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I love Wisconsin

My two jar paintings at Wausau MOCA last week.

I was honored to have Frank Bernarducci select my work for the Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art’s annual juried exhibition this year. Out of respect and gratitude, I decided to attend the opening last week in a show of support for the fledgling museum. It was founded only a year ago. Its first annual, national show last year was chosen by Alyssa Monks. I hadn’t been aware of this opportunity until Bill Santelli emailed me a notice that Wausau MOCA was accepting entries for the fall. I’d been visiting Bernarducci’s midtown gallery for years on visits to Manhattan, and I welcomed the opportunity, if I got into the show, to exchange a few words with him in this less pressurized setting.

“The City Has Stories to Tell”, John Hylan

Not surprisingly, most of the work was masterful, executed in highly sophisticated ways. When you see the actual work at a show like this, it’s chastening to see, up close, how many individual paths there are toward mastery of a particular medium–it’s always humbling to see how good other painters are. As traditional as some of their methods were, the show felt ahistorical—the work didn’t look as if it had been transported into the present from any point in the past but it also, to its credit, didn’t appear to be striving for any sort of illusory cutting edge. Because Bernarducci has been selling contemporary realist painting for years in Manhattan, I anticipated it would be weighted toward representational and highly realistic work, which it was, but I was surprised at how much the work emphasized the human figure and in ways accessible to most people with or without a grounding in art or art history. You didn’t need critical commentary to love this work, but occasionally it helped, and  slow, repeated observation deepened my appreciation for many of the pieces. The winning oil painting, Cindy Rizza’s Lineage, depicts the artist herself nursing her baby, sitting on a worn quilt—about as far from cosmopolitan hipster ironies as one could get. It’s a beautifully rendered vision of the most fundamental and central relationship in human life, and it served as the touchstone for the entire show. The exhibition offered an astonishing array of technical prowess in the service of a quietly jubilant, affirmative vision of human thriving. The mood was one of warmth and love and intense vitality—with some notable exceptions, including one painting of a protester tossing a Molotov cocktail and a solemn image from Geoffrey Laurence of a seated woman quietly waiting to be transported to Auschwitz.

“Departure,” Geoffrey Laurence

These reminders of social injustice were almost anomalies here. If there’s such a thing as spiritual abundance, this show was an homage to it. Photorealism was well-represented, and hyperrealism, but even in these genres, the feel of the work was affectionate and idiosyncratic—not cool and sleek and impersonal. The show demonstrated that traditional techniques and straightforward representation are firmly established, once again, as a fully contemporary way to make art. Everything in the show felt as vital and new and fresh as anything I could see tomorrow on a drive into Chelsea, maybe because a sophistication about principles of design was so prominent.

David Hummer, the director, is laboring mightily—as so many are having to do now—to find a way, economically, to give the people of his region access to contemporary art from around the country. He spoke about his remarkable and impressive plans for next year, mentioning the involvement of Vincent Desiderio and Bo Bartlett, among others.

“Listening to Silence,” Ali Cavannaugh

The power and honesty of the show Bernarducci selected made me feel slightly abashed about my insistence that art works subconsciously and directly, in ways that don’t depend on subject matter. There was much implied narrative on view in Wausau, and it was powerful. Much of that power derived from the way it was painted, yet content mattered at least as much. One could use a show like this as evidence for an argument that art’s other greatest virtue, beyond the subconscious disclosure of a world, is to make visible what makes us human in the most obvious way possible, by depicting human beings. This show demonstrates you can put aside most of modernism and much of what has come afterward and still get this job done perfectly, without losing anything important in the process, including relevance to the contemporary world.

