Thursday, January 29, 2009

Inspiration for Painting - Philip Guston

Yesterday I was thinking about writing a piece on Philip Guston. It was a gloomy, stormy day and I felt kind of melancholy and annoyed, really too cranky to write. In the afternoon, as I went to the door to let the dogs out, I saw a red-tailed hawk in the yard standing over a kill and eating warily. When I opened the door, the hawk flew off with the corpse in one talon. I went over to look at the spot where he had been eating. In the center of the area, surrounded by a ring of feathers (a mourning dove I think), were pieces of viscera - intestines, a foot, pieces of flesh. They were the same dingy pinkish-red color that Guston used a lot.

It's funny the way artists develop a personal pallette - it's just those certain colors that have more meaning than others. Mine has orange, blue, green, white and - the favorite - black. Guston developed his pallette early in his painting career and it never changed even though his painting style went through contortions: white, black and what looks like cadmium red medium plus a weird green and a blue. That pallette identifies Guston nearly as much as the forms he painted over and over in the latter part of his career.

A friend asked why I liked Guston and I told her that the paint handling was what attracted me so much - I liked the luscious surface and the way you could see that he changed his mind in a painting and painted over an area so that it looked like an obvious change, not like it had always been the way it ended up. I admire that because that obvious over-painting gives me a little inkling into the process of construction and lets me see the painter's struggle.

I have a quotation from Guston pinned up on my wall in the studio: "Frustration is one of the great things in art; satisfaction is nothing." I'm not sure I agree that satisfaction is nothing, but lord knows there's plenty of frustration in making art. Is it the overcoming of frustration or the frustration itself that keeps us making?

I think I have three or four books on Guston that I used to spend a lot of time studying. The main one is the hardcover Philip Guston Retrospective, organized by Michael Auping. Another very intimate look at Guston is Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston by his daughter Musa Mayer, which is also about her own life as well as his. The Retrospective has lots of reproductions of works from throughout Guston's career. (There is also a paperback version, but I'm not sure if it's as extensive.)

Looking closely at the works in the Retrospective one afternoon, I began crying because I empathized so strongly with the sadness and despair Guston expressed in those late paintings that are referred to so often as "cartoons." The depth of feeling he painted is intense and the loneliness of his battle against depression, alcoholism, injustice and futility hit me. What a weight he took on! The forms he painted repetitively such as shoes and boots, spindly legs, the huge head with one eye, the bottle, the hooded figures, the bare lightbulb, the pointing finger, the cigarettes, the books, the clock - all became so weighted with meaning, both universal and autobiographical.

Guston, born Phillip (with two l's) Goldstein in Montreal in 1913, had two very traumatic events in his childhood and youth. Most shockingly, at about age 10 he found his father's body hanged in suicide. (His father had been a blacksmith in the old country of Russia and was forced to make a living as a junkman when the family moved to California.) Secondly, when Guston was about 17, his older brother Nat had his legs crushed when his own car rolled down a slope, pinning him. Within a short time he died of gangrene in the hospital.

As a boy and young teen, Guston began drawing and hid himself away in a large closet with a bare lightbulb where he practiced cartoons. He dropped out of high school and had a very limited art education, but he became a talented muralist, who worked for the WPA during the depression and later taught at the University of Iowa. Beginning in the 1950s, Guston began painting abstractly and became a member of the New York Abstract Expressionists.

"To BWT", 1952, 48" x 51", oil on canvas

In the 1950s and '60s Guston made beautiful, abstract paintings that were very successful and extolled by Clement Greenberg and the AbExers.

"Zone", 1954, 46" x 46", oil on canvas

Guston's work began changing as he explored abstraction. Dark shapes started appearing on the canvas but he painted out recognizable images because an image "excludes too much." The paintings he made in the 1960s were called the "dark paintings" and were not well received by critics because they seemed to exist outside the accepted definition of abstraction.

