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Tonalism then

George Henry, View of Venice, 28 x40, oil on canvas.

As a follow up to my recent post offering two contemporary Tonalist works at Oxford Gallery, this painting of Venice, by George Henry, was on view at the same time as the current work. This one is part of Jim Hall’s available inventory of historical Tonalist work. It’s an amazing painting, in many ways, not least of which is the impasto, stucco-like, surface of the oil. The paint is applied so generously, in multiple layers, that the tactile quality of its pebbly contours, the way in which shifts in tone create a relief map of color, is extraordinary. The overall impression is of a harbor bathed in a blindingly intense gold at sunset, but the way the paint is organized on the surface of the canvas is what’s most remarkable.  Bogert’s life spanned a period of radical changes in technology and culture, and, of course, art.

From Wikipedia: George Henry Bogert (February 6, 1864 – December 13, 1944) was an American landscape painter.In 1911 an exhibit of his work was held at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, and attracted widespread notice. His work is represented in the permanent collection of the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy.

His work has been displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of ArtNational GalleryCorcoran Gallery of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, BostonHuntington LibraryPennsylvania AcademyBrooklyn MuseumEdinburgh Museum in ScotlandShanghai Club in China, Minneapolis Institute of Art, and others, also in private collections, including those of Andrew CarnegieClarence Mackay, and Thomas B. Clark.

Dean Mitchell

Parking on the Reservation, Dean Mitchell, watercolor.

There are certain painters whose work, the first time I see it, floods me with relief, the way I often feel when I walk through the door of my home after a long road trip. My burdens drop away because I can see, through the work, that everything I need is always at hand, in nothing more than, say, the way sunlight glares off the hood of a car. It’s hard to specify the burdens a painting like this removes, other than what my delight in nothing more than hazy sunlight would suggest: the fundamental human affliction of rarely being able to see things just as they are, being too busy in pursuit of something else not as real. In Dean Mitchell, whose work was recently exhibited at Exeter Gallery, this quality arrives with the mysterious additional blessing of his ability to show things in the world, times of day, the quality of light during certain months and at particular latitudes, as if this abundant, inanimate stage for the petty human craving to be somewhere else, or someone else, is itself perfectly sufficient to be just what it is and nothing else. With Mitchell, there’s no striving to impose himself, interpret, or curate for hackneyed beauties of landscape in favor of a drab bungalow, frail as a lean-to, under a palm tree. Through the title suggests it may be located on a Native American reservation in the West, it is exactly the sort of home one sees in abundance in certain Florida neighborhoods of Sarasota or Tampa or, I would assume, Quincy, where Mitchell grew up in a shack. It’s exactly the sort of place you wouldn’t even notice while taking a residential shortcut off Tamiami Trail on the way to Target or Home Depot. And yet in his painting it’s stunningly beautiful—without his having intentionally beautified the subject in any way. In other words, he has the utter humility and diligence of a photorealist, with scenes that have the instant verisimilitude a good photograph has, though he dispenses with all details that don’t matter through his mastery of watercolor. This is something the medium enables and almost requires. The brevity of the way he indicates clusters of leaves, in other hands, would have the predictable facility of a commercially professional work, but in his paintings it looks original, fresh, and discovered, even though it looks as if he’s hardly trying. And the way he knows what doesn’t matter, what he doesn’t need to show, and elides it into a wash of color with such easy efficiency, makes me envious, self-pitying, and full of awe, as if I were Salieri hiding behind a curtain while Mozart noodles out something immortal with only one hand at the keyboard, maybe eating a sandwich with the other.

 

California Watercolor Association’s 51st National Exhibition

Painting Selected For Exhibition. Greetings!  I am thrilled to say that my watercolor painting “Three Minute Egg #14 – Blue Espresso Cup” was juried into the California Watercolor Association’s (CWA) 51st National Exhibition. The Juror of Selection was Mr. Frank Webb.  There were 650 entries and the Juror selected 97 paintings for the show. Congrats! …

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Haunted by God’s loophole

Doubt, Susie MacMurray, a temporary installation at Southwark Cathedral. London, constructed of butterfly nets.

