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Archive for July, 2011

Every summer we unveil a new sculpture on the lawn in front of the Evanston Art Center, to inspire us and attract visitors for a whole year.

Gary Orlinsky flew in from the East Coast to install his “Elevated,” a sculpture of wood and industrial plastic, that rises 15 feet and stretches about 30 feet. The materials come from local sources, including the branches and saplings that were gathered on art center grounds after the tornado had swept through only a week earlier.

The artist is a native Chicagoan and named the piece after the Chicago El.  That’s only the name.  Names are not intended to limit the imagination in its chain reaction of associations.  The piece will evoke different associations in different viewers.

When I talked with Gary Orlinsky at the opening, he said he liked making one material look like something else, in this case, wood (painted black) looking like iron.  This is a pre-modernist idea and, in fact, he described himself as a Luddite.  But, actually, his translation of one material into another supports the metaphor I saw.

For me, obsessed with internet issues when I first saw it last week, “Elevated” conjured up associations to the staggering capacity of communication that our technology has facilitated and the questioning of traditional ideologies that these inventions have brought about.  All this is the meeting of axiomatic systems (math) and just physical stuff (copper, sand, etc).  Fiber optic cables are made of silica, which is sand, and the cables in “Elevated” are made of twigs knocked down by winds—just graspable, mundane materials.

I have the privilege of seeing this sculpture every week when I go to teach in that building and on those grounds and I get to contemplate this paradox.  It’s a powerful sculpture.  I only wish it were twice as long.

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Your Internet Provider giveth and your Internet Provider taketh away.  Your call is important to us…your approximate waiting time is fifteen minutes…due to high volume of calls…you understand, don’t you.  No, AT&T, I don’t understand, and I’ve been trying to get a consistent answer from your people for three hours.  Insult to injury,  I have to talk on the phone.  Who talks on the phone anymore?  People make appointments by email—hello, that would be the internet—to talk on the phone.  The phone… so 20th century.  Like a Bogey flick or smoking or not moussing your hair, or whatever.

Luckily, I draw.  I’ve never been so desperately in need of drawing as this past Internet-deprived week.

I truly think there’s therapy in drawing.  The tools are simple: a pencil and paper, both of the ordinary variety, will do.

In case of extreme frustration with the world out there, I recommend color. You may think that’s too complicated or too messy.  Not so.  Use markers and glossy paper.  I recommend Chartpak markers and the PITT artist pen with the B tip.  By glossy paper I mean the kind used for color printing, available at office supply stores and  11 x 17 would be the recommended size.    The markers are expensive, so buy them when they’re on sale in August, half price in art supply stores.  Buy whatever you like and add to your palette over time.  Just start.  The PITT pens come in a variety of colors, buy black and maybe a brown and whatever else you feel like.

It’s about feeling.  That’s why I’m not giving specific advice, nothing “academic” about this.  I’m recommending that you doodle in color because color triggers strong emotional associations.  You’ll also discover that the materials I recommended make blending possible.  Blending itself has feeling overtones.  And one more thing: you will not erase.  In this medium, you can’t.  This means that your doodles will never be “good” or “bad.”  They will only transmogrify from one thing to another.

What to doodle?  You can invent forms and let them take you away.  Or you can pick up a magazine or some piece of ubiquitous junk mail and draw what you find there.

And exhale!

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John Singer Sargent (1856 -1925) was an American painter who lived much of his productive life in Europe.  He has lately fallen out of favor with the art scene, probably because his clients were the super-rich and the crème de la crème of the Belle Epoche art world.   On a deeper level, however, our dismissal of him may be about envy:  the man could draw and paint with the kind of ease and finesse that contemporary artists just don’t have the time for or motivation to develop.  It does take time, you know.

Today I want to focus on the way he painted hands.  In his stately portraits, the hands appear to be dashed off in a few brush strokes.  If you look closely at the canvases, you can see that a finger often is rendered with one sure flick of the brush as the hand grasps some gauzy or lacy fabric. You can’t believe that he did that and you just want to give up, certain that you’ll never be able to draw a hand.

