Archive for March, 2009

Paul CezanneThere is an exhibit at the Philadelphia Art Museum that features about 60 works from Paul Cezanne as well as works of about 17 artists that were directly influenced by Cezanne.  There is work from masters such as Picasso, Matisse, and Max Beckmann as well as modern painters like Ellsworth Kelly and Brice Marden,  all influenced in some form by his work.Cezanne Mont Sainte Victoire

Some take something from his use of color or his compositional forms.  Others takes from his brushwork and application of paint.  The interesting thing is how each translates what they see in Cezanne’s work and puts that into their own work, which at first glance has absolutely no connection with Cezanne.  For me, seeing how another artist assimilates his influences into his work actually draws me closer to their work.  It gives a little insight into a part of their mind that I may not see in their work normally.  It basically creates a common bond that helps me be better appreciate the evolution of their work.

cezanne-estaque My attraction to Cezanne’s work comes in a couple of different forms.  First, there is an underlying warmth in his colors that really hits for me and always makes me comfortable when looking at his work.  There is an inviting quality in his color.  Secondly, I always admired his repeated use of certain subjects such as Mont Sainte Victoire (above) which he painted about a hundred times.  You can see that this was not mere repetition, each piece having a unique quality and freshness.

Actually, freshness is a word that comes to mind when I think of Cezanne and the allure of his work.  Most feel in the present.  Most have a most modern feel.  I get the sense when looking at one that it could have been created today and has bonds to our times.  That is one of those indefinable qualities that artists seek for their own work and can sometimes see in the work of others.  I suppose that is why artists borrow from other artist- to attain that sense of timelessness for their own work. 

At least that’s what I seek in the work of others.Cezanne

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dos-equis-boringI kept seeing this ad on television for some time, kind of out of the corner of my eye, never really paying attention.  I never really even saw what product was being advertised.  All I would think as it was fading from the screen was, ” Why are they using a werewolf as a spokesman?”

Turns out it’s an ad for Dos Equis beer featuring this character as the Most Interesting Man in the World, a jet-setting, sword-fighting, arm-wrestling bon vivant whose personality is so magnetic that he can’t carry credit cards.

Who cures narcolepsy by merely entering a room.

Whose blood smells like cologne.

Whose beard is listed on his organ donor card.

Who has alien abductors ask him to probe them.

Who ends each ad with his catchphrase, “Stay thirsty, my friends.”

When I finally paid attention to the words of the ad I had to laugh.  It was goofy and offbeat and seemed to have little to do with the product.  But it eventually had me looking at it.  There’s something captivating to me about goofiness in advertising.  I appreciate the fact that they’re willing to be creative and not go with the obvious.  Like the  Caveman in the Geico ad  or the Snickers ads with the Viking, Pilgrim and Polynesian characters, it’s at least an attempt at making an individual identity.

Here’s one of the ads.  While you’re taking a look I think I’ll open a Dos Equis and have a Snickers.  Don’t laugh, it’s possible.

Stay thirsty, my friends…

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Out of ChaosI don’t know if it’s sad commentary on the world or just myself but I have started to have an extreme distrust of anyone who is ultra confident in their ability to predict what the future will bring.  Be it a politician predicting doom and gloom if the opposing party comes to power or an evangelist spouting that the rapture is imminent or even the pundits on ESPN during the NCAA tournament, guys like Digger Phelps, who say definitively that this team or that team will run roughshod over the opposition.  Okay, Digger Phelps being compared to someone saying the end is near is out of line but his certainty is the same even if more trivial.

I used to defer to those with lofty positions and supposed knowledge of things beyond my little world but have come to the realization that these people are as clueless as anyone, myself included.  It’s just that there is no economic advantage in saying that you don’t really know, that you can’t be sure.  Who would send a check to a televangelist who couldn’t definitively offer you eternal salvation?  Who would vote for a politician who wasn’t absolutely positive  that his judgement was correct in all matters?  

