Friday, May 21, 2010

draw another brick on the wall...

Last night, over dinner, we were talking with our friends ("the R& R team") about walls. We started by talking about the wall murals in Belfast; it is possible to "see" at least parts of the history of Northern Ireland through the art on its buildings. Then I started thinking: everywhere, walls "talk." Our children came back from a trip to Berlin with portraits of each other taken up against colorful, standing remains of the wall and also were tempted by "pieces of the wall" that were up for sale. The Lascaux caves in France had to be reproduced (right next door) in another "cave" to save the original walls. Cy Twombly's paintings seem to be inspired by the "graffiti" that was scratched into Roman walls and columns and stones and monuments. Jean-Michel Basquiat's work took the figures and the desires and the signature initials and scrawls of the street into the studio and the galleries. Diego Rivera's murals lead to hundreds of later murals: San Francisco's walls are one example.  Some walls in cities are set aside for artists to address the space in changing exhibits; sometimes the letters and outlined holes and cracks in the wall and the faces are positively lyrical.

Then, of course, there is the problem of the unwanted street tagging, the pristine wall of a neighborhood or school that is suddenly defaced. Is this a problem of intention (on the artist's part?) or reception (the audience is not amused) or reputation (another audience problem: if we knew the work was by Cy Twombly, we would likely frame it).  We do have a Parisian friend who lives proudly behind a graffiti'd door... because "no-one knows" about his beautiful little courtyard behind that door.

That's the outside; then there is the matter of the inside wall. Our restaurant, last night, had held a contest for an artist to paint its back wall. At night, walking or driving through a new town or a new part of a city, I look into windows and I am always surprised at how many white walls I see: not even the posters of a college dorm room, not even dogs playing poker. But many parents put up their children's art -- affectionately called "refrigerator art" -- in their kitchens.We have one from our neighbor; he is nine and he just recently learned to draw a panorama:
So why does the fridge get to be the only fun place?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

the photograph that became a painting, and yet...

I took a picture of my feet.

This isn't as strange as it sounds... I tended to take off my shoes when I came through the front door (into our house in Normandy) and I would throw my feet up onto a chair or ottoman to relax. We also had a bed that was a little on the short side, so feet crept out from under the covers... So I saw my feet a lot.

I had just learned a new French phrase: tout arrive. It means, as I understand it, it will come, it will happen (so give it time!).  I wanted to paint something that illustrated that phrase, which meant, to me, that we had come to this point, where we didn't exactly "fit" the way we anticipated we would, but we would, I hoped, continue to feel more and more a part of our French world ...

So I painted the feet (just mine) in our bed, with our squared window above (we could often see the moon or stars). It was a dream, of sorts... I think I intended the right-hand side to be the "tout" that would come in time.

When I took this painting out of the stack, I was prepared to hate it. It wasn't exactly a happy painting, but when I was working on it, it was hopeful, and I so wanted it to be "true." I do think it is true to the moment when I painted it. And, in its own way, I feel I need to admit that this is a good painting. 
And in its own way, it did come true, the tout arrive. It did come, the life, just not in France!

Monday, May 17, 2010

still raining...

about 118% of normal precipitation for our area, they say... while we wait for the sun, a little photo of an antiques-store light, a bowl from Tunisia, and a painting, in the semi-darkness....

Sunday, May 16, 2010

a good art day!

It was a misty day most of the day today, so it was a good day to work inside. I am rescuing the "bad" painting from the other day, with both Agnes Martin's point about composition and Sargent's lush brushstrokes in mind. I now have a layered work that I like... this might not be its finished state, but I am happy with it so far (it is now on the right, below).  And I brought in a newly sanded "blank" canvas (left) to look over for awhile to see where its best direction lies. These two will sit here and I can see, over time, what they need:
And I can hear you saying, how will you know? Gertrude Stein said, in a little piece called "Pictures," that "to give me this interest the painting must be an oil painting... for me it has achieved an existence in and for itself, it exists on as being an oil painting on a flat surface and it has its own life and like it or not there it is and I can look at it and it does hold my attention." The painting must be seen. And when I am really working on a painting, or a series of paintings, problems and their solutions can, sometimes, come into my mind suddenly and insistently... and when that happens, I feel lucky.

Friday, May 14, 2010

sargent (good) and the (still-bad) painting

When Michael Kimmelman wrote about the Sargent-Velazquez pairing at the Prado Museum in Madrid (see May 9 entry, below), the piece encouraged me to look at Sargent again. I found a painting on the web that I had never seen before, a gorgeous, fairly typical lush Sargent, called "Nonchaloir (Repose)" from 1911:
Sargent often painted portraits where the subject (because she has paid) is shown as engaged, and lively, and enviable. Here, this (relatively small, at 25 1/8" x 30") work shows a woman who is not -- despite the painting's title -- in "repose": she is clearly restless, unhappy, and although her body has tucked itself into a corner of the sofa, her hair and the fabrics are only just under control. Her hands are clasped uncomfortably in a kind of confused show of fingers... she looks as though she might be wrapped in a sheet or some kind of elaborate shawl that might match the sheen of the skirt. There is just enough gold leaf on the table and frame above her to make clear her wealth... and her unhappiness.

