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Archive for May, 2011

This landscape by Ivan T. originated from a photo he had taken in the Green islands.  In the photo the boats are smaller, more evenly spaced and with more water visible between them.  The houses are smaller because they’re farther in the distance.  The hills are also smaller because they’re very far in the distance.  That’s what he started with.

At the beginning of the class I showed how Cézanne pushed the distant elements of his landscape up in the picture plane. (See previous post.)  Ivan immediately applied this insight to his 24 x 18 painting, which he had started the previous class.  The boats became bigger, crowding the harbor.  The houses became bigger and fewer in number. The houses farther up the hill are not diminished in size, as perspective would dictate and as they appear in the photo.  At this point we suspect that he might be pulling a Cézanne on us.  When we take in the mountains, there’s no doubt:  this is Cézanne country.  The mountains have been pushed up and towards us.  The whole tripartite scene is being pushed forward and crammed into the picture frame.  The composition is made up of three elements: boats, houses and hills. Each of these sections is “in front;” nothing recedes into the distance. This immediacy is made even more tactile by the handling of the paint. The artist painted with a palette knife, thick and loose.  So that we’re looking at boats and at the same time paint itself.  We also get this effect in Cézanne, too, who did not blend, but rather left his individual brush strokes visible.

There’s more to explain the dynamic of this painting: 1) the zig-zag of the overall composition; 2) the golden section; and 3) the cropping of the mountain.

1) The pink lines in this diagram trace the zig-zag of the big forms in the painting.  (See post “Skies Tahiti,” April 22, 2011 ) The masts, rather tame and thin in the photo, are zig-zag and coarse, an invention of the artist.

2) The green line shows the golden section, a topic for a future post.

3) The mountain on the left is brought up to the upper edge of the canvas so that the sky does not go clear across the top of the scene.   This has the effect of bringing the mountain even closer to us.  I’ll talk about that in connection with Caillebotte’s photographic cropping in a future post.  Soon.

And what about that orange house to the right.  And the rhythm created by the windows, which are painted in single slashes of the brush.  It’s an engaging painting.

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He knew all about perspective and light and shadow.  He had studied classical doctrines of picture making and he knew that using these tools was the polite way to make a painting.  But Cézanne (1839-1906) throws all those polite conventions out.  Instead, he negates perspective—look at the table’s  edge, the table is tipping forward—and he paints the pitcher at a tilt.  There’s a precipitous feeling here, as if someone were under the table and pushing it towards you—“in your face,” into your eyeball.

In the still life with apples and wine bottle we have  at the Art Institute of Chicago, we can see that he propped up the bowl of fruit to make it tilt forward. We can’t see the coins he pushed under the wine bottle, but people who knew him said that’s what he did.  The table top, as usual with Cézanne, defies the rules of perspective and the front edge is discontinuous.

Cézanne treats a landscape the same way.  Le Mont Sainte-Victoire, the mountain near Aix-en-Provence where he lived and which he painted dozens of times, is not impressive.  I was there.  It’s a scruffy drab triangle in the distance.  But when he painted it, he made it imposing, mythic.  He painted it much bigger than it is and he compressed the distance from his easel to the mountain.  It’s as if he had walked right up to it, then walked behind it and picked up the horizon and pushed the whole landscape up like a stage set made up of corrugated cardboard.  Like the table with the fruits, the mountain is now “in your face,” right on top of your optic nerve.  Actually, everything is.  The sense of foreground-middleground-background is lost.  Everything in that landscape is on the same plane.  It’s only because we can identify “trees, house, mountain” that we project onto the painting a sense of spacial depth.  All the while Cézanne is doing his best to negate all those assumptions as he creates a flat, brittle surface of passages of colors and shapes.

If this makes you think of Cubism, you’re on the right track.  Picasso famously called Cézanne the father of Cubism.

I mention Cézanne here as an introduction to the next post, which is about a painting done in my “Impressions of Landscape” class.  Well, that, and also because I love Cézanne—I used to “worship” him until I made my pilgrimage to Aix about sixteen years ago–and will talk about him at the slightest provocation.

This photo of the mountain from the spot where Cézanne painted the Sainte Victoire from  Bellevue  is by Erle Loran, from his book Cézanne’s  Composition, Univ of California Press, 1943.

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Here we see a deliberate formal choice in the different treatment of pots and drapery.  The pots have no contour lines while the drapery is presented in lines that define the crest of the fabric. The pots shimmer with texture, which carries emotion and immediacy;  the drapery lacks all physicality, presenting itself as an idea.  Even though the drawing is a cerebral play on formal elements (line, texture, contour, shading) the drawing still manages to be clearly representational of physical objects.

This drawing does not seem to be incomplete.  The lyrical drapery lines suggest that they are complete, not preliminary. When I said that the formal choices in this drawing were deliberate, I did not mean to suggest that the artist/student worked out the composition and textural dichotomies with categorical calculations.  That comes later, mostly from my theoretical mind.  What happens in class is that in the course of a three-hour drawing session, the artist’s mind works on a hyper-aware, intuitive level that encompasses both the rational and irrational.  This complexity makes the work interesting.

A note on how the still life was set up.  In an academic or classical still life, the pottery would be standing up as its function dictates;  there might be a flower in one of the pots and at the base of the pots would be an apple or lemon. In setting up this still life I deliberately avoided such conventions in the hope that a topsy-turvy still life would stimulate an unbiased, unstilted view.  It worked.  Every one of the drawings is different.  This is the third of seven drawings.  Students produced work of conceptual depth and  technical daring.

