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WangechiMutu2
The show is titled “A Fantastic Journey.” That’s inviting! The invitation goes on to inform us that the work “explores the relationships between issues of gender, race, war, globalization, colonialism and the black female body.” These are important topics but when I see a claim that someone is exploring them all at the same time, I get suspicious because it’s just too big a claim. If an artist promises to explore any two of those topics– gender & race, gender & war, race & globalization, war & colonialism, war & black female body—I will rush to see the work in the hope of gaining new insight. Let’s go over that list again and let’s slow down to imagine the implications:
gender & race
gender & war
race & globalization
war & colonialism
war & black female body
Just focusing on one of these for a minute will exhaust you, while you’re sitting at your desk.
The claim that an exhibit encompasses all of these is preposterous. Let’s not get bowled over by buzz words.
When we see art, we must try to keep our heads and to respond honestly to what we experience. When I saw the work by Wangechi Mutu at the Block Museum last week I was not reminded of any of these grave news items. The images, composed of collages mounted on Mylar, are all huge, six to eight feet high. They looked slimy. I was reminded of decay, microbes, digestion, wormy things, swarms of insects, childish fascination with excretion and general intestinal events. All this, with an overcast of trashy, wit-less pornography.

WangechiMutu1
Why does this kind of thing make it to a highly respected gallery? Perhaps it’s seen as part of the aesthetic of decay that’s in vogue in what is perceived to be a hopeless, apocalyptic time. By all means, let’s look at the complexity of microbes, the beauty of worms and intestinal flora and fauna and let’s make art honoring them. But then let’s say so. Let’s not pretend we’re “exploring” things like the relationship between gender and race and all the rest.
Compare these images to images of urban decay.

Urban-DecayConsider some photographs of urban decay and observe your reaction, without pretense or deference to fashionable buzz words.
https://search.yahoo.com/search;_ylt=AwrBT7p1nGJUWEgA2b2l87UF;_ylc=X1MDOTU4MTA0NjkEX3IDMgRmcgMEZ3ByaWQDVk5IdkR1LldTSnFfY2VLTVcwLnBqQQRuX3JzbHQDMARuX3N1Z2cDMTAEb3JpZ2luA3NlYXJjaC55YWhvby5jb20EcG9zAzAEcHFzdHIDBHBxc3RybAMEcXN0cmwDMTUEcXVlcnkDcGhvdG9zIG9mIGRlY2F5BHRfc3RtcAMxNDE1NzQ4NzM3?p=photos+of+decay&fr=sfp&fr2=sb-top-search&iscqry=
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CassieWhiteGrayBlueFinish

We had a short session this summer, only five classes. In this limited time period a new student produced two large paintings. You met Cassandra in the previous post. She finished that painting in our third meeting and CassieWhiteGrayBluestarted the one you see here. Knowing that her final colors would be gray–blue-white, her first layer of paint, the underpainting, was orange. Another striking composition! It pulls me into its atmospheric textures and creates a sense of mystery about this “landscape” and that blue geometric apparition in the lower left. Amazing, again.
Both paintings took as their points of departure a large collage that was then cropped to find these powerful compositions to develop into a large painting. This painting measures 36 x 36 inches. Cassie paints in water-soluble oil on canvas.
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13ArleneTallRedWhiteMy painting class is full of surprises.

This painting started as a collage, or rather as a little window (about 2” x 1”)  chosen from a large 11”x17”  collage.  The painting, done in acrylic on two canvases joined in the middle for a total of 48” x 24”, takes its composition and color drama from the collage.  In the first layer, the red was red, but then it became black and then red again, but this time with the black under-painting showing through. (Click to enlarge.)
The decisive turn of events in the painting process was the drip.  There was, of course, no drip in the collage. But the painting seemed to need a linear element.  The artist, Arlene Tarpey, dislikes hard edges in her work.  What to do? Let the linear element create itself!  The drip, therefore, was not a result of a messy painting style, à la Jackson Pollock, but was deliberately engineered right there in the middle of the canvas.