Agnes Martin once said that "People think painting is about color/ It's mostly composition/ It's composition that's the whole thing/ The classic image -- /Two late Tang dishes, one with a flower image,/ one empty -- the empty form goes all the way to heaven" (from "The Untroubled Mind," in Writings).  The composition in this Sargent is so simple, but I think the horizontal lines work with the colored whites of the fabric to help us see the air inside the frame. The "empty" whites here pull you in... the viewer breathes the same air & wants to know more about the room, the moment... Even though the fabric shows strong brushstrokes,  the painter-li-ness makes it seem, somehow, touchable, something that could move in a slight breeze. Sargent and Vermeer both give space, even in their interior compositions.  They leave emptiness. I can't figure out how that works, but they do.

And then there's my poor thing, languishing in a corner of the living room. Despite the sanding that I thought had cleared it out a bit (May 3rd entry), it seems clogged and still:
It has no composition, as you can see. And therefore no air. A lot of white, but unreal, straight white. Insufficient emptiness.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

a zinfandel (not from the usual places), a covered bridge, yellow poppies and a lavender farm

We took a drive and found a zinfandel from Lodi, very good, tasted in an espresso bar at about 10:30 a.m. (unexpected!); we bought two bottles of Barsetti 2006 Zinfandel. The area in and around San Joaquin County was beautiful to drive through: vineyards with roses at the end of each row, wooden barns, horses, strawberries and cherries (at least, today), nut orchards, a very! hot midday and rows of trees planted along quiet back roads.

We stopped in Escalon, a little town that says its motto is "peaches and cream." We found the old center of town (Main Street!) with a pretty little antiques store, The Green Pea, along it, and then we drove to the lavender farm... only a few blossoms right now (and they arrange tours and lunches on weekends).  Further on, in Knight's Ferry, there is a park with a walking path to a covered bridge, and it was on the way here that we found the yellow poppies (California is famous for its orange poppies, as France is for its red blossoms, but we had never seen these colors together before):

And, just for old times' sake, we did see one red (French-style) poppy:

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

perhaps the palm tree wants its portrait painted...

Because it glowed as I took this picture!

Giacometti said (in about 1963) that "You never copy the glass on the table; you copy the residue of a vision... Each time I look at the glass, it has an air of remaking itself.... it really always is between being and not being. And it's this that one wants to copy."

It is that shimmering of its leaves in the sunlight that we hope to catch.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

"it has glace and sirop and steak and paintings" and blue-ish white ... and one more blue

I keep journals, all shapes and sizes, from the years since my husband and I met. One journal, devoted to one of our summer trips to France, has several drawings by our children, mostly sketched in as we were waiting for dinner. Here is one sketch by our (then) very-young daughter where she has written all the essential ingredients for a good restaurant visit [glace meaning ice cream, by the way]:
This was a quick little study, and very funny at the time! I especially like the combination of steak and paintings. We brought our American selves to France repeatedly, trying to absorb the details of life there. We succeeded better as tourists, perhaps, and as wishful thinkers, in blending in, more than we did when we actually lived there. And so ... we do wonder why that is. I read an interesting article by Michael Kimmelman in the April 27th New York Times; it is called "Local Heroes, Far from Home." It is really a very strong, though short, critical essay. Kimmelman begins with the idea that "good" art "retains meanings specific to a certain time and place." Hopper's dark interiors and bleak city corners can, "to New Yorkers who know them intimately, ... evoke... a singular beauty and dignity amplified by, and grounded in real, lived experience" that other viewers, from other places,  might not feel. He gives the example of Heinrich Zille, a painter who "focused on places and qualities rooted in Berliners' particular self-image," and says that we might be too likely to dismiss his work because his experiences are not ours. And finally, he attends a show at the Prado Museum in Madrid where Velazquez's "Las Meninas" is toe-to-toe with Sargent's painting of Edward Darley Boit's daughters (Americans in their new, posh Parisian apartment). He tells us that Americans see the "modern outsiders" in these Sargent portraits; the ideas we have about "new money and social ambition" make us more likely to identify with Sargent's (portrayal of? or Sargent's own?)  "outsider's striving." This is a pretty bold claim. As I read it, he is suggesting that Americans who view the exhibition would feel Sargent the equal of Velazquez ... although, he implies, Velazquez is, in some objective way, a far better painter. And most critics would readily agree. For the record, Charley goes for the Sargent.

But it is an interesting idea, this one that art may not be so universal. I am finding that I don't want to agree. I want to believe that, like dance, visual art makes its impact without the use of language, so that nothing gets lost in translation.  But then, perhaps, Kimmelman's point might explain at least some people's experience -- like ours -- that the wealth of experiences that we store up as inhabitants of one country leave us rather unprepared to (truly, without ambiguity or second-guessing) take on those of a new place.  Gertrude Stein managed it; she always said that everyone has two countries, the one they come from and the one where they belong. America is my country, she said, but Paris is my hometown. Perhaps, when we only come halfway to that feeling, it isn't enough.

So, artistically, then, given the idea of the (preferable? more flexible?) blank slate: I am working now on a 24" square painting that has undergone two or three major changes already; I finally gave up on the original ideas and painted white over the whole. Now it is sanded down and waiting for the next re-vision:
I am now working on it... and will post the next version...

