Archive for the ‘Failed Effort’ Category

Isn’t it great that he took up painting, hired tutors and practiced!  It’s an activity that can lead to self-reflection and insights into all sorts of things, like other people’s lives, how we conceptualize …cultural assumptions, uncertainties…

These paintings by Bush are not presented as a documentation of what he has learned so far, as evidence of effort.  They are presented to us as finished work, as art worth looking at. When something is presented as art it’s ipso facto interesting and important to think about.

Let’s do a thought experiment:   would my neighbor George have a chance of having his paintings shown in a gallery or published in a book?  He has been painting diligently since he retired ten years ago. His portraits are indistinguishable from Bush’s.

Whether or not George, my neighbor, can get his paintings shown depends on what we know about George.  What’s George’s story? Is he blind or paralyzed or recovering from a stroke?  Is he autistic or dyslexic or epileptic?  Was his father a Greek immigrant or an African genocide survivor or a Russian spy or a US president?  In our present social climate and art world hype these questions weave the scrim through which we see images.

Try another thought experiment:  you buy a portrait at a yard sale that’s just awful but it looks like oil paint and it’s the right size.  You plan to use it as a waterproof mat in your mud room at the side door to your garden.  As you take it out of the frame you see the signature “John Wilkes Booth.”  You know he was an actor. Couldn’t he also have been trying to paint?  It’s a terrible painting but you think you’d better have it authenticated because this could be worth something.  Inept as it is, the name will override the awfulness.

A 2014 review in the Guardian agrees with me:   [George W Bush’s] portrait of Putin actually looks like something you would find in one of America’s trash-rich Salvation Army stores and buy to laugh at. It’s got a classic amateur clumsiness and oddity to it. Bush has attempted to render shadow and shape in stylish blocks of fawn and woodchip and cookies ‘n cream, but they don’t sit right and the whole head looks mildly crazed. Perhaps this mad look is what is meant by revealing Putin’s “soul”, but it seems inept rather than insightful.


No, wait.  The Salvation Army stores used to stack their “art” in bins so that you could page through them.  I had a student a few years ago who used to go there to buy awful paintings because she needed stretched canvas to re-use—much cheaper than buying canvas in art supply stores.

I went to my local Salvation Army store last week to see if they had anything as awful as the portraits by Bush, walked straight to the back and found all pictures neatly displayed.  Somebody stood there facing the display, entranced by a copy of Leonardo’s Last Supper.  It looked as if it had been painted on a slab of wood.  I couldn’t get close because after about a minute the Entranced One unhooked it to take it to check-out.

The original is a fresco covering one wall of the dining room in a monastery in Milan, Italy.  Leonardo labored over the perspective to create the illusion that the Last Supper is taking place in that very monastery refectory so that the monks would be edified by saintly company.

Along with much of High Renaissance art, this painting has been adapted in countless Kitsch mockeries.  Here are some:


Sorry about that tangent.  I didn’t mean to associate Bush with the Renaissance in any way, only wanted to clarify the reference to the Salvation Army.

Back to Bush.   A more recent Guardian article, from 2017, refracts the whole portrait project in the context of Bush’s presidency, stating:    In his new book Portraits of Courage, the subjects of the former president’s paintings are the very men torn to shreds, quite literally, by his own policy.


Painting can be therapeutic. If Mr.Bush engages in painting to heal his guilt, let him.

If “idiocy has its charms” (quoting that article here), please, Mr. Bush, show us how you worked through that stage of charming idiocy and then finally developed insights for us to contemplate.

We hope you heal, Mr. Bush.

There is, of course, plenty of commentary on Bush’s paintings, for example:


Next, let’s take a closer look at how Mr. Bush does not see eyes.


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





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Last week when I read the NY times article about the discovery of the 45,000 year old cave drawings I was reminded of the Zhou Brothers.

Let us now consider

  • Cave paintings
  • Abstract Expressionism
  • The Zhou Brothers
  • corporate suits in the Chicago Loop

It’s interesting to speculate about the species of mammal depicted in this cave 45,000 years ago, but it’s the hand that captivates us, isn’t it.  It’s unimaginably far in the past and yet here it is, so immediate.

We’ve been fascinated by cave drawings since 1940, when eighteen-year-old Marcel Ravidat and his friends roamed through the woods in the Dordogne region in France, noticed a hole in the ground and crawled in. They discovered  a cave that came to be called the Lascaux Cave and turned out to have hundreds of drawings made about 17,000 years ago.