Or rather, canvases.  The horizontal divide between the two canvases now became disturbing because the drip refused to ignore the break and emphasized the gap by oozing into it.  What to do?  Fussing with the drip would un-drip it and thereby highlight the awkward spot even more.

13ArleneTallRedTopSolution: take the thing apart and treat each panel as an independent painting.

This sort of thing happens only when you’re working in the abstract mode.  You’re not committed to representing an image and you’re not hemmed in by preconceived notions about what this thing is supposed to look like.  You are IN the process and responding to what happens brush-stroke by brush-stoke and, yes, drip by drip. You’re not even committed to the original size of your work.  You can just take it apart.

Surprise!

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13StudioGalleryPtg2The exhibit of my Thursday morning painting students will be up for only one more day.  Get on a jet plane, hop in your Chevy, saddle your horse, slide through that worm hole! Don’t miss this show.

Most of these paintings have been analyzed and celebrated in previous posts here and you may find it worth your while to review.

The class is called “What Would Mondrian Do?”

Congratulations to Patty Cohen, Bruce Boyer, Harold Bauer, Lorna Grothe-Shawver and Lauren Myers-Hinkle! It’s a great pleasure for me to be working with you.

13StudioGalleryPtg113StudioGalleryPtg313StudioGalleryPtg5

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In 1910 in an ornate little church in Borja, a village in northeastern Spain,  a local painter named  Elias García Martínez filled a narrow white wall space with a little fresco called “Ecce Homo.”  It shows a scroll on which the suffering thorn-crowned Jesus-head is turning its eyes skyward.  Over the years the fresco deteriorated and Mrs. Cecilia Giménez (below), with the permission of the priest, set out to restore it to its original, of which she had a photo to work from.

The news broke last Friday and over the weekend little Borja was overrun with hundreds of tourists who were eager to see what was universally called a “botched restoration.”   One tourist, interviewed on Spanish TV, said that the original was nice, but this she really likes.

Now what?  What can the church and the town do?

1) Paint over the fresco with white paint and forget about it.

2) Hire a competent painter to duplicate the original and forget about the temporary embarrassment.

3) Leave it as it is now, the “botched restoration,” the “monkey face.”

The first two options seem to be out.  The organizer of the town’s patron festival is already happy about the new fame of Borja.  On the web, 18,000 people have signed a petition stating that the fresco should stay as it is now. A Facebook page, called “Señoras que restauran Cristos de Borja” has 38,874 fans and 58,048 followers (as of this writing), many of whom have created their own versions of the fresco. Here’s one, inspired by Rafael.  For more,  see https://www.facebook.com/SenorasQueRestauranCristosDeBorja

Let’s consider option #3.  The face as it is now is a confrontation with modernism.  The modern mind is rooted in the 17th century, when Leeuwenhoek first saw microbes through his microscope’s lens, Montaigne (a little earlier)  introspected and doubted, Descartes doubted himself to exhaustion and John Mill studied various translations of the Bible and said, whoa, we have 30,000 problems here. To name just a few of the people who showed us that things are not what they appear to be and that the mind makes stuff up.

Mrs. Giménez, in her mid-80’s, is now world famous.  She is notorious.  How could she do such a thing?  She’s apparently surprised at the results of her effort.  Is she crazy? Couldn’t she see what she was doing?  She may be asked to have her head examined and her introspection and free-associations would be interesting, but not as interesting as the FACT that we now have this image she made up.

That’s what’s important:  she made it up.  And another thing: the original fresco from 1910 by whatshisname was also made up.   Let’s see, what else can we name that’s been made up:  Michelangelo’s David, Michelangelo’s Adam, Rafael’s madonnas, Leonaro’s Last Supper;  Klimt’s Kiss, Munch’s Scream;   Egyptians invented Isis and Osiris, the Greeks invented Zeus and Athena, and so on and so forth.

The human imagination makes stuff up. You won’t find that statement anywhere in the 12th century.  The clerics who are ringing their hands over this fresco problem haven’t traveled through the 17th century to the beginning of the 20th, when Picasso and others blew the roof off our skulls.

