Jack is Back

jack-10 jack-9

I got a new plant to replace the mysteriously blighted vine I was using as a model for this painting in its earlier incarnation. It is a kind of camellia that can grow into quite a large shrub or even a small tree, and which one sees in yards all over Portland. It has dark glossy leaves, and in the spring, an almost shocking profusion of bright yet plasticky flowers, a cheap n' cheerful efflorescence, whose slight tackiness is exacerbated by the way they then fall to the ground in a thick, browning carpet, like litter left over after a parade.

I've been having some trouble negotiating my criteria for making these tree-people paintings. I get really into the working from life part, in which my criteria is to represent the leaves and stems and negative spaces between them accurately. So I’m painting the leaves in reference to the measuring marks on the wall behind the plant, but then I forget to evaluate how the leafy part is melding/interacting with the legs below, to gauge how the two halves are going to come together to make a whole painting.  I want the painted leaves to have a certain fidelity to their real-world source, but I also want them to fit into the world of the painting, which means looking like they grew out of a pair of legs. I’m trying to shuttle between working loosely, and being quite precise, and if the world were perfect, and I were a perfect painter, I would do everything loosely first and then just bang in the precise bits right at the end, in just the right places. Unfortunately, what generally happens is that I spend no small amount of time getting something just so, and then decide it’s in utterly the wrong place, and obliterate it and do it again somewhere else.

Speaking of moving things around, and even obliterating layers of work, I discovered a new painter online recently—Alex Kanevsky— and I really like his paintings (with the caveat that I haven’t seem any in person, and you never can tell how you’re going to react to the actual physical object). I’m envious of his painterliness—how I wish I were not such a tight-ass—and I was particularly taken with his description of his process in this interview.

Vivianite: Your use of motion, light and color is truly stunning, how did you invent or learn your technique?

Alex Kanevsky: I didn't really invent or learn it as a technique. I am a slow learner, so it developed over a long time. I am also fairly slow when it comes to actual painting. Slow but impatient. That can be a problem, but over time I figured out how to turn this contradiction into my own way of working. I can't do slow and methodical accumulation painting: I get bored with careful, planned sort of activity. I also depend on freshness of perception, what zen-buddists call "beginner's mind". That is difficult to sustain over a long period. After a while you are just not a beginner. So I work fast, trying to hit the right note every time. That is nearly impossible, so I constantly fail. But I keep coming back to a painting. It accumulates layers, each one - more or lass a complete painting. Complete but failed. The layers are sort of like Swiss cheese - they have holes through which in right places you can see the previous layers. Eventually there are enough of "good holes" and also, because of all the repeated attempts, I manage to do a good top layer. And then I have a painting that has enough intensity in every passage to satisfy me. Then it is done.

I love this idea of the layers of a painting as swiss cheese, with holes in them that allow you to see through to previous stages. Interestingly, he also has a section on his website where he documents the successive stages of several paintings in progress (although the link is misdirecting right now). It’s cool to see how radically different each hit on a given painting is. When I get this blog redesigned I’m hoping to have a similar horizontally scrolling set-up to post my own works in progress, rather than this vertical column.

Some painting advice for the day (or year):

Vivianite: What would you say to an artist just starting out?

Alex Kanevsky: Build up your self esteem to the level that might seem unwarranted. This will help you ignore both positive and negative responses to your paintings. Both are usually misguided, since they come from the outside. Be your most severe and devastating critic, while never doubting that you are the best thing since sliced bread.

The moment something works well and is under control - is the time to give it up and try something else.

Put all your eggs in one basket. Precarious situations produce intense results.

Goodbye, Beanstalk

jack-81 I pushed the restart button on this painting. I bought a new plant yesterday, and I hope it will both be fun to paint and that it will stay alive long enough to finish the goddamn painting. Unfortunately, it's not at all like the original plant, so I guess I'll have to give up my jokey little Jack & the Beanstalk concept. The new one is a kind of camellia, and more like a miniature tree than a climbing vine.

It's hard for me to take a decent photograph of this diptych with my tiny little point & shoot camera. I've been making such small paintings for the past year that it hasn't been too egregiously inadequate, but I feel the itch now to make some larger work and I know I'm going to have to eventually invest in a SLR to shoot photographs of the proper quality.

Jack & the Beanstalk

jack-4 jack-5 I finally started work in earnest on this diptych that I began last fall. I had been waiting till I found and moved into a new studio, because I didn't want to get all set up and then have to move, which would've been disruptive. However, I've nonetheless been stymied by an unexpected consequence of the move. The plant — which I find charmingly, distinctively odd, with little pink curly bits left over from where the new leaves emerge, and which I was looking forward to painting — has seemingly decided to die off, from the bottom up:



I went back to the garden store where I purchased it to see if they had any more, but no luck. The woman there surmised that perhaps the different environmental conditions in the new studio don't suit it as well as the old studio. Well, the old space did face south, and got a ton of light (too much, actually, for a painting studio). This new one faces west, and while it is plenty bright, there isn't that same flood of direct sunlight. I don't know what I'm going to do now with this painting:  I was so taken with this particular plant, and was amusing myself with the conceit of having the central stalk sprout out of the body and climb straight up, like a beanstalk.

jack-6 jack-7

I'm flummoxed. The idea for this painting was predicated on this very singular plant, which is now dying. I'm not sure what to do, except for try to find another, beanstalk-like plant. When you're working from life, the devil really is in the details.


woman-tree-legs15 This painting is stuck right now.  I want to finish it, and move my thoughts on to other paintings, very badly. But I just can't figure out what to do to make that happen. It is a kind of failure of vision:  I look and look but the forms stubbornly refuse to coalesce into resolution. All I can do is wait it out:  wait for the moment when I look at the painting and the solution - or at least the next action - proposes itself to my mind's eye. It might be a small adjustment, or something large and radical. But no matter how much I desire this revelation, it seemingly cannot be forced.

