Archive for June, 2011

I look at the work of a lot of artists and usually see something I can relate to in much of it.  It might be the way a color sings or the way the painting is put together or in the expressiveness of a line.  Or just in simple emotion.  But very seldom do I stumble upon the work of an artist who I immediately feel as though I am sharing the same perspective.

Such is the case with Oscar Bluemner.

I came across his work a few years back.  I saw an ad for a piece of his in an art mag and was captivated.  There was something very familiar to me in it which made me want to know more.  But I could find little about Bluemner.  This was strange because he was in the right circles where one would think he would get some attention even if only by association.  The German-born painter, who was born in 1867 and moved to the US in 1893, was part of the Modernist painters group of the early 20th century represented by Alfred Stieglitz , famed photographer/gallerist and husband of Georgia O’Keefe.   His work hung in solo shows at Stieglitz’s famed NYC gallery and in the fabled Armory show of 1913.  You would think there would be no shortage of material on him or that his name would raise the image of some piece of his work.

But Oscar Bluemner had a knack for failing.  He was trained as an architect and designed the Bronx Borough Courthouse.  However, he was not paid for his services and the seven year court battle that ensued drove him away from  architecture and into the world of art,  where his paintings never garnered the attention or lasting reputation of his contemporaries.  He sold little and lived in abject poverty, which is said to have attributed to his wife’s early death and ultimately to his suicide in 1938.

But there is something in his work that I immediately identify with when I see it.  It’s as though I am seeing his subjects in exactly the same way as he did and would be making the same decision he made when he was paainting them.  His trees feel like my trees is the way they expressively curve and his colors are bold and bright.  His building are often windowless with a feeling of anonymity.  His suns and moons are solid presences in the sky, the focal points of many of his pieces.   In this piece to the right, Death,  he uses the alternating abnds of color to denote rows in the field as I often do and has his twisted tree rising from a small knoll in the forefront of the picture. 

I find myself saying to myself that I could very easily have painted these same pictures.  It’s odd because it’s not a feeling that I’ve experienced before even with the artists whose work I think has most influenced me and with which I feel a real connection.  And it feels even odder because I didn’t become aware of Bluemner’s work until long after I had established my own vocabulary of imagery. 

There are finally a few things out there online about Oscar Bluemener.  You can see more of his images now than you could even a few years back.  The Whitney in NYC had a retrospective of his work in 2005 (here’s a review) and that seemed to raise awareness of his work.  So maybe a few more people, a new generation, will finally see what I see in Bluemer’s work.

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This is the painting that is featured on the invitation for my next , Avatars, which opens July 15th at the West End Gallery.  It is titled The New Avatar and is 23″ by 33″ and on paper.

I chose to use the word avatar as the title because I wanted to have people look beyond the surface of the piece, past the representational quality of the work.  Past the idea of the painting as a landscape.  I wanted to stress the  idea that the painting and its subject is symbolic of something more, something beyond the apparent.

 An avatar is the incarnation or manifestation of a person or idea.  In Hinduism, this incarnation is of an Immortal Being or the Ultimate Supreme Being, usually Vishnu, the Preserver.  The word avatar is derived from the Sanskrit and means descent and usually implies a descent into mortal realms for special purposes, to instruct or to guide.

Maybe that’s too much to ask for paint smeared on a surface but I wanted to at least open it to the possibility of being more than it seems.  More than a Red Tree.  More than a Red-Roofed house.  More than a Red Chair.  I hoped that the viewer might see something in the work that might reveal itself only to them, something that would be an avatar for what they needed or desired in their own lives.

Again, that’s asking a lot for what seem to be simple landscapes.  I may never know if I’ve succeeded in this aspiration.  That may not matter.  Just continuing  to find a new avatar in each new piece that speaks to me, that reveals some sort of meaning if only for my eyes, may be the final reward. 

 And that is good enough for me. 


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Grieg Is a Headbanger

I came across this video from a band called Apocalyptica.   I had never heard of them before but soon discovered that it was a Finnish group that was formed in 1993 and consisted of four cellists who were all classically trained at the Sibelius Academy.  They are fairly popular in Europe and around the world. 

