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Archive for January, 2019

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The best reason to paint is that there is no reason to paint… I’d like to pretend that I’ve never seen anything, never read anything, never heard anything… and then make something… Every time I make something, I think about the people who are going to see it and every time I see something, I think about the person who made it… Nothing is important… so everything is important.

Keith Haring

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I can’t say that I was ever a huge Keith Haring fan. Maybe it was because his Graffiti-based Pop Art imagery seemed to be everywhere all of the time  through most of the 80’s and 90’s. It seemed like you couldn’t turn around without seeing his images. But I have to admit that I have come to have an appreciation of his work, especially the prodigious output he produced in his short life. He died at the age of 31 and created a pretty amazing body of work in the limited time he spent on this planet. Even if you don’t recognize the name, you most likely have seen and recognized his imagery at some point.

Part of my newfound appreciation comes from the fact that I am able to look at his work now and find things in it that I may be able to transfer in some way to my own work. Take for instance, the rhythms of some of his black and white pieces shown below. I see something in them that speaks to me and might work in my voice, as well.

I also like the attitude he took with the quote at the top. The idea that the importance of art comes from the fact that we see something in it that makes it important to us is a striking and sometimes abstract concept. It’s one that has struck me at times in the studio when I am suddenly hit by the absurdity of the idea that I am standing there smearing paint of a piece of board. In that moment I can’t think of a reason why I should be doing this thing.

And maybe it is that absurdity that makes it worthwhile. Perhaps to continue to do something that seems so unimportant in the grand scheme of things creates its own importance.

A sort of testimony to both the futility and significance of our existence.

And maybe that is art’s true purpose, to let us feel both humble and expansive.

Something to think about while I am wondering what the hell I am doing here in the studio today.

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“The sun –the bright sun, that brings back, not light alone, but new life, and hope, and freshness to man–burst upon the crowded city in clear and radiant glory. Through costly-coloured glass and paper-mended window, through cathedral dome and rotten crevice, it shed its equal ray.”

― Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

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I guess it’s wishful thinking to be discussing a painting based on light and warmth on a day when we are just beginning to feel the brunt of the bitter cold that has swept down from the polar regions. It’s below 0° right now and it won’t get much above that for the next few days around here. Brrr! So the hope contained in a rising sun and the light and heat from it becomes something to really think about.

The painting above is a new one, a 24″ by 24″ canvas, that I am calling Reaching For The Light. The jumble of upward rising buildings has a new addition to go with the regular roofs and spires–chimneys. This new element gives the effect of an appendage reaching upward from each building to get to the sunlight.

I like that feeling that it gives.

I thought the descriptive snip above from Dickens’ Oliver Twist fit this painting. I often have images based on Dickens’ vivid descriptions of cityscapes from Victorian England in mind when I am working on these type of paintings that are cramped and crowded with buildings. His words created an imagery that stuck firmly in my mind from when I first read them so many years ago.

It was a place of darkness, soot, and shadows. The idea of the sun cutting through the grayness with its cleansing light and warmth is one of hope, one of moving to a better situation beyond the squalor and despair of the moment.

That’s how I am seeing this painting with the Red Tree serving as the symbolic central figure acting out this idea of grasping for the light.

So, on this coldly bitter day, I have to find hope in the same sun that we have come to fear as the ever increasing effects of global climate change become apparent.

Stay warm, folks.

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Was looking through some images of work from around 2006 and 2007 and came across this painting, The Middle Way. It really jumped out at me so thought I’d share it along with a blogpost from back in 2009 about a Henry Miller essay. The painting and the essay seem to fit together well.

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    From the very beginning almost I was deeply aware that there is no goal. I never hope to embrace the whole, but merely to give in each separate fragment, each work, the feeling of the whole as I go on, because I am digging deeper and deeper into life, digging deeper and deeper into past and future. With the endless burrowing a certitude develops which is greater than faith or belief. I become more and more indifferent to my fate, as a writer, and more and more certain of my destiny as man.

      – Henry Miller, Reflections on Writing

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This is a fragment of an essay, Reflections on Writing, from a book of essays, The Wisdom of the Heart, by Henry Miller, the great and controversial author. When I was young his books such as Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn were still being characterized as “smut” and many libraries didn’t have them on their shelves for fear the morality police would swoop in and raise a fuss. Probably many only know the existence and influence of his books from their use in a memorable Seinfeld episode, the one with Bookman the library cop whose hard-boiled dialogue still makes me hoot.

For me, I wasn’t so much attracted to his books by the raciness of the stories but rather by his way of speaking through his words and expressing views that I found at once to be compatible with my own. He observed and said the things that I  wished I could say with a voice and power I wished I possessed. I can pick up one of his books and open to a page anywhere in the book and read and be fascinated without knowing the context of what I’m reading, just from the sheer strength of his writing’s voice.

