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Archive for 2011

There’s nothing like drawing from a live model.  It’s inspiring and invigorating and you can see the forms clearly.  In a pinch, if you feel the urge to draw but can’t get anyone to pose for you (good luck trying to find someone who’s willing and able to sit still these days), you can draw from photos.  But photos are so 20th century.

Instead, I recommend that you draw from YouTube.  Name a person, a topic, or an event, and you’ll find it on YouTube.  If you want to practice drawing faces, pick one of the thousands of clips of talking heads.  Run the video and decide which angle you’ll draw.  Stop the frame.  Voila.  Your model is sitting for you.  If you’re in the mood for gesture drawing, find a sport or a ballet.  Stop the frame.  You can be sure, no model would ever hold these poses.  You will get a work out, guaranteed.

Above, a page of studies after a ballet by Nacho Duato, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CkC0hHat_ik

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I went to the mall.

Last Sunday I drew twelve people at Maggianos at Old Orchard. We were celebrating the first birthday  of the first born son of a couple that had flown in from Florida to be with the rest of the family who still lives in the Chicago area.  When the gig was done, I packed up, pulled on my self-made hat, wheeled my drawing supplies back to the car and headed for Nordstrom.  One of the women at the party had told me, in English instead of the ambient Bosnian,  that she worked at Nordstrom’s in Schaumburg, in a department called Narrative.  “Narrative” is a word I sometimes use in my drawing class, apprehensively scanning my students’ faces for signs that this literary reference might snatch their minds out of the visual state and plunk them back into the quotidian verbal.  (My students are all over-educated readers.)  What, I was eager to learn, has the word “narrative” got to do with shopping?

There it was, a whole section of women’s clothing with the word “Narrative” on the wall over the alcove with the three manikins.  The urgency to make sense of the word in this context faded at the sight of the manikins’ faces that reminded me of André Carrillo’s caricatures.  I made a mental note that I needed to write about this comparison in a future blog and immediately got distracted by another display in an adjacent department, though the sartorial subtleties that justified the expense of putting different names on the walls in such close proximity did not catch my eye.

What caught my eye was the skull.  Where am I?  What’s the meaning of this skull in the context of shopping for clothes? My mind goes into free-association.

The skull became the central prop in still lifes painted by Dutch artists around 1600.  This genre of still life was called “momento mori.”   The skull would be surrounded by symbols of cultural achievement, such as books, silver, violins, and other luxurious or pleasurable goods and fragile things like soap bubbles and glassware,  to make the statement that none of these will matter at the inevitable moment of death.  There are yards and yards of these paintings, all exquisitely executed as if in self-contradiction:  making a fine painting really did matter even though you knew it was all ephemeral.  Doing something well really does give one pleasure in existing and a baker or brewer might possibly use his money-scheming mind to decipher the meta-text of his life’s narrative  at the sight of such a fine work of art, momento mori be damned.

This is what goes through my mind as I’m trying to understand that skull hovering over the clothes rack.  What could possibly go through the mind of a marketing expert at Nordstrom as she looks for ways to entice shoppers into buying this merchandise?  A light bulb goes off in her brain, “aha, we need a skull there, that’s what we need.”   Actually, there were two skulls.   So, this was a deliberate statement, a motif for this line of clothing.  Could that be?  Yes, it could.  I moved in closer to examine the craftsmanship in this pricy merchandise and discovered that the “momento mori” was all over this stuff.  The seams were raggedy, the fabric was raggedy, the cut was clearly intended to say “I just pulled this out from under my bed, what’re you lookin’ at, go get a life, I have more important things to think about.”  Here I’m tempted to add, “like, totally, dude” except these were large sizes.

At this point you’re expecting some insight.  Sorry, not yet.

I walked around some more and looked at more banal, poorly crafted artifacts and hyper-illuminated grotesqueries.  The skull, the skull.  Where else have we seen the skull?

