Up and Down

I am almost finished with my Breughel inspired painting. I like it. What a strange feeling to not loathe something I've made after it is finished. I could get used to it.

All that remains is the final fixing and fussing, which I have to be in a particular mood (both meticulous and ruthless) to do.

The small studies I made of the legs, comparing red and black underpaintings, turned into a piece of their own. It worked out well, actually; the community college where I teach has a faculty show every summer, and as the gallery is quite small the work submitted must be modestly sized. I finished these just in time to put them in the show. As for the red versus black question . . . it didn't make a huge amount of difference, but I'm glad I questioned my own orthodoxy. In the end, I found that the black underpainting made for more interesting layering, because you're putting warm tones over a cool underpainting, instead of warm over warm, so I will probably switch to using a gray underpainting from now on.

 

I realized if I turned one of them upside down, they made kind of palindromic bookends. (The gray underpainting is on the left throughout.)

 

 

I wanted the space to be a bit more interesting, and to maybe give a sense of movement, if possible. So I repainted the background white with a fairly thick impasto that you can't really see in the below photographs.

 

And I thought about stopping at this point. You know, I had spent all that time painstakingly rendering the legs, and there was something satisfying about them delineated against the crispness of the white background. But it just didn't seem that interesting, ultimately. So what if I can render. Lots of painters can, but unless they have something to say with it, no one is going to care except for those who will be impressed that it looks "like a photograph." So then I went all smeary on them, and for a day was depressed that I had ruined them.

 

And then I broke out the orbital sander, and was happy again. Finished!

 

"Up and Down," oil on canvas over panel, 9" x 12" and 9.5" x 12", 2011

Luckily for me, the opposing tug between slaving away over something to make it "perfect" and the corresponding, atavistic urge to destroy that same object of my affections worked out nicely this time. It doesn't always. I both want to be in control, and want something outside my control to swoop in and do something surprising and hopefully awesome to my paintings, without destroying the parts I like. Ha ha. I suppose that's what a lot of us would like for our lives, as well.

Dave helped me figure out a title for this diptych. I don't want to always cop out and have everything be "Untitled," but it's so hard to walk the line between overly descriptive/proscriptive titles that leave nothing to the imagination, and overly obscure vague ones that don't give your viewer anything to go on. I had been mulling over "Flying/Falling," but we decided that titles with slashes in them were pretty much always pretentious and terrible. I re-perused my inspiration, the Auden poem "Musee des Beaux Arts" to see if there were any snatches of it I could use, but there weren't, really. So when Dave proffered "Up and Down," it seemed like a good fit, and I took it.

Eye, Hand, Heart

Hello, you fine faithful few: The thing is, I've actually got lots of stuff to write about, I've just been terribly procrastinatory about actually posting it. I plan to get to it all very soon. Although I say that to myself almost every day . . .

But in the interim, I thought I'd share this quote from David Hockney, whom I've been reading a lot these days. It's, well, unfashionable; it may even be downright cheesy; and the sentiment it espouses, untrammeled by finer discrimination, may lead to absolutely terrible artwork. But I don't care.

When the eye, the hand and the heart come together, that's when you get the greatest art. I think that's profoundly true. And the eye links to the hand, and the heart gives the love. That's where the creativity comes from — the heart.

A Sinking Feeling

Last night, as I was finishing an underpainting, Dave called to me from outside, come quick! I opened the door but looking out from the brightness of the studio into the darkened yard I couldn’t see anything. Then Dave started cackling, because what he had wanted me to see was our cat Moby, who had managed to catch a very large rat, and he had just run past me into the studio where he released it onto the floor and proceeded to play with it, an (in)famous cat behavior I had not previously witnessed in the flesh, or shall I say, fur. I was displeased, to say the least, at the prospect of sharing my studio with this game of cat-and-rat, and made Dave go in and shoe the poor beastie out with a broom, followed by Moby nipping at its pink heels, while I stood outside balancing on the slippery upturned edge of the plywood that encloses our raised beds. If I had been wearing skirts, I would most certainly have clutched them about my legs.

I was torn between pride in the hunting prowess of my silky, big-eyed baby (nicely demonstrating the evolutionary reason why cats came to live alongside humans — to eat the rats and mice that eat our hard-grown grain) and pity for his blinking dazed prey. I didn’t entertain high hopes for the rat — last winter we found another one, unmarked but quite dead, lying supine across the bare earth of the garden, hands pitifully folded together, as if so arranged carefully, by a rat undertaker.

The underpainting I was working on was an exercise serving as a diversion from actually finishing a painting, the larger version of the Breughel homage/knockoff that I started in December, substituting a impossibly laden container ship for his delicate sailing vessel. I worked on it a lot all through late January/early February, having first abandoned this small version (19 1/4" x 21 1/4") of Breughel's sailing ship in disgust.

Here's the progression of the bigger one ( 3' x 4'):

First, an abandoned start for something completely different.

The following image is of terrible quality, taken at night with a point and shoot camera, but it does at least show the development of the painting.

Below, the large white patch in the lower right hand corner is where I was trying to work out where to place the falling legs, and how big they should be.

Then I decided they should be bigger. And put in a red earth layer as a base, which I always use when painting flesh.

And then I stalled, feeling mostly happy with my container ship (fun with acrylic paint, the hairdryer, and blue painter’s tape),

. . . but unsure how as to proceed with the legs (smooth & classical? brushy and expressionist?). I started a small version (12" x 9 1/2"), as a study:

and then got to thinking about when I first started using a red earth imprimatura and grisaille, and I couldn't actually remember. It must have been in part from poring over old master paintings in museums, trying to discern how on earth these mysterious, magical objects were made, and gleaning tiny clues. And certainly also from reading Max Doerner’s exhaustive and exhausting book The Materials of the Artist, first published in 1934, although in the end I found it of little help. (Anyway, his student/protegee Kurt Wehlte, who in 1967 came out with his own exhaustive manual The Materials and Techniques of Painting, quotes Doerner in the first page of his introduction as saying “Learning the technique of painting from a book is just as impossible as learning to swim on a sofa.” Indeed.)

On re-flipping through Doerner's book, I found the recommendation that “[a] light gray underpainting in the flesh is always profitable," and decided to make another study of the legs, using a gray underpainting, and considering that I use warm colors to paint skin, it should be interesting to see what difference the contrast of a cool underpainting should make.

