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Archive for the ‘Technique and Demo’ Category

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?

https://www.zhoubrothers.com/

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:

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/13/science/cave-painting-indonesia.html?referringSource=articleShare

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cave_painting#Europe

https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1995-04-02-9504020372-story.html

Henri Édouard Prosper Breuil  (1877 – 1961)

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

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Yes, I know what this is. This image shows skinny bare tree trunks in a dry hilly landscape.

What makes the stripes on the ground?

The stripes?  Let’s see.  Oh, the stripes are made by the shadows from the tree trunks.  Must be that the sun is low on the horizon.

Kinda cool?

Yeah,  pretty cool.

 

It’s not that you’re reminded of that afternoon in the state park, because you weren’t there, you didn’t take the photo.

It’s not that the image depicts some sexy scene.

Why is this image so compelling, even hypnotic?

Oh, I can chat about it. Try this:  Lines intersecting, over and over, with variation of angle, never mechanical, never repetitious. Focused attention,  like cross-hairs.  Rhythm. Percussion. There is no focal point.  No point of rest.  Your eye is constantly moving. The effect is purely visual, purely formal, not depending on any narrative.  No “appealing colors.”

If you only think this image is “pretty cool,”  I suggest you frame it. Frame it large or  project it on your large TV screen and look at it every day so that the memory of it will keep you awake at night without you knowing why on earth this is happening to you.

The past several posts have been about the power of composition.  This image is the culmination of all these past three month of looking and thinking about images here at artamaze.

Of all the things that grab you in an image—color, narrative, symbolism, etc.—the most powerful is composition.

Try to get some sleep.

 

Photo by Mary Shieldsmith

 

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In the last post we started by looking at something beautiful and ended up by suggesting that beauty may be a trap.  A breathtaking view becomes a trap if you think you can –how to say this—trap it.  The common word for this is “capturing it.”

“Oh, you captured that perfectly.”

“That is so beautiful; I want to see if I can capture it in my painting.”

People talk about “capturing” all the time. In music, painting, in a novel, a movie.  As if art making were some sort of hunting sport: you hunt the beauty down and then—gotcha!–you corral it in a fenced lot. You killed it!

So, art making is a form of execution.  If that’s too strong a word, how about strangulation.

In any case, “capturing” results in lifelessness.

We don’t want lifelessness, do we.

The reason that a painting that duplicates a photo would result in lifelessness is that it would make something monumental, i.e. static, out of a fleeting moment.  That would be a lie.

So, how can you allow yourself to be inspired by this image without deceiving yourself?

You can allow yourself to be mesmerized by a small passage that does not refer to a recognizable corner of reality.  It does not illustrate anything.

Now, that you can paint—or draw!  Not as a copyist, not directly, not in detail, but in gesture, in complete self-abandon.  If you pivot your mind into that level of fiction, you may be onto something.

Onto what?  We can’t predict.  Let’s see.

 

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/12/06/kitsch-101/

 

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Last post I said you can practice turning your attention to ON.  Yes, you can, and it’s wise to practice.

Musicians, for example, practice.  Even very advanced performers practice scales.  This practice will shine through when they’re performing on stage in thrilling, ecstatic passages of a piece.  The practice itself made this ecstasy possible, but the practice itself is not ecstatic.  It’s discipline.

I walk into my kitchen one morning, my to-do list for that day writ large in my brain.  As I turn to the fridge, my jaw drops and my eyes pop. I either had never seen this light effect before or it happens every morning but I’m just always behind in my “attention practice.”

I grab my camera and click.

This is not a great moment in the history of photography.

Why, then, is it valuable?  Because it records a constellation: the alignment of

  • the angle of the sun
  • the placement of that bamboo plant
  • the moment I entered that room
  • my attention on ON

The photo reminds me that such an alignment is possible.  It happened. It doesn’t happen every day and it’s worth paying attention when it does happen.

Next, we’ll look at Derain.

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/11/24/attention/

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NOW WHAT!!  You want us to look at your boring geraniums in your boring kitchen???!!!

What caught my attention was how the afternoon light made the stems glow. On the right, see that?  See how the stems are outlined in yellow?

How would my camera see that?  As I framed the shot, before I zoomed in on that light effect, I noticed intimations of the Golden Section.

