Elizabeth Glaessner on Karin Mamma Andersson

2005-ANDMA0006-200-e1323796532704Karin Mamma Andersson, The Best Storyteller I, 2005 Acrylic and oil on panel, 31 1/2 x 48 inches

I discovered the work of Karin Mamma Andersson as an undergraduate while scanning art magazines in the library. Her depictions of interior spaces seen from slightly skewed perspectives, some including figures engaged in domestic activities, caught my eye. There was nothing loud or overtly shocking about the paintings but the longer I looked, the stranger they became, as though something menacing was lurking beneath the surface. And the paint itself, so confidently maneuvered, described the disparate objects and surfaces with acute specificity. Her interior rooms housed planes of landscapes that destabilized any rational delineation of space. The planes, which could be interpreted as backdrops or murals for a stage-set, seemed to allude to an alternative space which has no boundaries, or as Christian Hawkey describes it in an interview with Andersson for Bomb, “a between-space, a space between here and there…”(1) Any desire to apply logic to the image was eclipsed by the possibilities that arose if you didn’t.

charlotte-salomon-9-1Charlotte Salomon, Life? or Theater?, 1941-1943, Gouache on paper

I bought my first Mamma Andersson book, Dog Days, several years later, during a residency in Leipzig. I had just been to Documenta in Kassel where I saw an exhibition displaying a selection of Charlotte Salomon’s gouache paintings from a work entitled Leben? oder Theater? (Life? or Theater?) After Kristallnacht, Salomon was forced to leave her home in Germany. She moved to her grandparents’ house in France where she spent one year creating a song-play composed of 800 gouache paintings integrated with text and musical cues that documented her personal story set in the midst of the rise of Nazism and a history of family suicide.(2) Salomon’s experience as a young Jewish woman growing up in Berlin during the Holocaust closely mirrors that of my grandmother’s, so when I walked through the exhibition, I carried those heavy stories with me and immediately felt that same eerie sense of familiarity that struck me so poignantly in Andersson’s paintings, a familiarity that breeds a sense of uncanny nostalgia for a memory you’ll never know or a place you’ve never been. I wondered if Andersson had ever seen Salomon’s work.

Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 11.30.22 AMCharlotte Salomon, Life? or Theater?, 1941-1943, Gouache on paper

When I got back to Leipzig, Dog Days in hand, I spent hours analyzing Andersson’s works: evocative landscapes, interiors melding into exteriors, still lifes which were clearly alive. The interiors felt like stage sets in the way that Salomon’s song-play was intended, and as I flipped through Andersson’s book I thought about life and theater and how we’re constantly shifting between the two. Her paintings piqued my curiosity, not just in terms of content but also materiality and technique. Mamma Andersson uses paint like language, each passage sounds different from the next. I could hear her brilliant stories, but I had to lean in close; her paint never screams. There are sharp edges tempered by watery spills of color and deliberate, thick textures couching areas of thin washes, seductively veiling the naked panel underneath. At times, the grain of the panel is exposed to describe a very specific surface. There is something that seems so personal about the way she uses materials to make a painting; the techniques she employs come together harmoniously in service of the narrative.

It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I first stood in front of a Mamma Andersson painting at her show Behind the Curtain at David Zwirner, which included works inspired by toys and interiors constructed for “theatrical and domestic fictions.”(3) This body of work did not have the same immediate impact on me in terms of content or emotional resonance, but standing in front of the paint was a transportive experience and as I imagined her process, the stories opened up and I saw the work on a different level. I had seen and studied many of Andersson’s works in reproduction and while her muted color palette and references to period interiors sometimes cast a vintage-like shadow over her surfaces, an effect that I might normally find gratuitous or off-putting, her strange way of telling a story with no resolution or creating an in-between space transported me to a timeless realm where I was free to imagine with reckless abandon. In an interview for Bomb, Andersson writes to Christian Hawkey, “We were all once children who loved to delve into our other ego, where anarchy and limitlessness reigns. There we felt alive and creative. We long to find this aspect again in our adult lives—the place where we forget everything around us and just exist.”(1)

ANDMA0178_retouchKarin Mamma Andersson Burden, 2014, Oil on panel, 44 3/4 x 33 1/8 inches

I don’t know that I have one favorite painting in Behind the Curtain, but I’m still thinking about Burden. Initially, I saw a child’s room with crooked paintings that seemed a bit off kilter. It took me a while to understand where I was standing in relation to the space, and then I quickly realized that this room wasn’t built with people in mind. As I looked closer I felt more and more shaken. The rust-colored stain lining every object in the space became blood. Suddenly, the paintings on the wall were crooked because something horrific had happened, but nobody had been there to discover what. Then I looked at the other paintings around me and I realized that it was a dollhouse with tiny furniture. But actually, no, it was a painting, so it could be all of that, or none of it at all.