I did get a few minutes to talk casually with Bernarducci. I’m surprised to say that his manner, his kindness and geniality and unassuming role at the event were endearing. Somehow I’ve never thought to use that adjective to describe an art dealer until now, but it was exactly the impression he made. I suppose I could have arranged to speak with him in the past on a visit to his previous Midtown location, but somehow in that setting I would have felt as if I were getting between him and the ongoing fight to stay afloat that galleries face now in Manhattan. (Something they have in common with museums in Wausau, Wisconsin.) I got to know him a bit between his absorbed bouts of texting–the pressure of his life in New York followed him to the Midwest thanks to his smart phone. He said he’d gotten married in Wisconsin and he enjoyed coming back, though he was a clearly a New Yorker. He talked a bit about the economic battle for gallery owners in Manhattan and his recent new venture downtown, and he said he’d be happy to sit down and speak with me at more length on a visit to the city, with enough notice. (Afterward, I thought I should have assured him I could use a siren to give him time to find shelter, if that helped. Some people might take me up on that.) He won me over with his refusal of the spotlight when it came time to announce the prize winners, along with the look of near-anguish on his face when he said that deciding on the winners was one of the worst experiences of his life. He was not being hyperbolic. It was obvious that he hated having to eliminate all of us who didn’t make the cut for an award. Just mentioning it the way he did seemed to drain him. He struck me as a good man, fighting the good fight from his corner now in Chelsea, with nothing guaranteed, even after his decades in the business.

“Ivet,” Shane Scribner

He came to the right place: Wisconsin itself struck me the same way. It’s a long way from Silicon Valley and Brooklyn, but it’s holding its own. Wausau was a picturesque town that looked surprisingly new—as if a lot of what I saw had been developed within the past ten or twenty years. Wages aren’t quite as high as the national average there, but it had the aura of a small city with a fairly vibrant local economy, in a hilly setting that was even more beautiful with its foliage near peak autumn color.

But what struck me most deeply about the state was a moment on the highway as I drove north to attend the opening. I flew into Chicago and drove to Wausau in a rented Nissan, listening happily to podcasts in a steam of comfortably spaced cars doing around 80 for most of the trip on Interstate 90. About halfway to Wausau, my Google Maps route turned red and traffic slowed dramatically. Here’s what was so marvelous: very quickly, the cars in the right lane began to merge into the left one, as I followed the example of the fellow ahead of me. A couple cars passed and merged ahead of us, but that was all. Soon all the drivers were slowly crawling forward in the left lane—far ahead of the need for any of us to be in one lane. The bottleneck was still well ahead of us and the right lane now was entirely open and free of cars. No one, not a single driver, was speeding down the right lane in order to get up to the most advanced possible spot for the two lanes to merge. In other words, nobody was doing what drivers in every other state seemed to have learned to do—stay in that right lane until the very last moment when you have to merge left in order to shave a minute or two off one’s drive time and cut into line far ahead of all the others who have already politely taken their place in the slow lane. The right lane seems to have become the passing lane, at least where I live, and people roll up to the red light just waiting to engage in a drag race to get ahead of as many people in the left lane after the light turns green—and the same principles seem to apply in most places on the highway when construction is in progress. But not in Wisconsin. They’re actually courteous when they get behind the wheel–more than willing to respect the place of others who have already queued up. A quarter mile of slowly moving forward with absolutely no one cutting out into that empty right lane in order to get ahead—it was almost poignant. This was civility. I’m glad I made this trip, despite the cost and the time involved. It was worth it.

Embodiments of life

Still Life, Gillian Pedersen-Krag

There’s a funny and moving scene in Amadeus where Mozart defends his music for The Marriage of Figaro. His monarch cites good reasons for prohibiting a performance of the story: it’s immoral, degenerate and revolutionary in spirit. (The movie suggests that some might have thought of Mozart’s own personal life in those terms, on occasion.) The king fears that a performance of the opera might inspire insurrection.  France is on the verge of political chaos. Austria worries about the contagion. Yet Mozart dismisses all of these considerations, and his fervor about what he’s done in his composition is entirely about the formal brilliance of his work: the libretto may be subversive, disruptive and potentially violent, but his music is the embodiment of harmony and order. He’s living on an entirely different plane from those around him, playing a glass bead game with notes, striving for transcendent harmonies, merging many voices into one melody, with a passion for conveying nothing more than the quick joy of life itself.

