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Archive for December, 2011

It’s always a little disconcerting to come across someone, a performer or artist, that is well on their way to a brilliant career yet remains completely off your own radar. That’s how I felt the other day when I saw a segment on the CBS Sunday Morning show, where a reporter, Bill Flanagan,  was talking about music to give this holiday season.  He talked about the new box sets from the big names then he talked for a brief moment about a 21 year-old British singer/songwriter named Laura Marling who he said, “ Is not only wiser than her years – she’s wiser than MY years.”

He also said that older listeners would hear echoes of Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen and that young listeners would hear the voice of a new generation coming into its own.

Pretty high praise.  I decided I had better check out this person.

Wow.

I was knocked out.  There were tons of videos out there and going through several, I couldn’t find one that wasn’t verging on brilliant from this very young looking girl with a sad, detached blankness on her face.  You could hear traces of the artists he mentioned in the easy phrasing of her lovely voice which made it somewhat familiar but there was indeed something new in her synthesis of what she had absorbed in  her very young life.  Something well beyond her years.  It was all just wonderful, even the music from her earliest album released just days after she turned 18.  I couldn’t believe I hadn’t stumbled across a talent this big before now.

But thankfully, I have.  As I said, there is a great number of her  songs out there online and I have yet to find a clunker.  Here’s a newer song called Sophia.  I was captured by the line from its chorus–… I am wounded by dust… 

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Thomas Girtin is probably a name most of us have never heard before.  Yet, for a  time he was a giant in the world of art in Britain and was vastly influential in the direction of art there for the next century after his death in 1802.  A lot to say for a young man who died at the age of 27.

He was born in the same year as JMW Turner, the British giant whose worked revolutionized watercolor and served as a leading edge for the work of the later Impressionists.  The two were good friends, having worked together as teens, and rivals and Turner later said  “Had Tom Girtin lived I should have starved”.  When I think of the spectacular work of Turner, especially some it done over 40 years after the death of Girtin,  and see where Girtin was in his work when he died, I am sad to think what the world was deprived in not seeing what he might have accomplished as he matured.  Turner’s work certainly evolved and Girtin displayed a drive for greatness  that would have certainly brought incredible things.

Thomas Girtin -Study for the Eidometropolis

For example, in 1802,  just before his death, he created and displayed a painting called the  Eidometropolis, a huge panorama of 1800 London that measured 18′ tall by 108′ long.  The prodigious effort brought great acclaim, both for its heroic scale and the beauty of the work.  Sadly, the painting no longer exists except for many sketches which were created in the making of it, such as the one shown here.  Girtin died soon after from an asthma attack.

So, in the centuries since, the name of Thomas Girtin never really grew to the stature that it might have reached had he lived.  Perhaps his friendly rivalry with Turner might have spurred on amazing things from him and even more incredible work from Turner.  We will never know, of course.  It’s just hard to not speculate when you see such obvious talent, even genius, ended at such an early point.

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After yesterday’s post concerning masks, my friend Gary reminded me of a new book of poems, including one titled Masks, from the incredible imagination of the late Shel Silverstein.  I’ve written about him before here, once about his classic The Giving Tree and another time reprinting his poem Smart for Father’s Day.  His new book is Every Thing On it and is comprised of never before published poems and drawings from the acclaimed poet and songwriter who died in 1999.  I suspect it would make a great and thoughtful Christmas gift for children of all ages.  I know I’m making a gift of it to myself.   Also, take a gander at his website, ShelSilverstein.com.  It has tremendous animations and is a beautiful site, with an emphasis on his work for children.

Really good stuff.

Here’s Masks from his new book. 

 

 

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Taking Off the Mask

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.

—–Oscar Wilde

I read this quote from Oscar Wilde and it made me think about painting serving as a mask for some artists, allowing them to say things in paint that they see as their truth that they might not be able to express otherwise.  I might fall into that category in some regards.  I certainly hope my work reflects some sort of inner truth.  Or, at least, reflects an aspiration for what I desire for my own truth.

