St John’s College
The Mitchell Gallery
Exhibition lecture by curator Matt Klos will be given on February 17th at 5:30pm and there will be a panel discussion with some of the artists on February 22nd at 3pm. All are welcome
Opening Reception on January 25th from 3:30-5pm
This exhibition is curated by Matt Klos, Associate Professor, Anne Arundel Community College, with assistance from Lucinda Edinberg.
Matt Klos is a member of the Perceptual Painters group and has been interviewed on Painting Perceptions.
Edwin Dickinson (1891–1978) once said, “The more I’m influenced, the more original I get.” Painters often learn first by looking at other painters; however, a perceptual approach to painting is not based purely on rote observation but rather the subjectivity and interpretation of sight. Painters also learn through the passing down of knowledge from one artist to another. Many perceptual painters of the early 20th century and later worked closely together, either as student-and-teacher or as colleagues, influencing each other’s work and artistic process. The Mitchell Gallery exhibition “A Lineage of American Perceptual Painters” focuses on the relationship between artists; in particular, Charles Hawthorne (1872–1930) and his student Edwin Dickinson, and the line of painters that were influenced by Dickinson.
This exhibition includes works that reveal concise connections between the artists involved as well as works that may not directly relate. For example, Dickinson’s and Welsh painter Gwen John’s work both hold a special regard for touch. In John’s paintings, fragmented touches were scumbled or dabbed, building to a gauzy wholeness, whereas in Dickinson’s paintings, vigorous globular daubs, slashes, and slabs were often scraped away and fused at the edges to create a misty wholeness. And each artist’s influence is filtered down into works such as Neil Riley’s Late Winter Aspens. The painting is divided between a deep warm gray mixture and a light blue swath of snow. Many areas of the surface reveal the tone of the underlying painting board or are covered with only a thin veneer of paint. Other areas of the surface are covered thickly with fat pads of paint which lay, unmodulated, on the surface accentuating a flicker of light on a snow mound or a patch of sky unobscured by an aspen’s branches. Broken linear slashes are dragged into the wet paint suggesting both fallen limbs and snow covered ground between trunks. John’s and Dickinson’s disparate senses of touch converge here.
John and Dickinson share a direct engagement of working from life, then diverge; in particular, in terms of different practices, techniques, and responses to what they are observing. As each artist goes through their own way of “figuring it out,” the resultant artwork becomes more than a simple or mannered representation. Each of these artists contends with empirical representation, and through the process of careful looking they build a unique sensation that goes beyond the veneer of representation. These paintings are accumulated moments. Some were made in an afternoon and others were made over the course of many months or years. When engaging with these paintings one can sense both brevity and timelessness. Mark Karnes’s Dining Room into Living Room presents a totality
of the interior scene, and in our revelry we can imagine the undulation of light that occurs in such a room on overcast days.
The painting is complete and whole yet not static or crystalized. Dickinson’s complex studio constructions combine his love of the Venetian Renaissance with modern modes of painting. An Anniversary, a swirling cacophony of still life objects, figures, and furrowed spaces, reveals both a fidelity to painting naturalistically and a romantic dreamlike quality. Like Dickinson’s other epics, this visionary painting combines clearly definable objects and figures in mysterious environments that contain aspects of both interior and exterior. In spite of the naturalism in An Anniversary, and the space that is created in the work, there are elements of flatness, too. The King of Nails by Gideon Bok. In the painting, Bok uses multiple viewpoints and combines them by interlocking each beam of this sprawling frenetic interior. The effect is both rhythmic and closely observed; lending a sense of movement and transience that is amplified by thinly painted apparitions in the space.
In contrast to the expansiveness of Downes and Bok is the pensive inward pull of the portrait Rubin Eshkanian by Lennart Anderson. The geometry of the surface is revealed in punctuating darks and blooms of color: blues, orange, pink, and violet, hedged in by neutral grays. Susan Jane Walp’s Doublemint similarly turns in on itself. The small scale of her work does not diminish, but rather it accentuates the painting’s density. Upon first looks the pattern of the leaves on the bowl, the type on the gum package, and the image of fork tines exert themselves. A slower read, though, shows that these patterns are echoed in other subtle patterns: the deckled edge of the flattened bag and even the organic patterning of the surface these carefully arranged objects are sitting upon. The viewer is entranced and drawn in.
When looking at Edwin Dickinson’s work, it is striking that he painted with such range and that his creativity seems wholly nonjudgmental. He painted with the joy of large color spots and the severity of tightly observed achromatic passages. Sometimes he painted quickly and sometimes slowly over the course of years. Some work was significantly abstract and some highly realistic. Some paintings were dreamlike and poetic while others were mathematical and geometric. When taken on the whole, Dickinson was a painter that seemed more interested in the connections of things (objects, people, landscapes, history, and stories) than in the divisions between them. His art was that of wholeness. Dickinson left a broad creative legacy that has been proved a fertile resource to many painters throughout the 20th century as seen in “A Lineage of American Perceptual Painters.”
This exhibition will be held at Anne Arundel Community College in the Cade Gallery. The exhibition runs from January 26th through February 26th with a curator’s/artist’s talk in the gallery on January 28th at 11am, an artist’s talk by Matthew Ballou at 1pm in Cade 326, and an opening reception that evening from 6-8pm.
Perceptual painters do, in some sense, have a mannered approach to their work. The mannerism is related to their sensing and becoming increasingly aware of the visual character of sensing light, form, color, focus, and space; these are the core subject matter of the perceptual painter. An area of light may become as dense and impenetrable as stone. A solid form may be seen as diaphanous as atmospheric space. These are but two examples of the syncopated intersubjectivity of our senses.
The focus of this exhibition is object studies – perhaps singular, perhaps in tableau – that are aimed not at the slavish presentation of the appearance of objects but rather find their true subject in the scanning, flashing, point-to-point-yet-all-over arrangement of visual and material phenomena. These works move beyond the notational or the schematic to embrace an experiential subjectivity. -Matthew Ballou
This past August I was fortunate to meet with Margaret McCann in her studio in NYC for an interview. My good friend and fellow painter, Matthew Mattingly, joined the conversation with many brilliant observations and comments.
Larry Groff: Thank you, Margaret, for talking with us about your painting, background and the new Skira/Rizzoli book you edited that came out last fall, The Figure What does it entail?
Margaret McCann: The Figure responds to David Hockney’s “Secret Knowledge” to some degree – several artists, among them Judy Fox, F. Scott Hess, Jerry Kerns, Edgar Jerins, Alex Kanevsky, Steve Mumford, Richard Phillips, Rona Pondick, Judith Schaecter and Nicola Verlato openly describe how they use traditional as well as modern techniques like photography, Photoshop, or 3D computer programs. The book focuses on painting and sculpture with some discussion of drawing and printmaking, with amazing artwork by NYAA alumni like Leslie Adams, Ali Banisadr, Amy Bennett, Bryan Drury, Alyssa Monks and Jean-Pierre Roy alongside established artists sharing their views and methods. We were lucky to have the contributions of Steven Assael, Will Cotten, David Ebony, Natalie Frank, Mark Greenwold, Eric Fishchl, Bruce Gagnier, Hilary Harkness, Anne Harris, Trenton Doyle Hancock, F. Scott Hess, Jenny Saville, Irving Sandler, Ted Schmidt, Robert Taplin, Jerome Witkin, Eric White, and many others.
Larry: How did it come about?
Margaret: The New York Academy of Art asked me to project-manage a book Rizzoli was interested in doing about the school. Since it’s an academy that has been supported by both Andy Warhol and Prince Charles, and prides itself on both traditional methods, such as anatomy and indirect painting, and on contemporary discourse, I thought it would be compelling to take the long view and explore how and why the classical academic tradition has impacted the present state of figure-based art. I asked various knowledgeable people (who have in some way been involved in the school, teaching or visiting) to write on figurative topics. To mention a few, Lisa Bartolozzi’s essay on painting techniques shows how incessantly experimental painting has always been; Vincent Desiderio looks deeply into figurative painting’s ”technical narrative”; Alexi Worth’s hypothesizes “the invention of clumsiness” after photography hit the 19th c. painting world; Donald Kuspit describes some of the impact Freud had on the figure; Kurt Kauper explains kitsch and Jule Heffernan “the male gaze”; Laurie Hogin examines the politics of figurative painting; and John Jacobsmeyer and Nicola Verlato each discuss the meanings of spatial organization via perspective, the camera obscura, 3-D modeling, and cyberspace. With the supremacy of the internet today, the role photography and computers play can’t be denied.
The book doesn’t touch much on art springing from the modernist trajectory that reacted against that academic tradition -color-based, expressionist, or perceptual work. In my own paintings there is an emphasis on drawing but they are more modernist in their play between perceptual objectivity and surrealist whim.
Larry: Seeing your work and still life setup here in your studio greatly enhances the interview experience. I’ve long found your paintings fascinating but your work is much better in person, especially in color, surface and scale.
Margaret: It used to look better in slides, but over the years I’ve gotten much better with color and value and they look better “in person”. The images on-line look more cartoonish than they actually are, because texture doesn’t translate well on the web.
Larry: Also the scale; true of most images of paintings you see online. A tiny image becomes the same as a big one. You don’t see the net impact of that much paint in your face.
Margaret: People have said they thought my paintings were larger than they are; probably from how I toy with scale relationships, which is partly inspired by what I’m looking at, like architectural models, which were inspired by living in Rome for eight years among the monuments. Over the years I’ve collected various objects, stored by category. After I finish this still life of wooden objects I can get rid of some. The bizarre ones, or those most interesting to paint, are keepers. That wooden tree from Marshalls still has its price tag, so maybe I’ll return try to it.
Larry: Good plan! So, the store’s return date policy for the object influences how much time you get to work on the still life?
Margaret: I wish; that would be much more efficient than I am. In this composition I’ll probably wind up putting that odd wooden mirror on the bottom, so it will be both a still life and function as one of my “headworks” series, like Carmen Miranda Still Life (2009).
Larry: I see what you mean; I now see the self-portrait underneath.
Matthew Mattingly: Do you work the composition and drawing out on canvas, or from sketches?
Margaret: I rarely make more than idea sketches, but do draw it out in pencil on canvas first when working perceptually. At the NY Studio School I developed an appreciation for the process of painting, making a mark and then another in response, then questioning that – sort of “Giacometti meets Cezanne”. At its worst this way can lead you into a black hole. In grad school, as a perceptive critic Sidney Tillim pointed out, I was just making many paintings on one canvas, and Jake Berthot told me to read The Unknown Masterpiece by Balzac, which addresses obsession with process.
Larry: Can you explain more?
Margaret: Giacometti’s fetish of uncertainty can certainly lead to authentic depth. I remember the dark gloom over NYC when I visited the WTC site in fall of 2001. Right after that I saw a Giacometti show at MoMA, and was surprised it didn’t feel frivolous; his work probably in part reflected living in Europe during the world wars. But following purity can make you remove anything unnecessary and get carried away with “less-is-more” – or never finish, as Giacometti did not.
Ideally, it’s “two steps forward, one step back,” a forward progression. Textures build up richly this way, as in Cezanne, who never arrived cleverly or quickly at decisions, but almost sculpted, investigating decisions from different angles, so to speak. Sometimes he left non-objective marks that read like possibilities. I love the way his paintings are both solid and open. But I still can get locked into the present tense of process. Working from observation can bring you out of that loop because there is a perceptual “truth” you can always aim for.
An old school chum of mine, Julie Heffernan, called Shiny Still Life (2012) apotropaic – something that wards off evil. That’s basically the opposite of the inviting, rococo deep space Dave Hickey described in “The Invisible Dragon”. The compressed and congestive space in my paintings does push the viewer away, but also draws them in closer to investigate. I like the viewer’s eye to bounce around, which doesn’t gibe with Matisse’s directive for painting to feel like a “comfortable armchair for a tired businessman” – I wish it did because business people buy paintings!
Larry: One great thing about today’s art world is its diversity. Some like it simple, some complex. However, I think it’s tough if you’re a student trying to figure things out like what is good drawing or color, or if that’s even important. Are you teaching currently?
Margaret: I’ve been teaching at New York Academy of Art, Pratt, Montclair, and I’ll be teaching at U. of Virginia spring semester, and job-hunting.
Matthew: The organization of your painting is complex but it’s not chaotic at all. It’s actually highly organized. If you look at it for a while you can learn the pathways and algorithms for picking your way through complexity, which can then give you a way of seeing the complex world that’s right out there.
Margaret: Oh, I like that; makes me feel more normal. I’m very interested in politics, and our multi-faceted world.
Larry: I definitely see pathways and geometry that pull it all together. But you don’t seem bound by a particular compositional system. Each one of your paintings seems to explore structures unique to that painting. That’s very refreshing to see.
Margaret: My compositional spaces are shaped around my experience looking and painting, rather than from a believable deep space in which objects are placed. I’m only sadly just now reading Svetlana Alpers’ wonderful The Art of Describing (http://www.amazon.com/The-Art-Describing-Seventeenth-Century/dp/0226015130), about the more optical way space was composed in the North, vs. Italian Renaissance painting’s geometrical model. At Yale I took a class in Netherlandish painting (along with John Currin) but we were assigned Panofsky. At Washington U. in St. Louis, Amy Weiskopf and I took a lot of art history classes. Larry Lowick had us read Michael Baxandall’s great Painting and Experience in 15th Century Italy. http://www.amazon.com/Painting-Experience-Fifteenth-Century-Italy-Paperbacks/dp/019282144X I also read art history while living in Italy – I went there first on a Fulbright and then stayed eight years, teaching and painting.
Larry: I read that Piero della Francesca, when his eyesight was failing in the last ten years of his life, wrote a whole treatise on perspective and mathematics.
Margaret: Yes, which business students studied to better understand quantities, for trading purposes. Baxandall describes how, before “universal” systems of measurement were standardized, science and art were fairly equally advanced as ways of expressing knowledge of the world. So objects like Piero’s chalice had intellectual appeal in Renaissance paintings. Alpers also shows this in Northern painting, which didn’t use strictly-pointed perspective, but engaged the inquiring, human eye, rather than relating everything to the absolutes of math, or the all-seeing eye of God.
Larry: The tipping up of the picture plane in your work, which flattens the space, relates to Northern Renaissance painting
Margaret: Yes, and to Cubism. I like foreshortening because it suggests deep space, but also lets flat shapes assert the picture plane. I suspect, having grown up in the middle of ten children, that I grew accustomed to constant motion in my visual frame. I generally find visual situations that are complicated and dense appealing. After I saw Glengarry Glen Ross and The Player I loved the way complexity arrives at harmony in them so much I went back and saw them again the next day. I enjoy looking at paintings with deep space, but it’s never been something I’m consistently interested in. Scott Noel, who I also went to undergrad school with, suggested I put more space around things. I have gone through periods doing that, but wind up squishing things in tight spaces.
Larry: The main thing is, does it work for your paintings, and is it successful?
Matthew: I think there are believable spaces in Shiny Still Life, but they are small spaces. The way the little bathtub thing is in front of whatever the hell that thing is –
Margaret: – a duck cooker I bought in a flea market in Rome –
Matthew: – there’s definitely accessible and believable space. You probably couldn’t fit your finger in there, but you could fit a piece of cardboard in there. You know that between the whale’s tail and the bathtub, there’s a little bit more space. There’s no problem of space; there’s plenty of space. It’s just miniature space.