"Close-Up III", 1961, 70" x 72", oil on canvas

By the late 1960s when the Vietnam War was in full swing, Guston was mobilized by the atmosphere of protestors, riots and the election of Nixon in 1968. What he referred to as "the final mask" came down and he began painting recognizable forms - especially hooded figures that looked like Ku Klux Klansmen. (I should say that Guston didn't regard the KKK in an admiring way but said that he was fascinated by evil and wanted to show the KKK carrying on their normal activities - more as ironic models of political actors. These hooded figures actually had been an early theme in his painting in the 1940s.) Rebelling against the prevalent belief of the absolute purity of non-objective form, Guston said, "I got sick and tired of all that purity … I wanted to tell stories!"

In his 1970 show at the Marlborough Gallery in New York, Guston revealed the full extent of his defiance of orthodox Abstract Expressionism when he showed paintings such as "Bad Habits." He was excoriated for leaving the fold of abstraction in much the same way that Bob Dylan was criticized ad nauseum for going electric in 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival.

"Bad Habits", 1970, 73"x78", oil on canvas.

Guston continued painting in his own style for the rest of his life, developing the portfolio of forms that meant so much to him.*

"Painting, Smoking, Eating," 1973, 77 1/2" x 103 1/2", oil on canvas

This work is so much about painting to me. I read it as the painter obsessively seeing his work (all those shoes) in his mind even though the actual painting is not in front of him.

"Head and Bottle," 1975, 65 1/2" x 68 1/2"

Can any image express alcoholic dependency more vividly? (This painting sold in May 2007 for $6.5 million. Drink up!)

"Talking," 1979, 78" x 68", oil on canvas

*Guston was pretty well known in Boston since he taught at Boston University for five years in the '70s and developed a following among his students. His painting "Talking" seems to me that he is gesturing and talking about painting - never out of his thoughts.

Guston died at age 67 in 1980, just three weeks after the opening of the retrospective organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Desolation Row

There's something so dispiriting about the studio after all the work that I made for a show is taken out. It looks like Filene's Basement after a big sale - just a few remnants laying around and trash all over the floor. Quite sad.

The only thing I can do to relieve my internal gloom (besides staying away from the studio) is to pick up that broom and start cleaning. Focusing on sweeping the floor lets me avoid that blank wall and lonely feeling.

Then, once I've swept up, bagged the trash and put things away, I find the best thing to do is to switch mediums.

I'm going to be working on paper with acrylic for a while and not fire up the encaustic griddle. The paper (actually ricepaper) is work I usually sell through art consultants to corporate clients. Who knows if anything is selling these days, but if I don't give them any work to sell, I'm guaranteed not to sell anything.

I just received some pieces back from California that hadn't sold and I'm going to be reworking them and sending them out again on consignment. Here are a few of the pieces. I'll show you the "after" shots - if any work gets finished.

This piece is 32x30 inches and is collaged from ricepaper painted with thin washes of acrylic. I called it Yellow Box.

Here's another one - 24x24 inches, called Pongo. Some of the paint is interference so it looks a little funny.

And finally, here's one that's 18x80 inches called Two By Two. This is kind of an exceptional size but a few of them did sell. I didn't have much luck with work that used purple. I guess purple (violet) just doesn't have that corporate cachet.

So what I usually do with this work is start cutting it up and piecing it together with newly-painted patterns, colors and swatches, and/or I overpaint what's there with other colors and then paint patterns on top of that. I do love patterns and especially juxtaposed patterns.

Maybe that will cheer me up.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Fun With Color

Here's a fun site where you can Shephard Faireycize your images ala the Obama/HOPE poster. I used it for the eye avatar image in my Google profile (see the image in the sidebar) - first in the political colors and then in my own blend via PhotoShop. I'm not much of a PhotoShopper - just know enough to usually do what I need to - but changing the color was fairly easy once I had made it red/white/blue.

How my Happy Family would look as a Shephard Fairey poster.

Political colors versus the colors in the real painting. (Here's where my lack of PhotoShop skills become apparent because I failed to put a border around my real piece - but you get the idea.)