 And they play heavy metal with their cellos.


I’m not a metal head so I wasn’t as intrigued as I had thought but I gave a listen.  Some was okay but could have been any metal group that had simply inserted cellos for guitars.  Interesting but not my cup of tea.

But a version they did of In the Hall of the Mountain King that Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg had written for Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt caught my ear and made me think.  I wondered how someone like Grieg, who died in 1907,  would react to such a treatment of his music.  The more I listened the more that I thought he might have actually enjoyed it, might see that it captured some of the spirit of what he was offering in his original composition.  There is a cavelike quality to the arena setting.

Plus, from looking at a few pictures of Grieg I thought he might appreciate the fact that his music was being performed by a hair band.  In all the photos, Grieg’s hair seems to be a point of pride with him and I could almost imagine him throwing his head forward like the heayy metal guys do so that their hair flies forward then back in rhythm to the music. 

Or maybe not.

Grieg was not all that happy with this composition at the time, saying,  “I have also written something for the scene in the hall of the mountain King – something that I literally can’t bear listening to because it absolutely reeks of cow-pies, exaggerated Norwegian nationalism, and trollish self-satisfaction! But I have a hunch that the irony will be discernible.”  Maybe this treatment of his music would have pleased him from an ironic standpoint.

Anyway, here’s the Apocalyptica version.  It will either  have you banging your head or have your head banging. 

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We dance round in a ring and suppose, While the secret sits in the middle and knows.

–Robert Frost


This is a new painting,  in size about 11″ square  on paper, that I will be showing at my next show that opens in a little over two weeks at the West End Gallery in Corning.  I call this piece Secret Inside.

I really didn’t know what to think of this piece after I painted it.  All of the elements fell into place strictly from a compositional standpoint, without a lot of rumination over meaning or intent.  Theysimply worked in the context of the scene.  It wasn’t until I had time to step back and study it for a bit that it started to reveal its meaning to me.  Or at least what it means to me.  You might see it differently.

I began to see the interior scene as the secret self, the part of us that we seldom expose to the outer world, which is seen out the window.  The guitar represents our hidden self-expression and creativity.  The painting on the wall (looks suspiciously like one of mine) represents the desire for beauty and the book on the table, the desire for knowledge.  The empty bottle symbolizes our weaknesses, our vices.  Perhaps the desire to forget. 

The table shows what might be seen illuminated in a glimpse from the outside and the overall darkness of the interior reveals itself as that dark part of us that is never visible to the outer world.  Or which we hope is never visible.

As I’ve said many times before here, this is only my personal take on this.  You might see something completely different, perhaps something much less symbolic or you might see it as something darker, more sinister. 

It all depends on your own secrets inside.


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When I wrote about Custer yesterday, on the 135th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, I forgot to mention the one thing that always comes to my mind when I hear anything about Custer: the song Garryowen.  It’s an old Irish drinking song that was adopted as the marching tune for Custer’s troops and is legendarily regarded as the last song played as they entered battle.  It remains the official song to this day for that same regiment, the US 7th Calvalry.

I was doing some genealogy and found that my grandfather, who had died when I very young and of whom I knew very little, had served as a  Sargeant with the 7th Calvalry during and after WW I.  They were stationed in El Paso so they didn’t see battle overseas but they continued their forays into Mexico in search of Pancho Villa as they had done under Black Jack Pershing before the war.  The first thing that I thought was that he might have heard Garryowen playing as he rode across the Mexican plains. 

And that made me happy.

Here’s a great version of Garryowen by one of my favorite guitarists, Martin Simpson.




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It was 135 years ago on this date, June 25, 1876, that the famous Battle of the Little Big Horn took place on the plains of eastern Montana, a battle in which the forces of General George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Calvary were overwhelmed by Native American fighters who had formed a large alliance from several tribes to battle the US troops.  268 troops were killed including Custer and several of his kinsman.  Through the years it has come to be known as Custer’s Last Stand and it’s historical perspective, along with the view of Custer himself,  has always been changing and controversial. 

