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Joshua Huyser

Stocking Cap, Joshua Huyser

Another wonderful painting by Joshua Huyser, from Instagram.

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Mika Salamon

Still Life in Turquoise, Mika Salamon

I’m fascinated by painters associated with the Jerusalem Studio School who are taking perceptual painting in a lush, sensuous direction, with a luxuriant sense of color. I’m loving what they do with limited but rich palettes. Salamon’s work takes that esthetic to an extreme simplicity.

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Viridian’s juried show

“Rocinha Series 3 No 1”, Alan Garry, 32 x 32, Oil and graphite on canvas

Before I get to my impressions of the juried show currently on view at Viridian Artists, allow me a digression about the location depicted above in one of the exhibition’s paintings.

On a visit to Fiji, my son reported back to me that he found there the poorest and happiest people he’d ever met. I was reminded of that brief report (which included first-person details about indigenous volleyball) when I looked up Rocinha, a famous, densely-populated favela that evolved organically and spontaneously near Rio de Janeiro. It’s occupied by those who can’t afford to live in the more expensive, planned urban areas of the city. It’s a borough scaled for human beings, growing and developing virtually without urban regulation or oversight, with a self-organized, makeshift structure, improvised and wildly colorful. It’s a libertarian’s nightmare that seems to be trying to grow into a libertarian’s dream. The population is packed into tight spaces, structures rarely rising beyond three floors. Nothing looms over anything else there except the upper reaches of the steep hillside on which everything higher up is the same size as everything lower down.

Close to a quarter million people now live in Rocinha, and they get around mostly by foot on a few roads and alleys and paths that snake through the place. As Rio has grown, it has enveloped this encampment that has been crystallizing into a suburban town, now that it’s centrally located. (In a way, the economic mountain came to Mohammad and surrounded him.) It is becoming more modernized so that almost all structures now have plumbing, electricity and sanitation.

From Wikipedia:

Compared to simple shanty towns or slums, Rocinha has a better developed infrastructure and hundreds of businesses such as banks, medicine stores, bus routes, cable television, including locally based channel TV ROC (TV Rocinha), and, at one time, a McDonald’s franchise.[2] These factors help classify Rocinha as a favela bairro, or favela neighborhood.

It’s the urban equivalent of an outlaw entrepreneur, someone more interested in growth than legality. The name Rocinha means “little farm.” This mid-sized city sits on a hillside that has been the backdrop for various productions like Rio and Children of Men. As in Mexico, tourists to balance its attractions against the chance of being collateral damage in a gang battle. I found a great portrait of the daily life there in a little free-form essay, picturing a culture of vibrant struggle—on the cusp between squalor and organized growth, marginalization and creative vitality, legal and illegal. It sounds like a more violent and darker version of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row:

Brazilian culture is happy: multicultural artistic expressions, music, dance, jokes and spontaneity. Meetings on street corners, children playing in the street and parties with music on the squares are all ubiquitous. That is life in Rocinha. People hardly have private space and share the small amount of public space available.

Few people drive a car. Most people walk or take buses, vans or motor taxis.

In less than a square kilometer, you can do your shopping, fix a motorcycle, find a barbershop, buy food, pick up a video, and go to the church or the gym. None of these establishments exceed eight meters of street façade, some occupy only one. Commerce and services are mixed with housing, which primarily occupies floors above the street level. Around 6 o’clock in the afternoon, the neighborhood looks like a shopping mall corridor during the days before Christmas. It’s on the street that old friends meet and the community issues are discussed. Rocinha, like the thousands of other slum areas throughout the world, reveals miserable, inhumane conditions, including poverty, crime and filth at the one hand, and urban vitality among the people and in the streets on the other.

That last part also sounds like the visible homelessness surrounded by high-priced real estate in midtown New York City during the pandemic, as well as some famous West Coast cities now.

I learned all this in order to get a more informed look at a painting included in Viridian Artists’ annual juried show, running through Jan. 28. The exhibition is unusually interesting, but in ways that aren’t sensational. There are small, seemingly minor paintings that stood out for me, work that seems above and beyond whatever else I could find by that artist online. Much of this work is humble but assured and holds the viewer’s attention. I was a member at Viridian a decade ago and had one of my few solo shows there, and I don’t recall seeing work this consistently quietly interesting, as a whole, assembled there in the past.

