Thursday, April 7, 2011

marks and symbols

I have for some time been trying to develop a graphic language of my own that I  -- and, I hope, others -- will recognize as mine.  This has been a sporadic effort, and I have given relatively little quality attention to it, partly because when I do address the issue, I am quickly frustrated.

Recently, thinking about the desire that my work reflect my Colorado Plateau surroundings, I wondered if petroglyph and pictograph art might provide the key to a language of my own.  I pulled out our books on the topic, and enthusiastically began marking paintings with Anasazi designs. Many of these are abstract symbols of the natural world -- sun, moon, earth -- that I thought might blend well with my work.  The example at left, from Jim Beard's website, gives the flavor of such designs.  After a few experiments, however, I decided that they don't work.  Or, rather, the designs do, but I am not comfortable with superficially pulling meaningful marks from a culture that is not my own.  Even though I intend no harm, and even try to honor the designs, it seems almost offensive to me, to simply lift  whole images into my work.  Also, it feels as I imagine it would feel to copy Chinese characters onto my paintings:  I don't understand fully their meaning, and they are not my voice.

So, my quest continues.  Georgia O'Keeffe famously quoted Arthur Wesley Dow's admonition to "fill space in a beautiful way" as she painted, and it is also one of my maxims.  This requires, however, a spiritual and/or philosophical integrity that goes beyond just the aesthetics of the painting, and I learned something about myself in my brief winter experiment with Native American symbolism.  Back to the hard bench: I have to develop my own marks, not borrow someone else's, no matter how powerful and beautiful they may be.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

time and travel

I am writing this post from Cuenca, Spain, on the last day of a two-week vacation exploring the southeastern provinces of the country (Valencia and Murcia).  Cuenca, a World Heritage Site, is a beautiful town, with a university in the modern city at the foot of the historic walled town, which occupies a high promontory at the junction of two rivers.  It is also a town very conscious of the visual arts, in large part due to a group of mostly Spanish artists who gathered here in the 1960's and whose work is present in various museums and foundations in the city.

I visited the Museo de Arte Abstracto, and discovered some new favorite painters and paintings. One of these is Fernando Zóbel, whose "Jardín Seco" appears above. Zóbel's work resonated with me, because I find in it many of the tensions that I like to address in my own work.  For example, several of his paintings are organic, almost gestural, flights of paint (indeed reminiscent of birds), yet the same canvas will present a ruler-straight thin line of color at some spot, or a quite mechanical grid of thin black lines that peek thorough from the canvas.  This push-pull of organic and mechanical is one of the tensions that I love.

I sense that there may have been a bit of a shift in my thinking about my own work, that the model inside my head has gained nuances.  I won't really know until I get home and get back to work.  The subtleties of Zóbel's work are inspiring, and the beauty of the art in the Museo de Arte Abstracto renews my faith in my own vision.  I return home more firmly than ever an abstract painter.