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Archive for September, 2015

In her essay on German realism, George Eliot says: “The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies…Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.”

Quote found in James Wood’s  How Fiction Works, p 171.

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Jan2015

You saw this painting (30” x 40”) in a gallery. You stood in front of it so long that you thought you might as well buy it if it’s going to hold your attention like that. You take it home. You hang it in your dining room and start preparing for your dinner party that night. You have just four people over, people you’ve known forever, who sometimes get rowdy and other times yawn without apologizing. But this evening you notice that they’re exceptionally witty and imaginative. You credit the painting for this lively upswing in your social life. Over the weekend your retired uncle Bert is dropping by on his way to the hardware store. Because of his back, he prefers to sit in the dining room chairs and he says, “what in the sweet-baby-jesus name is that supposed to be.” He’s trying to describe to you how he’s planning to rig the back gate so the kids won’t cut through his yard on their way to school, but he can’t seem to keep his bolts, wires and springs straight. He keeps repeating what he just said, going in circles, and relating things that aren’t mechanically connected in his invention. He mumbles something about getting older and he’s got to be going and would you happen to have a couple of aspirin.

You’re determined to get to the bottom of this. You take down your heirloom oil painting of the Spanish galleon from over the mantel in your living room along with the carved candelabra and you hang this new painting there. You plunk down on the couch in front of it, determined to enjoy an afternoon of peaceful art contemplation. Two hours later you’re in the kitchen pouring yourself a double Black Label. You stagger to your computer and write angry letters to congressmen about global warming and to the New Yorker about the use of the word “iconic.” You go on Facebook and unfriend anybody who’s ever posted a cat video or that thing where the elephant and the dog become best friends forever. You email your ex to say, the arrangement with the kids is not working, we have to do better. You suddenly realize that your mom doesn’t want another frog broach for her birthday, what she would really enjoy is a plate of little sandwiches you made and sit in the backyard with you one afternoon. You pick up that library book, the one that needs to be renewed again soon, about genocide in the 20th century that you’ve been mostly not reading because it’s so awful to think about that. It must be getting late, you guess, you go back to the living room, reach up to grab the painting with one hand, you unhook it and take it upstairs to your bedroom. Tomorrow you’ll hang it. For now you lean it against the dresser and you throw a sheet over it so you won’t accidentally catch sight of it and be drawn into its vortex.

In the morning you hang it properly and you start a new early-rise meditation. You stand in front of it for five minutes, a to-do list racing through your mind. Can do! You drape the sheet over it for the rest of the day because you have no time to look. Too much to do, to fix, to learn, to experience!

Bruce Boyer, oil on canvas, 30” x 40”