But I can't resist one more blue... Picasso's and Motherwell's apparent favorite blue, from the famous cigarette package, that I found on a street-corner:

Saturday, May 8, 2010


Back when we lived in Upstate New York, we had a group of writer-friends over one night for dinner. The house had all these huge, rather noisy paintings of mine all over its walls, and one of the guests stood for a long time in front of one of them.  He said, "It must be nice to paint. You can just hang the work up and that way everyone can see it and once people see it, it's done.  It's just there. When I write, it can take months or years before anyone will ever read it. I never know, even after people buy my books, what they think. I never hear from them; I never know."

I don't think I had ever, until that night, thought about it that way... that the viewer completes the circle. I guess I didn't think of just one or two viewers as meaning the work was then "done," but in a sense, it is.  Picasso used to say that it was so difficult to "stop" painting a painting... he claimed that it would be impossible to say that any given work was truly finished. I stop painting when both Charley and I like the picture. So, I guess, in that sense, it is "done."

Maybe that's what Wallace Stevens meant:

After the final no there comes a yes
And on that yes the future world depends....
If the rejected things, the things denied,
Slid over the western cataract, yet, one,
One only, one thing that was firm....
One thing remaining, infallible, would be
Out of a thing believed, a thing affirmed...
                             from "The Well-Dressed Man with a Beard"

Just one "yes" to a painting (or, okay, in our house that would be two) or a poem or a short story, just one, one listener or viewer is enough... more is better, of course, but one is a start. That something can go from a thing "believed" by one person to a thing "affirmed" by another: this is wonderful. Of course I should mention that Stevens ends the poem with the rather more complicating line: "It can never be satisfied, the mind, never."  Whose mind? The artist's? The audience's? Anyone's? Perhaps he means fully satisfied in some way... that once one painting or poem is "done," the next lines up to be painted or written and then judged... For some reason, though, I find this poem really lovely, and oddly positive.
In honor of Wallace Stevens, who was also an insurance executive in Hartford, here is a Connecticut barn (formerly used to dry tobacco) in the morning sunlight of a September day.

Friday, May 7, 2010

blues revisited... and once more, with peony

I forgot one of the best "blues" painters I know... Claude Monet. I was reminded because the New York Times has a review today of the Gagosian Gallery's show "Claude Monet: Late Work" (at 522 West 21st Street, in Chelsea, through June 26). The reviewer, Holland Cotter, writes "The fact is that everything of essential importance that happens in the world happens in miniature in a garden in some form. To know this is to be absorbed into the botanical drama. Monet was absorbed, and he tried to simulate that drama in art" (p. C22, today). Exactly. Here is a blue or two from Monet to absorb:
This may not be in the Gagosian show; this is a detail from a painting called "Nympheas" from 1914-17. It measures 63 x 78 3/4" and is in the collection of the Portland Art Museum. Then, here's another, different blue:
This is called "Wisteria (Glycines)" from about 1919-20, and is from the collection of the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College. While neither of these may be in the current New York show, they are similar to the works pictured from that show... particularly the emphatic blue.

Another critic wrote that Monet's work "far from being passive, requires an unusual power of generalization, of abstraction ... Monet declares: here is nature, not as you or I habitually see it, but as you are able to see it, not in this or that particular effect but in others like it. The vision I propose to you is superior; my painting will change your reality" (quote from Michel Butor, 1962).  Wow. That's a lot for a critic to claim on behalf of a painter... but if you have ever stood in front of one of Monet's large (blue!) panels of waterlilies, I think you would have to agree. It does change the way you see.

And now, back to the garden, and the peonies that came into the house two days ago. They are still spectacular, but now increasingly part of what Holland Cotter would call that "botanical drama." They are opening up and at this vulnerable, beautiful point, they are dying:

Thursday, May 6, 2010

sitting down and mixing paint, or, throwing paint... or making lists

So, I re-read a journal from four years ago, written just a few months into our French residence. It is clear that I was writing in order to reassure myself. I used to paint a lot at our [very typical] long wooden French farmhouse table.  And the paintings were smaller than I was used to, so I did far more detail work, and more preliminary sketches, and made slower progress, than I did with my usual big-brush or throw-paint-at the-canvas style, and I was trying to tell myself that small was okay, for awhile. But I don't think I was very effective at listening to (or maybe even giving) myself advice, because I can say now that I was not painting enough in France. 

But here, in California, I am finding that small work can sometimes be a good change. And sometimes table-sized, more concentrated work is calming. And I can admit that I have done small-brush work on small areas of paintings (at my plastic, not French, non-farmhouse table) twice this week.  But I do have to add that the fact that I can throw or drip paint, or use big brushes, or nail big wooden painting supports to the wall, or that I can change entirely and print, all help me feel as if I can do anything. This is a feeling I lost track of in France.