As I stared at the paint, I pretended to be Mamma Andersson – I felt this weird sensation, as though I were making the painting myself– I felt calm, fearless, raging with confidence and searching for nothing beyond the mark itself. If I wanted something to hurt, I chose the bloodiest red and spilled it onto the surface, sadistically watching it stain and drip down the panel. If I wanted something to glow, I inquisitively scrubbed the paint until I found something mysterious underneath, and if I exposed too much I simply buried it again with more paint. As I made the painting, the story unfolded and it was done before I knew the ending. I never knew the ending. I don’t know if Mamma Andersson would resonate with my reenactment, but the fact that I could play out such a specific situation in my head simply by looking at the paint was enough for me to justify my curiosity and admiration for her work.

I remember walking through Charlotte Salomon’s show at Documenta, hearing my grandmother’s voice narrating Salomon’s violently tragic world, shifting from a high-pitched manic tone to a quiet, breathy whisper. Her compositions read like poetry – I didn’t necessarily understand exactly what was happening but I felt it. And, years later, as I walked through Mamma Andersson’s show at Zwirner, I felt that same transportive sensation, a visceral response. The oddly familiar, ambiguous scenes spawn an unsettling feeling, that in their seemingly banal spaces something extraordinary can happen, and I will never know exactly what it is but I will also never unfeel it.

IMG_2568Elizabeth Glaessner, Weightless, Floating, Feasting, 2015, Ink, water dispersed pigment, acrylic, urethane on paper,
22 x 30 inches


1. Hawkey, Christian, Mamma Andersson, translate by Laura A. Wideburg, and Anna Petterson. “Mamma Andersson.” Bomb 100 Summer 2007. Web. <http://bombmagazine.org/article/2905/mamma-andersson&gt;.

2. “Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre?” The Jewish Museum. Web. 20 Feb. 2015. <http://thejewishmuseum.org/exhibitions/charlotte-salomon-life-or-theatre&gt;.

3. “Behind the Curtain » David Zwirner.” Behind the Curtain » David Zwirner. Web. 20 Feb. 2015. <http://www.davidzwirner.com/exhibition/mamma-andersson/?view=press-release&gt;.

Matt Bollinger on Gregory Gillespie

Gregory_Gillespie_Self_PortraitGregory Gillespie, Self-Portrait on Bed, 1973-74, Oil and Magna on wood, 48 x 84 inches, Private Collection

In Self-Portrait on Bed, made in 1973-74, Gregory Gillespie paints himself as a not-quite young man, some years older than I am as I write this. He sits on a mattress that sags toward the floor. Around the time I finally saw this painting in person at the Fogg Art Museum in the spring of 2004, my sleeping arrangements resembled those in the painting, perhaps slightly worse: a mattress with no bed frame in a spacious walk-in closet in my attic studio in Philadelphia. My paintings bore a strong family resemblance to his, and I carried my Hirschhorn Museum retrospective catalog all over the apartment so I could keep my family close.

I first encountered Gillespie’s work as an undergrad. The Kansas City Art Institute had only one catalog, ten pages long, that I xeroxed and still keep in a manila folder along with other clippings of his work. His paintings made me feel as if observation, honed to the nth power, opened visionary possibilities. I saw the clear imagery of his paintings of strange vegetables, portraits of friends, and close-ups of the ground as containing something unconscious as well. He even talked about his process as “rorschaching” into the paint. This feeling in his work reminded me of the movement in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, when the camera careens from the technicolor suburb, down through the green grass, into an underbelly of writhing black beetle bodies.