All this, of course, is merely a fun, technical diversion from my sneaking suspicion/sinking feeling that this painting is kind of a one-liner. But I'm going to do my best to actual finish the damn thing, regardless, so that it can at least be a finished one-liner, rather than three-quarters finished and abandoned in disgust, as is my usual MO.

The Bridge of Sight

I've been reading The Eye's Mind: Bridget Riley, Collected Writings 1965-2009 with great pleasure recently, in particular her essay "The Pleasures of Sight," from which I excerpt here:

. . . whatever the occasion might be, the pleasures of sight have one characteristic in common — they take you by surprise. They are sudden, swift and unexpected. If one tries to prolong them, recapture them or bring them about wilfully their purity and freshness is lost. They are essentially enigmatic and elusive. One can stare at a landscape, for example, which a moment ago seemed vibrant and find it inert and dull — so one cannot say that this lively quality of sight is simply ‘out there in nature’, or easily available to be commanded as wished. Nor is it a state of mind which, once acquired, can bend the most stubborn and unrewarding aspect of external reality to its own purposes. It is neither the one nor the other but a perfect balance between the two, between the inner and the outer. This balance is a sort of convergence which releases a particular alchemy, momentarily turning the commonplace into the ravishing.

Naturally, as a child one is more open to such experiences. When one gets older these tend to take place less often — that is they seldom appear any longer as pure revelations. But this does not mean that one has come to see things as they really are or any more truthfully. The damage is mostly done by the daily round with its heavy load of pressures and preoccupations which comes between, like a plate glass window, and through which one can certainly see but through which no vision can penetrate.

It seems to me that as an artist one’s work lies here. I realised partly through my own experience and partly through the great masters of Modern art that it was not the actual sea, the individual rocks or valleys in themselves which constituted the essence of vision but that they were agents of a greater reality, of the bridge which sight throws from our innermost heart to the furthest extension of that which surrounds us.

I discovered that I was painting in order to ‘make visible’. On one hand I had to make something which had this essential quality of precipitating itself as ‘surprise’ and, simultaneously, there was no way of knowing with what one was dealing until it existed; so that in order to see one had to paint and through that activity found what could be seen.

 

Christmas Collages

I realize that I haven't posted in quite a while, since I fell into a somewhat crippling depression round about the new year, and have yet to either heave myself out of the depths or figure out how to write amusingly about it. This is my third winter in Oregon, and I don't know if it has been rainier than the two that preceded it, but it seems as though it has been raining EVERY DAY, and has been since the end of October. In combination, obviously, with various internal factors, I find the relentlessness of the gray skies wearying to the soul, and can't help but wonder if I would be feeling quite so hopeless and helpless right now if I lived in a sunnier clime? Anyway, for Christmas this year I readdressed myself to the Paint-by-Numbers paintings I had promised various family members last Christmas (the shame!), and decided to do them as collages, which I figured would both be faster and an entertaining break from painting. I had never really made collages before, but I was introduced to their usefulness in teaching as a way for students to analyze and transcribe Old Master paintings without having to actually, you know, paint, and got excited about the possibilities.

Instead finishing the copy of this fabulously weird painting for my sister Annie (which I had started and abandoned), I decided to go with Ingres' The Valpincon Bather. It was spectacularly fun to turn into a collage.

Here's a smaller version to fit on your screen:

And here's a bigger version for more detail:

And for Katharine, instead of the Diebenkorn painting she asked for (also started and abandoned) a collage of Vermeer's The Lacemaker.

I have been in the studio a fair amount recently, working on my painting of Icarus with a container ship . . . despite my generally grim outlook these days I am feeling cautiously optimistic about actually finishing it . . . a shocking concept for me, finishing a painting. However, perhaps because I'm afraid of jinxing myself, I've been feeling a bit shy about posting any process images. Also slightly inhibitory is the fact that our tiny point and shoot Canon, with which I've shot all of the photographs on this blog, is juuuuuuust a tiny bit crappy, and especially not so great with larger paintings (this one is 3' x 4' — not large in the general scheme of things, I know, but much larger than I've been working on in a couple of years). So. Perhaps soon!

Smorgasbord

A smattering of stuff I'm working on lately. The latest stage of my Breughel/Auden homage/knock-off:

Getting close but not there yet . . .

In my last post about this painting, I said that I had originally intended to make a big version of it, including a pair of vanishing legs in the lower right corner, but then decided not to. Well, I changed my mind. Yesterday I was feeling terribly impatient with the slow, accretive process of my observational paintings, and felt like doing something freer and less narrowly defined. (I keep thinking I have to choose between observation and invention, but perhaps it's a false dichotomy, and I actually need both ways of working, as complementary modes? Emerson's "a foolish consistency" and all that.) So I repurposed an abandoned 3' x 4' canvas and made a start on it. Except, to contemporize it, I'm doing a cargo ship with containers instead of a sailing ship of yore.

Remember a year ago when I thought it would be a fun little project to make people in my family paint-by-numbers versions of their favorite paintings? Yeah, me too. I managed to finish my mom's Vermeer in time for her birthday in January, but it turns out that these little babies take a while to do, and everyone else's has been languishing. Happily, I'm almost done with my sister's boyfriend's Fra Angelico:

What's left is the last pass, when I go over everything and make all the final adjustments, smoothing the edges and perfecting the colors. The chopped-off heads in their bubble-haloes are giving me the most trouble.

Also, I recently started a new still-life painting of a globe. I find that setting up still-lives takes me a long time, and because I like to have things at eye-level, it usually necessitates cobbling together an assortment of stuff that I can pile up and leave undisturbed for however long it takes me to complete the painting. Which is usually quite a while. Note use of various paint cans and art books:

The painting itself is just barely underway. Here are the first 2 stages:

The idea is to try and capture some kind of movement, to not paint the globe as a static object, but to give a sense of it spinning around, while still showing recognizable bits of the continents. Frankly, I'm not sure yet how to do it and if I can. I'm also struggling a bit with the black background. I thought it would be kind of cool challenge, and I was thinking of this Euan Uglow portrait of a woman wearing a black wig in front of a black background, in which he manages to make all kinds of subtle differentiations between various shades of black and gray:

Of course, the other bitch of black is, it's impossible to photograph accurately. Much of the nuances are lost, and any shine or glare can totally misrepresent the actual color. Anyway, we'll see if I can do it.

