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Archive for April 22nd, 2011

Sunsets and cloud formations often take our breath away.  We stop walking, stop pedaling and stop driving so that we can give in to shameless gaping, all sophistication abandoned.  What we’re looking at are light rays and water vapors.  Light rays bending over the horizon and water vapors clumping in the troposphere, however well we may understand the physics that produce the effects, will still stop us in our tracks.  For centuries, light has been a metaphor in our literature and art for concepts like hope, transcendence and peace.  In the late 18th century, with the rise of Romanticism and then the sense of the Sublime in the early 19th century, light effects and cloud formations became major rock stars on the stage of the poetic imagination.

The Hudson River Valley painters are a great example.  Thomas Moran (1837-1926), for example, painted awe-inspiring landscapes, often of enormous dimensions and involving spectacular cloud formations and light effects.

But a painting of rays and vapors often falls flat.  Think of the sentimental sunset paintings you’ve winced at while strolling through a summer art fair.  You want to say, dude, the 19th century is like so yesterday. We still love the real thing, the sunset, but our notion of painting has taken a sharp turn.  A hundred years of abstraction have taught us that the painting is an artifact. We have come to appreciate the power of composition and we are less likely to be manipulated by the sentimental intentions of Sunday painters.

In walks Elaine C. with her photos of Tahiti.  Breathtaking, if you imagine what it must have been like to be there.  We spread out these wonderful photos and looked in amazement and a little envy.  But the task at hand was to stop gasping and set to work on making a painting!  Lo and behold, in her display of 4 x 6 photos, there was this one, where the clouds and the mountain range had gotten together that magical romantic evening in Tahiti to form the wildest, most dynamic composition possible: the Z.  It’s quite uncanny.  It’s this rigorous geometry that rescues the composition from the sobs and sighs of sentimentality.  The work on this painting (16 x 20) was difficult and time consuming because the artist/student had to reconcile two opposites:  the amorphous, soft form of clouds and the distinct zig-zag of the overall composition.

In the Tahiti photo, the bottom of the frame shows a body of water, but in the painting this sliver becomes  an expanse of green meadow—for the sake of color.  We can do that because we’re painters.

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