Benjamin Britton on Julie Mehretu

JMehretuMogamma2Julie Mehretu, Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts): Part II, 2012, Ink and acrylic on canvas, 15 x 12 feet
Collection of High Museum of Art

I decided to write about Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts): Part II by Julie Mehretu. Although I’ve followed her work for a while, it has become the piece of hers I have seen in situ the most. To write about a painting from a painter’s perspective, I would ideally be looking right at it while I wrote, and not at a photograph or an image on a screen. I should say, the other three parts of Mogamma I have only seen as photographic representations. Part II is at the High Museum in Atlanta, in a very large room where there is a nice place to sit down and view the painting.

I first became aware of Julie Mehretu’s work after I left New York for LA in 2002. At the time I was looking for a way to concretize conceptual and representational information as an abstraction. I was drawing on my experiences in NYC when I worked as a bike messenger. In the course of a day, I would encounter many perspectives and transparencies to the civic structure while traversing the thresholds of buildings and seeing the map of the city take different forms in my mind each time I walked out onto the street. I was a tiny fleshy part of many weird systems of power: global finance, insurance, fashion, advertising, the dot com boom and bust, among others. There were moments of poetry, boredom, and fear. Sometimes the same song played out of the window of each car and truck that crawled through midtown {in my mind it’s Doo-Wop (that thing) by Lauryn Hill in the summer of 1998}. As I wound through the gridlock on my way up Sixth Avenue, each set of speakers would connect with the next, everyone on the same station, forming the whole song of out of fragments. Even as I wanted to avoid direct references to bicycles and NYC in my work, I was interested in complex spaces, and a sense of speed and motion, moments of awkward beauty. I wanted the experience of viewing the work to feel like the subject matter – the surface layered with chaotic states and feats of brinksmanship.

From my first introduction to Mehretu’s work, I was struck by its speed and multiplicity of transparent perspectives. The paintings gave the sensation of lives lived in multiple locations, the architecture of power, and the actions of people against the background of civic structures of control. And she was doing it with abstraction, but something beyond the grid of modernism. It was a generative approach, and one from which I internalized much about how painting can function. Looking at her work certainly contributed to my desire to have a painting define its own conditions within its frame and produce its own climate, rather than arranging forms based on composition. It also helped me to see the way in which signifiers could be interpreted formally so that they became abstractions, yet held their signification. The form of the signifier was shifted using scale, orientation, position, direction, and color to become a parallel iteration of the conceptual motivation for using the signifier in the first place (for example, the temporary status of architectures of power she describes using layered line drawings of transparent architectural facades).

13851 2MehretuDetail2aJulie Mehretu, Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts): Part II, (Detail), Image courtesy of the High Museum of Art

When we look, we attend to what we’re seeing with our body, vision, intellect, emotion and the blended strings of a thousand different things inside us that get plucked by things outside of us. I respond to Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts): Part II in a corporeal way on account of its scale, of course (about 15 by 12 feet), but also the way the body is continually positioned and re-positioned by the multiplicity of perspectival systems in the work. It has all the visual dynamism and boggling complexity we expect from one of Mehretu’s pieces. There is an emotional heart to the turbulence of the picture, and the subject matter is fraught with complicated emotions. The piece is named after the main government building in Tahrir Square in Cairo, painted a year after the Egyptian revolution that was a part of the Arab Spring of 2011. And, reason and deliberation are also engaged; there is an encouragement of analysis by the diagrammatic spaces and application of color and graphic lines. These things are at odds; there is a friction in describing events like this, the experience of which would be so clearly charged with feelings, noise, exposure, and color, as graphic and gestural lines in black (mostly) on an exquisite milky background. This contrast is a conceptual pivot point for analysis, digression, projection, and prediction. It heightens, I would say, one of the things painting is very good at doing — describing the paradox of containing time in a way that seems removed and timeless.

The edges of our perceptual fields are always changing. We could be looking down a road through the rain, extending our view a hundred feet; or staring at some scrambled eggs at close range as we talk on the phone, and then draw back within ourselves to pay attention to some thought in our minds that the smell of cooking eggs or rain on the road has conjured. In this way we are always shifting perspective, attending to multiple fronts of sensation, emotion, memory, and reason simultaneously. A painting with edges like Mogamma frames and directs the perceptual field into a charged and focused space, intensifying it. Because the painting has illusionistic space, there is another layer of processing that goes into traversing the image, and with that comes a brilliant array of opportunities to connect perception to ideas via feelings. An example of this is how the colored lines occasionally “bend” into one of the satin milky glazes, and become intersections between layers of information. The line starts as a verb, then becomes an emotional rush of freedom from some constraint, and then a bridge to another layer of a complicated maelstrom of signification.