I guess now that Shephard Fairey has made it into the National Gallery, his work is no longer cutting edge. How soon fame's brief flame flickers and dies!

Early Returns

The good news is that the show is all hung, after working on the installation for two days, and it looks really terrific. Our work is very complementary because Lynette's is quite abstract and airy with worked, weathered-looking surfaces; mine is dense, more geometric, mostly solid-appearing colors with raised surfaces.

We decided that rather than splitting our work up by walls, we would hang groups of works together so that we each had work hanging all around the gallery. I think it was a good decision because the contrast works to the benefit of each of us and there is no question as to which work belongs to which artist - our two styles are very distinctive.

The bad news is that the photos I took are disappointing because the lights aren't adjusted in place yet so the work isn't really lit properly and there are glaring hot spots. The gallery director will put the lights in place tomorrow. So these are the early returns and I'll take more pix on Saturday before the opening reception. Or - you'll just have to come to the show.

How installation felt.

Part of the 40-foot long back wall showing our sign, our first attempt at putting up one of these vinyl letter signs. We actually managed to have my work on the left and Lynette's on the right as the sign indicates - with absolutely no forethought. Just shows where intuition will take you.

There are 39 pieces in the show and there is a 16-foot, glass-fronted case where we installed a display about encaustic - containing tools, paint cakes, an electric grill with paint pots and brushes, a Joanne Mattera bible, and samples of a lot of other stuff that I use in my paintings such as plant parts, crocheted cord, beads, etc. We also posted an information sheet about encaustic that I had written up as an attachment to our press release.

So all in all, I think we did a good job of presenting ourselves and the medium of encaustic. We'll be giving a demo (2/14 - noon to 2 pm) and a talk with closing reception (2/21 - 1 to 3 pm). The gallery is open Wednesday through Saturday from 11 to 3 pm, and the show runs from January 28th through February 27th. The opening reception is next Saturday, 1/31, from noon to 3 pm. If I were a southerner, I'd say "Y'all come to the reception!" But being from the Berry in Boston, I'll just say, "Getcha ass ta thuh openin'. Theah's plenty a pahkin'."

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Getting Loaded

It's been a long day and this is how it started...

Three trips from the studio to the car with loaded shopping cart. Hey, that's no bag lady - that's my wife!

Soon the World's Greatest Packer had the car all loaded.

And - Voila! - it was done.


Then all I had to do was drive an hour and a half to ArtSpace in Maynard and unload the car - with Lynette's kind assistance.

And before I knew it, all the fun lay ahead of me...

Friday, January 23, 2009

Behind the Scenes - Doing the Show Housework

Lynette and I are getting ready to install our show, Physical Geography, tomorrow. We each are bringing between 17 and 25 paintings. That's a lot of work and probably too much to hang, but we'll put things out and decide what to include and what not. We're trying for an airy look with plenty of space between paintings. The gallery walls have a total of 135 feet - big gallery.

We have both been killing ourselves to get the work made and then we had to do the finishing - scraping the edges of the panels, taking off tape, painting the edges or not, installing D-rings and wire and bumpers. (I have the worst, cheap foam bumpers in the world and peeling the paper off them is excruciatingly tedious. Why don't I get something better?) Then comes the packing, which I've been working on for two days.

Packing encaustic paintings takes more care than any other medium because the edges are so fragile that if you knock them into something, you could break off a chunk of wax. My paintings are even more complicated because of all the embedded materials; I have to protect the surface so that nothing gets jarred or bumped. In addition, you can't put bubblewrap directly on the wax (well, you can but it might stick) so you first have to wrap the paintings in glassine or heavy wax paper and then in bubblewrap. If the surface needs extra protection because of ultra high dimensional elements, I have to build boxes from foamcore or insulating foam sheets so that they won't be crushed. All this takes a lot of time and making those boxes is not only time consuming but technically challenging. Luckily taping on extra pieces of foamcore because I cut something too short does work.

