Julia Jacquette on Adélaïde Labille-Guiard

self portrait w two pupils
Adélaïde Labille–Guiard, Self–Portrait with Two Pupils, Mademoiselle Marie Gabrielle Capet (1761–1818) and Mademoiselle Carreaux de Rosemond (died 1788)1785, Oil on canvas, 83 x 59 1/2 inches

A number of years ago a well-known and influential New York art gallerist was brought to my studio by a private dealer I’d been working with. The visit was tense: I’d been working on a new body of large paintings and yet the gallerist was clearly not engaging in the work (or in the conversation). Later that day, I met up with the dealer for coffee to discuss the visit – he’d been trying to help me find a gallery to represent my work and had hoped that this particular gallerist might be a good match. He apologized, saying that the gallerist wasn’t interested in my work. He also recounted something the gallerist had said to him: “In general,” the gallerist had said, “I don’t get painting.”

That sentence has stuck with me ever since. How could it be that an extremely powerful, influential, and – it is assumed – knowledgeable art world “player” was categorically dismissing painting? The fact that his gallery stable reflected that – it didn’t (and still doesn’t) contain many artists making paintings – didn’t ease the sting. Neither did the fact that his stable of artists was a group whose work I respected and admired. In fact, maybe that last fact made it sting even more.

So why – of all things – did I start thinking about this statement when I was asked to write about painting? Why is my knee-jerk reaction to automatically defend painting? Not just to defend it, but to defend it here, in an arena whose purpose is to celebrate painting? Certainly part of it is my own self-doubt, but it’s also the subtle yet ever-present sentiment that we painters are still bumping up against: the idea that painting is never as topical, current, and imbued with content as newer – “edgier”, “groundbreaking” – mediums are.

One of the mantras I use to quell that inner voice is something that Joan Waltemath said as part of a panel discussion on painting in the mid-2000s. Joan was the first on the panel to speak and, with nary an introductory remark, coolly and self-assuredly began: “It’s a mistake to defend painting.” Continuing in her calm, authoritative, and elegant manner, she quickly came to her point. I’m going to have to paraphrase here, but it was something along the lines of, “Shut up world, the questioning of painting’s relevance should never have happened in the first place, so let’s get on with it.”

The modus operandi of much of my own artwork – and my personality – is the acknowledgment of doubt and defensiveness, in the hope that the acknowledgement of my own weakness will lead me to a place of chagrined acceptance. Maybe it can even lead me to a place of truth: the fact that painting, at the very least for me, is endlessly meaningful, limitlessly inventive, and absolutely and completely visually compelling. Or, I should say, painting has the potential for being all these things.

Just as there are films that I return to again and again – bringing a childlike satisfaction in the comfort of familiar stories, characters, and scenarios – there are paintings that I come back to over and over for the same reason. For many years one of my touchstones has been Adélaïde Labille-Guiard’s 1785 painting, Self-Portrait with Two Pupils, Marie Gabrielle Capet (1761–1818) and Marie Marguerite Carreaux de Rosemond (died 1788), which for many years hung in the room at the top of the main staircase in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (an unavoidable location that only added to its power).

With fastidious, Neo-Classical technical skill (and yes we can argue about the pros and cons of hyper-rendering an image, but that’s a whole other conversation) Labille-Guiard depicts herself painting wearing a blue satin dress with stunningly well-depicted texture. The painting uses a classic triangular composition, with the figure of Labille-Guiard and her students creating a central pyramid-like form. Stretcher bars, maul sticks, and other objects act as diagonals that constantly loop our gaze back to the central figure. Although there is minimal background imagery, we do see a couple of plaster casts of classical statuary – one looks to be a copy of a roman bust. The statue seems to be gazing at the artist. Is it showing concern? Amusement? Disgruntlement? In any case it’s a funny aside on Labille-Guiard’s part.