Margaret: That’s what I want for the viewer – at first you’re overwhelmed, then your eye experiences everything intimately; maybe that’s how I see the world. That echoes the way I prefer to be close to what I’m painting so stereoscopic vision is activated, and I fully see around things. I’m also very near-sighted, so there’s that.
Larry: I’m curious if you ever think about a hierarchy of highlights in a painting, or naturalistic light qualities and the degrees of the reflectiveness of things, and such?
Margaret: I’m very sensitive to light in the real world but in my paintings it’s secondary to the description of form and space. I follow it closely for certain color relationships or to create textural illusion, like metallic surfaces, but my sense of light is largely conceptual and circumstantial.
Larry: I really admire Mom’s Accordian (2013). Tell me how this came about. It seems more straightforwardly perceptual.
Margaret: I inherited this object from my mother after she died a few years ago, and wanted to do an homage. I set it up under a blue light but didn’t really have enough space in my studio to control the viewing light. I also had to finish it for a deadline for a Zeuxis show, so I painted it at all hours with daylight and artificial light, so the light is less naturalistic. The abalone was fun to paint.
Larry: Tell me what’s going on in terms of the narrative in this large boardwalk, Atlantic City painting. What led to it?
Margaret: Living in Atlantic City for four years was such a trip. It reminded me of an R. Crumb cartoon because so many of the visitors looked dressed for a bad outfit contest. You see all the clichés, people passed out outside casinos from a bender, drinking and gambling. It’s a very wacky, but very friendly, place. Once while waiting for an early bus to New York, a policeman told passengers about how his feet got really sore near the end of the night shift until he started getting pedicures. It’s hard to imagine that conversation happening in New York.
In Follow the Money (2010) Uncle Moneybags is getting away by implied helicopter (inspired by the Yogi Bear cartoon), but everybody else is having fun and doesn’t notice that the piggy-bank is about to surf over the edge, or the impending flood.
Matthew: That’s you in the prison uniform with 3D glasses painting the whole thing? Cool.
Larry: So, what does that mean? It caught my eye too. Wow, that’s different.
Margaret: Maybe that I’m the only one seeing things in 3D? That’s a space joke – kind of like the bit of extremely deep (looking from outer) space in Call Me Marge (2004), which is otherwise pretty flat. That’s mostly synthetically painted – I observed the head, but based the rest on where appropriation led; R. Crumb, Guston, Hopper, The Simpsons, Cezanne, and – what is that from?
Larry: The Little Engine That Could, right? Would there be a sequential way to read these, or does the viewer make up their own story while looking at the painting?
Margaret: I’m leading the way with the big blue shape and yellows moving throughout, but the viewer can make their own subjective way. Obviously all the “headstuff” has psychological implications. My compositions, beyond an initial design, form intuitively, part to part – like a surrealist. Sideshow (2013) has perceptual moments, but most parts, like the Monopoly board and the boat, are invented. I left some areas sketchy, which play off the thornier areas I reworked.
Larry: I’m curious how you respond to someone like Gregory Gillespie, another person who combined surrealism with perceptual work.
Margaret: I like his early Italianate self-portraits, but am otherwise not crazy about his color or the heavy reference to the photograph. Peter Blume or George Tooker interest me more. Better yet, Edwin Dickinson, who uses the Cezanne-Giacometti thing somewhat.
Matthew: Can you talk about the Ratfink? Haven’t thought about him since about 1966.
Margaret: I’ve put him in several paintings; fun to paint and a fond childhood memory, along with Basil Wolverton bubble gum cards. I like the mixture of serious technique and silly motif. He appears in What We Worry? (2009) too with Alfred E. Neuman on a soapbox, and others on the boardwalk. After a while you notice a tsunami entering the casino. This situation has an apocalyptic end, but it’s also fun so people will enjoy looking at it.
Larry: You often seem on the verge of a political statement but then thwart it with whimsical, cartoony elements. I’m always puzzled with the question of art as a realm for politics.
Margaret: Picasso said all art is political. In “The Figure” I wrote an essay about how history painting has morphed in response to socio-political and technical changes, including the Industrial Revolution, photography, and the Cold War. In the 20th c., after its profound corruption by Hitler and its adoption by authoritarian governments, heroic figuration was viewed suspiciously in “the free world” as reactionary. Eventually any figurative painting was suspect as potentially colonialist or oppressive in some way. After the western art capitol moved from Paris to New York because of the wars, critics like Greenberg posed American abstraction against Socialist Realism, and the standpoint of Social Realism became confused. But the Cold War notion that abstract art is a-political is too purist; any style of art can be exploited – or be academic. AbEx meant to its promoters (not to its creators) the freedoms promoted by capitalism. Who patronizes art and shapes cultural values has always mattered. It’s interesting to think about why extremely wealthy still buy art; it speaks to its spiritual value.
Matthew: There are some great technical realists like Jacob Collins who are in effect reactionary – back to the age of Bouguereau, as though the twentieth century didn’t happen, feminism or communism or anything, really. Nothing threatens assumed ownership of the land in landscapes; female nudes have a tasteful “come hither” look, and males show off their big muscles.
Larry: Some of the current crop of neoclassical painters coming out of the atelier seem to want to get back to a world where issues like racism and sexism weren’t discussed. The French Academy went far beyond technique. It defined beauty, what could be considered art.
Margaret: It’s ironic that those people would probably be very opposed to Greenberg’s advocacy of pure abstract painting, yet in a sense they’re heeding his conclusion, retreating from the world in an “art for art’s sake” way.
Larry: But isn’t making a political painting like waving a banner at a rally of like-minded people? Guernica isn’t going to convince anyone who didn’t already agree that war is evil, it’s just an affirmation that the world needs changing. Is that enough?
Margaret: The nice thing about museums is that everybody goes there, artists and “normal” people. Some who see Guernica might only think about Picasso, but others might actually google that event, an opportunity for the Nazis to show off their fire-power. Art can remind us of the depths to which people can go; it gives us the courage to act.
Matthew: The tapestry of “Guernica” was in the room that UN delegates passed through to remind them war is horrible, so the Bush administration had it covered up in 2003 before the invasion of Iraq was discussed. That’s how powerful that painting is.
Larry: In a lot of recent political painting the ideas may be interesting but often the way it’s painted or visually communicates is lacking.
Margaret: Lots of postmodern, political art is not nearly as exciting as that done by the Constructivists a hundred years ago.
Larry: Our lives are often distracted and can interfere with giving a full commitment to the art work. Painting should strive to equal the depth, intensity and craft of the masters.
Matthew: Regarding the idea of finding the path of complexity, and teaching people a kind of dance, as it were: Promoting a form of thinking that’s not just binary, not just oppositional, and not just “going for the most obvious enemy to attack” could be a kind of effective political way of being.
Margaret: That’s really interesting – let’s write a manifesto! – that painting can teach people to think in more complicated ways, making them more effective agents in the world. Beyond dialectical.
Matthew: It’s trilectical, multi-lectical. What happens in the end is determined by all these things pushing at each other; that’s what the world has to deal with. People tend to lump everything into the good guys and the bad guys –
Margaret: – the Cold War mindset, black and white thinking. Lawrence Weschler gave an interesting talk last year suggesting that the knowledge of big events and of their iconic photographic images in “Life” magazine and newspapers may have generally or unconsciously influenced artists: Hiroshima on Pollack, the moon landing on Rothko. These possibilities don’t fit the formalist paradigm, but they were in the air.
Matthew: Pollock isn’t about destruction as much as energy, which in a sense relates to Hiroshima. Pollocks aren’t chaotic; they are organically organized. Pollack was saying, “This is my life force in the purest form I can give you.”
Larry: Pollack explored the ideas – thinking through paint – of Freud and Jung. A strong political painting may have also started with a now outdated idea or event, but the inspiration for the formal structure is still meaningful.
Margaret: Historians of the future, if they/we exist, will consider what was going on in the world when there was this big 20th c. divide between figuration and abstraction, and technology was becoming an uber-behemoth.
Matthew: It all comes from somewhere… Crumb was about popular culture, but he got his stuff from Renaissance drawings; cross-hatching. The zeitgeist is eventually created by a few influential artists who start the ball rolling. That’s your job as an artist, to aspire to become one of those people.
Margaret McCann’s book “The Figure can be purchased from this Amazon.com link – (if you buy this book from this link a tiny percentage will go to help Painting Perceptions)]]>
This essay explores the subconscious impulses behind aesthetic choice and offers a framework for a deeper understanding of contemporary representational painting. It is written by a painter with a readership of painters in mind, but is appropriate for anyone who wants this specific peek into the creative psyche.
“Apollo and Dionysus in the Representational Painting Family Feud” was published on December 24, 2014 in Kitsch & Beauty: The Proceedings of The Representational Art Conference 2014, edited by Michael J. Pearce, PhD, MFA.
|Apollo Belvedere after Leochares circa 120-140 marble (copy of bronze original of ca. 350-325 BC)||Bacchus – Michelangelo 1496-7 marble.|
Why do specific stylistic approaches in representational art occasion so much vitriol between different artistic camps? Friedrich Nietzsche’s Apollonian/Dionysian dialectic, described in The Birth of Tragedy, offers insight into the subconscious sources of our aesthetic biases. Broadly speaking, Apollonian traits are civilizing, analytical, and constructive, while Dionysian traits are chaotic, ecstatic, and destructive. By organizing contemporary representational painting into the three fluid categories of classical, observational, and constructed, and then analyzing each category in relation to Nietzsche’s dialectic, we come to see the deeply rooted psychological and philosophical underpinnings of aesthetic choice. We see further that the strong reactions that many viewers hold in relation to specific painting styles are tied to their own positions relative to those styles on the Apollonian/Dionysian continuum. Polarities such as chaos and order, closed-form and open-form, muted tones and saturated color, and flatness and the illusion of depth are all understood within the Apollonian/Dionysian context to help us explore the ranges within each of the three representational painting categories, and to demonstrate how the categories relate to one another. We come to see that these types of stylistic choices should not, in and of themselves, call into question a painting’s quality and/or validity, but are rather an expression of the artist’s position along the Apollonian/Dionysian continuum.
Why is it that so many respected and established artists are at each other’s throats over matters as seemingly insignificant as whether a painting had hard edges or softer, more broken up edges? Some painters seem to take the work of others as some kind of a personal affront, as opposed to simply an expression of that specific artist’s painterly preferences. The word “Nazi” is tossed about fast and loose, and sometimes art school critiques turn into high-pitched shriek fests where grown professionals try to prove that a student’s work (and sometimes implicitly the work of that student’s main mentor) is not merely bad; it is invalid.
Every year we hear more and more stories of outrageously unprofessional behavior arising out of aesthetic disagreements. One of my personal favorites happened at a well-known art school. At this school, the main gallery would rotate shows so that each member of the faculty would eventually get a chance to display his or her work. When it came time for one painter, a full professor, to have her show, there was a fuss made at the department meeting. Her work was hard-edged, tonal, and highly detailed. “Is there any way,” a fellow painting professor proposed, “that we could just have a sign displayed in the window letting people know that this kind of work does not represent the institution?”
For decades now, it has been widely asserted that any type of realism (which is in itself a loaded word) is passé, and therefore it has been actively marginalized by many mainstream critics and contemporary art institutions. Established artists and college professors have still been so busy fighting the man and shocking the bourgeoisie that they have not noticed that the anti-academics now were the man. So, when representational painting seems already to have been largely marginalized, why are people working within that tradition also at each other’s throats?
The deeper reasons for this antagonism, and, in fact, the subconscious impulses behind aesthetic choice, become apparent when we look at Nietzsche’s description of the Apollonian/Dionysian dialectic in The Birth of Tragedy. In his book, Nietzsche explains that the form art takes (he specifically deals with Greek tragedies) is in direct relation to Man’s response to reality. He believes that aesthetics address the question of what our response should be to the nature of life. This, of course, begs the question of how Nietzsche views reality. As he is examining the Greek view in this case, it is a specifically pagan as opposed to a Judeo-Christian point of view. Instead of a single God on high, creating order out of primordial chaos, there are competing gods, with competing moral positions, constantly engaged in various conflicts and endeavors. Nietzsche does not separate aesthetics, ethics, or metaphysics; they remain deeply entangled, for he believes that to separate any from the others is to diminish each. So here we have this pagan worldview: rather than an imposed moral order, we have a moral order that is arising out of competition and interaction. What is reality? Reality is creatures coming into existence, eating, sleeping, fornicating, competing and cooperating, breeding, and expiring, and this chaotic cycle of life continues on and on. Man has developed various means of coping with the ways of nature. While there are more responses than just the Apollonian and the Dionysian, these are the two with which Nietzsche explains the dynamics at play in works of art.
Apollo is the Greek god of dreams, prophecy, medicine, archery, intellectual inquiry, light, and the arts such as music, poetry, and dance. Apollonian qualities in painting include the use of lines, closed form, multiplicity, tonalism, and the impression of stillness. The Apollonian impulse is governed by the rational mind which makes divisions in order to grasp meaning. In contemporary thought, we tend to think of these qualities as more left-brained, although recent research shows that the halves of the brain are much more interrelated than previously supposed. Nietzsche equates the Apollonian to the world of dreams, which no matter how compelling or seemingly immersive, is ultimately illusionary. “The beautiful illusion of the dream worlds,” Nietzsche asserts, “in the creation of which every man is a consummate artist, is the precondition of all visual art….We take pleasure in the immediate apprehension of form, all shapes speak to us, and nothing is indifferent or unnecessary.” Thus, Nietzsche’s Apollonian Man copes with the reality of the chaos of being by restructuring it into an illusory vessel of meaning. The artworks resulting from this coping mechanism permit an interpretation of life as well as a training ground in which the conflicts of life can play out.
Dionysus, another son of Zeus, is also a Greek god of art, but more associated with theatre. He is the god of wine and intoxication, agriculture, the fertility of nature, and of the ecstatic worship and secret rites of mystery religions. Dionysian qualities in painting include emphasis on the materiality of the paint (painterliness), open form, a sense of wholeness, colorist painting, and the impression of movement. We can think of these traits as the right-brained counterparts of the Apollonian qualities. The Dionysian is impulse governed by the emotional mind which responds to the chaotic flux of being not by resisting it but by mimicking that reality—in a sense, by becoming a part of it. Rather than to fight nature, the goal becomes to harness its creative power.
To help us understand these competing dynamics, Nietzsche turns to a parable from Schopenhauer of Man enveloped in the veil of Maya.
“Just as the boatman sits in his little boat, trusting to his fragile craft in a stormy sea which, boundless in every direction, rises and falls in howling, mountainous waves, so in the midst of a world full of suffering the individual man calmly sits, supported by and trusting the principium individuationis.”
