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Everything is fertile

Marcel Proust

From the man who discovered an entire world in a cup of tea:

We have put something of ourselves everywhere, everything is fertile, everything is dangerous, and we can make discoveries no less precious than in Pascal’s Pensees in an advertisement for soap.

–Marcel Proust, The Fugitive

Manifesto

Maurice Butler, My God Is Gangsta, 2016, charcoal, spray paint on gessoed paper (detail) — @mauricepbutler.art (Manifest Gallery, Pennsylvania Regional Showcase Exhibition, Dec. 2017-Jan. 2018)

From Manifest, via email to exhibitors and members:

THE STAND

Manifest was built on taking a stand for principles of measured quality, experiential opportunity, philosophical openness, a respect for learned skill and craftsmanship, and a belief that excellence can arise from people of any age, race, gender, background, or geographic origin. Our nonprofit organization was founded sixteen years ago by students and teachers who saw a lack of these things in their world and sought to bring them about, creating a space—a platform if you will—for their manifestation. It was these principles that attracted and gained the involvement of artists from around the world—so many people very different from ourselves.

While this effort was admittedly supported by a privileged relationship to the visual arts and academic art world, even today it gives us a humble microscopic view of the larger position of our fellow Americans and citizens of the world. If you want something good in the world, you have to take action to bring it about. How this is done, the craftsmanship and philosophy, the empathy and truth to inner vision, and the work really matters. The How, What, and Why are everything. We must get these right together. We are seeing this work being done, and it is dangerous, powerful, and inspiring.

Like a work of art this country, this global civilization, must be made such that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Together we are so much more than what we are as individuals. This does not mean we must believe the same beliefs, nor think the same thoughts, or value the same experiences. But we do need to recognize our place as parts of the larger whole, and to embrace it in dynamic respectful balance, celebrating what it means to be here now, recognizing the frailty of a monumental system so much larger and more precious than ourselves.

Across sixteen years Manifest’s exhibits and publications have presented to the public the works of 3,250 artists from all 50 U.S. states and 43 different countries. We do not ask for headshots or ethnicity details when considering submissions of artwork, nor when exhibiting or publishing the final selections. Our belief has been that the artwork speaks for itself. We certainly know that many many of the artists we’ve been blessed with knowing and working with have been very different from ourselves, and this is based on more than just their vast global origins. The fact that so much of the world has been represented by the artists who chose to cross paths here, at Manifest in Cincinnati, Ohio, has meant all the difference in how we have viewed and valued our place in the world. Without them, without so many diverse creative energy sources, Manifest would not be what it is today. It is they who have made Manifest the Neighborhood Gallery for the World.

Now, and always, Manifest condemns the long-standing and systemic racism, inequality and injustice that is experienced by so many in our world. Unity is paramount. 

Han’s solo

The Pain Surprise, Raymond Han, oil on canvas, 32″ x 36″

Decades ago, my wife and I (with our infant daughter) moved from my first job in Great Falls, Montana to Utica, New York. Within a year or two of that move, I attended two seminal exhibitions at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, where I was enrolled in art instruction for a time. I had consciously refused to attend art school, even though I’d started painting seriously in my mid-teens, and made up for it by working with artists at places like MWP and later at Memorial Art Gallery. I’m going to write elsewhere about the article in Art News that turned me against the world of art in my teens–it’s intellectual pretensions, the post-modern obscurantism of art criticism, the way in which so much art during and after the Sixties arose out of a kind of snotty disdain for the ordinary life of common people. It was all repellent to me, and the artists I loved like brothers at the time–Blake, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, Braque, Rouault, Klee–struck me as obsolete, historically relevant but offering nothing for a contemporary artist to assimilate. I was too put off by the comparative austerity of Diebenkorn’s abstractions to see how they sprang almost directly from Matisse. But even aside from the way in which the art world seemed like an exclusive club devoted to making itself inaccessible to most people, I believed that I was a late-comer who had no place in the world of contemporary art. I looked at the increasingly sterile ways in which The Next Big Thing in art simply confirmed how all the revolutions were over and there was nowhere new for painting to go, if you understood progress as increasing levels of freedom for visual artists. I didn’t see what was actually going on, the way Arthur Danto did–how Pop Art made anything possible and therefore anything was now acceptable and contemporary. Anything could be art, including the sort of work done in the past. So I continued to paint, out of my own sense of inner necessity—but feeling as if my work had no place in the larger scheme of things, rather than paint and teach, I became a reporter and a writer.