The most impressive aspect of this painting for both the little-kid me and the grown-up me is that Labille-Guiard depicts herself working, with two female students watching over her shoulder. I get teary eyed every time I see it – the relaxed confidence and gentle smile with which Labille-Guiard has depicted herself. Maybe she taught only female students, and maybe that’s the reason she’s chosen to depict herself with the two young women here, but it’s nonetheless stunning to see an image of a female artist as teacher to female students. I began to notice this painting on early visits to the Met with my mother – I must have been 11 or so, at just about the time she gave me a compilation book of reprints of early Wonder Woman comics (with an introductory essay by Gloria Steinem!). The two women – one an 18th-century French painter, the other a 20th-century superhero – have always been linked in my mind and from that time on, Labille-Guiard has been a kind of Wonder Woman to me.
wonder woman
An entire symposium could be held on the meaning of this painting. Indeed, the Metropolitan’s wall text for it asserts that it “…has been interpreted as a propaganda piece, arguing for the place of women in the academy.” Although my writing here is about my own response to the painting – and not the art historical interpretation of it – I’m all for the interpretation of this painting, with its stunning technique and glorious, beautiful, and charming imagery, as a propaganda tool for women’s inclusion in the academy (“anything you can do, I can do better”, indeed). Not to mention the fact that Labille-Guiard painted numerous portraits of French royalty, yet was sympathetic to the French Revolution (or so says the wall text). But, for me, the painting is the work of an individual reveling in her role as a skilled, highly regarded professional, who could both make knock-out artwork and serve as a mentor to other women. Even as an 11-year-old girl I was onto this and it impressed me indelibly.

Most of my artistic output as an adult (and, come to think of it, much of it as a kid as well) deals with the continuous visual narrative of the so-called perfect life that the contemporary (and omnipresent) media culture constantly presents to us. I’ve been struck by the fact that contemporary advertising seems to know more about the kind of visual language Labille-Guiard utilized (and for that matter, Johannes Vermeer and other golden age Dutch painters) than they know about contemporary painting. One of my recent paintings depicts a zoomed-in section of a pink satin dress, worn by the actress Nicole Kidman, from an ad for luxury watches. The painting doesn’t actually include an image of Kidman, but focuses on the beauty of the satin fabric in the photo, rendered now by me with oil paint in as faithful a reproduction of it as I can manage. My intention is to bring the whole thing full circle by bringing the image back to painting. (Hopefully the underlying pathos I feel in undertaking this endeavor makes its presence felt in the piece.) Advertising – and not painting – is the contemporary arbiter of what is beautiful (a point made eloquently by Elaine Scarry in her 1997 book On Beauty) which is a bone-chilling thought. But, as problematic as it is, it also eggs me on, making me want to throw as many punches as I can. Maybe while wearing blue satin and holding a palette, brushes and a maul stick.

Julia picJulia Jacquette, Nicole Kidman (Pink Chiffon) I, 2013, Oil on wood panel, 18 x 20 inches


At the time of writing this essay, (fall 2015) Self-Portrait with Two Pupils is on loan to the Grand Palais in Paris, as part of an exhibition of the work of one of Labille-Guiard’s few female classmates, Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun.

For many years Self-portrait with Two Pupils hung in the Metropolitan’s European Paintings 600 room, the painting Young Woman Drawing (1801) by Marie Denise Villiers hung directly opposite. The wall text for that painting asserts that it’s now thought possibly to be a self-portrait as well. For me, the Villiers always acted as a “daughter” painting to the Labille-Guiard: somewhat more modest in size and ambition, but with a tremendous quiet and presence. In addition, its position in the same gallery confirmed to me the importance of the Labille-Guiard. And, while Villers is not one of the pupils depicted in Labille-Guiard’s self-portrait, my own interior narrative of super-heroine passing on the baton to her protege suggest she is.

In the end, though, in my own mind, the companion painting to Labille-Guiard’s self-portrait is Philip Guston’s Painting, Smoking, Eating (1973), already written about in this publication by Brenda Goodman. For me it’s an equally impressive and meaningful self-portrait, but also lives in a sort of “paradox world” (to borrow a term from Seinfeld) when compared to the Labille-Guiard. Guston’s painting is lumpen, ugly, funny, full of pathos, and as full of doubt as Labille-Guiard’s is full of confidence (and bravura painting technique) but is equally as chock full of information about the artist and their position in the world.

Julia Jacquette is a painter who was raised and lives in New York City. Her upcoming solo exhibition, Unrequited and Acts of Play, will be at the Wellin Museum on the campus of Hamilton College in Clinton, NY and the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey in Summit, NJ. www.juliajacquette.net

Peter Saul on Paul Cadmus

4x5 transparency
Paul Cadmus, Coney Island, 1934, Oil on canvas, 32 7/16 × 36 5/16 inches

Paul Cadmus’ Coney Island was the first picture I ever saw, in 1939 when I was 5 years old, in a book called American Art of the 1930’s.  All the other pictures in the book were realistic, or idealistic, or at best slightly mysterious.  Coney Island, in contrast, was incredibly exaggerated! The ugly people were really, really very ugly, not just a little bit.  Likewise, they looked really, really stupid, not just a little dumb.  I loved the picture and it really made me laugh with delight.  Perhaps my mother was upset by my taste in art.  Anyway, I must have had a natural urge to exaggerate things, avoid the truth.  After a couple of years, I discovered Crime Does Not Pay comics and forgot about Coney Island.

