The image shown here is a tiny part, a background detail, of a painting that I worked on for several days a month or so back. I would show you the whole painting as it is at the moment, which is a canvas covered with black paint. This little detail is the only part of this piece that I feel comfortable showing and the only bit of it that you will ever see because this painting just did not work. At all. It started wrong and over the days I worked on it continued to get even more wrong. Even sitting here, looking at this detail, I am tempted to take a brush loaded with black paint to my computer screen to paint away the memory of its wrongness.
Just plain wrong.
It started as a much too concrete idea, one that was too clever and too thought out. I have always maintained that I am not smart enough to rely on my conscious brain to create ideas that can come alive and that my work is at its best when it flows from intuition and reaction and feel. This painting was surely proof of that. I tried to force my brain into this painting in every way and it never took on any sort of organic feel, never had a rhythm, never came remotely to life. I made dozens, maybe hundreds, of conscious decisions in this painting and it seemed as every one was wrong and made the whole thing a greater mess.
I knew within a day or so that it was futile, that this patient was dead on arrival. But instead of rolling it into the morgue, I decided to try to bring it to life as though I were Dr. Frankenstein working over his poor monster. This painting certainly resembled the Frankenstein monster– a good part here and there but stitched together crudely and an overall abomination. It was as abject a failure as I had created in some time.
It was my monster.
I kept the beast around for several weeks and it became too painful to bear, seeing this tortured monster in the corner, more dead than alive. I could have put it away to remind me of the folly of my own cleverness but I just wanted it gone, all evidence of it erased. So I broke out the brush and within moments it was but a memory. Of course, I took a photo just in case I needed a reminder of my own fallibility and failings.
I have quite a pile of such reminders, some more monstrous than others.
This monster was gone but it had taught me a lesson which was to keep the mind clear, to try to not force life where it has not taken hold on its own. Trust the inner parts, my intuition and subconscious. The life of a painting can’t be forced. There is a natural rhythm needed that you can’t create. You must find it and embellish it so that it becomes visible to others. In this way, painting becomes less like the surgery of Dr. Frankenstein.
We know how that story ends.
Posted in Painting, Technique/History | Tagged Dr. Frankenstein, Failure, Painting | 1 Comment »
It was on this date 75 years ago, in 1939, that John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was published. Following the Joad family as they lose their family farm in Dust Bowl-era Oklahoma and head for fields and groves of California, this epic tale has parallels for the dispossessed and downtrodden everywhere and in every time. The book and subsequent movie, the 1940 John Ford classic starring Henry Ford as the everyman Tom Joad, have influenced my perspective on the world since I was child.
When it was published, The Grapes of Wrath was an instant bestseller but it also stirred more than a little controversy. Many were shocked at the portrayals of poverty and couldn’t believe they were true, that such destitution could exist in our country. Many were alarmed at the book’s themes of collectivism, feeling that it was a nudge in the direction of some form of Soviet Communism instead of a gathering of the preyed upon and voiceless into a form that had a strong and unified voice and gave them protection against their oppressors.
I am sure there are many who still see the book as some sort of threat to the status quo– it is still one of the most frequently banned books in the country. I think that says a lot about the strength of the powers-that-be and the fact that there are even more families like the Joads out there today– dispossessed, voiceless and feeling absolutely alone in the world. I am sure that Steinbeck could find plenty of source material in today’s America to write a modern day sequel.
It’s a powerful book and movie, one that I play at least once a year in the studio. It still moves me deeply ad always will. I wrote about the movie here a few years back in a post titled Then Who Do We Shoot?, outlining my early brush with the movie and how it affected me as a kid. I also had the video below which has a review from the NY Times with a few of the many great scenes including Tom’s farewell to his mother.
Happy 75th, Grapes of Wrath. You haven’t lost a step.
Posted in Favorite Things, Influences, Video | Tagged Collectivism, Henry Fonda, John Ford, John Steinbeck, Okies, Soviet Communism, The Grapes of Wrath, Tom Joad | 4 Comments »
I’ve had this newer painting in the studio for a few weeks now and it has become one of those pieces where my eyes often come to rest. That’s something I wasn’t so sure would be the case when I was painting it. In the earliest stages when I compose the piece by blocking in the forms with a red oxide paint, it felt stiff and lifeless. This is not necessarily strange at this point in my process but this piece felt even more so. But with each change in the surface, each layer of paint added, it gained life and depth.