The words “banal, hyper-illuminated and grotesque” just came to me now as I’m writing, but during my puzzled, non-verbal wanderings through the depressed looking crowds of Holiday shoppers, these associations must have been forming in my visual brain because the image that came to my mind was the diamond studded skull that brought Damien Hirst yet another burst of fame and a fist-full of banknotes.  I recall, something like a hundred million dollars.  Damien Hirst, he of the pickled shark and the decaying cow’s head fame, had hired craftsmen and jewelers to produce a skull cast out of platinum and covered with diamonds.

It will be at the Tate in London next year.  Art critics and curators are linking it to the “momento mori” genre.

Here, again, you’re expecting some insight.  Not yet, sorry.  I’ll keep working on this.  It’s the kind of thing that makes you want to give those French guys another reading, you know, Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard, those unreadable books you threw across the room a few years ago.  Even Richard Dawkins has admitted that he can’t make heads or tails of their writings and I suspect it’s not a problem of translations.  But I am currently reading “The Moment of Complexity” by Mark C. Taylor and that’s got me thinking, again,  about semiotics and the desperate state of images in our time.

One thing is clear.  There’s some major messing with our brains going on.  And we’re doing the messing.   If you spend $68 for a shapeless, tattered t-shirt, you’ve had your brain messed with. If you hold the title of Curator at a major museum and you promote Damien Hirst as an artist, then you are messing with our brains.

Oh, please, everybody, send me your thoughts on this.  A tattered scrap of insight will be welcome.

Still life with skull by Peter Claesz, 1597-1660

http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2011/nov/21/damien-hirst-tate-modern

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Georges Seurat (1859-1891) worked on this his most famous painting for two years. No wonder.  It’s ten feet long and consists of dots of paint the size of a pin head.  Much of the avant-guard art at the time concerned itself with ocular issues:  the interaction of color, optical illusions involving color, retinal aftereffects of various colors.

Artists were radical in their use of color, certainly, but there’s more here than an experiment in color theory. These artists lived in late 19th century Paris and its civilization was not free of discontents.    Drawing from life and street scenes, artists contemplated social stratification and its incongruities.    The people in “La Grande Jatte” appear to be isolated, insular in their assigned societal roles.   It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon, everybody is out enjoying some rest and leisure , but somehow this image manages to be uncomfortable.

The main character, the woman at the right, appears to be collaged onto the canvas.  She and her sliver of a companion occupy a dominant part of the canvas.  Seurat lets us know that she is a prostitute.  He conveys this information by drawing her with a monkey on a leash, a common prop for prostitutes at that time to attract clientele.

The colors are lovely and we are entranced by the mind-boggling detail of the tip-of-the-brush work.

What else?

When we flip the canvas left-right, it becomes apparent how tormented the social situation is.  When the prostitute is on the left, we empathize with her and that’s asking too much of us.  She has to be on the right to show how alien and isolated she is.  This, in a society where everybody had double standards  for women and wives knew what brothels their husbands frequented.  But the prostitute was still marginal, a thorn in the side of bourgeois culture, and here she is, the main attraction in this huge, in-your-retina painting.  The flipped version of the painting is painful to look at because we feel the character’s isolation all the more and because now the shore line goes down and therefore there’s no hope at all.

Other paintings by Seurat also draw the shore line going from upper left to lower right, and with good reason.  Later.

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“Walking Mad” is choreographed by Johan Inger to Ravel’s Bolero.  You know Bolero and now that you’ve been reminded of it you’ve started humming it and you will be humming it til you leave the house to hear Dashing Through the Snow from every street corner, you hear.  Bolero starts like a march, like an accompaniment to a Medieval processional straight to hell in a tableau from Hieronymus Bosch and it repeats at ever increasing insistence and volume til it falls apart in blaring discord and exhaustion.   It’s usually associated with sexual frenzy.  But Johan Inger takes a less lascivious view of the old chestnut.  There are pelvises, thighs  and groins to relate to and there’s a wall.  The dancers interact with a wall.  They hit the wall, they are slammed against the wall, they jump at the wall, they hang from the wall, they try to climb the wall;  the wall folds, opens and lies down flat and gets walked on.  Plenty of frenzy here–sexual, violent  and existential.

