Archive for January, 2012

Once again, I came across a painter from the past of which I knew absolutely nothing.  That is nothing new but when I first saw these paintings I was shocked he was unknown to not only me but to most other people as well.  Actually, his biography is pretty thin in content but the sheer power of his work makes up for it. 

 His name was Thomas Chambers and he was born in England in 1808, probably training there as a decorative painter for the theatres of London.  He popped up in the States, in New Orleans, in 1832, filing for American citizenship.  Over the next few decades he moved along the Atlantic Coast and New England working as a landscape and marine painter as well as a fancy painter, meaning that he also painted  objects such as mirrors and furniture in a decorative fashion.  After the death of his wife in 1866, he returned to England, where he died in 1869.  He never really prospered as an artist, just scraping by for most of his life.  He died in an English poorhouse.

All of that seemed impossible to believe when I first saw his work.  It was unlike anything I had seen from that era.  They felt like folk art but with a stylized sophistication that displayed a distinct and fresh voice.  They seemed so modern, feeling to me as though they were perhaps 75 years before their time.  The colors were powerful.  The forms were stylized and rhythmic, the skies often having wonderful whirls of clouds and light.  Looking at some of these landscapes, I could believe that they were influenced by some of my heroes such as Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood even though I know that this is impossible because of their age.  I wondered if some of the more modern painters had come across his work or if his work was merely a similar artistic evolution, just earlier, isolated in time.

It’s hard to believe that this work was practically unknown until around 1940 when a group of his paintings were found in upstate NY.  How something this dynamic and modern in feel could slide by unnoticed is a mystery.  The first major museum exhibit of Chambers’ paintings was only held in late 2009/early 2010 at the American Folk Art Museum in NYC. 

There’s a good article from the NY Times that offers a good overview of Chambers’ life as well as a review of this museum show that I found very interesting, particularly when the author, Roberta Smith, writes about the works included in this exhibition of other painters who were better known contemporaries of Chambers, such as Thomas Cole and William Matthew Prior.  She writes:  This exhibition includes landscapes by other artists, including Cole, Thomas Doughty and William Matthew Prior, but don’t be surprised if you pass them by. Chambers’s work may lack the historic pedigree and national symbolism, say, of Cole’s paintings, but on the wall, it’s no contest.

As I said, potent stuff.  I’m hoping to find out more about Chambers but for now I am basking in these rich images. 

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I came home from my roadtrip last week and decided to take a few days off from the blog.  It was a pretty good trip, even with some iffy weather for travelling, that crossed some of the flat, open  farmlands of the midwest.  Heartland. On this trip,  I was especially encouraged by my visit to Watts Fine Art.  The gallery is located in Zionsville, a bedroom community just a bit north of Indianapolis.  The village is a lovely place having a compact and very inviting commecial district with brick-paved streets lined with shops, galleries and restaurants.  Just a charming and very comfortable place.

I was especially pleased with the gallery.  It is a great space and the owners, John and Shannon Watts, have assembled a very eclectic mix of  talented and very distinct artists from around the country.  As an artist, I am always concerned with how my work fits in with a gallery’s lineup of other artists, desiring a high level of quality as well as a variety of styles.  Even though I might feel confident about the strength of my own work, I realize that the overall strength of a gallery’s talent affects how those who come into the gallery view my work.  I always like to be hung near what I consider the best work in a gallery, believing that a gallery is remembered either by its best work or its weakest.  I prefer to be surrounded by the better work.

 I was really pleased with the group of artists at Watts Fine Art.  They came from many differing genres and all had very distinct styles and voices.  I immediately felt that my work would fit well within this group.  Although I liked almost of the work there, there were several that really stood out for me.  For example, they had a couple of beautiful pieces from Fatima Ronquillo , a self-taught artist now residing in Santa Fe,  that have the feel of the fine folk art portraits of the 19th century mixed with a sense of whimsy.  Beautiful surfaces.  Shown to the right  is her Lady With a Marvelous Pig, a painting that my eyes kept coming back to during my visit.