In the years following the battle, there was a great psuh to portray Custer as a glorious hero.  His wife wrote a glowing book and extensively toured for years, speaking to civic organizations.  I came across a newsclipping from a newspaper in the Adirondacks from the 1890’s, nearly 20 years after the battle,  that spoke of such an engagement. 

His legend was also enhanced by a bit of advertising art from Anheuser Busch who issued a print heroically depicting the battle  in a way that most historians agree is extemely erroneous.  The print hung in saloons all through the states for decades and just added to the mythic quality of the man and the battle.  

Hollywood weighed in as well.  The portrayal of Custer by Errol Flynn in They Died With Their Boots On was one of a noble hero with hardly a flaw.  A bit too perfect.  Years later, the view of our historic treatment of Native Americans was under scrutiny and the view of Custer had changed.  Iin Little Big Man, Richard Mulligan as Custer (shown above) was the absolute antithesis of Flynn’s Custer.  His Custer was a comic caricature that took all of of the man’s known quirks to the extreme, showing him as fool.  Equally as inaccurate as Flynn’s shining hero.  The real man is no doubt somewhere in the middle, neither hero nor fool. 

There is a lot that could be said about Custer, the Battle of the Little Big Horn, our shameful treatment of the native Americans and how we view all of it at any given moment.  There is a ton of available information out there, too much to go into on this quiet Saturday morning.  So for now, I’m going to try to think how it must have been on this date, 135 years ago.   


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This is a new piece that I just completed for my next show which opens in a scant three weeks at the West End Gallery in Corning.  This is a smaller painting, at just over 6″ by 14″ on paper that I’m calling Island of Memory.  It incorporates two of my icons, the Red Tree and the Red Chair, in a simple composition that recalls much of my earlier work.  It also is divided into two large blocks of color with a ribbon of white between the two parts, also like the earlier work.

I have mentioned the Red Chair signifying memory for me and in this painting it takes on that role.  It seems that often our memories become unique through time and  a memory of an event might only exist for one single person even though others might have witnessed the same event .   The event may not have etched itself as deeply in the minds of the others or may not have much significance.  Or they may remember it in a much different way, perhaps a differing aspect of whatver happened, if they remember it at all.  That is what I see here– the idea of a recollection exisiting in one small place.  I know I’m not doing this justice with this explanation.

It also reminds me of the classic Otis Redding song, (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay, a song which fills my own island with memories.  I listened to that single hundreds, maybe thousands of times growing up yet I’ve avoided using it on this site.   I always felt a protective attachment to it and it’s always bothered me when other singers (and non-singers– I’m reminded of a hysterical George Hamilton version of it from the late 60’s) covered this song through the years.  It seems like these other versions somehow pulled from the special nature of Otis Redding’s version, making it less special.  The awful histrionics of Michael Bolton come to mind.  But all I have to do is hear the simple ease and strength of Otis’ rendition and those thoughts fade to nothing.

It is a special song.  And it seems to go along in tone with this small painting.  Give a listen…


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Yesterday on the Folk Art at Cooperstown site, Paul D’Ambrosio wrote about this painting that is in their collection.  It is by a late 19th century painter by the name of John Rasmussen and is of the Almshouse in Berks County, Pennsylvania.   This piece has really stuck with me since I saw it, not only because it is such a beautiful piece of work with wonderful color and composition.  It’s more because of how it almost lovingly portrays an aspect of society at that time that is largely overlooked– the poorhouse.

The poorhouses of that time were a depository for what was then considered the refuse of society– the mentally ill, the homeless, the disabled, just released prisoners and abandoned children.  In fact, the artist of this painting, John Rasmussen, was a resident at this particular poorhouse, having had severe problems with excessive drinking throughout  his life. 

You can imagine how terrible the conditions might have been at many of these facilities.  But many, like this Berks County Almshouse had a mission of self-sufficiency and rehabilitation.  It required all physically able residents to work on the farm which supplied all of the food for the resident population.  They believed that the ills of many of these people were the result of not understanding the value of hard work. 