I went back online recently to get another glimpse of Susie MacMurray’s masterful A Mixture of Frailties, the first work of hers that stunned me when I stumbled upon her solo exhibition at Danese/Corey seven years ago. I was delighted and a little surprised that it continues to resonate in new ways after the passage of years. This time it brought to mind, of all things, The Winged Victory of Samothrace. A frontal view of her headless figure’s prominent shoulders makes them look like sprouting wings or the stumps left behind by their amputation. This hadn’t occurred to me when I saw the actual piece at the exhibition. MacMurray built it around a tailor’s dummy—as she does with her signature garment sculptures—this time enveloping the curvy armature with limp latex gloves. On the floor, they form a train that flows outward and downward in all directions as if the garment were melting. Conversely, the figure seems to rise up out of the floor from under that network of gloves. It’s funny to see in this earthbound dress an ironic echo of the ancient sculpture’s martial grandeur, especially since this work glows with a quietly, almost self-defeating pathos all its own. The fact that you’re looking at what could be a lifetime supply—a life sentence, as it were—of dishwashing gloves both anchors and intensifies, by contrast, the work’s unlikely glory. By creating a ballroom gown out of them, she magically transforms all those flaccid tubes into a spectacular vestment—female power constructed with reminders of male impotence. That’s either a wry sort of Jacobin feminism or honest testimony about how little power any of us actually have. I tend toward the latter. With MacMurray, what looks like an apotheosis always comes with amusing asterisks. The way this dazzling matrix of frailties rises up from the floor, ready for lift-off, seems to echo the triumphant flight promised in the Greek sculpture, but our glove lady isn’t getting airborne any time soon. She is both imprisoned and glorified by all the chores she would love to flee. Feminist interpretations aside, what seems to be embodied here is something wiser and more universal. This beatification of scut work embodies a rare insight into the dignity and worth of long subservience and surrender to a humble task.

All of these impressions reconfirmed for me that much of MacMurray’s work has to do with the unity of polarities in life—in this case, how drudgery and imprisonment and servitude can actually clothe triumph and transformation, or at least can be transmuted to reveal them. A similar truth lies at the heart of the world’s wisdom traditions: the identity of form and emptiness in Buddhism, as well as the notion that your everyday mind is the Buddha, for one. In a different way, the Beatitudes hint at paradoxical realities—the last shall be first—set within a more dramatic spiritual narrative. One can find other corollaries. Her wisdom applies to art-making itself, pointing toward a seminal realization for practicing artists of how the freedom of creative expression dwells within the tedium of repetition, craft and patience. MacMurray’s work requires a great deal of all three. For her, it’s meditative. This equivalence of triumph and drudgery applies to her installations as much as, if not more than, the work of a guru of art-as-process such as Chuck Close. His words are well known: “Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just show up and get to work.” The paradox of the work ethic itself is that what’s good in life can’t be severed from often tedious labor. The process of making one of her pieces embodies this paradox: Medusa required a year to make,

one tiny copper ring at a time, shaped into a circle and clasped together by hand into chain mail. The result is spectacular and humbling. Many of her large-scale installations depend on repetitive, assiduous devotion to handiwork—assembling large quantities of everyday objects until they bathe the space they occupy with a kind of sentience, as if the hosting building has become self-aware, through the work, of the human vulnerabilities it shelters.

In Shells, MacMurray embossed an entire staircase at Pallant House in Chichester with slightly-opened mussel shells stuffed with red velvet in suggestive folds. The work was a compassionate homage to the wife who lived unhappily there after her husband built the town house in 1712: each shell an emblem of sexual readiness and frustration. Each of those 20,000 shells had to be carefully pried open—just a bit—so that they could adhere close to the hinge of the valves, even though parted at the lips enough to let the red velvet bulge outward from inside, a brilliant cluster of contrary implications in such a simple pairing of materials. One might observe drily that it’s a slightly less metaphysical take on unconsummated love than, say, Ode on a Grecian Urn, but it inspires awe, just the same. Again, the idea—pairing the shells with the scraps of velvet—makes it all possible, but the hours of labor needed to realize the idea gives its embodiment a gravity that serves as counterweight to this temporary installation’s ever hopeful climb toward the sky, or at least the ghost of a second-floor bedroom. As they ascend, all those shells whisper life is never quite what you want it to be, now, is it? Her most ominous installation, Doubt, depended on the patience required to assemble a surfeit of butterfly nets into a vaguely apocalyptic swarm, a cloud of shadows hovering in the vault of Southwark Cathedral in London. Again, this weightless specter floats overhead, a dark angel, but it’s contained by the walls around it—the emptiness of the cathedral becomes a disposal for what everyone sheds in this place, or else that effluvium overhead is what keeps them from rising up from the floor. And again, butterfly nets no less, reminder of both the insect’s transformation into a beautiful freedom as well as its trap.