Cold as Ice

Recently, Graham Greene's (in)famous quote about observing other people's tribulations has been on my mind:

There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer. I watched and listened. There was something which one day I might need . . .

And, in a similar vein, Peter Schjeldahl on the artist Paul Thek:

But he was always coolly acute in his mind as an artist, with an inner detachment that characterizes first-rate talents.

I certainly do not possess Greene's chilly sliver, always averting my eyes from uncomfortable or painful scenes in movies, and cringing from social awkwardness rather than relishing it the way some are able to. And it's always difficult for artists to look upon their own work with a measured gaze, but now more than ever, I aspire to a Thek-like measure of detachment. It wasn't until rather recently that I even understood that separating myself emotionally from my work — at least a little — would actually improve it. Looking back on earlier years, I feel as though I was being boiled alive in my own emotional stew, struggling to see my work through the murky broth, but unable to extricate myself from the soup. But I think I'm seeing things a little clearer now. Or at least, I feel clearer about what my work is, and perhaps more importantly, what it isn't. An important first step.

Fabric Fever

A non-painting project I've been working on lately is of the textile arts variety. I used to knit. Until I realized that it a) bored the crap out of me and b) exacerbated my lurking potential for carpal tunnel syndrome. But I still had a latent desire for some kind of homey craft project, and that's when I started getting enthused about quilting. All those glorious fabrics! And it seemed to me that quilts were a lot like paintings:  colored shapes arranged in various ways within a rectangular format, only made of fabric instead of paint. And that was even before I saw the quilts from Gee's Bend, which of course confirmed my intimation, and then blew it right out of the water.

I finally finished all 72 blocks for my first quilt, and this past weekend Dave helped me lay them all out on the living room floor and move them around for a couple hours till we had all the different fabrics well distributed.

These blocks are for a pattern called Drunkard's Path, and each block is simply a quarter circle inside a square. You can put them together in almost infinite ways (seriously, google 'drunkard's path' or 'drunkard's path variations' and check out all the different possibilities; here's one I quite like) and it was hard to decide how to assemble them. In the end, I was inspired to do this squiggly version from a quilt I saw on this wonderful and aspirational quilting blog. Unfortunately, her site doesn't have a search function so I can't link to the photograph of the original quilt that got me excited . . . because I can't find it.

Now that I am in the final stretch of making the quilt top, I have realized that what I really enjoy is this process of sewing all the pieces of fabric together. I am much less interested in the process of quilting the damn thing, which sounds an awful lot like knitting to me — an interminable, repetitive process of tiny hand movements. (Quilting is the stitching, both decorative and functional, that holds the pieced quilt top, the batting in the middle, and the backing fabric together. It can be done by hand, or by machine.) The woman at the awesome fabric store where I shop told me that she is a very fast hand-quilter, and it would take her over a year to quilt a king size quilt — and that would be working on it a lot. Daunted, I asked jokingly if I could still say that I made my quilt if I paid someone else to machine-quilt it, and another customer said, "Honey, do what you love and pay someone else to do the rest." A sound philosophy, of course. If, like so many things in life, you can afford it. So I think I probably will pay someone else to machine-quilt it, and move onto figuring out what my next quilt is going to look like. Much more fun! I will definitely post a picture of this one when it's finished (but that may be a while).

Somewhere To Get To

This August, I reconnected with a friend from college who in the intervening years had suffered a terrible tragedy, which is not my story to tell here. And it struck me how, after our meeting at the coffee shop, our hour and a half of conversation, I simply walked away. Got in my car and drove off. Shaken, to be sure. Sympathetic. But already thinking about the rest of my day, the things I had to do. And that seemed like another tragedy. How no one else can fully share another’s suffering. Others can sympathize, but they are not forced to live through it. They get to walk away.

And I remembered W.H. Auden’s famous poem — and one of my favorites — “Musee des Beaux Arts”

About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters:  how well they understood

Its human position; how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting

For the miraculous birth, there always must be

Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating

On a pond at the edge of the wood:

They never forgot

That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course

Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot

Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse

Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

The line “But for him it was not an important failure” pretty well sums it up, I think. Nobody really cares as much about your tragedies or failures as you. Oh, people will empathize, they might really truly feel your pain. But then they move on, back into their own lives — as they must, as we all must — having, as Auden says so succinctly “somewhere to get to.”

Thinking about it, I felt tremendously sad, and looked again at the Breughel painting. It's shocking, how utterly inconsequential Icarus's death is, his miniscule splash only a footnote to the rest of the world as it plows relentlessly on. And I decided to paint the ship, so much lovelier, with its creamy wings of sail, than the cargo behemoths we have in this century.

It’s not finished, but I don’t really know how to wrap it up yet. And I have had an uneasy feeling while working on it that this type of painting is not my “real” work, that although parts of it were fun I was not hewing to my natural tendencies. By “this type of painting” I mean largely inventing the image (even though I do of course have the original painting as a reference). I have written before about this same discomfort, about how I am made uncomfortable working without tethers to something physically present.

Strangely, given complete freedom to make shit up, I feel anxious, thrown back on my own imaginative powers and finding them meager. It is only within the more straitened boundaries of observational painting that I feel truly liberated. I had initially thought to make a much bigger version of this painting after this small one, and this time include a small set of legs vanishing into the sea in the lower right hand corner, like Breughel’s original . . . but I don’t think I will. I think I could . . . but it would be a time-consuming undertaking, and unsupported by that dumb, innate conviction that fires the most essential work, I foresee a potential foundering.