The problem with our dependence on this absurd over-confidence is that many good and valid ideas are kicked to the curb, never heard because they are drowned out by the din of the “experts” pounding their chests and yelling that yes, they alone have the answers that we seek.  Political discourse has become a matter of who can turn up their volume most.  The sectors of religion that grow fastest spout the loudest, most extreme versions of their beliefs.

And this over-confidence doesn’t apply to believers alone.  To me, the atheist is little different than the most ardent believer.  Both have an absolute belief that their view is correct.  Both claim to know that the eternal is or isn’t.  Take your pick.

Me?  As I’ve said before, the only thing I’m certain about is my uncertainty.  And I guess in some cases down through history that would make one a heretic.

Amen to that, brother…

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A Sense of Grace

Once Was Blind...You know, sometimes you forget in your day to day life to stop and just take in the moment, putting aside chores to simply breath.  To bask in the sunlight and look at the sky, to feel the world drift dreamily over you.  It’s at these moments that you realize the things you’ve been looking for for so long are imminent.  There is a sense of grace in this moment, one that is at once humbling and uplifting.

Grace doesn’t come in a thunderbolt.  Grace comes quietly like the sun shifting behind the clouds.  Like a shadow cast in the bright light of day.

To this end, here is a lovely piece of film set to Allison Krauss‘  version of Down In the River to Pray.  In the sound and imagery there is a sense of this grace…

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Wayne Thiebaud

thiebaud-fields-and-furrows-1aOne of my favorite contemporary painters is Wayne Thiebaud, a West Coast based painter known primarily for his paintings of confections, often in multiples.  Things like cakes, pies, suckers, sundaes and so on.  Those are the type of paintings that are his signature work and that first introduced me to his work but, while I liked that work, it was his landscapes that made me a fan. 

His landscapes are often from an aerial perspective which gives them an abstract quality especially given his use of clean, bright colors.  I think it is his use of color that most draws me.  In print, you can’t see the texture of his work which is characterized by  heavy, beautifully applied strokes.   That is what stands out most in mind from seeing his work in person.  A beautiful tactile look.  I wanted to run my fingers over it.












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donkeyI’ve debated in my head whether to bring up the the subject of the Mule Farm in this blog for some time.  I’m sure my sister is reading this right now and  saying, “Oh, no…”  

You see, there are parts of everyone’s past that they  don’t want to claim but remain influences.  The Mule Farm was such a place.  I’m going to give to a quick version of it because I’m still not sure how much of its lore I’m ready to share with the general public.

For about 15 years, my father would go out on Friday nights to play poker.  Sometimes he would get home at 3 or 4 in the morning.  Sometimes 8 or 9.  Sometimes Sunday at 4 or 5 in the afternoon.  I remember huge piles of quarters and wads of bills when he won and big fights when he lost.  This was taking place in the ’60’s but there was a lot of money changing hands especially given the fact these were all blue collar guys.

All of this took place in a hollow in Pine City in a ramshackle house that was called the Mule Farm.  It was called that because its owner, Mike, had bought a group of donkeys (not mules, but the Donkey Farm didn’t roll off the tongue so well) in the late 50’s in order to start a donkey baseball/basketball business.  It never really took off so Mike just gave them the run of his property which ran up through a tight hollow.  So much so that there were stories of them coming in the house during the games.  

Mike was a jovial old soul, a powerfully built small man who had been a railroad man and a lumberman in his life, always willing to share a tale from his past and  who could speak on a surprising number of subjects, always with a pipe in the corner of his mouth.  His wife, Harriet, was an ex-stripper who at the time was in her fifties, a heavy set lady with sleepy eyes who chain smoked and had a penchant for wearing peek-a-boo, see-thru nighties at the poker table.  She said what was on her mind in very plain-spoken terms and outwardly professed to a dislike for women, although she always claimed to like my mother, probably because she, too, said what was on her mind in pretty straight language.

The games were legendary in their own time.  There was rotating cast of players including visiting players who had heard of the game and just wanted a glimpse of the place.  It was a shamble of a house.  Harriet wasn’t built for housework and if a visitor’s eyes drifted too often to a heap of dirty whatever, Harriet would tell them, with a long cigarette hanging from her lip, that if it bothered them they could get the hell out.  