For instance, my work often is placid and calm while I often do not reflect that same attitude personally.  I aspire to be calm and placid and sometimes I do find it for short periods of time.  Maybe the aspiration to be this way will eventually become an ultimate truth.  Maybe this sort of personal  truth can be created, like the face behind the mask beginning to take the shape of the mask.

I don’t know.  Maybe it’s something that we shouldn’t dwell on for too long.  I thought of this quote when I was finishing this recent painting, titled True Self, a 7″ by 15″ piece on paper.  I wondered if this image on the sheet before me was any part of my own truth.  I know that I wanted it to be such but there was part of me that felt unsure, sensing that the reality didn’t yet meet the aspiration.  But it felt like there was at least a small bit of my truth in there somewhere. 

Perhaps when I finally take off the mask I will find it was not a mask but a mold.

 

 

 

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I was doing a little research on the painter Robert Gwathmey, the social realist painter whose work most often depicted the day to day life of  poor African-American culture of the American South.  I knew that his son, Charles, was a very famous architect but I didn’t know much about his wife, Rosalie.  She was a photographer who chronicled that same rural culture that was the subject of her husband’s paintings.  In fact, her photos were often the source material for his work.

Digging deeper, I came across her photos and found them compelling.  There were poignant shots of families at work and at home, often in abject poverty.  Wonderful compositions of a barn on fire amid the wide flat fields, smoke billowing with an awful ominosity.  All very powerful stuff.

Reading some articles about her I came across a terrific article from 1994 and Erika Duncan in  the New York Times.  It was of an interview with Rosalie Gwathmey, who died in 2001 at the age of 92, focusing on her work as a photographer which, at the time of the article, was being rediscovered as the result of a solo show of her photos.  It turns out that she had been an earnest photographer. associated with some of the other great photogs of the time such as Dorothea Lange,  from around the mid 1930’s up until 1955 when she abruptly put down her camera, destroyed many of ner negatives and gave away her photos.

“I just quit,” was her description.

Reading the rest of the article, she also simply stopped painting at one point, despite having great promise, and she also abruptly ended a long career as a textile designer.  She simply stopped and claimed to have no regrets.

That really made me think.  Was this merely a facet of her personality or could this happen to anyone?   Could I one day suddenly decide that I no longer wanted to paint?  What was it that made her suddenly lose that need to express herself in a certain way?  It became a sort of scary thing to think about for me, as though it were some horrible affliction that lay in wait for me somewhere in the future.  Maybe never but maybe tomorrow.

I don’t know that there are actual answers here, only more questions.  But her quitting is as intriguing an aspect of her life as her wonderful work and makes me wonder how many others have simply walked away from what seems to be a great career.

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Scene from Black Narcissus

As an artist, I am of course influenced by color in many things.  Obviously, the colors I have seen in the work of the great painters played a part in how I came to view color, such as the bold use of it by Van Gogh and the deepness of the greens and reds in Holbein’s masterpieces.  But even beyond painters I am influenced by color in so much that I see. 

This makes me think of a Coke television commercial from a number of years back, probably in the late 80’s or early 90’s.  It was in an urban setting with a Latin vibe but it wasn’t the setting that caught my eye.  It was the color of the whole ad.  Deep, dark throbbing colors.  Reds that looked like they poured out of a beating heart.  Gorgeous rich golds.  All shot in a very cinematic manner, much richer in texture than one would expect from a TV ad.  Every time I would see it I would stop and just stare, taking it all in.  I don’t think I was painting yet and it really made a big impression on how I viewed color and made me think that I could find expression in color.

Another influence is in the work of the great cinematographers of the movie world.  I especially think of the movies from the earliest years of color use in the films, movies like Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, which both were extraordinary in their use of color.  But, for me, the work of Jack Cardiff in the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger takes the cake.  In movies like The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death, The Tales of Hoffman and The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp ( a favorite of mine), Cardiff used color in a way that added even more depth to the story, making the eye want to settle on the scene at hand and take it all in.  The images and the opulent color  from these films often lingered in my head for weeks after seeing them and when I am at the easel I find myself still trying to capture that same atmosphere that he was able to create on film.