The legs are basically done, except for the right foot which needs a final pass. The main issue is that I can't figure out how to resolve the foliage, and I'm hampered by the fact that the potted peony, which I had been using as a model, has died:


When I bought it, at the beginning of September, I knew that it wouldn't make it through the winter as a potted indoor plant, but I was blithely certain that the painting would be finished by Christmas - three whole months away! How could I not finish a 16" x 12" painting in three goddamn months??

Dying Peony

girl-tree-legs-14 Um. I just realized that the horizon line is nowhere near horizontal. How could I not have noticed that it has a distinct slant to the right? 

In other potential problem areas, I've been away from the studio for almost a week over Christmas, and I turned the space heaters off and let everything go into cold storage. I took almost all my plants home, except for my pomegranate tree, which has been struggling with an epic scale infestation, two succulents, and the peony that has been my model for this painting. I wasn't sure how long it would survive indoors in its pot - planted outside, they die back in the winter and re-leaf in the spring - but I think it's now coming to the end of its rope. When I left, stems were turning brown and the leaves, which had become very brittle, were starting to desiccate further and droop ominously. I'm afraid to go back to my icy studio and find that it's totally dead! How am I going to finish this painting without the peony to work from??

Living in Oregon

is kind of magical.  Now that the rains are back, the moss has regained its green voluptuousness after having desiccated over the summer into a brown and crunchy version of its usual glory. When Dave and I came out here last November to look for an apartment after he got his job, Oregon and Washington were in the middle of a kind of typhoon - seriously, there was terrible flooding - but we didn't realize it at the time. We just thought, oh, it's true what they say - it is really rainy here in the Pacific Northwest. It was a pretty grim introduction to the state for me. It poured, literally POURED, for four straight days while we were trying to find our way around in a rental car, looking at more and less dreadful potential homes. Empty apartments with horrible carpeting looked downright suicide-inducing under the strange, greenish, underwater light. I think maybe one of the main reasons we were so instantly hopeful about the house we ended up renting was because it is painted a nice cheery yellow. Anyway, my anxiety about finding a home was strangely exacerbated by the lush moss which seemed to grow on everything. Because I thought . . . what if we don't find anywhere we can live? We have to find shelter from this all-pervading wetness! Because if we don't, moss will grow on US!! It gave me a sinister feeling, as though anything that stopped moving would be engulfed by its damp devouring tendrils.


What a difference a year makes! Now I'm in love with my adopted state, and find the moss romantic and lovely. Only here would you see something as ridiculously picturesque as this:


It's just somebody's garden shed, with probably rakes and bikes and various jumbled stuff inside. But it looks like something out of a fairy tale. 


Who would answer that little door, if you knocked?

Two Pretty Sights in a Rainy Day

My potted pomegranate finally flowered again! We carried our houseplants 3,000 miles across the country from Boston, painstakingly lugging them all into our motel room every night, and out of the sub-zero weather of late December in the high plains. It was, frankly, a pain in the ass, and I was stricken when, recently, two of them were stolen right off our front porch, the latest incident in a string of burglaries we've been plagued with. One was a lush jade plant that Dave had nourished from a sprig bought in NYC's Chinatown, and the other was a bay tree which grew so painfully slowly that every new leaf was a triumph, although it sort of defeats the purpose of growing your own bay when you are loath to cut any leaves to throw into the stewpot. Plus which they were in beautiful Moroccan pots which I cherished. That'll learn me to leave anything of value out in the open. But, the pomegranate.  Far from freezing, it actually got its leaves badly scorched on our last, epic day of driving, all the way from Salt Lake City to Portland.  It was cold outside, but the sun poured in the back window of the wagon, and I didn't even think to protect the plants from burning. It was ironic, as Alanis Morrissette would I think agree. So I had to cut it back, severely, and it was just so unhappy for many long months.  But finally, with repotting and judicious fertilizing and the sunny south window in my studio, it is thriving again, which makes me happy, even though the flowers never become fruit.  They're fanciful, frilled things, and you can see how they would, in a Mediterranean climate, turn into pomegranates, my all-time favorite most romantic fruit.  I'll save the story of my youthful obsession with the Persephone myth for another time.  Or rather:  there you have it.

And also:

I love this church's neon sign.  It's right next to my studio building, and often when I leave in the evening it is lit beautifully against the cloudy skies. Which are back to stay for the next 8 months or so.  Sigh.  I hate waking up in the dark. 

In case you can't quite make out the neon, it's the Victory Temple Church of God.

The rainy season is here again.