Painting-Crazy

Ever since the age of six I have had a mania for drawing the forms of objects. Towards the age of fifty I published a very large number of drawings, but I am dissatisfied with everything which I produced before the age of seventy. It was at the age of seventy-three I nearly mastered the real nature and form of birds, fish, plants, etcetera. Consequently, at the age of eighty, I shall have got to the bottom of things; at one hundred I shall have attained a decidedly higher level which I cannot define, and at the age of one-hundred-and-ten every dot and every line from my brush will be alive. I call on those who may live as long as I to see if I keep my word. Signed, formerly Hokusai, now the Painting-Crazy Old Man

from One Hundred Views of Fuji, translated by Harold P. Stern

Why Art Cannot Be Taught

After an unsuccessful day in the classroom last week, I came home feeling frustrated (pretty evenly divided between myself and my students), and reached for James Elkins' book Why Art Cannot Be Taught for some solace or at least a couple of laughs. I don't always agree with Elkins but he is reliably not boring, which is more than I can say for approximately 99% of the people who write about matters art-related. A couple paragraphs struck me, not so much about teaching or being taught as what comes after (or doesn't):

Out of a thousand art students, maybe five will make a living off their art, and perhaps one will be known outside her city. That’s not a condemnation. It’s the nature of fame, real quality, and genuine influence to be rare. In addition the mechanisms of fame are strongly random. Many interesting artists don’t make their work at the right moment or show it to the right people. A bad critique, or bad weather on opening night, can be enough to topple a career. No one will agree on what’s great or important or worthwhile, and in the second half of the twentieth century the avant-garde became notoriously evanescent and hard to locate. Yet beyond those problems of luck and history, it is still true that most artists do not make interesting art . . .

Average people have average energy, and that means they may be significantly different from those few that find a voice for more urgent, passionate, timely, “essential,” or “profound” thoughts. This is only melancholic if every artist wants those qualities . . . Most of us are relatively contented with our level of energy and our mastery. Everyone is a little discontented, but few people are strongly discontented. Most of us are not profound and we have obvious limitations.

Is that depressing? I guess so, but I don't think it's wrong. If a definition of adulthood is recognizing one's limitations and doing the best one can within them, then perhaps a genius is someone who does not or will not recognize their limitations, and thereby somehow, transcends them. Perhaps part of youth is still thinking that you could turn out to be a genius of some kind, and adulthood is realizing that it ain't gonna happen; but that maybe, actually, we don't care that much, and pressing on regardless, making the best work we can within the parameters of our lives. Even if we are average, unprofound, limited.

Waterfront Property

Last night:  on a plane, returning from the wedding of a dear but now distant friend. The man next to me — middle-aged, squat, salt and pepper mustache, utterly unremarkable, except to himself, no doubt — opens his laptop and begins to play solitaire. Before the green baize window opens and the virtual cards rank themselves out in rows, I see the picture he has chosen for his wallpaper. It is a picture of a sandcastle taken from a worm’s eye view, if, say, the worm were a knight, about to ride a horse through the fortified outer walls and across the moat, on a bridge paved with tumbled beach stones, to the castle lying beyond crowned with a jaunty gull feather. And beyond the castle a progression of boundaries and vastnesses:  shoreline, ocean, horizon, sky.

The whimsical viewpoint strikes me, almost painfully. It was a weekend spent with old friends, many not seen for ten years or more, having the same conversation over and over again, the catching up, the litany of accomplishments:  degrees earned, jobs won, husbands or wives taken, property acquired, children begotten, great expectations met, exceeded, disappointed. And all of it so many castles made of sand:  substantial earthworks from the perspective of the poor worm, and yet one has merely to stand up from taking the photograph to instantly see the proportional absurdity of the would-be fortifications. Laughably futile, and utterly temporary, perched so proudly in the flood plain of their own destruction.

(The wedding was in New Orleans, not incidentally, which likely explains why I was struck by the picture in the first place, and am running, perhaps a little wild, with the metaphor.)

(Also at the wedding:  a man not my husband told me that I was a very beautiful woman, and it shocked me how much I cared to hear it from someone not duty bound to say so. It was like blowing on an old fire, one you had thought burnt low enough by now, but finding with chagrin that the embers of vanity still smolder, and will catch alight again with surprising speed, even as, with the passing of the years, there is less and less to burn.)

I was reminded of the famous Isaac Newton quote, a man whose sand castles were substantially more impressive than most of us ever aspire to build:

I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

And yet what else should we do with the lives we have, but to go on building our friable houses? We have to live somewhere, after all. The trick perhaps is to remember their (our) proper proportions, and certain fate. And to try and take it lightly.

Image credit:  the trial/creative commons

Reality Hunger

This is the wager, isn't it? It's by remaining faithful to the contingencies and peculiarities of your own experience and the vagaries of your own nature that you stand the greatest chance of conveying something universal.

Geoff Dyer, quoted in David Shield's book Reality Hunger

To be alive is to travel ceaselessly between the real and the imaginary, and mongrel form is about as exact an emblem as I can conceive for the unsolvable mystery at the center of identity.

David Shields, Reality Hunger

A great painting comes together, just barely.

Picasso, from Reality Hunger

Forest Bathing

To cap off the summer, Dave and I spent almost a week in his beloved Adirondacks. It may very well sound silly to travel 3,000 miles from Oregon, home to some of the most spectacular wilderness in the country to go to . . . upstate New York? But the Adirondacks are D’s ancestral summer playground, and after 3 years away from them, he needed to commune. Also, Oregon is markedly deficient in lakes. It took me two years of living here to realize that something fundamentally important was missing from my summers, and that was access to large bodies of fresh water. Something to do with the volcanic soil in the Pacific Northwest apparently: it’s porous, so wherever water might accumulate into lakes and ponds, the way it does in granite-girded New England, instead drains away. Frankly, I’ve always been a tad cranky about going up to the Adirondacks, even when we lived in Boston, a ‘mere’ 5 hour drive away. Partly, it’s that it’s not my native summer watering place. My family always went to New Hampshire, where on Squam Lake we always rented one or the other of two rambling 100 year old+ houses of great, creaking charm, named “Rest-a-While” and “Gray Birches.” They were nestled in the woods, built with uninsulated walls the thickness of a single board (you could hear a mouse fart anywhere in the house), and decorated with a multitude of quite accomplished watercolors—some protectively framed, but many others still affixed by the original rusted thumb tacks and precariously crumbling around the edges—of the Reverend So-and-so to whom the property belonged in the 19th century. The houses were not right on the lake, but swathes of forest had been cleared for some hundreds of feet down to the water, akin to the corridors cut for power lines, only for the sight-lines. Both houses had screen porches with rocking chairs, outdoor showers (is there anything more enchanting then showering surrounded by the green woods, standing on a rock?), and separate wings for the kitchen and dining room, where huge raucous meals were held and games of dictionary played around the table afterwards. Lake water came out of the bathroom taps for bathing, but for drinking one had to go to the kitchen and use the old hand pumps at the sink to bring up potable well-water, which is where I learned what it actually means to have to prime the pump.