Approaching Mogamma from a good distance, there is a kinetic density in the top half of the painting that dissipates in the lower half. The ground is layered milky-white acrylic and the majority of the marks are black ink or acrylic. Within this overall condition we find the motifs and structures Mehretu is well known for: a series of colorful hard-edge arcing lines with light relief and consistent width that seem to respond to the conditions of the tempest in the picture. There’s evidence at their edge that they’ve been taped and sprayed for variegated color. Upon closer inspection, a tangle of systems is immediately apparent, mostly consisting of fine line drawings of architecture and such structural details as could be found in a public square (in addition to the Mogamma, other details are drawn from buildings in Tripoli and Cairo). There are also solid black squares and dot patterns. The marks that make up the turbulence are different though: they are scores of discreet gestures. These marks have a great quality that I love in the amassing of expressive marks: no matter how similar the reasons for applying strokes each time, every gesture is unique. One could say they are suggestive of people, their speech, their complex voices.

Once we enter the picture, we are transported simultaneously to more than one place. The topic is self-expression and power within the conceptual and physical spaces of the public square. Although this work is directly inspired by the events of the Arab Spring, these are subjects we hold in common. I think one of the questions that is posed with this work is under what conditions does the speech align? The representation is of simultaneous events occurring in a network whose constituents are represented by gestural marks: protagonistic, brushy, and calligraphic. The perspective we are given also feels distant and contains a stretch of time and place with literal, semi-opaque layers that obfuscate the details. These details lead me to thoughts like: political movements are based on organizing, struggle, and conscience, but they need the right conditions to be successful and many of those conditions are unknown to those engaged in the struggle. There is an element of randomness in the overall condition of this picture and what it reveals to and conceals from us that is indicative of the complexity and opacity of an event like a revolution.

Up close, some of the individual drawings of buildings can be teased out and seen partially as individual structures, especially at eye level. As you look up though, they simply get too dense and too complicated to parse, to the point of being bewildering and resistant to logic. I’d say the top four feet, where the painting gives over to stormy eddies of gesture, is really too far away to see in the same way as the rest of the painting. This is another interesting window into the piece’s conceptual structure that is unavailable in a jpeg that can be enlarged and examined; there is an opacity that takes over in the midst of all the transparency when I am overwhelmed by the density of information. Finally, a painting with so many references to architecture can’t help but connect to the surrounding architecture where it resides.

ceilingCeiling at the High Museum, Atlanta Georgia

As I gaze up into the top third of the painting, I can’t help considering the distinctive ceiling of the High Museum, with its evenly spaced circular apertures to the sky. This is an exit out of the picture, but the language of the painting forms a ligament to the edifice, connecting the pictorial, conceptual, and physical spaces through the established language of color and form in the painting. The significance is to complicate the architectures outside the picture the way they are complicated inside it. The way this painting engages multiple varieties of space makes looking at it a continually rewarding experience. It repays the act of looking with rigor and depth.

fancydancer800Benjamin Britton, Fancy Dancer, 2014, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 90 x 82 inches

Alexandria Smith on Laylah Ali

8f4373bde1ae23c351da8891a4f1ea37Laylah Ali, Untitled (Acephalous series), 2015, Gouache, acrylic, watercolor, and pencil on paper, 29 1/2 x 23 inches

I first came across Laylah Ali’s paintings in graduate school and immediately felt enamored. Her works were refreshing and filled me with validation. Since childhood, I was attracted to comics and cartoons and for many years, was convinced that I would become an animator. Years of schooling resulted in my desire to follow the path of being a fine artist; making work for myself as opposed to clients. I didn’t, however know what that “looked” like: What kind of work was acceptable? How could I create work that was engaging, unique and personal? What could I create that would make others take me seriously? How could I be vulnerable as a woman, as an artist, as a black person, yet still participate in a patriarchally-dominated institution? How could I paint my truth without being pedantic? There were so many questions at that time but not enough answers and to this day, I still don’t necessarily have the answers. What I did discover after my encounter with Laylah Ali’s paintings was that I could actually do all of those things by just being myself.

