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Art or mammon

Blueberries, $4,000, sold.

Blueberries, $4,000, sold.

“Where any view of Money exists, Art cannot be carried on . . .” –William Blake

I’ve read several stories recently, in Forbes, the Guardian, and at other sites, that question whether or not art is a good investment right now. The implied question is: are we or are we not in a “bubble.” The discussions are built around the highly-publicized prices of the most expensive work sold at the art fairs and in auctions. From my remote perch here in Western New York, where I pay little attention to how creative work gets monetized—except when I try to figure modest prices for what I do—it’s an issue that seems to have little impact on me and most of the artists I consider friends. We all price our work in a range that’s reasonable enough to be safe for anyone who buys the work. It’s a safe expenditure for a couple reasons. First, there isn’t that much room for the price to drop if the market for art somehow were to collapse (as real estate did in 2008). When the bottom fell out of housing prices in 2008, homes in Rochester hardly dropped in value. They hadn’t skyrocketed up in price during the real estate bubble, therefore they were actually valued close to their worth to most families who actually wanted to live in them, not invest in real estate for a quick profit. Second, and more importantly, the people who buy my work, and the work of others I know personally, don’t buy it as an investment, but simply because they want to own it. They know how much labor and talent goes into the work and they see the price as an accurate reflection of both, not as a fleeting marker of an investment’s worth during a continuous boom in value across the art world.

That second point was why I found it so encouraging to have sold seven paintings at my recent Oxford Gallery show. Some were very small, and some were among the largest in the exhibit, so prices had little to do with whether or not people bought the work. The collectors who bought the work—and one in particular who wanted to buy a painting but didn’t—based their purchases on the desire to look at the paintings. (The one who wanted to buy but refrained simply had no more wall space for new work and she had her eye on one of the larger paintings.) You would think these factors would invariably be the case in sales of art, but I suspect that much of the work that sells for millions of dollars now could just as easily go into a vault somewhere as onto someone’s wall. And that money could have been spent just as readily on shares of Apple. I’ve communicated with several of my collectors, and they have said repeatedly how much they love the work they now own, how much what they get from looking at it is worth what they spent on it. For these people, the vagaries of an inflated art market have no relevance at all. I’m sure they don’t want the value of the work to drop—who would? But it isn’t a concern, because they have no plan to ever sell it. What could be better—for me and for them? It’s how the making, selling and ownership of art ought to work, every time.

The virtues of obscurity

Color Crossings, Leo Bates

Color Crossings, Leo Bates

Bill Santelli called my attention to this great Times story about Leo Bates, an artist whose career, once he went into seclusion, followed a trajectory somewhat like Vivian Maier’s, into obscurity and then out of it, after death. He dropped out of view after a big show at the Albright-Knox, which was itself a remarkable achievement, so he’d been on a path toward more conventional success, and yet gave up on it in favor of success in making the work itself. His devotion to the work, despite everything, is inspiring:

As SoHo boomed, Mr. Bates became more alienated. His working-class roots were at odds with the culture enveloping the scene he once knew.

“The glitz, glitter and boutiques. It became about fashion, money,” said his wife, a librarian who had lived with Mr. Bates in his Grand Street loft throughout the ’70s. “That wasn’t something that Leo…” her voice broke off. “He was a painter,” she said.

And in practical terms, he could not afford to stay. When he lost the lease on the loft, Mr. Bates decided to withdraw. In November 1978, he sold a batch of paintings. Using the proceeds, he made a down payment on 367 Seventh Avenue in Park Slope, moved into the apartment above the storefront and all but vanished.

“That’s the last time he sold anything,” Mrs. Bates said.

He was 34.

In the following years, with the help of his wife’s family, he bought two more walk-ups on the same block in Park Slope, and he became, at least in the eyes of the world, a landlord.

In Manhattan, he soon faded from people’s minds. He didn’t show up at Fanelli’s anymore, Ms. Fish said, and “if you didn’t see the person there, you just lost touch.”

In 1982, Mr. Bates went to a closing party for a show of Mr. Rappaport’s work on Downing Street in the West Village. As Mr. Rappaport recalled, Mr. Bates was upset with him, because Mr. Rappaport had used a small gift from his father to take out an advertising spread in Artforum magazine to promote the show.

