Monday, February 28, 2011

A Brief Personal Essay Inspired By An Incident At the Virginia Museum

Re: Picasso: Masterpieces From the Musee National Picasso, Paris
February 15 - May 15, 2011
VMFA (Virginia Museum Of the Fine Arts)
Richmond, Virginia

I don't like Picasso.  His household word status has given him complete immunity - a bill of health that will ensure that his immortal soul continues to circulate our globe of consciousness till the end of time.
Perhaps I overstate the matter.  So be it.  In the hyperbolic universe that surrounds All Things Picasso, it's just breezy patter.

I doubt if I even see this exhibit.  I don't care to jostle for viewing space among people who are looking for an icon buzz, a frisson of celebrity, a glimpse of greatness that will get them through a day that does not include American Idol.  I don't want to get all sweaty trying to jump high enough to see bits and pieces of things whose bank-busting entirety isn't worth the strain.

No, I don't like Picasso.  He knew art was a shell-game and he played it to the hilt.  He was obscenely competitive and won more than he lost.  If art has a Last Painter Standing, Picasso's your man. 
I suppose we should credit him for surviving the numerous culture wars that have rained down upon us.  He's, after all, a great polarizing force.  You either love him or you hate him.  He hangs the moon or he languishes in the cellar.  He appeals to your sense of adventure or he breaks the bank of your native conservatism. 

Having been a celebrity since Day One, he's suited to our age.  His love affairs were as numerous as we'd want them to be.  His productivity suits the path of genius.  And his ego was suitably gargantuan.  He's everything a celebrity artist should be.  And we love him for it.  And we hate him for it.  And we keep on arguing about whether he was a fraud or a creator such as the world had never - no, has never - seen.
Shall I say it again?  I guess I don't have to.  But it's fun.  Let me, in fact, create a sort of blackboard epiphany.

I hate Picasso
I hate Picasso
I hate Picasso

You should try it; it's downright cathartic.

Saying you hate someone is, however, not really enough to induce somebody else to hate him with you.  All right.  Let me tell you why I hate him.

For one, Picasso takes up way too much space in the collective imagination.  I wouldn't mind if he just had his share.  But, no, Picasso is still synonymous, nearly a hundred and thirty years after his birth, with artistic genius.  "Hey, Picasso!" people say to me as I paint my pictures in the open air.  If they only knew.  Picasso never, as far as I can tell, painted a picture from life.  Everything he did - after a certain period - he did from his head.  Now, this would suggest that Picasso was endowed with an imagination that took mere reality and metamorphosed it into a private symbolism.  I wouldn't argue with that, but these private symbols aren't really that interesting.  After he gets out of the academy and comes to Paris, he paints some clumsy pictures of nudes and such.  And he makes them monochromatic.  They are his Blue Period.  Then he roams the countryside of his imagination and does a series of traveling players.  I like these pictures a lot - they're the exception that proves the rule.  They're the small thing you like about the Big Thing you hate.  Then. . .there was Cubism - decorative painting that has been overblown absurdly.  I think these pictures would make excellent quilts.  And, by cracky, they have.  And they look pretty good that way.  As quilts.  As paintings, they're mildly interesting exercises in pseudo-planar geometry.  Then our global genius goes off into all sorts of directions: African masks, Greek statues, and I don't know what all.  Toward the end of his life, he makes a series of fairly poignant etchings about growing older.  For these, he appoints a minotaur as a stand-in.  Is it a minotaur?  No matter.  It looks suitably mythological.  This minotaur is losing the battle every warrior fights in vain.  He can't find his game anymore and it's killing his soul as well as a visibly deteriorating body.  He's consumed with lust, but can't gratify it like he used to.  He's a man's minotaur who's gonna have to find his pasture whether he likes it or not.  In these, Picasso made a personal statement and it sticks.  But great artists do this sort of thing all the time.  Picasso waited till the end of his life.  In betweentimes, he left us with a boatload of clever stunts, for which he was magnificently remunerated and universally admired.  And inconceivably famous.

Do I still hate Picasso?  You better bloody well believe it.  He screwed around most of his life - both on the picture plane and on Eros' day-bed - he made tons of money, and he's the most famous artist of all time. 

How could I not hate him?  He has everything I don't and I don't think he earned it. I also hate him because I don't ordinarily like to get personal.  And he's made me cross that line.  (Yes, mom; Picasso made me do it.)  Ordinarily, I hate artists who are are infatuated with themselves when, in fact, they're unspeakbly bad.  I hate Picasso because he lived the sort of life no man, no artist, no-body really should have a right to live.  Certainly not nobody who was more ambitious than talented.   

