Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Gallery Crawl in Newburyport MA

Newburyport, the Birthplace of the US Coast Guard, home of the Customs House Nautical Museum and the Rear Range Light where one can have a romantic dinner at the top of the light tower (contact me for details). On a rainy Saturday afternoon we went on a shopping trawl and gallery crawl, sorting through the 13 various art stops on the city council’s artwalk promotional tour.
OK, I can recommend a wander in historic Newburyport as a great way to spend a day. Park in the municipal lot and pick up an information packet from the welcome center, then start with a breakfast in the locally loved “Angie’s” diner. There are a number of great restaurants for all tastes, and the galleries run the gamut from (as my wife describes) “Women’s Gifts” to a few professional galleries with solid international work and tiny studio/store fronts with earnest, hard working artists eager to discuss their art.
Rather than promote commercial establishments, let me just highlight a few key sightings: One of the professional galleries was featuring actual painting by Liz Gribon, who we have seen before in a gallery in Boston. Working in mixed media, Liz has a distinctive style and works primarily with figurative studies in strong designs and mutes colors. You can find her work on the web—I agree with the critics that promote her—the images are lasting and unique. A tiny shop behind the Tannery featured Encaustics and monotypes, the work mostly in small format and available as prints too—the artists in this shop were warm and inviting and their images were interesting abstracted landscapes and quirky little personal images. The rebirth of encaustic as a medium is fascinating—images can be made misty and “foggy” rather than murky as one gets with paint on paint techniques. This little store should not be missed.
Of course, bad art abounds in Newburyport as well; including the local coffee shop hanging glitter covered, patterned and “illuminated” canvases that were just a mess of gaudy color. It is interesting to me to find so many artists adopting the aboriginal Australian patterning as their basic style, but it doesn’t make the work any more viable and while I keep my opinions to myself, people close to me can tell when I am being disingenuous. Yes, I realize that some artist cherishes these works and my wife says I am being an “art snob,” but I would encourage them to study a bit more before showing…maybe that would be a good idea for a blog series, the art snob and his controversial pronouncements! :-)
The final stop on the Newburyport call is the Firehouse Gallery/Restaurant/Playhouse. It is a fabulous space and the artist currently showing was a photographer who works color flower portraits into double exposure “mandala” images, with their reference to religious iconography and Jung’s psychoanalytical theories. Wrap up the day along the quay side in the park, where the water and the lighthouses and the old brick buildings make a picturesque backdrop to the boats, wharfs and setting sun.

Monday, November 30, 2009

For Fun: 6 Year old Sophia interviews Jackson Pollock!

Sophie and Bella interview lots of famous artists...here is the Jackson Pollock interview!



Saturday, November 21, 2009

Artists in our Modern World

This past weekend I participated in an open studio event with many different artists, just the most recent in a series of events, shows, courses, classes and seminars that place one in context with artists in our modern society. To the uninitiated, the label artist conjures up images of the starving waif, wearing tattered clothes and suffering for Beauty with a capital B, the myth of Van Gogh and his contemporaries, but that was always a myth—Whistler, Sargent and Picasso never starved--and the modern reality is broad, wide and deep as any part of our society. As an observer of people, it is fascinating to arrange portraits of the artist types in categories and evaluate them as a group.

What if we were going to write a situation comedy based on a group of artists in our modern (or is it Postmodern) world? We would start with broad strokes! So, I won’t address the quirks of individuals, the extrovert versus the introvert, or the people person versus the materialist, but instead let’s look at some of the varying and overarching types of personalities that are drawn to the “ARTS.” This can become the basis for entertainment, especially when I am stuck on a plane and can’t paint!

The Truly Talented: Sometimes native talent is a blessing. The motivated, focused individuals soar—their work is recognized early, they quickly grasp their mediums, they have quick and able minds, they are sought by agents and galleries, promoted by good publicists and guided into a life in the arts. These are the people you find with established portraiture businesses, solid gallery shows, or consistent product output and sales, and they really do make a living as an artist in our modern world. But True Talent can also be a curse--the dabblers are also truly talented…The corollary to this group is almost a mirror image, the people who are easily bored with their native talent, the ones who easily master a style or a medium, work in it for a while, then move to another and another and another, never creating a body of work, and ultimately leaving artistic endeavors behind. These show up at a gallery or a show and soon disappear to try something new. An excellent teacher of mine once pointed out to the class that a hard working amateur often surpasses the truly talented in skill and accomplishments simply because they recognize that hard work and efforts will be needed and excellence can be learned.