When Picasso painted Gertrude Stein 1905 and 1906, she sat for him an estimated eighty-plus times.  Towards the end of 1906 he got stuck, dissatisfied with how he had painted the face.  We can only wish we had a documentation of that stage of the work. (We know Picasso owned a camera.)  In the fall of 1906 he went to Spain and when he came back he painted over the face. Giving into his fascination with African, Oceanic and early Iberian art, he now turned Gertrude’s face into a mask.  In other words, he invented.  He made it up.  We look at this painting at the Met and think it looks like Gertrude Stein—after all, that’s the title on the wall label—but at the same time we know IT’S ALL MADE UP.  It’s this awareness that makes us modern.

Picasso would have loved this “botched restoration.”

Sources:http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/24/world/europe/botched-restoration-of-ecce-homo-fresco-shocks-spain.html?hp

https://www.google.com/#q=Borja+Fresco+site:youtube.com&sa=X&ei=Gog_ULqbHI7W9QT_m4GgBg&ved=0CDsQ2wE&hl=en&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_qf.&fp=6c862fd85693d052&biw=1012&bih=589

http://www.spiegel.de/reise/europa/jesus-fresko-in-borja-stuemper-kunstwerk-zieht-hunderte-touristen-an-a-852168.htmlhttps://www.facebook.com/SenorasQueRestauranCristosDeBorja

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It can get hard.

You loved the colors and shapes in your sketch—in this case, a collage—and then it turns out that the painting process throws all sorts of hurdles in your path.

Caryl C. took her inspiration for this painting from a snippet of collage, about three inches long.  She transferred it to a canvas, four feet long.  Anybody who has ever chosen a color swatch for a bedroom wall knows that we react very differently to a small patch of color than we do to the same color in a large area. When 3 inches are expanded to 4 feet, this changed color perception is magnified accordingly. The act of painting is never just a matter of transferring shapes and colors from a small sketch.  Strange things happen when you paint.  The painting can take off on its own, especially as in this case, when it’s abstract.  You can get to an impasse, where you can neither hold on to your initial concept nor see clearly where you’re going.

At this point, you can regain your bearing if you reverse the process:  you sit down with a sketch pad and you sketch the painting in its present stage—as if it were a view out the window or a still life set up on a table.  This time out can help you see it fresh.

Painting is an adventure.  We’ll see where it takes Caryl.  The adventure can take a few hours, or weeks or months. Years.

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Your brain loves a straight line.  It’s quick, leads you from one end to the other in an instant.  It divides one side from another and no ifs or buts about it.  Then the brain dusts off its hands, congratulates itself on a job well done and moves on to something else.

When you put a clean crisp line into your painting you tickle that part of the brain that wants to know what’s what and therefore your attention will go to that line and you will be pleased.

Let’s look at a recent painting by Ellen G.  Here on the right you see it in the almost-finished stage.  We get the sense that this is a construction (it was derived from a collage, measuring less than 2 inches) and that directs us to see is as an abstraction, an invitation to engage in interpretation, that necessary pastime of us moderns.  What am I looking at here, the eye says.  Well, I see a reddish trapezoid, a bit of green on the right, an L shaped yellow thing, a fuzzy dip (#3) into a lead gray rectangle and then, oh look, there this thing on the lower right that looks like a landscape(#1).  Thank you, artist!  You gave me something to identify and latch on to because it relates to the real world.  Once you see this picture within a picture, it will dominate your attention.  This hilly vista with a suggestion of something like telephone wires just came out like that. In the original collage it was a bit of torn paper.  No matter, here it’s incarnated as a landscape and it takes over and you keep going back to it.  The rest of the painting then will look irrelevant, if you can even get yourself to pay attention to the yellow and the red.