This is stuff you never think of when you walk into a gallery and look at the work hanging on the walls. How the artist (or an assistant) had to put in so much time and effort to get the work to the gallery in good shape. Then somebody had to hang the work, after spending who knows how long figuring out the order in which the paintings should be displayed.

It's the housework of a show, that stuff that gets done when nobody's looking, like cleaning the toilet.

So now, outside of packing the car to drive to Maynard, (a feat which my dear partner-wife, the World's Greatest Packer, will be doing for me) and then driving nearly two hours to get there, the fun of it all is nearly here. Figuring out how a show will all go together taxes creativity but is very satisfying once it gels, like reaching the solution to a difficult problem.

Breaking Into the News

Just imagine - Physical Geography: Explorations in Rich Surface, the upcoming show that friend and fellow encaustic painter Lynette Haggard and I are opening next week, received a wonderful write-up in the Boston Globe Metro West edition! Arts writer Denise Taylor contacted us after receiving our card and press release from ArtSpace Maynard's director. It seems that Denise was familiar with Lynette's work and remembered my name from about 15 years ago when I was very involved with Somerville Community Access Television (I was producer of the year for 1994). Wow!

Denise wrote a wonderful article with a description of the encaustic painting process and she also described Lynette's work and my work. Here's what she said about mine:

"Natale's quilt-like abstracts piece together patterned rectangles of varying sizes outlined by thick, licorice-black whips of wax. Bright, cheerful, and chewy-looking, the more vibrant among them look like a Willy Wonka take on Mondrian. Others, using subdued mossy greens and murky blues, are quieter meditations. With curving strings, buttons, and plants encased in the wax, they seem to strive to order nature's unpredictable forms into neat sectioned panels that can't quite manage to hold them."

I like that "Willy Wonka take on Mondrian." I think that she's talking particularly about this piece, Happy Family, since that's the image I sent her.
Denise is very perceptive to note that I do think of my work as a garden, where the geometric borders struggle to keep the wild, organic components in line. And isn't that a metaphor for all of life? - that continual struggle for control that we are bound to lose just by the nature of things.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Welcome, Followers!

I was surprised to find that my baby blog had two followers. Welcome, you two believers! I'll try to keep it interesting and post as often as I can. Feel free to comment and/or make suggestions.

And welcome to anyone else who wants to jump on the bandwagon and follow along! Just click on "follow this blog" in the "Followers" widget in the sidebar and sign yourself in. You won't get any pesky emails, solicitations for contributions, or demands for your time. It just allows me to get my blog out there into the search engines.
Thanks for your interest!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Inspiration for Painting - Joan Mitchell

How come when I was in art school in the late '80s no one mentioned the name Joan Mitchell? Gender bias - yes, I know. But I remember taking a course in women artists offered in the meager Women's Studies Department at MassArt, and most of the women we studied had been dead for eons and were either great mistresses or impressionists, neither of which appealed to me particularly. I do recall that Faith Ringold was mentioned in passing, along with Judy Chicago and some other feminist artists, but I don't remember reading about what I would call real painters or seeing their work. I'm talking people (women) who really enjoyed pushing paint around like Joan Snyder, for example, or, since she is my subject - Joan Mitchell.

It's a long time ago and I'm probably forgetting any mention of her when I was in school, but somehow within the past eight years, since I've been living in western Mass., I discovered the work of Joan Mitchell - no thanks to any academics - and became very enthusiastic about it, although without having any desire to paint the way she did. That's probably because I knew I would fail, mostly because her work has a fierce emotional content that I would be incapable of bringing to a painting.

Hudson River Day Line, 1955

I have two large books on her work: The Paintings of Joan Mitchell by Jane Livingston (catalog of a retrospective Livingston organized at the Whitney in 2002) and Joan Mitchell * by Klaus Kertess, a longtime friend, gallerist and drinking buddy of Mitchell's. At one time in my old studio in Ashfield, I very much enjoyed paging through these books and wondering how Mitchell had continually composed such intricate paintings over such a long period of time. Her use of color and variety of marks motivated me to pick up the brush and make a painting when I felt overcome by a blank canvas and totally isolated in the wilds of the hilltowns.

