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Inventing an Alphabet

16novcodeyellow

In my peripatetic reading, some years ago, I came across this suggestion about how to look at art:  Instead of thinking you’re going to judge the painting, stand there and imagine that the painting is judging you.

That may sound ridiculous.  Try it anyway.

You can start with this painting. How is this painting judging you?

When the tables are turned this way, you’ll notice that you’ve been judging art by rather arbitrary, inherited standards; that you like it that way; that these standards make you feel smart; and that this realization is embarrassing.

Currently, I’m reading From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present  by Jacques Barzun.  In this section (p. 167) he’s mainly talking about writing in the 17th century, but what he says applies to the visual arts, too.

The first modern critics did not spend all their time discussing tragedy.  Other forms of poetry enjoyed their minute attention, most often in the light of Horace’s precepts.  Applying such pre-existing standards was the very definition of criticism until the 19th century.  The process was analytical and judicial.  A sort of stencil was laid over the work and the places noted where the right features showed through the holes.  The more points scored, the better the work.

Now, ANALYSIS, the breaking of wholes into parts, is fundamental to science, but for judging works of art, the procedure is more uncertain: what are the natural parts of a story, a sonnet, a painting:  The maker’s aim is to project his vision by creating not a machine made up of parts but the impression of seamless unity that belongs to a living thing. 

Painting by Karen Gerrard, acrylic on canvas, 30” x 40”

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In Half

notblackwhite

Working with a center line, whether vertical or horizontal, challenges the painter. How do you prevent this thing from becoming static?  How do you overcome the invitation to symmetry? How to you create movement?

In this painting the challenge is heightened by the choice of black vs. white. Now look what happens at the dividing line between the two fields. At (2) a large round shape that straddles both fields attracts your attention by virtue of its size, circularity and texture—it’s glued on burlap.  At (1) and (3) lines cross the divide.  These are powerful because the eye finds lines irresistible and traces them wherever they lead.notblackwhiteanalysis

The blue line at (3) gracefully sweeps upward towards the right.  At the light red dot (4) it traces an orbital path.  Because the red rectangles at (6) suggest a stable architectural element (perhaps a window), they add a rational anchor to a universe in which amorphous planes float randomly.  At the same time the red dot perches precariously on one corner (4).  This becomes the focal point of the painting, deeply satisfying and at the same time restless.

But wait, there’s a twist in the plot.  When the artist submitted the painting to the Studio Exhibit she reversed it.  Notice that the focal point in this new orientation is one of those amorphous shapes (5). The effect is edgy.

notblackwhiteshow We are deprived of the satisfaction we found previously in the red dot perched on the corner of the red rectangles. In this orientation, the red dot and the red rectangles are resting on the bottom edge, not going anywhere. They’ve settled, they lack drama.

It’s a brilliant painting.  Buy it.  Hang it, not over your couch, but in front of it. Sit.  Look at it in one orientation, then next week turn it over and look again.  Allow yourself to be unsettled. Get to know your perceptual quirkiness.

The Studio Exhibit at the Evanston Art Center will be up til January 29.

Terry Fohrman, Not Black and White.  Acrylic on canvas, 24” x 48”

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Dashing

16novscintillatevertical

I love not knowing what to say about a painting.  It’s a sign that I’m really looking.

The top layer of this painting consists of the horizontal dashes.  The effect is two-fold.  Because they’re on top you feel you need to look at them.  But when you focus on them you realize there’s nothing to look at.  This makes you focus on the layers under the dashes.  But the dashes obscure that layer.  You soon realize that there’s no clarity in the lower layers either.

The reason you don’t give up is that the effect of this layering is scintillating.  The painting shimmers, not like metallic kitsch, not at all.  It shimmers epistemologically.  As soon as you think you’ve grasped it, it slips away.  There are certain brains that love this effect.  Count me in.

Keven Wilder.  Oil on canvas, ~40” x 30”

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Disturbing, You Think?

16octheadhands

“It’s disturbing,” someone in the class said when I put up this drawing by Maggy Shell.

Yes, it is.

The artist may not have deliberately pushed the drawing towards  16octheadhandsphotothe “disturbing” sign, but the assignment was to draw half of the face in deep shadow and that may have prompted her to go for it.  With that instruction, it’s easy to see something creepy in the photo to start with.