By the late 1940’s Abstract Expressionism was in full swing in New York.  In my readings I have never come across any artist working between 1940 and 1965 who claimed kinship with these ancestors that laid their hands on the rock wall, filled their cheeks with paint and blew.  But the kinship is there, literally, in the sense that we are all descended from those ancients who left their hand prints on cave walls.  To claim aesthetic kinship, however, would take a heavy hand on the Ouija board. Our Western aesthetic comes, not from cave paintings, but from the ancient Greeks, 500-400 BC.

Modernism is a rejection of these classical ideals.  In the 1940’s, as Harold Rosenberg said, “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” Abstract Expressionism is characterized by gesture, brushstroke and action.

These are passages from DeKooning paintings to illustrate gesture, brushstroke and action:


Introducing the Zhou Brothers.  The two Zhou brothers, born 1952 and 1957, emigrated from China to Chicago in 1986 and quickly became rich and famous.   They work as a doubles team in attacking a canvas.  A small painting can be a mere 4 x 4 feet.  But large is what they are known for, like this:

I have not seen this particular painting, but I have seen one of their large paintings in the lobby of a Chicago sky scraper.  How large?  Large, sky-scraper-lobby-large.

The corporate finance guy who forked out the money for that large Zhou Brothers painting must have peered deeply into the corporate CEO’s soul, if you’ll allow that word in this context.  Art buying at that scale is a gamble.  My theory is that two mythologies converged in the CEO’s soul:  the all-American sentimentality for things antique and that all-American can-do individualism. That would be, respectively, Neanderthal cave painting and Abstract Expressionism. The Zhou Brothers figured this out, just like that.

Next time I’m in Chicago I will find that Zhou Brothers painting and linger in the lobby to interview the people who walk through there every day.  Just one question, excuse me, sir,  what do you see in this painting, what jumps out at you, what do like best here, has your view of this painting changed over the years, what style of painting would you call this, what does it remind you of… sir?   Sir?


This video shows the Zhou Brothers at the White House where their painting referencing American presidents is given to a Chinese official.  In talking about the painting, they present themselves as manufacturers and calculating salesmen.  The dimensions of the painting are 68 x 86.  This is important, they tell us, because these are lucky numbers in Chinese culture. Also 86 is the country code!  The red line in the painting symbolizes “spirit and the hope for the future of the US.”

Really?  You’re painting in the 21st century, seducing us with this whiff of Abstract Expressionism and all the while you’re stuck in the symbolism of color, the kitsch belief in lucky numbers and the business of flattering politicians?

About cave paintings:




Henri Édouard Prosper Breuil  (1877 – 1961)

Lewis-Williams, David.  The Mind in the Cave, 2002

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





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If you say, nice photo, I’ll say, thanks.  The afternoon sun does this refraction performance through my front door.  I can remember how I looked up from reading at my dining room table. I gasped and reached for my camera. These light effects don’t last long.

If you say, ohmygod that is awesome I want to make a painting of this, then…well, then, I’ll have to say, errmm, we need to talk.

The photo gives our attention a little jolt because it reminds us that in life there are these moments that we hardly notice because we’re preoccupied with our chores and plans.

But a painting duplicating the photo would be overdoing it.  It would be superimposing grandeur onto something subtle.

I sympathize with this impulse to paint a scene that moves you and makes you sigh, oh how beautiful.  You want to celebrate that, to dwell on it by translating every nuance and detail into paint on canvas.

But this experience of beauty does not translate.  What a shocking thing to say.  (We’ll talk about this some more, two or three posts hence, with the help of W.S. Merwin.)

Oscar Wilde said, “All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.”

That’s also true of painting.  People who want to paint their deep, genuine feeling about beauty,  will produce–brace yourself!–things like this:

…and, of course, cats.


The word for this is Kitsch.



Oscar Wilde, 1854-1900

W.S. Merwin, 1927-2019


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





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The Indianapolis Museum of Art (“Newfields’) reopened on July 17th with an exhibit about Edward Hopper.

I am glad the curators included some of his drawings because they present the most lively work in this show.

The above drawing is dated in the 1950’s.  It may have been a study for the painting “People in the Sun,” 1960.

What fascinates me is that the drawing is lively and energetic, while the painting is, well, dead.

Hopper’s mind as he contemplated a man in a lawn chair looking over a desolate landscape was nevertheless agitated. We don’t know by what–memories or necessary imminent decisions or shocking insights.  It’s an agitated drawing scribbled out in a frenzy of concentration, took maybe all of five minutes.

But the painting looks like sheer drudgery, as if he just wanted to get it done and be finished with it.


If the artist intended to satirize the alienation of modern life,  he failed.  I think, the image fails as satire because it lacks wit.

We instantly recognize it as a Hopper because human forms are part of the geometry of the composition.

Let that be my introduction to Edward Hopper at the IMA.  You can tell that I have issues with this show and with the interpretation of this artist.