About 60 years later I was in the Whitney Art Museum, walking around the permanent collection, when there it was, unexpected, right in front of me.  Not disappointing at all.  I would have liked it to be larger, but it was as bright and energetic as I remembered in the art book back in 1939.

Peter Saul, Viva La Difference, 2008, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 72 inches

Peter Saul is a pop artist who had his first New York show in 1962. He was a professor of art at the University of Texas at Austin from 1981 to 2000 and currently lives in Germantown, NY and New York City.

Phyllis Bramson on Henry Darger

darger3Henry Darger, Illustration from The Story of the Vivian Girls, Midcentury, Watercolor and pencil on paper, 14 x 33 3/4 inches

Henry Darger is a self-taught artist whose life’s work was discovered in his Chicago apartment in the months before his death in 1973. His thousands of drawings, paintings and manuscript pages for two unpublished novels, including a vast fantasy epic featuring the often-violent adventures of naked hermaphroditic children known as the Vivian Girls, have intrigued art historians and artists. Darger’s work was brought to the attention of the art world in 1977 at the Hyde Park Art Center/Chicago and in 1997, when the American Folk Art Museum in NYC mounted an exhibition of his work. Later, in 2008, the museum presented Dargerism: Contemporary Artists and Henry Darger, which linked his work to artists on the curator’s (Brooke Anderson) radar.

What could have caused Darger to create such lurid and often gruesome imagery (that included naked little girls, some with penises)? That question has lead to much speculation; there are a lot of articles written about Henry Darger. But the problem with these articles: he is not here to defend all the theories and speculations that have been written mostly by art historians. Also, he never expected his work to be seen or his personal life to be picked apart. In regards to his imagery, under any other circumstance, a landlord cleaning out a tenant’s apartment, might have looked at books containing the Vivian Girls and thrown them into the garbage. His landlord, Nathan Lerner, had an astute understanding of Chicago imagism and thankfully sensed Darger’s work was unique and potentially important. Lerner was rewarded; he and his wife, Kiyoko Asia, made a fortune carefully selling his work, placing it in esteemed collections.

All of Darger’s artistic efforts went towards a child-like depiction of an imaginary planet, complete with all sorts of submerged eroticism. However, inadvertently, he actually was carrying out a Chicago tradition of figuration that included theatrical, emotional, sexualized, and invented characters that nevertheless appeared “real.” The Chicago Imagist Movement of the 60’s and 70’s often depicted figures in a fantastical and surrealist manner.

Darger has influenced many younger artists – including myself, partly because of his tracing skills, his color, and his compositional strategies. As a painter, I am also interested in creating an imaginary miniaturized world, as a portal to melancholy and loss. Art historians contemplate Darger’s “back story,” what the images mean, usually dissecting his peculiarities. I concentrate on his hand and composing skills. How did Darger, formally untrained, pull off such sophisticated and impressively complex moves, involving color juxtaposition, indexing strategies, and emotional pitch using tactics that today read as entirely contemporary?

Henry Darger also satisfies my other requirement for art; that the work communicate to the viewer the immediacy and the rich worlds of one’s interior life. There are certain human experiences shared by most people: the need to be loved, the psychological consequences of being human, and the twists and turns of truth manipulated by duplicitous thinking. Since Darger’s work parses these experiences out in many ways, I have never been interested in critics that censor him, specifically for his sexually ambiguous imagery (penises on little girls). I work with eroticized images that are often misunderstood, misdirected, and complained about. I am not comparing myself to Darger, rather pointing out how we have intersected. There are many differences, but we share a mutual need for some form of “story.” We are both interested in concocting interior worlds that reflect notions of good and bad behavior. Our illusionary landscapes act as moral amplifiers. I refer to this as “love and affection in a hostile world.” The index of recurring motifs and images in Darger’s work extends the conversation of the never-ending story – intensifying the constant, roiling yearning of his heroines and their quest. I share this constant desire and yearning in my work, but my characters change and my “stories” reflect my own personal peccadilloes!