I also really liked the moods created by the paintings of Wendy Chidester, a Utah artist whose beautifully rendered still life pieces often evoke a sense of nostalgia.  Old typewriters, adding machines and vintage luggage populate her pieces and allow you to find something more beneath the surface appearance of these objects.  They also have beautiful surfaces.  Shown to the left is her Dalton on Brown.

There were several more artists who I could easily point out here but I think these examples will suffice for now.  Just really good stuff.  I am pleased and honored to be hanging alongside this group of artists, glad to be well represented in the heartland.

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I’m on the road for the next couple of days so check back later for the next post here.  I’m heading out to the Indianapolis area where I’m delivering a new group of work to Watts Fine Art, a gallery located in Zionsville,  a suburb of Indy.  I’m excited to visit this gallery  and to meet the owners, Shannon and John Watts, face-to-face for the first time.  

One of the paintings that will be heading to Indiana is this new piece, Enduring the Storm.  An 18″ by 26″ painting on paper, it’s a piece that is really carried along by color and texture, both attributes having a heightened intensity here.  The composition’s simple design allows the yellows  to shine and the thick whorls of the gesso base contrast dramatically off the red crown of the tree as it flails in the wind.  Simple and strong.

I will be back soon.  Check back in a few days and have a great week.

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This painting took a long time to emerge.  I started with just a large block of color,  originally feeling that there was a distant, stark landscape in it.  But it never felt completely right and I let it sit for many months, occasionally picking it up and trying to decipher what it might hold.  But recently I decided that it was long enough and that I would either pull something from it or destroy it. 

Either way would be a bit of mercy for me.  There’s something in having a piece sitting unfulfilled for long periods that gnaws at me, as though they are poking at me in the studio, begging to be released from the state of limbo in which they are trapped.  I have a group of such paintings floating around and I have to hide them at times because of this constant, silent pleading from them.  So it is a degree of mercy in the relief that comes from finishing one– in one way or another.

What emerged in this painting, an image that measures about 6″ by 22″ on paper, is quite different from what I first envisioned.  It ended up as more of a silhouette piece, the dark boniness of the trees standing in stark contrast to the pale, almost sullen feel of the sky.  Even the sun struggles to bring light to this surface,  appearing darker than the sky itself.  The whole effect is quite somber with an air of drama.

Originally, the chair was the only other element in this piece but the more I looked at it, the more I wanted something to counter the chair.  Something to create a context for  the drama of the revealed moment.  The small figure in the background provided just that.  I saw him as a ghost of sorts– perhaps dead.  Perhaps not.  But caught somewhere between existences.  The Red Chair here fills in as his memory and he looks upon it, seeing all his misdeeds and regrets.  He has lived his life as a rake and the empty chair sums up his time.

That’s one way of looking at it. 

I chose the title from the old English folk song of the same name that evolved from it’s 18th century origins into the early blues song, St. James Infirmary Blues, a song covered over the years by many, many musicians.  It has a deep and wonderfully  mournful feel and  it meshes well with this image in my mind.  Here’s a great version from the Belfast Cowboy, Van Morrison, who gives the song the weight it requires. See if you feel the same.

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I’ve written here before about the work of David Levine, the late artist best known for his wonderful caricatures of public figures and politicos that graced many magazines for several decades, writing once about a caricature of composer Richard Wagner and another time about a painting of a pig’s head .   Despite his fame as a pen-and-ink caricaturist,  Levine was also a fabulous painter, executing  many works beautifully in oil and watercolor.  Though not as famous as his caricature work, his work is very seriously collected and respected.  A series of pieces he painted depicting the landscapes and people of Coney Island is among his best work and one of my favorites.

I particularly love his images of the Thunderbolt roller coaster of Coney Island.  There’s a monumental quality in the way Levine depicts the coaster, it’s skeletal framework towering above the boardwalk like the remnants of a long gone and enormous dinosaur.  In fact, he shows the coaster in varying states of decay before its demolition in 2000.  I still remember vividly riding the fabled Cyclone at Coney Island with my Dad and feeling that same sense of awe that I feel in these pieces.  I think that Levine understood that child’s sense of awe and I think that might be why he turned to Coney Island again and again as a subject.  There is a real sense of  affection in this work which I think enhances its power, inspiring the same in the viewer. 