By the its finish, it was instantly drawing me inward. It had such a meditative effect that I began to think of it in terms of mantras and focal points. But ultimately, I began to see it as an endpoint, a desired place of attainment. As a result, I settled on Into the Pure Land as a title for this 10″ by 20″ piece.
In some forms of Buddhism, there are seven levels of heaven, whose name takes on a different meaning than the one denoting paradise that we often associate with the word heaven. Their heavens are those realms of cyclical existence where a being is reincarnated time after time, hopefully gaining wisdom with each incarnation. If the being is able to gain total enlightenment, nirvana, he moves beyond the heavens and into the Pure Lands, which are the eternal abodes of the Buddhas. This would be closer to the traditional heaven that most likely comes to mind.
This piece has that feel for me, an idyllic place attained by working to pass through many levels, represented here by the path passing through the layers in the landscape’s foreground. The radiating bands in the sky represent the eternal pull forward through these layers, almost as a visual mantra that focuses the attention on reaching the endpoint of enlightenment, which I see here as the sun over the horizon.
Mind you, this is only my simplistic take on the concepts of a religion. The five cent version. But these terms strike a chord in me when I look into this painting. Maybe that is my response alone, my personal reaction to my own expression. For others, it might be a painting that makes them feel a little joy or just an attractive piece with a graphic feel. Or it just might not be their cup of tea, period. All are fine with me. I’m just thinking about entering into that pure land…
Posted in Influences, Motivation, Painting, Recent Paintings | Tagged Buddhism, New Painting | 5 Comments »
I am very interested in the painter’s painter, those artists who garner the respect and admiration of other artists while often not attaining the same sort of attention from the general public. I try to figure out where the disconnect comes in how these artists are perceived so differently by these two groups. I recently came across a prime example by the name of Earl Kerkam, a NY painter who lived from 1891 until 1965.
Kerkam trained in some of the finest art academies here and abroad, studying for a while with Robert Henri. He showed his work in important shows alongside some of the greats of the early 20th century. His work is included in some of the great museum collections of this country. In the aftermath of his death, modern artists of huge stature such as Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning proclaimed Kerkam to be one of the finest painters to ever emerge from America.
Yet his work is basically unknown outside a handful of art insiders. His work sells of very modest prices at auction and I doubt if anyone who reads this will have ever heard the name.
There could be many reasons for this relative anonymity. Perhaps his work is too esoteric, too caught up in the dogma of style or too narrow in its range of emotional impact. Perhaps his work was caught between eras, never really falling into a classification where he would be swept to the forefront of a wave. This might have something to do with it because, while his work is modern, it never really moved into the realm of the abstract expressionism that was the rage of the day.
I don’t really know and looking at his work I found myself torn between liking it in some instances and being indifferent to others. I can see how both sides, artists and the general public, might take opposing views on his work. His work remains an enigma to me and I don’t know if I will ever see enough of it, or at least a single piece that could be called a masterwork, to make me say that he deserves to be among the beacons of mid-20th century painting or if he was simply a fine painter who garnered just the attention his work deserved. But for now, the name Earl Kerkam is at least on my radar and I will be open to finding other works from him that will move my perceptions.
Posted in Painting | Tagged Eral Kerkm, Mark Rothko, Robert Henri, Willem de Kooning | 3 Comments »
Every situation– nay, every moment– is of infinite worth, for it is the representative of a whole eternity.
– Goethe, 1823
These words from Goethe give me pause. I have often thought that each moment, even those multitudes of moments which we seem to throw away like so much trash, has some unique quality that we may not recognize or understand in that moment.
Filled with possibility of discovery and wonder. Perhaps it is the revelation of a whole eternity captured and represented in that moment, as Goethe suggests.
I suppose the trick then is to give each moment, each situation, the proper reverence and joy it deserves. A deeper understanding and sense of purpose is offered in return.
Of course, this is the goal. There will be many moments thrown away, disposed in negative emotions and behaviors. But if we just try to be aware of the weight of each moment at some point in each day, perhaps it will become habit. Part of our make-up.