David’s family’s house is fully insulated, has access to a truly lovely lake, and has the virtue of sleeping a lot of people but charm, well, it has not. Aesthetic snobbery is impossible to defend without sounding like a complete asshole, so I’m not even going to try. I can only say that being in surroundings that displease me aesthetically gives rise to a constant, OCD-ish desire to fix them somehow, to think of ways to make them more attractive to me, and it’s not very restful, visually or mentally. On this trip, however, having not had lake-access for three summers, I was so excited for swimming and boating and all things fresh water that I kind of got past my issues with the house and focused on spending as much time as possible outdoors (which was quite blissful). And I could see that much of my resistance to David’s summer house is in large part my nostalgia for those wonderful, romantically antiquated houses, and the vanished days of those extended-family vacations. Certainly, my family hasn’t been to Squam Lake in 10 years or more, and sadly, inevitably, the older generation of those family members who used to anchor those gatherings have mostly passed on.

I schlepped my landscape painting gear all the way from Portland to Boston and thence up to Speculator, NY, planning this time to make the Adirondacks my own by painting there. However, the first couple of days there I was alternately overcome by a deep, pleasant lassitude or unable to find any sights that I really wanted to paint. Dave and I wandered around in the woods, me freighted with all my gear, waiting for the recognition of a possible painting to flutter within me, but all that happened was that I become incredibly tired, and had to lay down on the fragrant pine needles and fall asleep.

(There was an article this summer in the Times about a Japanese practice called Shinrin Yoku or “forest bathing”—isn’t that the loveliest phrase?—which is a practice in Japan where people go to parks and forests to be around nature for therapeutic reasons. Apparently, not only does it sound poetic, but studies have now shown that breathing in forest air, which contains phytoncides (airborne chemicals that plants emit to keep them from rotting), has measurable effects on humans, notably a decrease in cortisol and an increase in white blood cells. Don’t you just love it when studies verify something you already knew intuitively?)

Anyway, it wasn’t till day three that I suddenly saw something I thought I could paint, and spent the day working, in the morning painting some yellow canoes stashed between some hemlocks marked for removal, and in the afternoon a view of the water, because I knew Dave was hoping for a little painting of his beloved lake. Unfortunately after that the weather turned sour and there were no more plein air possibilities for the remaining 3 days of our stay. So the ratio of schlepping to painting wasn’t so great. On the other hand, I’ve come around to the Adirondacks, which made Dave very happy.

Yellow Canoes, 6" x 6"

Lakeview, 5" x 7"

The Inimitable DFW

I have this—here's this thing where it's going to sound sappy to you. I have this unbelievably like five-year-old's belief that art is just absolutely magic. And that good art can do things that nothing else in the solar system can do. And that the good stuff will survive, and get read, and that in the great winnowing process, the shit will sink and the good stuff will rise.

— David Foster Wallace, from Although of course you end up becoming yourself: a road trip with david foster wallace

Tuscan Landscapes, 2010 edition

I've been home for two weeks now, and am finally getting around to posting, as promised lo! those many weeks ago, all the plein air landscapes I made during the 6 weeks I spent teaching in Tuscany this summer. When I look at these paintings and back to the ones I made 2 years ago, I'm pleased to see how much I've loosened up since then. You may very well laugh at my interpretation of the word 'loose' but really, I'm working on it. I mean, I wish I wasn't the kind of person who has to "work" on loosening up but . . . I just am.

 

I don’t think anxious, uptight people like me can “fight” that aspect of our personality, per se:  you can only recognize it, and slowly, fiber by fiber, unwind those parts of your psyche that are so tightly wrapped, a process that I’m finding does get easier and faster as I let go of more and more things and, periodically looking back, cannot for the life of me see what the hell I was even holding onto, anyway. It’s both liberating, and a little depressing, to see so clearly, retrospectively, what mountains I have sculpted out of molehills. Perhaps my entire painting trajectory will ultimately be a record of this very process, written in ever messier paint.

 

Frankly, although it’s great to be back, I’m also a leetle bit depressed. I was painting almost everyday in Italy, so freely and so happily, and now I feel like I’ve kind of landed back in the same narrow rutted routine, where  I don’t get much done, and yet don’t much feel like painting, either, even though I’m still on summer vacation time, precious free days I should be grabbing greedily with painty hands and wringing all the studio juice from that I can. I thought it was going to be easy to transplant my italian painting joy back to Portland . . . and yet, so far, it hasn't. I feel most myself, most alive, most happy, when I am painting. Even when the paintings aren’t necessarily so great. It’s sort of magic. Why is what Gerhard Richter calls “the daily practice of painting” so much harder for me to, well, practice, when I am ensconced in my so-called “real life”?
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A caveat on sizes:  all the paintings look like they're the same width, which, of course, they're not. The way images are formatted on blogs sort of equalizes them in a weird way — the tiny paintings look huge, and much more in your face than they are in real life, and the bigger paintings get squinched, and don't look their best because the nuances of color & brushwork are lost. Alas. I’m not sure how to do it better.

 

6" x 6"

The first painting I made, in less than an hour of slap-happy palette-knifing and pure joy in being outdoors in a beautiful field, with the sun warm on my shoulders.

15 cm x 30 cm

Made standing in a wheatfield in the rain. I couldn't figure out why my thinner wasn't behaving normally — I thought it was because of the rain beading on my palette — until I realized that the funny smell of nail-polish remover emanating from my jar was acetone, instead of odorless mineral spirits, and completely useless for painting purposes. It also slopped all over my nitrile-gloved hands, and due to its rapid evaporation left them numb and shaking with cold, so that I had to stop painting and go take a hot shower.

17 cm x 17 cm

Sometimes when it's raining, it's handy to have a nice view to paint looking out of a window.

8" x 10"

I don't really care for the way this painting turned out, but I had an absolutely transcendent experience while I was making it, strangely enough.

