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Archive for November, 2012

The Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, founded in the early 17th century, became the training ground and the standard for fine art in Europe.  Starting in the 18th century its graduates showed their work in an official exhibit, called the Salon.  The Salon was a celebrated, standard-setting event and it was huge. The paintings covered the walls from floor to ceiling.

When you hang works one above the other, that’s called the Salon style.  That sounds elegant, but the effect is what we would now call cluttered.   Clutter was not a problem for the Victorians and certainly not for the 18th and 17th century.  For our venerable ancestors, it was all about more is better.  Restraint and understatement come with Modernism.  That’s because the modern sensibility wants an experience.  Well, you might ask, what else would anyone want?  We take it for granted that art is about experience.  But ‘twas not ever thus, apparently.

People used to go to public events because it was the thing to do—a social and civic exercise–not because they expected a transforming experience.  We moderns go in search of an experience.  Therefore, we want to see one painting at a time, at eye level, thank you, so that we can have a one-on-one.  We want to look up close at the brush strokes, step back for a different take, immerse ourselves, introspect, observe our reaction, register surprise or delight, grab a little aesthetic experience.  One at a time is called the Gallery Style.

The Wilmette Library Show is hung Salon Style. When you go to see it you’re not wearing a top hat or a bustle, because you’re a Modern and so the show looks cluttered.  The experience you go in search of does not happen.

Gertrude Stein hoarded works by Picasso and Matisse in the early decades of the 20th century and she hung her collection Salon Style.  She was a quintessential Modern, but she was also a hoarder who lived in a Parisian apartment with limited closet space.  What to do? Can’t stop collecting.  Go Salon Style.

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Never leave home without it:  your pocket Sony or your iPhone, not because you’re expecting a call but because it can take pictures.  I don’t mean pictures as documentation of facts, or because you’re planning a photography exhibit, but as an exercise in seeing. Pure and simple.

When you’re winding through your neighborhood on your power walk, you’ll notice the clever things people do with their entrances and shrubs and you’re reminded of how your own domicile will never make it into Architectural Digest. Your eye is outer-directed.

Now try an alley. Notice that you have the place to yourself and your seeing becomes more intense, more internal. When you veer off into an alley, you’ve turned off your “certified beauty” sensor. Your eye searches for shapes and juxtapositions.  Mmmm, garbage cans. But you don’t see garbage or think garbage, you just see the shapes and the negative spaces.  Click.

What you zoom in on teaches you something about how you see.  When I review my photos, I notice a repeated composition. What to do with that?  Puzzle over it, go deeper, work with it.

My ankle-weighted walking shots are composed in a sweating hurry. Some of them invite cropping in Photoshop, that fabulous tool for nuanced seeing.  Crop that shot!  Crop it again and again until you see form with only a sigh of memory of the garbage can.  Ahhh!

And then you can flip it and notice that it’s better that way.  Ah-hah.————————————————————-

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The Wilmette Library organizes a juried art show every fall.  Submissions are not handled digitally but directly, with applicants bringing their piece in for the jurors to look at.  There are three jurors, who sweat over their choices for about five hours. (I know, I’ve been a juror.)  Out of the 250-or-so pieces submitted, 50-or-so pieces are selected. There is no entry fee. The show is up for a month.  Eight artists are awarded a one month show of their work to be held within the next year.  Three cash prizes.  It’s a easy way to have your work shown.

Of the three jurors, one may like meticulously colored acrylics, another may like loose brush work in oil and the third may like digital photography full of accidentals.  In the selection process, there will be vehement disagreements about what should get in. The clock ticks and compromises have to be reached, often with some horse trading and bickering.  (Been there.)

The resulting exhibit looks a bit like a  garage sale, like left overs, one of each.  A bright painting of barns in primary colors next to a painting of a cat in purples and pinks, for example.  Or a digital day-glow abstraction next to Audubon-like birds in watercolor.  When I say “next to” I mean “in the same room.”  The people who hang the show do make an effort to group birds with birds and barns with barns, but still.

The artists who got into the show are undoubtedly pleased and are encouraged to keep working.  Those who won a one-month show of their work will present us with a true art exhibit, one that will come from a consistent eye and a view of the world that’s rooted in a sensibility that we can then try to decipher.  Those are the shows I’m looking forward to.

A group show like this, because it has multiple jurors and no theme or style, serves a function in the community and I encourage its continuation.  But, boy, it’s hard on the eye.  It’s hung Salon Style, more on that in the next post.

There’s a reason why galleries have individual styles and why museums group their art by periods.  Imagine Rembrandt next to Roy Lichtenstein or Warhol in the same room with Watteau.

It’s about the eye.  And the mind.  We like to reflect and get all meditative when we’re in a gallery or museum.  That means making connections and we do like to feel that the people who put the show together also made connections.

I’m serious about this.  But I’m also one of those surrealism-loving suburbanites who find garage sales irresistible.  Don’t miss this one, it’s up til Nov 29.  Wilmette Ave, a block W of Green Bay.  847-256-5025

Above, the second prize winning entry.  Arthur Fox, “Peeling Paint.” Digital Photograph, ~16″ x 20 ”

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Without preliminary sketches, Karen produced this exquisite line drawing of a face. She drew without a model or an image. It’s her invention, probably a self-portrait after her disappointment with the earlier drawing project. (See the still life set up in the previous post.)

