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In pursuit of insignificance

Matt and Will at Tinker Nature Park a few miles from us.

About a year and a half ago, I set a goal to finish eighteen salt water taffy paintings as the core of a solo show in a year or two. I’m working on the eighth—I sold the first one and have stopped posting pictures of the successive paintings partly as a way to prevent the temptation of selling more. My painting plan has been deferred again and again because of my recurring role as a care provider. Last summer I spent three months mostly taking care of my parents and this summer and fall I will put in about the same period of time helping care for my son, daughter-in-law and grandson. Matthew has migrated here back to Pittsford, NY during the pandemic, after having lived and worked for more than a decade in Los Angeles. He lost his job cutting movie trailers—not lost just yet, but he will be furloughed at least into next year. So he’s unemployed with no assurances about the future and saving money by bringing his family to live with us temporarily in the comparative safety of Western New York, where everything costs less at least for now. What they do when the pandemic recedes depends on his wife’s job as a producer for Ellen Degeneres. Until then, she and Matt will stay with us through her long, arduous recovery from a car accident several weeks ago, during which she will resume working remotely for Ellen via Zoom. Their stay here isn’t all-consuming for us, but has become the center of our activities, putting my work nearly on hold again, as it was last summer and then off and on for months after my father’s death a year ago. I began to regain a regular daily painting schedule over the past week, but have had to put it aside again, I hope briefly, until we settle into a more predictable routine. Our lives have become like a Frank Capra movie where family, friends and neighbors are constantly traversing the interior of our house, bringing food and gifts, standing vigil through some small crisis, and using our grill to prepare a meal.

Again, my painting has been put on hold for the past month until a few days ago when I was able to resume work. By the fall, I should be able to settle back into a productive rhythm on the taffy paintings—one of which has already been exhibited in Ohio at The Butler Institute of American Art and at Manifest Creative Research Gallery. It’s a series of paintings that has required me to develop a diligently repetitive work process—Chuck Close would nod with approval at the monotony of my daily life when I’m at full tilt. My methods are getting more reliable than in the past, my technique is becoming more stringently observant of how areas of tone flow into one another and how the paint sits on the canvas, while I’ve reduced my subject to the simplest and least overtly meaningful objects imaginable. In other words I’ve embarked on a group of paintings that will be my attempt to do what I have been saying for years that painting is uniquely suited to do: convey a glimpse of living wholeness, the entirety of a world, through purely formal means, and doing this with an image devoid of signifiers. Or at least an image in which any signifiers one might deconstruct are entirely beside the point when it comes to the essential work the painting is actually doing. I want paintings entirely devoid of intellectual content. I’m tempted to title at least one painting of taffy in this series: This Is Not Salt-Water Taffy.

I had hoped to complete maybe eighteen of these paintings by next spring and offer them as a solo show and present them as a body of work for consideration at galleries in larger metro areas, eventually. But the world seems to be fast-forwarding through an economic transformation as a result of the corona virus—something that otherwise would have happened over many more years that it may take now. What will be left of the gallery scene after the suspended animation of so much activity in Manhattan and Los Angeles? How have gallery owners survived this devastation? Have they? I got an email maybe two months ago announcing that Danese Corey was ending its exhibition program, without being able to discern whether this means the gallery was ceasing to operate or simply was going to close its brick-and-mortar space on East 22nd St. The announcement shocked me and made me heartsick: I loved or at least respected the work of nearly everyone who exhibited there and considered that shop one of the most intelligent and discerning of any gallery I’d ever visited. It feels like the loss of a good friend. So who else will succumb to the loss of revenue in a sector already beset by the inflation in real estate and the decline of galleries in general as a result of the dominance of art fairs. And aside from that, I doubt I will have quite as many finished paintings as I’d hoped by next spring, now that life keeps recruiting me for other tours of duty. I will likely present whatever I have completed and see what response I get, but I could also postpone all of this another year—yet that would feel like a surrender, backing off from the massive disruptions the world has been undergoing, not only my world’s, but everyone’s. As a result of all this, being on near-hiatus from Instagram and this blog feels oppressive and dispiriting. Yet I want to build this new body of work before I post anything from it, and I’ve been producing little else. I’m also continuing to write, when I can, about art—without yet posting it. A post about my visit to the exhibit of J.D. Salinger relics, as it were, at the New York Public Library, will be forthcoming shortly—it has taken me half a year to catch up and draw together all the notes I took away from it in January.