The entry that inspired me: “Rocinha Series 3 No 1” by Alan Garry. It’s a drone’s eye view of the slum-cum-McDonald’s/drug cartel service region. It works as a geometric abstraction that resolves into a realistic image in seconds as you gaze at it and then recognize the gauzy tree in the lower corner. At that point, everything else sharpens into view and the little dots appear to be caps on smokestacks as the squares become roofs. What seemed to be little boxes afloat on a stream, collected into an eddy near shore, now become randomly arranged homes with almost no space between one and the next. At first, there’s an impersonal anonymity to the image that reflects the poverty, the numberless lives that come and go, unrecognized, beneath the roofs. Yet the energy of the image (it reminded me a bit of Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie without all his negative space) you sense you are observing a bustling human community from on high. From the air, it seems somehow inviting and beautiful, lively by virtue of the obviously haphazard way in which it has grown upward and outward from the cramped, snaking paths that run through it.

Other work that stands out: Faux Relic: Humble Things is a diminutive fantasia of insects, ferns, trees and skunk cabbage, a scene fit for the imagination of Durer or Burchfield but looking more like an illustration for Lewis Carroll. It’s illuminated by a hazy light that emanates from a distant horizon behind the big bumblebee floating up from the foliage. The oil-on-linen painting is contained in a frame as intricate as a reliquary, seemingly hand-carved and gilded, adding significantly to the mood of the little painting, where the subject seems less about nature than the state of mind required to dream about nature.  Much has been written about the loss of enchantment in the past century, but this painting does a good job of making it visible again. The frame is an integral part of the image as it is with Howard Hodgkins, though the painting here isn’t extended outward onto the painting with the exception of a cameo image of a bullfrog mounted in the lower frame, like a medallion. It’s a dreamy, eccentric, deeply personal and idiosyncratic piece of work by Kei J. Constantinov.

Another small, extremely modest abstraction, Water Music, by Stephanie Lempres, has the charm of a miniature Milton Avery, a scene assembled with seemingly torn areas of subtle color, mostly gray, yellow and pink. The pink area rules the upper half of the image like a sunset. Brown and gray shards fit together loosely into a patchwork of dunes or hills surrounding a bright yellow path or road that disappears into the distance past a wedge of green, a little wooded valley fed by the watershed from the hills maybe. It’s understated, implying more than it shows, doing just enough to set up the color harmonies and make it all come alive with a hopeful sense of ambient afternoon or morning light, all of it achieved with the simplest, almost childlike collage of flat organic shapes, one spot of color next to another, as Hawthorne put it.

Pen and Alejo, Emily Fisher’s archival inket print of her photographic portrait of a blond child more or less holding hands with his rooster brings to mind Sally Mann and Emmet Gowin’s haunting images of childhood, but in a more formally posed setting. It’s also more colorful and direct, but just as arresting, the rooster’s red crop set against the complementary green background. The juxtaposition of the child’s naked and vulnerable chest against the bird’s full plumage and pointed beak creates a play of opposites that work off the dominant red/green color.

There’s much other work in the show to justify a visit to the gallery, located with a number of other artist-funded galleries that often present intriguing juried exhbitions every year in the same location, at the north end of Chelsea, where Hudson Yards begins.

 

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No ideas but in perceptions

Detail, Vermeer’s View of Delft

The only work of art criticism I return to with relish and as a way of relearning what I already think I understand is In Search of Lost Time. Marcel Proust’s insights into how music, painting and fiction all are grounded in perception, rather than discursive thought, distinguish him from most people who have written about visual art. He understood an artist’s job isn’t to have something to say, so much as the challenge of learning how to see.

In Proust’s novel, on the cusp of death, the novelist Bergotte ventures out unsteadily to an exhibition of Vermeer’s View of Delft. What the fictional writer longs to see one last time is a small, innocuous area of the painting, a simple patch of yellow sunlight on a wall: it’s hardly more than a sensation to his old eyes, with no intellectual substance, no understandable relevance to his life. In that one little detail of Vermeer’s great painting, he recognizes a world of feeling and insight, an intense reality, a meek simplicity in the representation of a commonplace element of human experience that triggers a recognition of his life’s deepest reality. He dies a short time later with regret about having ignored and neglected the quality of this perception, this simple sensation, hidden in plain sight, throughout his entire writing career when his love for it could have been a lodestar for his own writing.