The principium individuationis, or the principle of individuation, describes the way in which any specific thing is distinguished from other things. For instance, I see the laptop on which I am writing as distinct from the table on which is it sitting. In the same way, the principle of individuation can allow me to see myself as a person who is separate from you, and thus I can relate to you on that basis. I am I, you are you, the chair upon which I sit remains a chair, and thus I can relax that all is right with the world. Nietzsche proposes that “we might even describe Apollo as the glorious divine image of the principium individuationis, from whose gestures and looks all the delight, wisdom and beauty of ‘illusion’ speak to us.” Schopenhauer goes on to describe how this comforting world of appearances might be cracked at times (if not ultimately shattered) when Man, with tremendous dread, is confronted with the underlying chaos of existence. This dread goes hand-in-hand with a state of blissful ecstasy, welling up from the reunification of Man with Nature. This state is the Dionysian aspect, as Nietzsche puts it: the world of intoxication as opposed to the world of dreams. This is the dreadful bliss of the maenads in their orgiastic frenzies of the worship of Dionysus, of dancers hypnotically losing themselves in the rhythmic pounding in the depths of the nightclub, of the intoxicating drumbeat of the rituals of aboriginal peoples, and of the feelings of oneness and bliss that can be attained through either meditation or riding a chemical high. The line between catastrophe and deepest bliss is one that is often blurred.
Perhaps the most immediately visible difference between Apollonian and Dionysian painting is that the former tends to be linear while the latter tends to be painterly. The first sees in terms of lines while the second sees in masses. In his Principles of Art History, Heinrich Wölfflin defined this contrast as follows:
“Linear vision, therefore, means that the sense and beauty of things is first sought in the outline—interior forms have their outline too—that the eye is led along the boundaries and induced to feel along the edges, where seeing in masses takes place where the attention withdraws from the edges, where the outline has become more or less indifferent to the eye as the path of vision, and the primary element of the impression is things seen as patches.”
Usually, more linear painting also tends to be closed form as opposed to open form. The edge around forms is kept whole, and the principium individuationis holds sway, so that each object remains clearly defined as itself, and there is a clarity to its relationship to its neighbor as well as to the entirety of the elements in the composition. Open form paintings fit more into the realm of the Dionysian, where edges start to blur, rupture, and disintegrate, and the emphasis shifts from the specific to the general. Individual identity becomes less important than the entirety of the picture plane, the sense of the gestalt. With fewer edges on which our eye can catch, we zip around the painting at greater speed, creating a sense of motion and dynamism in the experience of viewing the work of art.
Motion and emotion are visually tied. More linear and closed-form paintings tend to have a quieter sort of reverie about them. The experience of vision can feel more detached, as if we observe the scene from a critical distance. As viewers, we enter the realm of analysis and objectivity. More painterly and open-form work, on the other hand, hints at exuberance. The experience of viewing becomes more immersive. The line between the viewer and the painting, just like the boundaries between depicted objects, starts to disintegrate. Wölfflin sees this shift to the painterly from the linear as “the distinguishing feature of the 17th century in comparison with the 16th.” During this era, Renaissance art transitioned to the new dominant style of the Baroque. The Renaissance, of course, was deeply rooted in the rediscovery of classical Greek art and heavily influenced by the aesthetic ideas of Plato. Thus, in the depiction of each object or human figure, artists strove for a representation of an ideal form. Whereas art during the Renaissance strove for perfect proportion, with each form developed fully within itself while still interacting with the whole, Wölfflin describes a different set of goals in Italian Baroque art. “The relationships of the individual to the world has changed, a new domain of feeling has opened, the soul aspires to dissolution in the sublimity of the huge, the infinite.”
|Jacob Collins Anna 2004||John Dubrow Tine 2009||Alan Feltus What Thoughts Do They Hide 2010-11|
So how does contemporary representational painting relate to these dichotomies? I propose that representational painting today can be divided into three broadly-conceived categories: Classical, Observational, and Constructed. While fluid, these categories are useful to describe significant differences in both the appearance of paintings and the ways in which painters tend to think of their own work and that of others. Naturally, the work of many painters is a combination of two or even all three of these categories. Sometimes the same painter will have distinct bodies of work that may each fit into different categories. Oftentimes, the work of gifted painters is overlooked when it is not able to be neatly categorized by curators or critics who may not properly appreciate the complex ways in which these categories overlap in the given work. Looking more deeply into these categories can also help us to appreciate that work which straddles the lines. The analysis of where the work within these categories lies upon the Apollonian/Dionysian continuum can shed tremendous light on both the nature of the work and on the sometimes puzzling reactions that members of one camp can display toward the work of another.
Contemporary classical painting, also sometimes referred to as academic painting, embraces and attempts to build upon painting traditions of the past. Much of classical painting in America today is found in the growing atelier system, which traces its roots back to the height of the French Academy in the 19th-century, looking back at painters such as Jean-Léon Gérôme, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, and Carolus-Duran. Classical painters often see themselves as working to revive lost knowledge, rooted in traditional materials and tools, with an emphasis on technical skill as it relates to crafting a compelling illusion of realistic form and space and the pursuit of an ideal of beauty. Classical paintings are more likely to be painted indirectly, utilizing techniques such as monochromatic underpainting, glazing, and scumbling. Unlike much of the contemporary art world, classical painting often eagerly engages with issues of narrative. Thus, classical painting presents a more Apollonian vision of the world, with a time-honored way of structuring a painting that makes the illusion both believable and seductive. Such paintings frequently deal with allegory or the more outright depiction of a situation, lending themselves to the act of interpretation, and telling a story that has a point. Classical painting takes our fragmented reality and brings it into aesthetic harmony.
|Jacob Collins Candace Profile 2004||Daniel Sprick Sherry 2012||Odd Nerdrum Self portrait at L’Hippodrome|
While classical painting as a whole tends to sit closer to the Apollonian side of the spectrum, there is a range within it that can be further explored. On the more Apollonian end of classical painting we can identify a painter such as Jacob Collins. Populating Collin’s figure paintings, nude models either lounge in bed, visually supported by artfully draped sheets, or contrast against a simple, airy wall. Most demurely look away from the viewer, offering themselves up for our viewing pleasure, ripe fodder for the ubiquitous critiques of the male gaze. The figures tend to be lit at the traditional forty-five degree angle. This controlled lighting situation, with that specific angle, has been used historically in painting because it provides great clarity in the depiction of form and space. Values are more easily broken down into highlight, light mass, midtone, coreshadow, and reflected light. Thus a systematic understanding of light is applied and a believable space is created that simultaneously describes the scene in front of the painter and harkens back to centuries of tradition. The colors tend to be lower in saturation while organized into a clear value hierarchy (tonalist painting) and the figures are highly rendered with exquisite detail. While the edges are not by any means harsh, these are clearly examples of closed form paintings. The angle of the lighting, the highly rendered details, and the closed edges all contribute to the individuation of the motif’s constituent parts.
Further along the spectrum towards the Dionysian, we find the work of Daniel Sprick. We are immediately more aware of the materiality of the paint, breaking the form here and there with splashes and drips. The paint becomes a more active, sensuous player in our visual experience, as we delight in its multiplicity of forms. While still classically lit, the figure is now enveloped in a glowing, numinous space that cannot be concretely tied to any specific physical location. We are somehow left with the impression that the sense of motion in the external environment is connected to the emotional state of mind of the model. There is no longer such a clear division between positive and negative space. Color from the flesh of the model intrudes into the space and the space likewise pushes into the model. With the more open form, our attention shifts from the particular to the overall composition, before coming back to indulge in the delicate rendering of the human form.
On the Dionysian end of classical painting, we encounter the work of Odd Nerdrum. Nerdrum’s subject matter tends to be more abrasive, often even shocking to more traditional viewers. Many of his paintings seem to tell a story or allegorically depict some of the less comforting aspects of the human condition. Nerdrum has embraced the term kitsch, used by his critics to deride the high level of drama and emotion in his subject matter. The paint is built up more thickly than in either Collins’ or Sprick’s work. Looking closely at the surface, one can see lower layers of paint peeking through, creating a rough, textured tapestry. The work remains tonalist, but glints of brighter colors surprise the eye. The lighting situation is no longer clear-cut; the glow feels more tied to mood and composition than to a closely observed, specific visual situation. The painting is more open form, with groupings of similar value and color taking our eyes off of the edges of depicted objects and sweeping us across the composition in broad movements. Air begins to take precedence over object.
With all of these Dionysian features, how do we know that Nerdrum’s work still fits under the classical painting grouping? There is first that narrative aspect, more present in his work than in that of Collins or Sprick. Then there is the matter of painting style that is inherited from tradition; Nerdrum’s paint application is very clearly akin to that of Rembrandt. With the rise of modernism, art criticism has put the onus on the artist to embody the meaning of the painting in the manipulation of the medium, calling for an invented rather than an inherited language of paint. Critics of classical painting view those painters as living in a kind of time capsule—rejecting the whole of modernism and post-modernism and indulging in a visual form of nostalgia.
The second category that we are exploring is observational painting. The term observational is often interchanged with the word perceptual. The idea is that these works are all rooted in the act of looking and responding to the motif. Of course, in classical painting, the artists are also often closely observing a scene in front of them, but with observational painting, the act of looking is given primacy. Values in this camp tend to stress a freshness of vision: a vision that is not wholly rooted in previously established artistic conventions. Like in other contemporary art practices, the words conventional and academic are tossed about as insults. This is, of course, not to say that observational painters have completely done away with convention. After all, painting as an activity is a cultural construct, and it cannot really be seen and understood without some sense of its relation to art history. Also, observational painters tend to look at historical painters from a wider time range than do classical painters. Walk into your prototypical observational painter’s studio and you are likely to find monographs from modern painters such as Edwin Dickinson and Giorgio Morandi side by side with books on early Renaissance masters Masaccio and Piero della Francesca, as well as a tome filled with the prehistoric cave paintings from Lascaux. While classical painting tends to be more associated with the atelier movement, observational painting has a strong foothold in various “studio schools” as well larger and older art institutions such as the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Maryland Institute College of Art.
|Israel Hershberg The Chameleon 1997||Gillian Pederson-Krag Still Life 2007||Jordan WolfsonStill Life with Rosehips and Turquoise Bowl II2011|
On the more Apollonian end of observational painting we have the work of Israel Hershberg. Painters such as Hershberg, with extremely detailed and very much closed-form paintings, are sometimes derided by painters further on the Dionysian side of observational painting as being classical and even reactionary. Hershberg’s use of color in many of his still-lifes tends to be on the less saturated side, his vision of the world held together by a dusty sepia-tinged air. His subject matter tends to be enigmatic and unadorned, eschewing conventions of prettiness. The forms and textured surfaces are depicted in stark detail, revealing the inevitable erosion brought on by the passage of time. The mood is one of felt emotion that is always restrained, always pulsing underneath those scratched and worn and obsessively tended-to surfaces. Unlike many classical paintings, the surface of the painting does not glimmer under a thick layer of varnish. Observational painters are more likely to prefer a matte or semi-matte finish to their work. In part this is because of the nature of the way in which the image is built up. Hershberg, like many other observational painters, employs a mostly direct method of applying paint. He goes for the large color relationships that he sees right from the start of the painting process, rather than building up from a monochromatic underpainting with a series of glazes. I imagine that many of these painters shun a slicker surface because they like the way that a more matte surface looks, but why do so many observational painters seem to lean towards matte while classical painters are more likely to lean towards glossy? I believe that the first reason for this is that contemporary classical painters tend to look more at nineteenth-century French Academy paintings, which were often painted indirectly and finished off with a protective layer of varnish. In contrast, Hershberg looks back at the surfaces of the frescos of the early Renaissance, and even further back to the enigmatic Roman frescos gracing the crumbling walls of Pompeii.
But the division between classical and observational is of course more than just what era of history the painter tends to fetishize. There is also the matter of the painter’s relationship to certain basic tenets of modernism. With the fall of the French Academy and the rise of Impressionism and all of the subsequent “isms” of modern art, illusion (an Apollonian trait) became a feature that was derided. Whereas previously a painting had been conceived of as a window through which a convincingly real scene could be glimpsed, in the twentieth century the idea of flatness, of the importance of the surface of the painting, became a very conscious concern. In his highly influential 1960 essay “Modernist Painting,” critic Clement Greenberg asserted that flatness was the most essential and unique aspect of Modern painting. Painters started deliberately calling attention to the flat nature of the surface of the canvas. Rather than an attempt to build a convincing illusion, the materials and the act of painting itself took center stage. “I’m not trying to sell you a bill of goods,” the painting proclaims. “I am pigment, suspended in a medium, arranged on a flat surface. What you see is what you get.” So, in a subtle nod to Modernism, Hershberg’s dry, fresco-like surfaces delicately draw attention to the flatness of the canvas, creating a tiny spark of conflict between a masterly depiction of deep space and the assertion of flatness.
The further we get towards the side of the Dionysian, the more emphasized the surface qualities tend to be in relation to the illusion of depth. We can see this tendency playing out beautifully when we look at the figure painting by classical painter Jacob Collins side-by-side with that of the observational painter John Dubrow. While the Collins figure is delicately rendered, smoothly guiding our eyes over rounded forms, the Dubrow figure and the surrounding space seem to be composed of starker patches and blocks of paint. The paint never fully gives over its own identity in the service of depiction. While there is certainly depth and space created in Dubrow’s painting, it sits in a delicious tension with the painterly, flat patches that cry out their own materiality. “You see,” the patches exclaim, “this scene we are showing you…it is just an illusion. We are all made of the same stuff as the rest of nature, and it and we are filled with eruptions and negations.” And the illusion of Maya ruptures a bit more.
Further toward the Dionysian pole under observational painting, we have the jewel-toned arrangements of Gillian Pederson-Krag. There are three main ways in which Pederson-Krag’s still-life is more Dionysian than that of Israel Hershberg: use of color, composition, and level of detail. Unlike the strongly tonal, low saturation colors in Hershberg’s painting, Pederson-Krag’s painting glows with vibrant, saturated color. The colors are still held together in a clear value structure, and of course certain areas of the painting have less saturated colors for compositional purposes, but the difference in saturation between the two paintings is clear. The psychology of color has been extensively studied and written about, and higher saturation in color is generally linked to more intense expression of emotion. While both still-lifes have a strong centrally focused composition, with the most intricate and attention catching objects placed right in the middle of the canvas, Pederson-Krag’s painting makes use of layers and rhythmic elements that move the viewer’s eyes more actively throughout the entire composition. If Hershberg’s painting has a lead actor (the dried chameleon) carrying most of the dialogue with a Greek chorus (the delicately textured surrounding surfaces) murmuring their support from afar, then Pederson-Krag’s painting has a main player that is constantly interacting with a more fleshed-out supporting cast. Our eye gets drawn from the bright colors of the flowers down into the highly value-contrasting rhythms of the folded and layered paper. The eye is caught for a moment on the playful glints of the seashells before rising up to the background progression of silent dancers, which carry the movement across the painting to the right, at which point we drop back down to the delicate swirl of the shell on the bottom right. Thus we have the contrast between focusing in on a central object (Apollonian) and the dispersion of a greater amount of attention to the entirety of the composition (Dionysian). Even though all observational painters are incredibly engaged with the act of looking at and responding to the motif, there is always a tremendous amount of editing and ordering that is taking place while painting. Each painter decides the level of detail to include or omit from the painting. Hershberg’s greater intricacy of detail puts the emphasis on the parts and their individuation, while Pederson-Krag’s stronger simplification of spots of color once again shifts the focus from the individual parts to their relationships, their interactions, within the whole.