When I saw Self-Portrait on Bed in person in the Cambridge show, I immediately walked up close to it. As I approached, the painting switched from comprehensive illusion to a fragmented material world. Some of the paint Gillespie allowed to act as itself—the painted palette in the corner, caked with dimensional globs—but most of it took on various degrees of illusion. The skin on his left knee, I remember, was beyond photographic realism. As though he was building a living body, he recreated the translucence of the flesh in individual glaze layers. I had read that when he painted skin he used a dentist’s magnifying lens and a fluorescent light to depict the individual pores and, in that particular painting, I looked at all of them.

His technique with oils and Magna came out of trying to replicate Carlo Crivelli’s egg tempera method. This always made sense to me both in the minutia that Crivelli’s cross-hatching enabled, but also because those Renaissance panel paintings frequently included material juxtapositions: elements sculpted in relief beside painstakingly replicated, trompe l’oeil painting. As I scanned the surface of Self-Portrait on Bed, I found the wood floor moved from painted wood to a collaged laminate (I picture Gillespie carefully removing the contact paper lining the kitchen drawers). He ruled the wire screen into the door with a pencil as though he were weaving the mesh instead of depicting it, while the painted pear on the windowsill seemed cut and pasted from a Crivelli, or another Italian painter Gillespie obsessed over during the years he lived in Florence and Rome. Revealed only up close, the material moves implied a shifting attention both for the artist and in the viewer’s perception of the scene.

I remember visiting a friend’s apartment when I lived in Kansas City and sitting on her bed (also a mattress on the floor). While we talked, I scanned the room—from a piece of driftwood, to a family photo, to a friend’s print. Entering Gillespie’s room suggested the same fragmentary sense of a self, made from many past moments and the more I looked at this image, the further away that initial cohesive illusion seemed to me. If he was family, he was as complex and hard to know as a parent can be.

I think a lot about my father when I’m making my work—some of my painting-collages deal directly with events from his life—and Gillespie’s 70s-look reminds me of him. In pictures from that time, my dad frequently appeared in similar, surprisingly short, jean cut-offs with a range of scruffy facial hair. I have a picture of him from this time propping himself against a highway patrol sign as though a Kansas tornado were about to blow him away. In 1974, when Gillespie’s painting was newly finished, my father was dealing with the physical and emotional aftermath of having been stabbed in the heart and nearly killed in 1970. Looking at the vulnerability of the Gillespie self-portrait, I think of my father. When I see the generous and playful way the context for his vulnerability is painted, I think of this photo, my dad clowning around for the camera, just a few years after he was hurt.

Skip BolllingerPhoto of Skip Bollinger ca. 1972

About four years before the show in Cambridge, Gillespie died of an apparent suicide. His death upset me almost as though we had known each other. I had imagined meeting him often. On more than one occasion, while talking to myself in the studio, I had told him all kinds of things—what I had found rorschaching into my own paintings; how our studio ceiling leaked, but you could make that mattress like new with Febreze!; how important his work was to me. Perhaps it also reminded me of my father’s close call.

Seeing Gillespie’s works in person thrilled me, but also left me longing. His gaze in Self-Portrait on Bed seemed to look two ways at once, down to my left and right past me, far into the distance.  This doubling mirrored the split between image and fragment that I experienced when I first approached the piece. I can imagine the world that this version of Gillespie sees and I can perceive the many facets of his space, each with its own sense of time. In the painting’s fragmented world, he is at once past and present—a memory embodied.

Renovations_SMMatthew Bollinger, Renovations, 2014, Flashe, acrylic and collage on paper, 96 x 113 iches overall (dimensions variable); 15 x 11 ½ inches each
Courtesy of Zürcher Studio

Renovations_25Matt Bollinger, Renovations (Detail)
Courtesy of Zürcher Studio

Lerner, Abram, Gregory Gillespie. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1977. Print.

Stebbins, Jr. Theodore E. & Susan Ricci Stebbins, Life as Art: Paintings by Gregory Gillespie and Frances Cohen Gillespie. Cambridge: Harvard University Art Museums, 2003. Print.

Dotty Attie on John Auguste Dominique Ingres

unnamed-1John Auguste Dominique Ingres, La Grande Odalisque (Detail), 1814, Oil on canvas, 35.8 x 63.8 inches

When I was eleven, my father, who had wanted to be a painter, but became a salesman after he married my mother, brought me a little book of drawings by Ingres. He said that when I could draw like that, I’d be an artist. Of course I never could draw like Ingres, much as I wanted to, but the fact that my father admired him so much made me admire him, too.