I see a lot of things in this particular essay that translate as well for painting or any other form of creation. It opens:

Writing, like life itself, is a voyage of discovery. The adventure is a metaphysical one: it is a way of approaching life indirectly, of acquiring a total rather than a partial view of the universe. The writer lives between the upper and lower worlds: he takes the path in order to eventually become that path himself.

Substituting artist for writer, I was immediately pulled in. The path he refers to is the path I often refer to in my paintings, the path we all walk and struggle along on, trying to find the middle way between these upper and lower worlds.

It’s a good essay and one I recommend for anyone who creates in any form and struggles with the meaning of their work beyond its surface. For anyone seeking that path…

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Been a fan of Albert Pinkham Ryder for a long time now and realized this morning that I had not mentioned him here in over ten years. Here’s a post from back in 2009 with a few added images and a quote that fits his work and his influence very well.

Albert Pinkham Ryder– The Race Track/ Death on a Pale Horse

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It is the first vision that counts. The artist has only to remain true to his dream and it will possess his work in such a manner that it will resemble the work of no other… for no two visions are alike, and those who reach the heights have all toiled up steep mountains by a different route. To each has been revealed a different panorama.

–Albert Pinkham Ryder
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I have always been affected by the dark, moody compositions of the the American painter Albert Pinkham Ryder, a somewhat under-appreciated painter who worked in the late 1800’s/ early 1900’s, dying in 1917 at the age of 70.

Though he has sometimes been called the American Van Gogh, Ryder is probably not as well known as he should be mainly because of the manner in which he painted. He had little regard for working in a fashion that would insure the longevity of his work and as a result, most of his pieces are heavily cracked and fragile. Many have not survived.

Albert Pinkham Ryder– Toilers of the Sea

Even so, when I have seen his work in person I am always filled with a sense of excitement, as though I’ve stumbled upon a hidden treasure. There’s also a feeling of knowing this person and feeling their essence. It’s as though I feel something in my own being that parallels his in some way. I hesitate to say this because I do not know in any fashion the man or his personality. But what is seen in his work is something I can truly identify with in some manner beyond appreciation.

His work has the feel of a visionary. I see real poetry and soul in his work, something which, to my mind, is lacking in much work that is produced. I can’t describe how I see that– it’s more just a matter of sensing it. To me, Ryder seems to be trying to communicate something vaporous and indefinable, something beyond the senses, something beyond words.

Again, the feel of a visionary.

There is much to find in the way of inspiration in his work.

Albert Pinkham Ryder-Jonah 1895

Albert Pinkham Ryder- Moonlight 1887

Albert Pinkham Ryder- Moonlit Cove 1885

Albert Pinkham Ryder- Spirit of Autumn

Albert Pinkham Ryder- The Barnyard 1874

Albert Pinkham Ryder- The Old Mill By Moonlight

Albert Pinkham Ryder- The Flying Dutchman

 

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Been working on a few new small pieces for the upcoming Little Gems show at the West End Gallery, which opens February 8. As I’ve noted here before, the annual Little Gems show has special meaning for me. It was the first show in which I ever participated and served as a springboard to a career as an artist that I never anticipated. Without that first show, I have no idea what I might otherwise be doing at this time. Pretty sure it wouldn’t be writing this blog.

I usually try out some new things for this show or at least try to show some small oddities, pieces with themes or looks that may not find their way into my regular visual vocabulary. Such is the piece at the top, a 6″ by 6″ painting on panel that is called Midnight Rider, based on and using the lyrics from the classic Allman Brothers song from 1970. Little piece of trivia: This was the A side of a single with another classic, Whipping Post, as the B side.

I really enjoy working on these sort of pieces. It’s a different mindset from my normal painting and it has the effect of cleansing the palate. Or maybe it’s palette in this case. These pieces have been fun and freeing. How they fit into my regular body of work, I can’t say. Guess it doesn’t really matter because even though I will show these pieces, they are actually done mainly for myself.

For this Sunday morning music, the song is–surprise,surprise!- Midnight Rider. I am showing two versions. The first is from the late Sharon Jones and her Dap-Kings. It was produced for a Lincoln Mercury ad but that doesn’t take away from the strength of the performance. The second is from a performance from the also now-deceased Gregg Allman on the Cher variety TV show in 1975. It features a vintage dance performance from Cher, the kind of thing that was a regularly seen on the variety shows of that time. You don’t see much of this kind of stuff anymore– maybe for good reason. But it’s fun, in a weird kind of way.

Take a look and enjoy your Sunday.