These aforementioned shifts toward the Dionysian in Pederson-Krag’s work become even more extreme in the painting of Jordan Wolfson. The three primary colors—yellow, red, and blue—are more forcefully stated within the arrangement. There is no single, centrally placed object that is the main player on the stage: rather, we are clearly dealing with an ensemble cast. Closed form gives way to open form, with edges that are crumbling and in some places almost entirely disappear. All this contributes to a great sense of motion, with Wolfson leading our eyes in a mad, Bacchanalian dance across the richly pulsating surface. Negative space and positive space start to run together and the individual depicted objects vibrate to the tune of the chaotic flux of being.
|William Bailey Still Life Hotel Raphael 1985 (Credit: Courtesy of the artist and Betty Cuningham Gallery New York)||Randall Exon Beach House 2008||Kyle Staver Europa and the Flying Fish 2011|
In the final category, constructed painting, artists rely more on pictorial invention or working from memory rather than a close observation of a scene in front of them. William Bailey’s tranquil still-life lies on the Apollonian end of the spectrum. At first glance, the vessels that he uses have such compelling presences that it is difficult to believe that he is not looking at them as he paints them. In fact, each of the objects does exist in real life, but Bailey knows them so well that he is able to call them up from memory to act as players on his wholly invented stage. In addition to the crisp edges and desaturated colors that connect Bailey to other painters with more Apollonian features, Bailey has a very interesting way that he deals with perspective. Like the figures in Balthus’ Figure in Front of a Mantel and Euan Uglow’s Nude, 12 Vertical Positions from the Eye, each part of Bailey’s vessels is seen at eyelevel. If the vessels were actually painting according to an observed perspective, then ellipses would be visible at any point above or below the line of sight. Instead, all of Bailey’s objects have straight lines in the place where we would see an ellipse. This sends a very specific message to our brains. The closer we are to a vessel in real life, the greater the effects of perspective would appear, with a correspondingly greater change in the pitch of the ellipses. Conversely, the further the object is from us, the more all of the ellipses would resemble a straight line. As the object approaches the horizon, ellipses are converted to lines. This makes it appear as though Bailey’s vessels are being seen from a great distance, and thus they take on an air of monumentality. We see them as intimate vessels and at the same time our brain reads them as possessing the immensity of the Egyptian Pyramids. The impression is to infuse the paintings with a grandeur that links them to the great architectural achievements of mankind—these pinnacles of the Apollonian drive.
Bailey’s work is not about finding precise color relationships or accurately recording a visual experience; it is much more focused on the internal art historical dialogue that takes place for him while he paints. The colors he employs are the earthy hues of Italy, influenced by the four months of the year that he spends at his home in Umbria. When asked about the serene sense about his work and about whether he is in a transcendent or mystical state while at work, Bailey replied:
I don’t think it’s mystical. When my work changed around 1960, I was thinking, “There’s so much noise in contemporary art. So much gesture.” I realized it wasn’t my natural bent to make a lot of noise and I’m not very good at rhetorical gesture. So this came on a little gradually. With the egg paintings, I started thinking about time and slowing the paintings down and allowing relationships to develop in time and somehow the time I spent in developing those relationships was reflected in the way the image was read. It wasn’t read quickly because it wasn’t painted quickly, and the relationships didn’t reveal themselves easily because they weren’t arrived at easily. And it’s that complication I think that got into the work. The paintings that I know, that I admire like Piero [della Francesca], have that quality, that silence. I’m sure that’s gotten into the work, but I don’t have a formula for it.
Like the observational painters, Bailey distances himself from the classicists by emphasizing the lack of formula in his painting process. The idea, again, is that the pictorial language is one that is invented rather than completely inherited.
Of course, as is the case with each contemporary painter whom I mention in this paper, personal style is an outgrowth of individual temperament as distilled through encounters with art history. The amount to which a language is inherited or invented is always on a sliding scale—it is never purely one or the other. But a dividing point between classical painters and the other two categories is the amount to which the language is inherited, and that is not always the clearest distinction to make. Sometimes painters see themselves as belonging to one camp while other observers may group them with a completely different one. Painters are often wary of labels, and rightly so (especially if said labels serve to limit rather than to deepen our understanding of their work), but when they perceive that their work is being misunderstood to the extent that it is being mislabeled, hackles get raised and we start to see some of the reasoning behind their impassioned responses to work being done in one of the other camps—the better to distance themselves from labels that they find unappealing.
In addition to grappling with art history, painters often are in dialogue with their own personal history. This is the case with Randall Exon’s painting, positioned at a midway point between the Apollonian and the Dionysian in the constructed painting category. His artist statement on his website lays out his goals very clearly:
In his paintings, Exon is interested in the ways in which memory and dreams inform us about the past. Evocation is his primary goal as a “realist,” rather than accuracy. Most of his paintings are fictions made up entirely from collected sources and/or personal experience and memory.
When he was a child living in Kansas, a tornado completely demolished his family home as he sheltered beneath it. He has since developed a large body of work, including the painting shown here, where he recreated an idealized house from his memory and imagination—a house that exists only within his creative work. Exon’s focus on dreams and on rebuilding that which was lost are clearly Apollonian ambitions. His work also tends to be tonalist in nature, with a clear value structure and with color being more tied to evocation and memory than to an experience of observed color in life. But his edges are not as clean and tight as those of William Bailey and the direction of the light is not always as clear, with shadows sometimes functioning more as emotional presences than as formal devices. Through the open windows we are confronted with ominous storm clouds, quietly threatening our Apollonian haven with the specter of external chaos.
Finally, on the Dionysian end of constructed painting we have the work of Kyle Staver. While the subject matter directly quotes from Greek mythology, the pictorial language she uses is very much her own. The figures are painted in a way that is almost cartoonish, yet they are bathed in a silvery, elusive moonlight, which conjures up images of barely glimpsed dances in the thick of forested night. This is not Apollo’s clear light of day, but rather the slipping light of the Dionysian mystery religions. In contrast to William Bailey’s rational grid of vertical and horizontals, Staver’s painting is filled with leaping diagonals that sweep the viewer’s eye on a rollercoaster ride from end to end of her massive painting. The very moments that she depicts are wrought with charged emotion, with the promise of either ecstasy or devastation just around the corner. In his Huffington Post article, Daniel Maidman compares Staver’s view of the myth-image to the more rational, structured, and glossy versions, such as the paintings of nineteenth century English painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema:
We discover that one form of knowledge precludes another, that to know all things born of brightness and identification is to forget things born of darkness and mystery….The myth-image cannot be resolved; we cannot touch the face of Zeus as we can those of our human brothers. Sunlight does not make his features clear. There is a light that lights him, but we do not have the eyes to see that light….One solution is to paint the gods as mortals see them. How do mortals see them? Indistinctly and murkily, by moonlight, with the aspect of a rustle among the leaves or a burst of feathers. A thing blurs past us, and by the time we turn to look at it, it is gone. This is how Kyle Staver paints the myths.
Kyle Staver also uses an indirect manner of painting (glazing, scumbling, and so forth) which is usually associated with classical painters, but her usage is less structured and more about activating the entire surface in an engaging and varied manner. She also uses storytelling in her paintings, which we associate with the Apollonian, but we are somehow convinced that her paintings are less about a story that seems to have a point, and more about the visceral, sensual experience of that specific moment.
What we see is that the division into the three categories of classical, observational, and constructed is very fluid. While there are clearly identifiable tendencies within each group, traits that are ascribed to one group also often show up in others, but to different extents…and they are often used to different ends. Flattening her space like a true modernist, Kyle Staver also glazes. Deeply committed to the act of observation, Israel Hershberg will also move the table stains about on his surfaces, better to serve the composition. Working within an inherited tradition and fully aware of his indebtedness to his painterly predecessors, Daniel Sprick’s paintings are nevertheless so very clearly his own.
Why is there much vitriol between painters in these different camps and between Apollonian and Dionysian painters within the same category? On some level, the divide is a religious one. Apollonian painting, and especially classical painting, tends to be associated with more conservative beliefs that emphasize the importance of traditions passed down over countless generations and a life that is involved with established religious institutions and norms.
Towards the Dionysian side of the spectrum, one finds the mistrust of institutions and received modes of worship, and an emphasis on individual exploration and experience. Similarly, people often jump to political assumptions based on viewing a particular style of painting. Since a more classical and prescribed approach was often utilized by totalitarian regimes (both on the right and the left ends of the political spectrum), painters who favor a more Apollonian style are often accused of simplemindedly, or even maliciously, toeing a party line. On the other hand, painters of a more Dionysian bent can be accused of being untaught, lazy, or even anarchists. And thus contemporary painting becomes a battlefield on which religious, social, and political forces are played out, with gross generalizations bandied about. People jump to oversimplifications, essentializations, and sometimes, discourse that amounts to nothing more than belligerent name-calling.
On a basic level, we are clannish creatures, and we naturally like to think that our way of doing something is the right way of doing something, because it justifies our own decisions. Recent research in neuroaesthetics establishes that the brain’s default mode network (DMN), the part of the brain which is highly associated with personal identity, becomes activated when the subject is viewing those particular artworks which that individual finds most meaningful. The DMN is usually activated during introspection, and is not typically active when an individual is engaged in the outside world…and this includes viewing paintings that do not produce a strong sense of resonance. Thus, current scientific findings confirm what painters have always known: that the language of paint which calls to us most insistently is inextricably linked to our deepest sense of self. In the case of painters, there is an immense amount of time, effort, and psychic energy that goes into the creation of a body of work. It is a truism that when one is not secure in one’s sense of self, a competing vision of the world seems like a personal challenge rather than a fellow traveler’s unique contribution to the rich tapestry that is contemporary painting.
The divide between the Apollonian and the Dionysian represents different urges, both within our society and within ourselves. Historically, these two opposing forces have worked in concert to create civilization and art as we know it. The clarity of the Renaissance, an Apollonian rediscovery and resurrection of the lost artistic knowledge of Classical Greece, was followed by the Dionysian passion of Baroque art. Out of the Baroque rose highly structured Neoclassicism, peaking at the height of the French Academy. And remember that the impressionists, those textbook Dionysian iconoclasts, first rebelled against that Apollonian French Academy—and the impressionists were known for nothing if not breaking down forms and edges (and replacing high-brow subject matter, such as religious themes and classical myths, with more contemporary and unglamorous depictions of urban life). But the Apollonian could not be eradicated, and we are seeing its resurgence now in the greatly renewed interest in both observational painting and in classicism. There are thus great historical cycles within the world of representational art. Apollonian knowledge is lost due to an upsurge of the Dionysian element, during which time the Apollonian becomes occult—it goes into hiding—only to be revived into a great flourishing under the sun once again. The Dionysian upsurge beneficially renews the stale qualities and dogmatic rigidity that, after a while, become sour. Apollo, left to his own devices, becomes stagnant, self-referential, and infatuated with his own perfected sense of order. That is the time for Dionysus and his followers to rage through Apollo’s tidy world, with all the destructive power of their intoxicated orgy, and set the deadwood ablaze to reduce the glorious and bloated construction of culture into unifying and obliterating ash—from which, in time, new seedlings might erupt. During these occulted periods of Apollonian activity under Dionysian sway, the knowledge is refined, misunderstood, and (as a result of that misunderstanding of prior dogmas) creatively reconstructed in a way that allows for the generation of new life. The continuum of the Apollonian and the Dionysian becomes the body of the ouroboros—cyclically eating itself and regenerating through the annals of time.
My hope in exploring these categories and the wide range of Apollonian and Dionysian traits contained in each one is to show that choices of painting style, that visual predilections and affinities, directly result from our deeply rooted response to the chaos inherent in life, and the civilizing forces which struggle to make sense of it. No art can exist without the interrelation of the conflicting tendencies of resisting or embracing the chaos. Nietzsche asserts that Greek tragedy at its artistic height actually fuses these forces together. He believes that the greatest works of art are those in which the conflicting forces are perfectly pitched in creative balance.
We shall have gained much for the science of aesthetics when we have succeeded in perceiving directly, and not only through logical reasoning, that art derives its continuous development from the duality of the Apolline and Dionysiac; just as the reproduction of species depend on the duality of the sexes, with its constant conflicts and only periodically intervening reconciliations.
Whether we are discussing a specific painting, or the entirety of the journey of art through history, progress and renewal are achieved through this battle of the gods. The Apollonian drive brings the possibility of wholeness and balance to our fragmented existence. But with time and institutionalization, Apollo can become self-satisfied—bloated with his own importance—and then only Dionysus can come through to destroy that which has become stagnant, and reunite Man with his essential nature, the source of both his deepest terror and his most profound bliss.
With representational painting having been marginalized for so long as too unhip for the contemporary scene, in its current energetic resurgence, may we spend less time arguing the validity of one approach over another, but rather revel in the tremendous accomplishments that can be found within the rich field of painterly choice that lies open to us. Successful work in each category can lie anywhere within the range of the Apollonian/Dionysian dialectic. We see that Apollonian and Dionysian traits can take a myriad of forms within a single painting, and that every individual painter is responsible for finding the unique way in which these forces are pitched in his or her art. It is the suspended tension of both Apollo and Dionysus within a single work of art that can elevate a painting from simply competent to startlingly and poetically alive.
 M. Rogers, “Researchers debunk myth of “right brain” and “left-brain” personality trait.” (Online: University of Utah, Office of Public Affairs. 2013). Retrieved Feb. 22, 2014, from http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0071275
 Friedrich Nietzsche (Shaun Whiteside, trans.), The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 15.
 Arthur Schopenhauer (E.F.J. Payne, trans.), The World as Will and Representation, Vol. I (New York: Dover Publications, 1968), 352.
 Heinrich Wölfflin (M.D. Hottinger, trans.), Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Style in Later Art” (New York: Dover Books, 1950), 18. This edition is an unabridged and unaltered reprint of Hottinger’s 1932 translation of Wölfflin’s Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe (Berlin: G. Bell and Sons, Ltd., 1932).
 Idem., 11.
 Idem., 10.
 Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,” in Forum Lectures (Washington, D.C.: Voice of America, 1960).
 Dorie Baker, “The ‘made up’ world of artist William Bailey” (Online: Yale News, Dec. 10, 2010). Retrieved Feb. 24, 2014 from http://news.yale.edu/2010/12/10/made-world-artist-william-bailey.
 Randall Exon, “About the Artist” (Online: Randall Exon, 2010). Retrieved Feb. 24, 2014 from http://randallexon.com/Abouttheartist.html.
 Daniel Maidman, “Theophany: Kyle Staver’s Greek Myth Paintings at Tibor de Nagy Gallery” (Online: Huffington Post, Oct. 16, 2013). Retrieved Feb. 25, 2014 from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-maidman/theophany-kyle-stavers-gr_b_4102690.html.
 Allison Meier, “Neuroaesthetic Research Probes Link Between Art, Perception, and the Self” (Online: Hyperallergic, Jan. 23, 2014). Retrieved Feb. 25, 2014 from http://hyperallergic.com/104767/neuroaesthetic-research-probes-link-between-art-perception-and-the-self/.