Cheim Some Bells, 1964

I came across a review of the Whitney retrospective by Brenda Richardson that was published in ArtForum in September 2002, and I quote her observations about Mitchell's paintings:
"Mitchell hews to a distinctive palette and personal vocabulary of marks from beginning to end. Green, blue, orange, black, and white are favored colors. Her marks include (1) choppy vertical smears, rather like a color test, usually in pairs, (2) thin "washes" of pastel hues (lime, flesh, rose, slate blue), (3) daubs of impasto, almost always on top of other paint, (4) slashing strokes, long and stiff, vaguely scimitar-like, (5) eroding or "melting" once-geometric rectangles, mounds, or blobs, and (6) drips. Nearly all her paintings use nearly all her colors and all her marks in some combination; the paintings are almost always allover matte in finish (glazed bits appear only occasionally). A painting like Low Water, 1969, is absolutely classic Mitchell, combining all of the above in hieratic descent."

Barge-Peniche, 1975

Mitchell was apparently a "difficult" person (real pain in the ass) who drank way too much, had a long-term love/hate relationship with another painter (Jean-PierreRiopelle), loved dogs, spent most of her adult life in a house on the Seine 30 miles from Paris and made large-scale, many times multi-canvas, paintings continuously for 40 years or so. She was reasonably successful although nowhere near what she would have been if she had only had that other appendage.

After April, Bernie, 1987

Through all the misery and frustrations of her relationships with friends and lovers plus the numerous deaths of friends, relatives and dogs that she suffered and along with her severe health problems and active alcoholism, she kept painting - sometimes raging away at the canvas or expressing less violent emotions that she was unable to release any other way. Her tenacity and commitment to her work despite all this were remarkable, as was her refusal to make paintings in a more manageable size. She must have had a tremendous physical struggle that included having to get a studio assistant to squeeze paint from tubes due to the arthritis in her hands (per Kertess).

She had several cancers at the end of her life, eventually dying of lung cancer in 1992 at age 66. Although suffering excruciating pain, she continued to paint large works until very near her death.

Yves, 1991 (110 1/4" H x 78 3/4"W - that's 12 feet high x 6.5 feet wide)

I have included images of Mitchell's paintings from five decades showing the variety of styles in which she painted. Not included are any of the 21 Grande Vallee' paintings, a series painted over 13 months beginning after the death of her sister in 1982. Painting was an act that allowed Mitchell to transcend death. She said, "Painting is the opposite of death, it permits one to survive, it also permits one to live." (Livingston, p 63)

* lists the Kertess book as only available used from other sellers and starting at $275! I know I didn't pay that shocking price, but it is a great book. Maybe it's available at your art school library - it should be.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Welcome, President Obama!

Oh, Happy Day! All those 1.20.09 bumper stickers have finally worked their magic.

Selected Paintings/New Paintings

Maybe I should just resign myself to thinking of the Selected Paintings as always being new ones. Of course the new ones are always the ones I'm most excited about. So here we go.

New Blue Diptychs - a Different Direction

Last week I made three new diptychs. I received the new free Manganese Blue color from R&F Paint (offer no longer available) and decided to use it along with my usual pallette of blues to make some new pieces on the 16"x16" Rodney Thompson panels I still had. I'm getting ready for my show with Lynette Haggard at ArtSpace and wanted to make some smaller work.

Limiting my color to a particular small range is unusual for me, but a practice I think it is helpful to try - at least every once in a while.

Thinking Sideways, encaustic and mixed media, 2009, each panel 16" x 16" x 1.5"

Using just the blues (plus a couple of greens, greys and black and white)*, I found myself making very loose, boundaryless marks - not like my usual work. I did incorporate some dried tubers** and things that I had in the studio that gave some form and focus to the pieces.

Exploring the Deep, encaustic and mixed media, 2009, each panel 16" x 16" x 1.5"

This work seemed to lend itself to the diptych format, but I thought that the two halves needed to have a significant difference between them. Filling sections of one half of each diptych with repetitive small forms brought in a geometric element but didn't create the boundaries between areas that I usually make. It allowed me to stay loose but still include some gridded areas. I am really pleased with this work and I can see a series in it.

