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.

a look back at a (handwritten) journal from the first stay in France: Poitou-Charente 12/28-12/30/99

On 12/28, Tuesday, we found out from the BBC via our shortwave radio that this is "the worst storm in living memory" in France, with winds up to 200/km per hour, and up to 9 million people without power. We walked around our hamlet (6 houses and a bread oven) and then ventured out to the bigger roads... they were blocked by trees utterly uprooted. By French law, the owner of the tree is responsible for clearing the road, and there were many people who couldn't even begin to move their trees. So everyone began to pitch in with saws and axes and hauling... our kids had first to go and see a little newborn lamb, and then they pitched in and got serious about a large tree limb. We did all that we could without a chainsaw, and then our neighbor (and friend and landlord) said, "it's time for an apertif." We had a drink and then lunch, and a nap, and then went the long way around to search out candles. The third place we tried still had candles, so we bought some for us and our landlords, and got the few groceries we needed. We found a fax place and a "conjugaison" book for Jim's classes (see note above). Charley is teaching Kate to make biscuits and Jim to make turkey risotto. On 12/29, we took a longer drive, looking for more "bougies" (candles). We drove and drove. We bought two loaves of bread from a boulanger who bakes over a wood fire. In some places, we saw no signs of a storm, but in others, it was horrible. The winds created the same damage as a tornado: beautiful parks and riverbanks destroyed, whole crops of trees, intended to be harvested across a lifetime, gone overnight. Limoges was lively and bright, and we stopped in a brasserie (duck confit, sandwiches and a gisier/gizzard salad) and in a bookstore for French/English facing translation books. The journal entry below confirms that we only spent money on absolute essentials!

On 12/30 we woke up; still no lights. The fog was so heavy and the wind still so strong that as we drove to the bakery, we scared entire flocks of birds that had not seen us until the last minute. The lights came back on for us at 5:30 p.m. We heard the television news: places as far away as Anger and Saumur and Paris were still flooded... pigs and cows were drowned... other places in France were still out of power. Older people, isolated and alone, were growing depressed. People need to hear voices, to see people. We took a walk... we scared up some pheasants. Met a walking couple and learned a new phrase: Ne t'inquiete pas, il sera parfait. ((Don't worry, it will all be perfect). We read Rudyard Kipling aloud... at bedtime..."Stalky & Co." These are terrific stories about a schoolboy. [Reading aloud in France was one of our rituals, and calmed everyone down before we all slept].

A look back at the (handwritten) journal from the first 8-month stay in France: Poitou-Charente 12/27/99

Mid-afternoon, and the lights began to flicker & flicker more and then die entirely. So we lit our candles. It was raining and windy, and it seemed as though we had probably lost everything for a long time, so we settled in. We had all brought work to the long farm table by the window. The heat worked, we had a stove and an oven, and we had hot water. We made wine bottles into candle-holders and got about four of those going. Charley decided it might be too difficult to try for risotto, so he made an omelet instead, with sauteed onions, potatoes, and carrots. We tried the grocery store's own mint ice cream with chocolate chips, and it was good! We played a long game of hearts with the kids, and it grew windier. We went to bed at about 8:30, but could not sleep. The wind grew steadily louder. The roof held.