And, along with my projected solo show, I’m trying to assemble a sequence of essays that could serve as commentary for the show of taffy paintings. Let’s call it, for now, The Salt-Water Taffy Manifesto. If I were to complete writing it by the time I have a full complement of paintings for an exhibit, I will see if I can affordably print and present it as a companion catalog, a little illustrated feuilleton on behalf of purposely insignificant painting. That’s the plan anyway. So I may seem to have disappeared on this blog, but only because life has become more intensely interesting (and demanding) than the act of writing about it. And even so, I intend to pick up a paint brush every day from this morning until next April. That’s a promise to myself. Even if only for the current hour.

The toll of the shut-down in the Dorsey clan

Will Dorsey, with his new broom, taking a walk near our neighborhood in Pittsford. He and his family are now living with us as a result of the shut down.

After a freak accident on Friday, my daughter-in-law ended up in the Intensive Care Unit at Strong Memorial Hospital here. It was an unreal series of events in a day that was quietly uneventful up until that point. Our lives began that morning, not as usual, but at least unremarkably, if you discount the fact my son and his wife were back living under our roof with their two-year-old son as a result of the Covid-19 shut down in California and the nation. I began that morning two days ago around 6 a.m. by ordering groceries for my 95-year-old mother, still living independently, but unable to drive. It’s been a year since my father died, and she has adapted bravely to his loss. The help my brother and I offered my parents while he was dying occupied our entire summer last year, when we set up a hospice in his living room to deliver palliative care for weeks as he succumbed to sepsis from an inoperable pressure wound. Our new summer emergency wasn’t yet upon us at this hour. The Instacart order from Wegmans arrived here at my house, as I was mowing the lawn, even though the notes for where to deliver the food outside my mother’s door were visible on the payment page during checkout. So I finished the front yard and loaded the groceries into my Kia and drove twenty minutes to her place with them. We spoke briefly about the state of affairs in my household—for the time being, my son and daughter and their two-year-old son have migrating back to Pittsford, NY from Encino, CA, thanks to the economic shut-down. Our country’s state of suspended animation has interrupted, if not ended, Matthew’s ten-year career as a successful editor/creator of movie trailers for Seismic Productions. Movie production has been completely dead since March. Laura continues to work remotely for Ellen Degeneres. producing Ellen’s website videos with Kristin Bell and others. Her ability to do her job at home, with conference video calls, has enabled them to sell their home in Encino and flee the highly inflated cost of living in Southern California (as in most of the large metropolitan areas in the U.S.).

They arrived here with a carload of household items three weeks ago when they moved into our two spare bedrooms. We rearranged the house to give them space to live and work: the two spare bedrooms upstairs are now theirs, one for Will and the larger one for them. Laura works at a desk in our living room while Matthew takes care of their son, Will, who is possibly the most energized two-year-old on the planet. Matt talks about how, the day he was born, Will was wide-eyed and studying the features of his room, when he should have been sleeping or eating, and unable to see much of anything around him. When he goes for what might euphemistically be called “a walk” he sprints on his tip toes down the street, using the grate in a storm sewer as a razor thin balance beam for the balls of his feet if he isn’t wearing shoes. (Last year, along this same path during his visit, not even two years old at that point, he recited the numbers on the mailboxes as they passed.)

