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Posts Tagged ‘paradox’

This painting by Keven Wilder is three feet square. It is monochrome; painted with only two tools, a wide brush and a wide squeegee. And it is immediately appealing.

Monochrome: the artist used only one color, red, and then the same red mixed with white for a paler, heathery red near the border.

The red was applied with a flat 3” brush. Then came the squeegee.  While the red was still wet (this is oil paint) the 3” squeegee, loaded with white paint, deposited white paint in the center of the painting, scraping some red into it in the process.

Appealing. The painting is immediately moving and intriguing.  How can that be? How can something be intriguing, when it can be described so easily, even mechanically?

The first reason is that in all cultures red is perceived as emotionally evocative. Red is sensuous:  enveloping, round, cozy, sweet, ripe, luscious, delicious.*

The second reason is that the strokes of the brush and squeegee are the opposite of sensuous.  They are abrupt, quick, random, indifferent, angular, flat, rational, raggedy.

These two qualities, red and rational,  are contradictory.  That contradiction creates drama in this painting.  You can deconstruct this all you want.  But the painting is not a well-argued paragraph in a debate or a dissertation at the Sorbonne.  It’s a paradox.

The paradox is to be inhabited.  And once you’re in it, you’ll be scintillating and lose your self.

*I want to talk about red in greater depth in future posts: symbolism, psychology, history, language.

Next, let’s run this painting through different hues.  What’s special about red?  We’ll see about that!

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

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StreamConsciousness
Picture it large. It’s 48” wide.
You want to see it as a landscape, right? There’s that horizon line from the left, a third of the way down. Above that the colors are blue-ish and atmospheric. So that’s comforting. You’re on your way to an interpretation. Oh, good, you think, I can figure this out. You keep looking. What else can you latch on to, what else can you identify? Errrmmm, what’s the blue blotch, what’s the red trapezoid, what are those black strokes? Frustration sets in. No, wait, there’s that receding white brush stroke, that seems to suggest perspective. Wonderful, a sense of perspective. You keep looking for more landscape clues, but, alas, the landscape reference falls apart, it simply does not hold up. That’s your moment of release, of liberation. Exhale. Now you’re looking at the painting and enjoying it because now you’re actually seeing it.
StreamConsciousnessAnalysisAfter you stop figuring it out and you surrender to looking, you notice the little black splatters. And where are they? They are where the major forms of the composition converge. You missed them earlier. How could you miss these dots? Because they’re nothing. And yet the great big red, blue, and black shapes point to this nothing.
Diebenkorn1I, for one, love paradox. Takes my breath away.
The composition as a whole reminds me of Diebenkorn’s landscapes. Notice how his shapes converge, but on nothing.
It’s an aesthetic that goes way back to the ancient Greeks, who designed the Parthenon so that the center of the pediment facade would be an open space, not a column. We’ll get to that, later sometime.
Painting by Cassandra Buccellato, oil on canvas, ~40”x48”
Richard Diebenkorn, (1922-1993)

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When I set up a still life for my drawing class I do fuss with the drapery and the objects, but not in the way you might think.  I make the fabric crinkly and energetic.  As for the objects, the more absurd the association between them, the better.  What I mean is that when the objects don’t tell a coherent story, the mind doesn’t slide into some conventional sense of “beauty” and instead really focuses on shapes and the spaces between them.  This is a subversive idea, isn’t it!  You spend your whole life straining to achieve coherence and non-absurdity and you’re proud of your skills in that department.  Now you find yourself in a drawing class and this normal-looking instructor encouraged you to go subversive.  Well, boys and girls, that’s the dirty little art secret:  you have to throw that grenade.  You have to add a twist; you have to invent;  you have to have an idea; you have to slip us a surprise.

