Saturday, August 21, 2010

a few more musings

Yesterday I had the privilege of being present at the final practice for a concert that my friend and cello teacher, Bonnie, is giving tonight with her sister, Marilyn, a fine pianist.  The Mangold Sisters rehearsed their program for an audience of two (and then thanked us for coming!), and I was granted the opportunity to listen to two fine musicians play challenging and beautiful music without distraction or interruption.

The experience drew me directly back into some of the observations about abstract art that I have been considering.  One is the non-verbal aspect of both abstract art and instrumental music.  Another is the quality of non-reproduced experiences.

The tide of response to the music that I felt yesterday was not verbal;  I let go of words and thoughts for entire passages of melody and harmony, and just responded viscerally and instinctively.  My response was not exactly emotional, either, at least in the sense that I didn't identify sadness, elation, or any other specific feeling at any given moment.  At intervals, I was left to wonder whether it is possible to really dwell in such non-verbal moments, and how to deal with them, without words.  I'm not trying to be cute, here -- I really wonder about being non-verbal;  I have lived a very word-oriented life.  It seems to be a very human instinct to react to something by naming it, describing it, defining it.  Otherwise...?  Of course, this related back directly to my musings about abstract art being non-verbal (you can't name an object, for example, if it is not there) and non-narrative.  The same questions apply.

The other overwhelming quality of yesterday's experience was the immediacy of the live performance, unmediated by even other audience members, much less recording equipment and reproduction processes.  Adorno and Horkheimer of the Frankfurt School (see 8/14 post) were much concerned about the mechanical reproduction of what was once left alone in a single original for individual perception.  That a live performance, be it of music, drama, or visual art, loses a certain quality when recorded and replayed, is fairly obvious.  True, the genius of a cinematographer can enhance a film experience by guiding the eye of the viewer, but it also takes away the freedom of the viewer to experience directly the live production and to decide for herself what to focus on. Adorno and Horkheimer posit that the mechanical reproduction of beauty automatically negates the very beauty itself, in that a reproduction cannot evoke the deep reactions that an original can.  If nothing else, the immediacy of confronting an original is lost.  This hit home during the rehearsal yesterday in terms of music. It is also true about an abstract painting.  Don't we all complain, for example, that the photograph of a given painting never does it justice?  And how can it, when just the three-dimensionality of texture in the original is flattened onto the photographic plane?  Not to mention color shifts, etc.  There is no replacement for the full experience of viewing the original.

It took me a week to summon the courage to post the entry of 8/14 for eyes other than mine to see.  But it helped clarify some of my thoughts about the attraction that abstract painting holds for me.  And now I am up-to-date with getting my posts online.  The image above is of a 16"x16" panel, begun at the Longmont workshop, finished yesterday.  I called it "Sans mots" -- "without words".

(For those interested in further lofty thought along these lines, the source is a text titled The Dialectic of Enlightenment by the two authors cited above.  An online source for it can be found at Frankfurt School: The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.  It's pretty highfalutin' stuff, but can be useful in sorting out how we artists approach our art.)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

just painting

Perhaps in reaction to the mind-stretching exercises of the last post, I celebrated my birthday today with a free-paint session in the studio.  I didn't worry about lofty philosophical questions (were they a reaction to the pain in my wrist and hand?), I just immersed myself in materials and processes.  I have a good dozen small panels hanging on the pegboard wall that were started last spring but have a long ways to go, so it was easy to just pick one up and put down a layer of paint and cold wax, then pick up another and draw, then go to another and scrape, as the spirit moved me.  A nice antidote to perhaps too much thinking.  I don't know whether these will be individual pieces or will be grouped, and it will be fun to see what happens.

The image at left is the final version of an 8"x8" panel begun at the workshop.  I don't know what to call it, but I like it.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

practice and philosophy

The last couple of posts have focused on the practice and techniques of oil & cold wax painting, and the ways in which the Longmont workshop reinforced and augmented them for me.  The workshop also enhanced my thoughts and perceptions about abstraction, partly from Rebecca's notebook (see the post of August 6th) and partly from observing the work of the other painters.  On a day when I'm not painting (the broken wrist is out of its brace, but is hurting badly), I decided to pull together some of those thoughts and perceptions, primarily through the article by Fendrich, and to pursue the philosophy behind the practice.