You can see more of Levine’s  paintings, including the Coney Island series,  at a site that  represents his work, D. Levine Ink.  Though there only a small handful of his original paintings available on the market, they still make his work available through limited-edition prints.  Just plain good stuff.

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I thought I’d show something a bit different this Sunday.  I came across an interesting little video called Gulp which bills itself as the world’s largest stop-motion animation.  Plus it’s shot entirely on a Nokia N8 cellphone.  It’s a short film depicting a fisherman and a difefrent sort of day on the ocean.  It was produced on a beach in South Wales by Sumo Science, a branch of Aardman Animations, the folks responsible for the great Wallace and Gromit films.  They are masters of stop-motion and if you’re thinking of stop-motion in terms of it being like the Gumby and Pokey films of years ago, you’re in for a big surprise.

I watched this film and found it entertaining but it wasn’t until I watched the video showing how it was made that I was really impressed.  In that film, you get a sense of the scale as well as the immense work that went into making this little charmer.  I’ve included both below.  And if you aren’t impressed with the largest stop-motion shot entirely on a cellphone, they are also repsonsible for the worlds smallest stop-motion, Dot, also shot on a cellphone.  It is a sweet little film and I mean little.  I’ll throw that on here as well.  Have a great Sunday!

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A friend pointed out to me that that a new exhibition of work opened yesterday at the International Center of Photography in Manhattan featuring the work of the fabled NY  freelance crime photographer, Weegee.  Most have seen his work in some form, perhaps in his graphic shots of murder scenes or the less lurid but still compelling shots of everyday New York in the 1930’s and 40’s.   I had been wanting to feature his work here for some time so I thought this was as good a time as any.

Weegee was the nickname given to Arthur Felig, who was born in the Ukraine in 1899 and came to NY as a young boy.  He worked as staff photograher for a news service in the 20’s before becoming a freelancer in the mid-1930’s, selling his photos to a number of NY papers.  Cruisng the city in his salesman’s coupe (a car with a front seat and the rear seat removed for extra room for samples cases) that he had equipped with a police radio, he earned his nickname from the police who were amazed at his ability to instantly appear on the scene, as though he had a Ouija board. 

His work was graphic and sometimes seedy.  But it was always well composed and thought out, each frame revealing the drama or pathos of the moment.  His work was all about telling a story and murders, mob hits, transvestites and drunks made up a big part of Weegee’s world.  But he also captured the feel of the NY of that time.  His shots of people sleeping on fire escapes during an extended summer hotspell or the incredible views of massive crowds filling every possible inch of Coney Island or a young couple with 3-D glasses caught in a passionate embrace  in a darkened theatre   (shown at the top) tell more humanly accessible stories. In addition to providing an anthropological record of that era in MYC, he also transformed the tabloid photo from mere documentation to an artform, in a way that has never been matched.

Weegee died in 1968 but his work has maintained great popularity through the decades.  If you’re in NYC, check out this show at the ICP.  It runs until September 2, 2012.

If you have a few minutes, here’s a film of Weegee explaining a few things about his business and talking about a few of his memorble photos.  Very interesting stuff.

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I’ve been working on a group of new work that will be going to a gallery in the Indianapolis area that is new to me.  I’ve been working on pieces that I feel are very representative of my voice, knowing that  it will be a first view of my work for most of the people who may see it there.  I’ve focused on imagery, forms and colors that feel almost ingrained in my body of work wanting to give the viewer  a quick insight into what I try to do with it.

As I’ve been working away, I keep coming back to the idea of these as internal landscapes, meaning that they are attempts at creating an inner harmony.  Harmony is the key word here, the concept of separate parts working  together to create a unified whole.  I think we often feel fragmented and unsteady in our external lives, never fully feeling in harmony with the world around us.  Perhaps I make a mistake in using the term we here when I mean I, not really knowing what the rest of you feel in your own relationship with the world.  But I do know that I have often felt this way, out of sorts with the world in many ways and that it really is an unsteady feeling and that I turn inward to try to find an inner rhythm, a harmony within that can steady me.  Something to allow me to function outwardly.

