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Archive for August, 2011

If the question posed in the previous post seems simpleminded—of course it’s not art, it’s only an illustration!—then why do all beginning painters and limners get obsessed with illustrating what they see? And more often than not they get stuck in that obsession.

Just this morning, a student (in a painting class that I was subbing for) complained to me that she’s been working representationally for five years and now she can’t get herself out of that way of seeing.  That’s her first false assumption.  Her second false assumption came in what she said next:  I can’t get my painting to look the way I want it to look.

1) Well, you can find a new way of seeing.   The way out of old habits is to adopt a new working PROCESS.

2) You don’t know ahead of time what your painting will look like.  That’s because you’re not coloring in the lines, you are going with a PROCESS.

Picasso put it this way:  “A picture is not thought out and settled beforehand.  While it is being done it changes as one’s thoughts change. And when it is finished, it still goes on changing, according to the state of mind of whoever is looking at it.  A picture lives a life like a living creature, undergoing the changes imposed on us by our life from day to day.  This is natural enough, as the picture lives only through the man who is looking at it.”  (From Christian Zervos’ “Conversations with Picasso,” 1935.)

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A Chicago area French teacher is working on her PhD and writing bits of conversation to illustrate points of grammar and idiomatic usage.  To spruce up her presentation she asked me to come up with some illustrations.

The distinction between illustration and art is one of the themes running through this blog.  It’s also a major point, if not THE point, I make in my drawing and painting classes.  All right class, why are these drawings not art?

 

 

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When André Derain painted this landscape in 1906, this is not what he saw.  The painting is called “The Turning Road, L’Estaque.”  That’s a town in southern France, I’ve been there and I can testify to the fact  that the trees there are not red and neither is the grass. It’s all green green green.

What Derain saw is closer to what Charlene W. saw when she painted three trees near the Evanston Art Center.  Tree trunks tend to be brownish-gray and grass is inevitably as green as grass.  This relentless greenness is one of the challenges of landscape painting. Not that we don’t like green.  On the contrary, the various shades of green in nature are cool, refreshing and relaxing.   We seek out such relaxing sites and it’s probably  why we like to sit on the porch and enjoy our lawns.

But the experience of a real landscape comes with the fresh scent of rain, perhaps, or a breeze  that makes us close our eyes in appreciation.  In a painting we don’t have these accompanying sensations.  All we have is a rectangle with color and shapes.  I can’t think of any painting that is as truly green as the landscape that inspired it.  And while we’ve had all blue paintings (Yves Klein), all black paintings (Ad Reinhardt) and all white paintings (Robert Ryman), I’ve never come across an all green painting.  Hmm, what is it about the color green…someone please make an all green painting so we can think about this more clearly.

Charlene, looking at all that green, turned to me and said, I want to have more color.  I showed her a book on Fauvism and she immediately recognized kindred spirits in that movement.  “Les Fauves” means “the wild beasts,”  an appellation attached to painters who showed their work in 1906 in Paris and shocked the dove-gray spats off the critics. Surely civilization as they knew it was coming to an end.  Well, it hasn’t and in my opinion has gotten a whole lot better in the past century.  One thing that’s improved, seems to me, is our love of color.

Charlene’s  landscape looks as if it were on fire.  Photosynthesis gives us the color green in vegetation, granted.  But in the larger picture, the oxygen that photosynthesis produces will become part of some combustion somewhere, maybe in your body—and your brain.  In your retina.  In your optic nerve.

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Cloud Gate?  Nobody calls it Cloud Gate.  It’s “The Bean.”

Cloud Gate/The Bean, a 110-ton stainless steel sculpture with a mirror finish, was installed in Millennium Park in Chicago in 2006.  I’ve been fascinated by it ever since, not just by the object itself, but also by how it affects people who flock to it—and under it.  It seems to be both ridiculous and sublime.  The behavior of the visitors, also both ridiculous and sublime.

Just calling it The Bean makes it cartoonish and trivial.  The fact that it offers a distorted reflection turns it into a carnival piece.  People go there to goof off, to strike a pose and be photographed with their distorted reflections.    These observations seem to explain the ridiculous part.  But I don’t think the love of distorted reflections is ridiculous at all.  No matter how you slice this Bean, it is sublime.