Laylah Ali’s Greenheads series showed me that there was no “correct” way to go about being a black, queer, female artist or simply an artist but that just being me was enough. Her work rendered me speechless. She had a booming voice emanating through the graphic language of cartoons and comics. Her works communicated various current events and the plight of our society through the simplest and oldest form of art-making. Laylah gave me the validation and confidence I needed to push forward and create. In some images, the Greenheads are both aggressive and physically violent or bear witness to the aftermath of destruction. They are small, detailed paintings with a cartoonish aesthetic that are created with extreme delicateness. The colors of her paintings are rich and alluring and allude to childhood nostalgia. There is also something quite horrific and grotesque after being engrossed in the work for a long period of time. Their intimate scale requires an intense engagement and a yearning for scrutiny that over time develops into prostration. Minute details: missing limbs, contorted bodies, exposed flesh, slowly reveal themselves and humanize these otherworldly figures. I feel encapsulated by their world and long to simultaneously help them and turn away.

There is a distinct difference between viewing Laylah Ali’s work in person versus a reproduction, which I discovered recently at the opening of her new exhibit at Paul Kasmin Gallery. These new paintings, her first solo exhibition since 2005, called The Acephalous Series are much quieter. The brushstrokes and layered effect of the gouache create a very different experience than viewing the works in a publication. There is a tension between the physical grotesqueness of the characters and their melancholy, subdued aura as they appear to be on an endless journey. These new characters introduced in this series retain the figurative fragmentation of The Greenheads but are more contemplative. The nautical world she depicts highlights water’s function as an agent of trauma, spirituality, and peace.

The language of Laylah Ali’s work has taught me a lot about my own ways of looking, body awareness, color, materiality and narrative that I’ve brought into my studio practice. In an interview with “The Believer”, she perfectly encapsulates my own goal for how I aim for my work to function. She states, “My body definitely undergoes the stress and tension of working on the paintings, but that tension is directed into the figures and their exchanges. I really wanted to resist any easy connection to the artist—people always want to go there, to the pathology of the artist, rather than examining themselves. I think I need to disappear a bit in order for the viewer to engage more fully.” It is evident in this new series that Laylah Ali has accomplished her goal by allowing the viewer to become solely immersed in the work without the distraction of her presence; revealing the tranquility of societal dysfunction.

FolieADeuxAlexandria Smith, Folie a Deux, 2014, mixed media collage on board, 30 x 42 inches

Tony Robbin on Joyce Kozloff

15_If_I_Were_an_Astronomer_TasmanJoyce Kozloff, If I Were an Astronomer (Tasman), 2014, Mixed media on canvas,
72 x 54 inches

Joyce Kozloff’s If I Were an Astronomer (Tasman), 2014, has a magical, rich, nocturnal silver-blue light that unifies the work and allows an exuberance of imagery to be seen as a whole. As recent color painting (of which there seems to be less and less) gets further and further removed from representation, a specific “light” is lost. By light, I mean the vision that each color is tinted by the time of day or diffusing atmospheric conditions; it makes one painting different from another, as indeed Tasman is different from the sun-dried-tomato reds of Mediterranean. We have the sensation of an artist’s direct experience, rather than someone just running a theory. The presence of full white and full dark, with tonalities in between, adds solidity to the work and makes the work dynamic; having areas darker and others lighter is different from the color of close values, characteristic of 60s Color Field Painting, that has become so common.


Joyce Kozloff, If I Were an Astronomer (Mediterranean), 2014, Mixed media on canvas.
72 x 54 inches

Kozloff always delights in hand work, and in these new works there is a thrilling intensity to our close view. Raising a son, and reading his favorite Tintin by George Remi, she made larger, detailed copies of the illustrated books, as though she took seriously the admonition that an idle hand was the Devil’s plaything. Looking close at Tasman, we see a variety of painted elements and collected elements: printed, retrofitted, reshaped, commuter generated, captured from other worlds. It is evidence of a restless yet generous imagination.

