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Visions of the unbuilt

Andrea Durfee at ROCO

When I was growing up, in both East St. Louis and then in Idaho, my family lived at the edge of undeveloped land. These havens for my imagination weren’t protected, just overlooked or privately owned—undisturbed stretches of wildlife and undergrowth, a mix of grassy slopes, streams, and wooded paths. In a suburb at the edge of East St. Louis, it was a small copse at the base of the hill behind our little Cape Cod, and in Idaho, from our home sitting at the rim of the bench—just above the Boise Valley—I could walk to the edge of our back yard and look down at a fenced pasture with horses and, alongside it, the only human development within a convenient walking distance from the base of the slope, a sawmill. (We had some dangerous forbidden fun bounding across those floating logs.) My friends and my brother and I would spend hours in those spaces, only dimly aware of the smells, the soft feel of the earth, the birds and insects—yet all of it was imprinting itself on my mind whole, planting in me the desire to grow things as an adult and to get outside whenever possible. In those little overlooked tracts of wildness, I felt in touch with myself and the world in a way that I couldn’t in school or inside our home, in front of a television, the only screen that existed back then. 

There’s a surplus of artwork on view in Rochester right now devoted, more or less, to the symmetry between human nature and the natural world. (Thou art that, the ancient Hindu philosophers would say.) In a fortunate coincidence, while Oxford Gallery is showing the work of three masterful landscape painters, Rochester Contemporary Art Center has assembled a themed show, Landscapes and the Unbuilt, that celebrates the slightly paradoxical effort that we human beings are making to keep from spoiling places like the ones that helped shape me as a kid. We’re intervening to prevent ourselves from, well, intervening. For the RoCo show, a group of artists took as their subject a particular parcel of land under the protection of the Genesee Land Trust, and they created one or more works to capture the spirit of the place. The work is all marvelous, especially grouped together in a way that amplifies each individual effort—and some of it represents the best work I’ve yet seen from these particular artists. The terms of the show may have brought out new dimensions in their work by forcing some of them to pay attention to the particulars of a specific place.

I responded most intensely to what I saw just inside the entrance to the East Avenue membership gallery. There’s an intricacy and density in Andrea Durfee’s paintings and Bill Stephens’s drawings that makes it hard to get any deeper into the exhibition, there’s so much to see in just one or two of these pieces up front. In the work of both, the task of having to convey an actual, particular place—to sift through myriad impressions of a specific location and nurture a companionship with that landscape—produced excellent results. I’ve always liked Durfee’s work, but the clarity and particularity of her vision is amazing in her three largest paintings of Full Lotus Farm in Arcadia, NY. It feels like a new benchmark for her. She uses flat areas of color outlined with spiderweb-thin lines, vaguely reminiscent of stained glass. Her technique echoes the outlines of cloisonnism and some of the Nabis, yet her paintings have a different effect on the viewer—they draw you deep into the scene she depicts, forgetful of the painted surface, though they aren’t conventionally realistic. In each one, she conceals a nude female figure—her avatar, maybe—merged with the landscape yet emerging like bedrock pushed up from beneath permafrost.

Each of these images could serve as an emblem of the show’s purpose, to emphasize the symbiotic unity between nature and its most conflicted creature. Yet here, these elements of her style efface themselves behind the vibrant light and the scene’s immediacy. You feel the sun on your face and hear the cicadas. The surfeit of detail in the foreground of her recent paintings somehow unifies itself into an effect like the energy of a summer day. The most impressive painting in her grouping, Through the Garden, depicts receding tiers of vegetation, layers of growth that stand at successive distances behind a frieze of wild grasses in the foreground done with assiduous draftsmanship. These swaying stems are backed by more and more distant strata, with the female nude so unobtrusively camouflaged beyond a road as an irregular bulge of earth that I missed it at first and wondered if Durfee had given up on the trope. In these pieces, it works perfectly and underscores the point of the show: how hard it is to draw a border between human nature and the world it reflects. 