Phyllis Bramson, What Went Wrong?, 2004, Mixed media on canvas, 50 x 70 inches

Phyllis Bramson is a Senior Fulbright Scholar, a recipient of three National Endowments, the Louis Comfort Tiffany Grant, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Rockefeller Foundation Grant, Artadia: The Fund for Art and Dialog Jury Award,  Anonymous Was A Woman Award, and the Women’s Caucus for Art Lifetime Achievement Award. Currently, she is having a 30-year retrospective at the Rockford Art Museum, Rockford, IL, which will travel to the Chicago Cultural Center in 2016. www.phyllisbramson.com

Gregory Amenoff on Pieter Bruegel

First off, let’s get one thing straight. The Low Countries are aptly named. They’re low. No mountains at all. None! This trait is such a central aspect of that region of northern Europe that Jan Dibbets, a Dutch conceptualist, made a satirical photo collage in 1971 entitled Dutch Mountain.

Panorama Dutch Mountain 12 x 15? Sea II A 1971 Jan Dibbets born 1941 Purchased 1973 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01745

Jan Dibbets, Panorama Dutch Mountain 12×15° Sea II, 1971, 12 photographs on paper, 30 x 39 inches

Dibbets invented an elevated terrain for his flat homeland and so did Bruegel, four and a half centuries earlier. That said….

twoPieter Bruegel the Elder, The Painter and The Connoisseur, 1565, Pen on paper, 10 x 8 inches

In the 1560’s Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1524-1569) was commissioned by a wealthy Antwerp banker and art collector (the art world has changed little!) to produce a series of paintings chronicling the seasons of the year. For many years it was thought that this group consisted of portrayals of all twelve months, however it is now generally accepted that Bruegel in fact made six paintings, each canvas representing two months. Five are extant; our own gem, The Harvesters (aka The Corn Harvest) in the Met; The Haymakers in the National Museum in Prague; and three in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Hunters in the Snow, The Gloomy Day and Return of the Herd. As the Brits say, “one’s gone missing”. (Note to self: buy an old house in the EU and check the attic.) In fact the English playwright and novelist, Michael Frayne, wrote a marvelous book, Headlong, in which that is exactly what happens, albeit in the midst of misadventures and mid-life crises.

The paintings in this cycle are acknowledged masterpieces when considered both as a series and individually. But, like all art, they exist in a continuum of images and ideas that predate their making. These pictures are considered by many to be among the first pure landscape paintings in history, even though figures appear plentifully in each.

More than a century before Bruegel, the Sienese master Sassetta, created the tiny landscape painting, Un Castello in Riva ad un Lago.

12 Ambrogio Lorenzetti - Un castello in riva ad un lagoSassetta, Un Castello in Riva ad un Lago, 1300s, Tempera on wood, 8.8 x 13 inches

(This is, by the way, a recent re-attribution from Lorenzetti to Sassetta.) What painter doesn’t love this charming and heralded painting?

While this panel is arguably one of the earliest landscape paintings known, the real full-blown precedent for Bruegel’s ‘take’ on landscape is the low country painter Joachim Patinir who died roughly contemporaneously with Bruegel’s birth.

fourJoachim Patinir, Landscape with St. Jerome, 1515, Oil on panel, 29.1 x 35.8 inches

In this very typical Patinir, Landscape with St. Jerome (1524), all the landscape elements are in place. However, unlike Bruegel, Patinir tells a story that is quite removed from the setting. In keeping with previous tradition, the landscape serves mainly as a frame for the narrative. We see the biblical tale, set within a cave, played out against a sweeping landscape. Patinir’s narrative is not part of the landscape nor is it dependent upon the landscape, but simply sits in the landscape.

In his Seasons cycle, Bruegel lifts much from Patinir structurally and stylistically, but he does something radical and distinct from his predecessor by animating his figures only according to the reality of the seasonal condition in which they appear. The characters in these paintings are in many respects, simply cogs in Bruegel’s stunning choreography of land, light, space and weather. It should also be noted that this cycle has little in common with the artist’s many earlier portrayals of human folly, whether in the Tower of Babel, Icarus or the Prado’s frightening work, The Triumph of Death. In fact, the Seasons really don’t contain any such narratives, allegorical lessons or cautionary tales. In The Gloomy Day, with its bone-chilling atmosphere the foreground feels and looks precisely like February. Four burly guys are pollarding trees because such pruning is best done before the new growth of spring. The season rules. In the Return of the Herd, it rules again as the animals are brought in for the winter. So it goes through each of these pictures, The Harvesters, Haymaking and Hunters in the Snow. Humans here are portrayed as a part of what we call ‘nature’. No higher order, no countries, no mythology and no religion. John Lennon would approve.