So far we have some key concepts: agitation, alienation, drudgery, modern life, geometry, human form,  satire and wit.

Stay tuned.


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





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A drawing can go through many stages of development. The artist may not aim for mimesis or may not have a particular style in mind at all.  The artist may try one kind of markmaking here and another style  there.  The drawing may develop with a progression from dark to light or various degrees of precision.

The drawing can be called complete even though it contains visual contradictions.  Let’s look at contradictions.

In the above drawing, the markmaking in A is vibrant and lively. The background to the objects on the table seems to shimmer. In B the markmaking is the opposite, it’s mechanical and tight.  This dense, dark stripe representing the table appears to have been made by a different hand, in a very different mood. The contrast between A and B does not add drama to the image as a whole. Rather, it looks arbitrary and therefore the drawing feels unresolved.

In modern art we often find contrasts, inconsistencies and contradictions that are witty.  Consider the following two examples.

The hand fits perfectly over the face, as when a woman is surprised or embarrassed. But hand and face are from different worlds, different contexts.  So they fit together in one sense, but are mismatched in another.  We smile at this surprising juxtaposition.


Collage, a quintessentially modern art form, lends itself very well to creating contradictions and witty juxtaposition.



It’s easy to play with photographs by collaging together disparate elements.

Place a cassette over a face and, voila, the two holes will read like eyes. As moderns we know that all images, symbols and myths are human inventions and so we chuckle when we see the invention process being made so obvious.





Back to the class drawing of the still-life.   This student/artist gives us a very credible rendering of reflected light and deep shadow of the cup at C.  As in the previous drawing, the ellipse is not “swinging” but is drawn slowly and carefully and therefore it falls flat.  Practice. Practice. Practice


We will talk some more about this cup and the demanding but swinging ellipse in the next posts.

More at:



Aphrodite by seph

Videotape Eyes by Rebecca DiLiberto.


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





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The program of this gallery is failed art.

How can we think about this?  What is failed art?

Apparently it’s the artist who decides that what he or she attempted to do ended in failure.

But that can’t be, because the artist then submits the work to the gallery. Doesn’t that mean the work is an interesting failure?  Sorry, that’s an oxymoron.  If it’s interesting, it can’t be called a failure.

Maybe the artist doesn’t find it interesting, but depressing.  Then the gallery would be offering therapy by accepting the work.

This gallery would have to be swamped with inquiries.  How does the curator decide which failed work will get shown because it’s the best failure? Best failure? Worst failure?

When an artist’s failed work is chosen, does the artist then consider herself a success?  At the opening, do the guests congratulate her? Will this go on her résumé?

On the gallery’s web site, http://www.tmr.la/, the word “mistake” is crossed out.  Ah, so that’s it.  There’s no such thing as a mistake.

Or is the word “mistake” crossed out by mistake?

Back to square one.


An installation view of “Oscar Murillo: Distribution Center,” 2014, at the Mistake Room.