Directly across from her work are some of the largest drawings I’ve seen from Bill Stephens—and the surprise is that somehow the larger scale seems to have spurred him to find even more dense levels of entrancing detail, smaller regions of fascination within larger forms that emerge under his pen. In his methods, Stephens is has essentially been a surrealist, surrendering to process, letting the image emerge on its own as he works instinctively from his first marks. Yet here he’s taking pains to capture particulars of what he saw at Gosnell Big Woods Preserve in Webster. The results are dramatic and some of the work reminds me of Barry Moser’s illustrations of the dark wood introduced at the opening of The Divine Comedy. These drawings feel like work done from a deep sense of confidence and purpose, in a way the sort of images he’s been working toward over the past few years, and the marvel is how much he finds to see and show in ink drawings that conjure up psychological depths from a few gnarled roots or frond-like leaves. As in Durfee’s paintings, there’s a fine balance between complexity of detail and overall unity—how the unity is achieved represents part of what fascinates. In my favorite piece, Big Woods Spirit, what appears to be a twisted tree trunk, in literal terms, morphs into a hooded figure, like a ranger from Lord of the Rings or maybe a hint of Donatello’s prophet, some visionary wandering in from a long stay in the wilderness, impossible to ignore or dismiss. I think I wouldn’t want to turn my back on this particular tree—out of respect and maybe caution—and then I remember I’m looking at something akin to driftwood. It doesn’t diminish the respect.

Jean Stephens brings a similar kind of intensity—with a more traditional emphasis on building form from areas of value rather than with her husband’s storm of etching-fine lines—in her graphite drawings from Ganargua Creek Meadow Preserve. In a poem she wrote about the project, on display with the work, she refers to the trees and vegetation as “these old gals” and her imagery evokes an anthropomorphic likeness to human form in vegetation and the earth—but, as with Durfee, the vegetative world reveals itself to Stephens as distinctly female. It’s a cosmic yin to the yang of human technology and artifice. Portal shows an ancient-looking trunk where it spreads out into exposed roots as a door between inner and outer, a gnarly portal that might be a feminist nod more toward Georgia O’Keefe than Judy Chicago. These anatomical overtures speak more about nature’s generative power than gender politics.

Even though Phyllis Bryce Ely has been exhibiting a lot over the past year—at Main Street Arts and Oxford—she doesn’t appear to be stretching herself thin. This show, on the heels of the others, gives you maybe the clearest way to see the full scope of her work, from oil to encaustic. Some of the small paintings in wax serve as simple, iconic distillations of what she saw at Cornwall Preserve in Williamson, NY. Yet her most characteristic strengths are in her larger oils. The swirls of sky and land almost seem emblems of altered states: psychotropic visions of a natural order. If Edvard Munch had been a much happier camper, he might have painted scenes like this.

She was paying a visit to the exhibition when Bill Santelli and I arrived to see the show, and she explained that the artists all had about two months during which to do the work, a very tight opportunity, and she hadn’t gotten to know her paintings much before delivering them to RoCo. “I feel a little exposed,” she said. One of the interesting features in several of the paintings: she did them on discarded engineering vellums, from the planning office where she works in Penfield. Developers bring them in and if something turns out to be unacceptable in a particular schematic, they toss out the drawing and bring back a revised one. She collects these discards and uses them as a support, with a palimpsest of lines and words showing through layers of paint. In some cases, the drawings resonate or contrast with the image she applies to them.

I can’t do justice to all the work in the show, though it’s all fascinating and beautifully presented. Jennifer Schinzing’s glass boxes laden with beautiful, lapidary glass sculpture serve as beds for small taxidermied animals: bunnies, birds, and squirrels. It sounds macabre, but the effect is entirely the opposite: the small animals look asleep. The work is serene and almost radiant, qualities virtually impossible to capture in a photograph. (I know; I tried.) Nate Hodge, who has done murals throughout the region, produced a single painting, with an assembly of collateral objects linked to the site he depicts and his interaction with it, including a pair of muddy boots. The parameters of the show: to produce work that conveys a relationship with one particular place seems to have focused and concentrated his talent–as if may have done with Durfee and Stephens–in a way that makes the painting much more intricate and concentrated than his expansive murals. The work is a soaring abstract evoking a forested scene under a brilliant sky, though nothing is rendered in conventional ways. It’s assured and  exuberant, spontaneous but disciplined. It feels as if he’s worked hard to be true to something outside his imagination. The outcome is exhilarating.

Seeing for the first time

Jim Mott, from his recent show at ROCO

My next post will be about the current, marvelous exhibition at ROCO: a group of artists showing work that celebrates a particular place worthy of preservation in this region. But first I wanted to catch up on Jim Mott, whose own work would have found a place into that show if only he hadn’t had a solo exhibition there just a short while ago. Jim does, all of the time, what the artists now on view at ROCO did simply for the curatorial purposes of the exhibition:  to pick a place, sometimes at random, and depict whatever he sees as equally worthy of consideration, no matter what it is. 