5" x 7"

This little, fast painting ended up being one of my favorites, maybe because for once I just . . . stopped. I like how you can see so much of the salmon colored ground showing through, and the un-mucked about brushstrokes. It was overcast that morning, so there weren't any of the nice dramatic shadows I usually like to paint, but somehow it turned out okay anyway.

25 cm x 35 cm

I went back and made a bigger version when the sun came out. Weirdly, I don't think I'd ever done that before — made a study, and then a bigger version of the same subject. It was interesting, trying to take successful elements from the study but not to repeat myself exactly, finding some new things to do on the second go round, or a change of emphasis. The problem when you like something too much the first time is that you'll try and do the same thing again, which is usually deadly.

5" x 7"

Another personal fave. Maybe because I made it the day after an absolutely disastrous painting session, and was absurdly cheered to discover that I wasn't doomed, after all, to a lifetime of hideosity?

20 cm x 20 cm

Another small study that led to . . .

30 cm x 30 cm

A bigger revisit, with the composition slightly adjusted to fit in more of the parasol pines. I love those trees. I also learned that, apparently, they are the tree that give us pine-nuts. So, they're beautiful, and they also give us the taste. How great is that?

17 cm x 17 cm

This was a revisit of a spot where I made a painting 2 years ago, in a wider format that also included the church which is just to the left. This was another one where I just felt free and fresh and fast while I was working, and hopefully it shows in the results.

8" x 8"

A similar experience here, as well. You can see I have a thing for a) long shadows falling across roads and b) telephone poles and wires.

25 cm x 35 cm

This painting was also made looking out of the window, at a part of the property they call the 'Sacred Grove', for reasons which remain unclear to me. But it's a lovely little hill punctuated by cypresses, which you approach via a long path through two anomalously manicured hedges. This was meant as a quick and dirty study for a larger version, and originally looked like this:

until I came back and palette-knifed the shit out of it, which resulted in some interesting textures, even if the composition isn't quite quite, somehow.

(unfinished) 30 cm x 40 cm

I was in a super good mood about this painting initially . . . but then could never quite get in the mood to finish it off with a bang. I think the intense citrus yellow on the hedges is too bright, and the blocky shadows of the trees are too hard-edged next to the softness of the foliage and the clouds. It's sort of hard to get back in the headspace to work on it, now, but you never know.

6" x 6"

Another small favorite. I guess I have a thing for road signs, too.

(unfinished) 25 cm x 35 cm

I was calling this painting the 'quadfecta' because it has a telephone pole, road-signs, shadows, AND a car in it (which gave me no end of trouble). Maybe you have to be a boy to really be a natural at painting cars? Not to mention a roadside shrine! Unfortunately, I ran out of time to finish this one too. I have a photograph to paint from, but it's not really the same at all.

30 cm x 30 cm

This is definitely my favorite finished painting from this summer. I revisited the site with some trepidation, but ended up enjoying the hell out of myself, in a slightly different way, for this bigger version. Is it too terribly sacrilegious to confess that it reminds me of all those crucifixion paintings, with Jesus on the cross & the two thieves on slightly smaller crucifixes on either side of him, only with telephone poles, and no dying people?

Yeah, I guess it probably is.

The Monthly Newsletter

Dave suggested recently that perhaps I should be a pamphleteer instead of a blogger, I guess because I don’t really blog they way one is supposed to, with shorter but more frequent updates, instead of monthly (or so) magnum opi. I usually procrastinate putting up a post because I don’t feel like dealing with the whole process of downloading jpgs, adjusting them to the best of my (minimal) ability in Photoshop, and then uploading them, and by the time I get around to it, the post has usually ballooned to an unmanageable size. I want to be better, truly I do, not least because I am always bummed when the bloggers I read don’t have a new post up for a long time. In my own defense, the whole photo thing is made much worse here in Italy by the glacial speed of the internet connection. I takes almost a full 5 minutes to upload a single photograph.

I hate to be cliched . . . but there is something devastating about the light here in Tuscany. It really is golden. Especially in the hour or so before sunset, the most magical time of the day and the best time to paint, but also the most difficult, because the effects of the light are so fleeting. The shadows lengthen and purple, dramatizing previously bland green fields. The haze in the valley drifts into orange. Up here, on the hill, we can see all the way across the valley with its patchwork of fields and toy town to the blue hills distant on the other side. It feels as though we are held in abeyance here, above the world, spectators to the ending of the day.

I’ve been painting a lot, sometimes to the point of physical exhaustion, and it makes me so happy. These little landscapes aren’t going to take the world by storm, they may even be utterly cliched ventures in a field, in a that has been, as one of my profs told me, in a kindly-damning-with-faint-praise sort of way, “pretty thoroughly explored.” But I don’t care. I find that I don’t feel particularly attached to them in the usual egoistic way I feel attached to my paintings, because the experience of being alive while making them was so profoundly pleasurable. Usually I am so attached to wanting every painting I made to be A MASTERPIECE that it cramps the process. Makes me unwilling to entertain true risk. With these, I’ve been making one a day, or every two days, and when one isn’t what I hoped it’d be, I just let it go and move onto the next. I don’t know why it’s taken me 10 years to get to be able to do that. I guess I’m just a slow learner.

Painting en plein air is a kind of physical meditation for me: standing in one place, breathing, feeling my core muscles relax, looking, making a mark, looking again, mixing colors, squinting to see the world as a kaleidoscope of colored shapes that all fit together, and trying to create a correlation on the canvas in front of me. It is completely absorbing — I do not notice the passage of time except as my arms tire of holding the palette and my hands eventually begin to tremble, the sweat runs down inside my clothes, and as I become anxious about the light changing before I get it all down. I find it freeing to recognize that the the world is completely overwhelming, that there is more in it than you can or even should try to account for. To let most of it go. To ignore all the surface details in search of the larger, underlying relationships. Trying to keep it fresh, to put down the paint and get out, to not futz, to let it breathe. I finished a painting a few days ago and I don’t remember having previously had such strong a sense of being absolutely done in, physically and mentally exhausted, but in such a deeply satisfying way. I sat down on the ground and closed my eyes, let the golden light seep through my eyelids, listened to the dull clanging of the sheep bells in the meadow below me, the incessant murmuring hum of the bees (there are a lot of hives around here) and the roar and grunt of someone running a tractor in the adjacent olive grove. I could’ve lain down and slept right there, except that I was also hungry, and so motivated to schlep everything back home for dinner. Later, when I looked at the painting I didn’t think it was so hot, but somehow I didn’t care that much, because I could still remember the vitality of the experience of making it. You’d think that having a great experience painting would guarantee making an awesome painting, but I guess not necessarily, unfortunately.

