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Henry Miller

The artist is the opposite of the politically minded individual, the opposite of the reformer, the opposite of the idealist. The artist does not tinker with the universe, he recreates it out of his own experience and understanding of life.  —Henry Miller

Rare Porter

Fairfield Porter

This work by Fairfield Porter is startling in its bold freedom, the almost arbitrary way he represented the flowers, the saturated tones, the almost splattered looking petals in contrast to that marvel of a jar used as a vase. I’ve never seen this painting through any channel other than this page eight years ago from Art News. I recently found a stack of magazines and tore out half a dozen pages from this 2010 spring issue. I will post iPhone shots of them now and then in the future. Just thumbing through the ads in Art News was best way to explore unfamiliar work and learn a few things, while diligently ignoring the text. Sort of the way most of us boys engaged with Playboy back in the day.

The perfect flow of paint

Mark Tennant’s recent work

Mark Tennant posted this painting on Instagram a little while back, and I’ve since gone back to it many times with pleasure. At first, it suggests an almost clinical distance from his subject, a hauteur about a fragment of past American culture, which he’s isolated for observation. In this case, he seems to be looking back at a middle-class couple, standing proudly in front of their tract home and new car, circa 1960—he with beer in hand, she in pumps that aren’t even indicated except by the tiptoe slope of her feet. It’s all imbued with a cool, dubious squint of someone who doesn’t share the enthusiasms he depicts, a clinical detachment present in some of Tennant’s more erotically suggestive work, much of which has a muted, colorless sheen reminiscent of Gerard Richter’s early portraits based on media photographs of Baader-Meinhof terrorists. In this clinical mode, Tennant picks subjects that seem selected to provoke a raised eyebrow or a half-smile of condescension—as if he’s looking down, rather than head-on, at whatever he’s showing. It reminds me of what Martin Mull has been doing in his work—purchasing collections of family photographs from garage sales and flea markets to use as source material for his own surreal, emotionally detached and dreamlike visions occasionally on view at Hirschl & Adler.

Still, though I doubt this is the response Tennant wants, I react to this painting with nostalgia for those brief post-war decades when America was genuinely thriving, leading the world in building a middle class that was actually earning more than what it needed to get by. What drove productive lives wasn’t false hope back then. This proud couple could easily have been living on one salary at Eastman Kodak here in my hometown, with its generous wages and annual bonuses for workers, when a household could thrive on a single income, earning enough to get a mortgage on a new house and even buy a new car every few years. Over the past few decades, that level of material comfort could be sustained only on higher and higher lines of credit and more than one wage. The middle class has waned though it remains to be seen if it’s down for the count. Simple bourgeois comforts, along with an occasional luxury, are certainly as illusory as anything else on this spinning planet—so Tennant is perfectly justified in suggestions of sic transit gloria mundi, especially when the glories are so humble. He casts a cold eye on this moment of celebratory happiness yet it feels like something most people wouldn’t mind working toward now as much as they did in the 60s, and rightly so. It’s precisely what people who flee into our country are hoping to find. But what’s going on in this image has gotten harder and harder to make happen.

That said, this painting is different from what I consider Tennant’s usual mode and that keeps me coming back for another look. It’s far more colorful than most of what he posts. His technical facility conveys, by contrast with his seeming emotional detachment from the scene, an avid pleasure in being able to render things in such a way that his formal skill emerges as what’s most compelling in the work. The stylistic sang-froid recedes, for me, overcome by my vicarious delight in Tennant’s representational powers. Jenny Saville works toward the same kind of stand-off between subject and execution, picking subjects almost designed to be an affront to taste as a way of tempering the appeal of her bold, lush facility with paint, the sensual pleasure of seeing her push heavy loads of oil paint around so . . . well, so athletically, given the scale of the paintings. I’ve always thought of it as a strategy akin to Sinead O’Conner’s buzz cut, a way of hedging rare beauty in the interest of being taken more seriously. As if beauty has to earn its right to exist. Tennant doesn’t disagree: at the same time, alongside this work that seems to invite social or psychological commentary, he posts straightforward, masterful charcoal portraits executed with economical and bold technique, classic in their simplicity and remarkable in the way they convey particular qualities of light and individual personality.