             Nicolo Paganini by Jean Auguste Dominique Pencil, 298 x 218 mm Ingres1819         unnamed    
 Ingres, Nicolo Paganini, 1819, Graphite on paper, 12 x 9 inches
Ingres, Monsieur De Lavalette, 1817, Graphite on paper

As I got older, and saw more of his paintings in museums and books, I loved the smooth and silken way he applied paint to canvas, the intricate patterns that appeared so flawlessly executed (he abhorred the visible brushstroke), and the perfection of the folds and wrinkles in the clothing of the imperturbable people whose portraits he painted so perfectly. Then I wanted to paint just like him but, needless to say, I never did that either.

Portrait of Louis-François Bertin, 1832, oil on canvas, 116 x 96 cmIngres, Portrait of Louis-François Bertin, 1832, Oil on canvas, 46 x 38 inches

As I got still older, I began to see beneath the surface of his work and, for me, that became the most exciting and interesting part of what he did, and the true mark of his genius. A lot of Ingres’ work was very strange, and full of eroticism that had very little to do with the subjects of his paintings, portraits or panoramas, and everything to do with him.

Raphael And La Fornarina by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1814 Oil on canvas 64.8 x 53.3 cm (25 1:2 x 21 in.)Ingres, Raphael And La Fornarina, 1814, Oil on canvas, 25 1/2 x 21 inches

I was especially drawn to his paintings of the harem. One of my favorites is La Grande Odalisque.  The serpentine back (which critics of the day complained had three vertebrae too many), the soft, vulnerable feet, the delicate hand, but most of all that wary eye, all show a woman not in control of her life, and all too aware of it.   None of the other painters of Orientalism suffused their paintings of the harem with so much helplessness and raw eroticism.

His own irrepressible impulses manifested themselves very clearly in his work. As controlled as it appeared on the exterior, it was uncontrolled just underneath. And that became my final goal for my own work.

Ingr-056Ingres, La Grande Odalisque, 1814, Oil on canvas, 35.8 x 63.8 inches

John Auguste Dominique Ingres has been my role model since I was eleven, and he continues to be one today.

unnamed-2Dotty Attie, The Lone Ranger/Enthusiastic Fans, 2011-2013, Oil on Linen, 25 paintings, 6 x 6 inches each

Meena Hasan on Robert Gober

zoom_1412364342_Stop_285Robert Gober, Slides of a Changing Painting, 1982-1983, Color transparencies for projection
Collection Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, T.B. Walker Acquisition Fund

I recently visited Robert Gober’s The Heart is Not a Metaphor at the MoMA, and at the core of the exhibition was a dark room with Gober’s Slides of a Changing Painting. Gober had a small 11 x 14 inch board that he painted and re-painted on and off throughout the year between 1982 and 1983. He documented the changes to the painting through thousands of photographs, which then became slides that he projected.

The slideshow moves back and forth, from moments in an interior space to scenes outdoors. Autumnal New England leaves fill up the empty room, turning into a tangled web of tree branches that open onto a momentarily still lake. A hand reaches for a seashell that resembles an ear and is nestled in the grass, only to find a mysterious second hand emerging to take it. A story is located on a human chest that changes gender and age freely. The chest collapses in on itself; a stream of water overcomes the throat; nipples grow tall into trees; dark hair sprouts on one side while the other forms a round breast. The empty crevices between the arm and the ribcage linger as the space changes from chest back to room, making me become suddenly aware of my own moist armpits as well as those of the man who sits in front of me. Those armpit crevices become tall triangles of black, then red, marking the absence of the body and then its return. The nipples on the chest multiply, becoming marks and freckles whose form and color match exactly the knots on the wooden bench that I am sitting on. The narrative reaches out into the space, trying to grow closer to the person observing it with incredible care and attention to detail.

DetailGober_000Robert Gober, Slides of a Changing Painting

Within the slideshow there are objects painted seemingly from observation (a drain, a coffee cup or books on a table) that are intermingled with paintings from a dream-like imagination. This exchange develops the sense of the year passing through seasons and states of mind. Each object and image is endowed with a potentiality containing both a history and a future. Water permeates the entire narrative, flowing, pouring and pooling through the body, the interiors and the forest. The water evolves into a woven pattern of flesh and liquid that brings with it destruction, renewal and regeneration.