Then there’s Mrs. Swinton at the Chicago Art Institute.  The portrait is four feet wide and almost eight feet high. A very young woman with a wholesome Ingrid-Bergman-face asserts her status in society.  Sargent documents her sartorial finery and dazzles us with his bravura brush work. The highlights on the satin gown are globs of cream-white paint; the shine on the chair upholstery is rendered in slashing brush strokes, as if in passing.

Then you notice the hands. Both of Mrs. Swinton’s hands are positioned to convey hauteur. Her right hand is twisted back over the chair in a supercilious, affected manner.  This gives Sargent a chance to show us that the anatomical difficulty of this oblique view does not faze him.  He nails it in a few brush strokes.

The left hand on the hip, however, gave him a work out.  Here he’s not showing off, he’s not flicking the brush to get the tapered fingers in place.  This passage in the painting is labored, with the paint applied in many thick layers. You can empathize with his struggle if you’ve ever tried to draw a hand and maybe you feel relieved to know that even a wizard like Sargent can have a bad day with hands.  Actually, it’s odd that this hand, which is so relaxed, with the fingers nicely aligned, would give him trouble. But clearly, it did.

Hands are difficult, no doubt about it.  The anatomy is complex and it can come at you in so many different angles. Still, you can learn to draw hands. When we do hands in my drawing class, I sit next to individual students and show them how to tame this beast.  Basically, there are three main points:  1) the knuckles form a V; 2) draw the general form of the whole hand first; and 3) don’t overdraw the fingers, especially not the finger tips.

If the mighty Sargent can spend hours scraping and glopping over a left hand on a canvas, you can forgive yourself for drawing a clumsy hand, too.  It gets better with practice and eventually you’ll pull off a really elegant set of fingers.  Not every time, but enough of the time to look forward to the challenge and the pleasure (!) of drawing a hand.

Sometimes my students’ progress is startling. After one brief demo, a student will draw a page of hand studies that shows a sudden grasp of all the points I’ve demonstrated.

 

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We’re continuing the conversation started here in post 7.9.11, where the triangle as a repeated shape was evident in the photo with the high horizon;  that’s the photo with the artist sitting in the upper right quadrant of the frame.  Now, as the instructor in that painting class, I’m roaming over the Evanston Art Center grounds and its environs which spread over a length of about a quarter mile.  I see compositional possibilities all the time. (See the previous post, where waiting for the Purple line at Belmont got me all inspired.) 

The student/artist in this case remained loyal to one spot on the dunes by the lighthouse and instead of getting bored, she looked deeper and got deeper into a (for lack of a better term) meditative state.  Kathleen Q. was facing the lake, a bit of shore line, a chain link fence, sand, grasses and a vast sky.   That adds up to a lot of blue, some beige and some scruffy green. Among all the students who have looked at that in the past, she is the first to see…triangles.  The triangles were only on land, formed by the interaction of the fence, the sand paths and the patches of grass.  She decided to work with the triangle as a repeated motif for the land shapes.  I left her to make my rounds to see my other students painting the various views around the EAC.  When I came back to Kathleen on the dunes there, the whole canvas had become triangulated.  The sky, occupying more than half the canvas, had become crystalized as if by a kaleidoscope.  Brilliant.  The effect, of course, is abstract.  This is abstraction at its best:  it’s abstraction that comes out of a fresh new perception and the love of pure form.

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It’s a collage, right? Look at how flat blue the top portion is. All the shapes are rectilinear, easy to cut. Looks like a study in textures with a little nod to “urban decay art.”

But it’s a photo, a snap shot, completely unedited. I took it with my little pocket Sony from the Belmont El platform. Then I took two other frames changing the sky portion in each and thereby making the composition weaker and weaker.

Why is that? Because only in the first frame do we get a sense of tension at the top, caused by the thin sliver of blue. The next two are more balanced, more bland. What’s so great about tension, who needs it? In real life the experience of tension is something we want to get over with, but in art it’s essential. It makes us pay attention and that’s half the battle.