The Seeker: This is most often a young person (although not always), either a recent college graduate or a earnestly studying student who is genuinely attracted to Art as a career or maybe its a pastime… and just as genuinely seeks to find a voice, dabbling in various mediums, not yet committed to a course and essentially rudderless on the river of life. Sometimes they are truly talented and are dabbling…sometimes they are just full of “sound and fury signifying nothing.” They fervently discuss goals, art movements, styles, graduate school and may have had a good mentor who has provided some direction. They are slightly contradictory in their opinions, deeply invested in their slightly better than amateur work and full of passion and vigor, but unsure where to point their efforts. They sometimes adopt strong political beliefs, or seriously avoid adapting to life in modern society, and they often have an affected aloofness, especially with their elders, a trait that is quaint when recognized as emblematic of their youth. They gravitate toward photography as a medium for its immediacy and topical nature, and for the fact that in a relatively short period one can master basic composition and take some fascinating pictures that will show well. It would be an interesting social experiment to follow these seekers as they “find themselves” and track how many actually stick with their artistic leanings. There is a sub-genre of this group, the “posers,” for me a much more fascinating group of youthful people who wear art like a fashion, as a tool for attracting the opposite sex and invested in creating an “aura.” This group genuinely commits to the effort required in maintaining the image as well as the image itself. They are often enjoyable characters and their art is merely an extension of their personality.

The “I am more than just a _______(Fill in the blank):” This is where I squarely fall as a type--whether it is a housewife, businessperson, draftsman, engineer, teacher, or administrator, this is the group who have grown beyond the “seeking” stage and recognize that creativity is a fundamental source of satisfaction in for their lives, so they find spare moments and toil away at a chosen medium, building up a closet full of work that is shared a few times each year at local events or little galleries. This is the mid-life crisis group, the people who suddenly stop “seeking” and devote themselves to a style and realize that it will take their lifetime to master their work. This is the group of small victories, the people who make up the backbone of civil arts organizations, writer’s critique meetings and art societies. For the most part, one can find some excellent accomplishments in their collected works. Then, when the kids are grown and the pressures of successful modern life are slowing they become…This type would be the best for the lead in our sit-com, as they are easiest to relate to the audience, and they can be our “straight guy” to take the brunt of jokes or provide the emotional center to the ensemble…

The Creative Retired: As a group, this is the most attractive—fun, spirited and full of history, you’ll find them at seminars or classes, especially at places like the Spring Maid Beach Seminars in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina where the venue and the professional atmosphere attracts a highly talented and world renown set of instructors. These are the folks who travel to the regional art shows and enjoy hanging their work, sipping coffee and swapping stories. 90% of the seminar attendees are women, many quite talented in their own right, and very encouraging as class mates. And their subgroup, which we can refer to as The Bored Husbands Club, despite the fact that the group always seems to include a few wives, the gang who golf and play cards while their spouses splash paint and draw. There is no better group to have to dinner! I am convinced this is why many great professional artists teach, just to be around these non-pretentious, inspiring people. In our show, this is the source of the best comedy relief, sarcasm, slap-stick and quick wit!

The Self Employed: These are the working artists, not necessarily the Truly Talented, but clearly beyond the journeymen stage in their craft and focused in a most business like way on their annual production, venues for sales and marketing opportunities. These are the people who have decided that it is a living, and they have often found a particular “style” and a set of salable images that they recreate and take on the road. They are to be admired, as they often supplant the posters and prints of today’s mass producing society with real works of handmade art, even if much of it is duplicative and caters to mass tastes. This is the group most impacted by a recession in the economy, the working artists.

The “Fabulous Marketeer:” These artists prove that old WC Field’s adage, “there’s a sucker born every minute….” Consummate name dropper extraordinaire, personally promoting and ego driven, these are never introverted artists, and their work may or may not display talent, but it will always have intellectual thrust and be thought-provoking. This is the group who fights over grants, schmooze at the receptions and openings, seem to know everybody, and like the social butterfly, make pompous pronouncements and carry their own conversations…they connect and prompt and network. Now, there is really nothing wrong with some of these artists, and the very best have always been flamboyant and rampant in their promotion—just look at Dali! Frankly, many of my artist friends hate that certain trademarked “Light” painter, but I have seen a number of his early works before the coffee mugs and puzzles, and the man actually has a great talent and skill. But even schlock artists can market themselves into a successful career. This label is for the artists who spend more time marketing than perfecting a craft—and what a great foil for our situation comedy’s more stable personalities!