I saw this performance by  Hubbart Street Dance Chicago two months ago.  Two months.  It was such a knock-out, that I didn’t think I could come up with a drawing associated to it.  I watched clips on You Tube of other dance companies performing passages from this piece and kept being overwhelmed.  No way  could I do justice to this piece, as a concept and as theater.  A couple of days ago, on a sunny Sunday afternoon,  I just decided to watch the clip again and I started to draw.

The agony I had put myself through for two months was the same as the agony my students experience when they draw from life.   It’s the feeling that you can’t do justice to the grandeur and complexity of the model and the model will judge you,  implicitly.  So, I speak from fresh memory and insight, when I say, that’s not what it’s about.  It’s not about the model, it’s about you finding a new perception.  Yes, the drawing will refer to the model, but it will not be dominated by the model.  The drawing will be something new, will exist in its own right as a new object , never been seen before and full of surprises—most importantly to YOU.

Johan Inger was not paralyzed by the history of Bolero, not by its clichéd currency nor by any torture about what Ravel “really” meant to say. He did not hit a wall.  Well, yes, he did and then he put it into the work and worked with it.

We need to get back to this.  In the meantime, take a piece of paper and some pencil or marker, whatever is lying around, and draw. Draw something, the celery on the counter, the mug on your desk, the cover you just pulled off your printer.

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I presented the ideas of Johannes Itten in that class (see previous post) and also the paintings of Turner.

Art historians discuss Turner in connection with the aesthetic of the Sublime, a central idea in Romanticism.  The Sublime was opposed to beauty, restraint, balance, harmony.  Romantic poets felt tormented by infinite longing and passion that could not be contained.  In their debates about form and content , form lost its former respect.  The content of turbulent emotion and the newly discovered dark aspects of the psyche—not as sin but as depth and authenticity—were seen to correspond to the awe and terror of natural forces , such as mountains and oceans.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 –1851) is famous for his seascapes, which are most often turbulent and terrifying:  burning ships; ship wrecks; drowning, shackled slaves; blazing orange skies. Though he was a member of the Royal Academy, he had to endure much ridicule from his contemporaries who preferred polite, sedate , well-ordered pictures to be mollified by.

Turner also painted landscapes.  He hated the color green and painted landscapes while avoiding that color.  What is a landscape?  We keep coming back to that question in my landscape class.  Turner assures us that it’s not about the color green.

I didn’t present the Sublime in class.  Just looking at Turner gives you goose bumps and you GET it.  Elaine C. again faced a white canvas by putting down color and letting the form follow.  This is a small painting, about 12 x 16.  If it were 48 x 64, it would pull us into the Romantic Sublime.

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The Bauhaus was a school of art and (later) architecture in Germany, founded by Walter Gropius in 1919.  In the first three years of its existence the school’s teaching methods and aesthetics were set by Johannes Itten, an artist inclined to Eastern philosophies and meditation.  He was instrumental in bringing Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee to the school.  The twenties is a time of tremendous energy in German art movements, for example German Expressionism and The Blue Rider, both concerned with the primacy of color.

Itten wrote “The Art of Color” and devised the Color Sphere, shown here.

He abandoned 19th century teaching methods, involving rules and the traditional subservience of color to subject matter.  Instead of color filling in a drawing, color became the starting point.  He discovered that students find color associations that are unique to their temperament and sensibility.  You start with color, he said.  Then you contemplate it and the next color will follow from this contemplation.

This sounds easy.  What could be easier than plopping down a dollop of color.  Turns out, it’s not. When we’re  in preschool, yes, but when we’re adults, there are often too many psychological barriers.

I suggested Itten’s approach in my class.  Through our windows we could hear the wind howling.  The lake was turbulent and muddy, the trees were bare and raggedy.  Elaine C. put a wisp of green on her white canvas. Itten would have noticed, as I did, and he would have kept his meditative distance, as I did.  The colors developed, as if on their own.  I can’t explain how this happens.  But I do know that the painting comes out of the process itself.

