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Archive for the ‘Influences’ Category

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Marc Chagall Sun of ParisWhen I am finishing a picture I hold some God-made object up to it–a rock, a flower, the branch of a tree or my hand– as a kind of final test. If the painting stands up beside a thing man cannot make, the painting is authentic. If there’s a clash between the two, it is bad art.

–Marc Chagall

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I have only mentioned Marc Chagall  here once over the 6+ years I have been doing this blog and I very seldom list him as one of my influences or even one of my favorite artists. But somehow he always seems to be sitting prominently there at the end of the day, both as a favorite and an influence.

One way in which his influence takes  form is in the way in which he created a unique visual vocabulary of symbolism within his work. His soaring people, his goats and horses and angels all seem at once mythic yet vaguely reminiscent of our own dreams, part of each of us but hidden deeply within.

They are mysterious but familiar.

marc-chagall-fishermans-family-1968And that’s a quality– mysterious and familiar– that I sought for my own symbols: the Red Chair, the Red Tree and the anonymous houses, for examples. That need to paint familiar objects that could take on other aspects of meaning very much came from Chagall’s paintings.

He also exerted his influence in the way in which he painted, distinct and as free-flowing as a signature. It was very much what I would call his native voice. Not affected or trying to adhere to any standards, just coming off his brush freely and naturally.

An organic expression of himself.  And that is something I have sought since I first began painting– my own native voice, one in which I painted as easily and without thought as I would write my signature.

So to read how Chagall judged his work for authenticity makes me consider how I validate my own work. It’s not that different. I use the term a sense of rightness to describe what I am seeking in the work which is the same sense one gets when you pick up a stone and consider it. Worn through the ages, untouched for the most part by man, it is precisely what it is. It’s form and feel are natural and organic. There is just an inherent rightness to it. I hope for that same sense when I look at my work and I am sure that it is not far from the feeling Chagall sought when he compared his own work to a rock or a flower or his own hand.

Marc Chagall Song of Songs

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There are a few paintings in my show, Haven, which opens on Friday at the Principle Gallery, that feature intertwined trees. One such piece, a 24″ by 30″ canvas titled Nuptiae, is shown above.

It’s a motif that I have used a number of times over many years. I have always liked the manner in which climbing vines embrace embrace their host trees. There’s often a sensuous physicality in the curves and bends of their united trunks that makes it easy to see them in human terms. This human equivalency is something I have tried to pull out of my landscapes. Early on, this was the simple basis for the handful of intertwined trees paintings I created.

But I received a request for a commission that changed the meaning of these paintings for me. A couple was about to celebrate their tenth anniversary and wanted a painting to mark the occasion. They shared an affinity for the Greek myth of Baucis and Philemon and wanted the painting to reflect the tale’s tone and moral.

Nuptiae, at the top, is my most recent interpretation of the story. It’s a painting that was nothing but a pleasure to paint, one of those pieces that fall off the brush almost on their own and every move made feels right. Even so, the final result exceeded what I saw for it when I first envisioned it.

Below is what I wrote back in 2010. It’s a simple retelling of the myth as I know it.

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I often get requests for commissioned work but usually am not excited by the prospect of being dictated to in the creation of my work, actually turning down many that get too specific in their requirements. I want my paintings to reflect my thought process and emotion as well as my craft. As a result, I have an informal set of rules that let me have free rein in the creation of the work so that the painting is allowed to form in an organic way. Not forced, which often takes away the vitality of many pieces, in my opinion. 

But this particular request is unlike many others that I receive. They want this piece to relate the story of the classic myth of Baucis and Philemon, which is the tale of a poor but happy couple who are unknowingly visited by Zeus and Hermes disguised as dusty travelers. Beggars, actually. 

Coming into their village earlier, the two gods had went door to door among their neighbors seeking hospitality and were rebuffed in every attempt, often with harsh words. Zeus became angry as door after door was slammed in his face. Finally, they came to the door of the shack of Baucis and Philemon, by far the poorest looking home in the village. 

Upon knocking, they were greeted warmly by an elderly couple who welcomed them in to their impoverished but clean home and treated them with what little they had in the way of food and drink. They were gracious and hospitable, seeking to give comfort to the strangers. As the night wore on, the couple, who had been serving their simple wine to the travelers from a pitcher, noticed that the pitcher stayed full even after many pours. They began to suspect that these were not mere beggars but were, in fact, gods. 

They apologized to the gods for not having much to put before them then offered to catch their prized goose, which was really a pet, and cook it for them. The old couple chased the goose around the shack until finally the frightened creature found sanctuary on the laps of the gods. Stroking the now safe goose, Zeus then informed them of their identities and, after complimenting them on their hospitality and speaking of the mean-spiritedness of their neighbors, instructed the couple to follow them.

They climbed upon a rise where Zeus told them to stop and look back. Where once their town had stood was nothing but water from a deluge that had washed away everything including all the townsfolk who had insulted Zeus. From where their poor home had been, a majestic golden-roofed temple with sparkling marble pillars rose from the receding waters. 

Zeus told the couple that this would be their new home and asked what wish he could grant them. They asked that they be made priests, guardians of this temple and that they should always remain together until the ends of their lives. Seeing their obvious love for each other, Zeus readily agreed. The couple lived for many more years together, reaching a prodigious age.

One day they stood together in their old age and all the past moments from their life and love together flooded over them. Baucis saw leaves and limbs sprouting from Philemon and realized that the same thing was happening to her. Standing on the plain outside the temple, they transformed into two trees, an oak and a linden, that grew from the same trunk, their limbs intertwined, eternally together. 