Repeat after me, everyone:

I hate Picasso
I hate Picasso
I hate Picasso


A Recent Purchase, Or: Two Other Painters and. . .Me

Dominion Resources recently purchased three of my paintings.

They are river subjects, about which few Richmonders complain.  Mine don't necessarily draw comparison with the local talent - unless that local talent is Daniel Robbins, the expatriated Frank Hobbs, or the long-missing John Cort. 

I'd like to take the opportunity to talk about these people.

If John Cort isn't well-remembered, it's entirely his fault.  But his reputation is secure.  Last I heard of him, he lived on an island.  When you can do that, you don't think about the home-folk anymore.  And why should you?  You are not only far away in terms of distance, you've gone about as fer as you can go as regards the elusive, but highly coveted spoils our culture can lavish on its winning teams - whether the team is a team of many or a team of one.

I don't know the man personally, but I've seen a number of his pictures. You can too - if you care to: 1) be in Downtown Richmond, Virginia and; 2) show up at the James Center there.

The first (and least) of these celebrates pride and pelf.  It is in the magisterial vein of much oversized portraiture and, while it is technically superior, it has no artistic value.  Few portraits do - or have to.   But the other two paintings are worth your time.  Facing the portrait is a panoramic view Cort knocked together from a downtown eyrie - or photograph of same.  It captures the after-hours glamor of a place that will most definitely wake up in the morning.  Its treatment is relentlessly energetic; the picture is alive - an attribute that's peculiarly underrated.  Cort's limited palette and "rubbing out" technique are eminently suitable to his aims.  There are few better paintings of the subject.  It is quite enormous and, unlike most panoramas, it is vertical in format. 

The third is of a shoreline washed by slate-colored waves.  It's a good piece of work and also very large.  The smart money, however, should go to the cityscape, which takes some risks and sticks in the head.
Whatever Cort may do, I hope he tempers his portraiture with truck like this.

Frank Hobbs doesn't live in Richmond anymore, but professes to like it and may well return.  Choice of residence aside, Hobbs' contribution to the landscape is worth revisiting. 

His most visible work revolves around the poetry, if you will, of transportation.  It's formally exciting and has a terrific punch.  But his river paintings are, in my view, more compelling.  They are striking enough to attract art accumulators whose comfortable yearnings go only so far.  To see a Hobbs' painting among its peers can be unsettling; if you don't watch yourself, it'll you wake up.

In his river paintings he gets at two very essential things: the vitality of fluid motion against the monumental forms of piers and bridges.  His delineation of things is strong and subtle.  His bridges span the river, keep the traffic moving, and are not likely to cave in.  He understands that less is more, but is willing to show the effects of age - which can mean a lot on a bridge.  Because of his superior grasp of form, he never loses the big shapes that constitute an abstract design. 

Whether intentionally or not, Hobbs has made paintings that represent, not only a familiar subject, but something that does not cater to sentimental prejudices.   He's made good paintings and good paintings last. 

Daniel Robbins' paintings are, like Hobbs', constructed along organic lines.  They not only give you the subject, but how aerial perspective can affect how it's perceived.  He understands that one thing must be seen in relation to something else and doesn't, as a result, pander to a viewer's preconceptions about what to paint and what not to.  In a painter's view, no subject is more important than the next.  The really important thing is to make an image that will live and breathe.  Robbins' best work does this and I hope collectors of "Richmond subjects" learn to see with their eyes and not their habits.

And, finally, there's me. 

Dominion's three paintings are: Tredegar, Bridges Raised and Fallen, and Three-Mile Bridge At the Kanawha Canal.  All of them show "historic" subjects.  And insofar as I can be a historian, I'm glad I can do it.  But I was more interested in showing - as Robbins and Hobbs do - "history" in relation to the things around it.  Tredegar as a Civil War shrine needs no introduction.  But the sun shines on what's left of it; consequently, it's new every day.  I excerpted its smoke-stack as a compositional device, bearing in mind that the history-conscious wouldn't care about that.  But history-conscious people need aesthetics whether they know it or not.  In any case, I chose to paint this emblematic view as winter's russets and yellows yielded to acid green.  The sky pushed flat-bottomed clouds as the river ran toward the sea. 

I painted "Tredegar" during for a two-week period, which spanned two seasons.  I'd never done that before.

