werkshop

works in progress

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Birth of a Man

This painting has been one of my most perplexing...
I've been working on it for about 20 years.  It's always had something to do with the temptations involved in living life in a body, I think.  I've never been sure if I was painting about virtue or vice though.  It seems to be about both.

When searching for images of allegorical figures of virtues and vices in medieval art, which I think were among the things I had at the back of my mind as I worked on this painting, I found this painting Dance of Death...
The figures in this painting reminded me of the odd little dance my figure is doing, in a state that seems to be somewhere between life and death.

Here is a detail of an earlier state of the painting (it's always interesting for me to look  at earlier states of my own paintings, since my paintings usually develop over long periods of time and go through many phases), which I think gives the impression of someone straining both with and against their sensual and physical nature, much the way some of Michelangelo's characters seemed to do...

Seeing my picture (older version) as a whole puts the story of the individual's struggle and relationship with the sensuality of his body and physical existsence in the larger social context of duty;  the man is, I feel,  protectively walking with a child, likely his son ...
The child is reaching out, starting his own journey, reaching out with/towards his own aspirations, perhaps striving to his elder behind, as the young ultimately do.  The man seems rooted, while the child seems ready to burst forward.



In it's current form ...


I think that my painting is partially inspired  by  Andrea Castagno's painting of David  ...
I did not really think of the connection until after I had gone a long way with my painting, but it seems obvious to me now.  I think  that the Castagno painting is turned upside down in my painting in some ways.  The dark, cloud-scudded sky in Castagno becomes a dark water with rivulets in my painting (hard to see the rivulets in my photo though, the little whitecaps) and where Castagno's David is triumphant and sure of himself, my character seems doubtful and a bit lost, 'at sea'.

As I continued to work on my painting, I thought of Birth of Venus by Botticelli ...
That is what inspired me to add the shell at the bottom.  The pink bird was there already and made me think of the nymph who is flying in from the right hand side of Botticelli's painting, with a pink cloak to cover her nudity.  What is so interesting about Botticelli's Venus is that she seems to be a young woman who might be coming into the full glory of her sexuality, but this seems to be connected with becoming very self-conscious about her body, and even ashamed.  I feel that that is part of what is going on with my young (or not so young) man.  He is not  'perfect' the way that Botticelli's Venus is.  He seems quite ordinary.  But my sense of him is that he is sensing his own beauty and feeling bodily shame at the same time.  Perhaps the body begins to feel like a shell that carries the soul, or the spirit, sometimes comfortably and sometimes uncomfortably.   Perhaps if one balances passion with good sense, one can keep one's balance, but one might be pitched overboard if one gets carried away, or if the seas become too rough.

As always, I'm not quite sure what my painting is about, but these are some thoughts I have about how it has developed...


Monday, September 15, 2014

A Windy Day

This next painting for my Human Touch show (showing at The Venue, in Bloomington, Indiana during October) is a little bit different.  It was inspired by memories of one of my favorite childrens' books from when I was a kid, The Snowy Day...
For some reason I remembered the story as having something to do with red boots, but it's really more  about a kid enjoying his new red snow suit, a day off from normal activities and a fresh layer of winter snow.   I've ended up making a series of paintings based on childhood memories of this book, featuring a youngster playing in the rain in yellow boots. A touch of Wind in the Willows entered into this series too...
My series of paintings incorporates a personal symbol that has been especially  important to me;  a 'skyhook'.
The little creature in my series of paintings is  using a skyhook to shake free raindrops from the sky on a windy rainy day, or perhaps hopes to go on a windy ride.  I was thinking about my own childhood, of course.  I loved to go outside when it rained, playing all kinds of imaginary games with just the breezes as my friends.  

The name 'skyhook' comes from the title of my great great uncle's autobiography ...
My forbear John Kane was a house painter in and around Pittsburgh who became a noted ('primitive') easel painter.  'Skyhooks' were used, at the time,  to hold suspended scaffolds for painting work on tall buildings.  The 'skyhooks' I draw and paint represent, perhaps,  the way thoughts and feelings reach out towards things.  They create links between us and the world around us.

This is my favorite painting by John Kane ...
The arches on the top remind me of the arch of the sky.  I think that must be part of what John Kane was thinking about when he painted them in.  I also like Kane's landscapes  and in them you can really see how important the arch of the sky was to him...
This is the most recent version of my design, the one that I think will be in my Human Touch show...

I wanted this character to look like he was about to fly away, having snagged a bit of windy sky with his sky hook - something like a kite.  I hoped to express something of the fear and wonder I felt as a child on windy, rainy days (and still do).  I often felt as though a thought could get swept up in the wind and whirl me away.