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“Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. For those who are near you are far away… and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast…. be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don’t torment them with your doubts and don’t frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn’t be able to comprehend. Seek out some simple and true feeling of what you have in common with them, which doesn’t necessarily have to alter when you yourself change again and again; when you see them, love life in a form that is not your own and be indulgent toward those who are growing old, who are afraid of the aloneness that you trust…. and don’t expect any understanding; but believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.”

― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

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I have always felt a companionship of sorts with the words of the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). I find the themes in his poetry and writings often echoing in the feelings and sensations of my own life.

Perhaps the piece of writing with which I feel the most connected is a series of letters he wrote between 1902 and 1908 to a young Army officer who was conflicted about the choice between pursuing a career either a military officer or a poet. The officer, Franz Xaver Kappus, released them as a book, Letters to a Young Poet, in 1929, three years after Rilke’s death from leukemia at the age of fifty one.

There is so much tremendous advice and guidance in his words that apply to anyone seeking a creative life. I have been mentoring a young artist as part of a program with a local arts organization and I only wish I could pass on a tiny fraction of Rilke’s advice to this artist. I had a very enjoyable talk with him the other day and while I believe there was some good advice given, it certainly didn’t approach the depth and breadth of that given by Rilke.

Take the bit at the top of the page, speaking of how to deal with the artist’s journey and growth. He describes the solitary nature of this journey, one that creates changes that sometimes take the artist mentally beyond and away from those people around him. That is the natural course for the artistic journey. In order to grow, the artist must be willing to seek and travel to places internally to which they cannot fully take or even properly describe to those around them.

This inner journey can be both a testing and a blessing. Finding common ground in which to live in this world with those around the artist is an important step in coping with this inner journey.

I didn’t mention that to the person I was mentoring. Maybe next time.

The painting at the top is from 2004 and is titled, appropriately, Common Ground. I definitely see the wise words from Rilke in this painting.

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In these gaudy times, we think we will shortly reach the point where everything is known, but the fact is we are ignoring the essential, which is love of all living things, of all beauty both visible and hidden.

–Georges Rouault (France, 1871- 1958)

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Looking at the work of Georges Rouault, I am as excited by it now as when I first encountered it many years ago. It is fearlessly painted and brimming with the fervor with which he imbued all his work. It makes me want to do better, makes me want to make marks that are absolute expressions and proof of my being in this world.

Inspiring stuff, indeed.

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Yesterday one of my all-time favorite baseball players, Mariano Rivera, was elected to the the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. He was the first player in the history of a hall of fame filled with legendary names to be elected unanimously. Every one of the voters recognized his ability and respected all that he contributed to the game. His stoic, respectful dominance is the ideal for lovers of the game. I know I sure miss seeing his number 42 running out of the outfield towards the mound. Here’s a post about Mo from back in 2011.

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I am a big fan of baseball. I classify myself as a Yankees fan currently but, though I revel in the rich history of the organization with names like Babe Ruth,Lou Gehrig, Joe Dimaggio, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle and on and on, it is the group of players that started their current run of success that made me fans of this team. Bernie Williams, Jose Posada, Andy Pettitte and, of course, Derek Jeter were constants over the last 15 years. All played significant roles in the restoring the Yankees to the top of the baseball heap.

But any fan who cares a lick about baseball knows that much of their success is due to one player, a rail thin man from Panama with the name Mariano Rivera, known to fans simply as Mo. Today he stands as the all-time leader in saves, meaning he is the pitcher who comes in at the ends of games when the outcome is in the balance and shuts down the threat from the other team. He is the closer, the most demanding position  in the game so far as absolute consistency is concerned. He either preserves the win or loses the game. No excuses accepted.

No one has been as consistent in protecting the lead for wins as Mo for the past 15 years, a remarkable time for a position where the strain and stress usually drains most closers after 7 or 8 years. Yankee fans have long felt the welcome comfort that comes with seeing number 42 come jogging through the outfield from the bullpen to enter the game. Even that number 42 is special.  Mariano will be the last player to wear the number since he is the last active player who was wearing number 42 at the time when Major League Baseball retired the number to honor Jackie Robinson.

Greener Pastures: 42

It’s hard to explain to non-baseball fans what Mo has meant to the Yankees and to baseball in general. He has carried himself for these years with great modesty and dignity, never showing up an opponent. On the mound, he has the appearance of the old gunfighter in the movie westerns of years gone by– wary but calm and collected, knowing that he must control his emotions to do what he must do. When the game is over, there are no histrionics, no yelling or posing or excessive fistpumps. He expects his success and usually flashes a small and sometimes sheepish grin as his teammates congratulate him.

