’re lucky, and walk away a changed person.


Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917 will be at the Chicago Art Institute until June 20, 2010


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Chicago is a great theater town. At any one time we have about one hundred and thirty plays running. That includes fifteen to twenty openings a week. After I see a play I work out a drawing as a way of understanding what I just participated in. I don’t draw during the performance. I memorize the faces. The play hits me the next day in my studio. It doesn’t leave me alone until the drawing comes together.

One of my favorite theaters is the Gift Theater (Milwaukee & Lawrence) where I saw One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Alexandra Main and Paul D’Addario in the leads.  The play closed last week and I’m sorry to post the drawing and the recommendation so late.  For future productions: www.thegifttheater.org

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