The king: “Figaro is a bad play. It stirs up hatred between the classes.”

Mozart: “Sire, there is nothing like that in the piece. I hate politics. The end of the second act for example. It starts out as a simple duet. Just a husband and wife, quarreling. Suddenly, the wife’s scheming little maid comes in, duet turns into trio. Then the husband’s valet comes in. Trio turns into quartet. Then the stupid old gardener comes in. Quartet turns into quintet. On and on. Sextet, septet, octet. How long do you think I can sustain that, your majesty? Twenty minutes. If that many people talk at the same time, it’s noise. Only opera can do this. But with opera, with music, you can have twenty individuals talking at the same time and it’s not noise, it’s a perfect harmony.

For him, it isn’t what anyone in the opera is saying that matters. What matters is the magic of music’s arithmetic, the way layer upon layer of separate sounds can be woven together into a complete whole—how one becomes two and two becomes three. And of course that’s what endures. No one today who gets goose bumps listening to that opera’s overture cares that it might have sparked a revolution. We’re filled with the bliss of Mozart’s genius, not the libretto’s comically subversive message.

For me, Mozart’s struggle is similar to the struggle of representational painters who realize that they are wrestling with physical materials in an effort to create an image that answers to certain entirely formal needs—and therefore to convey, through perception alone, an awareness that has little to do with imparting ideas or thoughts. The formal qualities work in a way that doesn’t depend on what they can be construed to mean. A painting has little or nothing to say about life; instead, it embodies life directly.

Even without the need to mean something that can be extracted through analysis, representational work faces another challenge. Paint’s abstract qualities—color, value, texture—still need to evoke a roughly recognizable world. Color has to serve representation in a way similar to the way Mozart’s music works with the burden and opportunities of his libretto. (In the movie, Mozart couldn’t care less whether or not his story is vaudeville or Greek tragedy or conventionally meaningful at all; the narrative merely gives him an excuse to channel delight and joy through sound in a purely physical way.)

Having rewatched this movie recently, I was reminded of these polarities when I drove down to Village Gallery in Cazenovia this past weekend to listen to Gillian Pederson-Krag speak for an hour about her painting. I was eager to see her paintings and meet her ever since I’d caught a glimpse of her work in Baltimore a few years ago at an exhibition of perceptual painting curated by Matt Klos. In Annapolis, Pederson-Krag’s painting hung appropriately alongside examples from Rackstraw Downes, Edwin Dickenson, Charles Hawthorne, and many other great painters who worked mostly in a perceptual mode.

On view now at Village Gallery are her latest landscapes and still lifes, a genre in which she has made color her primary concern. With landscape, she somehow, marvelously, uses a much more restricted palette to evoke feeling and intuition from scenes that feel like remembered dreams even as they are also precise representations of either enclosed wooded bowers or expansive beaches that serve as the threshold to endless open space. In both still life and landscape, she does what Fairfield Porter strove to do: depict the world just as it is, while seeming to make it slightly more beautiful. That sounds like a cosmetic procedure, but Porter added a stipulation that a painting is beautiful because it contains a mystery, not because it hews to some pre-conceived notion of what’s lovely. The paradox of this aim toward beauty is that every vital painting has to rediscover what the terms are, how beauty can be disclosed in a fresh way. For Pederson-Krag it arrives through the struggle to achieve this with color—often despite the demands of representation. (Porter shrugged off many of those demands as a needless surrender to a work ethic, keeping his brushwork simple and often very loose, turning his shadows sometimes into pure hues; his thesis about Eakins was that the earlier American painter submitted to assiduous realism in an effort to make painting feel more like work than play, trying to convince himself he was actually working for a living rather than indulging himself in art. Porter, on the other hand, was determined to keep his choices more unpredictable, regardless of whether or not he worked just as hard in the end.)