Her wit has a crystalline simplicity. But there’s obviously something deeper than humor finding a home in her lovely ironies. She is powerful and clear-eyed about human limitations, while suggesting that those limitations aren’t necessarily what they seem. The paradoxes inherent in her formal innovations bring to your lips a smile of amusement but there’s also a sense somehow, in her work, of simple gratitude for what all this labor conveys. She lives for the epiphany of formal discovery, the gift of spotting new materials that give rise to what she makes. A waterfall of hair nets. A flock of fish hooks. A nest of wax eggs. But the long days or weeks or months of doing the same thing over and over gives her work its power. Sol LeWitt could have scribbled a note saying: “assemble little copper rings into chain mail in the shape of a woman deploying snakes at her feet” and have called his little memorandum conceptual art. Jeff Koons could do the same, in his own way. But reading that note—or having someone’s minions alone carry out the work order—wouldn’t have had quite the same impact. (MacMurray does rely on helpers occasionally with her most involved projects.) Sometimes the best discoveries for her come at the end of the process of making an installation—the idea at the start doesn’t come close to expressing the impact of the completed effort. She stands back and looks at the finished piece and thinks, oh, so that’s where all this labor was leading . . . the embodiment exceeds the idea that spawned it.

About her current show, Murmur, at Pangolin London (until Dec. 22) she said recently that, in the back of her mind, many of her themes have been intensified by the current pandemic and lockdowns. Notions of flight, liberation, imprisonment, dread, mortality, safety and risk. In Murmur, she also glances toward her own life as a mother, and in the context of motherhood all these themes seem to be multiplied exponentially. It’s one thing to recognize the perils and rewards of human life in oneself, but the stakes become so much more potentially heartbreaking when you see them in the life of your own children. The joys and anxieties of parenthood represent one of the central themes of this show.

 

Her sense of life, of the limitations that derive ultimately from mortality—reminds me vaguely of a scene I saw recently in a new Russian series on Netflix, To The Lake, shot in and around Moscow. In one of the later episodes, an Orthodox monk encounters refugees from a plague, and before he wanders back to the little church he seems to have built by hand, a little sacred gallery for crude icons he’s painted, one of the fugitive women button-holes him and begs him to pray for the child she has lost. He asks her if the child had been baptized. She says no. He says, “I can’t. But you can. Only the mother can pray.” I’d never heard of that tradition, but it was a remarkable moment full of disquieting contradictions and the interesting notion that motherhood is God’s loophole. God won’t accept a monk’s prayer for a baby? Say what? A mother can communicate with God in a way that even a monk can’t? No one else in the world is allowed to put in a request for help? How is that fair? These two characters accept it though, and there’s a thankfulness in their silence acceptance of life’s long odds. One thinks of all the cruel restrictions of the current pandemic, children unable to be at the death bed of their parents. The world has narrowed as a result of strange, seemingly inhumane rules imposed with benevolent designs. But still. (If someone had told me I couldn’t be at my father’s bedside when he died last year, for any reason whatsoever, I would have been tempted to buy my first gun and use it to open negotiations about palliative care.) With the young mother and the monk, there was so much human vulnerability and willingness to entertain one last opportunity for hope concentrated into a brief exchange on the road. The monk’s gentle solicitude and compassion spoke volumes about the pathos of a human soul’s predicament.

Somehow these qualities seem companionable with the spirit that informs much of what MacMurray has included in her show: the emotional risks and lowly tasks of parenthood. When it comes to motherhood, her imagery is closer to a Matthew Barney Cremaster vitrine than a Mary Cassatt mother-and-child, but some of the pieces feel like visualizations of terse, tough Blakean axioms: for every egg, a hook.