Outreach, encaustic and mixed media, 2009, each panel 16" x 16" x 1.5"

*I should say that these are the colors on top. Underneath I have a lot more color - mostly warm to hot.

**I'm not going into a lot of detail about this because I think it's only important to my process and it's better if people (viewers) don't get distracted by focusing on this stuff.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Seeing Your Own Paintings

I love reading what artists have to say about making their work - especially what they say to themselves in their notebooks, sketchbooks, diaries, etc. In The Art of Richard Diebenkorn, John Elderfield includes in his essay (pp 112-113) a list that Phyllis Diebenkorn found in her husband's papers after his death. The undated list was written some time between 1966 and 1976 and headed, "Notes to myself on beginning a painting." This is what it said:

1) Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may be a valuable delusion.

2) The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued - except as a stimulus for further moves.

3) Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for.

4) Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.

5) Don't "discover" a subject - of any kind.

6) Somehow don't be bored - but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.

7) Mistakes can't be erased but they can move you from your present position.

8) Keep thinking about Polyanna.

9) Tolerate chaos.

10) Be careful only in a perverse way.

Elderfield, who knew Diebenkorn for a period of years and visited him in his studio many times, also says that "his argument with himself was continuous." His greatest battle was to attain a "reconciliation" between the initial idea for a painting and finishing it while not relinquishing the inspiration. Elderfield describes the process in a very turgid way, but I think what he means is that RD (as we all do) wanted to retain the excitement and freshness that an idea for a painting arouses and not kill it as he went along. RD said, "I can never accomplish what I want, only what I would have wanted had I thought of it beforehand."

Now, here's the part that reminds me of my favorite teacher at MassArt - Rob Moore* - Elderfield says that RD would "contrive things so that he would see a painting when he was 'completely off guard', forgetful of his participation in its ongoing history in the hope of the surprise that would tell him that he had re-established contact with his spontaneity." What Rob Moore said, and what I also say in my artist's statement is that seeing what is there (in a painting) instead of what you think is there is the hardest part of painting.

What connects these two observations about painting is the difficulty that the artist has in seeing his/her work as it exists and not as a record of its history or as the sum of many parts. Some artists keep mirrors in their studios and look at their work through them. I remember George Nick at MassArt saying that he sometimes put a completed painting behind his TV so that while watching TV, his eye would sometimes stray to the painting and he would be able to get a look at what was really there. I tried this in my early days of painting and it did help. Now that we have digital images of our work and can see it on a monitor, we get another perspective, but jpegs don't have the physicality of the real thing and the screen illumination makes it a different experience.

I guess the only thing that works for me is hanging up a painting in the studio after I think it's finished and then living with it for a while. I have to move on to something else and get to the point that I'm not actively looking at the painting and then maybe I can really see it. Sometimes this leads to futzing with it and other times I let it stay as it is. It's all a question of time - but we've all got plenty of that.

*Rob Moore died in 1992, before the online age so there's nothing to link him to. I have a wonderful review by Christine Temin in the Boston Globe of the retrospective of Rob Moore's work that MassArt mounted in 1993. I'll write up some excerpts from it along with some of my own observations.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Finally - Just a Week to Go

Only a week left until January 20th when our new president is sworn in! It can't come soon enough for me - especially with the fiasco of a press conference we had from Bush today. Please. Did we need any more reminders about how out of touch he is? We've had more than enough, thanks. Just get the hell out of here and let the new guy in.

We're into the spirit of the thing here at our house. Call us silly, but we've got our Obama mugs and t-shirts ready, and we'll be watching all the historic proceedings sippin' Obama Rama coffee from Dean's Beans and decked out with our guy's name on our chests. I have to have my box of Kleenex handy because I know the tears will be streaming down my face when our first African-American president takes the oath of office with his hand on Abe Lincoln's bible. I guess I would be crying anyway even if all that symbolism wasn't part of the ceremony. I'm so glad to see someone become president that we can all be proud of and listen to with pleasure instead of embarrassment. Won't it be nice to have a president who speaks in sentences and paragraphs and has a brain?