Pederson-Krag’s brief description of her central contest, the tug-of-war between color and representation, for me, was the pivot around which everything else in her talk revolved. She spoke of how every artist has to find his or her own “door” into painting, a foothold from which all of the work springs. She opened a book about Cezanne and walked around showing her little audience the painter’s early, unrecognizable, melodramatic depictions of murder and rape—you could see how he essentially realized who he was when he discovered that the paint mattered more than what it depicted, and thus how he, and only he, could make a painting. As she pointed out: he discovered who he wanted to be as he discovered how to paint. For him the door into painting was the hope of making a field of color evoke geometric form and volume without losing the sense of brilliant open-air light—pushing toward pure abstraction in formal terms, while still evoking a partly recognizable world involuntarily distorted in an individually original way. What’s amazing about Cezanne is that the increased complexity of color in his work, compared to the green and blue world he was rendering, doesn’t feel arbitrary, but has its own inner necessity, in Kandinsky’s phrase.

Countless painters are engaged in that same effort now. This effort to fashion a truce between pure color and the way the world actually looks, when it works, can reveal feelings, moods and intuitions, what used to be called a sensibility, opening up an entire world of visual intelligence that isn’t about intellectual content. In a way, a painting is about nothing but itself, even though when it works it triggers in the viewer a long sequence of insights and experiences, opening up a fresh way to behold a familiar world. A great painting doesn’t mean something; instead it evokes a world. The problem with most of what’s said about painting is that, of necessity, it usually ignores this central work visual art is engaged in and instead tries to translate the work into intellectual terms. Analyzing art, speaking about painting, invariably conceptualizes what’s happening, even though visual art is able to bypass the intellect entirely, and embody, as Porter said, a mystery inaccessible to theory. (Don’t look to Banksy for this, for example: what he’s doing, and so many artists who have something to say, is perfectly clear.) The mystery isn’t something occult or strange or rare: it’s simply an awareness of life so familiar and intimate—and anterior to thought—that it becomes invisible in daily experience until a painting makes it feel new by making it visible again. The point of painting is to manifest what’s there in life from minute to minute but is so omnipresent it’s inaccessible to conscious observation. Peterson-Krag put it this way: the beauty a painting achieves is both surprising and familiar. It’s a slightly different way of saying “surprising and yet inevitable.” And she echoed another of Porter’s observations when she said, “It enables you to see something familiar as if for the first time.”

That’s precisely the paradox at the heart of painting: to enable you to recognize something that feels entirely fresh and new.  If you recognize it, it can’t really be new, and yet that’s how it feels.  Habit falls away and the most ordinary things become fascinating again when represented effectively in paint: looking at a great painting is liberating. The difficulty of painting, and of any creative work, is that there is no way to keep doing this reliably, despite all of the repeatable working methods a painter can master—beauty emerges as a byproduct of the struggle, as unpredictable to the painter as it is to the viewer.

From still life to still life, Pederson-Krag works to establish a varied range of colors that fill the entire visual field established by the painting—nearly every patch of color in the painting serves a purpose, leaving no room for negative space. Even a wall behind a little green end table bears a pattern—a tactic Zoey Frank uses to the same effect in her still lifes. The eye moves around the canvas comfortably but doesn’t fix itself on any particular item as a focal point, but instead apprehends the light, and the entire composition, as a whole. This approach makes the surface of the painting, the paint itself, as important as what it depicts. Her struggle is to compose an image in color, using the hue of various source objects to create a design—balancing the flat design against the challenge of creating a three-dimensional space—while attempting at the same time to unify the image into a coherent whole and a consistent sense of light.

This, for me, is what she meant when I asked her at what point in her life color became her central concern:

I have always struggled with it. I think it’s the most powerful element in the painting. When I’m really moved by a painting it’s usually the color. I’m always looking for color and warmth. Many objects have a character to them, but they don’t have a color opportunity. When I’m painting, the color always diminishes. I’m always diminishing the color so I always exaggerate it (early on) because I know it’s going to disappear. As I work into things, the color diminishes and I tend to resolve things with value. In that landscape (pointing to one of her pieces on the wall), I tried to make it about color but in the end I could only make it work with a value statement, which is the little element of light (shining through at the center of the painting). (The parenthetical remarks are mine.)