Instead, in France, worried that I would lose track of something, or miss something, I made a lot of lists. Here are a few that I picked at random out of the same journal:

-our car is 137 cm "long" [really?]
-Francis Bacon had it backwards: the field shimmers & the figure rests --- do that
-the name and number of our British estate agent, so we could ask her to dinner [we never did]
-names of our banker [she spoke English] and our chimney cleaner [he did not]
-the place where you can sign up for a gourmet mushroom weekend
-the stereo is coming 10/26
-pansies flower from Sept-May
-interrepteur= switch  dimmer=baisser
-the bathroom sink space = 45" wide and 26 1/2" deep [note that this was a non-metric measurement]
-the song I heard was "This Modern Love' by Bloc Party
-pelouse= the lawn  tendeuse=lawnmower  tondre=to mow [it took 3 hours to mow our lawn]
-LeMans to Tours = 85 kms.
-print copies of the photos and then incorporate them into the art -- how? poplars?
-the hours of the [recycling area/dump] decheter -- closed Fridays and Sundays
-the hours of the British and American pharmacy in Paris
-Charley roasted chestnuts from our field yesterday
-Corot: "sheer fidelity to landscape" (Monet book)
-why is the restaurant Au Pere Tranquille?
-little hills with farm cottage
-dates for December
-22 [Euro] cents per min. under current system to call U.S.
-flowers from car dealer/fog
-list of doctors/Xmas Messe/sapins de Noel
-outside porch light
-kids' poster
-Italian monument
-"Soiree Beaujolais" at our cafe: samedi a partir de 20h.
-walk--bad luck chez nous--car ins.--cow died

I don't make big lists now; but I still make little ones, almost as often as I now paint "small." But somehow, I feel like I have more possibilities, the world is more open to me. I don't know why that is, but I'll take it. 

(above:  an early morning, all is possible, and a hotel window, along the California coast)                                           

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

"C'est comme tu veux, toi." (Literally, "it's as you wish, you" ... the second 'you' gets added for emphasis in French, quite often)

Back in mid-April, I was convinced that I had finished this painting, called "Lucien, Leigh and Jasper," and posted a photo (on April 21st) of it as completed.... and it looked like this:

I brought it into the house and we lived with it for awhile, and I kept thinking that something was wrong. The painting wanted to be worked on, clearly. That's why the post is titled (in the French term) "it's as you wish," because the painting is creating its own desired form (I think) and then letting me know I am definitely not "done."

As I kept looking at the painting,  I saw that there was no obvious "outdoors," exactly, which had been a major part of the point when I started. I needed a "garden" and, last night, I dreamed about peonies. Today at the store, the small bouquet of peonies for sale was so beautiful that I bought it and brought it home.  The flower and its loose petals and bright white color is just amazing to me; I saw my first peony just a few years ago (in a Chinese painting, and so I found photos and then started to see peonies occasionally, in the fancier florist's shops).  So I took my own photos of the bouquet -- the first peonies I have ever bought! -- and now they are part of the painting. This may not mean I am finished, yet (I am learning) but it feels more complete.  Here is the latest version:
So now, "Lucien, Leigh and Jasper" has returned to the living room; if it is happy, it will remain silent... we shall see.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

"wherever you go, there you are... " (Yogi Berra, I think)

Except when you're not. There were days during our life in France, after we had bought the house, after we had bought firewood and pansies and lamps and French lessons, when I didn't feel as if I were truly "there." Or anywhere. Being French seemed so elusive, and if I couldn't be French, if I couldn't be a part of things, who was I, exactly?  Who were we? What had we based all that heady anticipation upon? A good friend of ours told us that it might take us a very long time to know why France just didn't feel right to us. And so, as I look back at photos of travel and tickets and landscapes we loved, I still wonder:
There's Biarritz, there's a trip to see Georges Braque's grave, the Luxembourg Gardens chairs, LUAS tickets from Dublin,  tickets from Barcelona and Lyon and a photo from our final European trip as a family of 4, to Rome and the Pantheon. It is who we were, who we are, we travel, we move, but now, in the Western parts of the U.S., when we move, it seems to me that we bring everything we are with us... more often. 

I found a poem by Amiri Baraka today... it is called "Numbers and Letters," and while pieces of it are not who we are, who I am (he writes, mid-way through the poem, "I'm Everett LeRoi Jones, 30 years old"), pieces of the poem seem to say, whatever it is, if you need it, if you look for it, you will find it. Baraka speaks to his audience in a familiar way... but urgently, "listen, listen," he calls:

If you're not home, where
are you? Where'd you go? What
were you doing when gone? When
you come back, better make it good.
           .... Say what you mean, dig
it out put it down, and be strong about it.

I can't say who I am
unless you agree I'm real.

I can't be anything I'm not
Except these words pretend
to life not yet explained,
so here's some feeling for you
see how you like it, what it
reveals, and that's Me.
I am a meditative man, And when I say something it's all of me
saying, and all the things that make me, have formed me, colored me
this brilliant reddish night....
this is a messenger calling, over here, over here, open your eyes
and your ears and your souls; today is the history we must learn
to desire. There is no guilt in love.
                                 ---excerpted from "Number, Letters"
                                    from Transbluesency: Selected Poems 1961-1995
                                    by Amiri Baraka

So, we bring love and colors and poems and a few boxes of seashells and books to California...  and we try for "some feeling" and to learn "today is the history" that we want, that we make.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Freud, Rome, and a bad painting

Early on, in Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud is in the middle of an explanation ... "originally, the ego includes everything, later it separates off an external world from itself. Our present ego-feeling is, therefore, only a shrunken residue of a much more inclusive -- indeed, an all-embracing -- feeling which corresponded to a more intimate bond between the ego and the world about it."  He then assumes that, in at least some people, the earlier form of ego can co-exist with this mature ego, "side by side."