What a weight our new president will have on his shoulders! But he also has all those hopes and dreams and people wishing him well. He will need our help to bring back our country from the pit it's fallen into thanks to you-know-who and he-who-will-hopefully-soon-be-forgotten. Oh, happy day - just one week away!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Selected Painting(s) of the Day - A Duo

I have two features running in the blog now - Selected Painting of the Day and Inspirations (artists). Rather than do each feature consecutively, I'm going to mix it up a little.

So today I have selected two paintings that I made just recently. These are the two that inspired the threesome I posted last week in the trifecta and a shot of them standing on the floor has already appeared. They are the two largest pieces I have painted to date in encaustic and I enjoyed working at this scale. I named them Lewis and Clark because they were exploring new territory. (I know - kinda dumb. When I told a friend their names, she said that the third piece in the series should be called Sacagawea. What a smart-ass! But coming up with names can be the worst part of making paintings and I don't like numbering - unlike Richard Diebenkorn.)

This is Lewis - the first one. It's a triptych, 66" x 24" x 1.5" on panels. The two end panels with the stripes are not joined but hung close to the central panel. (Please pardon my photographic inexpertise which scrunches the bottom left.) There are various things embedded in the wax such as lace, pieces of plants, felt circles, newspaper, jersey circles, etc. Some areas of the wax are carved or scraped and some worked into with oilstick. There are rough and smooth surfaces.

And this is Clark. It's a diptych, the same overall size as Lewis although this image makes it look bigger. The panel from the left through the orange rectangle is one piece (52"x24") and the second panel (24"x24") goes from the skinny two-toned blue stripe through the right side.

I think these pieces are something new for me. They have the somewhat softened geometric structure that I like, but their structure is not the first thing that you notice about them. The color is varied, a bit different, and the patterning plays with two and three dimensions. I consider them a successful exploration that referenced past work but broke new ground for me. Onward!

Inspiration for Painting - Diebenkorn

A friend asked me what I do when I go to the studio and want to stir up my creative juices. My process is probably similar to that of any other artist - I look at my notebooks, my clippings and at art that I like made by someone else, either in magazines or in my collection of books on art.

While I appreciate work by contemporary artists such as Thomas Nozkowski, Mary Heilmann and Sean Scully, for example, there are three artists from the past whose work continually offers me insight and inspiration. They are Richard Diebenkorn, Joan Mitchell and Philip Guston. That might sound like an odd trio and their inspiration is not notably present in my work, but I admire all of them - for different reasons. What they all share, for me, is their inventive paint application and surfaces and their use of color. I'm going to write a post about each one

Diebenkorn's career inspires me because it took a few twists, but through it all, he kept working - very hard - and exploring, thinking about what he was doing and where he was going with his work. He seems like such a quiet, thoughtful guy who really took his work seriously and sustained his career over a long period of time.

I have two large books of his works: "The Art of Richard Diebenkorn" by Jane Livingston and "Richard Diebenkorn" by Gerald Nordland. (I also have "Richard Diebenkorn in New Mexico" by Gerald Nordland, but that contains very little work not already in the earlier book.)

I was at first drawn to his early abstractions from New Mexico and Berkeley. (This one is Berkeley #8 from 1954.) Diebenkorn began getting his Masters at the University of New Mexico in 1950 and lived in Albuquerque for two and a half years. The abstract paintings that he made early on were very intricate - lots of color, shapes, lines and planes. They were mostly painted in warm colors - ochre, pink, orange, brown. When he returned to Berkeley in 1953, Diebenkorn continued to paint abstractions for a couple of years until beginning to work representationally with landscapes, figure studies and still lifes. His composition and paint handling in these works are very beautiful and they are made with an abstract sensibility.
In 1966 he began teaching at UCLA and moved to Santa Monica, to a neighborhood called Ocean Park, where he made the transition again to abstraction. Some of the landscapes he at first painted there were strikingly like the later abstract works in the Ocean Park Series. That series consists of 140 numbered paintings that he worked on for the next nearly 20 years. Richard Diebenkorn died in 1993.