Bridges Raised and Fallen is about swift-moving water.  It's about a transportation culture that's been laid low.  It's about chunks of concrete that have, thus far, defied the river's rage.  It was composed on a square, but it is, I think, panoramic in feeling.  When I did the picture, I was thinking of a view I'd seen twenty years before.  It showed man and nature in a kind of split decision - which is evident here as well.  The wind was up all the time I painted.  In such conditions, time is always spent anchoring picture to easel.  I did it grumpily, then gladly, then grumpily again.

The Kanawha Canal is all that remains of a great transportation system that conveyed goods and passengers to the world beyond.  In order to link canal to river, locks were built.  As I understand them, locks created the necessary water-flow to lower barges and bateux from into the river, where they found a wider channel.  Shiplock Park is a fascinating time-capsule; it celebrates, in three-dimensional form, the relatively breathless period of our nation's canals - which started with the Erie and moved south and westward.  It was here that a seaward journey began.  Without locks, the river wasn't reachable.

I wanted to show a man-made Richmond alongside of a more pastoral one.  So I divided the painting into two sections, which were created individually and fused when they were done.  The result is the largest painting I have ever attempted in a natural (or any) setting.  Such flaws as it has can be attributed to me struggling, not only with my own limitations, but with the challenges implicit in a two-panel design.

Regionalism in art can be suffocating.  It's predicated on political meanings first and artistic ones second.  It is best consigned to that proverbial dust-heap where impractical notions wither away.  On the other hand, I see no reason not to celebrate a locality's genius, which the James River mightily exemplifies.

A didactic moment you are free to ignore:

Postmodernist types eschew emotional connections for fear of being "uncool."  Their concerns are well-taken.  There's nothing "cool" about liking something.  Coolness is about systematic rejection - or, rather, conscious apathy.  The act of making something is never cool - or shouldn't be.  To do, to make, to be: these are passionate decisions that are never beyond criticism; on the other hand, what else is there?     

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Delayed Proclivities: The Loves Of Thomas Van Auken (Part One)

Wait and good things will come.  Or so many of us - who have no choice but to mill outside of offices and sit by rotary telephones - must believe in order to get up in the morning.

For those of us who must wait for the aforementioned reasons, it's best to wait unconsciously.  You can be in the midst of a "waiting period" and think about other things entirely.  Yet you are still waiting even if the psychological stress of the activity isn't affecting how you live and breathe.

By that definition, I've been waiting for a painter-colleague of mine to relinquish his studio and plunge into the three-dimensional world that beckons him from an open window.  I've long bemoaned the fact that all he was getting were views and not experiences - and to deaf ears that have, in one fell swoop, listened in.
He was - and is - brilliant at constructing figurative conundrums in which a defenseless model waits for the artist to "capture" her in ways a larger audience will find irresistible.  Over the years, he's developed an approach that is indelibly his own - for which he has acquired a justifiably glittering reputation.  But he's still dangerous.  People my who wish to see themselves preening from mantelpiece commission him at their peril.  He will be honest about time's ravages, as well as dietary lapses that appear as lumps and bulges.  A while back, everybody was up in arms about Lucian Freud's portrait of his Queen.  Compared to this fellow, Freud was blowing smoke.  My studio friend would have made the old lady an old lady who has been trapped in a royal persona she possibly dislikes now and then.  Freud's picture was honest, but he didn't really get at anything.

This fellow lives in the pleasantly sluggish backwater of Richmond, Virginia where he towers over most of his competitors. (When I rack my brains for high-achieving locals, he's always at the head of the list.)  And he's gotten where he is, not only by the conventionally cumbersome route of hard work, but by means of an original point of view which has, thus far, found perfect expression in the studio.

Well, he has finally taken it upon himself to walk out the studio door.  He hasn't found roses to smell, but mercury-vapor lights and boxy-looking facades.  From these simple objects, he's made the devil's own clubhouse.  His personal aesthetic rejects the notion of a cool, clear day and goes right for the murk.  He has found his outdoors on a string of electric lights.

I want to make it clear that I haven't seen any of the paintings yet, merely online reproductions of them.  But I've looked at such things for a while and have a pretty good idea whether the original sings or not - as these appear to.

When I'm in Richmond again, I'm going to see the exhibit and hope that the three-dimensional canvases captivate me as much as they have in 2-D.  I'm very likely to thank myself for waiting - even if I didn't know I was doing it.

For images of this series as well a happy miscellany, go to: