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The masses do not see the Sirens. They do not hear songs in the air. Blind, deaf, stooping, they pull at their oars in the hold of the earth. But the more select, the captains, harken to a Siren within them… and royally squander their lives with her.

–Nikos Kazantzakis

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I am still working on the Multitudes paintings with their masses of eyeless faces. It’s work that is consuming, acting as a siren of sorts, drawing me to it and keeping me from moving on to other things. It is much like author Nikos Kazantzakis describes above.

It reminds me also of a newer painting shown at the top that was finished just before jumping into the Multitudes pieces. It is a 24″ by 18″ canvas that I am titling Call of the Siren. It incorporates the Red Tree and the Red Roofs along with a band of color at the bottom that represents the sea.

This bottom section has a pattern that seen with the vertical piers of the dock creates a pattern that feels Greek to me. It wasn’t intended and I can’t say if this pattern, as I see it, is really Greek in origin. But it feels that way to me and perhaps brings the thought of the Sirens of Greek mythology to mind when I look at this piece.

Another thing I note in this painting is the the massed buildings of the town seem to form a fence It is another barrier, beyond the sea journey that brought them here, that must be overcome for those who are called by the Sirens. And once one has made it over wide waters and through treacherous cities, there is still a hill to be climbed.

The Sirens never makes things easy.

I know this to be true– I’ve royally squandered much of my life chasing their song.

 

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Walt Whitman: Song of Myself, Part 51

 

The past and present wilt—I have fill’d them, emptied them.

And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.

Listener up there! what have you to confide to me?

Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening,

(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.)

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

I concentrate toward them that are nigh, I wait on the door-slab.

Who has done his day’s work? who will soonest be through with his supper?

Who wishes to walk with me?

Will you speak before I am gone? will you prove already too late?

 

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The image shown on the right is another new painting, a 36″ by 18″ canvas that is part of a new group that has drawn a great deal of my attention lately in the studio. They are large groups of faces that are painted in an almost subconscious manner, with little if any forethought given as to how they relate to the surrounding faces. They emerge from dashes of paint and quickly rendered shapes that cause me to simply find human form in them.

It is very intuitive work. It reminds me very much of the process involved in painting the subterranean artifact layers in my Archaeology series. Just make a mark then transform it into something tangible, something possible.

I have known most of these faces for forty or fifty years. They have lived in me, have emerged periodically on bits of paper, on journal pages and in the margins of the newspaper. Some have shown themselves individually in some of my work through the years– the Exiles, Outlaws and Icons series for example.

But they all seem familiar to me. Some possess a pleasant and friendly aura and others much less so. Some are ugly and bitter in appearance. Some even seem evil and worry me a bit, causing me to ask if they are all just variations of my own self.

I don’t really know.

Part of me says yes. I was instantly reminded of the line from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself  (shown above):  Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself,/(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Whitman’s grand poem had him speaking as the voice of the collective consciousness of mid-18th century America, a voice that encompassed all sorts of people and attitudes that make up the stewpot that is this country, then and now. As an artist, the hope is that your own work taps into that same vein, that it speaks to connects with the wider spectrum of people. So, in doing this, in attempting to access this collective multitude, to pull them all from your own inner self.  To do so, you have to find that part of yourself that is part of all of them.

Can it be hope and love? Fear and anger? Or just the emotion of being?

I don’t really know.

What I do know is that there is something in this work that seems right for the moment.  Seeing these groups of faces had me wondering how this had slipped by me for so long. It feels natural, like it should have been part of my work for some time now.

So how had I not did this before? I think the answer is that I needed to develop the skills and visual vocabulary to do these pieces in a way that used the faces in the most impactful way. If I had did this years ago, I think it would have been lacking the color, rhythm and forms needed to make them effective. Those are all things that have come from years and many tens pf thousands of hours in the studio. For me, these paintings are a great coupling of subject-these crude faces– and those elements– color, rhythm and form. I find myself attracted as much by the colors and shapes as I am by the individual faces.

I am considering calling this group Multitudes from the line from Uncle Walt. Or it might still be Masks from the for the appearance the faces have with their dark eyelessness.

I am still trying to figure this out so excuse this off the cuff writing. There are a lot of thoughts emerging and growing even as I write this so I reserve the right to change to contradict myself at some later point. Like Walt, if I contradict myself, so be it — I am large, I contain multitudes.

 

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There is an exhibit currently hanging at the Rockwell Museum in Corning of photos from photographer Yousuf Karsh, who had an incredible ability to capture the essence of his subjects. Many of his shots of the celebrated figures of the 20th century are the best known images of those folks. I saw an exhibit of his work years ago and was really inspired by it. It played directly into a piece from my Exiles series at the time that I wrote about here back in 2008 that I am sharing again below.

The Karsh exhibit at the Rockwell Museum in Corning hangs until May 5.

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Blue GuitarThis is another of the paintings from the Exiles series, a piece titled Exiles: Blue Guitar. This was larger than the other paintings in the series and was the most intricate in design. It was the only piece to show a full body, more or less. The crimson sheets beneath the figure are certainly not typical of my work. Even the blue guitar was an anomaly. I think these things, in themselves, make this a distinctive painting and one that is perhaps the one piece I most regret letting go.

I remember painting this piece back in ’96 with great clarity. The face was based on a portrait of the Finnish composer Sibelius taken by Karshthe famed photographer. I had seen the photo at a wonderful and powerful exhibit of Karsh portraits at the MFA in Boston that knocked me out. Karsh had a knack for revealing the essence of his subjects in a single image.

I was immediately taken with the image of Sibelius’ face. It expressed bliss, but not joy. A painful bliss, perhaps an ecstasy tempered by the knowledge that the world is an imperfect one and that this moment of grace is a fleeting one, soon to be gone. It was exactly the expression I saw for my guitarist and one that I wanted the whole piece to convey.

This painting was the centerpiece of my first exhibit many years ago and remains vividly in my memory. Eventually, I went back in and darkened the background which made the guitarist pop even more. But the images of that change have been lost over the years which I greatly regret. This piece sold years ago and I now have no idea of where this painting ended up. I hope that whoever possesses this piece appreciates all that it represents and gives this sad, blissful guitarist a bit of attention now and then.

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Note: The opening for the for the 25th Anniversary exhibit at the Principle Gallery is next Friday, February 22. I mistakenly wrote here the other day that it was tonight because, well, I get confused and make mistakes sometimes. My apologies for any confusion. Hope you can make it to the show next week!

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This Sunday morning’s musical selection is tied somewhat to a group of new work that has been rekindling my fire here in the studio. I’ve shown a couple of images of new paintings here and on social media of what I might call my Mask pieces.

Each has been a group of faces that is done in quick strokes from a single brush, starting from one point and filling the canvas. It is unplanned in almost every way. No color plan. No theme. Just intuitively and roughly formed faces that stem from a lifelong collection of faces that have been stacked in my head, culled from looking intently at clouds, woodgrains and patterns of all sorts through the many decades. Seeing them spill out in this way has been energizing in a way that I know from experience will spill over into the rest of my work even if this particular work remains for me privately.

I haven’t been thrilled with how the camera is catching the images thus far. They have been quick photos that don’t fully capture much of the subtlety in the closer parts of the painting. So when the musical selection came up this morning, this section of one of the paintings jumped out at me. I thought showing it in detail would better show how I am seeing the work.

The song selection is the jazz standard Born to Be Blue, written by Mel Torme in 1946. It’s been performed by scores of singers over the years but it became a signature piece for the late Chet Baker.which is the version I am sharing below. In fact, a 2015 film biography of his life starring Ethan Hawke as Baker uses the song title as the film’s title. This version highlights his vocals rather than his horn work and features great piano playing from Bobby Scott.

Hearing it made me think of a blue face that I consider a central character in one of these pieces. At least my eye always lands on him first before roaming across the rest of the picture. The image at the top is a detail featuring him and shows better some of the surface and textures that compose the painting.

That being said, I am eager to get back to work on a new piece in this same style. Enjoy the song and have a great Sunday.

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Max Beckmann- The Actors 1941

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What I want to show in my work is the idea which hides itself behind so-called reality. I am seeking for the bridge which leans from the visible to the invisible through reality. It may sound paradoxical, but it is in fact reality which forms the mystery of our existence.

–Max Beckmann

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For some reason, the work of Max Beckmann has never found its way to this blog. I have had an affinity with his work for many years. Part of that no doubt comes from the black linework that is present in much of his work as a result of his beginning his paintings on a black painted surface, which is something very familiar to my own process. This allowed his colors to expand off the surface, again something with which I can associate. This made his colors feel brighter and bolder, giving his work a look that separated itself from the bulk of other artists in the German Expressionist movement with which he is most often associated.

Max Beckmann- Self Portrait with Champagne Glass 1919

Beckmann was born in Leipzig, Germany in 1884 and from an early age showed a talent for painting. His first self portrait was painted at the age of 14. His self portraiture was an important aspect of his work as he painted at least 85 versions over the course of his life. Perhaps only Picasso and Rembrandt have documented themselves more.

Beckmann served as a medic during the First World War and the chaos and violence he experienced served to inspire his work for coming decade of the 1920’s. Working in Berlin in post-war Weimar Germany, Beckmann became a star, his work darkly documenting the existential doom that seems to mark Berlin of that time. But with the rise of Hitler, Beckmann’s light faded in Germany. He was a major target for Hitler’s wrath toward what he termed Degenerate Art and fled to Amsterdam in 1937. There, he desperately (and unsuccessfully) tried a number of times to get a visa to the USA.

But he survived the war and in 1948 emigrated to the USA. Over the course of the next three years, he taught painting at Washington University in St. Louis and the Brooklyn Museum. He died from a heart attack days after Christmas in 1950 on a Manhattan street corner as he was on his way to see one of his paintings at the Metropolitan Museum.

As I said, I have always felt drawn to his work. His words speak equally as powerfully to me. He often writes of his attempts to decipher the mystery of existence that is present in the mundane. I think I can understand that.

Hope you can take some time to look over his work a bit more.

Max Beckmann- Family Picture 1920

Max Beckmann- Still Life with Three Skulls 1945

Max Beckmann- Self Portrait with Trumpet 1938

Max Beckmann- The Night 1918-1919

Max Beckmann- The King 1938

Max Beckmann- Paris Society 1931

Max Beckmann- Before the Masked Ball 1922

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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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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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