“Fairly early in the evening, Leo got up after having a few drinks and he said: ‘Richard is a fool. He just demonstrated how closed the art world is and what a fool I am to even try,’ ” Mr. Rappaport remembered. “And he picked up a serving plate and hurled it at one of my paintings on the wall.” The two never spoke again.

Mr. Bates had a few paintings in group shows in the early ’80s, but from the time he moved to Brooklyn, virtually all that people saw in his hand were the signs he hung outside his buildings: apartment available, inquire inside.

“We didn’t talk to anyone about the art,” Mrs. Bates said.

Mrs. Bates worked in a private library at Bank of America, and they lived on her salary and their income from rentals, which Mr. Bates invested in stocks. But if Mr. Bates had stopped hanging out with painters, he had not stopped painting. In Brooklyn, he painted and drew obsessively. Asked why her husband had stopped selling his work, Mrs. Bates said: “He wanted to keep his body of work together. He wanted to show the progression.”

. . . . Looking at Mr. Bates’s work, it is clear that something happened when he left Manhattan and moved to Brooklyn. When he plunged into deep solitude, he found something new.

There were the muted tones of the Bowery years, the simple triangles, and then suddenly, an explosion of color, mesmerizing patterns.

After the initial burst, the paintings grew more austere. There was more negative space and the colors grew a bit fainter with the years, but the palette remained the same. As did his passion for geometry: Mr. Bates’s last paintings were huge X’s and chevrons that when examined closely revealed tiny grids of dabbed paint.

Mrs. Bates said she did not believe that her husband regretted his decision to work in obscurity. His goal had been not to pander to passing tastes, or to scatter his work to the four winds. He had just painted.

The discipline of craft

crawfordMore about this excellent book by Matthew Crawford later, a great follow-up to his first, but couldn’t resist putting this out there, while I’m reading it:

“But consider that when you go deep into some particular skill or art, it trains your powers of concentration and perception. You become more discerning about the objects you are dealing with and, if all goes well, begin to care viscerally about quality, because you have been initiated into an ethic of caring about what you are doing. Usually this happens by the example of some particular person, a mentor, who exemplifies that spirit of craftsmanship. You hear disgust in his voice, or see pleasure on his face, in response to some detail that would be literally invisible to someone not initiated. In this way, judgment develops alongside emotional involvement, unified in what Polanyi calls personal knowledge. Technical training in such a setting, though narrow in its immediate application, may be understood as part of education in the broadest sense: intellectual and moral formation.”

–Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head

I think he means ethical formation in the sense of ethos, but I own’t argue.

Cool Kitty – Watercolor in Blue

My husband and I used to have a cat that was way-too-cool…at least sometimes.   He’d look at you and not look at you.  He was a great cat.

Cool Kitty

251 Cool Kitty 11.5 x 15.5 Watercolor Watercolor on Arches 140lb Cold Press Paper KittyKitty
“Cool Kitty” is so named because of color and expression. This kitty is the silent, strong type. It pretends not to look at you directly; that would be bad manners. But it knows you’re there and it sees you. I painted him blue to emphasize the cool, in control expression.

After yesterday’s “Spice Kitty”, painted in warm colors, I thought I’d show you the opposite.  Blue is the ultimate in cool, thus the double meaning in the title “Cool Kitty”.

You might notice that my “KittyKitty” collection is an exploration in color as well as shape and design. I considered various blue pigments and their relative value or tone.  So while the painting is blue, it is as much an exercise in light and dark contrast as it is in color.  In addition, some blues are warmer – closer to green; and others are cooler, closer to pure blue or purple.

Did you notice something about the white?  If you look long enough, the blues create the illusion that the whites are warm.

Another consideration with color is how the color makes us feel.  Blue can be relaxing and calming.  Or, it can suggest coldness and winter.  In this case, I wanted to capture a feeling of “aloofness”, or being withdrawn.

There is so much to consider with color – even a painting done in simple blue!

My intention with this design was to go for the big shapes that suggest a cat while not looking like a cat in particular.

Hmmm, its a “looking but not looking” sort of thing.  Please enjoy!

 

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Jenny Saville

jenny saville

Saville is one of my favorite painters, even though I don’t much enjoy looking at her work. I don’t think I could say this about any other painter. I’m always amazed at how she handles paint, though her subject matter and scale strike me as calculated and contrived. Her choice of grotesque imagery reminds me of Freud and Bacon, dutiful in its lurid depictions of human flesh, with an emphasis on paint for paint’s sake. With all of them, the point seems to be: we’re all just meat. OK, got it. Now what?