Mott came by for a cup of tea recently and talked about a variety of things and rather than take time to rework our conversation into a regular post, I’ll just pass along the conversation, as I’ve done before, which should be of interest to his fans. I have high hopes for the residency he’s seeking at the University of Michigan. I think his proposal should get some serious interest, but the ordinariness of his work almost puts it outside the mainstream now—but he has an interesting angle on how he might present his project, which he discusses. He stayed long enough to touch on a lot of different things, yet left in time to get in some cross-country skiing at Mendon Ponds Park before it got dark: 

Jim: I’ve been reading this longish book. Richard Powers? A friend of mine from Nature Conservancy gave me this novel of his about trees. The first half is brilliant but the second is good but not as exciting. He takes nine different characters, odd people who are moved by trees toward something and then he goes to a showdown in the Northwest. It’s intensely poetic and full of information. He got a genius award.

That always helps.

Jim: He gets all ecstatic about trees. I didn’t loan you Julian Bell did I?

I don’t think so. Are you still communicating with him?

Jim: Yeah, I have an open invitation if I ever get to England. 

<I mention that I’m reading the last volume of My Struggle, which includes a long essay about Hitler and how Knausgaard thinks the modern era has de-individualized society and has cut people off from nature so that

32nd Annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts &amp; Public Policy

Reserve your FREE ticket to the Americans for the Arts 32nd Annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Art & Public Policy featuring Rita Moreno, introduction by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and performance by Brian Stokes Mitchell.

New Evidence of the Benefits of Arts Education by the Brookings Institution

Empirical evidence supports claims that engaging with art is essential to the human experience: Among adults, arts participation is related to behaviors that contribute to the health of civil society such as increased civic engagement, greater social tolerance, and reductions in other-regarding behavior. Yet, while we recognize art’s transformative impacts, its place in K-12 education has become increasingly tenuous.

Looking at Art Could Help Med Students Become Better Doctors

New research shows that looking at artworks can help future doctors hone their observation skills, maintain objectivity, and cope with moments of uncertainty.

Robert Ryman, 1930-2019

This is spot on. From an interview with Robert Ryman:

RYMAN: I came from music. And I think that the type of music I was involved with—jazz, bebop—had an influence on my approach to painting. We played tunes. No one uses the term anymore. It’s all songs now, telling stories—very similar to representational painting, where you tell a story with paint and symbols. But bebop is swing, a more advanced development of swing. It’s like Bach. You have a chord structure, and you can develop that in many ways. You can play written compositions and improvise off of those. So, you learn your instrument, and then you play within a structure. It seemed logical to begin painting that way. I wasn’t interested in painting a narrative or telling a story with a painting. Right from the beginning, I felt that I could do that if I wanted to, but that it wouldn’t be of much interest to me. Music is an abstract medium, and I thought painting should also just be what it’s about and not about other things—not about stories or symbolism.

ART21: You don’t think of meaning?

RYMAN: There is a lot of meaning, but not what we usually think of as meaning. It’s similar to the meaning of listening to a symphony. You don’t know the meaning, and you can’t explain it to anyone else who didn’t hear it. The painting has to be seen. But there is no meaning outside of what it is.

ART21: So, meaning is closer to an emotional reaction?

RYMAN: I think that’s the real purpose of painting: to give pleasure. I mean, that’s really the main thing that it’s about. There can be the story; there can be a lot of history behind it. But you don’t have to know all of those things to receive pleasure from a painting. It’s like listening to music; you don’t have to know the score of a symphony in order to appreciate the symphony. You can just listen to the sounds.

ART21: How does your work fit into the contemporary art world?

RYMAN: I don’t think of myself as being part of anything. I don’t get involved with art. I mean, I’m involved with painting, but I just look at it as solving problems and working on the visual experience. I’m not involved with any kind of art movement, and I’m not a scholar. I’m not a historian, and I don’t want to get into that kind of thing because it would interfere with my approach. So, it’s better that I not think of that. (LAUGHS)

Your Voice Is Needed to Continue the Cultural Trust Tax Credit!

Your Voice Is Needed to Continue the Cultural Trust Tax Credit!

Hello Friends of Arts and Culture in Oregon!  The time to engage with policymakers is now!

We’ve been preparing for all the action in the 2019 legislative session and the opening move is coming on Monday, February 18th when the House Committee of Economic Development will hold a hearing on HB 2052 — a bill to extend the sunset on the cultural tax credit for the next ten years.  We hope you will contact your legislators to encourage them to support HB 2052 and to share with them the priority that you and other Oregonians put on access to creative expression in this state. 