Freud tries to find a metaphor for this side-by-side possibility and finds... Rome. He says that it is still possible to find "the wall of Aurelian almost unchanged" along with other early remnants, and these intact or ruined forms are "dovetailed into the jumble of a great metropolis." And it's true; walking in Rome, we stumble across old stones and new cement, ancient and new graffitti...This could stand for a model of the way a mind works... but then he gives it up as a metaphor (unfortunately, because even though it doesn't really work, it such a cool idea) because "the same space cannot have two different contents." Freud admits that "On the Piazza of the Pantheon we should find not only the Pantheon of to-day, as it was bequeathed to us by Hadrian, but, on the same site, the original edifice erected by Agrippa; indeed, the same piece of ground would be supporting the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva and the ancient temple over which it was built." He gives up on the metaphor, but not the idea: he says "it is rather the rule than the exception for the past to be preserved in mental life." So he can get going with the rest of the book... (the edition I used was translated by James Strachey,  New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1961 and 1989).  This book is a wonderful exploration...

As it is with Rome and the mind, so it is with paintings, I am arguing.  Maybe paintings, from the start, come with an ego that wants to survive at all costs, even outlasting maturity. I had a painting, a bad one, that I had worked on over months. I had an initial idea; it sounded great, and the first "draft" of the painting held together nicely. But then I tried to improve it, and the picture didn't want to go there.  It was 24" square, and it just sat there. I have a few tricks that I can use... and none of them worked. So I decided to do an archeological dig on the painting. I sanded it. I got down, in some places, to the earliest, hopeful layer. In other places, colors showed up in new combinations. I am now hopeful that the Roman metaphor can work for me: ruins, old foundations, crumbled paint, and new paint, all "dovetailed." Here is a corner of the painting, progressing, I think, well:

Sunday, May 2, 2010

the role of the color white... not just a primer for the canvas...

In the Geffen Contemporary, part of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (a.k.a. MOCA, located in a former firehouse; we went with our son and his girlfriend), there are very new works up against a few older pieces. The curators have included remarks by the artists next to the pieces, which is really helpful: it lets you know what the artist's view might be, and helps you see a little bit into the painting process. Next to his painting with white and globs and scribbles and script and slashes, and a checkerboard, the curators chose this as Cy Twombly's quote: "I like white... It's not closed. And I think psychologically it's like there's no beginning or end. Then the painting doesn't have a center -- it comes in one side and goes out the other." Twombly is probably best known for his huge canvases with lots of white space, and a few well-chosen markings (someone said that these are modeled on the graffitti -- or perhaps the inevitable marks of time and lovers -- scratched into the columns and facades of Italian buildings). He has owned homes in Rome and further south in Italy and returned frequently to his home in Lexington, Virginia, as of the last interview I read. I think his work is filled with light, whether it's Virginian or Roman or Napolitano... Here is a rather typical work by Cy Twombly,  "Untitled," from 1964 and 1984 (oil, pencil, and crayon on canvas, over 6 x 8 feet):
Some people don't much care for what they call Twombly's "doodles." But I think there is real energy here, and lots of bright, open space. I talked to an artist once who said that she thought of white and black as filler, non-essential, round-the-edges kind of colors. White, because it's so opaque, gets bad press, except from people who see it as Twombly does, as more related to a flash of lightning than to a light-blocking curtain. I think white and black are colors in their own right.  Maybe we don't see them in nature all that often, as pure colors, but maybe that alone is a reason to appreciate them.  Then, too, with a little alertness to black and white, the painting moves, because, as Twombly said, "it doesn't have a center."

Saturday, May 1, 2010

pattern and (inexact) repetition

Sometimes I take a photograph that I really like... and I try to figure out its patterns. It wants to be a painting, I know... so what's there, what's not, what is it trying to tell me? Here's a photo I took, in the full morning sunlight, in a hotel room, and the shadows and reflections are very strong:
 Here is a first quick -- only a few inches -- sketch; I decided that this photograph doesn't want lines; it wants paint:
So, this could be a small painting or a print... it needs a shot of bright light through its center.

So, changing now away from the photograph...  thinking about artworks that create their own patterns deserving scrutiny: here's one that just showed up in a few inches of the corner of a painting, while I was busy adding and removing colors, and it arrived and is utterly adamant about staying:
Or, below, a pattern has re-asserted itself--it just came and stayed, and found itself in several paintings as something of a star.  I found the idea of the white square comforting for awhile, and the square showed up over several large (2 x 4') paintings... until I was ready to move on. Only, recently, I found myself sketching that square, again... I think it wants a new life, maybe on a smaller scale:
So, that's the plan: a painting of the light and shadow on glass and wall, and then a re-working of the white square, finding new life, as a monotype.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

the mind apprehends things in patterns, I told myself

back in a journal from December 2003, when we were in Upstate New York. So how to deal with that?  I had been reading Gertrude Stein, who wrote, in A Geographical History of America, that "in a real master-piece there is no thought .... in a master-piece you cannot be right." It can't be self-conscious, or worried --  so how to start? Where to start? I put together a sketch from pieces of a French landscape that had been bouncing around in my mind:
I had also been reading Twyla Tharp's book The Creative Habit, where she lists her five "big fears"; (the following block is all quotes from Tharp):
1. People will laugh at me.
2. Someone has done it before.
3. I have nothing to say.
4. I will upset someone I love.
5. Once executed, the idea will never be as good as it is in my mind. (p.22)