The teaching is going pretty well, I think. It’s a funny thing, teaching painting. On the one hand, I have a lot of useful information to share with students, but on the other hand, people can only really take in the information as they need it, you can tell them something but unless they’re grappling with that particular problem at the exact moment, it doesn’t make sense. Or at least, they don’t absorb it. Also, there is certainly more than one way to skin a cat; within certain principles there are a lot of different ways to make a painting, and I try and be cautious about imposing my own ideas on students. People have to figure out their own way of painting, as I did. It’s often a little tricky judging who can take their criticism straight up, and who needs it sugar-coated. Sometimes I miscalculate, and then I feel terrible. It’s a little like being a doctor: first, do no harm. Because, in the end, who cares if someone makes bad art? I mean, I do. But it’s not like anyone really gets hurt in any quantitative way. On the other hand, if they were music students, wouldn’t they want me to tell them if they were playing out of tune? It’s a balancing act. Just like everything else, I guess.

Next post: all the paintings I’ve made since I've been in Italy, in chronological order. I can't take any more uploading, today.

Odio i Millipiedi*

I’m in a rural corner of Tuscany for the next 6 weeks to teach a landscape painting class for Boston University students abroad, and everything is much the way it was two years ago, the last time I did this, including: 1. The staggering volume of birdsong in the pre-dawn hours. It’s downright noisy.

2. Having to share my casetta with a multitude of millipedes. They range from tiny to fully 2” long, with a shocking profusion of baroquely curly legs. I loathe them. I whack them dead with a rolled up magazine, but if I don’t get a clean hit and squash them flat they break apart into little pieces which go on twitching spasmodically. They run around on the walls, and I often find them trapped in the bathtub and sink, ineffectually trying to climb out. I wash them down the drain with a furious jet of water.

(I had a legendary english teacher in high school named Mrs. Nunes, whom I vividly remember saying that she thought the reason women tend to fear bugs more than men is because we have a sort of primal terror that they could scuttle up our legs and into our vaginas. That's definitely the kind of thing you remember when you’re a teenager. I think there's maybe . . . something to that? At any rate, I viciously enforce a zero-tolerance millipede policy in my little house.)

3. The suicidal insanity of Italian drivers. It’s the kind of cultural stereotype that one thinks maybe is exaggerated to be colorful . . . but well, no. Yesterday after Mark, the program director, picked me up at the Florence airport, we had a 45 minute drive home through the hills, which are traversed by some of the most sick-making, curvalicious roads I have ever driven on. Lots of blind corners and stretches bounded narrowly by stone walls and houses. No room for error. And Italian motorists don’t believe in maintaining a car’s length following distance:  cars and motorcycles both will cling to the bumper of the car in front of them as though magnetized, only to swing out for the pass given the slightest opportunity — or none at all — often on a blind corner or in the face of oncoming traffic, cheating what seems to the onlooker to be imminent death by a millimeter. Last summer I got sort of immune to it, but in my jet-lagged and nauseated state, it was shocking all over again.

Below is a post that I’ve been meaning to put up for oh, about 3 weeks or so, but which got subsumed in a late May rush of house-guests, travel, and then for the last week or so, preparations for Italy.

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Despite not having posted any progress shots in the past 2 months, I’ve actually been hard at work on a painting that is getting pretty close to being finished. I ditched my first attempt at painting the philodendron, not being quite happy with the format — it felt too wide (that canvas was 24” x 36”). Happily, I had in the basement another canvas ready to go that was 24” x 30”, and lopping those 6” off the width seems to have made all the difference. I also swapped out that pink background cloth. It was just too loud. The new one I originally thought was a kind of warm gray but has turned out to be very purple-mauve, which in any case fulfilled my desire to have a warm complement to interplay with all the green of the plant.

I also made the first couple of passes in acrylic, which is turning out to be a great way to work for me. It’s just so much faster, in the beginning when I’m impatient to get it all down and see what it might look like and if the composition is going to work out. And then after not too long I get frustrated by not being in control of the nuances of color and also with the plasticky feel of acrylic when it gets thicker.  So then I switch back to lovely, creamy, delicious oil paint, which doesn’t change color when it dries, amen.

I was very doubtful that I would be able to finish this painting by the time I leave for Italy in June, but now I think it could maybe happen.**  Apropos of my last post, about trying to leave my paintings a bit more open, to not frog-march them to my own preconceived notions of completion, I think I may be able to stay my own hand on this one. A lot of it has to do with the sheer impossibility of pinning this plant down, anyway. It moves so much from day to day, following the light from window to window, and raising and dropping its leaves depending on how much I’ve remembered to water it. It has ended up being a kind of kinetic painting, a record of the plant’s movement in space. I do want the terra cotta planter at the bottom to be more carefully captured, however, as the only unmoving thing in the painting, and a kind of anchor point for the action above it.

I’m going to Italy again this summer, to teach landscape painting course for a Boston University summer program. It’s very exciting . . . and I love Italy . . . and the location is very beautiful . . . but it’s also hard to leave Dave and the cat babies for almost 2 months.

It’s lonely for both of us, and quite difficult to stay in touch, given the 9 hour time difference between Italy and Oregon, the glacial dial-up internet connection and shared computer, and the fickle cellular reception up on the rural hilltop where I’ll be. Sadly, I’ll also be away for our 3rd wedding anniversary (I missed our first anniversary as well, during the first year I taught this program). It’s also disruptive to my studio flow, now that it’s finally starting to emerge from the scant trickle of the past year or so.  Ah well. I think I can find a way to make a painting or two that is meaningful to me, that isn’t just a totally random slice of Italian countryside. I find myself rather interested in telephone wires, the way they carve up the sky.