While I was searching for The Snowy Day, I found a delightful children's book picture of  a windy day ...

I think that what I loved the most about The Snowy Day was the simplicity of it.  A boy plays in the snow.  You couldn't have a simpler story.  I aspire to that in my work.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Prodigals

I'm never quite sure what my paintings are about, but I usually know what the starting point was for a painting.  My idea for the painting I am discussing here, "Prodigals", was that it would be a version  traditional paintings from the story  of the return of the 'prodigal son'.  I think of the story of the prodigal son as a story that the medieval era was particularly fond of...
This is a particularly touching, and very early (1200s?), portrayal of the return of the prodigal son from St. Denis, which I think is one of the churches most responsible for popularizing the story.  You can see that the prodigal son, who has squandered his inheritance,  is surprised by the warmth of his father's welcome home.

 Perhaps more typical is this also touching, but more hierarchical version painted by Rembrandt centuries later...

Rembrandt's onlookers seem to scoff at such a scene of tenderness between a father and a son, and at such forgiveness, as if that in itself was a terrible scandal.

What I wanted to do in my painting was to show rapprochement between a father and son (or between a mentor and mentee, perhaps, or really, between any two people) as a mutual event.  I believe that this is how rapprochement is in life when it is real and lasting;  two people must both consider their faults, acknowledge mistakes, etc..   This is true, I think, regardless of age and relationship.

Here is an early 20th version of the prodigal son's return  from the stained glass of a New York church, a church that has a rather amazing cycle of stained glass.  The slatey blues and the glowing purples are very striking...
My painting, like much most stained glass, features a lot of blue, and what could be interpreted as fanciful leading. This lattice work,  or leading-like, part of my painting owes some of its inspiration to the work of my forbears, who did artwork (altars and such) for churches in Germany from the 1860s until recently...
As gothic revival artists (and really, trailblazers), they did a lot with filligree.
Clearly, amidst the late 19th century mania for decorative detail, my forbears were not taking a back seat to anyone.  I guess something about the idea of a painting on the subject of inter-generational rapprochement encouraged me to pick up on this family trait, this love for intricate tracery, with an eye towards understanding its possible meaning.  It seems so rich, but signifying what?  Perhaps signifying the flow of energy in relationships?  Here is an earlier state of my "Prodigals" painting...
Here is a  different approach to a similar idea...
These two characters, both youngish,  don't seem quite sure if they are fighting, or making up, but either way, some energy connection is happening.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Human Touch

The central piece in the Human Touch show (at The Venue, during October 2014) is a piece also called "Human Touch" that I have been working on for about five years.  It was inspired by the wars going on in our times, when humanity seems to me to have rededicated itself to war with a fury, and such war that expends much of its fury on populations.  I thought of Guernica by Picasso, and wondered if we need such strong artistic statements today and where are they?  Why not in my studio?

What mixed with this notion, though ... with its emphasis on fragmentation and anquish ... is the theme of community under stress trying to find a way to hold together.  This is a theme that I have pursued via various images for decades.  These in turn were inspired by paintings such as this, by Van Gogh ...
This is an example of a drawing that I was working on along these lines (most of these kinds of pieces aren't with me right now)...
The idea I wanted to express was about people, in all their awkward individuality, trying to create and maintain circles of life, and thus community.  So this  is how the two ideas come together, for me anyway...

Another stream of influence that comes into this painting for me comes from religious painting, and the tradition of deposition-type paintings.  One of the most famous is by Titian...
The Titian has influenced me a lot, but I've probably been more influenced by Fra Angelico's "Lamentation"...
A detail of Fra Angelico's painting shows how people come together in their grief around the fallen figure of their loved one, perhaps forging renewed ties, but also separated by the experience, by their different relationships to what is going on, but the differences in what it means to them and how they feel.


A painting that  explores this on a larger scale is the "Death of Pitt", by John Singleton Copley, a Boston painter who has been especially influential for me...
In this painting, Copley attempts to study how a whole society will react to the sudden loss of a key figure.  Another painting reverses the formula.  In Copley's "Watson and the Shark", almost the same composition that is usually used to depict a 'deposition' or 'lamentation' is used to depict a rescue.  As always, though, the key is the way the different characters are reacting to what is going on...
I consider Copley to be one of the most underappreciated painters in the history of art.  Not entirely claimed by either the British art history tradition or the American art history tradition, Copley may have fallen in between.  Another underappreciated Boston artist who has been influential to me was Jack Levine.
The use of black is an aspect of Levine's work that particularly influences me.  In Levine's painting of a Gangster's Funeral, the funeral attendees, studies in hypocrisy, seem to fall into a shared state of lamentation despite themselves.  The open coffin seems to be a kind of gateway - perhaps potentially a gateway to a fuller sense of community for those bereaved.



