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1306KumiloStillLife1It’s well known that eyewitness accounts don’t carry much weight in a courtroom.  That’s because what you see is affected by your emotional state, your past experience, your desire to see order and on and on all the way to what you had for breakfast that day.  Well, you might say, that’s to be expected 1306ColleenStillLifebecause you’re witnessing a horrible scene, like a murder or a collision.

But what about the ol’ still life, a mess o’ drapery and a heap of pots!  Same caveat.  Five people in a tranquil setting on a lovely  June day will produce five very different takes.  It’s always amazing. Always thrilling.


And a wide view, with much information, perhaps too much…

1306JanetStillLife1…cropped for more tension, compositional cohesion and immediacy.  Notice how with the following, cropped view, you are more drawn into the scene. You feel more alert and you’re more inclined to pay  attention to the placement of lines and shapes, asking yourself “why is it like that?”


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




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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 ”

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




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People who still believe that art is supposed to imitate nature need to see these dancers.  If this is an imitation of nature, it surely is of the interstellar kind.  The anatomy is familiar; they are not a different species.  The movements, however, take us into the realm of the impossible, not just athletic impossibility (that would be mere entertainment) but an experience that evokes the word “transcendence.”  The fact that the piece titled “Physikal Linguistiks” brought the dancers, through speech and proximity, to the edge of the mundane, heightened my awareness of the gap between nature and art.  There’s really nothing to do after such an experience but to go home quietly and somehow inject more energy into ones life and to find new possibilities.

I went home to my drawing board and quietly  filled a page with drawings. No gallery will show such work in our time.  I drew, not for recognition, but out of the need to draw.


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You’ll find a two minute video on YouTube in which I demonstrate how to swing your hand in the air in an elliptical path.  When you do, the ellipse on paper will just follow.  I invite everyone to watch this short video, because it simulates a class room demo where you watch over the shoulder of the instructor. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kLD9aCjoNWc

Here are the steps:

1. Place your forearm at about a 45 degree angle to your body and adjust the angle of your paper so that its vertical edge is parallel to your forearm.

2. Hold the pencil with fingers not curled in a writing grip, but slightly extended.  Let the pencil rest on your middle finger with your forefinger about an inch-and-a-half from the tip of the pencil.

3. Your hand is high over the paper. Only your pinky is resting lightly on the paper.

4. Gently swing your wrist in the air in an elliptical path.  Feel the pinky brushing over the paper and allow your forearm to move slightly. Find a speed and rhythm that’s comfortable and even.  Draw some ellipses in the air in a continuous movement.

5. Without interrupting the rhythm, lower the pencil to the paper. Then resume the ellipses in the air. Move the paper. After 3 or 4 ellipses in the air, lower the pencil to mark the paper without breaking the rhythm.

6. As you continue practicing, move the paper over and up.   Keep the position of the arm the same.

I love the paradox of this process.  The ellipse on paper–which is real and visible—is the residue of the ellipse in the air, which is an illusion.

I talked about the ellipse in an earlier blog, dated April 19.  I’m returning to the ellipse now because the New York Times has started a 12-week series on the art of drawing by James McMullan.  His second article, September 24, was on the ellipse.  Unfortunately, it is, at best, confusing.  Mr. McMullan offers no real guidance on how to approach the drawing process.  The comments left by readers show that they learned nothing from the article, though there was an abundant outpouring of enthusiasm over the fact that the Times is running a series on—what?—drawing !  I, too,  am delighted that the art of drawing has found space in a newspaper.  Here’s my own comment,  # 83, quoted in the Times:

“It’s wonderful to see that the Times is running a column on drawing. I agree with commentator #32 who laments the fact that most of us are visually illiterate. We should all be drawing! But Mr. McMullan is a poor choice as a teacher. After you’ve imagined the tops of glasses and bowls as so many floating Frisbees, you’re still no closer to learning how to actually move your hand to make an ellipse. I start every one of my new drawing classes with a demonstration of how the hand moves when drawing an ellipse. It’s a smooth, graceful gesture and it needs repeated practice over weeks and months. After students have watched over my shoulder to see the demo, I sit next to them and correct their movements. In my own blog about the art of drawing, https://artamaze.wordpress.com, I gave a lesson about drawing the ellipse (April 19, 2010), in which I used the analogy to the Frisbee– not as a shape because that’s useless–but as a reminder of how the wrist moves when you throw the Frisbee. That’s the real connection!
Mr. McMullan mentions that the hand needs to be loose in drawing the ellipse, but then he shows us ellipses drawn by a very stiff hand. His ellipses are not drawn with any swing at all, but with a scratchy, hesitant line. Mr. McMullan, you are most welcome to attend my drawing class. With empathetic, insightful instruction, you, too, can learn to swing your wrist to draw a lively ellipse.”