The Myth Embracing, “Life Style” focused: These are the aging beatniks or hippies or dreadlocked, tattooed and pierced artists who frequent coffeehouses and regional shows, who’s work is just above the amateur grade and year after year it stays right on the verge of actual success. These are the people who hold artistic myths as a fundamental psychological truth—for them, artists can’t be middle class, or well dressed, or of a particular political persuasion. Have you ever wandered a tent show a few years later and found the same bearded man showing the same pictures and describing his deep connection to the images that didn’t sell years ago (and probably won’t sell today…)? Don’t confuse these with the iconoclastic (or downright odd) artist with True Talent—these are a different group, related by a desire to avoid the trappings of modern society and, let’s be honest, hard work. They are iconoclastic by desire and affectation; they hearken back to the Woodstock Nation, or a basic misunderstanding of an Island religion, but for the most part they fall into two categories, either “angry” or “happy.” Personally, I prefer the “happy” sort, as they are less strident in their politics and less demanding as acquaintances. They are great to have over for tea, and full of interesting ideas. This group of artists is not the most reliable, so while they volunteer for committees, it is often better to find a “self employed” artist to run the show.

And finally, The Teachers—Teaching is an art in itself, and not many are good at it. Teaching artists are to be respected and encouraged, despite their methodology or style. Some enforce their particular style and manners, creating an army of duplication that honors and spreads their vision. Others quickly provide a long list of techniques, while still others simply critique and try not to demonstrate and influence. Having a teacher in our midst always provides the lesson and the “voice of maturity” while occasionally getting the best laughs!

Next, for this idea to be successful, we need to pick a few repeat settings where the group gatherings…we’ll save that for another long airplane ride….

Friday, November 20, 2009

Billings Forge and discussing the Postmodern Movement

There is a studio and a set of workshops at Billings Forge on Broad Street, a mixed use re-development in the Frog Hollow neighborhood of Hartford. It includes a Restaurant/Bar and housing units, and it is an attempt to reclaim an old brick mill building. The Studio is open for classes and exhibits, but the workshops are 5 apartments that are available under a grant for three month periods. Joyce, the director of the project, explained that each artist in residence is expected to teach a class to the local children and supply artwork for sale with 25% of the proceeds returning to the Foundation. One of the residents was a long established artist, Rob Hudson, a sculptor and painter with works in museums and corporate offices around the world—the other four residents describe themselves as recent graduates from art schools around the nation, just starting their careers and working as photographers and painters. The grants are for 3 months at a time. Every Wednesday evening is an open studio night where visitors can meet the residents and discuss their particular works and current projects.

I was able to spend some time with Kimberly Gill, a photographer who had moved back to the Hartford area after matriculating from the Pratt Institute in New York. Her work was intensely personal in content, but offered the viewer solid composition and interesting images. Recently from the New York art scene, Kim shared her opinions on the current artistic movement, “Post Modernism” which has left individuals like herself disillusioned with the state of Modern Art, seeking a direction to embrace, or rebel, or study—as she framed it, the post modernist movement can be summed up as a belief that internally focused, personal images are more relevant as modern statements than anything that is based on the past or craft. Kim had unique perspectives on this issue. Is the post modern artistic movement viable? Is it a synthesis of the previous movements, or a fragmentation? Is it a path that can be studied or followed, or is it a fad?

The issue intrigued me, so I turned to the Web:

Wikipedia defined Postmodern art as “a term used to describe an art movement which was thought to be in contradiction to some aspect of Modernism, or to have emerged or developed in its aftermath. In general, movements such as Intermedia, Installation art, Conceptual Art and Multimedia, particularly involving video are described as postmodern. The traits associated with the use of the term postmodern in art include bricolage, use of words prominently as the central artistic element, collage, simplification, appropriation, depiction of consumer or popular culture and Performance art.”