Yet when I found myself walking into “An Appreciation of Realism” at Munson-Williams-Proctor in the 80s, I realized what was still possible, and how I’d missed the way art had become, in a sense, ahistorical. It was an exhibition devoted to representational painting and the roster of artists represented was incredible: Bailey, Estes, Pearlstein, Beal, Kahn, Lennart Anderson, Freilicher, Soyer, Leslie, Resika, Jerome Witkins, Katz, Welliver, Guston, Goings, Cottingham, Close, Bechtle, Fish, Beckman, Paul Georges, Leland Bell, Rackstraw Downes, and Fairfield Porter, along with more than a dozen others. It was an amazingly comprehensive curation of contemporary representational painting by all the names that I continued to study for years after I saw that show. It opened my mind to the possibility that I might actually be able to paint in ways that would belong to what was happening in art around me. It showed me, essentially, that it was possible to be any sort of painter I wanted to be–and all that remained was to spend years figuring out exactly what that was, which I did, slowly and patiently.

What’s interesting to me now is that photo-realism was well-represented but didn’t move me, and that I don’t even recall the work by Fairfield Porter, someone whose paintings I love as much as anyone who has ever picked up a brush. In short order, the arts institute organized a second show which had an even more profound effect on me: a large solo exhibition of Raymond Han’s still lifes. He was born in Hawaii in 1931 and died three years ago in upstate New York. He never got an art degree, but learned from other painters—as I did—and attended the Art Students League. His large still life work in the early 80s was astonishingly masterful: large tables covered in white tablecloths, where he had carefully arranged china, glass, silverware, all of it in tones of white, gray and brown, with small areas of intense color provided by a bit of fruit or flowers. His tables were set back against an off-white wall, his objects casting faint shadows against the wall, all of it like a little domestic city spread out on the fabric, a planned community where each object had been placed with infinite care. He had no desire to paint what he saw in his environment, just as he found it, but created the painting by placing everything where it needed to be to yield a certain kind of balance and serenity—in the way William Bailey does, but with an entirely different feel for his earth tones and matte surfaces from a level, frontal perspective. Han allowed you to look slightly down from in front and above the tabletop. The effect was to give you a glimpse of a snowy landscape, mostly variations of white, with objects and spots of beautiful color all the more powerful for being so rare.

So few of the paintings I saw in Han’s solo exhibition can be found anywhere on the Internet now. Most of what I find is work from more recent decades, almost nothing dating from the 70s or 80s. They were large canvases, four or five feet across, which enabled him to paint a tureen or compote in its actual dimensions—something I have attempted to do in my own still lifes ever since. His white tablecloths translated into the ones I used for my large tabletops, which were a sort of compromise for me between my desire to assimilate much of what I discovered in Han’s work with my love for Braque’s gueridons (his tabletops tilted forward to a plane almost parallel with the painted surface). 