Oregon is unique in the Nation in having the Cultural Trust but we are far from the $200 million fund that was originally envisioned.  We need to collectively raise our voices in support of building this fund and using tax incentives to help do it — remember dollars in the Cultural Trust are distributed to every county and to tribal partners.  This tax credit is an important engagement tool for this state and critical to our cultural ecosystem.  Please add your voice!  Best — Cultural Advocacy Coalition

Send your support letter for HB 2052 in by Friday, February 15th to:  [email protected]


Cultural Advocacy Coalition of Oregon   

Fruit and flowers

Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose, oil on canvas, Francisco de Zurbarán 

Zurburan’s fascinating, austere Still Life with Citrons, Oranges and a Rose hangs directly opposite the entrance of its period room so that it commands your attention as soon as it comes into view at the Norton Simon Museum. When I saw it a few weeks ago during our visit to the museum in Pasadena, I immediately recognized the work from its visit to The Frick a decade ago. What I actually remembered was Peter Schjeldahl’s review of the show and his justly ecstatic paean to this particular painting—similar to his raptures over Morandi in another essay. It’s simple, spare, and as perfectly balanced and restful as a Matisse, but also full of mysterious grandeur, in an almost ironic way, since it’s a depiction of the most commonplace things. It’s a surprisingly large painting by traditional still life standards, close to four feet wide, so that the depicted objects are larger than their actual size. The layers of Catholic symbolism—the objects standing both for the Holy Trinity and the Virgin Mary—has little resonance now and yet the painting’s power and subdued beauty hasn’t diminished. Its simplicity feels as integral as ever, as if it embodies some kind of alternate mathematical axiom—five + seven + three = one. Stripped of its religious symbolism, it continues to shine with its intended spirit, as if Zurburan’s religion was merely a way of climbing a ladder, as an artist, to quotidian serenity not limited to its theological expression.

The ideas have fallen away leaving the perceptual power of the image to keep working on the viewer and marvelously urging the same orientation toward the world as the ecclesiastical one. The lesson has faded, but its wisdom remains: humility, self-abnegation, attention to the abundance of ordinary experience, and gratitude for any glimpse of ordinary goodness and truth and beauty. Both artist and viewer marvel at the generous luxury of the earth’s simple gifts, its fruit and flowers. These subjects still look like offerings on an altar but at the same time seem to be just the opposite: not sacrifices, but gifts going in reverse, from a greater to a lesser power—from one who can make a lemon to one who can make a picture of one—offered to whomever stands before them as sustenance for either body or spirit. 

In other words, even without all the intellectual trappings that gave Zuburan a pretext for making this painting, they pass along the same monk-like devotional intensity—in the assiduously achieved formal qualities of the painting, the long hours of solitude in the studio—without consideration of his religious justification for painting them.  They stand as an example of how the greatest art embodies a life that spills up over the lip of every meaning and purpose meant to contain it—and meant for it to contain—conveying a quality of attention that operates as a moral and spiritual corrective in and of itself. A great still life conveys psychological qualities that have moral consequences—silence and calm.  The painting stands as one of the supreme justifications for the still life genre—not nearly as congenial and charming as Chardin, but just as magical as the French master’s best. The humblest and most commonplace objects, simply by reflecting light a certain way, seating themselves naturally in their space, bearing the pull of gravity in their own particular ways, can convey the quiddity of life itself, long before the mind has time to go to work breaking down what it sees into what it ostensibly means and, in the process, gets further and further from the actual work—and life—itself. 

20th century mystic

Concert, oil on canvas, George Braque, Janice and Henry Lazarof Collction, LACMA

On my visit to LACMA last month, I was delighted most by the work in two particular areas of the museum: Fantasies and Fairy Tales, a themed exhibition of arresting prints and the small wing devoted to the Janice and Henry Lazarof Collection. The latter had the feel of those private collections converted into museums–the Frick, the Phillips–where the taste of the collectors is tantamount to a class on how art should be made. Nearly everything in the Lazarof Collection begged to be photographed, but when I tried to take a shot of the Braque above, the guard hurried over and chastised me, which was a surprise, because the wing appeared to be a permanent installation of work–a way of sharing the vision of two insightful collectors with the public–not a temporary exhibition, which seems to be the only shows that prohibit photography now in an effort to increase catalog sales. I asked, therefore, if there was a book available, and he directed me to the shop where it was on sale and for a discount. It was a fortuitous purchase because it includes a long essay on Picasso, so prominently featured in this collection, that turned out to be an indispensable aid to the thinking I’ve been doing, since my visit to Los Angeles, about one particular Picasso print I saw elsewhere at LACMA–it changed my understanding about that painter whose fame and position in the history of 20th century painting has always, for me, eclipsed the aspects of his work that have turned out to be most powerful and intriguing.