The six-fold and eight-fold patterns are familiar from tilework in Seville and Granada, but in the Alcázar or Alhambra the patterns, though juxtaposed, are isolated from one another. In Kozloff’s work the patterns are more like the Persian miniatures from the Shahnameh in the Metropolitan Museum of New York (made by various artists), where patterns in the architecture, rugs, and tiles are slipped into one another, making patterns within patterns. Indeed, the format of the vertical work reminds me of the proportions of the pages of the manuscript. In this intermixing, Kozloff shows a fascination with, and an understanding of, how the patterns are related, how one can be morphed into another from an underlying symmetry.

Kozloff quickly moved away from 70s Pattern Painting, first to Pattern and Decoration and installation pieces, and then to works with explicit political content. But we must remember how political Pattern Painting was when it first appeared. Political in the artworld, and also just plain political! Traditional women’s work, such as quilts, lace, baskets, deserves to be valued and aesthetically appreciated; no need to be defensive about the decorative; and the work of the whole world – Asian, African, Native American, and Mesoamerican- is our tradition, not just European, not just from parochial New York. To me, If I Were an Astronomer (Tasman) is political in the best sense of the word.

05-7Tony Robbin, 2005-7, 2005, Acrylic on Canvas, 56 x 70 inches

Ed Valentine on Ivan Albright

4524_3165532Ivan Albright, Temptation of St. Anthony, 1944/45, Oil on canvas, 50 x 60 inches

The first time I saw an Ivan Albright painting was as a sophomore art student, in an art history class at The Columbus College of Art and Design. That was 1970. The painting or rather projected image of the painting was: And Into This World Came a Soul Called Ida. It knocked me out!

Art school in 1970 had delivered quite a few between-the-eyes shots to my limited aesthetic. Before that, and with few exceptions it was Norman Rockwell, Walt Disney and Mort Drucker from Mad Magazine who told me what art was. Art supplies were primarily a Bic pen and a 100 pack of typing paper. The sum of art making was mastering drawing skill through mostly ridiculous and over the top subject matter. I drew cartoons and monsters.

But now, in the glare of an absolutely electrifying newness those previous notions were beginning to dim. Art it seemed was becoming very serious business and I needed to immediately stop fooling around.

At the time we were all reading Michael Fried’s Art and Objecthood. Vito Acconci was touching his toes, following people and biting himself in New York. Decades earlier, Meret Oppenheim put nails on an iron and fur in a teacup yet I was just getting the news. On and on it went, from Duchamp to Warhol to Joseph Kosuth. I had a lot of catching up to do.

Inspired, untethered and fully engaged in my new life as an art student I was experimenting and diving into a sea of ideas headfirst. I did spray paintings blind folded, lived in a box for 3 days, made dozens of found object sculptures, encased some in ice and caught others on fire. And of course… made a couple of experimental films. I started smoking cigarettes, stopped smiling and took myself very seriously. I became a very good art student.

But, at the end of the day it was still mostly about painting, drawing and evolving through skill and craft. That’s where I really grew and where I did my best thinking and investigating. Within the geography of those two verticals and two horizontals and the constraints of the flat, static two-dimensional surface I saw limitless possibilities, and room for experimentation.

I also knew that painting and drawing was something that needed to be tended and nurtured. It was complex and the nuances didn’t abide shortcuts. Painting required my constant and full attention.

I was conflicted, and to make matters worse, powerful voices from high places were telling me that painting was dead!

Then came Ida who, like a concerned mother, sensed my anxiety and brought me back home for a while. She let me know, while sitting there in all her wonderful, strange, gothic gore, that among the urinals, soup cans, Conceptual Art, and the writ of paintings demise, that there still might be room for what brought me to art school in the first place…drawing and painting.

Some months later I found myself in Chicago and saw an opportunity to look up Ida. I headed to The Art Institute in order to find her. When I got there she was nowhere to be found. I was told she was in storage but, if I wanted, there was another room with other Albrights. This being my first visit to The Art Institute, it took me a while to find the room.

As I wound my way through the museum to this other room, I was continually halted by one great painting after another. There was Picabia’s 10 x 10 foot Edtaonisl, Magritte’s, Time Transfixed, Van Gogh’s glowing, Self Portrait, Franz Klein’s, Shovel and De Kooning’s, Excavation. To this day I believe if you can’t allow yourself to slow down and fall into Van Gogh’s, Self Portrait from 1887 then you simply have no soul.