Her answers to those fears:
1. Not the people I respect.
2. Honey, it's all been done before. Get over yourself. 
3. An irrelevant fear... if the dancers don't walk out on you, chances are the audience won't, either.
4. You never know.... the best you can do is remind yourself that you're a good person with good intentions. 
5. Alberti said 'Errors accumulate in the sketch and compound in the model! But better an imperfect dome in Florence than cathedrals in the clouds'  (pp. 22-3)

So there is no room for fraidy-cats.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

"some conflict between two improbable elements," to quote Walter Murch

The two elements: snails and wet paint. We once had a French friend, very clever, who gave me a snail platter and said that he knew that we were not likely to eat snails, but perhaps I would like the little platter (intended to serve just enough snails for one person's entree) to use as a pallette.  I thanked him and put the plate away and only found it recently, and placed it, mostly as a gesture, in my studio. That was before I decided that my Nice beach rocks (see entry below) all had to be painted in subtle variations of gray and brown; I was going to have to mix the most difficult colors. I was going to be able to use my snail platter. I started to mix blues and yellows and whites and browns and blacks -- and got -- rocks!
At least the first version... they may shift and change... but now I know how I'll get them there. Here they are as of the end of the day today:
So, to continue to play a little more, the quote that forms the header for this post -- the "conflict" -- extends further than snails and wet paint. Our son sent us this link today .  It is a part of a lecture by the sound designer Walter Murch about the link between the origins of cinema and -- Beethoven, Flaubert and Edison. He says, to paraphrase him quite a bit (I highly recommend the original!) that Haydn and Mozart wrote music that was "architectural" and worked to "examine [patterns]... in all their detail." Most importantly, for Murch's point, "once you started a pattern [in music] you did not break it." But then Beethoven comes along, and he is not nearly as interested in architecture as he is in nature. He would "go for long walks and he would look at the clouds.... and then he would capture that nature and force it into his music."  He would allow one sound to be interrupted by another, and Murch says that as we hear Beethoven, we are really "hearing the grammar of cinema: the idea of the cut, the idea of the fade, the idea of the dissolve, the idea of parallel action, the idea of the long shot..."  And that's when he says that "some conflict between two improbable elements" is the "business" of cinema. Brilliant!

So, as I listened to Murch, I got more and more excited, because of course the same thing is happening in painting, over time, that the preoccupation with perspective and the continuous line and the single viewer shifts radically, first with Turner and then, much later, the Impressionists.... in an attempt to show the audience how it feels to see the sunlight reflecting off a church window at different times of the day... yes... it's the same thing... the lines are broken, and the rules along with them.

But Murch isn't finished! He begins to talk about Flaubert and writers and painters who are "fascinated wiht the impact of realism."  Several pages of Madame Bovary go by and "nothing happens," except "the dynamic representation of closely-observed reality." And then Murch moves to Edison... which is where I leave him.

(But) I am still thinking about the train of thought he has begun...And then I look back at Manet's beautiful still-lifes (these pictures are not shown much, and they should be!) and moving, then, to my mind's eye images of Cezanne's mountain and Picasso and Braque's cubist experiments. Think about the "conflict between" that we can see in their work. And we can suddenly see how this dynamism of cinema, for example "the idea of the cut... the idea of parallel action" turned into seeing all sides of a vase, a face, a table with a pitcher. And I think that this is what I still try to do... to try very hard to observe reality, without the enforced use of perspective or trompe l'oeil, without tricks, but with interruptions, changing patterns, split screens, as it were, because that's how we experience life, in a kind of rush, and then we stop and look at something, and then we move again.... This is what I hope that I have done here, in a painting of the way the light floods into our living room, called "Light All the Way Down to the Ground":

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

expectations: tender buttons and rocks washed by the sea

"If the centre has the place then there is distribution. That is natural. There is contradiction and naturally returning there comes to be both sides and the centre. That can be seen from the description."
                                                 -Gertrude Stein, from "Rooms,"
                                                 in Tender Buttons

I love Stein's work. This is one of her best-known books, difficult as it is, but critics almost never talk about this third section of the book. They prefer the first section, "Objects," which has rather lively and unlikely contradictions (such as, "If lilies are lily white if they exhaust noise and distance and even dust...").  But "Rooms" has its own peculiar attractions... if you like literary play and puzzles... and I do. I like the way the little quote above about "the centre" is almost like a stage-set, or a bit of choreography, making words do things they aren't used to doing: opening up, talking, perhaps, about people's response to stages and space and centres. This, to me, seems to be about stillness and movement, and perhaps about thwarted expectations... she tells us that both "distribution" and "contradiction" can be seen as "natural" and "naturally returning" and that we can see this... if we just look. And how does she end this final section of the book... and thus the book... she writes:

"The care with which the rain is wrong and the green is wrong and the white is wrong, the care with which there is a chair and plenty of breathing. The care with which there is incredible justice and likeness, all this makes a magnificent asparagus, and also a fountain."
                                                             -Stein, from "Rooms," TB
I love the poetry in this, the repetitions, the flow of the words, the soothing rhythms.  Even if you think it doesn't work, she seems to be saying, even if it feels a bit "wrong" to you, the movements you have been watching and reading about here... or on any stage, perhaps, were created with "care." And you will find, if you look, something called "incredible justice." What is that? I'm not sure, but I'd like to find it, too. And last night we did have "magnificent asparagus" for dinner, thanks for noticing. Stein was a happy person. And these final 2 sentences from this section are definitively happy.