In this detail of a nude that appears to be a self-portrait, she’s squatting and exposing her crotch to a camera, having enclosed herself in mirrors that reflect various parts of her body. The way she translates the tones in her face is so masterful and abbreviated and soothingly pleasant–she summarizes areas of color so effectively and, it seems, effortlessly, and in this picture she’s breathing, just waiting to go do something less awkward. She’s thinking, How long do I have to subject myself to this? Those who know Adobe software will recognize qualities in the image that inspire admiration rather than dismissal of the technology, assuming it was involved. If not, all the more impressive. The colors are subtle and beautiful, in and of themselves, and they convey the beauty of her face, even while the full image is as arresting and flagrant as porn, which allows her to situate a lovely face in a painting outre enough to maintain critical respect. It’s a head fake. See what I’ve got? Made you flinch by shoving myself at you. Don’t worry, I won’t use it on you. Whew. It would be great to see her apply this same facility to commonplace things and people, rather than rely on the spectacle of unappealing bodies and body parts to get people to stop and not look away. So, I love this painting, despite itself. You can see it here.

Spice Kitty

I’m starting to get ready for an art show this summer.  My intention is to feature some of my kitty and toy pony paintings.  I’m going through my inventory and selecting some for framing.  I thought I might select a few and start sharing them, regardless of whether they end up in the show.

 

What is particularly fun is looking at paintings I’ve put away and almost forgotten about.  I did so many different variations of “KittyKitty” that they almost blend into one.  As I re-look at them, I am delighted by the shapes and colors.  I keep thinking, hmmmm, I did this painting?  :)

No 264 Spice Kitty SCx

264 Spice Kitty 14×10 Watercolor and Fluid Acrylic Mixed Watermedia on Arches 140lb Cold Press KittyKitty
Please meet “Spice Kitty”, design 33 of my “KittyKitty” series. I have a real world kitty buddy I call “Spice”. We visit each other on my morning exercise route. She often comes out to greet me and ask for pets. Then she swats my hand. I can’t quite figure out this behavior. Spice is sweet, but there is some feline feistiness in her. I used the angles to depict her somewhat prickly demeanor.

“Spice Kitty” is one in the series of paintings in my “MsKitty” collection.

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INPA 4

Manifest International Painting Annual 4

Manifest International Painting Annual 4

 

My copies of the Manifest INPA 4 arrived today, and when I saw the three boxes containing them I realized I went overboard while ordering and now own three hardbound and four softbound copies of the International Painting Annual. I’m lucky and honored to have had two paintings picked for inclusion in the book, which may be the finest collection of work I’ve seen in any Manifest publication. There’s a special emphasis on the human figure in this one, and it’s quietly rousing to see bodies and faces, as well IMG_5425as the human skull I contributed, rendered in so many different ways, filtered through so many different perspectives and sensibilities. It’s a humbling, but consistently thrilling, experience to leaf through the book slowly and take in so much amazing work. The competition picks three winners–an astonishingly talented Erin Wozniak first and foremost with her comparatively tiny, simple and yet utterly alive figurative painting. The rest of us are presented as finalists–a nice way of singling out the three most remarkable artists and yet still offering ample recognition for the 92 others picked for the book, selected from 1560 entries by 563 artists from 32 different countries.  This year, I’ve failed to get into the first four shows I’ve entered, which is how it goes some years, so the book arrived as a nice reminder that recognition is a cyclical phenomenon, coming and going on its own schedule, to its own rhythms. I’m going to post quite a few of my favorite paintings from the book over the next few weeks, with some brief comments. It’s great to read, up front, how Manifest is still gathering momentum, expanding its exhibition space and its programs, offering more and more opportunities for solo and group shows, simultaneously. If you want to see what people are doing with paint right now around the world, order a copy from Manifest. It’s well worth the price.

Going Mobile

My webmaster and I are upgrading this blog to be more mobile-friendly.  The changes we are making will make the blog easier to load and see on mobile platforms.  

Naturally, having the blog load fast and easy on desktop and laptop computers is always desirable.  That capability remains.

Just for fun, I'm including one of my recent paintings, "Old School, New School".   It seems appropriate.  New school in this case is a mobile ready blog!