When I finally made it to the “Albright Room” room, there, on the far wall screaming like a cage of trapped harpies was Ivan Albright’s nightmarish: The Temptation of St Anthony.

I knew the story of St. Anthony of Egypt and had seen reproductions of versions by Grunewald, Breugel, Bosch and a few others but this thing! Done in the mid, 1940s, it seemed to be smack out of 1960s drug culture. The colors were the colors of moonlight and nightmares, yet the yellows, purples and blues felt like they were straight from the tube.

It sat there noisy and flat on the picture plane. The composition came at you as if someone had just thrown a hand full of marbles in your face. It was all over the place with no focal point and no balance. Then you found yourself dead center with the whole thing spinning in a dizzying radial balance.

The theatrics of the entire mess dazzled and transfixed me. But the noise and complexity was misleading. It didn’t ask for as much as it appeared to ask. It pulled you in and simply asked that you look. That’s a good thing for a painting, to ask, to require that you simply stand in front of it and look. More paintings should be that humble and generous.

Ignorance and laziness might confuse this painting with the silliness of a Where’s Waldo quest. That would be unfortunate and a mistake. Here the terrain is different. The aesthetic is at a much higher level. We move through this painting not because we are looking for something; we move through it because we are making complex connections within the painting through image, color, shape and texture. That’s what this painting does. That’s how it keeps us there.

It would be too easy to say that I still love this painting because it brings me back to those pre-art school days where I knew nothing and just wanted to draw cartoons and monsters. There might be some of that, but the real reason is simple: It’s just a very good painting. It isn’t trying to be an important painting nor is it trying to be smarter than it is. It is just a very good painting.

Untitled Portrait with Four Stripes and Green Painted Ear 2014 oil on canvas 18x24inchesEd Valentine, Untitled Portrait with Four Green Stripes and Green Painted Ear, 2014, Oil on canvas, 18 x 24 inches

Barry Nemett on Honore Daumier

Daumier, The Strongman imageHonore Daumier, The Strong Man, ca. 1865, Oil on wood panel, 11 x 14 inches

My son’s breath warmed my neck as I lost myself in the wrinkle of his wrist. Blackness. Quiet. Then the skeleton: we’d barely entered the dark room when it danced headfirst from the ceiling. Its mouth passed so close I could smell its death, the boney Bo Jangles almost taking my 10-month-old along with it. Instantly, an infant’s rage overwhelmed a whole bunch of other spotlit jolts. Fright, not delight. What was I thinking? Had I forgotten my own experiences of carnivals? When my boy and I finally escaped back outside to balloons and cotton candy, I looked again at the rainbowed word–each cockeyed letter a lie–scrawled huge across the sunlit walls of the makeshift shelter: FUNHOUSE.

For me, carnivals mean bad/tasty food, being young, rides you threw up from, thrills, threats, sweat, and joyful scares. There are great and foul smells and not winning prizes off shelves. In my adolescence, it was where you tried to pick up girls and you fought guys. It was where skeletons didn’t die. Fun, danger, and sleight of hand–when the carnies came to town, my friends and I were there.

Honore Daumier’s “The Strongman” captures my youthful take on the itinerant world of fire eaters and sword swallowers as I roller coaster from picture viewer to sideshow spectator, from old man to child. The French, 19th-century artist poses, costumes, lights, even provides dialogue for his shady cast of characters. “Step right up and pay your dime. Watch bare hands bend steel bars! Marvel at . . .!” Here, a drawn-back curtain leads to a seductive unknown. Darkly exciting, but no place for an infant. Behind the curtain, any minute a balloon will pop or a skeleton might drop. The teen in me clamors for a ticket, enters, and sits beside a guy with missing teeth. The splintery bench is uncomfortable. It smells in here. The toothless guy and I wait impatiently for the man of strength to do his thing. I don’t mind the wait, the smell, or the splinters; the performance will be worth it—just look at the strong-arm pitch for the strongman act going on outside.

Like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Daumier’s twosome is a duo of opposites. The announcer’s forearm rockets out of a loose-fitting, high contrast garment, while his stationary partner’s skin-tight, subtly toned t-shirt and ridiculously bright red pants girdle a performer with muscular arms, a slow, gracefully curved wrist, and a pot belly. Like back-up singers, the two men airing it out behind the hawker support his booming voice, while the only person behind the silent he-man is silent, too. The strongman wraps himself up in a warm, self-contained pose, perhaps, in part, to withstand his cool-colored partner hustling you and me and every other “mark” he sees. His arm thunders in a lightning-like thrust. The figure of speech ends with an exclamation point—the hand. Connecting the two main characters, it’s the only hand in the image given any special attention. His friend hardly has one. For emphasis, the artist loads it up with pigment and echoes it with the pulled-back curtain’s folds that splay like fingers.