In Search of Lost Time’s narrator is luckier. Marcel has multiple moments quite like this one, and they are more consequential than Bergotte’s. He calls them instances of involuntary memory. They recur throughout the seven-volume novel intermittently until the last book when several in rapid sequence open his heart and finally, after wasting much of his adulthood in social and erotic struggles, he understands how and why to become a writer.

Vermeer’s little patch of yellow was a sort of perceptual synecdoche. In the book, its effect on Bergotte demonstrates the immediate and totalizing impact and power of visual art itself. One snatch of Mozart, or one glance at a Cezanne, and you can behold life’s wholeness, without needing to intellectually dissect what’s been disclosed. It’s immediately recognizable, but was inaccessible until one hears it or sees it. Phenomenologically, as an element of experience, Proust’s serendipitous moments aren’t metaphoric but sacramental in the same way: the fragment is the whole. They don’t signify, they embody. A morsel of experience contains the whole of experience, as in the old New Age holographic paradigm from David Bohm in the 80s, where every part of the world is the whole, in a sense, in a way analogous to the structure of a fractal or a Fibonacci sequence. Proust’s narrator doesn’t theorize about this, he experiences it.

Proust’s awakening is essentially spiritual, through it would be quite easy to construe everything in the novel as merely psychological, an innocuous brain phenomenon mistakenly serving as the fulcrum for a life-changing devotion to what Proust experienced as timeless, imperishable, and Platonic. He never appears to be anything but an observer of the Catholicism in his characters, but he has one passage that implies human beings behave morally because they have intimations, even memories, of a more perfect and eternal state from which they derive their current life. In that passage, he articulates it in Platonic terms: that people remember Goodness because they essentially descend from it when they are born. This is about as far down that road as his narrator goes. Yet the structure of the novel and its pivotal experiences are parallel to traditions in various Axial wisdom traditions: the morning prayer for an Orthodox Christian is to a God who “art everywhere present and fillest all things.” To say the least, this isn’t the state of mind for most people on any given day before heading into work, but it’s analogous to how Proust’s narrator awakens to a new sort of wisdom through otherwise insignificant perceptual experiences. The novelist, in a secular and modernist mode, essentially asserts that the reality of life remains veiled to most of us most of the time, but briefly discloses itself to those who are attentive—and maybe, as it happens in the book, deeply discouraged—enough to be granted these moments of vision, through triggers as humble as the musty smell of a public restroom or the look of a line of trees on the horizon. The whole of life, the ground of life, is there in every experience, every smallest experience: but there’s no way to consciously stand back and behold the whole of things, the musical structure of one’s own experience, the melody your life is essentially composing. You can’t hear it because you are making it. You are it. In these moments of involuntary memory, for Proust, that melody presents itself through humble perceptions.

Proust recognizes the impossibility of seeing the whole, that ground of all things, the unity of all things in any place or time, though some reliable technique. But the “excavation” of art, the descent into one’s own individual experience and perceptions over time, in the act of writing fiction or painting or making music, can open a window in which that reality offers a brief glimpse of itself. That this ought to be an artist’s mission never occurs to Marcel until the end of the story, when he finally sets out to write the book the reader is finishing even though moments of humble illumination, where his life presents itself to the narrator, punctuate the novel and form its central leitmotif.

The question of the relationship of these moments to an artistic vocation runs, like a river underground, throughout Proust’s novel. And the moments when he sees the whole, the entirety of his life, when he recognizes who he is and the beauty of what was there all around him at a particular time, unnoticed—these moments are the underpinning, the foundation of the whole book, both motif and motive. It isn’t the past experience he would like to have remembered that comes back. It’s the entirety of the actual world of his experience that was hidden, inaccessible to his conscious mind, while he was living it. Art isn’t an alternative kind of experience: it is a way of tapping down into the unregarded ground of experience. What is recovered and comes alive is a paradise that is never apparent while most of us are living within it. These moments are the crumbs that lead him out of the sexual and social forest, the illusory pursuit of erotic security and social prestige, in order to create the whole book itself.