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Your brain loves a straight line.  It’s quick, leads you from one end to the other in an instant.  It divides one side from another and no ifs or buts about it.  Then the brain dusts off its hands, congratulates itself on a job well done and moves on to something else.

When you put a clean crisp line into your painting you tickle that part of the brain that wants to know what’s what and therefore your attention will go to that line and you will be pleased.

Let’s look at a recent painting by Ellen G.  Here on the right you see it in the almost-finished stage.  We get the sense that this is a construction (it was derived from a collage, measuring less than 2 inches) and that directs us to see is as an abstraction, an invitation to engage in interpretation, that necessary pastime of us moderns.  What am I looking at here, the eye says.  Well, I see a reddish trapezoid, a bit of green on the right, an L shaped yellow thing, a fuzzy dip (#3) into a lead gray rectangle and then, oh look, there this thing on the lower right that looks like a landscape(#1).  Thank you, artist!  You gave me something to identify and latch on to because it relates to the real world.  Once you see this picture within a picture, it will dominate your attention.  This hilly vista with a suggestion of something like telephone wires just came out like that. In the original collage it was a bit of torn paper.  No matter, here it’s incarnated as a landscape and it takes over and you keep going back to it.  The rest of the painting then will look irrelevant, if you can even get yourself to pay attention to the yellow and the red.

Now, look what happens when the edge at #2 is made absolutely clean and straight.  Your eye zooms to it.  The “landscape” at #1 still demands your attention, but now it has competition.  The clean line at #2 compels your eye up.  Then what?  There’s a synaptic jump and you land at #4.  What’s #4?  Nothing.  It’s pure shape and color.  It’s an angle, the intersection of two lines, not as compelling as a clean line would be, but, hey,   it’s red.  So there you are at this angle, which forms an arrow.  And where does the arrow lead? Down to #1.  So, the artist has us coming and going, moving through this painting and wanting to stay with it.  When this happens, your brain becomes mind and you love puzzlement. There you are, looking at this thing, feeling entranced.

What about the yellow-orange L shape?  That’s texture.  Texture engages you with its emotional power.  See next post.

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It was about 4 o’clock and the light favored Glenview Road. I was waiting on the side street, having just pulled out of the library’s parking lot.  I went over the to-do list for that evening in my head: emails, phone calls, drawings to finish,  a blog to write, what to do for dinner, you know, the usual stuff.  Here I was, stuck in traffic and who enjoys waiting for a light to turn green!  Well, actually, for me, it’s often a welcome moment.   It was a long light. Going over the chores list once is enough.  After that, I switch into visual.  I looked around.  There was something eerie about this late afternoon lighting. All I noticed at first was the low hanging thick gray cloud cover.  And then, there on my left was the library, with the peaks of the roof line illuminated in the rapidly setting sun.  Since this was not a bright sunny day at all and the ominous, leaden sky gave no hint of a sun anywhere, the peaks of the gabled roof line appeared to be glowing from within. I rolled down the window and fumbled for my camera.  I took just one frame.  The light changed on Glenview Road and I turned into the intersection.

I feared the worst for this shot:  It was just too dramatic.  When things seem to be glowing from within, you’re on thin ice.  The figures of Rembrandt and Caravaggio often come at us out of tarry, pessimistic blackness and they shine like lanterns. But for the epigoni, depicting figures that glow with an inner fire leads inevitable to preachy kitsch.

What saves this photo from the glowing ash heap of kitsch, I think, is the severity of the composition.  Saved by zig-zagging triangles!  Notice that the shrub in the lower right corner gives us a triangle standing on a point that is outside the frame.  Notice also, that the zig-zags go down from left to right and the illuminated peaks work in counterpoint, by going up.  Counterpoint pulls you from the brink of kitsch, any day.

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Claude Monet (1840-1926) painted “On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt” in 1868.  He was only twenty-eight.  It’s brilliant.  The brush strokes are lively, the colors are tranquil.  But is the feeling of the painting as a whole tranquil?  I don’t think so.  I think it’s gloomy. Why does this painting have a dark mood despite its bright colors?  Why do we imagine this  woman to be sad? The inclusion of the boat at that angle, lifts the mood a bit, but still,  what a downer.  Why would such a young man paint an image with so much tension in it?