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The overall impression of this drawing is one of delicacy but at the same time the pencil marks are bold and clear.  There’s nothing blended or indecisive; at the same time the drawing is incomplete.  While the shapes are boldly drawn with a classical respect for light (notice the reflected light where the large pot meets the drapery underneath), the dominant feeling is romantic because of the incompletion. These dichotomies create a tension and puzzlement that engage the viewer.

This is the second of seven drawings from that still life produced in one class.  In future posts (soon) I’ll talk about the physical set up and the suggestions I made to the students at the beginning of the class.

For “Romantic”  see posts February 21, 2011 and April 22, 2011.

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Of all the students in my drawing class, In Young J. did the most literal study of this still life.  An advanced student, she quickly blocks in the composition, mindful of perspective and overlapping forms.  This is easy for her.  She works in pencil, lightly working various passages over and over to adjust the relative values of the drawing.  She tends to hold the pencil way back and swing it lightly, as she tunes the values of her shapes.  This drawing occupied all her time in this three-hour class.

I did not take a photo of the set-up (but you can see an accurate representation here in In Young’s drawing)  for the simple reason that I had no time, being totally engrossed in the work of my students.  It was an exciting class.

How could this be?  How can a pile of pots inspire such good work?

This post is the first of seven about the work done by the seven students in that class.  Each deserves to be looked at and studied.  In tomorrow’s post I’ll talk about the instructions I gave to the class and the reason for piling the pots up in this random fashion. Stay tuned.

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Beatrice K. finished this painting yesterday.  The collage that inspired it was quite small, 3 inches on the long side, and itself a result of cropping from a much larger collage.  While collaging, she found this gem in the corner of a large collage measuring about 11 x 17. (See previous posts under “collage”)   It was so powerful that it had to be painted in large format and its odd dimensions had to be accommodated.   Working out the proportions and considering that the painting had to be carry-able, the final painting was going to be 18 x 32 inches.  But that size canvas is not readily available.  What to do?  Build the custom support out of high grade ply wood and reinforcing borders.  A new adventure, and well worth the trip to the lumber yard.

When we work from a collage we don’t slavishly copy.  The paint has a mind of its own and we enter into a conversation with it.  So, when it drips, the artist has to decide whether to honor that drip or to erase it.  The drip at #3 adds vitality and immediacy to the painting. It adds the elusive dimension of time:  here’s something in the process of happening in a random way. We know the drips must be dry by now but at the same time they convey the feeling that they could go on.  This note of uncertainty draws us in.

It also acts as a chaotic counterpoint to the otherwise layered, rational-appearing composition.  Black (3) is the topmost layer.  That’s clear in relation to 1 and to 4, where at 8 the artist created a faint backlighting to create the feeling that 3 is floating.  We can see that 2 overlaps 1, but at 6 things get disorienting.  3 is on top of 2, but at the same time 2 drips over 3 and therefore 2 overlaps 3.  Oops, not so clear and rational.  Where are we?  Can’t figure that one out, so the viewer’s mind drifts and most likely zooms up to 5, where the contours are clear.  What a relief, we know what’s going on there!  That rectangle is nicely delineated, has a white sliver around it and a prominent white wedge leading up to it and on top of all that, it’s got texture.  How nice.  It’s restful and clear.  Oh, but wait, 5 relates to 4, by virtue of being the same color.  If 4 is the bottom-most layer and 5 is the top-most layer, how can they be connected, of the same cloth, so to speak?  The artist has created a visual paradox that is both pleasing and disquieting.  There’s nothing to do but to go into a visual mode and let the experience take a hold of you.  This is how art works. And I’ll have to say that again at the end of this essay.

What about #7?  What’s going on there?  #7 is stippled with the tip of the brush.  It forms a textured swarm over the already atmospheric #2.  The swarm of #7 takes the form of a wedge and therefore relates to the white wedge at the right.  Once you see that, you also see the wedge under #5.  We have a play on this triangle-form  that keeps the eye moving from one to the other.

There is an even larger repetition of a motif and that’s the L form.  We have it in the yellow at left and the large mass of black.  Even the turquoise in #4 intimates the L form and the burned sienna of #2  suggests that underneath the whole black thing there’s a massive L in reddish brown.  The repetition of a motif in a painting, as in music, focuses the attention, keeps us in the piece.

None of this was articulated before the collage was chosen as material for a painting.  When that little collage bit was framed with white strips of paper, there was a gasp of recognition:  this was something worth exploring.  The understanding of why it was brilliant—all that came later, in the doing.  This how art works.

(I use numbers to refer to passages in the painting in order to make the discussion clear and simple.  I want to avoid “artspeak.”  I recommend that you read through this and then go back and look at the painting—without numbers—just look.)

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Not sold yet, exactly, but the bid is in place.  Last time I mentioned that piece here was in the post for  April 28: “Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.”  Within an hour of posting, there was an email expressing interest to buy.  By the end of that week, a bid was placed with the office at the Evanston Art Center.  This is the benefit show.  The final bidding and auction will be this Saturday evening , May 21, a gala event at the Evanston Art Center on Sheridan Road, on the lake, just north of the Northwestern campus.   It’s very satisfying for me to be able to donate a piece and have it sold to support this fabulous organization.

The framed drawing, in conté,  measures 19 x 25 inches.  Title of work:  Beaucoup 119. The first bid came in at $200.

For more information about the Evanston Art Center and this benefit:

http://www.evanstonartcenter.org/image/gallery/kaleidoscope?page=1

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