Here then is Karen G.’s take on this still life.  To start with, of all the parts of the still life she can pick on, she chooses a bit of corner drapery  (#4) and the stem—only the stem—of the amaryllis.  It’s a plastic amaryllis (towards #1)  with a thick coiled stem. The choice of this portion of the still life is itself already wonderfully daring.  In the drawing, we won’t know what the coil represents, it will be an absurd—because disconnected and unnamable—shape.  The stem ends at #2.  But because we can’t see the flower, we don’t know what this is and it looks like a tube inserted in the hilly cloth.  At this stage of the drawing, the space at #3 is empty.  What to do?  After two hours of drawing, Karen’s imagination has stepped out of the everyday literal perception of objects and into its proper domain: invention.  She invents the coil at #3.  Makes it up out of thin air.  Now we have a coil entering the hilly shape in the front and exiting in the back.  This creates a paradox, in that we can see clearly what’s going on (because of the quality of the drawing) and at the same time this construction does not occur in real life and flies in the face of our expectations about still lifes.  The viewer is momentarily stumped and is drawn into contemplation of this paradox. A paradox, however, is not the same thing as a mess.  Notice the echoing of the same shape, a diamond, at 3 and 4 and just to the right of 2.  The drawing draws you into art.

“An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.”—Oscar Wilde

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Beatrice K. finished this painting yesterday.  The collage that inspired it was quite small, 3 inches on the long side, and itself a result of cropping from a much larger collage.  While collaging, she found this gem in the corner of a large collage measuring about 11 x 17. (See previous posts under “collage”)   It was so powerful that it had to be painted in large format and its odd dimensions had to be accommodated.   Working out the proportions and considering that the painting had to be carry-able, the final painting was going to be 18 x 32 inches.  But that size canvas is not readily available.  What to do?  Build the custom support out of high grade ply wood and reinforcing borders.  A new adventure, and well worth the trip to the lumber yard.

When we work from a collage we don’t slavishly copy.  The paint has a mind of its own and we enter into a conversation with it.  So, when it drips, the artist has to decide whether to honor that drip or to erase it.  The drip at #3 adds vitality and immediacy to the painting. It adds the elusive dimension of time:  here’s something in the process of happening in a random way. We know the drips must be dry by now but at the same time they convey the feeling that they could go on.  This note of uncertainty draws us in.

It also acts as a chaotic counterpoint to the otherwise layered, rational-appearing composition.  Black (3) is the topmost layer.  That’s clear in relation to 1 and to 4, where at 8 the artist created a faint backlighting to create the feeling that 3 is floating.  We can see that 2 overlaps 1, but at 6 things get disorienting.  3 is on top of 2, but at the same time 2 drips over 3 and therefore 2 overlaps 3.  Oops, not so clear and rational.  Where are we?  Can’t figure that one out, so the viewer’s mind drifts and most likely zooms up to 5, where the contours are clear.  What a relief, we know what’s going on there!  That rectangle is nicely delineated, has a white sliver around it and a prominent white wedge leading up to it and on top of all that, it’s got texture.  How nice.  It’s restful and clear.  Oh, but wait, 5 relates to 4, by virtue of being the same color.  If 4 is the bottom-most layer and 5 is the top-most layer, how can they be connected, of the same cloth, so to speak?  The artist has created a visual paradox that is both pleasing and disquieting.  There’s nothing to do but to go into a visual mode and let the experience take a hold of you.  This is how art works. And I’ll have to say that again at the end of this essay.

What about #7?  What’s going on there?  #7 is stippled with the tip of the brush.  It forms a textured swarm over the already atmospheric #2.  The swarm of #7 takes the form of a wedge and therefore relates to the white wedge at the right.  Once you see that, you also see the wedge under #5.  We have a play on this triangle-form  that keeps the eye moving from one to the other.

There is an even larger repetition of a motif and that’s the L form.  We have it in the yellow at left and the large mass of black.  Even the turquoise in #4 intimates the L form and the burned sienna of #2  suggests that underneath the whole black thing there’s a massive L in reddish brown.  The repetition of a motif in a painting, as in music, focuses the attention, keeps us in the piece.

None of this was articulated before the collage was chosen as material for a painting.  When that little collage bit was framed with white strips of paper, there was a gasp of recognition:  this was something worth exploring.  The understanding of why it was brilliant—all that came later, in the doing.  This how art works.

(I use numbers to refer to passages in the painting in order to make the discussion clear and simple.  I want to avoid “artspeak.”  I recommend that you read through this and then go back and look at the painting—without numbers—just look.)

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