 Nietzsche, 14.]]>
I am honored that Ann Gale agreed to this telephone interview and thank her greatly for being so generous with her time and attention with sharing thoughts about her art and process.
Ann Gale is a leading American figurative painter living in Seattle. Her portraits were shown alongside other leading painters of the figure such as Lucian Freud, Nathan Oliveira and Alex Kanevsky in the 2011 exhibition “HEADS” curated by Peter Selz at her San Francisco Dolby Chadwick Gallery.
The JSS in Civita, (Civita Castellana, Italy) recently announced that Ann Gale will be the 2015 JSS in Civita Master Class Guest-of–Honor. Ms. Gale will be in residence July 13th to August 3th. Here is a link for more information on her workshop in Italy.
In a January 2013 review for Visual Art Source DeWitt Cheng wrote:
“…Gale’s paintings, which require months and even years to complete, are aggregations of thousands of brushstrokes (Cézanne’s colored oil-paint patches and Giacometti’s feathery, tremulous graphite contours come to mind) that alternate, depending on the viewer’s distance, angle of view and degree of focus, between heavily textured natural surfaces (bark, lichen) and sharply observed studies of atmosphere and anatomy. Look very closely, and a myriad of tiny abstractions spring into view, with every square inch graphically charged with energy.”
Another review in Art ltd. magazine by Richard Speer writes:
“…Gale paints the kind of visages and physiognomies you might expect to see beneath Seattle’s heavy gray skies: ashen, Zoloft-ready men and women hunched before muted, putty-colored backgrounds—and yet the artist enlivens her subjects via twinkly, impressionistic brushstrokes that pop and recede with Hofmann-like push/pull. This is Gale’s viewpoint and paradox: a scintillating technique deployed in the service of an enervating sense of desolation.”
…When the painting is finished, the images do not always resemble their subjects in the standard realist sense—which suits the artist just fine. “Likeness doesn’t drive the work at this point; accuracy does,” she explains. “But it’s not accuracy to the model; it’s accuracy to my perception, and that’s a very different thing.”
Her many prestigious accomplishments include a 2007 solo exhibition at the Portland Art Museum as well as the Falk Art Museum at the University of North Carolina in 2009. Gale received a Guggenheim fellowship in 2007 and a Washington Arts Council fellowship in 2006. Gale is currently Full Professor of Fine Arts at the University of Washington, Seattle and is represented by Dolby Chadwick Gallery in San Francisco where her solo exhibition in 2012 has a catalog which can be obtained from the gallery website. Ms. Gale is also represented by Prographica Gallery in Seattle and have a January exhibition at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects in NY.
Larry Groff: Can you tell us a little about your early years and what influenced you to become a painter? I understand your mother was an artist. What was art school like for you?
Ann Gale: My mother is still painting, in fact I’ll call her today to see if she’s painting. Obviously that was very much an influence and support for me. It still is, it’s nice to have somebody to call me and ask “did you paint today?”
LG: What kind of painting does your mother make?
AG: She does watercolor landscapes. She worked in oils when I was young and I was allowed to draw all the time. If I was drawing I didn’t have to do my chores, which was excellent! I think it still works like that for me a little.
In school, I was fortunate to have art teachers that gave me instruction and time to work in school. They challenged me with different ideas to improve and go beyond what I was doing, even in grade school and middle school. I went to undergraduate school at Rhode Island College and I had great professors Sam Ames, a figurative painter, and Don Smith, an abstract painter. They had a way of teaching me to pay attention to a painting. I found undergraduate school very humbling. I began school thinking that I knew how to draw and soon realized I had a great deal to learn. I was so happy to get into Yale/Norfolk summer program. There, I was exposed to a very diverse group of students and faculty that opened up my idea of what painting could be, what the language was like. I felt kind of untethered. I didn’t know what to do there.
LG: At Norfolk did you ever feel that there was a stigma or less support towards work done from observation or did that not seem to matter?
AG: No. Working from observation wasn’t stigmatized, but I also don’t think it had any authority. It was interesting to see the kinds of leveling of everything.
Graduate school was kind of similar, only bigger, more intense. William Bailey, Andrew Forge and Bernie Chaet were at Yale then. We talked more about painting than figuration. It really gave me a vocabulary for that discussion in my own studio practice – considering what I valued in the painting, not just in the picture. Andrew Forge once asked us to define our assumptions in painting. This is something I continue to think about.
LG: I’ve heard the critiques at Yale could often be very pointed, even brutal sometimes. Did you find that experience?
AG: Yes, I sometimes felt vulnerable and exposed. Often the critiques were difficult because they were saying something I was trying not to say to myself.
LG: What have been some of your most important influences that shaped how you paint today?
AG: I am very curious and sometimes obsessive about observation. It is very intense to just be close to somebody and to be looking at their face and down at their lap and being aware of their gravity and proximity. I have been influenced by painters who reveal the intense experience of observation in their work. One of the artists that I found and studied when I was an undergraduate, was Antonio Lopez Garcia. We went down to New York for his show.
LG: That was his earlier show in NYC in 1986 at his Marlborough Fine Art gallery.
AG: Right, I remember standing next to my teacher and him slapping me on the back, saying “breathe, you’re not breathing!” I had seen paintings that were accurate like photo-realism or work that was powerful, like Italian Baroque painting, but I hadn’t felt this before. I couldn’t forget it and it was intriguing that painting could do that. That it could pull me into it’s world. It had a very human sensation to it. I always wondered what is it that isn’t just information—he seems to have transcended that. I remember when that big catalog came out. I ordered it and sat on my doorstep every day waiting for the mailman, waiting for it to arrive.
LG: That’s an amazing book, The Rizzoli Catalog, it’s probably my favorite and most used artbook. Did you get to see his big show at the Boston MFA?
AG: No, I didn’t get to see the show in Boston. That was horrible to miss that show.
As an undergraduate my teachers showed me Edwin Dickinson’s work, which I found incredibly mysterious and intimate. I also found a little black and white catalog that included British figurative paintings. These painters weren’t as well known at the time, William Coldstream, Lucian Freud, Patrick George, Uglow, Kossoff… I was interested in how the process of perception was present in the work. It was almost like they were mapping their sensation. It reminded me of Giacometti. I became obsessed over that little group of paintings. And then when I was at Norfolk we went to visit the British Museum and I was taken by the back of the collar by one of the teachers and made to sit in front of Kossoff and the Auerbach – saying I should not leave until I sat there. I had seen these pieces in reproduction but it was important to see the touch and the way they seemingly transform, revealing the fleshiness of the paint. That doesn’t reproduce very well, that feeling that I really like about painting. To understand some things about a painting I needed to sit in front of it for some time. So those groups of representational paintings especially, really interested me in school and since.
LG: Is your painting dependent on the model being in front of you in the exact same position? How critical is working directly from life in your work in terms of trying to the sitter’s exact likeness, proportions, skin-tones and such?
AG: I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. I think it has been changing in my work, how I think about it. I’m used to the tradition of working with the model, where I mark the model and the model tries to sit still in the same place. My studio used to look like a dance studio because I marked my feet where I was standing. It looked like these little shoe-prints everywhere. If I moved a couple of feet closer I would re-mark how everything would change relative to where I was standing. Recently I’ve had a couple of paintings and drawings where the model changed and I followed the change in my painting. I usually have the model in 3 hour sessions and about 2 hours into the session, the model looks different, they give up to gravity, they’re thinking about something else now. My attention seems clearer. There is something more honest in it. So I found myself following that adjustment a lot in my work. Even my own place, I would move in or out and that would change things in the painting. In a technical way, it can make a big muddy mess but it can keep it open. I had to reexamine these same proportions repeatedly. It wasn’t just measuring precision but the idea of re-measuring and re-finding something has become more interesting to me now. Also many of these paintings, the larger ones especially, have gone on for a very long time and sometimes people change. They have gotten ill or they’ve gotten well, their life circumstances have changed. It’s not something I want to ignore; it’s something I want to watch. It’s more truthful; things are constantly changing. When I’m willing to give up what I have, what I see in the painting feels more conscious, more alive.
LG: I remember once reading a quote from Edwin Dickinson, I think, that I something like “a painter should always be paying the model and not the other way around.”
AG: That is probably very good advice.
LG: I’m curious to hear more about your measuring and searching. Would you say measuring helps to free up the painting process; that searching for truth through measuring helps turn off the inclination to paint preconceived notions and helps to keep the painting open?
AG: Yes, The search becomes part of the subject of the painting. The figure is so familiar, it is challenging to see past prejudged ideals of the body and face. Measuring can provide an objective lens for perception.
LG: I find that so fascinating because it seems so counterintuitive that the more you search for accurate mark or tone could be more liberating than with loose, bravura-style brush work. That the actual observation and exactitude doesn’t have to be constraining, like with painters like Euan Uglow with his obsessive measuring, with all his little position marks on the wall.
AG: I was able to see a less finished piece by Uglow a long time ago. It was of back-to-back women, it wasn’t a large painting. It looked like a little study with a very limited palette. I like how he was using that limitation to really ask a precise question about relative measuring.
LG: Your work seems different though, as if the measurement is on a whole other level. It’s not just about measuring; it goes beyond that in a way. Would you say that is true?
AG: There are different kinds of measuring. I have a broad definition of measuring. You used the term that it could be liberating. I think it is, it’s incredibly liberating if I let it take me somewhere. I think I was really struggling with color within figure/ground relationships. I then changed the way I was observing and measuring color. Instead of trying to achieve some correctness about the background or the part of the body, I tried to be accurate the light and how the color could find the light. I had to keep standing back and asking, “is that the color relationship or not?”—so it’s half-measuring and half-feeling because light is very much a sensation, much harder to measure in an objective way.
LG: Is there a point where the painting takes on a life of it’s own? Do you respond as much to what you are seeing in the painting as much as seeing on the model?
AG: I try to spend more time with the painting than with the model. Though I’m not always responding, actually putting paint on. Recently I’ve been drawing a lot from my painting. Sometimes I have to turn them to wall and not look at them for a while because I have them memorized, I can’t see them objectively anymore. I have a huge six foot by six foot rolling mirror in my studio and I can look at things through that and that’s helpful but then I just know it too well. But after I’m away from it for a time, I’ll go back and draw from it before the model comes.
LG: While looking at the painting, or the memory of the painting?
AG: Though I occasionally draw from memory, usually I am looking at the painting. I try to draw what I really see. Trying to objectively understand what’s going on in the painting, treating the painting like it’s the subject of the drawing, just drawing it, what I see—not what I may want it to be.
Lately, I’ve also been doing this after the model leaves. I have maybe a 20-minute ride from home and back. I try to use that time to digest what I’m thinking about in my painting. So at the end of the painting day I’ve been writing a little notes, because it feels like things are clearer just as the model is leaving, of what to pay attention to when I come back.
LG: You never really work on the painting when the model isn’t there in front of you?
AG: I do but it is more often editing or refining relationships, than putting things in. I might wipe areas out or scrape things together so that I have to deal with them again.
LG: Do you scrape things down frequently and then build up or is your process more additive? Or is it half and half—additive and subtractive?
AG: It’s both. If I’m only adding paint everything gets very flat so I try to think about there being an inside where I can push a mark into the space of the painting. I admire the palpable sense of atmosphere in Edwin Dickenson’s paintings as he scraped and blurred spots of color with his little finger. Lately I feel like I want to pick marks up and slide other marks underneath but I haven’t figured out how yet. I often have to rebuild spatial intersections.
LG: I haven’t seen your paintings in real life only these higher resolution images give us a glimpse of what your surfaces must be like. I imagine there is a lot going into the building of those surfaces, with taking off and putting on and all kinds of fantastic maneuvers to make those surfaces.
AG: The surfaces are produced from the accumulation of measurements. Pushing areas together pulling apart, scraping and rebuilding. Some areas get dense but I don’t usually let them get too thick because that can hide some optical relationships.
LG: How do you approach measuring when painting? Is the underlying grid important or do you prefer to do it all more by sight or feel? Do your marks result from measurement or relating forms to an underlying structure or grid? Some of the marks seem to have little to do with a grid and are more turbulent while others seem meditative. Is this something you can talk to us about?
AG: Some of it is very much about the grid, so I was happy to hear that word in your question. It’s always there in the rectangle, very present in my observation. I think it helps to measure against it. To see a gesture compared to a vertical is much more sensitive.
So I’ll follow a lot of those, like plum-lines and horizontals, through the picture to try to see the gesture of the figure, from the knees up through the body to the top of the head. I can get a long measurement with some of the grid lines and I do that a lot in my drawings too. Actually, it’s easier in drawings because I can pull that skinny little line through anything. I’m trying to learn that in my paintings.
Other things are not so much a grid but a linear movement where I’ll follow something that is like a ribbon through space. I think it’s the direction my eye is taking. I might go from the floor, over someone’s lap and into the background. I think of it as kind of a path through the painting and through the figure. I’ll repeat that several times, sometimes I’ll cover an area of the painting so that I can travel through the painting and avoid filling in, or getting stuck on some nameable object, a chair or a head.
As I’m observing, I’m trying not to follow the things with names, I’m trying to follow my way between them and through them. So I’m thinking of either that grid that hangs through everything or these other paths that are available that move through the figure and space.
LG: Why do you fragment the form and not paint it in continuous tones or broader tones? Are you trying to paint the atmosphere around the head as much as the head itself?
AG: The fragmentation is the residue of repeatedly measuring with pieces of color. Sometimes when I look at a piece of color in space, near the figure on the wall, sometimes it almost feels like that color is almost pushing on the figure and sometimes it feels that it’s sliding behind it. I know where the wall is but I’m trying to look at what’s that little moment of color doing. I try to mark each piece of color relative to one or two other pieces of color. I’ll often find three pieces of color, forming a triangle in space that goes in and out of the figure. I’ll revisit and readjust them. This accumulates into the atmosphere of the painting.
LG: So with the shapes of your mark-making, you mentioned you might find a triangular shape of color that goes in and out of the figure. How do you determine those shapes? Is it more of an intuitive thing? What are your thoughts about your mark-making and what determines their shape or quality?
AG: What determines what I pay attention to?
LG: Some of your marks seem very slow, careful and meditative and others seem more turbulent, gestural and less on a grid. So I’m curious how you determine the shape of these marks.
AG: I think I know what you mean. Some things I observe, I have to slow down and be very calculated and the mark would then do the same thing. I’ll add little, short marks will that are trying to tighten up some little calculation or comparison. Things like the gesture, trying to get the weight or the movement through space or any kind of bigger gestural comparison is more accurate if I’m doing it faster. Like a 30 second gesture drawing can sometimes be more accurate in terms of gesture than spending an hour on it.
LG: Right, that’s a good way of saying it.
AG: It’s necessary in my painting to make those big gestural movements.
LG: I love how you control the form openness, closing and opening the edges in and out with the background, we really can breathe the air in your paintings. I’m curious to hear about your edges. Do you manipulate edges with the knife or mix color on the canvas or do you mainly just mix on the palette and leave the brush stroke alone once applied?