The projected slides move from one to the other through dissolve transitions, a vital, technical detail implemented by Gober. The projector’s set up creates a layered visual narrative that differs from a standard animation as the light and images float forwards and backwards along a visual axis between projector and screen, rather than linearly from left to right. As I watch the piece, I sit squarely in the middle of this axis with the changing screen in front of me, and the noisy projector behind me. The piece feels as if it is trying to get as close as possible to me, to absorb and overwhelm me as the images stretch themselves in and out of intimate revelation. The exchange between interior and exterior dominates not only the animation, but the environment and the viewer’s state of mind.

34952Robert Gober, Slides of a Changing Painting

The narrative creates an evocative atmosphere of loss and regrowth, speaking to mortality, the cycle of life and, of course, the time in which it was made: the height of the AIDS epidemic. It is a circular narrative, echoed in the three circular slide carriers in the projector as they fill the room with their meditative thumping. The projector’s rhythmic pace marks the passing time, particularly the moment of reset that announces itself with a cacophony of clacks.

Slides of a Changing Painting was originally exhibited at Gober’s first solo show at the Paula Cooper Gallery in 1984, when Gober was 30 years old. The show was up for a mere five days to a select audience. It has rarely been shown to the public and I am sure that I am one among many who waited in suspense for its arrival at MoMA. The piece itself, therefore, embodies mystery, longing and discovery not only for the artist, but also for its viewers and followers.

Having now seen Slides of a Changing Painting in person, it is clear that it has served Gober immensely as many of his subsequent sculptures seem to have emerged out of the slideshow’s images. In fact, he made his first sinks the year the slideshow was completed. Gober’s recurring image of the suspended, empty dress appears in Slides… hanging from tree branches and overwhelmed by a conscious energy of blue water. Gober’s numerous door sculptures that penetrate the exhibition spaces they inhabit also find their origin in Slides… His first image of a closed door appears in the slideshow at the center of a man’s chest, drawing a parallel between door and male body, while questioning the nature of the door itself: what it is hiding, what it might reveal, what its purpose is and who it belongs to.

Slides of a Changing Painting has the capacity to transcend its own physical space in meaning and influence. It is, in actuality, entirely immaterial, as it is a documentation of a series of paintings that no longer exist. Gober spoke of this as a response to neo-expressionism, emphatically embracing the transformative and ritualistic process of painting, while also questioning the importance of painting as an object. He states, “Among other things, the work was a reaction to the time, with its glut of neo-expressionist painting. I wanted to make many images, a surfeit of images, and images that weren’t for sale.”

Because Slides of a Changing Painting permeates the rest of Gober’s works, for me, speaking about the work singularly has been difficult, and perhaps misguided. It is a work that is undeniably rooted in many emotions, thoughts, and images, and holds within it meaning so dense that it is impossible to fully put into words. In the exhibition catalog to The Heart is Not a Metaphor, images of the slideshow are dispersed between texts on Gober’s personal history and sculptures, haunting the book’s pages the way that they haunt Gober’s works. As a whole, Slides of a Changing Painting evokes a myriad of questions and desires, asking me to reexamine and re-confer with myself and my environment, while denying any answers or solutions.

MH-8321Meena Hasan, Getting Out of Bed, 2014, Acrylic and okawara paper on panel, 58 x 48 inches

Barbara Friedman on Lisa Yuskavage and “Harnessing Shame”

YuskavageFaucet 1995 oil on linen 72 x 60 inchesLisa Yuskavage, Faucet, 1995,  Oil on linen. 72 x 60 inches

“Okay, go ahead and look all you want, but it’s going to be unpleasant for both of us.”
– Lisa Yuskavage in an interview with Mónica de la Torre in Bomb magazine[i]

I was reminded of the mutual discomfort of intense looking when I heard a friend talking about the movie Tiny Furniture. He resented having been “made to look” at the character that Lena Dunham played.

Maybe it’s no coincidence that when Lena Dunham was eight years old her mother took her to visit Lisa Yuskavage’s studio,[ii] because Yuskavage’s paintings subject their viewer to that same close and unbudging attention, so that you feel you’re being made to look.