These small, quiet moments are the core of Proust’s novel, as Samuel Beckett pointed out in his uncharacteristically eloquent and passionate treatise on the French novelist. For Beckett, the world’s enchantment, its Platonic truth, are out of reach, everywhere present but already pre-lost, as it were, because your awareness is chained to its habitual and learned perceptions and ideas, always returning to what you already know and have already experienced, “like a dog to its vomit.” This, he suggested, is what Proust’s novel depicts in the quality of his unsparing insights into human delusions and cruelties, to guide the reader toward moments that bear intimations of what transcends this suffering: the unattainable awareness of the whole of one’s experience. Art, for Proust, is an attempt to see through the illusions toward this reality, an attempt to wake up. And it doesn’t happen through intellectual or willful means; Vermeer didn’t intend his little patch of yellow wall to inspire a sort of death-bed conversion in a Bergotte. He just worked passionately to get that little bit of sunlight properly rendered in the context of the town’s skyline. Yet the character and skill of the man painting that yellow wall invested it with that perceptual quality, not as something planned or learned, but as a byproduct of years of labor in an attempt to simply capture how things in the world look–and how the finished painting needed to look for it to be properly finished in Vermeer’s eyes. The rest is a gift, for painter and viewer both.

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New candy jar

Candy Jar #13, 44×44, oil on linen, 2023

I took a break from taffy in December. It was enjoyable to return to the candy jars, and it’s been long enough that I felt the contrast in doing one of these, a distinctly different flow from the process for painting salt water taffy. The taffy presents a complex topography, a lot of wrinkles, crimps, bends, declivities, a very natural terrain–and feels more like portraiture, the candy having a flesh-like consistency and the waxed paper serving as drapery. Hard candy in a round jar, by comparison, feels simple and geometrical, the surfaces so much more readily rendered with flat areas of color and with detail abbreviated by brushwork. I changed the color for many of the pieces–M&Ms, jelly beans and Tic Tacs. What was key lime green became orange while purple shifted to slate blue in places, as I cooled or warmed up the hue on others. Stepping away from the painting it looks photographically precise but, up close, it’s intentionally painterly. This is actually true in some degree with most of the jar paintings. I may try another small series of these this year, but there are so many other things to work on . . .

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Dushka Vujovic

Photography by Dushka Vujovik

This is an unusually lyrical photograph for Dushka Vujovik, whose typical subjects are abstract geometric color compositions created by simply cropping what she sees in her urban environment in Toronto, just a few miles north of us down here on the bottom of Lake Ontario. When she wants to be, as a photographic coloriest, she is a rare bird. Her pallet is restrained–seriously, how much radiant color can one find on the walls of buildings in Toronto or any large city?–but somehow she discovers geometrically arranged fields of beautiful color everywhere around her. In other words she has the core skill of a creative talent: to actually see what’s there rather than what you habitually think is there. She also passes along touches of humor wherever she finds it, and her recent posts have been of the natural world. You can see her marvelous color sense here in this photograph: it’s a quiet little melody with a fine simple drum beat off to the side, courtesy of those fences. You almost can’t lose with Virginia creeper in the mix. As a representationalist obsessed with how to make color central to my work, I’m always impressed by how she achieves that with a camera. Stuart Shils was doing something like this with his camera for quite a while on Instagram. Unlike his current paintings, which are all about color, his photographs found muted abstract compositions in the real; some were black and white. He was great at it, but moved on to the incredible paintings he does now. (It takes a while to scroll down five or six years on his feed to find the photographs, he’s so prolific.) Love Vujovik’s posts. With my limited knowledge of Serbian art, she has to be my favorite Serbian artist after whoever painted the White Angel. 

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Coffee Shop Conversations – The Series

Greetings I recently realized that I had never done a blog post on my “Coffee Shop Conversations” series that I created a few years ago.  And, I thought it would be fun to see them all in one place. Series Background. A bit of an explanation first, though.  I like to work in a series in …

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Mitchell Johnson

Mitchell Johnson, Luxembourg, 2022, 16×16

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Larkin on Betjeman

Philip Larkin

I came across this opening to one of Philip Larkin’s essays at random when I spotted the collection on a shelf. He’s admiring John Betjeman for the limpid quality of his poems, their immediacy and accessibility, like the polymath conversational style of early W.H. Auden and James Merrill in The Changing Light at Sandover, a style that conveys an eagerness to be understood and a friendly sense of accessible humanity. He contrasts this kind of simple clarity with the work of T.S. Eliot, though Eliot’s The Journey of the Magi represents exactly the sort of poem Larkin loves:

The scene is worthy of a nineteenth-century narrative painter: The Infant Betjeman Offers His Verses to the Young Eliot. For, leaving aside their respective poetic statures, it was Eliot who gave the modernist poetic movement its charter in the sentence, “Poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult.” And it was Betieman who, forty years later, was to bypass the whole light industry of exegesis that had grown up round his fatal phrase, and prove, like Kipling and Housman before him, that a direct relation with the reading public could be established by anyone prepared to be moving and memorable.