Murmur is built around its eponymous work, a mobile-like assembly of ostrich feathers, fish hooks and wire that extend for the entire length of the gallery. It’s a variation on her native theme: the inseparable pairing of freedom and the bonds of daily life. Like musical notes on a staff, a nod to MacMurray’s previous career as an orchestral musician, each of these feathered barbs seems to float upward, from left to right. They are tipped with little wax beads, rather than the hooks one would expect if they had been tied together for fly fishing. Yet, at a slight distance from each feather, the fishhooks help establish the feather’s place and its relationship with the others. They seem to float upward like dandelion seeds or birds, but (and this is what makes it a MacMurray) those hooks are sure to snag on something, such as their maker’s fingertips. One thinks of children, having been raised, setting off into the world but never fully detaching from their parents—and this note gets sounded throughout Murmur, with one piece after another referring to mothers, child-rearing, and the complexities of parenthood.

Susie emailed me last week to invite me to her live conversation, via the Internet, with the gallery’s director, Polly Bielecka, at the opening of her show. During the live video stream, she talked with the gallery’s owner about most of the work on display, and though it was no substitute for actually seeing the work, it offered an indication of the pleasures it affords. Her answer to one question focused on parenthood in relation to a small construction in which she attached a slice of deer antler to a wax ball:

This is Mother and Child, one of the small pieces I made during lockdown. There’s something about going from the scale that’s immersive to something that’s so small you have to protect and hold it in your hands. When I was going through the antlers I had collected I came across this one which is a first-year prong from a culled deer. There’s even a little piece of hair left on it. It made me think of mothers and children and the violent act of that baby being gone. It made me think of umbilical cords and apron strings. It’s another wax ball that’s reassuring. And I found it poignant and wanted to give it something to hang onto. It’s like Murmur, the joy of seeing (the little ones) take off into the world and the desolation of being left behind. How do you deal with those things? The world is a terrifying place as well as a wonderful place. The work I make is a constant reassurance to myself that both of those things belong together. How can I still exist after my children are gone? But I do, and it’s good, as well as frightening.

What I’m waiting for is the solo exhibition, years from now, when she assembles all of her garment sculptures into one place, if she continues to construct them as she likely will, slowly and painstakingly, over the next decade. In her conversation, she hinted at the next one, entitled Stalker. I can’t wait to see it.

“Moon Goddess” – Halloween & Pollinator Bat

Halloween and Bats Go Together. Greetings!  It is late October and that must mean it is “Moon Goddess” time.   Why October?  Well, bats are a traditional theme for Halloween and she is a bat.  Or rather, a colored pencil drawing inspired by the long nosed and long tongue bats of North America.  They are …

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Tonalism now

So Close But Not Enough to See, Ryan Schroeder, oil on canvas.

This painting, from a recent group show at Oxford Gallery, has grown on me since I saw it. It fell into a group of paintings interspersed throughout the show that were essentially Tonalist work from various periods. Jim Hall has bought and sold Tonalists for years, and has a stock of examples from well over a century ago from which to pick and choose an occasional painting for his walls.

Another example from the same show is Fran Noonan’s, Quiet Glow. I’ll post a much older example of the tradition shortly, from the same show. Jim’s definition of Tonalism includes artists not often included as part of the school, such as Rothko, but he can make a good argument for the commonalities among them.

Not What I Expected

Once upon a pre-pandemic time, I heard a famous writer say that when she looked back at her life, nothing had turned out the way she’d thought—and that was good. She said she could summarize what she’d learned about life with this simple statement: Not What I Expected.

I think that would make a great T-shirt. 

 

This year certainly racked up more than its fair share of unexpected things—good and bad. I was scanning the calendar all the way back to the maskless days when I realized that so many big things I’d anticipated got cancelled, and yet even better things—things I could not have fathomed—happened in their stead.

 

Exhibit A: This spring, I was going to help lead a workshop in Paris and then begin my poetry book tour there afterward—continuing the tour in New York and San Francisco. It was kinda career-pinnacling stuff. And then, a matter of weeks before departure, the world shut down. But guess what? The day the workshop would have started, my now-husband proposed to me. And as grand as Paris is, if I never return to the world’s most romantic city, I feel no lack; I have actual romance now! 