To me, that’s what’s wonderful about Yuskavage’s paintings. I can’t remember the first one I saw or how old I was, but I loved how ferociously it held my eyes. (Then again I like having salt rubbed in my wounds.) Here was an allegory of discontent with its own twisted beauty; a feminist Pontormo as funny and sad as it was smutty.

In her Bomb interview Yuskavage elaborates on the relationship between the paintings and her subject matter. “I saw them [the paintings themselves] as similar to a pubescent girl who does not like to be looked at, but can’t help but being pert and vulnerable at the same time. The images are representations of what the paintings would look like if they were to become human.” [iii]

Identification is a complex process where Yuskavage’s paintings are concerned. She pictures the paintings identifying with their own subjects; at the same time Yuskavage looks like many of the figures she paints. For an invitation to one of her shows she even used a photograph of herself, backlit by a very red setting sun, and it could have passed for one of her paintings.

Many contemporary women artists have reclaimed the depiction of the female nude as Yuskavage does. And many of today’s painters combine high and low sources: in her case, soft porn filtered through Baroque and Color Field painting. But few other artists allow the image that results to be as insistently human.   Yuskavage has said that “for the purposes of working, harnessing the shame is about being vulnerable to the creative process”[iv] – the painful content leading to a more unmediated presentation.

Then too there aren’t many other artists who handle paint with the same dexterity. Yuskavage’s reverence for her medium has been much remarked upon, and it should be. Her Bonnard-like palette with its lemon yellows, lavenders, magentas, and lime greens; with her sumptuous modernist painterliness; her old-master rendering techniques; her candied chiaroscuro and over-the-top highlights: In Yuskavage’s paintings these make for a perfect marriage between form and content.

Consider the way that Yuskavage uses Rembrandt’s disappearing edges to underscore her characters’ pained exhibitionism. Her subjects put themselves on display, but parts of them always seem to fade away in the surrounding haze. The poignant coral-colored painting Faucet stages the fading-away lusciously, bathing the young woman it represents in a peachy sfumato. I wonder what Rothko would have thought of this candied monochrome. Would he recognize himself even a little in its near-heavenly luminosity? He might scorn the comparison, but I see the kinship between them.

Not only the disappearing edges problematize the Faucet girl’s body. There is a disturbing tension between how delicately Yuskavage paints the girl’s stomach and how distended it is. It’s also disturbing that the painting is cropped just above the girl’s crotch, and the cropping is certainly deliberate. It’s interesting to note, as a companion to Faucet, that in the much later Triptych a woman’s crotch stands center-stage, while the rest of her body is barely visible. And speaking of missing parts: we only see one of the Faucet girl’s eyes, and one ear. These are parts of her standing in for the girl not as formalized synecdoche but in a metaphorical reminder that we’re not looking at all of her.

I found it very hard to choose which of Yuskavage’s pieces to focus on in this essay. I’m captivated in one way by the early poisonously-sweet monochromes like Faucet – those paintings have a singular power – in another way by the ones that came slightly later, like Good Evening, Hamass, with the lurid glory of their flamboyant skies, their orgasmic sunsets, and the bouquets reminiscent of Odilon Redon’s hallucinatory flower pastels. Then there are the more complex, multi-figured dramas of recent epics like Triptych, with its forbidding onlookers and to-die-for greens.

In fact a lot of what I love in Lisa Yuskavage’s work is not contained in Faucet, but I chose Faucet because it’s the one in which I see my teenage self. The young woman is wearing a shrug that covers her rounded shoulders, her barely visible arms, and not much more. Her breasts are heavy and lopsided and their nipples point in different directions. The faucet high above the girl points one way and its shadow points askew, in an echo of her breasts, as if the viewer needed to be reminded that nipples are faucets. Hard to see, hard to be seen: embarrassment all round.

I think of my 19-year-old boyfriend’s ridiculous poem for English class, “Her Breasts were Larger when We Met,” right after I’d had a breast reduction. Here I was, confused by my out-of-control body, and he got creative about how he felt looking at it.

But then Yuskavage describes embarrassment as a clarifying agent. Maybe Lena Dunham would agree. I know I do. And Faucet in all its peek-between-your-fingers awkwardness invites me to keep staring, however embarrassed I am.