There are too many stories to tell here and again, I’m not sure I wish to share them all.  Besides, being a kid I was only a sometime witness to the festivities so these tales are not mine alone to share.  But I will say that there were many real characters, some good guys and some outright skunks.  There were fist-fights and guns brandished.  There was an incredible amount of drinking.  When the beer and whiskey ran out, Mike’s homemade hard cider would be rolled out which never resulted in anything good for anyone involved.  There was a strong undercurrent of raw sex.  It was a very distinct place at a very distinct point in time.

It seems a million miles away from my life now but every so often I see a donkey and in my mind am transported back to that old farm in that tight hollow, all lit up in the summer night with the big cars of my youth parked in the yard and loud voices coming through a screen door that is barely hanging on.  What a different sensation such a scene brought then…

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Marvin the Martian and DaffyI have often cited artists who have been influences on my work , people who are often giants in the world of art and sometimes lesser known but equally talented artists.  Sometimes you overlook the obvious.

What's Opera DocLast night, TCM honored the great cartoonist Chuck Jones by showing a documentary and some of his landmark cartoons starring Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck.  He also did the Roadrunner/ Wile E. Coyote cartoons as well as the seminal holiday favorite, How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  His work was and is a vivid part of an incredible number of people’s childhoods.  His What’s Opera Doc? with Bugs and Elmer in a Wagnerian setting with a tragic ending is classic and might be the only exposure to higher culture that many viewers may get.chuck_jones-opera-set

For me, I was always so drawn to the color quality that Jones had in his cartoons as well as the way he interpreted the landscape with a form of artistic shorthand that cut out extraneous detail yet never took away from the feeling of place, unlike some of the lower quality cartoons from Hanna-Barbera in the early 60’s.  Don’t get me wrong.  I loved those cartoons as well but even as a kid I was really distracted by the poor quality of the landscapes that scrolled continuously behind their characters.  With Chuck Jones, it always felt fresh and real, as though there was thought given to every detail in every frame.  Who else could put imagery like this set from  What’s Opera Doc? before the eyes of impressionable children?  Probably only the artists from Disney can match Jones’ work at Warner Brothers, but that’s another post.

His work also treated you, as a kid, like you had intelligence.  They were smart.  Clever and nuanced.  They never talked down to you.

For a kid this was potent stuff.  Scratch that- it’s just potent stuff. Period.

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Indomitable Will

I’m showing the painting above, Indomitable Will, because I think it illustrates a point that has been racing around in my head for a long time, one that has a lot to do with elemental issues of who we are and what we deserve in this world.  

Like everybody else, I have been somewhat engulfed by the fire of the populist rage over the AIG bonuses, not to mention those much larger bonuses at Merrill Lynch and others.  It’s not the size of these bonuses or the sheer audacity of those who to try to defend them that really bothers me. 

The part that bothers me most is the underlying sentiment that plagues our country and blinds these particular fools to their own greedy actions.  I’m talking about sense of entitlement that many here feel.   The feeling that we “deserve” this or that.  The feeling that simply by being we deserve a big house, a new SUV, all the latest gadgets and clothes.  That we deserve everything we see.

Now I know I’m beginning to sound like the old curmudgeon in his front lawn, waving my fist at the kids riding their bikes in front of his house but this is such an obvious flaw in our collective character as of late that it can’t be downplayed.

We are entitled to nothing but the chance to accomplish our goals on a fair and level playing field.  We are entitled to the right to work hard  if we so choose.  We are entitled to have our voices heard.

We are entitled to simply be.

For me, the painting above says that.  The tree is us and it exists in this world with the right to simply be.  To stand tall.  To feel the wind pass over it.  To see the sky.

A chance to be.

That is its only entitlement.