Like many things, this a difficult thing to explain.  Perhaps I should just point out this new painting, a smaller canvas, 12″ by 16″, that I call Rooted In Harmony, and let it speak for me.  This piece probably says more about what I am trying to describe in a single glance than I can with all the struggling words and sentences I could possibly write.  I find great pacification in this painting, a feeling of relaxed ease forming inside.  It tempers my confusion, calms my angers and slows the turning wheels of my inner self.  My outer self is better for it.  And maybe that is what I hope for with the title of this piece, that by finding an inner peace, the root here, it will spill outward in a harmonious attitude.

Okay, I have to stop the words.  For another example of harmony, a great example of musical harmony, here’s a little classic Simon and Garfunkel from a 1966 performance on Dutch television.  It’s I Am a Rock.

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I was rummaging around in one of my favorite sites, Luminous Lint, looking for something that would somehow sum up the world of Kodak and Kodachrome film on this day when they file for bankruptcy, the end of an era.  As I flipped through the photos this image caught my eye.  There was a blaze of green that lit up the edge of it and flecked through the faded and vague image of a farmhouse giving it an otherworldly glow. It reminded me of the effect I wanted in much of my early work, of the image seeming to be somehow pulled from time and space, leaving it in a rough-edged cell.

Reading below it I discovered that the photographer was Levi L. Hill and that was taken in 1851 in Greene County in the Catskills of New York.  It also said that this may be one of the first color photos taken and that Hall came across the image accidentally and spent the last 15 years of his life trying to recapture the effect.

Levi Hill Portrait

Intriguing.  I decided I wanted to know more and came immediately across an article from the Catskill Mountain Foundation titled Levi L. Hill: Fool or Fake? by writer Carolyn Bennett.  The whole story is a bit more involved and even more interesting.  It seems that Hill began a Quixotic journey to discover color photography after a discussion with famed Hudson River painter Asher Durand who told him that if he could find a way to capture color with photography he would be far ahead of all of the painters of the time.  The public was crazy for photoimages and especially clamored for color.  The man who discovered a color process would gain renown and fortune. 

So Hill started an intensive search even though he had little training in chemistry or science, performing thousands of experiments.  The image above was one of the few, if limited, successes and that was merely by chance.  His grand quest ended with his death in 1865 at the age of 49.  To get a better sense of this little known bit of photo history I suggest reading the article from the Catskill Mountain Foundation mentioned above or an article from Smithsonian curator Michelle Anne Delaney that talks about Hill’s work and the museum efforts to determine if he was indeed a fraud or a genuine trailblazer.

Whatever the case, I still am intrigued by his image.

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“Any great art work … revives and readapts time and space, and the measure of its success is the extent to which it makes you an inhabitant of that world – the extent to which it invites you in and lets you breathe its strange, special air.”

Leonard Bernstein


I came across this quote from Leonard Bernstein that I really thought captured what I hope occurs in my work.  I think that my work is most successful when people allow themselves to feel themselves as part of the landscape before them, to enter and breathe in that strange and special air, as Bernstein describes it.  I know that this is the case for myself.  I have written about this here before, about how these landscapes, with their blue and orange fields and bright red trees, feel as real to me as looking out my studio window.  The fact of the blue in the field is overruled by its harmony within the composition which creates that sense of rightness to which I often refer.

Maybe this sense of rightness is what makes up that strange and special air.  I don’t know.  I only know that I still seek words or explanations to describe why a painting works, by which I mean has an emotional impact on the viewer.  The new painting above is such a piece for me.  It’s a 15″ by 25″ image on paper that I am calling, thanks to Mr. Bernstein, A Strange & Special Air.

I could sit here and try to break down the painting, talking about color and contrast, texture and depth.  Line quality and composition.   All of the things that I might momentarily consider while I’m at work on such a painting.  But when all is said and done, I still have no idea why it has its own life, its own strange and special air.  Except that I feel that I am there when I look at it. 

And glad of it.

Perhaps that is enough and all that needs to be considered.  For now, I accept that and will be satisfied to dwell in this landscape with its strange and special air.

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