Picasso comes to mind.

I don’t know if Karen was paying homage to Picasso.  But I’ll venture a guess about her immediate source of inspiration: the red and blue paper mask-face that an after-schooler had left in our classroom.

What’s the connection to Picasso?

Picasso spent his teen age years, in the 1890’s, in Barcelona.  He was precocious as an artist and as a thinker.  The friends he hung out with (in a café called Els Quatre Gats)  were artists and writers, ten and fifteen years older than he.  Barcelona in that decade was a hotbed of anarchy.  Artists were outraged at the social injustice, poverty and bourgeois complacency they saw in the city. Central to anarchist beliefs was the faith in the power of art to alter the ways in which people thought, to change the consciousness of the age and thus to hasten the social revolution.

When Picasso moved to Paris in 1904, his friends were again artists and poets who debated the function of art in an urgently needed social and aesthetic revolution.

In Paris at the time, African and Oceanic  art could be bought on the cheap at flea markets.  Artists who worked in the modern vein all owned such masks and sculptures, including Picasso.  When Picasso visited the Ethological Museum (called the Trocadero at that time), he was smitten by the rawness of what was then called “primitive art.”  It was “against everything,” he said. Tribal artifacts, including the art of American Indians,  represented the antithesis of overly refined 19th century European art. Since this refined art documented the corruption and decadence of the society he rejected, he saw in “primitive” art a potential for total rebellion and therefore a hope of stirring the consciousness of his contemporaries.  The shock might wake them out of their comfortable bourgeois complacency and make them consider new social, political ideas and a new aesthetic.

Picasso famously drew the profile in the front view of a face, as for example in his Girl before a Mirror, 1932. (Detail shown here.) At right, a Kwakiutl mask from British Columbia.

Art students and art lovers can hardly get around Picasso.  There he is, the colossus of the 20th century.  It’s hard not to be influenced by some aspect of his many styles of working during his very long life.  Who can say what inspired Karen to make this fine drawing?  But there you are, I see Picasso in it.

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Again, the same pile of stuff.  Another student was interested in this angle and ended up not being satisfied with the drawing she produced.  So I thought I’d give it a try, too, because this view also fascinated me.  As you can see from the photo, it looked like a mess.  But the underlying structure of this mess was quite simple.  There was a tilted axis forming the chair and the drapery;  and then there was an orthogonal axis formed by the shabby footstool.  So you have the same form (axis) repeated twice, with variation.  I drew in a fairly representational style, without any further abstraction because the underlying structure was already so strong.  I blurred the contours at the top to increase the illusion of depth and movement:  the chair is farther in the distance than the edge of the drapery or the footstool ;  and it’s tipping over.  But mostly, because it was fun to work like this and to see if I could make this banal disorder come alive on paper. (Aquarellable Pencil on gloss paper, 11x 17)

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The composition in this drawing is pure delight.  The artist saw the cropping before he started drawing.  There was no deleting, erasing or blocking. Before he started to draw, he took a few minutes to contemplate this pile of stuff I had arranged on the table.  There must have been ten thousand ways to approach this.  Instead of zeroing in on specific objects, he saw this compositional shape, a diamond shape, and let everything else go.

How do you do this?  Well, you have to have a really good day to be able to concentrate like that.

I can’t explain how Linné did this, but let me guess how he came up with the line on the left that chops off a part of that red and blue paper mask. It seems to come from the drapery (1).  He “saw” the line of the drapery as extended downward through the mask.

On the right, instead of thinking “chair” he saw shape.  And the shape is whimsical. The chair was the biggest thing in the still life, but he didn’t see it literally. A triumph of the imagination.  In the drawing, we don’t know what those two scroll-y things represent  (2)  and that’s good, because we don’t get stuck on “chairness.”

Notice that instead of drawing the vertical wood of the chair straight as it is, he curves it. (4)  This mirrors the contour on the left, the drapery-mask line, and completes the diamond shape. The diamond shape of the overall composition is echoed in the wooden  serving dish with pedestal.(3) He plays this visual echoing game throughout the drawing, with the diamond and with other motifs. It’s like poetry that holds your attention with rhymes and a compelling meter.

The two incomplete chair slats on the right (2) break the severity of the diamond’s symmetry.  The carving on the wood echoes  the Nautilus spiral on the sea shell, an entrancing form that, while anchored to the geometry of the diamond composition,  spins us to infinity.

An analysis like this is not what art is about.  Nor am I saying that the artist worked all this out ahead of time.  But I think that a piece like this comes about when the artist is truly looking.  The relationships between these various elements is perceived but probably not verbalized and the choices are not conscious but are seen as necessary and right.  I offer the analysis only as a way of pointing to an entrance.

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These drawings were not demos.  I encourage my students to take risks when they work from the figure. When we have a model, I sometimes do some drawing myself.  I want to show how scribbly my own work is and how I leave every line without erasing.  The quest for perfection is paralyzing and perfection itself –well, we don’t even know what that is, but I can tell you it’s boring.

Above, three quick head studies in pencil, 11 x 17.

A figure study, pencil, 11 x 17.

Figure study in Aquarellable Pencil and watercolor wash, on index (non-glossy), 11 x 14.

Let’s crop that last one.

So much more immediate and engaging.

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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