The first frame has three elements that hold our attention: movement, texture and a memory.

The movement is not produced by any narrative since the buildings aren’t going anywhere, but in the fact that your attention is always moving up: 1) because the vertical lines keep directing you upward and 2) because that’s where the tension is, due to the narrow blue sky portion.

Texture is time consuming to look at. The brick wall has faded images and writing on it and a hint of color. A wall at the left is rust stained. A white wall has horizontal lines, very flat and graphic. Because the composition is flat, we look at these patches of texture AS TEXTURE and this is absorbing and emotional. It’s emotional in a very primitive sense since texture appeals to the sense of touch.

In all this flatness, there’s one hint of a past human presence. That’s the red cup on the white railing at right. The red cup takes up a tiny fraction of the whole picture, but notice how your eye keeps going to it. That’s because 1) red comes forward; 2) it’s at the edge of the picture, causing tension; 3) it’s the only detail and gives us a hint of a human presence and curiosity about humans is always with us.

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When I was starting out as an artist I didn’t think of myself as a great fan of Georgia O’Keefe but my friends must have thought I was, because for my birthday I once got the same Georgia O’Keefe book from two different people.  Two copies of the same book, the large format one with the skull and flowers on the cover.  I have always loved her early work, the sparse watercolors she did in Texas, for example.  But the paintings have never grabbed me much.

Recently I put the Bob Balaban movie about her, “Georgia O’Keefe,” 2009, on my Netflix queue, just out of curiosity and then postponed watching it for days.  Turns out, it’s worth watching.  In fact, I watched some scenes over and over, especially her first meeting with Stieglitz at his gallery where he tells her that she doesn’t even know how good her work is.  Joan Allen portrays her as a genteel, refined woman  who fearlessly defines her life and flaunts conventions with calm stubbornness.  Stieglitz is reduced to fidgetiness when she speaks as an adult in command of her senses.  Jeremy Irons makes this complex art lover/art dealer sympathetic.  Not only is the psychology of these two ornery people made credible by superb acting, but the “artspeak” is insightful.  Most of all, I loved the fact that the director allowed the camera to linger for the actual painting scenes.  We see O’Keefe , not so much engaging the brushes and the paint tubes, but… looking.  Extraordinary.  Showing an actor in the act of looking does not advance the plot, does not define conflict, does not produce quotable dialogue, is not sexy or car-crash noisy.  She looks.  She looks at the mountains.  She looks, quietly, without drama.

It’s about looking, about seeing.

(Above, my studies in charcoal on 11 x 17 smooth paper.)

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Here’s the story.  A woman with a straw hat sits on the reedy sand dunes and paints.  It’s a beautiful, tranquil scene in all three photos.  The information and the story are the same in all three, but the feeling changes from frame to frame.  What has changed is the point of view of the photographer, in this case me.  The point of view is synonymous with “feeling” or “interpretation.” This was not a deliberate sequence on my part.  The interpretive value of the photos emerged only later when I saw them next to one another.

The first two shots (above and right) convey information.

The third  frame (below) is more interesting, however. It goes beyond the story and the immediate empathy accompanied by the desire to be there.  It has an added dimension.  It holds our attention for several reasons:

1. The tension created by the placement of the figure high in the frame and to the right.

2. The dominance of the path leading up to her. This path takes up about a quarter of the picture’s surface!  It’s the “negative space” that carries a feeling of suspense.

3. The figure takes up 1/30 of the pictorial surface, but it’s her that we focus on because we want to empathize with her and are curious about her feelings.

4. The shapes of the grassy patches and sandy paths are triangles that point to the figure. The edge of the large block of grass on the right leads directly to her.

5. The high horizon lends gravitas and pessimism to the composition.

6. She is facing the lake, a feeling of openness and freedom, but at the same time there’s a rectilinear fence obstructing her view.

7. The story of the woman painting is bucolic, picturesque, and peaceful.  The composition says the opposite; it says, yes-but, it’s not so simple, it’s complicated.

In the next post I’ll focus on #s 4 and 5 and we’ll talk about the painting itself.

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