Monday, July 28, 2014

Paradise Lost

 .This is a daring painting for me, in a way, because a horse is a difficult animal for me to paint.  They figure a lot in art, and I've had a couple of memorable experiences with horses myself - one of them taking place high in an alpine valley - but mostly I've just not been around horses enough to feel comfortable painting them.  In the end, I just had to put a cat in the painting as well...
When I started this painting, I had in mind those iconic paintings of horses by late 18th century British painter George Stubbs...

http://www.alfred-sisley.org/painting-George%20Stubbs-Lustre%20hero%20by%20a%20Groom-45906.htm
Stubbs
I didn't see this particular Stubbs painting until I looked him up on the internet for this blog piece, but it was fun to see how close I had come to one of his paintings.  The groom and the horse seem to be talking to each other, and as I imagine it, pondering the nature of the relationship between human and animal.  It is a relationship that is often taken to represent evolution, civilization, human progress.  Our ability to bind and rule other animals is often thought of, it seems to me, as the mark of our superiority.  But a close relationship with an animal often seems to raise doubts in a human's mind.  How can this binding and manipulation of other species really be an indicator of progress, of some sort of elevated state of being?

Partly because of this question, romantic notions and ways of looking at the relationship between humans ans animals played in my imagination as I worked on this painting...

http://artgalleryartist.com/TheodoreGericaultPaintings/imagepages/image3.htm

Gericault
In this earlier state of my painting, the relationship between groom and horse seems to be not one of thoughtful relating and questioning, but of rebellion, with the horse seemingly alive with lightning, and about to pull away, from the self-absorbed groom who will probably be much surprised...
Such a romantic horse can also be thought of as representing an aspect of the human being that needs to be aroused from slumber.  Perhaps the human too is bound by the rope he holds, or by the invisible bonds of his social and economic role, signed also, perhaps, by the stripes on his shirt.

The horse always seems to have this dual meaning in art.  On one hand, horses represent our indomitable inner freedom as beings.  On the other hand, they represent the power that comes from rule - the ability to bind and manipulate others.  Here is a version by Leonardo (I think), based (I believe) on the ancient greek horses atop St. Mark's cathedral in Venice, which expresses both aspects - almost elemental power that is somehow invisibly restrained and bound...
Leonardo

In Boston there are several great equestrian statues in public spaces that have affected the way I have imagined horses.  Perhaps the best of these, and the one I was most familiar with, was outside the Boston Museum of Fine Arts...
Cyrus Dallin
This remains, for me, one of the greatest equestrian statues, because it turns away from the classical emphasis on the horse as symbol of imperial power, and even reverses this narrative.  The Native American Way was all but destroyed by the growing American imperium ('manifest destiny', or as we style it today, the 'exceptional nation'), but it persisted and (among other things) offered an alternative way of thinking about the relationship between humanity and nature, one based on harmony.  This rider seems to have let go of his control over the horse, only to find that he and horse are in harmony.  
Here the human character in my painting seems lost in his thoughts, and troubled, but his animal companions seem aware that an important moment may be passing.  Perhaps they will arouse this sleepwalking human from his dark reflections....


Saturday, July 26, 2014


Sunday, July 13, 2014

Blue Mantle

It looks like this painting...
... is going to be a key piece in my show at The Venue in October.  When I started this painting, about a decade ago, my first thought was that it might be an icon of Saint Mary - I am a catholic lad, after all, and I come from a long line of artists that did work for churches, including icons.
The painting took on more personal experience when the face of the person wearing the traditional blue mantle started to look like my best friend and soulmate, and because I knew that she was someone who was very interested in the art of home-making - as something very real and very important in life, not as some kind of joke or pitiful excuse for doing nothing - I began to think about the iconic images of ancient Roman matrons.  As I see it, the iconography for images of Saint Mary traces back to these ancient Roman portraits...

This one is a closer match for my painting...
... while this one is a big softer ...
It's pretty clear, I think, that  Byzantine iconography for Saint Mary was a reinterpretation of Roman iconography  for the Roman Matron.  She was, basically, the idealized Roman Matron...



This, one of my favorite icons, is a little more intimate...
The look on Mary's face here reminds me a little of my Blue Mantle person, because it strikes me as both somewhat challenging and yet kind too...
The background colors of Blue Cloak  were influenced by the colors of pompeian style frescoes...





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