Neither Matt nor Laura know what the future holds for them as a family. She arrived here in the middle of this economic depression—if the unemployment rate, rather than the financial sector, represents the true measure of the economy—and not long after publication of a Buzzfeed article about the “toxic” work culture at the Ellen show. It was followed by revelations in which employees talked about harassment from several executive producers. Each of these stories sparked separate investigations within the company, still ongoing. The day after they arrived, Laura got a call from Warner Brothers and was interviewed by one of their attorneys asking about the allegations. She told the attorney that she was treated with respect and kindness, but that she was aware this might not be the case for others. My impression from everything I’ve heard is that Ellen is a creative spirit who, like many others in many fields, is being required to run an organization rather than focus on her strengths as a comedian and a personality. Once a creatively productive individual rises into management, it can often create problems. This happens everywhere: reporters become editors, detectives become desk sergeants, art directors run art departments, James Patterson becomes the head of a fiction factory. OK, maybe that last one worked out, for better or worse. Ellen seems like someone more at home in a green room than a C-suite conference room. It seems Ellen delegated the actual leadership of the company to her executive producers and they may not have been entirely suited to the power. But all of this is gossip at this point, gossip that has imperiled an entire company.

We all spent several weeks wondering if the show would return in the fall. Each day, Laura started her day at noon, EST, and finished up around 9 p.m., running meetings. Meanwhile, Matthew continued to play the John Lennon house-husband role, becoming Will’s closest and most available companion. On top of all this upheaval, Laura is pregnant and due to deliver her second child in December. So there was a faintly Joad-like quality to their journey, if the Joads had been traveling east rather than west, in an air-conditioned VW, staying at boutique Airbnbs, and funded by a modest nest-egg of equity from a highly inflated real estate market in California (where realtors set dates to take bids and houses nearly all sell for more than asking.) Their nest-egg was no larger than the down payment they made on the house two years ago: closing costs consumed the slight mark-up in the price. The 2,000 square foot “starter” home cost just under $1 million, with a back yard directly adjacent to a busy cut-through street at rush hour, with no side yard on either side, only a pair of catwalk-wide alleys, and no garage.

During my grocery delivery to my mother’s place, we talked about all this, speculating on where my son and his family will end up, how Matt might be able to resume employment, and how much stress this has put on their little family. Laura has become the bread-winner, Matt the homebound parent, and this creates tensions symmetrical to the ones in my own home, where I continue to work for a living though my wife is retired. Being an earner gives you some illusory leverage, but mostly it’s just a foundation for resentment rather than actual power. Living here, they could easily afford to continue in these roles—in L.A., never. When people talk about the urge to preserve the economy, it may in part be an expression of the desire to preserve the animal spirits of Wall Street, but mostly it’s about avoiding this kind of disruption through unemployment—the need for the middle class and working class to pay their bills and remain solvent. The continuing response in states like California, where the lock-down has been fairly stringent and lengthy, is only worsening what has been a growing trend around the country for years: the unaffordability of life in cities like L.A. and New York City. Tents for the homeless are going up everywhere as a result of this inflation. There was an encampment of the homeless only a quarter mile from Matt and Laura’s home in the San Fernando Valley. Inflation is invading smaller U.S. cities as a result of an ongoing wave of migration out of the big metro areas into these more affordable towns. It’s all the outcome of a temporary largesse thanks to the arbitrage of two currencies, the big city dollar vis a vis the much stronger small-town dollar. You bring that weak L.A. dollar into Western New York’s stable economy, and it buys a house more than twice as large, with outstanding public schools supported by taxes, not tuition, not a feature of parenthood in L.A.

We witnessed this last year in Boise when my wife and I looked at housing there, as a possible move to get us within a two-hour flight of Los Angeles, where both of our children and all of our grandkids were located at the time. I remarked to a Circle K cashier working in one of Boise’s more prestigious eastside neighborhoods how robust the housing market was in that beautiful city—the prices were already slightly higher than here in Rochester. She said, “Yeah, it’s great for the new arrivals, but terrible for the rest of us.” Those words will be the motto for countless cities across the country as people migrate steadily out of the big cities over the coming years. She said that if you’d grown up and taken a job in Boise, housing was essentially already unaffordable even in that idyllic, smaller city. Inflation, as a result of a decade of Fed policies to prop up an unsustainable economy, is the big story no one is reporting.