What I think she meant was that she designs a painting as a composition of pure color. In a still life, her objects are carefully chosen and arranged, chosen in part for their color, not simply “found” sitting on a surface in her environment. Her intent is to create a pattern of hues on the surface of the canvas by depicting what she has assembled. She begins with a focus on the relationships among the various colors she’s enabled herself to put down on the surface, through her arrangement of objects, but eventually she gets to the point where she can’t ignore the painting’s lack of unity, so she gradually shifts to a concern with lights and darks, in an effort to create a unified whole. And that inevitably dilutes and obscures the color and pulls her away from what prompted her to paint in the first place. When the painting works, even when it works beautifully, as her paintings all do, it’s a wistful truce between color and value. I’ve always considered this contest between value and color the price of perceptual painting, or any sort of representational work whose primary motive is color. There’s a trade-off in how the demands of representation mute a painter’s opportunities with color. At some level, you’re stuck wrestling with how the world actually looks: it’s mostly green and blue and brown, and it’s full of shadows. Anyone who wants to work primarily with color and, at the same time, create an image that looks remotely the way the world actually looks is living under the yoke of conflicting demands. It’s why it’s easy for a representational colorist looks toward Stella or Noland with envy.

What’s remarkable about Pederson-Krag is that she succeeds so impressively and her final colors become subtle, not dull, in a lustrous way. Though Matt Klos suggested to me, on my visit to Baltimore, that perceptual painting descends mostly from Impressionism, Pederson-Krag’s effort ends up creating images that look Tonalist in their disengagement from the immediate present, in the way they hint at loss and memory and the past, a timeless evanescence, as it were, while still feeling entirely alive and unpredictable in the colors that emerge from her tenacious determination not to obscure the fact that she’s fashioning a field of paint, not simply tricking the eye entirely into forgetting the paint in favor of what it depicts. If I were a collector, I would have bought more than one of her still lifes, but her landscapes have taken her to an even more rarified level and in some ways are more amazing. In them, she achieves a remarkable sense of reality, in a severely restricted range of colors, even while, up close, the images are literally layered visibly into a stucco-like surface of paint—a surface I told her reminded me of Braque. I marvel at the landscapes, because though I can conjecture my way, as a painter, from the blank canvas to the final image in some of her still lifes, even repeated viewing of the landscapes left me baffled about how she got from a white stretch of cloth to the painting hanging on the wall: those scenes embodied yet another level of mystery that kept me coming back to look at them in vain for a clue about how she’d made them.

Bill Finewood

These are small, beautifully executed landscapes by Bill Finewood, currently on view in “Methods Change but the Spirit is the Same”, at the Insalaco-Williams Gallery 34, Finger Lakes Community College. It’s a great overview of his work in different mediums and styles throughout his career. These oils were stand outs in composition, color and handling of the medium, resonant with the unique light of a particular time of day and season. The show also includes a marvelously tactile and detailed drawing of a rabbit, a bit of an homage to Durer’s famous and incomparable one.

Alumni Spotlight: Victoria Catalina

Victoria Catalina brought her creative activism and graphic artist skills to C4AA’s 2016 Art Action Academy in Dublin, working to decriminalize sex work and workers, and has been working as a graphic designer and illustrator since then, often going back to sex worker rights and other activist themes in personal and commercial projects. Catalina has been designing for the Dutch sex workers union PROUD, and P&G292, a health organisation for sex workers in Amsterdam, among other collaborations.

Alumni Spotlight: CODO Cédric Wilfrid

Art Action Academy alumni Cédric Wilfrid Codo has been using media for social change, working with African youth, women and girls. “I am working on a cultural education project for girls and children in schools, on the presence of women in culture and sport (promotion and training) and finally on media that gives visibility to all this. I am convinced that the projects of the future will be projects that will bring together Anglophones and Francophones on projects in French. It will change the world.”