So, according to this definition, my collage work as well as the work by most of my artist friends can be currently classified as “Postmodern.”
The on-line encyclopedia goes on to say that “Postmodern Art is the predominant term for art produced since the 1950s… (also known as) ‘Contemporary art.’ Not all art labeled as contemporary art is postmodern, and the broader term encompasses both artists who continue to work in modernist and late modernist traditions, as well as artists who reject postmodernism for other reasons. Some postmodern artists have made a more distinctive break from the ideas of modern art and there is no consensus as to what is ‘late-modern’ and what is ‘post-modern.’”
Now here is an interesting point from the article: “Ideas rejected by the modern aesthetic have been reestablished. In painting, postmodernism reintroduced representation. Traditional techniques and subject matter have returned in art.” This definition should encourage my friends and acquaintances working in art today…“It has even been argued that much of what is called postmodern today, the latest avant-gardism, should still be classified as modern art….As well as describing certain tendencies of contemporary art, postmodern has also been used to denote a phase of modern art. Many critics hold that postmodern art emerges out of modern art. Suggested dates for the shift from modern to postmodern include 1914 in Europe, and 1962 or 1968 in America….(While some critics believe we are still in the Postmodern era) the close of the period of postmodern art has been dated (by some critics) to the end of the 1980s, when the word postmodernism lost much of its critical resonance, and art practices began to address the impact of globalization and new media.”
Here is the issue that Kim and her student friends seem to be struggling to adapt or adopt: “Postmodernism describes movements which both arise from, and react against or reject, trends in modernism. Specific trends of modernism that are generally cited are formal purity, medium specificity, art for art's sake, authenticity, universality, originality and revolutionary or reactionary tendency, i.e. the avant-garde. However, paradox is probably the most important modernist idea against which postmodernism reacts. Paradox was central to the modernist enterprise, having been introduced by Manet. Manet's various violations of representational art brought to prominence the supposed mutual exclusiveness of reality and representation, design and representation, abstraction and reality, and so on. The incorporation of paradox was highly stimulating from Manet to the conceptualists….The status of the avant-garde is particularly controversial: many institutions argue that being visionary, forward-looking, cutting-edge, and progressive are crucial to the mission of art in the present, and therefore postmodern art contradicts the value of "art of our times". Postmodernism rejects the notion of advancement or progress in art per se, and thus aims to overturn the "myth of the avant-garde.”
“One characteristic of postmodern art is its conflation of high and low culture through the use of industrial materials and pop culture imagery (such as Warhol and Lichtenstein)….(Others) suggest that postmodern works abjure any claim to spontaneity and directness of expression, making use instead of pastiche and discontinuity.” Of course, there are other critics who take the opposite positions and argue forcefully, using Picasso and Manet as examples. Postmodernism rejects modernism's grand artistic narratives, embracing and celebrating both high and low forms of art, and playfully upturning all conventions with collision, collage, and fragmentation. "Diversity" is a fundamental theme of our times, even as it is enforced in an ironic “politically correct” manner. The author of the Wikipedia entry held that “Postmodern art holds that all stances are unstable and insincere, and therefore irony, parody, and humor are the only positions that cannot be overturned by critique or revision.”
So, it is the contradictions in the movement and the critical voices taking so many positions in opposition to each other that provide fodder for on-going debate. The young artist who discussed this issue with me was clearly framing a student’s dilemma, where various voices of authority contradict each other and no clarity can be gained through debate or analysis. The idea of growing beyond or creating a new art movement becomes an impossible quest if the current movement embraces and rejects, celebrates and denies. The idea of working as a Postmodern artist becomes an intellectual conundrum, fueled by well meaning professors and intellectual analysis.

Enough of this! Let’s go paint!

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Annotated Vincent

The complete Van Gogh letters have been translated and annotated on line. They provide a wonderful insight into the man, his work and his time. The actual letters are reproduced so one can see his little drawings and notes along side the translation.
The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam is expanded to three floors and now covers his contemporaries as well as his drawings and paintings from early beginnings to mature works. If you get a chance, go spend a day there.
This weekend I will be showing at the Hartford Open Studios show, where the venues span the city and hopefully the crowds will follow. To find my display, go to the Workshops at Billings Forge, in the Frog Hollow part of town, across he parking lot from the Firebox restaurant. Should be a fun weekend!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Managing influences and inspirations

“True being …is not in the shapes but in the dreamer.”
--Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

“I dislike cults and –isms. I want to paint in terms of my own thinking and feeling.”
--Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986)

Recently I was speaking with an artist friend who had taken a class with a renowned west coast painter and decried the fact that the course was dedicated to instructing the entire class in how to emulate the style of the “Teacher,” even to the point of creating similar artistic images. The influence was clear in my friend’s new work, obviously the strength of the artist’s instruction was still dominant in her mind—and this sacrifice of personal vision for a set of new techniques seemed to really bother my artist friend.