Writing at the turn of the century, the author first lists what abstract painting  is not: It is not a vehicle for sociopolitical change, avant-garde shock, mass audience popularity, or "Deep Hidden Meaning".  She then discusses what abstract painting is.  It is about ideas (order vs chaos, organic vs geometric, for example).  It is about being quiet.  It is about the "hidden, underlying order" of things rather than things themselves.  It is about beauty.  It is about an all-at-once presentation that has no narrative.  It is uncomputer-like and uncamera-like.  All of these to some extent are in contrast to our mass-produced, consumer-oriented popular culture, and they remind me of the tenets of the Frankfurt School of philosophy and its protest against the mass production of culture.

This is one author's view, and I am certain that all of her assertions are open to argument.  But, as it happens, they resonate with me.  Why am I interested in abstraction?  Because it does deal with deep ideas: one cannot simply slap paint down and call it an abstract painting.  One cannot copy a vase on a mantel and call it quits.  Just deciding whether to paint in dark sepias or in brilliant jewel tones can raise the philosophical question of what message one wants to send and what response one wants from a viewer, and how well a chosen hue will do that. The painter creates contrasts and tensions, then has to resolve them -- or not.  This decision alone -- and it is one among many that crop up in the process -- requires careful thought.  As far as being quiet is concerned, to me a good abstract painting makes me stop and look, makes me be quiet, leads me to contemplation and even meditation.  Similarly, to the extent that it is not pictorial, abstract art doesn't portray things, but refers to the truths that exist below things.  Does it manifest unity or disorder?  Harmony or discord?  The process of abstraction offers the opportunity to consider both objectification and reification -- how philosophical can ya' get?

To continue down Fendrich's list, if I have a goal in painting, it is to create beauty.  Similarly, it is a goal of mine with my paintings to pull people out of the narratives of their everyday lives, not only the narratives of their own experiences, but the narratives that surround them in the many media that dominate modern culture.  And, finally, I value highly the almost anti-photographic quality of abstract art that rests in its core non-representational character.  I have talked elsewhere about my dislike of paintings that look like imitation photographs, and photography itself, while occasionally producing works of art, is to me mostly a medium for capturing memories and group moments for future popular reference.

The image above is a recent work by Rebecca Crowell, "Leaves" (8.5"x8.5", mixed media on paper).  It embodies, for me, many of the qualities discussed above.  I include it with her permission.  It is interesting that we so often choose titles for our abstract pieces that refer back to the non-abstract world, perhaps to give the viewer an entry point into the painting.

I have held onto this post for nearly a week, since I am not sure that I explain myself at all well.  But I've done the best I can for the moment and if, in future, I reread this and am critical, I'll try to amend it then.  So, out it goes, posted under its original date, now almost a week ago.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

new phase in the continuum

As I anticipated, I returned from the Longmont workshop to my studio and my former cold wax pieces with a new perspective. The approaches and techniques that we practiced in the workshop add new layers not just physically but also philosophically to the work I am doing. The pre-broken-wrist pieces from last June that remain in my studio are clearly barely begun, and while I knew they needed a few more layers even back then, it is obvious now that they aren't even started, in many ways. I have acquired, along with new techniques, a patience and an inquisitiveness that were nascent but undeveloped before the workshop. To be truly curious about how a given panel will evolve leads to an increased engagement with the process, and it becomes more of a give-and-take than a straightforward, linear path of object creation. And just as the plateau landscape in which I live took eons to evolve, the fully developed oil-and-cold-wax painting requires a slow approach, a long series of mindful applications of pigment and texture that cannot be rushed through if the final piece is to reach fulfillment.  I came home from the workshop with the group of pieces shown above, all more fully developed than the pieces I made for the gallery show, none ready to be considered finished.

At the same time, I am glad that I went through the process last spring of creating the pieces for the gallery show without the benefit of the workshop. For one thing, I got more out of the workshop with those pieces already under my belt, as it were. But also, through those early pieces I began to develop a language of my own that stands me in good stead as I watch and learn the approaches of other artists using much the same procedures. One of the notable outcomes of the Longmont workshop was the diversity of finished product from the eight artists present. Everyone clearly had their own voice.  And though we felt free to borrow from each other, I had no qualms about being imitative or unoriginal (ghosts from earlier years of being "taught" to paint), thanks in part to the months spent developing the show that is now over.  With no such specific deadline now on the horizon, and armed with the inspiration and energy provided by the workshop, I feel ready to continue the next phase of exploration of the abstract.