When Tennant posted this painting of a suburban couple, it inspired some comments from some followers who assumed it was a skewering of the shallow tedium of a middle-class cul-de-sac life, but for me the handling of the paint and the rigorous elimination of all needless detail builds an image that’s both strikingly three-dimensional and a powerful flat pattern of paint. It’s somehow echoes both Hockney and Fairfield Porter, and vaguely akin to the perceptual painters, but it’s both more precise and photographic and less worked-over than what many of Porter’s heirs are doing. Lennart Anderson’s influence is nowhere to be found here. It’s a large canvas and seen in its actual scale, it’s probably even more powerful, and even more about the paint, but the values and color both create a dramatic sense of depth and immediacy. It succeeds at the universal attempt to create a field of marks that stand for something else, but also work almost as well as nothing but marks, but in this case Tennant is setting up even more polarities: judicious blurring vs. geometric hard-edged structures, neutral and almost colorless stretches in contrast to saturated shards of blue and green and that intense patch of red hair echoed by the rose dot of a tail light in the sedan’s rear fin. One follower commented, right after Tennant posted the image, that she was pleased with where Tennant seemed to be going with the painting. How presumptuous. I thought it was done. I hope so. It’s hard to imagine any way to improve it.

More lilacs and geese

September Apples, Igor Shipilin

Another find from Lilacs and Wild Geese.

Glorious paint

I can’t find a name for this painting anywhere, even with a Google image search. It’s Robert Henri, from the cover of a book he wrote.

More is more: Stooshinoff

Green Hill, Harry Stooshinoff. 8″ x 8″, acrylic on board

Harry Stooshinoff is a Canadian painter who has conquered the way of a picture-per-day. I hate looking at his Instagram feed because it makes me feel like a total slug, the guy is so incredibly prolific and fast, but also, worst of all, masterful. One glimpse of Harry S. and I just want to give up. Fast is the hardest thing to be as a painter, but he’s flawlessly so. He’s the ultimate premier coup painter, everything done in one sitting. His work looks like en plein air but I think he simply does studies and sketches on site and then improvises from his notes in the studio. You can read a great explanation of the thinking that goes into his process in a well-written little statement here. He posts and sells quite a bit of work online, I gather, for prices that are feudally cheap, but he lives by an economics I find admirable—he can apparently afford to aim high in his work and sell low on the market, which both moves the work and makes it almost universally ownable. It’s a generous strategy that reminds me of Jim Mott’s gift economy. I suspect a lot of teaching in the past is what enables him to do all this now. He can’t be living that far north of Rochester, so I ought to track him down and shake his hand at some point but knowing me, I probably won’t. His methods look utterly transparent, the way Fairfield Porter’s seem to in his best work—no cards pulled out of sleeves, no mystery about how or why that slash of paint happens to be there or do what it does—but try to paint something in such a self-evident way and you will see how Stooshinoff is nearly without equal. Welliver had that quality: you can see what he’s doing all along and would love to do it yourself—“no going back over”—but try it and see what a mess you make.

 

Belfast Bay

Belfast Bay, Matt Klos, oil on canvas. Absent inches, let’s just say very very small.

This may be, so far, my all-time favorite painting by Matt Klos, which I’ve seen once in a show he had at Oxford Gallery early in this decade, a tiny work, probably done on the spot when he was overseas, I’m not sure. The way he scumbled the paint to allow the canvas to peek through the porous medium gave a perfect shimmer to sea and sky, but it’s the way he used color that really knocked me out. I took a shot of it at the show and have kept it filed away ever since.

Timeless classicism

Another page torn from that 2010 issue of Art News. Every time I think Picasso was the most over-rated painter in the history of Western art, I come across something that makes me think again. This is almost a riposte to Braque’s Canephorae. It was from the Guggenheim’s Chaos and Classicism exhibitionI have to say I prefer this to Braque’s figures–someone once pointed out that Braque invested all of his sensuality in his still lifes, not his nudes–though in almost every other respect, I expect Braque will outlast his rival. But something far more lasting that eroticism shines in this one from Picasso, even though it often seems nearly everything he did had some tangential link to sex.

The light of Piero, circa now

Head, oil on linen, Kathleen Carey Hall

A mother-daughter exhibition at Exeter Gallery promises to be something exceptional for anyone interested in perceptual painting: Eternal Sun, Paintings by Linda Carey and Kathleen Carey Hall. Matt Klos, the director of the gallery, sent out an announcement of the new exhibition last week and included a small sample of what’s on view. One of these paintings is to blame for a string of as-yet unchecked items on my To Do list—I spent much too long for my own good admiring this portrait, entitled simply Head.