So I purchased a book simply to bring home an image of this particular still life by Braque, which was done toward the end of his most fertile period, from his move toward synthetic Cubism through the more and more idiosyncratic interpretations of pedestal tables, the “gueridons,” his most personal motif, especially with a guitar on board. It preoccupied him for at least twenty years; the most representative and familiar example of this series is The Gueridon at the Phillips. What’s astonishing about this work, for me, is that everything in the paintings from this period–with a few exceptions–seems to have been invented perfectly, naturally, as if Braque were proceeding like a scrupulous realist, where you know the work is great because the proper marks are the ones that most faithfully reproduce exactly what’s seen. The rules are obvious and simple. Here, none of that is the case, there is no common sense guideline for what makes a Braque so manifestly perfect–everything he sees or imagines is flattened into an essentially arbitrary pattern, and yet though every shape and line and color seems the outcome of improvisation, the final result looks inevitable, almost immutable and right, but also deeply felt in a way that seems in a class of its own next to all the other work that sprang from the Cubist movement. How a painter achieves this is the great mystery–on a par with the question of how Vermeer enabled a fleeting moment in an average day to look eternal. Braque’s own enigmatic journals only deepen the mystery and suggest that his path, once he broke with Picasso, took him more and more deeply into the region he entered via synthetic Cubism–a long, meditative and assiduous creative exploration during which Braque rightly felt infallible without ever letting his ego know what he was up to. He’d reached the artistic equivalent of a state of grace:

On this painting, from Envisioning Modernism, p. 62:

The viewer is thus forced to focus on the tenuous relationship between the still life and its environs, demonstrating what Braque called his “great discovery”: “Objects don’t exist for me except in so far as a rapport exists between them or between them and myself. When one attains this harmony one reaches a sort of intellectual nonexistence–what I can only describe as a state of peace–which makes everything possible and right. Life then becomes a perpetual revelation. That is true poetry.”

Among untrodden ways

Zurich Box, oil on canvas, detail, Ken Townsend

I’ve been reading, with greater and lesser pleasure, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, which–throughout the series of fictionalized memoirs–has repeated references to Romanticism, especially in painting. In the narrative, he’s regularly moved by images that convey the implacability of nature–and these moments, not of epiphany, but of emotional release, baffle him because the author has no way of making sense of his deep response to nature through these paintings, in contrast to his almost Beckett-like exhaustion with the daily life he so tediously represents in thousands of pages of prose. My response to the series of books is similar to my reaction when I look at artwork created in devotion to an invariable idea–in other words, a fair amount of work done over the past 150 years–once you grasp the idea, if it’s merely the illustration of an idea, why keep reading or looking? What’s fascinated me about Knausgaard is his deep ambivalence about modernism and the way it has set ordinary human emotions aside in favor of general artistic principles (though his own artistic principles seem, in the course of the work, to be destroying his own family so that maybe has more in common than he thinks with the modernism he distrusts). Hence, his retreat, emotionally, to Romanticism. Yet, in the final volume he seems to see his florid outpouring of feeling in reaction to certain poetry and painting as delusional, or at least negligible–leaving the reader with a vision of his creative work as a pointless exercise in obsessive attention to his own life, out of a conviction that life is essentially meaningless. Not exactly where I had though he might be going.

Three artists on view now at Oxford Gallery are equally drawn to the beauty and grandeur of nature–Ken Townsend, Charles Houseman, and Sean Wituck–and don’t quite distrust their passion the way Knausgaard does. And there’s an appreciative realism involved here, a friendly humility in the face of nature, that seems more contemporary than the era evoked by the quote from Wordsworth Jim Hall has used for the show’s title. Their work hints back to the Romantic love for nature, but not in a way that evokes the Hudson River School, nor the sublime of Edwin Burke or Kant, where nature is great beyond comprehension. Turner’s storms are nowhere to be found here. Nature is beautiful in their paintings, and in some cases, as indifferent to human comfort and scale as it is in the Romantics, but it’s also still, inviting, and serene–a setting for human purposes, on its own terms. The painting that most interests me is what appears to be a diptych depicting a spot on the coast of Maine, at Acadia National Park by Houseman–enormous rocks, typical of Maine’s fractal coast line of glacial rock. The massive boulders at the center are surrounded by tidal pools covered with a thin layer of autumn leaves–the leaves are what make it inviting. It’s a glimpse of an outcropping that could serve as a seat for a hiker’s quick lunch in October, or could just as easily be what was visible twenty thousand years ago, when cave paintings were the only contemporary art. I suppose that’s a roundabout way to say the current show at Oxford offers a glimpse of what’s timeless everywhere around us, with a hint that our time is brief, compared to the tenure of sky, earth, ocean and trees. Maybe that’s a Romantic insight after all.