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15JaneWhatFour
You’re not inclined to interpret this painting. You’re probably not asking “what is the significance of the number four, what does it symbolize or refer to, what is the sum of all the fours here and what would be the meaning of that large number, ditto for multiplication,” etc. This kind of interpreting is what we used to do. For example, when you look at this painting by Nicolaes Maes, you can’t help but try to figure out what the NicolaesMaesIdleServantartist is illustrating. Why did the artist put in the cat, the sleeping maid, the guests in the background? What is the hostess saying to us by gesturing that way? What was the social status of servants in mid-17th-century Holland?
We stopped digging for meaning about a hundred years ago. I recently found this 1923 Picasso quote in an announcement of the current MoMA show: “Everyone wants to understand art. Why not try to understand the songs of a bird?”
If this sounds perverse, it’s because prior to about 1900 images were used for didactic purposes and that’s what we got used to. They illustrated a story, a myth, a compositional ideal, an ideal ratio, an ideal body, an ideal color relation, etc. Ideals are culturally defined and over time get enshrined as absolute and immovable. By the early 20th century, these ossified standards were crumbling in Western culture: in the place of capital-t Truth we got evolution, relativity, psychoanalysis and the leveling of social classes. This is not to say that Cézanne, Manet, VanGogh, Matisse and Picasso were now illustrating these new theories. Not at all. They painted in a new way because to be alive at that time felt new.
The major societal shift involved the relationship between artist and client. Whereas before, the artist was a servant, he is now of the same middle class as his client. Whereas before, the client (pope, emperor, czar, king, archbishop, et al) was interested in the finished product and how it promoted his power status, now the client becomes more and more interested in how the work is put together and what philosophical dynamics those artistic processes embody. Whereas before, the work of art “appeared” in a mythical sense, like Athena from the head of Zeus, now the painting or sculpture shows the traces –the brush strokes, the chisel marks, the scratches, the nuts and bolts—of how it was made.
This is why the reviewers of art exhibits and the critics in art magazines like Art in America and Artforum will write at great length about the process that went into the making of the work of art. Most of the writing does not attempt interpretation of the pre-19th century kind at all. It’s assumed that you, as a contemporary, love process. You love to stand in front of a painting or sculpture and try to figure out how the artist made this thing. Reconstructing the process will trigger empathy with the artist, will vicariously pump you up with energy and, generally, make your day. Later you’ll meet a friend for lunch and, gesturing energetically,try to convey your aesthetic experience.
Well then, what was the process behind “What Four?” You can see that the painting, 30” x 40”, started as a color study: blue/purple and greens. What followed was only one layer of paint, but a layer produced through complex procedure. The artist, Jane Donaldson, decided to mix media. The first layer is painting. This second layer is printmaking. She carved the letter four on a linoleum plate. She painted it white and pressed it onto the canvas, one four after the other, until the white paint was worn from the plate. She now inked the plate again and started another set of “four,” and so on.
I find this very exciting. It has something child-like about it, but at the same time it hearkens back to that incision in Western civilization when in 1439 Johannes Gutenberg invented printing in Mainz, Germany, and literature was able to take off. Without printing, no Renaissance, without the Renaissance, well, you know, on and on.
That’s one of the chain reactions set off in the mind. There are others, because the process of decline/degeneration/fading and rejuvenation/fresh start is so true to the experience of life. The process tempts you to interpret metaphorically, but remains unspecific. It reverberates deeply in the imagination because it is visually rich. That richness comes from its process.
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WaitingMufflerComposition1
Not even the muffler, just the muffler assessment. It’ll be a few minutes, the man said. I stepped outside and looked at that snippet of Dempster where a gas station was being demolished. A thing of beauty and a joy forever, no not forever, just for the muffler man’s few minutes. I shot eight or ten frames and am showing some of them here, all without any editing.
Exiting muffler-mind was easy. I simply switched to another mode, from how-much-how-long-is-it-worth-it to ahh-horizontals-and-verticals and my preference for high horizon lines in a composition. Two, three minutes is all it took. But what a treat.
Demolition and construction sites are great for this kind of study. People on the sidewalk will step around you because they think you’re nuts. Why would you want to photograph such a mess! But you know better. You’re in your composition mode and you’re not thinking about mufflers or anything with a name.
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RedSquareSwoosh
In the last post we talked about the convergence of shapes on that cluster of black dots. As you looked at that painting, you probably also noticed that the convergence occurs on the golden section.
In this painting, 36” x 36”, the convergence is in the middle. This is a daring composition. It’s hard to make something so balanced—divided into four quadrants!—so dynamic.
It’s uncanny how the large red area, taking up a quarter of the painting surface, is actually subverted by that pale blue disk in the upper right quadrant. A circular shape, no matter what color or size, will dominate the daylights out of any composition. At a distance, the red will catch your attention, as you can see in this shot from the Studio Exhibit.

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But paintings get looked at from afar and from close up. Once you’re about five feet away, the drama in this painting engages you. Even though it has a rigorous rectilinear division, it feels like a vortex. The blue disk keeps pulling you back up and then you fall back in. The vortex is three-dimensional because the dark gray square appears to be in the distance, behind the plane occupied by the red.
The Studio Exhibit at the Evanston Art Center, 1717 Central Street, is up til this Tuesday, September 8. A terrific show!
Painting by Cassie Buccellato, oil on canvas.
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StreamConsciousness
Picture it large. It’s 48” wide.
You want to see it as a landscape, right? There’s that horizon line from the left, a third of the way down. Above that the colors are blue-ish and atmospheric. So that’s comforting. You’re on your way to an interpretation. Oh, good, you think, I can figure this out. You keep looking. What else can you latch on to, what else can you identify? Errrmmm, what’s the blue blotch, what’s the red trapezoid, what are those black strokes? Frustration sets in. No, wait, there’s that receding white brush stroke, that seems to suggest perspective. Wonderful, a sense of perspective. You keep looking for more landscape clues, but, alas, the landscape reference falls apart, it simply does not hold up. That’s your moment of release, of liberation. Exhale. Now you’re looking at the painting and enjoying it because now you’re actually seeing it.
StreamConsciousnessAnalysisAfter you stop figuring it out and you surrender to looking, you notice the little black splatters. And where are they? They are where the major forms of the composition converge. You missed them earlier. How could you miss these dots? Because they’re nothing. And yet the great big red, blue, and black shapes point to this nothing.
Diebenkorn1I, for one, love paradox. Takes my breath away.
The composition as a whole reminds me of Diebenkorn’s landscapes. Notice how his shapes converge, but on nothing.
It’s an aesthetic that goes way back to the ancient Greeks, who designed the Parthenon so that the center of the pediment facade would be an open space, not a column. We’ll get to that, later sometime.
Painting by Cassandra Buccellato, oil on canvas, ~40”x48”
Richard Diebenkorn, (1922-1993)

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