He didn’t.  What you see above is a horizontal flip of the real painting.  What Monet painted is reproduced below here. This is what we see at the Art Institute.  Isn’t this more tranquil?  Aren’t we more inclined to empathize with this woman rather than the woman on the right?  The boat, again, complicates the picture. Here it slants down, making us suspect that all is not well in this life.  If he had painted the boat slanting up from left to right, the image would be unbearably cheerful, even  corny.  Try it.

What’s interesting and important to note is that the information conveyed in each version is the same. So, it’s not about information.  If it’s not about information, what then?  I can tell you this much: it’s about feeling and empathy.  This is the third of left-right flips. If you follow these posts, it’ll dawn on you.  This should be fun.  (Go to Topics in the column at right and choose Left-Right)

Let’s go back to the boat again. Look what happens when we take out the boat altogether.  Would you agree that the boat is not there because Monet wants to tell us that the woman rowed it to the bank of the river? The boat is not part of a narrative, but is needed to complicate the mood and lend depth to the image.

Click the thumbnails  to enlarge and then play with the boat question.

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In his biography of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Franz Schulze says that the reason Mies said “Less is more” is that he didn’t speak English very well.  That sounds like a joke.  It’s true, Mies learned English in middle age.  But Schulze may have come up with the quip out of irritation at how the saying is being bandied about. He may have been tired of its extreme pithiness and then its subsequent casual overuse. You can hear “Less-Is-More”  from people who have no idea where it comes from, in what context it was used or who originally said it.

In 1937 Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, at the age of fifty-one, was invited to teach architecture at IIT in Chicago, after heading the architecture department at the Bauhaus in Germany. The Bauhaus innovators had grown up with Victorian clutter, sentimentality, devotion to antiquity, deceptive uses of materials, and social stratification. The Bauhaus, founded in 1919, was a school of design dedicated to finding a new visual vocabulary for all artifacts, from teapots to theater costumes to buildings.   The way to achieve these ends was through technology.

It’s easy to see what Mies meant by “less.”  What did he mean by “more?”  More what?  Well, more integrity, more honesty, more awareness, more equality, more thoughtfulness, more compassion.  The Bauhaus people, like all modern artists, thought that by cleaning up the decorative affectations in our visual world, we would become more truthful.  More moral.

Can’t say we’ve arrived at that ideal.

But Mies’s  wonderfully quotable “Less-Is-More” has certainly gotten twisted and satirized.

In 1966 architect Robert Venturi  published “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture,”  both of which he said were just fine. Main Street was fine, Las Vegas was fine.  “Less,” he said, “is a bore.”

Since the 70’s the optimism at the heart of Less-Is-More has been replaced by irony and self-referencing.

While we now live with irony and self-conscious despair in our art and artifacts—oh, and tattoos– “Less-Is-More” keeps surfacing to consciousness and slipping off the tongue.  Ignorant of its derivation, people will say “Less-Is-More” when they’ve just moved into a new apartment but can’t afford the Crate-and-Barrel couch yet.  Mies’s monkish mystery is now constantly trivialized.  Unlike Schulze, however,  I don’t mind because when I hear it used, even by the ignorant, I’m reminded of what he meant.

Passing a hair salon not long ago, I read “Mess is More” in the window.  This turns out to be a slogan promoting a hair product that makes your hair look excessive, in a sort of seedy, cluttered, Victorian way.  Precisely the stuff Mies was revolted by.  So I walked on and reviewed his buildings in my mind and thought of his courage and that made my day.

Top: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, design for Berlin Hochhaus, 1919. Iron & steel skeleton and glass curtain wall.  Couldn’t be built in the Germany of the 1920’s for economic and political reasons.  Lake Point Tower (just West of Navy Pier), 1960’s,  was designed by two of his students, George Schipporeit and John Heinrich as an homage to Mies’s 1919 vision.

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