It strikes me as a passage that perfectly describes what I like in the work of most painters I love: the immediate sense of being shown something fresh and recognizable at some level, like a melody that instantly starts replaying itself in your brain. Creations that work without the need of interpretation, as Susan Sontag celebrated, because in the way they are painted, the artist conveys qualities equivalent to those conveyed by an individual’s facial expressions, body language, bearing, way of speaking . . . in other words the entirety of a single human wholeness expressed in all the little parts. But the quote also points back to a time when painting didn’t require an instruction manual or a critic to do its work. That time is still now for most painters I love.

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Nativity

 

Theotokos of Vladimir, 11-12th century Constantinople, egg tempera, 27 x 41

From the Old Jordanville Prayer Book: 

Rejoice, height inaccessible to human thought.

Rejoice, dawn of the mystic day.

Rejoice, rock that refreshes those thirsting for life.

Rejoice, door of solemn mystery.

Rejoice, thou who shows philosophers to be fools.

Rejoice, thou who exposes the learned as irrational.

Rejoice, ray of the noetic Sun.

Rejoice, thou through whom creation is renewed.

–Excerpts from the Akathist to the Theotokos

These lines, in an oblique way, express–in a more ecstatic mode–how I’ve responded to much visual art since my teens. It’s hard to imagine how something in this spirit could be sung as an accompaniment to paintings being made now. Where are the mysterious painters who might evoke this sort of mystical affirmation? Some modernists would have recognized something like this as the mission for painting, Klee and Chagall, even Kandinsky, and many others. Some of the modernist writers as well, Proust and Flaubert (if you look at the arc of his subject matter over his career) and Eliot and Auden.

The Old Jordanville Prayer Book is named after a Russian Orthodox monastery south of Utica, New York, a place I visited in the 80s, a period when I was studying print-making at Munson-Williams-Proctor and writing for the Utica newspapers. When we lived in Utica, I saw a retrospective of Charles Burchfield paintings at the museum that had a deep effect on me, as well as a survey of contemporary representational art that opened up my sense of the possibilities available to me as a painter. When I was assigned a feature story on the Jordanville monastery, the spiritual energy I discovered there astonished me. What most impressed me was how the monks were busy publishing literature to be smuggled into the Soviet Union, before it fell apart, when that country was most repressive, harassing and persecuting its own Orthodox practitioners. Russia maintained tight censorship over religious publications, so the role of producing and distributing books, as samizdat, that Christians wanted within Russia’s borders, fell to a little organization in upstate New York, Holy Trinity Monastery.  My visit there bolstered my interest in and respect for Russian Orthodoxy which began in college when I read J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey and then The Way of the Pilgrim, probably the best-known book associated with this church. Now, years later, after having read Everyday Saints–stories about monks in the Soviet Union when the regime was actively hostile to their faith–I found Russian Orthodox services only miles from where I live, in Brighton, NY, at the Protection of the Mother of God. It’s a beautiful place to try and quietly contemplate the ultimate reality of life with people more meek and humble than I am, while being surrounded by paintings on nearly every square inch of wall and ceiling, which seems a particularly appropriate haven for a visual artist to keep an eye on his own spiritual health. One of my good friends at the church, Father Theophan, a Danish monk from Holy Trinity, lives in Brighton–more or less on assignment from Jordanville to assist the church–paints icons, and is also translating the Psalms into Danish from Greek and original versions in other languages. His path began when he read The Way of the Pilgrim around the same age as when I read it–and he likewise became both a painter and writer. At some point, I hope to do a post about him. I’m fascinated by how icon painting is an ongoing and mostly overlooked niche of the art world, continuing without any expectation of economic reward or critical recognition.

I write this post in memory of Peter Shehldahl, The New Yorker’s art critic who confessed to being a non-church-going Christian when he knew he was terminally ill, not long before he died in October. His intelligence and humanity lives on in his writing.

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