Old School, New School

 

By the way, "Old School, New School" earned an award at the recent Watercolor Society of Oregon's Spring Aqueous Exhibition.  For more about the award, please see my "News & Events" page.  

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Fields of color

A Study of a Human Skull, David Oleski

A Study of a Human Skull, David Oleski

At our recent lunch, Rick Harrington reminded me of David Oleski’s work, and I returned to it, at his website, with pleasure. It’s gotten more subtle and complex in execution, and yet in a way even simpler in its effect, than when I looked a few years ago. It’s a remarkable way to start with Impressionism, especially Monet and Seurat, and somehow also evoke work from a century, as well, finding a home that somehow seems to link Mark Tobey with Morandi. I dread most greens, but he appears to have devoted countless hours to finding new ways to see that color. I like how his areas of color seem to sit quietly and stay where they are, without any sense that one area of paint is moving toward another, no hint of gesture, as if a realistic image of a pear has settled into simpler patterns, all the details disappearing like sediment into a map of peach, green, yellow, and ochre. It’s a mystery how he breaks up what he sees into the cross-hatches he’s trying now. His statement, below, suggests that he contends with something I’ve encountered–that many potential collectors see his work as decorative, since it’s beautiful and devoid of metaphoric content. It’s all perceptual, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an attempt to give vision a resonance that evokes something like wisdom and joy. It would look great in a room, but that doesn’t mean it’s decor. I like, in his statement, he talks so much about craft and materials.

I came to the realization that many people don’t really understand what it is that I do. I paint in oils, on stretched linen. These are the same materials used by some of the greatest painters throughout history, from Monet and Van Gogh to Rembrandt and Valesquez. I use non-yellowing linseed oil, and a non-yellowing white, so the colors will not darken with age, even after a century. I paint on the highest quality Belgian linen, which is stronger and will not become permanently stretched and loose like cotton canvas, and is more resistant to bacterial growth.

Next, read about my frames.

This is one of my frames. I have these custom made at a frame shop in north Philadelphia. They’re a dark cherry-stained poplar, and the corners are joined with splines for the strongest and cleanest joint possible. The final clear coat is a satin finish, to best showcase the tight grain of the wood. The frames have a three quarter inch face, and are two inches deep. Every painting I finish is framed with one of these fine pieces of woodwork.

I work on only one painting at a time, working continuously for session after session until it’s finished, and then I’ll use the back end of a brush to scratch my name and the date into the wet paint on the lower right corner. I only work from observation. When I paint apples, there are apples in front of me, when I paint tulips, I’m looking at a bouquet of tulips, and I’m racing against the flowers blooming and wilting with each passing day. I only work by natural light, so I have to calculate my sessions to either finish by sunset, or plan on another session. This process dictates that the painting will always be about observation, and I will always strive to capture how I see, not merely create a painting. The way I work is very thorough and meticulous, to match each color of a still-life and lay it down in a very specific and calculated manner. This is how I learned to paint in art school, and I continue to learn more and more about space and depth and atmosphere with each study that I finish.

All I do is paint, every day, bordering on it being an obsessive/compulsive disorder to either fixate on the current painting or obsess over starting the next one. This is all I do, every single day. My prices have steadily increased every year to maintain demand and assure the investment value of my work to my current and past clients. All poetic reflection aside, I believe what I do is valid and substantial in the eyes of history, and I’m creating a legacy that will live on for many years after I am gone.

Philip Burke at Burchfield-Penney

Philip Burke's Jagger

Philip Burke’s Jagger

Can’t wait to see this just an hour’s drive away. From ArtVoice:

few weeks prior to his exhibit entitled The Likeness of Being: Portraits by Philip Burke, which opens on Friday (4/10) at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, Burke met with Artvoice at the office of L.B. Madison Fine Art near his home in Niagara Falls, NY, where much of the work for the upcoming show was being gathered in preparation for display at the gallery.

Moving quickly around a small, sunny room crowded with canvases stacked several deep against the walls, it’s clear that Burke is enthusiastic about his upcoming exhibit—the largest of his career. He points out some early works of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, commissioned for Vanity Fair magazine when it resumed publishing in 1983. The works are smaller—maybe 2 feet by 3 feet—done on cardboard canvasses. “You can see I was poor,” he laughs, “Not that I’m rich now.”