Many works in the Ocean Park series are composed in blues and greens that critics thought represented the foggy atmosphere of the Bay Area. This one is Ocean Park #54 from 1972.

This is Ocean Park #92 of 1976.

And this is the final painting in the series, Ocean Park #140 of 1985.
It took me a while to appreciate the Ocean Park series. I thought at first that they were too plain, too monochromatic and had too few marks and shapes. After looking at them over time, I gradually came to see that they were very subtle and intricate in their own way. The drawn lines, crudely painted-over areas, pentimenti and smudges were perhaps the most important parts of the paintings. Also the very bottoms of many canvases contained areas that gave a whole context to the huge expanses above. These are works that I find soothing and stimulating at the same time because they represent a quietly exciting way of painting that bears evidence of the artist's mental processes. They are not paintings that just happened, although they do show experimentation and discovery. I look at them and think that making paintings does not come easily but the effort is very worth it.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Selected Painting(s) of the Day - A Trifecta

Today I'm featuring a trifecta of new encaustic paintings. Now, you might call it a triple selection instead of a trifecta, but I'm going by the definition of trifecta that I found in Wikipedia (and we all know that they are right on top of things), which is: "The situation of having three major accomplishments or achievements in a sport, profession, or pastime." In racing terms, a trifecta is making a three-part bet in which you must pick the the 1st, 2nd and 3rd place winners in one race or hit the first-place winners in three consecutive races. (I remember that from the really olden days when I used to go to the dogtrack at Wonderland - before enlightenment struck .)

Anyway, these three paintings were made to go with two larger ones. They are geometrically organized, but in a softer, more organic way. They have fiber pieces embedded in them that form the structure and give some dimension. The palette is fairly limited and consists basically of my favorites - orange and blue - plus some greens and, of course, the Big Favorite, black. They are all 24" x 24" x 1.5" on wooden panels.

Wrigley's Best, 2009, Encaustic, oilstick and fiber

Happy Family, 2009, Encaustic, oilstick, fiber and beads

Foreign Influence, 2009, Encaustic, oilstick and fiber

This trifecta has a lot going on with patterns, directions, colors, etc., but I was trying for a balance of elements that felt considered rather than arbitrary. After making these pieces, I really feel the need to paint something very simple, but fat chance of that happening, knowing my prediliction for complication.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Selected Painting of the Day

No, it's not one of those painting-a-day things. I don't think I could do a painting a day. This is a blog feature I'd like to try about paintings that are already completed and seasoned and that I'd like to comment on - and hopefully provoke a thread on.

So, here's my first pick - just because it's kind of out of the mainstream of the work I'm doing now and really reminds of work I was doing on paper a few years back.

This is called "Magical Thinking" and was painted a few months ago (2008). It's encaustic on wood with a poured center and embedded plant parts. It's 24"x24"x 1.5". Here's the thing, if it's so different from the rest of the work I'm making now, what to do? I could sell it off by itself, not show it with the rest of my work, or make more work like it. This is always a problem for me because every now and then I come up with strange pieces that don't fit in with the direction I'm moving in. Yet I think they need to be made. I guess this is where commerce and art divide.

Isn't there something to be said for the unique work that is not part of a series? Any comments on this? I think the making fills some need in my work and maybe it just gets that out of my system so I can continue moving forward. Although, who said everything has to be a series? Maybe a series emerges over time in retrospect instead of intentionally?

This one is an acrylic on ricepaper painting, 36"x36", from 2001 or 2002 that reminds me of Magical Thinking. It's called "Four Directions" and was part of a series I did with central focus and a very geometric layout. I liked making these because they just expanded geometrically from the center. It felt very satisfying to see where they would go by the time they reached the edges - another type of exploration.