It’s an attitude that has won him great respect around the game. Yesterday, when he broke the record, the Minnesota Twins, who came up short against Mo in this game, stayed after the game and gathered on the dugout steps to join the Yankee faithful in applauding the embarrassed star as he stood alone on the field. Even diehard Red Sox fans, who boo Jeter like he killed their mother, often give Mo a hearty cheer when he is announced at post-season or All Star games. [Note: When Mo retired in 2013, Red Sox fans gave him a long and loud standing ovation on his last appearance at Fenway]

He is a man of respect, both giving and receiving, a quality that hopefully will rub off on younger players.

Mo’s 41 years old and when he takes off his cap his scalp is bald now. He shows his age a bit but still performs at the highest level. As a fan I know there will not be many more times when number 42 calms the anxious Yankee fans as he jogs across the outfield toward the mound. I relish every appearance now, knowing that I am watching a legend, a player who will be talked about in the same breath with Ruth and Gehrig.

Deservedly so.

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We live in a time of chaos and confusion, amidst a constant bombardment of information and misinformation, an indecipherable babble of yelled opinions and enough stupidity to fill all the oceans and flood every coastline of this planet.

And that’s on a good day.

This morning I found myself longing for something, some music or reading, that would take me away from this maelstrom of madness. I came to the music of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt whose piece Tabula Rasa was a big influence on my early work.

His work is the antidote to the turbulence of our time. It is what I would call slow music. It is the sort of music that requires you to pause to hear it fully. Doing so slows down the elevated heartbeat, syncs it to a pace that seems to be a meditative drone that has long resided in us though we have long forgotten our ability to find it within ourselves.

For quite some time I have enjoyed Pärt’s adaptation of My Heart’s in the Highlands, which is a 1789 poem/song from the Scottish poet Robert Burns. Listening to it reminds me of the time spent alone wandering in the woods and fields in the hills around our home as a youth. Those times had that same pace, that same heartbeat and silence that made it so memorable in my mind.

Many times I have found my mind wandering back to those times and the spaces and silences that created a sense of home within me. Burns’ words speak a truth for me especially in these times so filled with sound and fury.

Allow yourself to pause for a moment and give a listen. Perhaps you will find your own heart in the highlands…

My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,

My heart’s in the Highlands a-chasing the deer –

A-chasing the wild deer, and following the roe;

My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go.

Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North

The birth place of Valour, the country of Worth;

Wherever I wander, wherever I rove,

The hills of the Highlands forever I love.

Farewell to the mountains high cover’d with snow;

 Farewell to the straths and green valleys below;  

Farewell to the forrests and wild-hanging woods;

Farwell to the torrents and loud-pouring floods.

My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,

My heart’s in the Highlands a-chasing the deer

Chasing the wild deer, and following the roe;

My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go.

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Ben Shahn

Ben Shahn -Jersey Homesteads (Roosevelt NJ) Mural

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The artist must operate on the assumption that the public consists in the highest order of individual; that he is civilized, cultured, and highly sensitive both to emotional and intellectual contexts. And while the whole public most certainly does not consist in that sort of individual, still the tendency of art is to create such a public – to lift the level of perceptivity, to increase and enrich the average individual’s store of values… I believe that it is in a certain devotion to concepts of truth that we discover values.

–Ben Shahn

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Born in Lithuania in 1898, Ben Shahn emigrated to America with his family in 1906. Throughout his career, up until his death in 1969, Shahn’s early training as a lithographer and graphic designer played a large part in his work, giving it a symbolic visual impact that made him one of he leading lights of social realist artists. His work often dealt with the human condition, particularly that of the common man.

Ben Shahn- The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti

While many of the themes in his work were labeled as leftist, his work championed civil rights and workers’ rights and stood against injustice and prejudice. He did a large series of works devoted to Sacco and Vanzetti. Designed to communicate a distinctly human point of view, his work always had a profound voice, one that called for the betterment of all people.

His was the work of the Everyman.

As he said: The natural reaction of the artist will be strongly towards bringing man back into focus as the center of importance.

I think that is a very important thing to keep in mind as is the quote at the top of the post, about how an artist must aspire to the highest human values of the public, even though they may not actually possess these qualities, with the hope that the artist’s work can lift them to a higher level. It’s a thought that should linger in the mind of any artist who hopes and desires to make a true difference in this world with their work.

I am not giving a lot of details here about the life and career of Shahn. But I hope the few that I have shared along with some of his images will inspire you to take a closer look at this interesting and important voice in modern art.

Ben Shahn- Father and Child 1946

Ben Shahn- The Burial Society

Ben Shahn- Nocturne

Ben Shahn- Four Piece Orchestra 1944

Ben Shahn- Self Portrait Among Churchgoers

Ben Shahn- Two Witnesses

Ben Shahn- Unemployment

 

 

 

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