AG: I mix my paint on the palette. I’ll put the color down and try to see if it looks different on the palette than it looks in the context of the painting. (I might ask myself) Is that right or does it need to be a little more intense or a little darker compared to some other color? I’ll mix a new version of the color on my palette. I don’t blend in the painting. But some of the marks get bent or pushed in because I’m measuring space. I have to let go of one thing to do another, sometimes I have to say to hell with the color for a little while because I need to consider how measure and manipulate the space. To do that I might need to manipulate the thickness of the mark or the clarity of the mark or edge.
LG: Is there anything that tends to give you the most trouble in a painting?
AG: I think getting something significant overall when I stand back. I don’t know what I would call it. Sometimes all the little parts that I’m working on any painting will be there, but then there’s a bigger more elusive relationship…
LG: Like with a color relationship?
AG: Certainly, sometimes I can get the little neighborhoods of color to work however the big ones will be difficult. Especially on a large painting I have a lot of little marks and so I struggle with standing back a lot I wish I had an eight foot brush I could paint with because I can’t see the whole painting while I’m painting. But it’s also the representation, does it feel like something is in there, is there a consciousness, an intensity of moment inside the painting. That’s not just something I can put in. I have to keep paying attention to the whole and remember to question that. That’s why I’ll often do a lot of little drawings of the painting. Something has to work on a larger scale in the painting and that’s difficult.
LG: In an earlier interview you said: “I started to look at people in terms of their color environment and the presence had to do a lot with not just the local color of themselves but what color they seemed in a certain situation”. Does this play a role in getting unity in your paintings? What might you share with regard to unity and harmony in painting?
AG: I started to think about the phenomena of color when I had this wonderful model with a pale yellow skin. And it seemed like she had almost a purple shadow going down her torso but when I tried to paint it, it wasn’t purple at all even though it seemed purple. I had to get everything in the painting to have kind of golden hue. I could then see that the purple was really just a bit less gold color than the other colors. This was a great learning experience. I may easily name what an individual color is but the phenomena of the color, what the color feels like, requires a sensitivity to the larger context.
LG: So you build the whole painting around making the sensation of that color happen?
AG: Often that will be a key, a measurement that I will keep going back to and so it’s a way of unifying the painting. And a way of getting one presence that goes through the whole painting. In a sense, the gesture of color.
Cézanne is reported to have said:
“Art which does not have emotion as its principle is not an art…Emotion is the principle, the beginning and the end, the craft, the objective, the execution is in the middle.”
LG: Would you say that painting from life is as much about optics as the experience of being in a place and connecting with the thing you are painting?
AG: I admire work that is about optics and work that is more concerned with emotion. But with me, in terms of optics, there is kind of emotional or psychological connection that I am pursuing.
LG: Right, some painters may worry about risking sentimentality, that emotionalism might detract from the formal concerns and prefer a detachment in their work. Your paintings seem to have a good balance between the formal and the humanistic. Your work seems to go beyond the optical experience. Can you speak about that?
AG: I think being precise with the formal language brings specificity and weight to the subject, emotional or whatever the subject may be. Though we can speak about these concepts separately, in a painting I think of them together. During the adjustment of the figure, the space and the light itself becomes an emotional character. While there is a precision to the measuring, there is also an intimacy that is revealed and equally crucial to the process. Though the figures are abstracted through this process, they are not neutralized as subjects.
LG: Can you tell us something about the role your relationship with the sitter plays? Are these people you know? Would you say you are also trying to evoke an emotional presence in the paint? Do you start the painting with this thought in mind or does the painting have to evolve on it’s own terms?
AG: It starts in different ways. It can start with a memory. I’ve painted some models for many years and have spent a lot of time with them and so now have specific memories of them and I will do the painting to deal with that memory. Sometimes it refers more to another person that they remind me of, or an older memory of someone else. But often it transforms into something else because of the immediacy of what I’m actually looking at. And so it becomes this conversation between what I’ve started with and what I’m observing in the moment.
Often it has to do with the light. As the quality of light changes through the year, it transforms the emotional character of the painting. I struggle with how to continue. Lately I’ve been very interested in taking that leap and following the observation wherever it’s going. If I can be open to that, it might give me a fresh eye, like “I haven’t seen this before, or I haven’t noticed this feeling about this person before.” So the painting will show me something that I’m lucky to see and I’ll grab onto that. The emotional character of the people is a tangle of things they remind me of and how they’re changing in front of me.
LG: Would you say these things that remind you of something causes you to transcend the specifics of that sitter to something more universal or beyond that person?
AG: Usually it’s something more intimate, something may remind me of the way my father sat, one of those emotional characters in my life. That memory helps me pay attention to the sitter more acutely.
LG: What do you think about figurative painting today? Who are some people that excite you most and why?
AG: My studio is filled with a lot of catalogs and books and cards on the wall. It doesn’t seem to matter if it is new. I also don’t just look at figurative painters, I really admire Jake Berthot’s paintings and drawings, as well as Stuart Shils paintings, Alex Kanevsky – Alex has a space that feels like a strange dream or memory, Sangram Majumdar has such beautiful color, color as subject, he understands color. I think some sculptors are interesting, especially the way they draw, like Rachael Whiteread. Her drawings are really sensitive and beautiful and Marlene Dumas is making some very powerful paintings.
LG: You will be teaching this summer in Italy at the JSS summer program in Civita where many students will be painting outdoor landscapes – any thoughts on how teaching painting the figure will differ from the landscape? Or do you think that is even an issue?
AG: It’s mostly perceptual painting. So with just those two words there is plenty to talk about. What is it you think you are seeing and how are you building the painting. I love looking at landscape painting. I often look at landscape paintings for a sense of the whole. I feel there can be a sense of whole, like an epiphany, I feel like I can understand the whole thing in a landscape.
I’m looking forward to discussing landscape paintings because it’s something I look at a lot. We will have many common things such as light, space, mark and paint. I’m really looking forward to seeing the light in Italy again. I haven’t painted over there in awhile. The last time it shook up my palette, making me realize I had a lot of color habits that I didn’t even know I had. Painting in such a different climate, it really taught me a lot.
LG: I imagine painting indoors and outdoors would be a significant difference too in terms of your palette.
AG: That’s a hard thing to learn too, to be efficient and have studio or painting habits that will work. Actually right before we talked I was meeting with a graduate student who I just sent out in the rain to paint. You have to figure out a way to do it. I admire that about landscape painters, they figure out a way. Deciding what they really need to bring with them and how to get it done. There is something great about alla prima painting too. It makes you decide on your priorities, what do you really need to resolve before you walk away. It’s good to be faced with those questions.
LG: Do you plan on painting landscape yourself? Are you bringing your painting supplies?
AG: I hope so, I’m not sure what the set up is yet. All I know is that it can be hot.
LG: Sometimes it can be, but if you get up early and find shade it’s not bad.
AG: I will probably bring some supplies and I will be traveling after the program’s over with my family. I’m sure I will at least do some drawing and studies.
LG: The JSS has so many terrific excursions to see all the great museums, churches and places. My favorite is the Morandi Museum in Bologna, just fabulous.
AG: Just that would be worth the trip.
LG: What qualities do you think a great painting teacher should have?
AG: I’ve learned the hard way that I can’t really tell my students a lot or force them to understand. I’ve learned to take my time. I’m a better teacher when I’m asking them a pertinent question, one that gets them to look at the painting for the answer. Even in a beginning class I’m a better teacher when I’m getting them to be their own critic. I’m giving them the questions to ask of their work, so they can better critique their paintings. So they can make decisions that aren’t just for technical reasons, something bigger than that. Sometimes it’s hard to take that time, when I’m in a hurry I’m tempted to give them the easier answer and show them a way to fix something but I don’t think that’s being a good teacher. I have to take my time and ask questions that will make them really consider their paintings.
LG: When is your next show? Where can we see your work?
AG: My first show at the Steve Harvey this coming January. I’m very excited about my first show with Steve Harvey, I’m crossing my fingers. I admire the painters he shows. The following year I have a show at the Dolby Chadwick in San Francisco.
A couple of weeks ago I saw Ann Lofquist’s solo exhibition of recent landscapes at the Craig Krull Gallery in Los Angeles. A delightful show of California landscapes, roughly divided between views of distant urban views along the southern California coast and of pastoral areas between the Santa Ynez Valley and Paso Robles in the California interior. I am often attracted to paintings of things the way they are found in nature, respecting its subtle tones and mysterious,idiosyncratic forms. Lofquist shows remarkable depth in her visual investigations, especially with evoking the play of light during dusk and other fleeting moments. The larger sustained work pulled me closer to observe the mesmerizing qualities of the painterly touch of her brushwork and how the painting worked both close up and standing back, where the underlying structure with its pathways and rhythms of color, line and shape relationships unifies these engaging compositions.
I’m delighted to get the opportunity to learn about her work and thank Ms. Lofquist for taking the time out of her busy painting schedule to answer some questions I sent to her by email.
Larry Groff: Please tell us how you to decided to become a painter and who or what have been some of your greatest influences?
Ann Lofquist I attended public school in Bethesda, Maryland, and while in high school I was fortunate to have an exceptional art teacher named Walt Bartman. It’s fair to say that he significantly influenced the direction of my life. As students we were encouraged to paint perceptually, in acrylics. I remember sensing that my eyes were beginning to really see for the first time and that the world was beautiful. It was like first love.
LG: What was art school like for you?
AL: I attended Washington University in St. Louis, which is has an art school incorporated into a larger university. In college we were allotted individual studio spaces, and I was conditioned to believe that the studio is the setting where art should be made. Most of us were abstract painters at that time (early eighties.) I remember that we were preoccupied with trying to do something which was stylistically new — in fact, it was almost an obsession. The problem was that we were looking at other art for inspiration, and naturally our work ended up being very derivative.
However, art school was where I developed the discipline to sustain the development of a painting over a long period of time. I was also introduced to oil paints, which continue to dazzle and bedevil me to this day. In my studio work, I still retain something of the organic working process of my abstract paintings, where the final image is the result of trial and error, addition and reduction, etc.
When I left art school, I worked a couple of years before going back to grad school. When I was working in isolation, I realized that in order to sustain me, my paintings had to directly address my visible surroundings. I also realized that I had lost something of the joy and wonder I experienced as a high school painter. In grad school I came to the realization that landscape was going to be my subject, but I had forgotten what it felt like to work outdoors. I was trying to invent complicated landscapes in the studio without the visual store of information acquired from direct observation. Since then I have tried to find a balance between perceptual and studio painting.
LG: What sorts of things do you look for in nature and what determines your selection? How much does your initial selection determine your final composition?
AL: I think many of us have had the experience of a stab of joy and longing when looking at nature; I certainly have and I’m trying to recapture those moments in my paintings. I’ve found over the years that I unconsciously gravitate towards certain subjects: a certain scale of space (not too vast) which I think is accessible to the human scale. I am also attracted to a landscape which has been shaped by the human presence. Over and over again I’m moved to paint old trees, roads, streams, tracks in the fields or in the snow, and erosion. Many of these subjects are evocations of the passage of time, and I suspect that’s why they move me.
I also prefer the light of the late afternoon/early evening, probably for the same reason. Painting in the morning is problematic for me because I’m a night-owl and hate to get up before dawn. I’m also more attracted to the sense of emotional reflection suggested by the end of the day.
When I go out to paint, the selection of a site is often a long and difficult process — I am looking for a certain combination of subject, space, and atmosphere and have spent countless hours driving up and down country roads looking for the right spot. Once I find a site which pleases me, I tend to go back many times and paint it at different times of day, different seasons, etc. This kind of intimate association with a particular place often bears fruit when I begin studio canvases.
As an aside, the DeLorme Company prints wonderfully detailed atlases (including topography and vegetation) of each of the fifty states. I’ve found them to be an invaluable resource.
LG: Do you use the viewfinder and/or thumbnail drawings?
AL: I don’t use a viewfinder or do thumbnails; often I find myself with “composition regret” when I get a painting back into the studio. However, I usually go into the field with several panels of different dimensions so I can choose a rectangle which suits a particular view. Panels are also convenient in that they can be cut down and resized. Of course, If I’m going back to a familiar place I know in advance what kind of panels to bring.
LG: I’ve read that your larger studio paintings are based on smaller paintings done from observation. Do you make these plein air studies with the big studio painting in mind or do you just paint what captures your interest and then later select out one you think would work for a larger painting.
AL: When selecting a site for a plein air painting, I definitely consider whether or not it has the potential to “bear fruit” and become a studio canvas. Often times I pass on painting an appealing subject because I know I wouldn’t want to develop it into a larger painting. However, sometimes when I’m not able to travel with oils, I paint in watercolor and gouache in a hard-bound sketchbook. When working in this format I feel free to paint anything that catches my eye — interiors, people, pets.
LG: Can you tell us something about your process? Do you work from photos as well as your studies?
AL: All of my large paintings are based on perceptual experiences. I have a wall in my studio which is covered with plein air panels from which I derive my studio work. I do find photographs to be useful in supplying me with an extra level of detail (especially when dealing with architectural elements.) Perhaps my equipment is not the best, but I can’t rely on photographs for reliable color information. I have tried to do large paintings solely from photographs, but they were a failure. For me there’s no substitute for the rigorous observation of perceptual painting.
LG: How much do you work out the drawing before starting in with color?
AL: As a rule I don’t draw at all (if one defines drawing as working in black and white.) Even my sketchbook is filled with tiny little watercolors. When beginning an oil painting, I might sketch in a few reference lines but I start blocking in color almost immediately. I usually don’t have problems with proportion/placement if I keep to painting shapes. When painting plein air I work on plywood panels with a colored ground, usually gray or brown. The only time I work on a plein air more than one day is when I’m painting at dusk when the light effect only lasts a few minutes.
In the studio, when I’m reinventing my plein air experiences, I start by simply copying the small study I’ve chosen onto a larger canvas. Early on I’ll use large brushes so I can cover a lot of ground quickly. Once again, I do very little delineation and start blocking in color from the start. The studio paintings are really the result of a trial-and-error process and go through many revisions. Often I find myself moving away from the original perceptual source and begin to invent/alter the original subject. If the surface gets too built up, I’ll go in with a palm sander.
Since moving West, I’ve begun a body of work dealing with the urban sprawl of Southern California. I’ve found that painting subjects with lots of architecture really cramps my style… I have a very poor capacity for inventing buildings (I’m pretty good with trees and natural forms) and I have to rely on reference photos more than when I’m painting pastoral subjects. I’ve painted some Los Angeles vistas and I feel a responsibility to paint specific buildings accurately and that limits my ability to change or reinvent my subject as I might like.
LG: What colors do you put on your palette?
AL: My palette is pretty simple: titanium white, ivory black, burnt umber, burnt sienna, sap green, cad. lemon, yellow med, red and orange, yellow ochre, diozaline purple, ultramarine blue, cerulean blue, and some kind of rose/alizarin. (Pretty much your basic art school palette except that I’m too cheap to buy cobalt blue.) I won’t use any of the pthalo dye colors — their tinting strength is just too strong for me. My brushes are all the cheapo soft nylon types from the craft store. I leave them standing face down in the turp jar — I never clean them — and they get distorted into an interesting cauliflower-type shape which I love for getting soft edges. I also paint on an oil ground applied with a knife over a rabbit-skin glue sizing.