To have lived in Encino and continued to work in their industries wouldn’t have been utterly impossible for Matt and Laura. Matthew’s hours probably would have returned to something like a normal level by next spring, though the money in making trailers has never recovered to its pre-2008 levels. Laura’s job has somehow never seemed in danger, until the news stories shook the program and put everyone at the company on a resume-update footing in anticipation of the potential decision from Ellen Degeneres to simply give up on her position as one of the most successful talk-show hosts in the country. Yet in the tentative words of resolve issued at first to the media and then to employees, it appeared that the show would go on. I told Laura, I didn’t get the impression that someone as courageous as Ellen—one of the first gay entertainers to come out and work openly in the context of her gender identity—would give up and slink away into some kind of semi-retirement. As the days passed, Laura has become more confident and took heart from the love shared by her team and among her co-workers. Ellen and the executive producers who report directly to her may have been either remote and emotionally difficult, defaulting to anxiety-fueled management seeded with encouragement for motivation, but drop a couple tiers down into the show and the bond among workers is fierce. One of Laura’s closest friends and former co-workers, Lena Waithe, has risen into the ranks of elite Hollywood royalty—something that was beginning to happen when Lena attended Matt and Laura’s wedding in 2014. She remains in close contact with Laura even now, through texts and personal visits to their former Encino home.

As I was driving home from my mother’s, Matt called, and I answered in hands-free mode.

“Laura was hit by a car. I don’t know many of the details. She’s at Strong. When are you getting home?”

“In about fifteen minutes, probably. You mean your mom’s CRV was hit? Wasn’t she driving the CRV?” I asked.

“She wasn’t in the car.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“She was waiting to go in for her blood test, sitting outside, and a car ran over her.”

“I don’t understand.”

“That’s what the guy said. The car rolled over her.”

He decided to head to Strong Memorial Hospital himself, not knowing any further details. When I got home, with further texting from Matt, I pieced together what had happened. Laura arrived at the University of Rochester testing clinic, where you can show up without an appointment and get blood drawn. It was crowded inside so, wearing her mask and conscious of the need for social distancing, she went outside, where people were already overflowing from inside. She looked for a place to sit away from the throng. There were no chairs or benches or anywhere to wait comfortably. She found a spot on the grass strip alongside the parking lot and sat on it to text with co-workers. As she put it to Matt, “I was texting and then I was under a car.” The older woman driving the vehicle had gotten confused and saw herself heading toward Laura, kicked the throttle instead of the brake and jumped the curb, the tire climbing over Laura’s back, pinning her to the ground, crushing one side of her pelvis, which probably saved the baby’s life, cracking the opposite hipbone as well, breaking a rib, her shoulder blade and her forearm. The tire left a track of bruises across her back. It also dislocated her hip, which caused her great pain at the time. A bus driver saw the entire accident and jumped out of the bus to help her. Another bystander waiting outside the clinic—there were many who had to find a place to wait outside—called Matthew and also called the ambulance.

When the paramedics got her to Strong (also owned by the University of Rochester, the city’s largest employer, the new Eastman Kodak Co. in terms of its role at the apex of the local economy)  they determined her vital signs were good and got her into the ICU as quickly as possible to make sure the baby survives. Its heartbeat was untroubled, and continues to be strong. Through she arrived at the emergency room on Thursday, surgery to repair the hip couldn’t be scheduled until tomorrow, Monday. So she is in traction, virtually immobile, unable to move enough to text, yet able to make a phone call or dictate into the phone. Yesterday, she was in some degree of pain until later in the afternoon when the attendants found the right cocktail of pain analgesics for her drip.