From hands, we go to legs, as left and right below are reversed above. A piece out of order in a jigsaw puzzle, the poster hanging in the painting’s top left corner completes the chubby Hercules. With back arched, chin up, trimmed mustache, and slicked down hair, he stands proud and tall. Daumier pits his pose against the gestures of each of the background figures who repeat the diagonal of the hawker’s shadowed torso. His harangue seems to have set those behind him in motion, while gale winds wouldn’t budge the star of the show. Or would they. The steadfast entertainer is altogether full of himself, taken with his own stature–even though he doesn’t have a leg to stand on. Daumier, ever the jester, is poking fun, but the joke is over the head of the figure of brawn. Also overhead is, perhaps, the strangest detail of the painting: the other poster. The announcer points us straight to its corner, which appears to balance awkwardly on the strongman’s head. Does the poster advertise a sideshow anomaly? Are we looking at a freakish time traveler creeping from Dana Schutz’s sunshine into Daumier’s darkness? It doesn’t look like the man with folded arms has much to say about it . . . about anything. But who knows?

*      *      *

Although quiet, my dad did have a lot to say. I wish I asked him more about his carnival days or about the carnival within him. Too late now; even sleight of hand can’t open the closed fist of time. Once, with his fingers gently stroking my wrist at a circus, my father said that he had to look to make sure it was his fingers near my hand and not his father’s fingers near his. I didn’t get what he meant, then. I get it now. We saw strongmen, hawkers, knife throwers, and death-defying flyers. They beguiled me as much as clowns, up close, creeped me out. I still try to keep my distance from those costumed performers with their sheet-white, caked-on makeup juiced by freaky, painted-way-over-the-lines smiles. Time, however, has defused the charge most of the other attractions once held for me, which is too bad; after all, where else besides in fear and sorrow do witching hours spotlight afternoons? In a painting like “The Strongman” is where.

My grandson is the age his father was when his father’s warm breath comforted me inside the funhouse. My son’s house is fun and warm and filled with unscary magic. He knows more about infants than I did. He’ll wait a few years before trying to entertain his child with Daumier’s playfully grave and desperate shadows.

When I recently told him the Bo Jangles story, my boy, now a strong man, replied that he’s never found skeletons or clowns creepy and that he likes the dark. As he spoke, he tenderly stroked the bones of my wrinkled wrist.

Antonio López García textBarry Nemett, Unrepentant Jester, 1986, Pastel on paper, 132 x 118 inches
I created Unrepentant Jester in 1986 around the time my two children were born and shortly after I saw Daumier’s The Strong Man for the first time.

Gaby Collins-Fernandez on Frederick Edwin Church

1280px-Our_Banner_in_the_Sky_by_Frederic_Edwin_ChurchFrederick Edwin Church, Our Banner in the Sky, 1861, Oil on paper, 7.5 × 11.25 inches

“Our Banner in the Sky” is a painting made almost entirely of belief, which is why I liked it at first sight, in reproduction no less, advertising the Met’s 2013 Civil War and American Art exhibition in a newsletter. When I went to see it in person I was pleased that the painting is tiny, seven and a half by eleven and a quarter inches. Frederick Edwin Church made the painting in response to news of the Union flag having survived (albeit in tatters) the Confederate bombing during the Battle of Fort Sumter. It was later turned into a popular poster through chromolithography.

In painting, the acceptance of meanings and feelings is usually dependent on how convincing the work is on the spatial terms it sets out. “Our Banner in the Sky” casts mid-19th century nationalism as trompe-l’oeil-based hyperbole, the American flag appearing immanently, via Manifest Destiny, in the confluence of a striated, star-spangled sunset and a tree. What must have read then as an auspicious alignment that exposed the truth and inevitability of a united United States and its democratic government reads clearly now as something between propagandistic fortune-telling and flat-out delusion. (There is a very nice corollary between thinking of this painting as an apparition and the anecdote of the flag-as-symbol coming to Jasper Johns “in a dream.”)