That’s a simple re-telling of the tale but I think you can see why this couple might want a symbol of this story to mark their time together…

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Arthur Dove- Me and the Moon 1937

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We cannot express the light in nature because we have not the sun. We can only express the light we have in ourselves.

–Arthur Dove

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Really busy morning getting my upcoming Principle Gallery show ready. It seems there is just not enough time in the day and when there is, I don’t have the stamina to take advantage of it. Thought I’d share a few words from the Modernist painter Arthur Dove (1880-1846) who was someone I looked to when I was first beginning to paint. I liked the way he merged abstraction and representation in his work and how he used recurring elements in his work. The ball/circle shape that I use so often as my sun/moon always makes me think of Dove.

He was also from the Finger Lakes region of New York, born and raised in Canandaigua and educated up the road at Cornell. While that may hold no importance in his work, it interested me because it made me wonder how he saw the same things I have often seen in this area. How did this environment shape the way he saw and expressed the world?

Anyway, here are a few of my favorites along with a video of his work set to a nice Schubert piece.

Arthur Dove -River Bottom – 1923

Arthur Dove- Sunrise– 1924

Arthur Dove- Willow Tree — 1934

 

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Too busy this morning but I can always find a few minutes to take in some work from Georges Rouault (1871-1958). His work has for me a real sense of rightness, a certitude that makes even his roughest brushstrokes seem both perfectly placed and necessary.

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Marsden Hartley- Himmel 1915

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I have come to the conclusion that it is better to have two colors in right relation to each other than to have a vast confusion of emotional exuberance. . . I had rather be intellectually right than emotionally exuberant.

–Marsden Hartley
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I have been a fan of the paintings of Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) for some time now. I was reading about him earlier and came across this quote  that caught my attention, making me think about what I hoped to accomplish in my own work.
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I often speak about creating work that has an immediate emotional impact achieved with colors and forms. But maybe, as Hartley’s words have prompted me to think, this first purely visceral and emotional impact is pure exuberance. Just a gut reaction that comes in that instant before the mind has time to engage.
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A shout that makes you turn and look.
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While that is good and desired, it’s doubtful that it can stand by itself and have a lasting effect unless it has an intellectual aspect to engage the viewer’s mind. There needs to be a balance between the mind and the gut.
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If you turn at hearing a shout and the person doing the shouting is shouting just to make you turn and has nothing more to say to you, you keep moving and soon forget that person. But if you turn and the shouter has something more to offer, you might linger a bit to consider what is being said and engage in a conversation.
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When you do move on, you take something from this engagement with you, something that will stay with you.
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I am not sure this an apt analogy but it immediately came to mind on reading Hartley’s words. I don’t exactly know how this mind/gut balance works or how it can be accomplished in reality. Maybe even consciously trying to do so throws the whole thing off kilter.
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It’s early in the morning and I am just thinking here. Time to go try to put it into action…

Marsden Hartley- Portrait of a German Officer 1914

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When you think of painting as painting it is rather absurd. The real world is before us – glorious sunlight and activity and fresh air, and high speed motor cars and television, all the animation – a world apart from a little square of canvas that you smear paint on.

–Wayne Thiebaud

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These words from the great contemporary painter Wayne Thiebaud ring completely true for me. I have talked and written many times before about those moments in the studio when I suddenly find the whole idea of painting, of smearing paint on some surface, completely absurd. The whole idea of making these two-dimensional things that represent inner feelings about the outer world seems suddenly abstract and, to be honest, a little ridiculous.

It’s a little like waking up one day to find yourself standing in your yard with a forked stick in your hand. You began by thinking it was a divining rod that would mysteriously lead you to something valuable but in that moment you realize you’re just a fool standing in your yard with a stick.

Believe me, there are days when I feel like a fool standing in a room with a stick in my hands. Of course, my stick has bristles with paint on them but it might as well just be a stick in those moments.

But somehow that feeling passes and I find myself immersed back in my own little world and that stick returns to being a divining rod.

Wayne Thiebaud has long been a favorite of mine.  Most people associate his name with his paintings of  cakes, ice cream and confections with their bold colors and beautiful thick brushstrokes. They are wonderful but for me, his most striking work are his landscapes, often set from a high perspective.  They have such great color and their compositions feel as much like abstraction as they do realism.

Just plain good stuff.

I always feel inspired by this work, moving me to try to find that same balance in my own work.

Here’s a video of his confectionery works, which is, as I said, his more popular work. I haven’t found video with his landscapes but this is still a good intro to his best known work.

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While searching for a piece of music to feature here this morning, I found myself looking over at this new painting shown here as I listened to the music. As usual, the search had me running down rabbit holes that sent me in all different directions, none that satisfied me enough to want to share it.

Then I somehow ended up on this modern classical piano piece from composer Phillip Glass, Etude No. 14, played by pianist Vikingur Olafsson. There’s a part in it, starting at about 1:15, that the sound and this painting just seemed to mesh for me, filling out the feeling that I was experiencing as I was taking it in.

It is a painting that is still on the easel, near completion or so I think. I am in that part of the process where I am still examining it, absorbing it to see what it has for me, what it’s trying to say to and for me. And here, the music created a narrative line that pulled me and the image together.

It’s hard to explain. Everybody sees art differently, having different expectations of what they hope to extract from it, if anything. I think a lot of folks don’t even think about those expectations and just react to what is before them. I do that as well and it is generally gives a true response.

But more often I see art as an existential puzzle with pieces that provide clues as to our meaning and purpose. There are works that attract me and I search them for these clues, trying to figure out if there are answers or where it will send me next in my search. In this painting, the Glass music helped me see what I had only sensed before.

As I said, it’s hard to explain.

Anyway, give a listen and have yourself a good Sunday. By the way, I am calling this painting Etude No. 14.

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