The Mistake Room, 1811 E. 20th Street, Los Angeles, CA 90058

Phone: (213) 749-1200.  Email: info@tmr.la

Wed – Sat     11am – 6pm.     Sun – Tue     Closed

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





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“People don’t realize that when you are working on a painting, every day you are seeing something awful,” Albert Oehlen said in an interview with Peter Schjeldahl from the New Yorker. I burst out laughing when I read that. I don’t mean, that Oehlen was joking, not at all. What he said was funny because it’s the truth, but so awful a truth, that nobody wants to come out and say it. Once you hear somebody say that, you have to admit it’s true. It has to be true. If a panting looked wonderful after the first splash of paint, it would be done. While that can happen once in a rare while, we know that artists work on a painting for hours, days, sometimes weeks and months. During all that time, they would have to be dissatisfied with what they’re looking at, otherwise….it’s obvious. So, what drives the artist is that, as Oehlen says, he’s looking at something awful.
This is not how the public sees artists’ work. The public prefers the kitschy, idealized image of the smock wearing, beret topped artist who merely channels “inspiration.” Ha.
Oehlen2The dramatic mood of the work is comic, beset by existential worry, Oehlen continued. It’s as if each picture wondered, “What am I? Am I even art? O.K., but what does that mean?”
The article by Peter Schjeldahl appeared in the New Yorker, June 22, 2015, p82.
More paintings by Albert Oehlen at https://www.google.com/search?q=albert+oehlen&biw=1321&bih=796&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&sqi=2&ved=0CI0BEIkeahUKEwirxaLszdHHAhVKeT4KHWRkBpQ
All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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I haven’t worked on the caricatures for my facefame blog since, oh my, January. In the winter and spring months I was up to here in printer’s ink, modifiers, press settings, the ol’ hot plate, solvents, exhaust fans and periodic printshop fatigue. Printmaking is not for the faint of heart or lungs. In five months I pulled (that’s how printmakers talk) 152 prints, and many more if you count the rejects. But more on that later, much later. This past week I finally summoned the courage to see if I could get back into the facefame-caricature mode. (facefame.wordpress.com)
I like reading Lorrie Moore. I pulled up the Google images for Lorrie Moore on my 24” computer screen, leaned the customary drawing board against my desk and drew her with the customary Stabilo aquarellable pencil. Twenty minutes, maybe all of thirty, and there was this intelligent, witty face on my paper. I was rather pleased. Well, I thought, the hiatus on facefame has just ended. I love drawing like this and there are plenty of writers and other artists (maybe even politicians in this presidential circus) that I’m eager to draw.
The next day, the drawing didn’t look good any more. It looked pleasing, you know, goody-goody. It said “look how well the artist controls the medium; a little ironic, but at the same time it has that classical feeling; being done in sepia, it alludes to the mighty Renaissance and who doesn’t love Leonardo and Michelangelo.” Time to put it aside, reconsider.
How can I bring this drawing into the 20th century, ok, the 21st? To do that, the drawing needs to be a bit edgy. Maybe adjusting the size will help. I took it to Kinko’s and shrunk it, from 14×11 to about 11×9. Now, loosely tracing that size to my aquarellable paper, I was less tempted by detail and literalness. I leaned into the pencil, deposited a lot of black stuff, smeared with a damp paper towel, LorrieMooreReyetextured the paper (in printmaking that’s called tone) and found my caricaturing zone. I knew I was in it when I drew her right iris with a flick of the pencil. That cranked up my courage and then adding the color patches was a sure thing, easy in the sense of “hey-it’s-my-drawing.”
This happens all the time, this wanting to please and then realizing the next hour, or the next day, that what you really need to do is summon your courage and do strong work.

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

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In these blog ruminations on how to look at paintings I’ve never said anything nice about “the verbal mode.” The idea is to turn that thing off, so that you can take in the painting (or drawing) in as pure a visual mode you can muster. I’ll stick to that, but I do occasionally go verbal and when I do, I get fascinated by the origin of words.
When I was walking along the river recently, I looked up and saw the word “RUMP” on a building. How odd, I thought, to put such a word and in such an aggressive size on a building. One sometimes sees that word with a T in front and I wondered if there was an etymology that would lead back, not just to card-playing lingo, but to “triumph.” Given the current presidential race, wouldn’t that be appropriate.
I pulled the OED, always a good read, out of its case, and combed through twelve columns trying to find out what was up with “triumph.” Much of what I found spoke to political ambition. 1) One corruption of “triumph” is used to designate a “playing card so that any one such card can TAKE any card of another suit. Take that! 2) Over centuries, since the Romans, “Triumph” became “trumpet,” both the instrument and the person “who or that which proclaims, celebrates, or summons loudly like a trumpet.” Loudly, really? 3) A thing of small value, a trifle, pl. goods of small value, trumpery.” Trumpery is good. If these presidential ambitions lead to frustration, the next tower could have the word TRUMPERY in humongous, therapeutic letters on it.
But wait, the best is yet to come. The Middle English (12th-13th centuries) version of “trumpet” was “trompe.” Now, this is truly precious because tromper in French means to fool, deceive. Je trompe means I deceive. What a find!
But what about “rump?” Predictably, more windblown towseling. “With rump and rig, with rump and stump.” STUMP would be good on a building, wouldn’t it. Later. But wait, “rump” as a verb means “to flog or scourge.” No-no. If you say that, YOU’RE FIRED! How about YOU’RE FIRED on an office tower!?
Combing through the OED leads from one thing to another and I sometimes overcomb. We shall overcomb.

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

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Look at this. What a mess, you say. One color blotch after another, no repetition of forms, no pattern, no order of any kind.
15Jan1GoldenSecLook again. There’s a black vertical line right in the middle(yellow arrows) If you draw a horizontal line through its top end, you get a golden section (green). If you draw a line through the bottom end point of the black line, you get a golden section (purple). You have to be pretty desperate to find some structure here to do this exercise and you have to be fond of the golden section. I happen to enjoy looking for structure and I’m besotted with the golden section. But that’s all I can come up with here.
Now, aside from the hunt for the golden section, reconsider the mess. Look yet again. If you look closely, if you zoom in, you can find exquisite passages. Here are some. Imagine each as a new painting.——————————————————————————












The painting as a whole was incomprehensible and hard to look at—as a whole. But it consists of potential paintings that are quite dynamic and, at the same time, orderly.
Painting by Bruce Boyer, oil on canvas, 40” x 30”
15Jan1GAll contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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