I know this is incomplete and easily thrown aside, but that is the downside of writing  a blog off the cuff, as thoughts fall out of a feeble brain.  But hopefully the gist of what I’m trying to say comes through…

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1998In January of 1998, I was still working as a waiter in a Perkins Restaurant, at the same time painting and showing  my work in three galleries.  I was still unsure as to whether I should make the jump to going full-time as a painter.  Oh, the work was well received and nearly everything I was painting sold but I was never convinced that it was anything more than a temporary whim of the public.  Something that would soon fade.  

So I delayed going full-time.

One day while waiting, a single man sat in my station.  I recognized him as someone who I had waited on a number of times with his family.  It was lunch rush and my station was full so I was dashing around.  I stopped and quickly asked if I could get him something to drink.

“I didn’t come here to eat.  I came to buy paintings.”

I looked at him and my mind was blank.  I wasn’t excited.  Actually, I was a little irked.  I was busy as hell and this guy wanted to talk.  I always sort of prided myself in giving 100% to whatever job I had at the moment, even something that might be considered menial.  Hastily, I told him that this was not the time or place for such a conversation and we agreed to meet later that day at the West End Gallery in Corning.

We met and it turned out that he was a designer/ project manager for Corning, Inc.  He knew me from my waiting on his  family and was always impressed by my service as a waiter.  He said I reminded him of waiters he knew in  Venice who treated waiting as an honored profession and would wait their entire lives.  Because of this favorable impression, when he learned a couple of years before that I was showing my work at the West End, he started to follow the work.  He said he loved the way I worked with color and the personal style of my work.

With this in mind, he was now in the middle of a project, building a new photonics research facility in New Jersey for Corning.  The project was nearing completion and he stunned me when he said he had used my work as the basis for the color scheme of the building.  Now he needed some paintings for some key spots and he thought that my work would only be fitting.  Five or six larger pieces.  And he needed them in about six weeks.  Could I help him?

Instantly my head was reeling with questions on how I could do this.  You see, my work up to that point was very small, generally little things in the 4″ X 6″ or 9″ X 12″ range with a few going up to the 18″ x 24″ range.  I had taught myself a technique that worked really well in small blocks but wasn’t sure if I could translate it to a much larger piece.  And where would I paint?  I had started building my studio but it was nowhere near ready.  I was painting on a folding table in our kitchen/dining area.  How could I do this in the time frame he was giving me?  Was I ready for this?

“Sure,” I said.  “No problem.”  Inside, I wasn’t so positive.1998

I took time off from my job at Perkins and set up on my little folding table.  Since I was only adept at painting small blocks of color, I devised my paintings to be larger paintings comprised of smaller building blocks.  It allowed me to maintain my technique.  I struggled for a few weeks but somehow the pieces came around.  I used acrylic inks, acrylic paint, oil paints, chalk and pastels- whatever fit the need of the moment.  As the deadline approached I finally began to believe that I could do this.

At the end, I delivered five paintings.  Two large single pieces and a large triptych for the boardroom.  They were happy and I was very pleased and exhilarated by the whole experience.  It had given me an opportunity to paint on a much larger scale, to expand my work.  My confidence grew in my ability to create work that was beyond the temporary whim I mentioned earlier.  I could do this.

Within a few months I was painting full-time.  All the fears I had allowed to keep me from doing this were swept aside.  That was eleven years ago and seems like a hundred.

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Sunday Morning Edward HopperEarly Sunday morning.

A week or so ago I showed a painting, Nighthawks by Edward Hopper and talked a bit about how this painting, and many of his other works, always reflected to me a sense of aloneness and alienation.  On this Sunday morning I am reminded once again of this by another of his paintings, fittingly titled Early Sunday Morning.

While it is bright and colorful, there is a quality in the emptiness of the street that speaks of  loneliness, an aloof sense of existence in the midst of a city.  The warmth of the red in the building and in the sunlight is a strong counterpoint to the coolness of feeling depicted. I’ve always found this a powerful painting.

In the spirit of Hopper’s painting, I’m also showing a video of Johnny Cash and Kris Kristoffferson singing Kristofferson’s Sunday Morning Coming Down, a longtime favorite of mine whose main character has certainly walked down this Sunday morning sidewalk…

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