FriedmanHeadUnderCollarBarbara Friedman, Head below Collar (Big Collar 7), 2014, Oil on linen, 60 x 48 inches

[i] Mónica de la Torre, “Lisa Yuskavage,” Bomb 117 (Fall 2011), p. 86.
[ii] Calvin Tomkins, “A Doll’s House,” The New Yorker, December 10, 2012, p. 34.
[iii] De la Torre, “Lisa Yuskavage,” p. 86.
[iv] Ibid.

Dennis Congdon on La Pittura di Giardino

La Pittura di Giardino (The Garden Fresco in the Villa di Livia), Circa 30 – 20 BCE
Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome Italy

On my second trip to Rome I came upon the frescoes of Livia’s Garden Room, an experience for which I was, to say the least, unprepared. The pale light and quiet in the museum gallery was in welcome contrast to the glaring sun and hubbub of the street. The experience of being transported to a cool and lush otherworld took me to a place the likes of which I had never before been – the likes of which I had never before imagined to exist. Around me on all four sides was a room frescoed from knee level to several feet above my head with the most remarkable, breath-taking garden. Fruit trees branched into full foliage, heavy with clusters of ripe fruit and bouquets of blossoms. Birds flew and perched and, like the fruit and flowers, seemed to give the leaved branches their purpose -all this in layers against cerulean or manganese blue. The painters had softened the foliage in the middle, behind the sharper-edged front rows of trees, to create an atmosphere of sun-filtered haze. One could smell the ripe fruit in the dampness of those cool shadows.

581px-Villa_di_livia,_affreschi_di_giardino,_parete_corta_meridionale_01La Pittura di Giardino (Detail)

I moved slowly, but in that first walk around the Casa di Livia fresco garden room I remember I never stopped. My excitement was too much, not allowing me to stop or study a single spot, but my slow walk kept the breeze blowing somehow. It kept the film running and leaves turning in the wind to show their silvery undersides; birds fluttered, and heavy fruit swung gently. For the first time in my life I felt myself totally subsumed into a painting. The immersion was sensorial, of course, but more complicated than I had language with which to express it; as a traveler I felt at home; as a country boy in the city I was home again. In my wanderlust and restlessness I had the feeling of arrival. Above all I felt humbled but proud in some crazy almost tribal way about what ‘painting’ could do. Here I was in an Edenic experience and I felt appropriately pre-verbal.

I returned over and over again to that room, discovering dimensions of this most remarkable painting that have come to have a profound impact on me in my studio. First of all there was a way that the frescoed room, while offering so much plentitude, did not reward ‘close-observation’. Thinking of Marshal McLuhan’s distinction between “hot” and “cool” media, something “cooler” could not be found. If we do not look directly at the fresco and we don’t stare too deeply, then we become aware that to see a square of paint here-as an incident- is to miss a vastly larger splay of squares over there. We respond to this immediately and ‘release’ to other areas, our attention skipping like a stone on the surface of a pond. Why throw all in and be lost to the depths invisible when we can skim and stay in the cool glistening visible world?

Secondly, in a most ingenious way, the garden threatens- almost promises- pattern and yet no repeated forms establish that. There is a back and forth between ‘decorative’ and ‘descriptive’ that these painters (like Poussin or Warhol) understood so well. And, as with other Roman paintings, the beautiful exchange between the very delicacy of the image and the huge weight of the wall moved me. The light of the painted image is more fleeting for being effervescent on the immovable permanence of the thick walls. I began to think that the armature was offering what the moment-to-moment experience denied. It seemed to say ‘this will be a good month, a good year- but the next minute is uncertain.’ I noticed on many occasions how people strolling along the painted fence activated the painting, providing a new life and scale as they chatted and moved through the garden.

But, most mysteriously, while its hold on me has never diminished one iota, the painting has not become more accessible over the years, but in fact less so. Bewildering, yes, but energizing too. Thinking about Rome, Brodsky wrote, “The most definitive feature of antiquity is our absence. The more available its debris and the longer you stare at it, the more you are denied entry…they were not meant to reach us.” It is while working on my own paintings that I can sometimes gain proximity, if not entry, to Livia’s remarkable garden.