One last peculiarity of mine is a dislike of easels. In the studio I mount my canvases on the wall. When working outdoors, I prefer to sit on the ground where I often rest my painting arm on my knee. I find this gives me more control over the brush. In bad weather (or bad neighborhoods) I’ll paint in my car, with the panel balanced on the steering wheel and my palette on the passenger seat.
LG: Some outdoor painters say the visual excitement of changing light and the surprises of nature infuses life into their painting. How do you generate excitement in the studio and keep the painting fresh and alive?
AL: Of course, the ever-changing subject is the great challenge of landscape painting. When painting outdoors I feel a manic urgency to absorb as much information as I can as quickly as possible — a kind of hyper-concentration — and I suppose this results in a kind of vitality in the painting. In the studio, freshness is not a big priority for me. I think of plein air paintings as having the “freshness of youth” while studio paintings can have a more mature kind of beauty born from slow consideration.
LG: What excites you most about painting?
AL: When I was teaching, I used to tell my students that for artists the important thing is to know what you love. Then it should be clear what it is you want to paint and what you intend to say. This is all very glib — knowing what you truly love is not as simple as it sounds, regarding people as well as painting! However, in my own case I mentioned that stab of joyous longing which I sometimes experience when I see something wondrous in nature. Painting can make that sentiment durable. I think that is where my heart lies.
LG: Many California plein air landscape painters go for a quick, impressionistic painting with broad strokes and vibrant color. Both your studio and outdoor work seem slower, tonal, restrained and carefully studied, perhaps more in the tradition of George Inness, John Henry Twachtman, Frederic Church or Corot. I understand you moved from the East Coast to California just a few years ago.
Do you think your work has changed much from this move? Can you say something about what differences you’ve found in East vs West Coast painting?
AL: It’s important to me to paint the surroundings of my current life. (Friends have encouraged me to take a trip back East to do some plein airs and do some more New England studio paintings, but that just wouldn’t feel “honest” to me.) So of course my work has changed — I’m trying to come to terms with a whole new subject. I tell myself that it’s good to get out of one’s comfort zone, although I moved to California for family reasons, not artistic ones. I miss the New England landscape terribly and often dream of it.
Recently I’ve been working on two bodies of work. One is of pastoral scenes based on midcoast vistas which are a little reminiscent of my East Coast paintings. In New England I loved painting in the autumn and winter. Here in California when the trees are losing their leaves in December, the grass is just waking up and turning green! The other body of work is of more urban views. I’m attracted to the margins where the city meets the native chaparral and coyotes and mountain lions live within sight of ten million people. I’ve also become enamored of night vistas. The light in Southern California is very distinctive and beautiful, especially at dusk. When in New England I often painted pasture streams meandering through fields. Here in CA our streams never seem to have water in them… highways at night have replaced streams in my paintings as metaphors of time and life’s journey.
LG: Would you say there is greater or less appreciation for landscape painting in the West Coast art world?
AL: I really don’t have much to say about East vs. West Coast landscape painting. I think there’s good and bad painting to be found everywhere.
LG: Many landscape painters are concerned with getting at the truth, capturing essential qualities of a place in paint, getting exactly the right color and right drawing. The truth often differs depending on the artist. If Corot, Cézanne, Van Gogh all made paintings in exactly the same spot, obviously each painter would have made completely different but equally truthful paintings.
What does being truthful in painting mean to you?
AL: When I’m painting perceptually, my primary concern is to capture the combination of light, space, and form as faithfully as I can. If I end up with a little panel which I can put a frame on and exhibit and sell that’s a nice byproduct, but I think the real purpose is data collection. After choosing a subject and composition I’m not thinking about stylistic choices — the process is as unselfconscious as I can make it.
When I reinvent the images in the studio, this “data” is filtered through my personal sieve of experience and emotions and resembles more a depiction of a memory of place. When I get it right, I hope people seeing my work experience a “shock of recognition” of a real memory in their own lives, and that my paintings might enrich their future perceptions. I considered it the highest compliment when a friend told me, “the light last evening made me feel like I was inside one of your paintings.”
LG: Cézanne was known to have been critical of Impressionism at times and instead advocated “something more solid and durable, like the art of museums.”
Do you think there is a danger that the impressionistic plein air painting in going for sensation sometimes risks losing a formal structure?
AL: It’s hard to find fault with the best Impressionist painting; maybe its very accessibility prejudices people against it. However, like Cezanne, I am inclined more towards architecturally-inclined paintings. (I don’t mean “architectural” in the sense of painting buildings, but in the construction of space.) Bellini, Brueghel, and Poussin are my personal triumvirate. For me, working perceptually/responsively is essential to my process but not sustaining enough in itself. I also feel the need to construct. My challenge (unlike Cezanne’s) is to marry the architectural construction of a painting with a naturalistic evocation of light.
LG: Do you teach workshops or at a school? What advice would you give to young painters?
AL: I taught at Bowdoin College from 1990-96. Since then I’ve been “downwardly mobile” (another way of saying “painting full time.”) I’ve never thought to give workshops.
As I see it, young painters have to make a choice as to whether their work is going to be cynical and/or silly, or in earnest. I see this as the real divide in the art world today and unfortunately most of the financial success is in the first camp. I think art can be much more than a distorted mirror held up to reflect the shallowness of our popular culture, and I would encourage young painters to dare to take themselves and their ideas seriously.
At the risk of sounding like an old fart (I just turned fifty) I would also repeat to young painters two bits of advice which were given to me long ago. One teacher (David Lund) admonished us undergraduates to develop a work ethic combining intensity and sincerity. He told us that having a career in the arts is a great privilege, and that it was our duty to honor that privilege by never being half-assed about any aspect of our work. (Somehow I imagine David said it more eloquently than I just did!) My grad school advisor Bonnie Sklarski wisely told us that, “If you’re bored in your studio, it’s your own fault!”
Ms. Lofquist is represented by the Craig Krull Gallery in LA, Winfield Gallery in Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA and Gross/McLeaf Gallery in Philadelphia, PA she received her MFA from Indiana University in 1986 and her BFA at Washington University in St. Louis. She has had solo shows in numerous galleries including Skidmore Contemporary Art-Santa Monica, Spanierman Gallery- New York, Hackett-Freedman Gallery-San Francisco, Tatistchef & Co., New York]]>
Lisa Breslow will have a solo exhibition of new paintings and prints at Kathryn Markel Fine Arts November 20 – December 20, 2014 Opening Reception, Thursday, November 20th, 6:00-8:00pm (see the complete online version of the show from this link.
I saw my first Lisa Breslow cityscape painting this summer at the George Billis Gallery Cityscape group show. There were many sensational paintings, but her work held me there the longest. It wasn’t just another skillful rendering of details; she was finding something interesting to say pictorially that was unique to painting. Pushing the paint surface, color and design so that the painting itself was the true subject; not just recording the details of a picturesque view. Often the first thing a viewer might ask is “what’s this intersection or building?” as if once properly identifying the location they understood the painting and could move on. With Breslow’s work, the viewer slows down and is drawn closer to experience the artist’s transformation of the subject into a painting.
Regretfully, I won’t be able to see this current show until later in December but Ms. Breslow was kind to send me some higher resolution photos of the work which gave me an excellent preview of what to expect when I see the work later next month.
Ms. Breslow is a studio painter, working from a variety of sources including photos, drawing and memory. She seems less to be copying details in the photo and more like her brushes were responding to abstract currents buzzing through the grid of city streets. Perhaps like taking raw oscillographic waveforms and painterly transposing these urban sonic and visual sensations into pictorial vision. The cityscapes shimmer between a fuzzy representation and a hard-edged abstraction.
The emotional register of this body of work is dialed to a more serious channel for visual contemplation. Despite the loose touch everything here seems carefully considered and finds its place. There is nothing jarring, awkward or extraneous; it feels resolved. Formal issues such as the abstract structure, tonal unity and resonance of the colors, adherence to the grid and maintaining the flatness of the picture plane seem to be more important than describing and making inventory of the elements in a particular view.
First Snow and Yellow Light are my favorite urban views, not only for their exceptional design and subtle color sensations but also in the vigorous mark-making. I respond to the wider range of directionality and scale of her brushwork here as well as the delightful control and range of values- the blue black elevated line against the light snowy background is a knockout.
The color in her flower still-lifes is more vibrant and warm than the cityscapes. Despite their quiet and intimate nature, these still-lifes excite me by the gutsy way they are made. Her brushstrokes seem less guided by a need to conform to style or abstract master plan for the painting. Breslow seems less apt to reject suggestions from nature for the quality of the mark, which might help the work avoid the risks of predictability. Even though the light and space feels more naturalistic than the cityscapes, the painting retains its strong graphic, abstract directness.
from the Kathryn Markel Fine Arts press release:
Lisa Breslow has exhibited extensively in the United States, has been awarded two Pollock-Krasner Foundation awards, and received an award from the National Academy Museum in New York. She is a recipient of the J. Alden Weir residency in Connecticut and the Cawdor Residency in Scotland. Her work has been reviewed and featured in The New York Times, In New York Magazine, and Arts & Antiques among many others. Breslow has work in numerous collections in the US and abroad, including the Pfizer Corporation, Tiffany and Co., and General Electric.
Here is a link to watch the video from their site or on YouTube.
The Vision and Art Project, with A’Dora Phillips and Brian Schumacher, this past weekend released the video documentary of Lennart Anderson where he talks at length about his work, what has inspired him over the years, and his recent struggles with vision loss due to Macular Degeneration. A’Dora Phillips is the same person who contributed the wonderful interview, Seeing Along the Periphery, Getting at the Essence, with Lennart here on Painting Perceptions awhile back. This terrific new short video, with many memorable quotes and insightful discussions is part of a larger project called the Vision and the Art Project which has been writing about, interviewing and filming artists with macular degenerations.
One quote in the video really stood out for me,
“In a saner art world than ours, museums would be vying for the honor of mounting a major retrospective of Mr. Anderson’s work… Hilton Kramer, New York Observer.”
The video doesn’t just focus on how a great artist transcends the difficulties of a handicap but instead celebrates the amazing accomplishments of one of our greatest living painters.
Thier website has an a fascinating article on their site is about the acclaimed artist and illustrator Robert Andrew Parker that is a great read with excellent photography of their studio visit.
“The Vision and Art Project presents the adaptations that artists fold into their working progress, the challenges they face, the resilience and durability of their vision, and the extraordinary work they continue to produce in the face of adversity…”
“Eventually one in four adults, including artists, may live with diminished sight due to Age-related Macular Degeneration. It is our hope in underwriting the efforts of The Vision and Art Project that you, the reader, will find a source, month after month, for informative and stimulating writing about art and vision, and exceptional curatorial efforts bringing together some of today’s top visual artists who are themselves affected by macular degeneration and who produce work that is constantly, and in new ways, inspiring.”
— from the from The Vision and Art Project website.
The Vision and Art Project is supported by the American Macular Degeneration Foundation.
please consider supporting the American Macular Degeneration Foundation – for more information on their work see: https://www.macular.org/]]>
Thaddeus Radell wrote in his review of the 2013 Kyle Staver Tibor de Nagy Gallery show:
…“Staver is a brilliant inventor whose success lies in her commitment to her inner vision that is at once original and sophisticated and she is remarkably adept at rendering that vision into cohesive luminous constructs. From a broad, almost confused spectrum of diverse shapes and shielded color, she synthesizes clarity. And so she transforms the modest room allotted her into a theater of sorts, where the viewer can expand their own imagination by feeding into her ever-ebullient, seriously odd vision.”
I was fortunate to meet Kyle Staver recently and interview her at her home and studio in Brooklyn, NY. I’ve long been enchanted by her paintings and was excited to finally be able to see her work in person. I would like to again thank Kyle for taking the time to speak with me at length about her work and concerns as an artist.
I told her how much I marveled over her incredible compositions but it wasn’t just the formal beauty I responded to; it’s also the humanistic dimensions–I feel empathy with her characters and storytelling, that this was a refreshing reprieve from the grimmer examples of postmodernist nihilism and irony. She responded that it was critical that her paintings:
“communicate what it’s like to be a human being for Kyle Staver” and that “The humane part of painting for me, It’s just that I’m not a jerk.” She then went on to say that “It’s so much easier to say I hate you than it is to say I love you, there is nothing risked in saying fuck you, nothing; but everything is risked if you say I love you and mean it.” When I paint, I’m always trying to not pitch, if I have two figures close together and it’s romantic I want to hold it and give it teeth. I’m not against irony, I’m against a kind of ironic delivery system that only delivers the fuck you. If I made romantic paintings without the pull in the other direction, and I think that’s why a a painting needs irony, to keep the painting taut. I don’t want to be a sentimental painter or have the paintings be flabby. I think that the irony is the pull in the opposite direction.”
Kyle also discussed how important the community or tribe of artists has been for her growth as a painter. Kyle gives back to this tribe not just with her influential paintings, teaching and personal support to her many artist friends; but also with her Facebook postings, which for many painters around the world, has become an important new way to start their day, reflecting on the vast power and interconnectedness of art.
LG: What has been some of the most significant influences for you as an artist?
KS: Whether you’re writing, making music or going to a bar to talk to people, it’s all about connecting. I happen to find myself a visual thinker and maker. At a certain point in my life, a woman at a boarding school named Mrs. Moses told me she knew what was wrong with me and what was wrong with me was that I was an artist. She said that it was ok, that there was a whole tribe of artists and not only was there a whole tribe but there was a whole culture. Meaning I wasn’t the only person that did this.
If Mrs. Moses hadn’t told me that I was an artist I probably would’ve stayed in northern Minnesota making knit sweaters and macramé. I would have made things. Minnesota artists make marvelous things, I’m not dismissing that. It’s just that I had the good fortune of finding out that I needed to make things.
I had the great good fortune to have someone direct me to this great culture of visual making and communicating where I met my tribe. Natalie Charkow, who helped me apply to Yale – as she was going through my slides said “you know the one thing you need is you need more culture”, and that was exactly right. I knew nothing except I had to make.
LG: By culture she meant?
KS: That I didn’t know enough beyond a certain group of painters that I liked. I thought the sun rose and fell on Soutine. I still like him, but I don’t love him like I did, but that’s like thinking that when I moved to Brooklyn that Brooklyn was tiny but once I lived in Brooklyn it’s enormous. And so that’s all Natalie was saying to me, it’s wonderful to fall in love, to feel connection and feel like your nervous system is being understood by another artist.
LG: So you studied with Natalie Charkow Hollander? I’m curious how she may have influence your bas relief studies for your paintings.
KS: I studied with her at Yale. I took Natalie’s sculpture class and it was the best drawing class I ever had in my life. I started off as a non-figurative sculptor, came to painting late. I took Natalie’s class when I went to graduate school and she would have us do these little figure models. At the end of the day she would make us smash them telling us “no one would be making Christmas presents in her class“! You’d work on this piece and then she’d just make you trash it.
At one point we had to make a relief of a painting and of all the paintings in the world to choose from I chose a landscape by Van Gogh, a hay wagon in the middle of a yellow field. It has a massive space, a crazy thing to try and make a relief out of, I don’t know what I was thinking. This relief was extremely thick. Natalie said the best thing that could happen to you was to just drop your relief face down, flat on the ground. But after Natalie’s class I always built my paintings into very thick reliefs, I don’t know what Natalie would say about that but it helps me with some things in my paintings.