I have a lot of other ideas for paintings that I want to make, when I get back, and I’m excited to start. None of them will sound very interesting if I write down here what they are, so I’ll just say that, regardless of subject matter, I feel like I’m finally just setting foot on the right track, a way of painting that feels genuine and generative for me. That eschews spectacle while avoiding staidness (hopefully). Whether I’m painting plants or people or the view out my living room window, I become more and more convinced that to quietly, carefully observe the specificity and strangeness of everyday objects, places and people can be — maybe more than ever — among the most radical of artistic acts.

* I hate millipedes.

** Ha. Dave, if you’re reading this, don’t forget to water the philodendron!!!

Think Tight, Paint Loose

My sister thinks my problem with finishing paintings stems from a deep-rooted need to prove to viewers that I’m a “good” painter, that I need to always demonstrate what I can do. To show off my technical skillz, such as they may be. And that this means that I keep on painting the shit out of my paintings, when I should really just stop. To recognize the possibility of doneness in a work at a much earlier stage than I usually am able to. (This may, of course, be the work of a lifetime, compulsive wannabe over-achiever that I am.) I’m sure she’s not wrong exactly (I came to painting late, and spent my twenties striving sincerely to be a “good” painter . . . by which I meant a fairly limited notion of being able to paint things"realistically"), but that isn’t the only thing, either. The lived part of the experience is just looking at a painting and being irritated by certain parts of it, feeling very strongly that things remain to be fixed, improved, perfected.  Of course, usually when I finally am done with a painting and have “fixed” all the parts that were annoying me, when I look back at pictures of its earlier incarnations I see a looseness and openness that I then find really appealing, that makes the tightened down final version feel uptight and closed-off. As evidence I submit before and after shots (not terribly high quality, unfortunately) of the Ikea chair in this painting of our old living room.

Looking at these photos I think my sister is right, goddamnit, why couldn’t I have stopped a bit earlier, preserved some of that airiness? Damn my literal-mindedness, my compulsive need to neaten things up, to (literally) color within the lines. If I were a writer, I could just go back to that earlier draft, because I would still have it saved on my hard drive. But unfortunately for painters, the earlier drafts are gone for good, irretrievably overwritten by layers of hardened paint. There is a recklessness to painting. Every mark you make obliterates a previous mark. The one-way path presses relentlessly forward. Potential regret stalks every swipe of the brush.

Stop me before I kill again, as my old painting teacher Nancy Mitchnick used to say.

The finished painting, of the living room in our old apartment just before we moved:  (for some reason it doesn't seem to reproduce well, I don't know why. It looks infinitely better in person.)

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The thing is, my ideal painting has both precision and looseness in it, specificity and a dash of what-the-fuck. While I admire the hell out of Euan Uglow’s paintings, for their rigorous observation and carefully balanced compositions, not to mention the beautifully nuanced colors, ultimately I yearn for something to mess them up a little. Just a little. To offset —or set off— all that perfection.

Ideally, I want to build up some parts of my paintings to a fine level of finish, while also preserving looser, earlier stages of other parts. But it is such a difficult balancing act, trying to have it both ways, and I pretty much inevitably end up going too far and then having to mourn earlier stages of the painting. Going too far in the pursuit of consistency (a la Emerson:  “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds”), and ironing out all the lively imperfections that create the very contrast I’m trying to achieve.

I think maybe this kind of both/and scenario is what I was trying to achieve with my hybrid figure paintings in a very literal, subject-focussed way, by fusing a more polished academic style of figure painting with something more improvised, whether observed or imagined. Maybe those figures were me being overly literal again, taking my taste for both finish and freeness in a painting and kind of just illustrating it, making the paintings about that contrast in a super obvious way rather than just having it serve the painting in subtler ways. Because it’s slowly become clear to me that I can do a lot of different things within a more cohesive way of working; I don’t have to smash two really different styles together and be so schizophrenic about it. In working from life, I am finding incredible leeway for both precision and invention:  I don’t have to look to myth or fantasy to find subject matter with the possibility for both — both are amply present in the quiet strangeness of ordinary objects and daily life.

Little Crimson Book

I am ruefully aware of my own self-seriousness. I wish I was funnier at my own expense, rather than in spite of myself. Recently, I was browsing my Harvard 10 year reunion report, and feeling dreadfully inadequate. Seriously, do other schools do this? They request an update from you, with no limitations as to length (and some people do go on!) about everything you’ve been up since the last reunion.  They also hit you up for $60, to cover the cost of the publication of said report (it is actually a bound book) and mailing it to everyone. (I myself neither contributed nor paid . . . but find myself desultorily/obsessively perusing it whenever I throw myself on the couch, despite the fact that I know almost none of the names, and the people that I do remember didn’t write in.)

It’s a brag-book, basically. People list their legion accomplishments: degrees, high-powered jobs, children, spouses, spouses’ degrees, spouses’ high-powered jobs, houses, foreign travel, etc.   A couple of the more extreme overachievers from my class that spring to mind is a woman living in Manhattan who is a plastic surgeon with her own private practice who also teaches at a med school and is also a mother of twins(!), and a physics professor at Harvard who also runs ultramarathons (100 plus miles) and home-birthed both of her children in the bathroom of the Harvard dorm in which she is a resident advisor(!!). Not to mention the many many people who are lawyers, and have ALSO published two novels, and ALSO restore classic cars, and ALSO have several children, etc. etc. It all sounds very tiring, actually.

Later on, having gotten over my spasm of worthlessness, it occurred to me that it is as well that Harvard alums are so darn ambitious and accomplished. I mean, they’re SUPPOSED to be — they went to Harvard after all, right? If they weren’t all so impressively accomplished and successful then what is there for the rest of us to be intimidated by? Somebody’s got to set the high bar. It’s just funny to realize that, well, I’m not one of them. I guess I always just assumed I would be.

Later still, when Dave and I went for a run together, he was musing about an impossible potential experiment, graphing the achievements of legacy Harvard alums against non-legacy Harvard alums. We both thought that the non-legacy grads probably were more driven and went on to achieve more, but that the experiment wouldn’t reveal this because probably lots of the legacy alums went on to be very successful as well, but potentially due to family/social connections rather than pure striving.

Dave and I both, in the way of full disclosure, are third generation Harvard legacies, so if you want to hate on us for going there, you can certainly make yourself feel better by telling yourself that’s why we got in. It’s probably true, anyway.