 

Exhibit B: I had been invited to give a poetry reading and teach workshops at a college writing conference in Wyoming this fall. One of those all-expenses-paid gigs poets dream of. The event managed to stay on the books all through the summer, but then…it was finally cancelled. The plan had been to drive out there with my husband, teach, and then take our delayed honeymoon road trip from there. We wouldn’t have had as much time to see the national parks and monuments we hoped to visit, but we were going to make the best of it. When the conference was cancelled, we were able to take the entire time together—time that became so precious and relationship-building, I am quite glad we did not have to give up a minute of it. 

 

Exhibit C: Any moment now, I would have been boarding a plane to Sweden and then on to Latvia for a month-long writing residency. I would have spent all of November writing in a little seaside village. You guessed it: cancelled. But you know what? I’d almost forgotten that was going to happen. My life has taken such a different turn that many of the things I once wanted fiercely now seem like brief apparitions—like glimpsed prisms of light that all but fade by the time you focus on them. 

 

I have no idea what November will bring instead of Latvia. (And I’m not talking about elections or anything else one might expect.) I’m actually glad to have no idea what specific goodness is on its way—I just know that something is. It always is; Goodness & Mercy are always at our heels. Maybe we just have to stop now and then, turn around, and acknowledge them. Something tells me those two are all the more thrilled to come closer with their surprising gifts when we’re grateful for them. Even when they deliver stuff we never ordered. 

 

Speaking of ordering, I’m seriously thinking about making that T-shirt. I haven’t figured out what the back would say, but I might borrow a line from another famous Creator:

 

“And it was good.” 

 

Autumn In Lithia Park III: A Walk In The Park

Greetings and Happy Autumn! You see, here on the southwestern Washington coast, the leaves are starting to turn.  And, the breeze is just a bit cooler perhaps.  It feels like Fall. So, while contemplating the change of the seasons, some of my earlier autumn-themed paintings popped in my head. Feeling inspired, I thought I would …

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Serenity, Anyone?

In the 1980s, my grandmother had the Serenity Prayer decoupaged and hung in her guest bedroom. When my cousins and I had sleepovers as kids, I always marveled at its simple, rhythmic request:  

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, 

courage to change the things I can, 

and the wisdom to know the difference.

 

I typed those lines from childhood memory. That prayer has been with me ever since. Even as a gradeschooler, I knew my life-long goal was serenity in a chaotic world. 

 

Decades later, I discovered the Enneagram. I know it’s all the rage right now, but for good reason; its pegs humanity’s nine personality types through the core beliefs of the types, the wounds they suffer from, and the healing they seek. 

 

I’m a number One: The Reformer. I want to make this world a better, more beautiful place. Which is a teensy bit exhausting and mostly impossible. Zero surprise that the life pursuit of a One is serenity. Can we say #challenge?

 

This year, we need the Serenity Prayer not just as a decoupage over the guest bed, but as cosmic light show illuminating our dark skies.

 

A few nights after the Oregon fires had ravaged friends’ homes just miles away, and another news cycle featuring Angry Everybody made me want to move to the Yukon Territory without the Internet, I found myself awake in the wee hours, whispering the Serenity Prayer over and over again until—much later—I finally fell back asleep. 

 

Honestly, the more authentic version of that prayer often sounds like the character George Costanza from Seinfeld screaming, “Serenity Now!” 

 

We can yell two words. 

 

We can whisper three lines over and over. 

 

May we pray the prayers. May we also do the work to heal our own wounds so that we don’t wound others from our unresolved pain and so that we can bring our healthy selves to serve a hurting world from a place of forgiven wholeness seeking to restore instead of retaliatory brokenness seeking to destroy. 

 

(And may we have a bit of serenity!)

 

 

Talent OR and Remembering On September 11th

Greetings! On this the 11th day of September, I am thinking about my family, friends and colleagues who live in Southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley.  The Rogue Valley is our former home. To explain, eleven months ago my husband and I left the Rogue Valley and moved to the Washington coast. I point that out because …

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