LG: When you say you build the painting you mean your clay moquettes, you make these bas relief as studies for paintings?
KS: No, I make them concurrently. I do a lot of different things when I’m working on a painting. Sometimes when I’m painting I get into a corner and I have a painting that’s like a mule that just sits down and no matter what I launch at it, it won’t move. So, if I back out of the stall, back out of the studio, make a print or work on a relief—I can usually find another way in—that the mule isn’t expecting. So everything that I do is alleys to plow back into the painting. I do build paintings, I do watercolors of them, I do a million drawings of them and it is all concurrent—it’s like the debris that the painting generates. But Natalie was the first person that I made a relief with.
LG: I’m curious to hear about Gretna Campbell who you studied with at Yale. What was it like to study with her there?
KS: Yale was an extraordinary place, a very exciting time—William Bailey was there, Lester Johnson, Mel Bochner, Andrew Forge, and Bernard Chaet. However, this was a boy’s club. Natalie was there some but Gretna Campbell was the only full full-time woman. Every time Gretna came into the studio it was to bring you a miracle, I’ll never forget this, she walked into my studio with a Bruegal book and flipped to a page and you probably know the painting there’s a figure and looks like his falling out of the painting and he is pointing at the back of him and there is a guy in a tree, do you know this Bruegel?
It was like a key in a lock that turned, and Gretna always told me that if I ever got my handle on space, I’d go to the moon. She said that where it’s happening, but I couldn’t get a handle on it. I knew I wanted it but I didn’t know how to see it, I couldn’t do it. And Bruegel was the key for me and that particular painting. I’ve never forgotten that painting. That’s how marvelous she was, she’d come into your studio and you’d be struggling, trying to keep your paint clean or something and she would give these little helpful hints like put your medium in one of those plastic squeeze soap bottles. and your like, “really?” “I’m at Yale at you’re telling me about soap bottles?” She said 20 years from now you’re not going to remember what Mr. FuddyDuddy said but you’ll have clean medium! It’s true, all of her tips about making paintings was enormously generous, humane and to the point. Like I say, she brought me miracles.
A professor, once came into my studio, I was making landscapes then-I’ve always been a representational painter— I had a big Birch tree in the painting, my paintings are always big, and he said “this object event over here…” I said you mean the Birch tree? No! this object event. I asked “are we talking about this Birch tree”? I didn’t know what an object event was and so blah,blah, blah…
So then next crit, in walks Gretna and says “what a beautiful Birch tree”…(laughs) and it’s not that this teacher didn’t have a point, it was important to see it as not a birch tree but Gretna believed in the importance of naming things. Gretna would recognize and take care of the personal connection, the actual love you had for the objects you were choosing, for the things you were trying to make. She never forgot that this was me trying to communicate to you and always recognized that as a kind of generous act.
LG: You stated that your paintings are always big, why is that?
KS: Because it’s a one-to-one ratio with me. I’ve gotten a lot of crap about the size of them but I make small prints, small reliefs, and lots of small stuff. I’ve tried but I have no interest in making small paintings.
LG: Do you see the large size as monumental?
KS: It’s a one-to-one relationship, like sitting here talking to you. I don’t have to have a ladder. These are my rules—so I can move the canvas myself, I can get it around the stairs, and that it’s on a one-to-one.
LG: Your paintings are big but the space is limited, constricted—you don’t have enormous vistas, the space is clearly defined and thoughtful space but it’s like you could only fit so many people into the painting, like in an elevator or something.
KS: I haven’t really thought much about that but I think of them more as holographs. They have to behave as shape… and to take something off the canvas I actually have to take out a permit. To have an arm be cropped, I have to apply for a permit. It’s such a serious thing to me to break my horror of elements going outside the boundaries of the canvas. I do it but only very cautiously because I think the minute you break that thing it’s like you bleed energy. I think that the more you crank down on it, the more taut it gets, the more it pounds the energy, to feel the force of those connections and shaping.
LG: You mentioned before about how important the composition is in your work where the subject in the painting as much about the composition as it is about anything like the story or myth. I know that’s probably true with most paintings but I’m curious to hear more of your thoughts on this. Your compositions are so intriguing and thought provoking.
KS: Well I like telling stories, they are important to me, the myths are a later in life development. The stories used to be personal but then I tried to turn them into something universal. At a certain point I took universal stories and tried to personalize them. So I now start with a story we all know. Some people don’t know myths, and I don’t know them very well either, believe me, I don’t know them very well. But I start with a story, boy meets girl, random stuff happens and you didn’t deserve it. Biblical stories are different are more like morality plays, myths are really trying to explain the cruel randomness of just trudging through your life. I think Bible stories are always like “you are bad so this happens” almost without exception, nobody’s bad in myths.
So the stories are important, myths are a universal telling or explanation of something that’s random thing and that’s just the way life goes, the random thing, so I like that. And that’s developmental—I’m at a certain age of my life where things happens and it’s not because I’m crummy, it’s just what happens.
LG: So you’ve never done any Biblical stories?
KS: Yeah I’ve just finished Jonah and the Whale, the old testament are better because God in the Old Testament is awfully random. Do you know what I mean?
LG: They are probably more directly connected to the original myth, like what Joesph Campbell might say about the connection from the Bible to pagan or other ancient myths.
KS: Yes they are all connected, so the stories are stories and then I particularize them or personalize them. Instead of trying to take a personal story and turn it into a universal truism, I take a universal truism and try to personalize them. Again and again, artists of mid-career to late-career do that. Lennart Anderson, his Idyls, you know he didn’t do those until sort of later on.
Composition is the delivery system, there are lots of different aspects of how the painting delivers its message. You need to have the horse firmly in hand or else you can’t do it. Composition helps me contain it and release the message in the way I want it.
LG: When you’re saying contain it, these forces, do you mean like a sense of balance of forces or weight? When you look at Titian or Rubens, they use various formal compositional theories and mathematical structures like the golden section or similar. You have your own, more intuitive balancing structure but perhaps done in a similar spirit as the old masters? Can you say something about how you think about this?
KS: I think of the canvas as an arena… I set up my rules, something going to happen and the painting must resolve, I don’t leave them hanging. Everything has to be accounted for, every piece of the painting has to be introduced and informed and in working order with the rest of the painting. There is nothing casual about the components of my painting’s relationships to everything else. There is nothing that I’ll let go. It’s like cat’s cradle and I’m in charge. How do I know if it’s working or not? It’s not a plan as if I were dismembering a bomb or something. You can read all you want about composition but until you’re there and you have your hands on; you can’t know. So it’s only in knowing the painting, so I feel my way through and I trust that. That’s my job.
LG: You do your job incredibly well. I’d like to ask you about your morning Facebook albums. I’m really curious about it as it’s had such a big effect in how many people start their day. I love how it get’s us thinking about the interconnectedness of the painting language, how so many paintings talk to each other as well as getting the painters themselves to literally start talking to each other on Facebook.
KS: I think we painters are a tribe and I think that a lot of painters are terribly isolated. Some or a lot of the reasons they are doing this, not just that they are visual thinkers but that they don’t interface well in social endeavors. So here we all are in our studios, wishing we had the life they have on commercials, so Facebook comes along and gives us an opportunity to communicate in our jammies with our coffee, safe. You sort of feel like I can do this, it’s just sort of built from there.
What I want to talk about to other painters is what I’m looking at. I’m working on a painting, I’ve got maybe something’s not going right, I’m looking at Titian cause Titian did it right and then I’m thinking that reminds me of that Renoir, Renoir must have been looking at him and then you go to look at the Renoir and then you realize there’s a cave painting and then all of a sudden I’m all over the map, I’m talking with all these other troglodytes in their jammies and coffee, and there saying no that Renoir doesn’t remind me of that, look at this and then all of a sudden my little tiny world becomes enormous.
All of a sudden I’m sent paintings from China and the world gets bigger, and then you say well, it’s Facebook. But that’s not all it does, because when I actually go out and I meet Facebook people I know them. You know it’s not like a dating service when you meet them and you think, eeww, oh god. You know we’ve talked maybe if it was a dating service it wouldn’t work but because we’ve talked about paintings, we’ve made our position clear; we actually do know each other. So it translates into the real world. So by doing these albums, and by problem solving or thinking out loud to my tribe, they have responded because it’s a safe way to respond. In doing so it’s changed all our lives. I’m sure they feel the same way when they go to an opening, they feel a little less overwhelmed, a less like I don’t know anybody—cause now we do.
So I think it’s a really good thing and for me it’s changed how I am in the world. I’ve gotten teaching jobs, and until I did this and started to write about what I think—I didn’t know I could do that, I didn’t know I could talk about painting this way.
LG: Are there any situations where people’s comments/submissions piss you off in some way? That you’ll feel this is an inappropriate use of my album. How do you handle that?
KS: I delete them and back message them saying I deleted your post, you’re welcome to participate but not in this spirit. Then there was a big deal when I don’t want people to post their own paintings. There was a groundswell a couple of months ago that was awful. I don’t mind occasionally, that’s terrific but it’s just not the format for that. Put it on your wall, I will come, we will come— the tribe will find you. This works because we’re not invested in it on a personal level, it’s not a… I post on my paintings on my wall if I have a show up or something happens then I use my wall to post it but not in that morning album format.
LG: What about someone who might, for whatever reason, post many, many paintings on a particular album?
KS: That’s another thing I’ve had to back message people about. I post three painting qne the maximum you can post is three.
LG: That sounds like a good rule to have, I didn’t know about it.
KS: If it happens one day I don’t say anything but if it’s consistent then I will step in. I don’t want to curb the excitement that somebody feels when they’re on a roll. So if you have one day that’s fine but the couple of people I’ve back messaged about this if was a consistent thing.
KS: There are usually a million different points at which my albums match, there will be a compositional thing, there will be like a frontal, there will be three quarters, there will be a certain scale, they should try to match them on as many points as possible, its not just subject matter. I had one the other day where trees marked space.
LG: I remember that one, a very good one.
KS: It wasn’t just about trees, it was trees that were making space, in their placement they were making space. So when people were posting stuff, some of them got it and came up with incredible things and some just posted generic forests. But I don’t care about that.
LG: So tell me this, if you could get all the points of connection (between the three paintings) possible that you could win a Kyle Staver’s Morning Album t-shirt or something?
KS: (Laughs) there is one woman who always back messages me and asks if she’s getting it… I thought that was very sweet and said yes that was a good (observation? – audio not clear) I’m saying this to you about the points I don’t make that public, I haven’t said that. I don’t make rules except the only you can’t post 5 thousand images and you can’t post your own work. So it has a life of its own, I have rules but I’m not a very good enforcer and it’s fine. There are a couple of times I’ve deleted paintings but it had to be so in my face.
When I have a good album there is nothing better. I have a great one for tomorrow; I’m a day ahead. A cartoonist once suggested to me that, to always make them a day ahead. I used to make them every morning very early and it takes me up to 45 minutes or so. But now I make them the day before.
ArtPneuma Video Interview with Kyle Staver Filmed by:
Sunny Miller (http://sunnymillerphoto.com/)
Feb 22, 2012 Interview by: David Campbell,Jay Walkerand Alison Stigora
Filmed by: Sunny Miller]]>
Blue Mountain Gallery recently send me an email to remind me that they are still accepting submissions for their 2014 annual juried exhibition with John Dubrow as Juror. The exhibition dates are December 23, 2014 – January 24, 2015 I decided to help them out by posting their press release below:
APPLICATION DEADLINE: OCTOBER 28, 2014
Blue Mountain Gallery accepts online submission only.
For more information, and to apply, please visit www.bluemountaingallery.org
DOWNLOAD PROSPECTUS: http://www.bluemountaingallery.org/2014-juried-exhibition/
BLUE MOUNTAIN GALLERY, founded in 1980, is located in the heart of New York City’s Chelsea art district, and is sponsoring its second Annual Juried Exhibition in 2014-15. The gallery’s exhibitions are frequently reviewed in both the New York and national press. Our invitationals are part of the gallery’s outreach to the artist community. With this juried exhibition we are offering artists from across the United States, not only the opportunity to exhibit in an established New York gallery, but to have their work reviewed by John Dubrow, a renowned American painter.
JOHN DUBROW is a prominent contemporary American painter. As a member of the National Academy of Design, he has received numerous awards from the Academy. Dubrow has also been given a Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant and the American Academy of Arts and Letters award. His paintings have been seen in many exhibitions, including at the National Academy of Design, Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, Forum Gallery, and Lori Bookstein Fine Art, where he currently is represented. Recently he had a mid-career retrospective at the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. His work is included in several major collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Academy of Design, and Harvard University. Dubrow has been making ambitious figurative paintings of New York scenes since 1983, and lives and works in NYC.
I am planning a new section for Painting Perceptions that will include listings of juried shows and competitions. Anyone who knows of any upcoming good juried shows or places to go to find this information please send it to me and I will post. ( firstname.lastname@example.org )]]>
I’d like to share some information Michael Kareken’s gallery sent me about a show that starts in Minneapolis this week. I made a video interview with him awhile back, and wanted to post an update about his terrific new body of work of Parts – or his Auto Salvage Series.
Michael Kareken / Parts October 16 – November 29, 2014 runs in two galleries,
A show of his paintingsThe Burnet Gallery
as well as a concurrant showing of his drawings at the Groveland Gallery
From the gallery press release:
About two years ago, Michael Kareken began painting urban landscapes featuring automotive salvage yards. While some of the cars were damaged in accidents, most of them were deconstructed for their parts, leaving behind skeletons of cars, their inner-workings exposed. For Kareken the forms were strongly suggestive of the human body, and there was a disturbing sense of violation in the casual way that the vehicles have been dismantled. The pieces were bold, powerful statements, rich in context on the economy, the environment and an exploration of the subject matter.
In his new show, Parts, Kareken, a Minneapolis-based artist, looks inward and takes his study of automotive salvage to someplace more intimate and personal.
“Automobiles consume a huge portion of our culture,” explains Kareken. “They’re so ubiquitous. I find these discarded elements resonate with me on a number of levels – as a symbol for society, but also for the human condition. “My earlier urban landscapes were looking outward at society and were more observational, while the works in Parts are pushing inward and are more meditative. I want the work to embody the sense of vulnerability, fragility and disfigurement that I perceive in the subject.”
Kareken’s drawings are composed of individual parts and pieces: pulleys, fans and belts are sensitively rendered and their forms brought into crisp focus. These elements are anchored by shadows and expressionistic marks that suggest the chaos of the larger mechanics beyond the composition’s focal point. Kareken’s larger ink and acrylic paintings on paper present a complicated tangle of car engine tubes and wires. These dynamic compositions explore the figurative aspects of these inanimate objects, and the artist’s use of collage lends his paintings a tactility resembling the subject itself.
“In several new pieces I am using a collage technique to construct the forms of the vehicles themselves,” explains Kareken. “My newest work is created from dozens of old, abandoned drawings that I have ripped apart and recycled into a new image. This technique creates a rough, layered surface that viscerally conveys the feeling of fragmentation and disintegration inherent in the subject matter. At the same time — and paradoxically – the technique gives me a sense of physically building up the subject, as if the collage and painting process is a means of reconstructing or resurrecting the dismantled vehicles.”