There are a lot of things to like about the work from a contemporary vantage point: that Church is able to pull off near-modernist flatness in a landscape painting (amazing enough on its own) through a behind-the-picture-plane reverse-anamorphosis move; the similarity between the logic of this image and that of picking out which cloud best resembles a T-Rex; how funny it is, how straightforward. Because it is so small, the main conceit of the image as revelation is contradicted by the brushwork, the conceptual sleight of hand undermined by the obviousness of the touch.

What is remarkable about this image, and kind of ludicrous in 2015, is that it worked—socially. As if to answer Union concerns that the war was the right course of action, Church said, unequivocally, that the flag was still there. People loved it—they bought the poster.

In my own looking, I’m most interested in the terms of belief. “Our Banner in the Sky” feels impossible to make unironically in 2015 because we don’t, as a country, believe in the same way; and the art world certainly hasn’t since the ’60s, at the latest. The painting is not for me, really, because I have conflicted and ambiguous feelings about my Americanness that a meditation on the flag isn’t going to fix. But I like thinking about what the emotional conditions (and, as an extension, the physical realities) would have to be for that to be enough to help me to justify a war and a way of life.

red velvet I KNOW IT HURTS paintingGaby Collins-Fernandez, Red velvet I KNOW IT HURTS painting, 2014, Oil paint on fabric, 30 x 18 inches

Jo Smail on Pietro Perugino

Jo-Smail-#1Pietro Perugino, Crucifixion, 1493-1496, Fresco on plaster

Turn left outside the Jules Maidoff Palazzo in Florence†, walk to the first traffic light, turn left and walk up the hill until you reach via della Collona. Go right, soon you will arrive at # 9. You are standing outside the 13th century Monastry of St. Mary Magdalene De’Pazzi, now a school. It is open, only, on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. Inside you will find an extraordinary fresco: a crucifixion by Perugino, painted between 1493 and 1496. Go left into the chapter room near the entrance and prepare to be astonished!

If you are like me you will have a trancendent experience. It is painted in a manner that belies the subject matter. There are many crucifixions in Florence but it confirms my belief that how a work is painted, makes all the difference in how it communicates meaning. I go in close and take notes with my camera. Tiny brushstrokes are whispers that caress the folds of fabrics, dark to light. The tall, slender trees echo the vertical line of the cross, their leaves barely kiss the sky. The overall feeling — the balance between the figures, the architectural elements and the landscape — is one of extreme tenderness. I sit on a bench at the back of the room. I have the luxury of time to appreciate this sublime painting.

Jo Smail #1 Me photographing Perugino’s sky

I spend most of my days in Florence looking up! In this city of religious art I find myself drawn to photographing the sky. Elements of architecture are the containers for sky. Having a philosophical bent, I ponder the idea of “infinity”. Looking upwards I find myself thinking about something Clarice Lispector asks in A Breath of Life “Could there be a number that is nothing? That is less than zero? That begins where there is no beginning because it always was? And was before always?” It seems to me, the sky is the only constant wherever we are. Its “nothingness” is the universal.

My camera is an extension of my arm. It rests in my pocket at the ready.

Jo-Smail-#3Pietro Perugino, Crucifixion, (Detail)

Jo-Smail-#4 (1) Jo Smail, Looking Up #9, 2014, Photograph

On my return home last summer, after taking thousands of photographs, I painted.

The paintings are influenced by the photographs. But the color and materials are contemporary.

I use bare canvas as a constant reminder of beginnings.
I patch: construct, build
I glue: cover up
I tear: like giving birth
I cut: damage or break
I wrap: like clothing
I paint: reveal, excavate

The physicality of the paintings is contrasted with flat photographs.

I think about ways of “being” and ways of “seeing”.
What constitutes “being” and what constitutes “seeing”?
Presence and memory.
And so I circle back to Perugino!

Jo-Smail-#5Jo Smail, Marmalade Heart, 2014, Acrylic, Found Fabric, Pencil, Collage on Canvas,
50 x 40 inches & #57, 2014, Archival Digital Print, 24 x 18.5 inches

† I lived in Florence for 4 months as mentor for students from MICA’s semester abroad program, Spring 2014. They attend SACI (Studio Art Centers International), a university founded by Jules Maidoff in 1975.