Dennis Congdon Ignus fatuus 2013 copyDennis Congdon, Ignis Fatuus, 2013, Flashe and enamel on canvas, 94 x 107 inches

Anoka Faruqee on Bridget Riley

Bridget Riley, Cataract 3, 1967, PVA on canvas, 88.5 x 87 5Bridget Riley, Cataract 3, 1967, PVA on canvas, 88.5 x 87.5 inches

Bridget Riley described the experience of viewing her paintings as an “active, vibrating, pleasure,”[i] and was surprised and annoyed that others considered her work painful to look at. While art historian Pamela Lee calls Riley’s annoyance defensive,[ii] I can understand Riley’s position. Having just visited the mosques of Istanbul and the sari shops of Dhaka, I’m reminded just how strange it is to call the painting Cataract 3 over-stimulating. I know that perception is subjective, but since my own reception of this work is so opposed to the experience of pain, I have always felt that describing the work as visually aggressive is a sign of visual inexperience or the result of cultural provincialism. To those who complain that the work induces piercing headaches or stomach-turning seasickness, I say: as with food or drink, expand your tastes and increase your tolerance, live a little.

The instant I saw it, the painting began to undulate before me, an animation of colored light and waves. The feeling was rhythmic, pulsing, floating. Cataract 3 is a bit larger than a double glass sliding door. Despite its shimmering presence, the surface of the painting is sober, dry and matte: the weave of the canvas is evident and the paint application straightforward.

Gray-green wavy lines progress down the painting, becoming a saturated two-tone set of red and cyan, emanating red light. The warm red advances atop its cool cyan shadow. Our inborn tendency to see complementary afterimages, particularly when opposite hues are juxtaposed, amplifies the painting’s glow.

The white ground reasserts itself among the colored figures, lightening and clarifying them. In most places, the white is equal in width to the colored combo, but as the colored lines narrow along each downward-turning diagonal, the white widens, emitting a skim of white light atop a gray shadow. The crossed signals of light and shadow vibrate in these valleys, driving the movement in the painting.

The horizontal, colored curves seem to widen a bit in a few areas in the middle and bottom of the painting, creating subtle fissures in the uniformity of the pattern, like threads pulled in a weaving. These fluctuations might be deliberate or the byproduct of a handmade execution or even the effect of changing color and value contrasts. In any case, the bands are thin enough that minuscule discrepancies are visually consequential. The painting is from 1967, the year Riley introduced color after some years of painting only in black and white. Riley concurrently committed to the narrow stripe form, which she describes as integral to her use of color: “essentially edge, without a large volume to carry is the ideal element to work with this elusive relationship between color and light.”[iii] For example, Riley rejects the idea of a green triangle; a triangle’s solid volume and directional qualities assert themselves and compete with the use of color. Not wanting to simply ‘color in’ her earlier achromatic paintings, she re-imagines her forms for color.[iv]

For me, this painting endures unlike more facile examples of Op Art, because, like a work of thoughtful science fiction, it uncannily compresses the past, present and future. Throughout her writing, Riley recalls the impact of specific perceptual memories. In this painting, one sees how she draws upon these lived moments, whether it was observing light across water, watching the bright blue sky fade into its complementary afterimage, studying the divisionism of Seurat’s dots and Moorish tiles, or engaging an all-over structural approach to figure drawing. She hones aspects of these past experiences in order to present a wholly new perceptual event tantamount to them.

Riley embraces pre-planning, carefully considering and revising color, scale and composition via drawing: a practice of perfecting, rather than the pursuit of perfection itself. The elusive quality in Riley’s painting is more often achieved in other painters’ works through improvisation, gesture or accident. But what Riley presents is rather a universe of extreme structure that dissolves into luminescent and fugitive color. The ‘aura’ is not achieved through direct index, but through engineering. For this painting to achieve its fantastical presence requires a crucial austerity. There is always just enough in a Riley painting. She has vaporized out all the excesses of the sentimental past, because they might interfere with the immersive present and an emerging future.

2014P-43_lightboxAnoka Faruqee, 2014P-43, 2014, Acrylic on linen on panel, 22.5 x 22.5 inches

[i] Riley, Bridget, “Interview with David Sylvester,” The Eyes Mind: Bridget Riley Collected Writings 1965-2009, Ed. Robert Kudielka,  (London: Riding House, 2009), 95.

[ii] Lee, Pamela, Chronophobia, (Cambridge: MIT, 2006), 176.

[iii]Riley, Bridget, “Into Color,” The Eyes Mind, 114.

[iv] Riley, Bridget, “In Conversation with Robert Kudielka,” The Eyes Mind, 104.