Stein makes me wonder, in a good way. And I have been thinking about her a lot as I have been working on, and looking carefully at, my newest large painting (Charley calls this new one "ambitious").  The larger part of this new painting is going to be an abstracted view of the beach at Nice.  I had heard about the French Riviera for a long time before I saw it.  I once read a story about Grace Kelly's wedding party in Monaco; Cary Grant backed into David Niven's car and said "Awfully sorry, old chap." As I remember it, anyway, and so I thought the whole coast from Spain to France to Monaco and Italy was, as my daughter laughingly said, "paved with gold." And so it was quite a shock when I realized that the beach at Nice was actually paved with... rocks. Big rocks, little rocks, a bit of gravel, here and there a bit of dark black dirt. Here is my photo:

I was really surprised. Some people had mats, or chairs, but others just... sat. Rocks! They were rather smooth. There was no tide. There were rocks and a bar that we could swim to, if we wanted. I got past the strangeness. And I guess that's why I was thinking of Gertude Stein and the rocks at Nice.  If you sit and look long enough,  it doesn't seem 'wrong" anymore and "there is...plenty of breathing."

So I have been working on this new painting, partly about Nice and its rocks, and so I scattered, for fun, a few rocks picked up at beaches from France to New England, for Gertrude Stein:

Monday, April 26, 2010

tools and palm trees

This palm tree, planted in this pot just a year ago, is thriving, as if it had, in that time, created a small stage for itself. In Upstate New York, there weren't any (real) palm trees, but here, in California, they live everywhere: along congested highways, in vacant lots, along what was once a grand avenue where there once was a grand house.  In movies, characters casually drive through lovely neighborhoods with rows of tall palm trees on each side. Always there. Palm trees don't seem to want anything.

I always wanted "things"; I still do, even though I am trying to get better!  I used to look at the photos of famous painters in their studios and for years I wasn't envious of the sliding barn doors or the big metal tables or the wealth of rolled canvas. I used to look at the brushes.  I remember an article that pictured Jasper Johns next to several coffee cans filled with bright, white, shiny-bristled, apparently un-used brushes. It made me wonder--- where were the workhorse brushes? The favorites? Like these two of mine, which I wash and clean all the time, I swear:
Where were the brushes Johns used the day before, and the day before that?

I have a few sturdy brushes, but I am always looking for supplemental brushes that will last. I bought an inexpensive brush the other day, to try something with an angle. I have been painting 21 years and I had never tried this style:
This brush was terrific! It managed peculiar little crevices and different amounts of paint easily. And I realize, now that I look at it, that it is really just a small version of a house-painter's brush.  Some of my best brushes come from hardware stores.... and now I have new possibilities, the next time I want to feel like Jasper Johns.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

a little bit of blue

We watched "Avatar" last night with our granddaughter. Really fun! Pretty early on, it's clear that our hero will have to make some tough choices. And, pretty early on, it's clear that, as my husband says, the worlds he has to choose between are as distinct as black and white. But it wasn't the colors of black, white, or even the shades of gray that I was thinking about after the movie ended. I dreamed about blue. Blue, in the movie, was the color of the Navi, "the people" (also, as my husband says, the name that Navajos and many Native Americans gave their tribes), the people whose world may disappear in the rush past the anthropological study -- a rush to attain the amusingly-named and apparently very lucrative "unobtainium." Blue may have been chosen, as the interviews and reviews suggest, because green was taken... but I think it's deeper than that.

If we see, as I think we can, that the source may be in art, then the obvious suspect, Picasso's blue (his Blue Period) doesn't really help us. Most people argue that despite the advances in this series, Picasso's blue men and women are frightened, sad, lonely, very nearly dying. The Rose period, when the Saltimbanques come in and brighten up the place (to an extent, anyway) is still around the corner. Besides, Picasso is the line guy. The color guy, the guy you want to go to, is Henri Matisse. In 1992, MOMA in New York City held a retrospective of Matisse's work. (We were able to go courtesy of our friend Maryann). I loved that show. I came home and began to fill in a series of problematic paintings -- I had no idea where to go with them -- with the one certain thing I came away with: Matisse blue. Now, you need to know that it didn't really work, as a kind of all-purpose solution. I did have to toss several of those paintings. But I did come away with a sense that, used carefully, that color was compelling. Here is his blue, from a photo I took of one small corner of a painting:
Fabulous, right? Who can argue with that? And I have to say that I still do go to this blue (or as close as I can) when I want beauty, repose, calm... Here is a detail (a couple of square inches, from one of my recent 2 x 4' paintings) as proof:
It is likely it wasn't fully conscious --- at least, not as far as I know --- but when James Cameron came to adjust the final tints on his Navi people, he chose this blue, a blue that calms, the blue of the Mediterranean, the blue of the not-city, the blue of vacations and rest. The photo below is a close-up (of skin from an online movie review that included a shot) of one of the (blue) people:
This blue is delicate, touchable, "a mate for life," to use the movie's terminology.  There are many, many action shots in the movie, complete with truly ugly war machines. But it is the blue people walking through the lush forests and riding their strange flying creatures and that one shot of a baby being carried by its mother that stay with the audience... at least, with me. Blue. Nice touch. And pretty irresistible: I found this random sketch in my journal, a sketch of a (North African?) tile:
Blue. Not the blues. Just blue.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