Now, look what happens when the edge at #2 is made absolutely clean and straight.  Your eye zooms to it.  The “landscape” at #1 still demands your attention, but now it has competition.  The clean line at #2 compels your eye up.  Then what?  There’s a synaptic jump and you land at #4.  What’s #4?  Nothing.  It’s pure shape and color.  It’s an angle, the intersection of two lines, not as compelling as a clean line would be, but, hey,   it’s red.  So there you are at this angle, which forms an arrow.  And where does the arrow lead? Down to #1.  So, the artist has us coming and going, moving through this painting and wanting to stay with it.  When this happens, your brain becomes mind and you love puzzlement. There you are, looking at this thing, feeling entranced.

What about the yellow-orange L shape?  That’s texture.  Texture engages you with its emotional power.  See next post.

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We don’t often see this format in painting, tall and skinny. This is the kind of proportion you are likely to get if you take a collage as your point of departure.  The collage that Elaine C. worked from was a small passage, about  1¼” x 3”,   isolated from a larger collage.  This proportion does not come in readymade frames.  No problem, there are other supports.  Artists have painted on board for centuries.  Elaine chose sanded, knot-free plywood.  I encourage this sort of departure from the “readymade” in my classes.

The colors in the collage were black and red with a snippet of green.  As she started painting, she planned on layering the paint, using under-painting.  The under-painting for the red was green.  But then the green became textural and drippy and too interesting to cover up.  The painting process took over and the original inspiration, the collage in black and red, had served its purpose and was surpassed.

The painting (48” x 20”) holds our attention because of its luminous colors, its texture and its play on the figure-ground question.

Let me expand on that last point a bit.  The question is, what’s on top of what?  The light green diamond at #1 is undoubtedly  the topmost element.  We see it that way because it is a clearly identifiable shape that we see in its entirety.  Everything else is fragmentary and our perception keeps shifting: is the green on top of the orange or the orange on top of the green?  We tend to read warm colors (orange in this case) as coming forward and cool colors (green) as receding.  But here we read the green as on top because of #5, which connects to the main orange mass (#4) and makes us read orange as the back ground.  This in itself creates tension, since we want to read the cool green as background.  But the orange keeps coming forward, not only because it’s a warm color, but also because of its shape:  it pushes its convex bays into the green at #3, #4 and #5.  Convex shapes invade and assert themselves as dominant.

But notice the little black square in the upper right at #6.  That was the last thing Elaine painted.  “It needs something up there,” she said.  Yes, it did.  And look what that little black square does.  It is an absolute—black!—and it’s the only element defined by clean straight edges.  You can’t ignore it.  Your eye keeps moving up to that corner.  After you’ve gone back and forth with the green-orange-foreground-background question for a while, that little black square throws you another mystery.  Is IT what’s behind all the color, is IT the ground?  Must be.  Since it’s cut off by the picture’s edge it looks like it’s part of something bigger.  But it’s disturbing, that the ultimate background in this painting is represented by such a tiny surface.   Disturbing, but not overwhelmingly so.  That’s just it: all this subtle tension in the midst of this luminous, glorious color and the captivating texture.

The next post will relate this painting to a 19th century painting at the Art Institute of Chicago.

For more on working from collages, go to “collage” under Categories.

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Picasso was born October 25, 1881, in Malaga, Spain.  He spent his teen-age years in Barcelona, a hot bed of anarchy in the 1890’s.  His friends were anarchist writers and artists, ten and twenty years older than he:  Santiago Rusinol (1861-1931), Ramon Casas (1866-1932), and Isidro Nonell (1873-1911).  They discussed the writings of Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin and Nietzsche.  They were anti-church and anti-government, outraged by the impoverishment of Spanish peasants who poured into the cities.  They believed that an artist has to transform himself, to overcome his past and create himself anew.

Picasso is often presented as anti-intellectual and a-political, an image he himself encouraged. But, in fact, he wrote poetry.  He wrote a play in which Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir read the leads.  His dealer H.D. Kahnweiler said, Picasso was completely unpolitical, but Picasso joined the Communist Party in 1944. The newspaper clippings he collaged into his late cubist work all deal with the horror of war.   Picasso is a complex character.  Well, I just thought I’d mention this on his birthday

“Yo Picasso,”  1901.  Oil on canvas, ~ 73 cm x 65 cm.   (I, Picasso)

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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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