This was not the first time I have come across this feeling in fellow painters—I was warned not to take a course from so-and-so because “they make you paint like them.” In fact at one seminar I was given a list of professional teachers who were to be avoided for just this very reason. Now I understand their fear, a nagging worry that the strong influence of a dominating personality and easily adopted techniques or “tricks” that suddenly show up in all one’s drawings and paintings will overwhelm a hard won personal style. And a fundamental critique of my own work was “Stop looking at other art,” since it seemed it is easy for me to copy other images/techniques, and clearly I have not lifted my own technical mastery to the level of a Picasso who can “steal” and adopt into his own style in a new and effective manner. My copies have always been easily identified with their source. In fact I can remember visiting a west coast art show and talking with an artist about her work, recently selected for a movie set, and I promptly came home and made two paintings in her “style”—it was less a source of inspiration as a verification that I could emulate the style.

However, the idea that we should avoid influences while we are learning is nearly impossible—everywhere you turn there is graphic design, historical masterpieces, lasting good art, folk art, downright bad art and amateur dabbling—in this world of modern media, there is little doubt we can avoid being influenced. But as Campbell put it, mythical “shapes” are not the true being, it is the dreamer. As an artist, we must synthesize the lessons, influences, and broad array of input into a personal vision. Inspiration often comes in the guise of a dream, personal thought, individual vision. And it most often comes as the result of dedication and hard work, exercises and materials. Sometimes a strong willed teacher will seem dominate, but a focused and dedicated individual will always rise above these influences and incorporate them or disregard them as they build a unique personal painting style.

So, I recommend that one embrace learning wherever you can find it, and reject it only if it doesn’t fit. It is your dreams that make true art.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Portrait Project


If you are not following Eric’s blog, let me quote from his description:

Portraits of FINE ART CONNOISSEUR magazine publisher B. Eric Rhoads. With the goal of creating new interest in academic painting and the study of portraiture; Rhoads commissions some of the top artists in the world to paint the portrait, which accompanies his column in every issue. This site chronicles the events and stories for each portrait.

For those of us who have followed the vagaries of artistic movements and development of tastes over the centuries, we live in an interesting time where craft and years of practice are often diminished in value and ignored by The Art Critic, an international arbitrator of Taste. Abstract art, by nature inoffensive and therefore safe for corporate consumption (more on this subject in a later blog), has become a mainstay around the world, and a bewildering array of styles and intellectualized works have been touted as seminal or trend setting. Every critic seeks to be the next Motherwell and find the newest savant. Many artists on the vanguard had adopted an “ugly” or raw, “unschooled” approach as their oeuvre. It is not my place to criticize these works as they are valid reflections of our culture and there are others who have more adeptly portrayed an adverse position, such as the position Jonathan Lethem takes in his new novel Chronic City.

However most galleries and regional museums have never embraced the avant-garde that commands the highest prices in today’s art world. Eric, as publisher, has led a burgeoning artistic response to the “high fashion” world of art. Simply put, Eric’s magazine is celebrating the beauty and craft of the academic artist and genius wherever they may be found, both in the past and in today’s art world. The magazine is well written, thorough and wide in scope, and for me, a monthly aspiration. For those of us who, because of family or career commitments must toil as “amateurs” and jealously look to those talented individuals studying for their MFAs or working full time as artists, this periodical is a wonderful glimpse of an alternative art world that still thrives today. The key fact is that there are many different tastes and there are many different ways to reach an artistic audience today. Even if you don’t care for the work of modern academic artists, the magazine is well worth a subscription for its historical portraits. And Eric’s blog is also a solid position to understand and address as an artist alive in this century—his support for up-and-coming portrait artists is to be applauded, no matter what art you embrace as your preference. Check this site and support his efforts.

Three of Four

Basingstoke, England, November 1, 2009. One of my art teachers once said the difference between an amateur and a professional is consistency. This underscores the chief message in the new book “Outliers,” which is that it takes a human 10,000 dedicated hours to perfect a craft/profession/skill, and this chronicle is a simple catalog of the thoughts, ideas, frustrations and practices that chart my course from part-time painter to professional, with a special focus on influences, including visual, written and oral that supply meaning or direction to my work. And that work comes in fits and spurts, as I continue to dedicate myself to a career in industry and only paint evenings and weekends when time affords it. That teacher of mine went on to say “when we first learn to paint, it is typical that one of four works is real art, a piece where the elements of design coincide with artistic intention and the creation is a lasting image. The rest need to be gesso-ed over or destroyed…When one reaches the point where three out of four works are “real art,” then its time to go professional!” I am still on that path to real art.