And that’s what I see in this painting, 7″ by 10″ on paper, that I am calling Of Infinite Worth, appropriating the title from Goethe’s quote. We move on a path that winds forward, taking us in and out of view of the horizon. Eventually, it brings us to a higher elevation, above distraction, that offers us a clear view of what is ahead. Perhaps it is a moment filled with eternity or simply a moment to carry with us as we continue ahead.
I could blather on a little more here but I think I should stop and let the image speak for itself. After all, everyone might not be looking for eternity this morning.
Posted in Quote, Recent Paintings | Tagged Goethe, Infinity, Quote, Recent Painting, Retree | 4 Comments »
This past week the Library of Congress announced this year’s 25 entries into its National Recording Registry, which is a preserved collection of songs (and other recordings including spoken word) that are considered “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” It’s always interesting to read through to see what they consider significant and, for the most part, I generally agree. There are always the obvious choices but it’s the lesser known choices that always interest me most.
Among the musical highlights from this year was the late Jeff Buckley’s luminous and haunting cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, Cathy’s Clown from the Everly Brothers, Fortunate Son from Creedence Clearwater Revival and the entire Joshua Tree album from U2 as well the Isaac Hayes album , Shaft.
Among non-musical selections were the vast Presidential recordings of LBJ (Nearly 850 hours of them!), recorded interviews with baseball pioneers of the late 19th and early 20th century and The First Family, a hugely popular comedy album from Vaughan Meader that spoofed President Kennedy and his family. It was pulled from the shelves after JFK’s assasination.
There are plenty more to check out on this list but the one that caught my eye and made me smile was the song Caldonia from the great Louis Jordan. Jordan was one of the most successful African-American artists of all time yet his name probably doesn’t mean much to many folks today. But his swinging sound and showmanship made him a crossover hit in the late 30′s and 40′s and set the table for the coming age of rock and roll. He was massive influence on the early rockers and many of songs and moves were covered by them. Jordan deserves to be well known today and its wonderful that the Library of Congress chose one of his songs for the registry. It’s a move in the right direction.
Here’s a rockin’ 1946 version of Caldonia to start your Sunday morning off with a bang. Have a great day!
Posted in Favorite Things, Music, Video | Tagged Creedence Clearwater Revival, Hallelujah, Isaac Hayes, Jeff Buckley, JFK< Vaughan Meader, Joshua Tree, LBJ, Leonard Cohen, Library of Congress, National Recording Registry, Shaft, The First Family, U2 | 3 Comments »
John Adams Whipple- The Moon 1851
We live in an age where we are able to see, with the help of NASA’s Hubble Telescope and Cassini-Huygens spacecraft, truly amazing images of the far flung regions of our universe on a daily basis. I often think that, as a result, we tend to simply stop looking up in the night sky and wondering at the moon and stars and planets that move above us in plain sight. I know that one of my great pleasures was coming out of my studio to head home through the woods and looking up in the night sky to find those familiar landmarks. Jupiter‘s strong glow as Castor and Pollux look on from a short distance away. The constellation Orion‘s belt and brightest star, Rigel. And of course, the large and calming presence of the moon in all its phases.
They become like friends after a while, true and everpresent. Well, when the winter sky isn’t filled with clouds.
John Adams Whipple- View of the Moon 1852
All of this went through my mind in a flash when I came across the early photo shown above, an 1851 daguerreotype of the moon, and this one here on the right, another moon image from 1852, from John Adams Whipple (1822-1891), a Boston area photographer who was a pioneer in early astronomical and night photography. He took some of the earliest photos of the moon and stars using the Harvard 15-inch telescope which was one of the largest in the world at the time.
I like the idea that this image in its little precious case was perhaps carried and periodically looked upon a century and a half ago, as one might look upon a photo of a friend or family member. It makes me think that whoever carried this had similar feelings when they looked up into the night sky, a unity with something so much larger than that which is within our reach. A nodding acquaintance with the eternal.
Seeing these images from Whipple makes me want to get out and look up into the sky. Hopefully, the clouds will clear and I can see my old friends once more.
Posted in Favorite Things, Photography | Tagged Astronomy, Boston, Cassini-Huygens, Castor, Daguerreotypes, Harvard, Hubble Telescope, John Adams Whipple, Jupiter, Orion, Photography, Pollux, Rigel | 2 Comments »