a look back at a (handwritten) journal from a summer's day in France 8/5/97

[We got up in our gite near Belley (Gertude Stein's nearest big city) and decided to drive to Italy via the "Tunnel Alpin du Frejus"]. At 2:00, Charley saw a sign for a restaurant-pizzeria in a small town called Pinerolo. The town was absolutely shut down, otherwise, but the restaurant said they would serve us. They gave the kids sodas in big beer glasses; we all had pasta: ragu or pesto or carbonara. It was really good. Kate set off the emergency alarm when she was washing her hands... Jim said "incidente" to the waiter and they laughed. We got gelato and then walked around as the town opened back up. Jim got a motorcycle and Kate got five dogs. We then decided to drive over the Alps on the way back. Charley has gotten his mountain forearms back. We went through a whole series of hairpin turns. We saw a flock of sheep which Charley says looked to him like a huge cluster of starlings or a cloud of insects, so many that they became one "thing," an organism. They crossed over the road in front of us and everyone, in both directions on a big curve, in full view of a glacier, had to stop. It was so gorgeous. The trip took hours. It really isn't describable, how we felt. We saw cows and calves and horses way up in the Alps. We saw fast-running skinny white waterfalls come down a whole mountain and we saw the muddy rivers at the bottom. We drove up the Alpe d'Huez and took photos of the writing on the road (left over from the Tour de France): KISS, PANTANI!! There were 22 switchbacks. The bar in town had photos of Vasseur, Virenque, Pantani, and even Greg Lemond, but no Riis, no Ullrich, no Cippolini. We drove towards Grenoble, as it was getting late. At 9:00, we finally found a restaurant, brightly lit and warm and bright. We had Beaujolais-Villages and salad and steak-frites.
Two poodles jumped on the kids... the chef-owner and his wife came out and began talking to us. They introduced us to the other couple, who turned out to be the town's mayor [very important person!!] and his wife. We talked about the Alps and then we talked about potatoes. Eventually, the mayor and his wife said their goodbyes and left, the dishes were cleared [this was a two-person restaurant, so the owner and his wife would talk, scoop up dishes, come back, talk, shake out a tablecloth]. We talked for awhile longer and then drove off home. [These are my notes on the chef's definitive words on proper preparation of each type of potato gratin, which he says can be so easily misunderstood]:

Friday, April 23, 2010

artist's statement....

I decided to re-work my artist's statement. Here it is:
Sometimes I begin a painting with a remembered image – a vineyard near Sonoma, for instance. But the image does not remain carefully outlined and static. As we stand in a landscape, or walk through it, the scene changes: light shimmers, the direction of our gaze shifts, we move, clouds move, the wind blows the mustard flowers. The focal point, the light, the color, the forms all change. Even paintings that began with an imagined setting, such as “Dreaming of A Studio in Tunisia,” demonstrate these same changes, along with uncertainty and desire. Remembering and imagining involve both what is lost and what can be recovered.
This is one of my recent monotypes that we framed, "Light Returns to Melleran."  It is based on my memory of people gathering in the small villages after the big storm of December 1999 (see the journal entry, below).  I love the deep colors of the etching inks... they reward looking, walking away, looking back.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Ingres and Picasso....looking outward

I am in for the night. I stored some of my monotypes that were drying on the wall, and will decide later which ones (if any!)  I should frame. I started a new painting in the style of my Lucian-Leigh-Jasper painting (see yesterday's post, below) based on The Turkish Bath by Ingres. Some people see this as one of the inspirations for Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon. Seems pretty likely! Only one of Ingres's women is actually (languidly) looking at us, however, and Picasso's women all pointedly stare:

Below is The Turkish Bath by Ingres:
 And below is my take on Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon:

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Here are two new paintings.

The upper painting is a 2 x 4 foot re-imagining of our East Coast/West Coast lives; the left side is a calm Connecticut Inn's riverbank, with an Ingres odalisque looking back, and the right is the stirred-up foam of the Carmel-By-The Sea ocean. It is called "The Lieutenant River (Connecticut) and The Coast at Carmel (California)." This is the painting I was fixing yesterday (see below). The second, lower image (which looks bigger, but is actually 16 x 20"!!) takes off from a Lucian Freud painting of Leigh Bowery, with a touch of Jasper Johns on the side. I was trying to take Leigh out into the countryside, instead of having him posing in a corner of a London studio. It is called "Lucian, Leigh and Jasper." [It has been changed... see my portfolio of paintings for work completed in September 2011].

A painting problem

I brought my newest painting into the house to look at it for a couple of days. It ended up being over a week, as my cold made it impossible to paint... but I took notes on the 4 square inches or so that were not working (above photo). Then, today, I went into the studio and worked on the weak spot. Below is a photo of the solution.