Han’s tables remind me a bit of Buddhist altars: a place for devotional vessels and perishable offerings to the Buddha or a bodhisattva: flowers, fruit, or incense. The formality and elegance of that white linen where he places household objects, like the pale sand a Zen gardener punctuates with a rock or plant, suggest both abundance and restraint, a relaxed order so different from similar displays of costly crystal or lace napkins in a dark Upper West Side dining room painted by John Koch. There’s a humble, unpretentious air in the way Han placed a fluted paper coffee filter with as much care as a bit of expensive fabric—because he wanted a slightly different tone, a variation of his ubiquitous white, the soil from which would spring the warm tones of a peach or a peony. The ratio of white to lovingly rendered color represents a sort of standard in the back of my mind against which I often measure my own handling of color. Han had a gift for being able to put a white tablecloth against a white wall and then assemble a dozen white dishes and bowls on that surface—and still handle the subtle variations in value required to render a highlight on a spoon or a shadow in a bit of drapery in an absolutely convincing way—without (and this is what gives life to his work for me) relying on arduous hyper-realism. With realists like Koch or James Valerio or William Beckman, the ability to achieve startling verisimilitude depends on a certain tolerance for darkness. The delicacy of color sometimes in Koch represents a sort of triumph over that darkness that Valerio’s lighting and more saturated colors don’t achieve, even though Koch’s interior scenes tend to be dark. In Han, shadow is almost banished, relegated to the corner folds of his tablecloths or a penumbral wedge on the wall behind a table. The natural light that illuminates everything in one of those big still lifes has stayed with me for decades, the sort of light that strikes the eye from even the darker quarters of a Fairfield Porter canvas. My candy jars were my attempt to paint an image that has depth and realistic form without relying on dark values at all, so that even less illuminated nooks between one jelly bean and the next glows with a certain kind of light. Han’s big tables have that quality: the light seems to reach every surface, the background almost as bright as the foreground. And when you get close to one of Han’s canvases, you know it’s a painted surface, with evidence of his brush. At the time, the little take-away card printed up for the show compared his work to Chardin’s, and though the feel of his work doesn’t resonate with the still life Chardin did before he immersed himself in genre painting, when Chardin returned to still life, the feel of a painting like Wild Duck with Olive Jar does find echoes in Han’s best work. 

Oregon winter

Winter, Richard Harrington, acrylic on panel, 48: x 60″

I stumbled across this abstract from my Oregon friend, Rick Harrington, a couple weeks ago, because I was intrigued by something he’d posted on Facebook and wanted to see what he was up to lately. He wrote that he’d completed it a couple years ago, as part of a triptych: all three paintings are posted at his site. He’s been painting what I would call color field barns and color field animals for years. This is presumably a snowstorm, which is already a fairly uniform field of white, but what he’s done here with that foreground white-out is wonderful: the way the intense under-layers of color suggest both natural and internal phenomena, late autumn reds, the yellow glare of the sun in the upper left, and memories of greenery, as if he just went all out with saturated tones in his first strike on the canvas and then started concealing everything he’d done so that you get just little glimpses, hints, of what’s there underneath, which makes the image as much a representation of human psychology as it is a Turner-esque vision of a storm. He paints his barns mostly with rags, and could easily have dispensed with brushes for this one, but I didn’t ask. I was too busy praising him.

 

 

 

Abstract representation

Gerhard Richter with his work

The shot of these two huge abstracts, with Gerhard Richter dwarfed by his work while posing in the shaft of light, appeared on Instagram at abstrac.ted. I can’t find anything quite like them in the compendium of Richter’s work over the decades at Gerhard Richter. I’m wondering if this means he has recently completed these, and if so, it’s an interesting shift in his work. With the exception of a series he did in 2005, all entitled Forest, these two paintings distinguish themselves from almost all of his earlier, extremely flat

Forest

abstracts, obedient to Clement Greenberg’s advocacy of flatness as painting’s most essential, defining characteristic–what, in retrospect, seems like either the silliest or the most obvious proposition about art ever to be embraced in such a hugely influential way. In the bulk of his abstract paintings, Richter experiments with the effects he can get by using large amounts of multiple colors, smearing, masking, scraping, scumbling (on a large scale) one color into another in various ways. In the earlier work, he achieves suggestive effects of luminosity and hints of depth—so that some areas of paint seem to recede to an area just behind the surface. In the Forest series, this is more pronounced: you can discern what might be tree trunks in a foreground, or an underwater scene with tiers of aquatic plant life, against an indeterminate soup behind them, in a way that feels slightly Klee-like. Landscapes blur into twilight. But in this pair of huge canvases, the sense of space is vast, giving a sense of receding vistas. Light seems to shoot down through layers of foliage or enormous skylights, and the vertical shafts to the left in each canvas suggest buildings, or maybe the geometric angles of Richter’s studio itself. In the painting on the left, down in the lower right corner, the rectangular area of softened light seems like a window that offers a glow reaching the viewer from miles away. More than most of his abstraction in the past, this work from Richter, if it’s recent, gives reason to hope he’s trying to find a closer, expressionist truce between abstraction and his celebrated genius as a realist.