I mention this today because I want to remind anyone interested that TCM is featuring the work of Jack Cardiff in January and will be airing a documentary, Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff  along with a number of the films that showed off his great skill, both as a cinematographer and a director.  It’s a great opportunity to see some of his color work that that been called decadent by some writers.  When I read that description, I nodded because that is exactly what it felt like– grand, luscious decadence.

Good stuff.

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We saw Martin Scorsese’s newest film Hugo yesterday, the story of a young orphan who lives in the clockworks of a Paris rail station.  I enjoyed it very much even with though I am still not yet sold on the need for 3-D in this film.  Or most films, for that matter.  Some of its use in the film was interesting but often I found it distracting and sometimes downright irritating.

But what I really did like was that one of the main characters in the story was the great pioneering filmmaker, George Melies.  His life and body of work were key elements in the storyline.  It gives an overview of his life from his birth in 1861 through his early years as an illusionist and magician, as well as a maker of automatons, which are self-operating machines that often resemble human forms.  Clockwork robots– another important part of the film. It then documents his career in film , telling how he used his background in magic and illusion to create wonderous worlds in the new medium of film.  He created some of the first special effects seen on film and even toda, with all the CG effects available,  they are quite interesting to see.

The film also tells of his fall from the public eye and the destruction of many of his films, many of which were sold to the French military to be melted down to make celluloid heels for boots.  As in the film, Melies ended up running a toy booth at a Paris rail station before a new generation rediscovered the genius of his early work.  Though much of his work is lost forever, many have been recovered and restored.

Being a fan of early fims, I am glad that Scorsese was able to so beautifully pay homage to this early giant of cinema in Hugo.  I’m hoping that a few moviegoers will find in Melies’ work a huge imagination and inventive spirit  worth exploring more.  There is an amazing amount of wonderful film from the earlest days of the medium and I hope that a new generation will discover these hidden treasures, much like those who rediscovered Melies after World War I. 

Here is a restored Melies film, Le Diable Noir. Like many early films, it is short and a simple story.  For modern filmgoers, the acting will seem a little over the top but you have to remember the time frame here.  In early films, as well as the theatre of the time, gesture was big part of getting across emotion.  But that aside, the effects Melies incorporates are tremendous for the time.  Actually, ahead of his time.

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Whenever I take up a newspaper, I seem to see Ghosts gliding between the lines. There must be Ghosts all the country over, as thick as the sand of the sea…. We are, one and all, so pitifully afraid of the light.

Henrik Ibsen, Ghosts

Another newer painting, this one on paper and measuring about 9″ high by 26″ wide.  I call this piece The Ghost in Memory, using the Red Chair here as an icon for memory, both personal and collective.   Although the Red Chair can have many differing  interpretations for many people, I often see it  as a symbol for memory personally, seeing in it people, places and events from my past . 

Stylisyically, this painting bridges the gap between some of my recent monochromatic work and my typical pieces filled with color.  The sepia pall that hangs over the scene gives it a feel of ghostly nostalgia that was unintended during the painting of it.  There is a waviness in the wash of color that creates vague amorphous shapes that seem to be making their way to the horizon as though being coaxed forward by the hazy light of the sun.  The blue of the trees in the foreground that create a frame for the scene contrast sharply as though marking the boundary between a world that we see and one which is hidden from us.  The Red Chair straddles both of these worlds here.

This is a very simply composed piece with a spare color palette yet it has, for me, a nice depth of feeling and meaning.  It wastes nothing and all of the elements contribute to the overall atmosphere in it.  Though the color is subdued, it still dictates the emotion of the piece.  The sepia gives it an eerie feel yet still has a warmth in it that makes it still inviting.

As to what the actual meaning is here, I leave that up to the viewer to decipher on their own.  Is it about ghosts?  I can’t say except to say that I believe that ghosts exist mainly in our own minds and memories.  That is where most of us are haunted.