The mother-daughter pairing feels like an interesting offshoot of the shows Manifest regularly puts together combining work from teachers and students. From the images Matt sent, these two painters have clearly mastered perceptual painting and used its tropes and techniques to create an individual vision. Both have spent time studying and painting in Italy. Time abroad in that particular nation seems to be one of the best things a painter can choose to do these days—judging by the quality of the work it nurtures, glimpses of which are readily available in the feeds of many painters on Instagram.

On the strength of the images Klos sent along, this is a show not to be missed. One of the two images, this particular portrait of a young woman—self-portrait maybe?—is a marvel of what the perceptual painters advocate. There’s a hint of pentimento, various self-evident ways of making paint itself as much of the point as the image it renders. There’s a deep tension between precision and looseness—or between predictable effects and seemingly risk-taking paint handling, daring the unexpected happy accident to emerge—and it gives a tremendous energy to what is an image of almost absolute stillness. The sitter’s expression is wonderfully ambiguous, serious and a bit lost in thought, but with a smile that seems to be just dawning, though if you try to pin down where this is happening, it’s tough to locate the particular signs of it in her face. It isn’t quite the Mona Lisa smile—somehow it’s even more ghostly and elusive. The background is a layering of so many tones—greenish blue, taupe, a spot of cerulean, pink and almost a stripe of pale rose at the far right, echoing all the colors in the face and lace-collared dress. That collar is wonderful, the way she has dragged the paint lightly over the darker blue of the dress underneath, so that the porous oil hints just enough at the filigree of the fabric to create a totally convincing impression of lace, and somehow—how?— it even looks a little starchy.

The handling of tones is marvelous. Over almost the entire surface, she works in the mid-range of values, keeping the tones muted and the saturation of the paint in the mid-range. But the color of the face itself is slightly more saturated in color and precise in form and line, and as a result it projects out toward the viewer, almost as if the sitter is peering through one of those cardboard images with a hole cut out for the head—but this works in a perfectly natural and evocative way here. As the skin tones come forward, vibrant and alive, the hair and the eyes are filmed in such a way, the tone is so much in the upper registers, that the pupils are entirely obscured and the color of her eyes is entirely indeterminate. Blue? Brown? Are we seeing a faded periwinkle glow reflected off the eye’s surface rather than the color of the iris itself? The effect of all this isn’t just technically impressive, but poetic. It creates that look of being absorbed, absent, remembering, but it also detaches the entire image from the present, so that one is justified in feeling as if this could even be the sitter’s grandmother as a young woman. In a similar way, the hair is almost entirely without detail and in a very light tone, so that in the entire painting there are only two spots of paint that might be considered relatively dark. This, as much as anything, is what I think Klos means in his lyrical appreciation of the two painters, when he writes that the sun of the Renaissance illuminates the work of these two. Piero’s work had this same kind of beatific luminosity.

The only point in the painting where the paint’s value reaches an extreme is in the tiny highlight, not swimming on the surface of the sitter’s eyes, but in the inside corner of one eye—such an original touch, perfectly natural and completely realistic, but almost a modest, easily-overlooked stylistic tour de force, to apply that pinhead of pure light right there, at the corner of the eye rather than somewhere on the cornea, where one would always expect to find it. I’d love to think it was the last mark she made. Once you notice it, the entire painting seems to pivot around that little glint of pure white, serene and blank, where all the other colors in the painting are hidden.

A stumbled-upon Tumblr

Eyvind Earle (United States, 1916-2000) Golden Hills

“Beauty will save the world.” –Dostoevsky

This and a slew of images to come are from a Tumblr I stumbled onto in the past year, and it has turned out to be a pretty consistent delight for a number of reasons. Its most notable quality is that its contributor often finds and posts work by artists I don’t know or else from a familiar artist I haven’t seen before. I like almost all of what appears here, with an occasional exception, but it’s never predictable and always interesting. The fact that whatever you see at lilacsinthedooryard.tumblr.com surprises me is probably indicative of the limited scope of my knowledge, the massive and perpetual surplus of great painting all over the world from the past couple centuries, and/or the remarkable angling ability of this fisher of artwork, whoever he or she is. There’s a mind behind this site, called Lilacs and Wild Geese, on constant lookout for what French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard called the oneiric quality, the aura of the waking dream, which really for me is the universal element of great painting that isn’t agitprop or snark or dutiful transcription of what’s seen. But even that last sort of diligence can’t help but become a dream thanks to its idiosyncratic shortfalls. From a Tumblr bearing an epigram from Dostoevsky and a URL from Walt Whitman would one expect anything less?