Going dark for a while

My new favorite medium.

I’ve been joking with a number of people that having complied with the social isolation required around the world to fight COVID-19, I can’t tell the difference between this and my ordinary life. Such is painting. I still make furtive trips to the supermarket and Home Depot. I paid cash for one small purchase recently and my fingertips did an absurd dance with the clerk’s in our attempt not to touch each other. Meanwhile, running along the Erie Canal’s towpath yesterday, I felt as if dozens of erstwhile isolationists had fled to that nearly empty channel of water, far more people than I would normally see at this time of the year. Walkers, runners, cyclists and in-line skaters were easily able to keep their distance and most were friendlier than they are in the aisles of stores. Maybe I’m just noticing for the first time how eye contact at Wegmans is as rare as on the streets of Manhattan, where people walk under an unspoken edict never to smile at anyone or acknowledge individual faces in the packed flow of pedestrians moving along Fifth Avenue. (Fifth Avenue is as dry, figuratively speaking, as the Los Angeles River these days.)

All of these sequestered hours provide ample time to paint, though I’ve noticed in myself and a number of others—Christopher Burke’s latest post on Instagram talked about his creative rut—that this weird, nearly universal state of suspended animation in society casts a pall on individual effort, for some reason. I’m still painting every day, often for six hours, and making steady progress, but always with an irksome sense that I work more slowly than I would like—yet that doesn’t inspire me to put in longer hours.

So I’m busy enough to be posting new work every few weeks, but I’ve withdrawn to a great degree from Instagram, and have been lax in my posts here, partly because of this languishing sense that everything has come to a halt, but mostly because I’m working on a long series of salt water taffy paintings. I don’t want to post them piecemeal, but rather to wait until the series is nearly done—which will take more than a year. I want to excavate all the possibilities from this radical narrowing of my work. I spoke recently with Rick Harrington about this, telling him that I’m rankling a bit from the constraints of doing what feels in some ways like the same thing over and over again—which is entirely the point of the series, to see how a simple subject accurately rendered can end up working the way an abstract works—and he said, from his long experience with his abstracted barns, that you can learn much by sticking with a particular subject for years and years. After years of struggling to emerge from a fog that resulted from the aftereffects of anesthesia during surgery on his throat, he is back in fourth or fifth gear, reaching a new plateau in his efforts—though the sudden stasis in the economy seemed to threaten his momentum in his galleries. (It hasn’t just yet.) Of this, I’m certain: boxing myself into this narrow line of work will provide ample reward and allow me to learn a lot, and could open some doors. But that doesn’t make it feel any less confining, and doesn’t make it any more pleasant to become a reluctant Punxsutawney Phil and renounce a regular dose of likes on Instagram. It all comes down to hours at the easel; like everything else in life, it’s mostly a matter of showing up and letting the work happen. And maybe pushing for another couple hours beyond the point where you want to get outside and forget the canvas until tomorrow.

One thing I happen to have learned already, in my pursuit of a certain flow of paint in this series, is that from now on, I’m a lifelong convert to Gamblin’s Neo Megilp medium. It is a gel, rather than a fluid, a safer version of Maroger’s, a medium its inventor claimed was the medium of the Old Masters. It’s lead-based, while Neo Megilp uses no lead. Fairfield Porter mixed his own Maroger’s and you can see it in the quality of his marks. I don’t know why I haven’t tried it before now, but it’s marvelous—it gives a consistency to the paint that allows a fluent application, without dripping or visible thinning of the pigment, and stays ductile for a long time, allowing wet-on-wet technique, which is my goal. And a little goes a long way, so that the bottle I’m currently depleting will last for many paintings, even large ones. It’s a joy.

The tip of the iceberg

Skye, Chris Baker, gouache, detail.