 

 

 

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I came across this painting from 2001 just this morning, one that had slipped off my radar some time ago.  It wasn’t in the studio for long and sold very quickly so I didn’t get to ponder over it for an extended period.  It is titled A New Mantra and  is 31″ high by 51″ wide on mounted paper.  I do remember painting this piece and how it hit every goal I had for it from the first moment I started on it.  It came so  easily that it felt as though it truly fell out of me, with not  a bit of struggle at any point.  I also remember just being exremely pleased with how this showed in its final state.  It was large and airy yet it had a real up close presence.  To me, it was how it must feel to have the secrets of the universe whispered mysteriously in your ear. 

It just felt powerful, whiich is probably why I was so surprised at seeing it again this morning.  How had it slipped out of my mind when it immediately rekindled such strong feelings upon seeing it again? 

I don’t know that there is any real explanation.  I think there are other pieces out there that will do the same for me, especially some work from the earlier years when my photo-documentation wasn’t as thorough.  I can think of one painting that I have often used as an example in an account of how some work flows easily while others are a stuggle from the first brushstroke.  This piece was done after a month of working on a series of paintings that resulted in a commissioned piece.  One morning I went into the studio about 5 AM and this large painting just fell out.  It was about 40″ square and I remember how the paintings of the past month had served as rehearsals for this very moment in time.  Every movement was really from muscle memory, moving without prompting and the conscious thought process was hushed and in the background.  Two hours later and it was done.

I would tell people who asked how long it took to paint a piece that this painting didn’t take 2 hours to paint.  It took over a month.  It couldn’t have happened without those other pieces building up to it.

To my dismay, that is a piece for which I can’t find an image.  But I will keep looking and hopefully, if I find one, I will feel as I did about once again finding A New Mantra.

 

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This is a small painting, only 5″ by 6″ on canvas,  that recently went to the Principle Gallery in Alexandria.   I call this piece Everyday Hero and even though it’s small in size, it’s one that I find full of meaning for myself.

As they often do in my paintings, the fields of alternating rows of color represent the act of labor.  The day-to-day sort of work of the people who toil every day with little if any recognition, trying to merely live their lives.  They raise their kids, they pay their bills and they simply try to just get along without bothering anyone or being bothered. 

 These are the people who built this country.  They built our infrastructure– the roads and bridges and the schools and factories.  They worked in the fields and in the foundries and factories and manned the trains and trucks that brought the products to market.  Moreover, these are the people who consumed the products that were made, moved and marketed here.  These were the people who created the wealth of this nation.

I know that this is sounding like a 99% spiel and maybe it is.  I have gotten so tired of hearing about the job creators and how they must be protected when very few are pointing out that the great wealth that these few possess came from the sweat and pocketbooks of the many.  I may be missing something here but I can’t think of anyone whose wealth was created in a vacuum that didn’t depend on the sale of their product, be it a manufactured item or a natural resource.   You might say that a hedge fund manager might not depend on the sale of a product but he only serves as a casino operator for those who wealth was created of the people.  Without their wealth, he has nothing.

Now don’t get me wrong.  It seems that when anybody makes the case for more equality of wealth, they are branded as being anti-capitalist and anti-business which is not the case.  The greatness of this country comes from this opportunity to succeed in a huge way, to take an idea or an innovation and set the world on fire with it.  You should be rewarded richly.  But unless you have the people to buy the products or ideas, unless you have the infrastructure to carry that product to these buyers, unless you have the fire fighters and police to protect your homes and offices, unless you have have clean air to breath and water to drink— it will never happen. 

You can be a hero to many by being a  job creator but you must  take some responsibilty for the everyday heroes who have made you wealthy, probably beyond anything most of these folks could fathom.  It is part of the unwritten contract of our land.  It is only fair.

Massachusetts Senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren made a very passionate  statement of this same thought recently in a video from a fundraising event that most of you have probably seen.  It is as compelling and precise an argument as anyone I’ve seen make while standing up for the everyday heroes.  Here it is:

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