She chose to:

-push the figure against an edge of the paper. Drawing against the edge really does make a drawing edgy.  If she had positioned the figure in the middle, as it is seen in the photo, the image would have become balanced and not disturbing.

-tilt the head. When people are calm, their heads sit straight on their shoulders.  Tilting the head is a sign of skepticism or flirtatious submission. We can rule out the latter here.  What’s left is skepticism, which is definitely on the edgy edge of the continuum.

-follow the instruction to put one side into deep shadow.  Yes, she did.  Oh, how disturbing.

-draw the hands in a skeletal manner and against a deep black background.

“Disturbing” art came into vogue with the Romantics around 1800.  The notion of the sublime gave you goose bumps—certainly uncomfortable:  Caspar David Friedrich, The Wanderer Above the Mists, 1818.

cdfriedrichwandererabovethemists1818

And what about dreams—oh, so disturbing: Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1781

johnhenryfuselithe_nightmare1781

If you think Maggy Shell’s drawing is edgy and disturbing, consider the horizontal flip.  Now, that’s  spooky.  Why is that? We’ve seen many horizontal flips on this blog that demonstrate how position on the page conveys feeling.

16octheadhandsflip

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

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The Eyelid Casts a Shadow

16octhead

We say “the whites of their eyes.”  But the highlight on the upper eyelid 16octheadeye(1) is whiter than the white of the eye (2). It’s not easy to give in to this fact.  After all, no one ever said, “don’t shoot until you see the highlight on their upper eyelids.”

This drawing from a photo does not resemble the 16octheadphotomodel, but that doesn’t matter.  Resemblance comes much later.  And in any case, resemblance may not be the goal.  The model/photo serves as inspiration and what happens in the drawing process is more important than likeness.

As you look at this drawing notice how important the shadow cast over the eye ball is for the expression and your conviction that this is a real person.

Drawing by Maggy Shell, charcoal, ~ 16” x 14”

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2013/05/26/eyes-no-eyes/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2014/03/23/2778/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2012/05/09/andre-carrilho-and-the-mythic-window-to-the-soul/

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Céline Frown

celinefrown

The non plus ultra of drawing is the face. Well, maybe not of Drawing writ large, but almost certainly of drawing students. They approach the face more ferociously than anything else.  It has a way of talking back, you know.

Western Art is full of beautiful faces, meaning idealized faces. It’s hard for us not to be haunted by them: from the Venus de Milo to Botticelli’s Venus to Raphael’s insipid Madonnas to Michelangelo’s pouting Madonnas to Sargent’s celinefrownphotogossamer heiresses.  In the 19th century women started looking more interesting.  Think of Degas and Manet.

Imagine my delight at finding ads for Céline products (handbags, though you’d never guess) where young women, having left the house without running fingers through their shapeless hair and without bothering about makeup, scowl at us.  Take that! Now draw me and don’t make me pretty.

In this drawing by Maggy Shell, notice how powerful the eyes are even though no anatomy is indicated. No eyelid, no iris.  celinefrowneyeThis face & head study goes deeper than mere anatomy.  You understand the anatomy without seeing the face anatomically.  Instead, what intrigues you is the expression. With an uncanny economy of means the artist draws us into the mystery behind the face.

Maggy Shell, Céline Frown, charcoal on paper, ~16” x 14”

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Up-drip

updrip2

This painting actually preceded the one you saw in the last post.  This composition consists primarily of vertical lines with horizontals making only a tentative entrance. Compared to the later painting, Up-drip, Side-drip, this one looks like an investigation. An exciting investigation, to be sure.  All art is an investigation.

Because the drips in this version are fewer and don’t rush to the opposite edge, they appear to meander like branches. As up-drips they appear to sprout skyward, suggesting organic forms.  We don’t get that illusion in the later Up-drip, Side-drip  where the drips read like straight lines drawn with a nicked ruler.

These two paintings appear to promise a series—further investigations.  Who knows where the grid will lead us, how the drips will rush or meander and…we haven’t even talked about those circles yet.

Notice, when the drips actually drip like drips, your mind wanders to more literalness, as in “what’s this red stuff dripping here, where am I and what do these other colors represent?” Literalness is not so interesting, is it.

updrip2-copy

Veronica Sax, painting in acrylic on canvas, 30″ x 30,” early November 2016

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