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Doing the galleries on a Wednesday morning is like walking on the beach when it’s raining.  You have the place to yourself. Ahh.  Just you and the great non-verbal mysterious IT.  You don’t have to explain anything to anybody, you don’t have to listen to anyone explaining anything to you, you don’t have to be smart and you don’t have to listen to anybody being smart. Or artsy, or sensitive, or cool, or post-modern, or sincere, or authentic, or outsider-ish,  or judgmental, on non-judgmental, or edgy, or evolved, or enlightened… nothing.   The West Loop galleries are good for that. They’re spread out.  You step into one gallery and then maybe the one next door, but after that you hike.  To get to your next gallery, you step over cracked sidewalks, circle around construction sites, take a detour to find the Metra underpass and all this gives you time to calm your mind.  By the time you get to your fifth gallery, you’re blissful.  The cracks in the cement look profound, the peeling paint resonates with secrets, and the graffiti melts your heart  when in another context you might only have thought “sociopath.”

I started at the Carrie Secrist Gallery on Washington at Green Street. I don’t know how much time I spent with Carolyn Ottmer’s “Splice” series, but I know that my sense of time had already gone out the window with Megan Greene’s Audobon collages in the entrance gallery. Then, in the “Splice” space,  I was looking at huge models of plants cast in stainless steel suspended from the ceiling.  Only later, consulting the web, did I read that these were “studies of plants that thrive in urban environments, such as those that are seen breaking through cracks in city sidewalks …” At the Secrist Gallery I was also drawn into the vortex of Angelo Mosco’s photographs, but for this post I will limit myself to showing Carolyn Ottmer’s work.  This work will be up til October 16.  Go see.

When I do the galleries, I don’t read the literature about the artists and their work.  I turn off the verbal faculty and become visual and experiential.  Then a funny thing happens.  My brain starts processing the art in the galleries and the urban compositions outside  with the same neurons.  It’s a trip.

As Alan Watts used to say, “This is IT.”

(Chicago galleries tend to change shows mid month.  Parking in the West Loop, or any lively part of the city for that matter, is iffy.  I took the Metra to Ogylvie and then the #20 bus West on Madison.  Got off at Halsted and walked .)

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When a figure is foreshortened you can’t believe what you’re seeing.  Literally.  You deny the reality in front of your eyes.  It’s just too weird, too funny.  That’s because the forms are compressed and overlapping.  So, instead of drawing what you see, you “fix it.”  You stretch everything out.  When you do that, you ruin the magic.  But you do it anyway, most of the time.

Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) tried and failed.  He posed his model and then he went into denial.  Can’t be, he said to himself.  Not only did it look weird and funny—not allowed in 1490—but he had to contend with certain cultural values, which were also his own:  the head is the seat of reason, it’s where kings and popes wear their crowns, it’s where the “windows to the soul” are, important people sit at the “head of the table,”  and therefore the head had to be big; the feet are at the opposite extreme from the head, are down there, are filthy, are base and therefore have to be shown to be unimportant, small.  The basic assumption here is that big = important,  small = unimportant.  The Christ figure should look very much like the guy napping in Millenium Park (above), but Mantegna couldn’t overcome his big-small value system.

Even when the napping figure in the park is shot from a higher vantage point, the feet are still large and the head is still so tiny that the umbrella on the chest obscures it.

A contemporary of Mantegna’s, Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) left us an illustration of a device that artists could use to force themselves to see what’s actually there in front of their eyes.  Basically it’s a piece of glass positioned vertically, so that the artist can just trace what’s on the other side of the glass.  Not so easy.  The work presumes that you hold your head steady.  To this end, you have a vertical column that reminds you where your eye has to be at all times.  This device was, no doubt, an excellent pedagogical tool for learning how to overcome the weird cultural bias that kept you from SEEING.  I don’t know anyone who uses it today.  Today we just go to class and LOOK and remind ourselves that weird is wonderful.

In this student drawing we can see that the torso is compresses and the limbs really are drawn as overlapping forms.  The resulting drawing by Cheryl B. is schematic, but honest.  Here the head, being closer to the viewer, is drawn large and the feet, being far away, have to be quite small. It’s easy to say all this, but drawing a figure in this pose is difficult. Everyone should draw foreshortening… accountants, pilots, radiologists , lawyers, et al.  I recommend it highly because this exercise confronts you with the challenge of seeing WHAT’S REALLY THERE.

Again, Millenium Park offers the lesson from reality.

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