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Archive for June, 2011

Many of our adult students were once art majors.  It shows.  Many students are in professions like teaching, law, medicine, finance,  or they are retired from these professions.  They tend to be readers and music lovers.  This, too, shows.  The exhibits of student work here at the Evanston Art Center are always worth seeing.

The Evanston Art Center is housed in an old vine covered mansion by the lake, just north of the Northwestern campus at the lighthouse.  This student show is worth the drive.  Last day, this Sunday, June 26, afternoon.  Free admission.  Most of the artwork is for sale, at very low prices.  Don’t miss, second floor and spilling into the winding staircase.

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Elaine C. called this painting “Untitled” when she submitted it for the student show at the Evanston Art Center. There must be thousands of painting in the world by that name. That ”Untitled” is the best name for this painting becomes evident when you consider some alternatives. Since the painting was made in a class called “Impressions of Landscape,” she might have named it:Red Marble,  Red Mountain in the Distance, Landscape in Red and Green, The White Horizon.   Some artists name their paintings according to concepts or states of mind, such as: Orientation,  Oder and Chaos, The Strait and the Crooked,  Where Are We Going,  Fissures.

Make up your own. You’ll see that the name of the painting prejudices the way you see the work. Your mind will welcome any verbal guidelines because its job is to seek meaning. If you can translate the painting into words, you can walk away feeling smart. So you think. In high school English class your teacher asked you to paraphrase the issue in “A Road Not Taken” and you got an A on that paper. What a catastrophe. A work of art cannot be paraphrased, cannot be distilled down to its dead-concept “essence.”

Schopenhauer said, “All art aspires to the conditions of music.” That’s a powerful statement. He’s saying that art is about form and experience. We don’t paraphrase or summarize a piece of music. We experience it. Granted some symphonies get nicknames, but generally they are known by their numbers. The Beethoven Fifth, the Mahler Fourth, et al. Elaine was wise in sticking to “Untitled.” She’s saying, look at it, contemplate it, experience it.

The painting originated with a small collage, about 2”x3”. It was complicated to paint: the tuning of the reds and greens relative to one another; working with masking tape for the straight lines; the issue of clean edges vs. grainy edges; the illusion of a vanishing point outside the painting; the “marbling” (!) of the red.

This painting strikes me as very musical indeed. It sets up a counterpoint between the red area with its texture and the celadon-green-black passage with its stripes. That’s as verbal as I want to get about it, though the technical details are interesting and were discussed in class in the context of desirable or undesirable effects.   It doesn’t refer to anything or illustrate anything. It cannot be paraphrased. It exists as an object in its own right. I just want to look at it and let it absorb me.

For previous posts on the subject of collage and abstract painting, see Nov 15, 2010 and Dec 14, 16 and 22, 2010; Jan 8, May 3,8 and 20, 2011. In a future post I want to talk about Mondrian and “essence.”

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The Hubbard Street Dancers make me crazy in the best way possible.  While I’m watching the performance, my mind is blank.  They allow no breathing time in which to be “smart” or to think metaphorically.  Instead, I am completely IN the dance.  My only sense of self-awareness comes from the occasional reminder to myself to… breathe.  When a piece is over, I momentarily don’t know where I am and I feel wiped out.

Then I go home and I’m sure I can’t possibly make a drawing from what I saw.  It takes me about four weeks to get up the courage to attempt a drawing.  Then I work from the videos on YouTube and my memory of the actual experience in the Harris Theater.

The piece I chose for the drawing is called 27’52” by the choreographer Jirí Kilyán.  The human body appears to be whipped about by forces that are not connected to any mythic notion of selfhood or poeticized emotion.  What these dancers do is a long way from the pretty feet and ankles that Louis XIV and his courtiers enjoyed.  The work of the Hubbard Street Dance Company is truthful to a painful degree.   It inspires me and nourishes me.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L8t1DFs0qVM&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XC1VY93-oh8

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The history of the still life can be traced back to the Romans, but it came into full force around 1600, primarily in the Netherlands.  We have a still life by Caravaggio, but in Italy religious themes remained dominant.  In the Netherlands, where a republican government had taken root early and where a secular culture was in ascendancy, still life paintings became powerful objects of contemplation.  By the middle of the 17th century, Dutch art collectors filled their homes with landscapes, family portraits, still lifes,  and scenes of domesticity, with religious themes numbering (it’s estimated) only about one in five.  There was a special theme for a still life, devoid of religious references, that reminded the viewer of the transience of life.  Called “Vanitas” paintings or “Momemto Mori,” these paintings involved the human skull and other reminders of mortality such as candles, cobwebs;  the ephemeralness of fame as symbolized in cultural treasures like books and violins.

In a recent drawing class I set up such a Vanitas still life.  It turned out to be an inspiring subject, though half of the class avoided the skull, arguably the anchor of the still life, altogether. Some students invented background “atmospherics” in their use of shading or rectilinear forms.  I particularly like the choice of very oblique views of the still life so that the violin—the prima donna of the show—is actually seen from an obscuring angle.  The incompletion that we see in all of the drawings, this fading out of the lines and the shading as we get to the edge, this incompletion is a thoroughly modern technique.  It comes, as we have seen before (posts 2.21, 4.22, and 5.23.11) from early 19th century Romanticism.