How to Win

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Alumni Spotlight: POETYK PRYNX

One of our amazing alumni, Prince Poetyk, is a prolific Ghanaian poet, who is using his creative activism training to organize around mental health issues.

The Golden Ratio in Art

The Golden Ratio in Art

Struggling to find balance in the composition of your artworks? Luckily for you, nature and the old masters show us a handy rule of thumb that can help you create visually stunning work.

Enter the golden ratio. Learn more about the formula in use for centuries, yet still unknown to many artists.

What is the Golden Ratio?

The golden ratio is a unique irrational number that can be found throughout nature and art. The golden ratio, also known as the golden mean or the Fibonacci ratio, is roughly 1 to 1.618.

Now, before I scare you off at the prospect of mathematics, let me explain why this number can be handy to your artworks.

This ratio is found in everything from shells to plants to human bone structure. Due to its prevalence in nature, designers and artists often use the golden ratio, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Use it to provide harmony, cohesion and stability in your art and design.

How Can You Use the Golden Ratio in Art?

The golden ratio is an excellent tool to help any budding artist create compelling pieces. It can take the guesswork out of subject placement, and proportions within your work.

Many people also use its geometry as the subject matter within their art.

So how is this done?

There are many ways to do this. One example is to use the ratio to design a compelling composition around which your artwork will evolve. The use of the golden rectangle or spiral can help you determine the layout and focal point of your artwork.

The Golden Ratio in Art, illustration showing how the Golden Ratio was used to establish the composition in a photograph

The golden rectangle, which is shown above alongside the golden spiral, is based on the Fibonacci sequence (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, …). These numbers make up the length of the sides of each square. As the squares get larger, you can place them beside the collection of smaller squares to create a rectangle. The ratio of the sides of this rectangle is equal to the golden ratio.

Use this rectangle to design your composition and also to highlight points of interest. For example, if you have visually appealing areas, like a landmark in a landscape or someone’s eye in a portrait, using the golden ratio in art can help you strategically place these landmarks to improve the overall composition and draw the viewers eye.

You can also use the ratio when designing the layout of your piece. Web and graphic designers will often use the golden ratio to divide up a web page or construct a logo. Thus, the proportions of the different elements are all related, based on the golden ratio.

The Golden Ratio in Art, illustrated in the design of the Twitter logo

How Will You Use the Golden Ratio in Art?

As you can see, there are many different ways to include the golden ratio in art. From composition and design to breaking down the proportions of the human body, the way you use it can be as simple or as complex as you want. Consequently, it is the perfect way to add an extra layer of balance and harmony to your composition.

Southern Oregon Artists Resource thanks Nathan Hughes of for contributing this post! For an in-depth article with tips, tricks and tools,  please visit their post by Chelsea here:

51 Benefits of Arts Education for Kids

51 Benefits of Arts Education for Kids

For National Arts in Education Week

Let’s be bold about the “non-academic” benefits of the arts.

Schools are feeling pressure to direct their dwindling resources toward academic subjects. Hence, it’s little surprise arts educators try to make the case that learning the arts enhances academic outcomes. While this may be true, it is a flawed approach that doesn’t do justice to the arts. The point of Arts Education isn’t just to boost academic achievement! So let’s not fall into the trap of framing it that way.

Learning arts cultivates cognitive abilities, nurtures positive character traits, and fosters critical thinking. It also expands awareness, increases empathy, and develops an array of social skills. And that’s just the beginning.

Here are an incredible, evidence-based 51 benefits of Arts Education for kids:

51 Benefits of Arts Education for Kids

Learn more about these benefits (and the studies and papers from which they were sourced) over at We The Parents:

C4AA Alumni Spotlight: Vivian Peng

Vivian Peng took part in C4AA’s 2016 Queens Arts Action Academy, supported by the National Endowment of the Arts in partnership with the Queens Museum.  She is a visual artist and activist, and is currently a communications manager at Doctors Without Borders.