It actually was a fairly successful system at the time until the demands of a growing general population overwhelmed its capabilities.  There came a point where it was no longer economically possible to have this type of institution in very county or town and the poorhouses faded from sight and have remained there, even in our memories of the past.  I can’t say whether the system was better or worse than anything we have today or whether the residents of places such as this Almshouse would remember it fondly or with horror.  But the loving way this painting is presented doesn’t give one the sense of a dark place but rather a place filled with renewed life.  And I think for some, like John Rasmussen, it did represent a refuge and a palce of restoration when he periodically reached his bottom.

The Berks County Almshouse is now completely gone save for a small stone wall.  But it is preserved in the paintings of Rasmussen and others, such as this earlier painting of it by painter Charles Hoffman, also a resident at the Almshouse.  And writer John Updike fashioned the subject of his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, after this very place. 

I’m sure most were not like this beautiful scene but they remain part of our past and deserve to be remembered.  There is another site, The Poorhouse Story, that documents the history of American poorhouses.  It has a state list with pages devoted to the poorhouses of most counties.  It’s an interesting glimpse into a shaded part of our past.


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I really like self taught artists. I identify with these people who are usually living lives far removed from the world of art but who feel a compulsion to express something within them and create.  There’s something very pure in this work that transcends the lack of sophisticated technique and extensive artistic education.  In fact, it’s this very absence of these things that gives the work its purity.  It is a raw and often powerful synthesis of what these artists observe– something that can’t be taught.

One such powerful artist was William Hawkins who was born in Kentucky in 1895 amd died in 1990, in the Columbus,  Ohio area where he lived most of his life.  Most of his paintings are recognizable by his name and birthdate and birthplace emblazoned across the bottom.  But more than that,  his works were noted because they were diverse and always interesting, with their bold strokes and strong imagery.  The more pieces of his I see, the more I really see his strength as a painter and as observer of his and the greater world.

The Foundation for Self-Taught American Artists, one of my favorite sites and one that I’ve mentioned here  before, has produced a short film, which can be seen at the bottom of this post, that shows Hawkins at work in the late 1980’s.  It gives an interesting insight to the works and his process.  You can find more about Hawkins at their site and at a number of other sites.  Take some time and look at the images.  Find the rhythm in the slashing stokes and get to what Hawkins was seeing as he painted.  You’ll begin to appreciate that purity of which I spoke.

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I finished this painting yesterday, a 12″ by 36″ canvas called Moonlight Theatre.  I really enjoy working on these pieces.  They grow very organically, one bit leading to the next, and easily absorb my full attention making time fly by.  When I started I fully intended to work on a landscape, one with a few red-roofed houses.  I even started in the lower right corner with one of my typical windowless houses.  I started to put my brush to the canvas for another hosue when I stopped and began to sense that there was a cityscape here instead.  So it came to be.

I opted for windows and doors in this painting, something I only use on rare occasions.  I normally like the anonymity that comes from windowless structures in these paintings but here there is that same sense even with the windows.  They’re like the eyes and faces of a crowd of people crossing the street in a large city, aloof with little recognition of anything around them as they move.  If their eyes are like windows, they’re open but you can’t see in.  The same here.

I finished most of the painting before putting the M on the marquee of the theatre in the forefront of the piece.  I had already decided that the marquee was the focal point of the painting and wanted it to lead to or be influenced by the title.   I saw this as a city at night and felt that the word moonlight was in there somewhere.  That’s when I decided on the M for the marquee.  Moonlight Theatre.

Cheri came into the studio soon after I had finished and, after looking at it, asked  ” Is that M your initial?  Aren’t we a little self-centered?”

I hadn’t even considered that when I chose the M.  It was always for Moonlight but I could see how it could look that way.  I immediately thought of changing the M.  Maybe an O for Orpheum, which is a common name for theatres.  But I decided to hold off.  I liked the M and its angles in this piece– it just seemed to fit.   Besides, it was already Moonlight Theatre in my mind.

So it stays.  For now, M is for Moonlight.




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