My wife, Nancy, and I have been caring for Will as Matt spends much of his time at her side in the ICU. Almost immediately after the accident, I called a personal injury attorney to find out what we needed to manage the costs of her medical care. I also wrote to one of her closest co-workers at the Ellen Show with a quick summary of what had happened, after which word spread throughout the company and resulted in a flood of texts and phone calls of concern and support. The attorney said few people understand that despite the prevalence of no-fault car insurance, the car insurance policy of the driver at fault, the one who ran over Laura, will pay for medical care—not Laura’s health plan from the show. Car insurance is entirely responsible for the payment of injury claims, he said. We haven’t yet checked with another attorney on this, though Matt has a name from a high school friend here. Once the driver’s liability coverage is exhausted, Laura’s own car insurance will pick up additional costs. After that, the source of the money needs to be determined. The question is simply how long she will be in the hospital, and the cost of the care she will receive. At this point, everyone expects her to fully recover, but it will take months of rehabilitation before she delivers the baby in December. Costs were an immediate concern because one of Laura’s best friends had a highly premature child not long ago and those six weeks of neonatal care, and treatment for her own complications, ran up a bill for $1 million, with a co-pay of $25,000 for the couple. The last thing Matt and Laura need is to see their nestegg erased along with one of their jobs.

Yesterday, Matt was at her side in the ICU when his phone rang from an unidentified caller. One of Laura’s producer friends at the company said she could expect a mystery call and to answer it. Laura was anticipating a call from an executive producer. Matt answered.

“Is this Matthew?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Hi Matt, this is Ellen Degeneres,” she said.

“Oh, hi Ellen! Let me put you on speaker.”

As he did this, Matt was startled by an alarm in the room. Laura’s heartbeat had spiked so much, it set off an alert from the monitor.

“Hi Laura. How are you honey?” she asked.

Laura told her.

“Do you remember the accident?” Ellen asked.

“Yes, every second,” she said, and proceeded to recount what happened.

Ellen spoke with her for a while and said the company was very concerned about her and would be there for her if she needed anything. She signed off after a short while, saying, “Believe it or not, I have another person to call in Chicago who was in a car accident.”

The call reassured all of us that the show will go on, that Laura will have a secure job, and that her team cares deeply about her. When Matt got home, he was telling us the story of their day together in the hospital and a text came in.

“It’s Kristin Bell,” he told us, sitting on the couch in our family room.. Bell offered her concern and sympathy and any help Laura needs. Matt said, “She says to tell her we love her.”

An hour later, he got another text. He said, “A car full of food is arriving.” He went out into the driveway and carried in a dozen packages, full of chicken parmesan, pizza, cheeseburgers, chicken wings, garlic bread, salad, a feast of fast food ordered for delivery by Laura’s team at the show.

Every night since they’ve gotten here, Will has woken up crying at some point between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. Last night, after Laura’s mother arrived from Philadelphia and slept in the room where Matt and Laura had been sleeping, Matt slept on the floor beside Will—without any discomfort, he said, which is more a reflection of Matt’s tolerant, flexible character than the ergonomics of a hardwood floor. Will slept soundly through the night for the first time since their arrival. With a few prayers for Laura’s complete recovery and a successful surgery, we all did.

The grace of the mundane

The Light for the Day, 24″ x 24″, oil on linen

​I pause to look at the ordinary places and objects in everyday life and feel the stillness and quietness that historic painters such as Johannes Vermeer, Vilhelm Hammershøi, and Edward Hopper capture with an inexplicable sense of solitude and melancholy.
     In my paintings, the mundane surroundings imply transient conditions: such as the disappearance or transformation of old buildings, inexpensive furniture abandoned out on the street, people in the subway heading somewhere, an empty street on holiday, small closing stores in the neighborhood, and dusk at the end of a day.
     I am compelled to leave traces of such moments of disappearance on my canvas. The toned-down mood and the elaborate details raise feelings of stillness and quietness which portray an ephemeral presence. 

–Yonjae Kim 

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.