About 200 hundred pages into the Kilmartin translation of Swann’s Way—I came back to this passage after finding a similar observation in the second book—Proust talks about how his fiction is non-intellectual, and that his lack of ideas originally persuaded him that he couldn’t be a writer.  A La Recherche du Temps Perdu shows how his pursuit of love and friendship and social status kept him from discovering his vocation, though ironically the story of his immersion in the illusions of society becomes the actual content of the novel he was unable to write because he was living the events of the book. He had to get lost to find himself.

Here is the passage that says so much, for me, about visual art and the lack of intellectual content or meaning in the paintings I love most (it’s appropriate that visual art was one of the primary inspirations for Proust’s novel and for his style of writing):

Then, quite independently of these literary preoccupations and in no way connected with them, suddenly a roof, a gleam of sunlight on a stone, the smell of a path would make me stop still, to enjoy the pleasure that each of them gave me, and also because they appeared to be concealing, beyond what my eyes could see, something which they invited me to come and take but which despite all my efforts I never managed to discover. Since I felt that this something was to be found in them, I would stand there motionless, looking, breathing, endeavoring to penetrate with my mind beyond the thing seen or smelt . . . It was certainly not impressions of this kind that could restore the hope I had lost of succeeding one day in becoming an author and poet, for each of them was associated with some material object devoid of intellectual value and suggested no abstract truth.

He ignores these intimations for years because they offer him no ideas. He spends years believing he had no talent, no creative virtues, as a result of this lack of intellectual originality. By the end of the novel, the elimination of ideas in favor of the raw phenomena of life, the matrix of felt experience, becomes his sextant, enabling him to bring to life a complex and beautifully superficial world, saturated with a reality to which its inhabitants remain deaf and blind, except in brief, revelatory moments—and those simple moments are what his art is dedicated to triggering, the opening up of a world, intensely familiar but also fresh, surprising, and new. In other words, alive. And through all of it runs the Platonic suggestion that these glimpses are also glimpses of something incorruptible and timeless, hints that the material world is merely the tip of an iceberg invisible to conscious thought.

Dutch diversity

Jasper Beckx’s portrait of Don Miguel de Castro, a Congolese ambassador to the Netherlands, from 1643.Credit…Statens Museum for Kunst

From Black in Rembrandt’s Time, at the Rembrandt Museum in Amsterdam (closed at the moment in the European shutdown.) From the museum’s website: “For years I’ve been looking for portraits of black people like me. Surely there had to be more than the stereotypical images of servants, enslaved people or caricatures? I found the alternative in Rembrandt’s time: a gallery of portraits of black people who are depicted with respect and dignity.” – Stephanie Archangel, Guest Curator

 

 

 

The life you save may be Bill’s

The Song of the Lark, Jules Adolphe Breton, Art Institute of Chicago

Bill Murray tells the story of how he stumbled onto this painting and how it saved his life, more or less, at an especially discouraging moment in his early career. Or at least it showed him how he had nothing to be discouraged about. I love how Breton manages to illuminate the figure with the cool, blue light of the dawn in the west rather than the direct and warm light of the sunrise in the east. It somehow conveys the clemency of the young woman’s experience hearing the bird to inaugurate a day of work. And, who knows, maybe we need to say a few words of gratitude to this painting for Ghostbusters, Lost in Translation, and Rushmore, not to mention a couple of the best moments in Tootsie. 

The Kramer

JERRY: I have to go meet Nina. Want to come up to her loft, check out her paintings?

GEORGE: I don’t get art.

JERRY: There’s nothing to get.

GEORGE: Well, it always has to be explained to me, and then I have to have

someone explain the explanation.

JERRY: She does a lot of abstract stuff. In fact she’s painting Kramer right now.

GEORGE: What for?

JERRY: She sees something in him.

GEORGE: So do I, but I wouldn’t hang it on a wall.

In “The Letter,” the 37th episode of Seinfield, Jerry’s girlfriend, played by Catherine Keener, is painting a portrait of Kramer, which inspires this conversation. Did anyone have to explain visual art before 1850 or so? Did explanations become more important than the creative work itself at some point mid-20th century? Jerry is right: there’s plenty happening in a great painting, but there’s nothing to get in the greatest of them, at least in the sense of an explanation.