Monday, August 9, 2010

workshop impressions

I write from Glenwood Springs, CO, on my way home from the three-day oil & wax workshop in Longmont. Three days of creativity and comraderie, away from the distractions of normal daily life, have been a real treat. A highlight was meeting and spending time with Rebecca Crowell (at left), who led the workshop and generously shared her experience and knowledge about cold wax techniques. Also a highlight and unexpected pleasure was the group of artists who gathered together, all accomplished, practicing, questioning people, and the attitude of curiosity and willingness to explore and share that everyone brought to the occasion.

Three intense days have left my mind, for the moment, rather dazed and tiredly unreflective in any deep way. But I want to capture the top layer, as it were, of memories and impressions from the workshop, before time and new adventures erase them. For me, the essence of the workshop, in painting terms, was the opportunity to try new techniques, layering paint on more thickly and in more layers than I had previously done. Each layer had its texture, but those marks were not ends in themselves; rather they were destined to be the lower strata of the eventual painting, perhaps buried, perhaps uncovered, but even if hidden, contributing to the whole, just as the worm fossil a thousand feet down in the sandstone contributes to the eventual cliffs and canyons that we see. Because these layers were not the final, I could dare to take chances, to ruin, to bring back from ruin. Very freeing, very fun, yet also requiring a certain degree of mindfulness and thought.

Many new (to me) techniques added richness to this layering process. Among the most memorable: Using powdered charcoal and pigments, either sprinkled on and brayered in, or rubbed on lightly with a soft rag, or dissolved in solvent and brushed on. Marking and immediately smoothing over the mark, or burying it under new paint. Brushing on marks of solvent, and wiping them off to reveal the layer underneath. Contrasting quiet, calm surfaces with active areas. Troweling on the thick bottom layers, and encouraging random cracks and fissures to inform upper layers. Drawing with vine charcoal on a dry surface, to be covered with new paint. Using plain cold wax to seal charcoal or pigment that has been applied dry. Crumpling brown paper, newsprint, wax paper, or saran, and brayering over it on top of wet paint. Drawing and making marks with a bamboo skewer. Brushing with a broom.

Various other thoughts: Creating contrasts within a panel (colors, textures, sections, calm/active, warm/cold, dark/light, etc.) versus creating contrasts among panels. Are these two fundamentally different approaches: to create a panel to stand alone versus creating a panel to be one element among several? Playing with elements: if a panel's hues are analogous or subtle, vary the activeness of the surface through texture. If there's a lot of color change, calm down the texture. Apply a new layer of paint, deliberately leaving a section or a rectangle (for example) of the contrasting lower layer exposed.

This barely covers the surface of the richness of the workshop, but I hope it will be enough to trigger further reflections down the road. I owe thanks to everyone involved.

Friday, August 6, 2010

catching up to abstraction

from the Longmont workshop:

notes derived from Robecca's binder on abstraction, which she loaned me, fodder for much further thought:

the analogy of abstract art and instrumental music -- the analogy is to non-choral music, without verbal references, just as purely abstract art has no identifiable visual images. the idea of communicating via structure and basic artistic elements and intuitive ideas, things that stimulate the imagination and memory without specific representation. how does a painting relate to a cello sonata?

defining a "way of seeing" -- how do we each see the world? some see line, others multidimensional space, etc. "haptics", the sense of oneself physically as a body in the environment -- incorporating implied touch, intuition about distance and proportion, the feeling of masses and volumes in relation to each other and oneself. does this, for me, relate to dance?

Piri Halasz: understanding abstraction as "multi-referential". the essential point here is that abstraction, rather than having no reference, actually refers to qualities common to more than one reference or phenomena.

interesting article to get a copy of: Laurie Fendrich, "Why abstract painting still matters", Drawing us in: how we experience visual art. Chasman & Chiang, eds. Beacon Press, 2000.

Robert Genn on abstract art -- search his archives.

Too tired to deal with any of this tonight.