Not one, but two.  In the green lines, the square is on the left.  In the pink, the square is on the right. As a bonus, the red blooms define the corner of the next square in the Golden Section sequence.

In my peripatetic readings I recently came across a quote from Nicolas Malebranche: “Attention is the natural prayer of the soul.”   He had to talk like that because he was a Catholic priest trying to stay alive in 17th century France.  He’s classified as a rational philosopher, working in the shadow of Descartes: notice the word “natural” in front of “prayer.”

1600 years before that,  Epictetus said:  “You become what you give your attention to. If you yourself don’t choose what thoughts and images you expose yourself to, someone else will … and their motives may not be the highest.”  Epictetus was born a slave in the Roman Empire and became the teacher of Marcus Aurelius.

So, the difference between boring and ta-dah! is not out there in those overwintering geraniums but in that switch in your brain.  You can practice throwing your attention switch.  You can pivot from worry about your to-do list to…attention, now.

Nicolas Malebranche, 1638-1715

Epictetus, 50-135

Marcus Aurelius, 121-180

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After you’ve identified this photo as a so-what view of a lawn, check that off and see if this might have some formal element worth noticing.

It does.  You can see it better in black/white.

The light zig-zags down from top to bottom with increasing looseness as if it came from some juggler’s pen light.

That’s it?  Yes, for this little exercise in seeing it’s enough to notice that the slivers of light appear to be superimposed on a surface.

The light slivers exist on one plane and the grass on another.   If you also notice that the grass makes vertical lines and the light forms horizontal lines, you’ve got a composition worth contemplating.

I’d like to print this up in high resolution, 6 ft high, and position it at the end of a long hall way.

My camera clicked it in color.  We are used to seeing images in color. But color is not necessarily more powerful than b/w.  Do you agree that the b/w is a more stimulating image?

Btw, all this is relevant to both photography and painting. Not such a little exercise, after all.

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Even as a child, Soulage says, he liked black because it made the rest of the paper look all the more white.

When he was sixty, his paintings became all black, a black he calls outrenoir, which translates roughly as “beyond black.”

He doesn’t think of himself as painting with black paint, but with light.  The light reflects off the thick, textured black paint and that is what you see.  “I made these because I found that the light reflected by the black surface elicits certain emotions in me. These aren’t monochromes. The fact that light can come from the color which is supposedly the absence of light is already quite moving, and it is interesting to see how this happens.”

He was born December 24, 1919.  Approaching 101, he says he’s looking forward to more ideas to come to him.

The Musée Soulage, in Rodez , Southern France,  is devoted to his work.

 

 

I recommend the following links for more images of his work and of interviews with him:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gw7tkgVnRTw

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=azb6K-R_q8M

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylZGz3NuidA

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eydws5jJ6ys

https://www.google.com/search?q=pierre%20soulages&tbm=isch&tbs=rimg:CR8aTYMxIqhvYaEYr1reAWak&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CBsQuIIBahcKEwjQo_2WloPtAhUAAAAAHQAAAAAQFw&biw=1294&bih=836#imgrc=R9rQFXyA7wEFTM&imgdii=4-kpwBo3-mMrfM

https://www.google.com/search?sxsrf=ALeKk01-AFktcIGO9n0dcMT9GRy-irtSdw:1605223481914&source=univ&tbm=isch&q=pierre+soulages&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwj3oLK7k_7sAhVSgK0KHVh7AGIQiR56BAgPEBA&biw=1378&bih=836#imgrc=Tj_-pYUAPfkJYM&imgdii=AM1Kn5-I38wLFM

 

Two days ago I was reminded of Pierre Soulage when I took the photo posted as “Not Levitating.”  When I framed the shot I saw the uncanny light that was coming through the front doors glass panel in late afternoon.  On the photo, which is unedited, the light “column” at the left appears so substantial that its weight equals that of the blue sphere, which would otherwise have to dominant the composition.

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2020/11/12/not-levitating/

 

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The illusion of depth and perspective in an image is so beguiling that we—smart, scientific and skeptical—willingly suspend disbelief and get sucked into the illusion of receding  space created on a flat surface.