The “gate” in the original name suggests that the sculpture is intended to be seen as a transition from one domain to another.  What are these domains?  We don’t know.  The hollow under the dome of the sculpture is said to be reminiscent of the omphalos of ancient mythologies.  Omphalos is Greek for navel.  It was represented as a hollow stone, with the opening wider at the bottom. Omphalos stones were believed to allow a glimpse into the future, into one’s fate and the will of the “gods.”  The oracle of Delphi functioned as an omphalos, a supposed gate between the known and the unknown. Turns out, the woman who voiced the oracle was bribable.  If she advised against war but you were itching to attack, she could be persuaded to see things from your perspective.  The oracle, in other words, could be distorted.

Anish Kapoor named his sculpture Cloud Gate, going for the sublime.  But notice, he didn’t carve it out of granite or marble or sandstone.  If he had, the thing might qualify as an omphalos and no one would care.  Its essence, to use another Greek word, is in its accident:  the façade of the mirror.  And what the mirror gives us is a distortion.  You call this distortion a gate?  That’s ridiculous.  So ridiculous, it’s sublime.

For the first three or four years after it went up, people would just go there and gape at it and find their tiny reflection and take pictures.  Then a shift occurred and I can’t be sure exactly when.  People started to touch the surface of The Bean.  Now everybody does it.  Everybody.  It’s THE way to be photographed at The Bean.  Children, adults, folks from Buffalo, folks from Bengal, everybody poses with fingers—or feet or chest or knees—touching the mirrored surface of The Bean.  But it’s not a mystical kind of touching. You wouldn’t go there when no one’s around and then have this omphalos moment because you’re communing with your fate, none of that.   It’s all about posing.  It’s about being photographed –you touching your distortion.  Your distortion touching you.

“You touching your distortion, your distortion touching you ”—we need someone to write lyrics about that.  Swelling music, with violins.

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This painting by George Innes (1825-1894) was painted in 1870. It’s large,  48 3/4 x 72 5/8 in.

It’s the first of several paintings I want to look at in this blog with a certain question in mind:  what happens when you flip the image?

In this case, does it matter that the house is at the left?  Or that the people are on the left side of the painting rather than the right?

When we flip the image left-right, we keep all the information intact. But does the mood change?  Which version is more optimistic or warmer?   In which version do you identify with the people more?

When we see the painting at the Art Institute, we take it for granted that the people and the house are at the left.  But—compliments of Photoshop—we can ask, why did Innes put them on the left rather than the right?  After all, it’s not a snapshot with accidentals.  He carefully worked out a composition.  He could have put the people anywhere in the painting.  Why the left?

We will look at this left-right question over many weeks and months.  There will be paintings by Monet, Whistler, Gainsborough, Hopper, and others.  Should be fun.  More later.

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The squeezable tube of paint was invented around 1840. It made painting outdoors possible.  You just packed up your materials and hiked to whatever you wanted to paint.  By the 1860’s painters were turning the art world on its head by painting “en plein air” (in open air) and observing the vivid colors of nature and how light changes.  They were ridiculed and were called Impressionists.

It is a pleasure to paint en plain air.  In my Impressions of Landscape class we keep the practice—and pleasure—alive. Some of my students take a half-day off work and claim it’s the best therapy.

Above, two students at the Evanston Art Center.

Then, John Singer Sargent, “The Sketchers,” 1914

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When I set up a still life for my students, I like to make a mess.  I don’t want them to face a neat arrangement that will get them thinking of how things are “supposed to be.”  Certainly no symmetry and no sense of decorum or anything your Aunt Augusta might approve of.  I don’t want their drawings to look well-behaved.  I want exploration.  So my still life tends to look more like an archeological dig than a nice tea set with good linen.

The approach seems to work. This summer I have some recent eighth grade graduates, who work at their explorations as if this were important.  And it is.  Shown here are drawings by Liam, Henry and Sean.

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