Shown here are drawings by Maggy S., Karen G., In Young J., who gave us the most realistic rendering and Vera C., who drew the individual objects as if they were collaged together on the drawing paper according to dictates of the life in her composition.  The drawing by Louise F. will get a post of its own.

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Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) could draw, no doubt about it.  He knew anatomy, for example, and made anatomical studies from human cadavers.  This must have been very unpleasant, given the absence of phermaldehyde at that time. It was also against the law, forbidden by the all-powerful Catholic Church which taught that the body housed the soul.  Leonardo’s curiosity knew no bounds.  He set out to dissect decaying bodies to find the place where the soul might have been located. The fact that he got away with this attests to his tremendous fame in his own lifetime and the high esteem in which he was held.  He was unassailable.

There are no paintings by Leonardo in any permanent collection in America.  (The one at the National Gallery is disputed and I don’t think it’s a Leonardo.)   So, when a Leonardo painting makes it into an exhibit, it behooves us to pay attention.  When I saw his “Madonna of the Yarnwinder “ at the Art Institute of Chicago this spring in the French Renaissance exhibit, I did a double take and paid attention.

Let’s pay attention here. We know that the upper body of the Madonna is facing us symmetrically (1 and 2). We can see that it’s not turned because her cleavage is in the middle.  Her right arm is tightly pressed against her side (1) and her hand is tilted in a way that is anatomically impossible.  Try it. Her left knee (4) has to be connected to the femur which has to be lodged in a pelvic socket.  Now, where would that be? At 3? Impossible.  Does the femur follow the dotted line?  Also impossible.  How does he get away with this?  He’s Leonardo and nobody questions his abracadabra.

Notice the bulge over her left thigh, concealing his sleight of hand.  Saved by drapery!   Once you see this, you’ll wonder at his sense of humor.  Granted, he had to get the Madonna and child into a triangular composition, that was standard for the time since the triangle is supremely stable and dogmatic stability is what the client wanted. But I think there’s humor here.  He’s pulling our leg as he pulls that woman’s leg right out of her pelvis.  At some point in his career, painting yet another Madonna must have gotten a bit boring and he might very well have felt the need to amuse himself.

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Karen is one of the two students who followed my direction about this still life: Plan on doing two drawings. In the first, study the shapes and produce a representational drawing.  In the second, take off and play with form, with a deliberate departure from representation.

In her second drawing (above) she inverted some of the pots, took the pear that rested on top of the pots and put it on the bottom of her drawing and invented forms that were not in the still life at all.  The angular shapes on top may have been inspired by the corner of the room or the angle of the door.  The striped crescent is pure invention, for the sake of the composition. The drawing is explosive and dense at the same time. It’s a work of conviction and playfulness.  These are—intellectually—contradictory terms, but in a work of art they co-exist because in art we reconcile contradictions; we get at the whole ball o’ wax, also known as the human condition.

At right, the artist’s first drawing, quite literal and faithful.  This is the same view that she worked from for the second drawing. (above)

This post is the last in the series about drawings made in one three-hour session by seven students.  To follow the discussion of this still life, see posts for May 22, 23, and 24; and June 5,6, and 12.

 

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It was another of Beatrice K.’s unassuming tranquil photos, probably taken at the Botanic Garden. ( See also 3.12.11) But its harmony, I could tell right away, was grounded in the ratio of the Golden Section.  Oh, no, not math.  Yes, math and very beautiful math, at that.

Pythagoras did his math on the coast of Asia Minor around 600 BCE.  He came up with this ratio that keeps on giving.  Take a line, any line.  On that line is a point that will divide the line into two sections, call them a and b, such that the whole string is to the long section as the long section is to the short section, which looks like this in  algebra,  (a+b):b = b:a.  Then if you take just a to be the whole string you can start the whole subdividing and ratio forming again, ad infinitum.  The Greeks thought this was so beautiful that they used this ratio over and over not only in building their temples but also in constructing the bodies –and faces—of their heroic sculptures.

And here it is in Bea’s painting.  The Golden Section was already in the photo, but it was important not to lose it while pushing the paint.  The reason this was important is that without the Golden Section, this peaceful landscape painted in soft tones of blue, sienna and green would drift into sentimental swampland.  The painting is far from a faithful reproduction of the photo.  In the photo the rivulet was lined by dark shrubs on its right bank.  In the painting, such a dark line in the foreground would have detracted from the tension in the upper left corner, where the Golden Section holds forth.

The last stage of the painting involved the sky.  Originally it was the same blue as the water.  This flattened the landscape.  By turning the sky very pale and grayish and, most importantly, painting a white-ish halo around the trees, the illusion of special depth became convincing.  Entrancing, I would say.

For more on the Golden Section see “The Power of Limits: Proportional Harmonies in Nature, Art and Architecture”  by György Doczi.

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