You don’t have to trek through Ecuador, like Fredric Erwin Church, to get this thrill.  Step out your front door and there you’ll find receding space as far as the eye can see even if that’s only to the end of the block.  Your camera will aid you because it will flatten the view for you, i.e. it will compact the three-dimensional reality in front of you into a framed two-dimensional surface.

When you treat yourself to a hike in the nearby state park, well, the phrase “as far as they eye can see” is ecstatically notched up.

The most powerful part is (1) because it’s the closest plant to the viewer and it sets the sense of scale.  All other plants—and that’s all we see—are therefore seen in relation to (1), with the result that we sense how far back they are.

You can compare this analysis to that of Fredric Edwin Church’s painting in the previous post.

The progression from foreground plants to distant hills –and pine trees way in the distance at upper left–occurs in similar layers. Church manipulates the gradations of color and light to heightened effect and just because he can.  In the photo, however, the gradations appear more subtle and to lovers of subtlety that effect may actually be more thrilling  than the technique in Church’s painting.

But wait, there’s more.  Even before you notice the little plant in the lower left corner, you want to look at this image.  It contains an approximation of the Golden Section.  You may not even know what that is, but our environment, both cultural and biological, has conditioned you to like this ratio.

The photographer may not have made all these compositional calculations consciously. This sense can be cultivated intuitively.

Knowing how to analyze why this works does not in the least spoil the pleasure of perception.  On the contrary, look how it deepens your experience.

(Click image for enlargement.)

Mary Shieldsmith ,  Brown County State Park, 2020

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The back-lighting stopped me in my tracks.  The shadow was as dark as the tree trunk itself. They looked continuous as if they were of the same substance. The lawn looked as if it had been spray painted DA-glo.  Mind you, this photo is not tweaked.  My phone camera saw this strange light effect.  Drama like this is momentary. Click.

I immediately zoomed in.  No distraction, no nice residential context with a house.  What we get now is…

…a repetition of forms.  On the right, spiky triangles.  On the left, and spilling onto the big triangle, you see amorphous meanderings.

Do we still have trees, lawn and late afternoon lighting?  Yes, we’re still reminded of how wonderful these real lawns in our neighborhoods are.

We also have just the opposite:  flat patterns on a flat surface confined in a rectangular frame.

Now it may dawn on you that you’re having an art experience.  “Art does not stand for something outside itself” –Fairfield Porter, remember.

You can focus on the picture surface or what it represents, but not both at the same time — as Gombrich said in Art and Illusion.

But you can practice toggling back and forth between the two ways of seeing.  Practice that!

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For several days I’ve had a tab on my computer for this image of a recent California wildfire.  I would open this photo, stare at it and feel mesmerized.  What must that be like, to have left these houses or to still be in them? What is the sound of that enormous roaring fire in the proximate distance?  How fast is it approaching?  How terrified these people must be!

After several days of this intense emotional involvement with the scene in the photo, I noticed that I found the photo “beautiful.”  Given the content of the photo, this was disturbing.  So I asked myself if the photo was constructed to have this mesmerizing effect on the viewer. I turned on the part of my brain that does analysis.

What I found was a centrally focused composition.  The houses in the middle of the image, i.e. the human interest, were perfectly in the middle. The house in the middle of this cluster stands out because it is brighter than all the rest.  The hills on both sides sloped perfectly towards the middle of the cluster of houses.

Thus we have a symmetrical composition with human life in the middle. The symmetry makes it static with the message that this is not going to change. Human life in the middle hooks us emotionally.  No wonder this image is mesmerizing.  The composition tells us that this terror of the fire is enormous:  it’s here to stay, permanent without any dynamic that may bring change.

You can be sure that the photographer took dozens or even hundreds of frames on this assignment.  We don’t know if this frame came out as we see it here or if it was cropped to achieve this feeling of terror.  Either way, it was not randomly chosen.

A second example makes this power of composition even clearer.  The firefighter is in the middle of the frame.  Because of the stability inherent in symmetry, he appears to be there forever. This makes his situation all the more hopeless and makes the image painful to contemplate.

You can test this out be cropping and moving him off-center. Now the composition is unbalanced and we feel that he is moving.  He’s in danger but he’s at least not stuck.

Analyzing an image like this does not desentize you to its content.  Not at all. You’re still shocked by the content but you’ve added the awareness of how emotions are communicated visually.

 

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