XAM509 The Gloomy Day - Spring, 1559 by Bruegel, Pieter the Elder (c.1525-69); 18x163 cm; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria; Flemish, out of copyrightPieter Bruegel, The Gloomy Day, 1559, Oil on wood, 46.5 x 64 inches

Here Bruegel is nothing short of enlightened. Humans are fully integrated in their surroundings. These are democratic pictures—harmonious images of simple folk taking care of the things they must, all the while fully embedded in the land, light and weather of their universe.

The Harvesters _f11, 3/23/05, 12:27 PM, 16C, 7782x10526 (216+132), 100%, Rona Copywork, 1/20 s, R84.2, G65.0, B88.4 Working Title/Artist: The HarvestersDepartment: European PaintingsCulture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: 08Working Date: 1565 photography by mma, Digital File DP119115.tif retouched by film and media (jnc) 9_22_10Pieter Bruegel, The Harvesters, 1565, Oil on wood, 47 x 64 inches

12julyPieter Bruegel, Haymaking, 1565, Oil on wood, 46 x 64 inches

21novembPieter Bruegel, The Return of the Herd, 1565, Oil on wood, 46 x 63 inches

So what about those seasons? What about the portrayal of two months in one painting?

Each of these paintings has an identical structure: A foreground holding most of the figural and behavioral elements, a partial mid-ground, and a broad deep space leading to a horizon and, of course, sky. And that sky, in each work, holds a particular light—the coming light. In some, it is the light of opening and in others it is the light of closing. The herd returns in October and we see in the distance the cool light of November.

The trees are pollarded in damp dark February but we see a hint of March with its portent of the warmth of spring glimmering in the distant sky. The earth is turning and we are drawn towards that turning. But that turning holds no real promise– only change. We move and are moved with palpable sobriety into the next cycle, where we start again. It’s real and somewhat sad but, in its repetition, perhaps reassuring. Its simply the way things work.

It is useful to contrast these paintings of Bruegel with other more recent landscape work. The paintings of the prolific Hudson River School come to mind. The way artists in that School used light is fully in opposition to Bruegel’s approach. The mountains are majestic and they frame the sky. It is a sky of promise and destiny—a destiny great and deserved. The wagons move towards the light—towards the white man’s god—and towards ever more plentiful land. In her landmark book, Nature and Culture, Barbara Novak writes of the operatic scale of these paintings and Simon Shama, in Landscape and Memory characterizes the Nineteenth Century view of the American landscape as the real American church—the true religion of America. These wonderful and bombastic paintings were soon supplanted by the smaller, largely uninhabited, luminist paintings suffused with the even handed pantheistic light of Emersonian thinking. The light in those paintings and the internal peace they promote have none of the grit, daily rhythm and reality of Bruegel. Yet, as distinct as they are in character, in both the Hudson River and Luminist schools, the landscape carries an agenda for how we are to think about our lives, our God and our destiny. Not so Bruegel.

Now on to those mountains! Pretty weird actually (even weirder in Patinir), in their pointy unsteady formations aiming skyward—clearly dangerous and inhospitable. Where did they come from? We do know that Bruegel traveled to Rome from Antwerp and back. The trip was made, according to legend, mostly on foot. He made drawings throughout the trip, many portraying the Alps. In the Seasons, and in various earlier paintings, Bruegel regularly uses a process akin to Photoshop. He collages those mountains (and funky versions of those mountains to boot) liberally and imaginatively into the native low country landscape to create five great fictions. As the saying goes, ‘the best landscape paintings are finished in the studio’. Think how boring these paintings would be if they were flat pancakes of land arriving at flat horizon. No foreground is to be found, only a rush to the inevitable horizon. Later painters like Philips Koninick (1619-1688) did find the secret to creating compelling paintings of flat land by privileging the often unstable and dramatic northern skies over those broad flat expanses.

I have no room here to mention all the pockets of funny details in these paintings. The boats in The Gloomy Day careening around and crashing in the roiling merciless river; the dude perched in the tree on the far right rear of The Harvesters and in that same painting the sleeping guy—splayed and passed out from too much grog and sun in a sleepy mid-summer afternoon; and finally in Hunters in the Snow, the weird centered crow, (pointed out to me years ago by the painter Gary Stephan) suspended and flattened at an unnatural angle doing its duty to the composition as a sort of avian punctuation.

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_Hunters_in_the_Snow_(Winter)_-_Google_Art_ProjectPieter Bruegel, Hunters in the Snow, 1565, Oil on wood, 46 x 64 inches

There is so much more to say about the particulars in each painting but that is for another time.

In 2004 and 2005, I set out on a project to produce large scale, semi-abstract “riffs” on these paintings. No figures appear. Foreground to deep space—August into September, October into November and so on. Then I had the problem of the Bruegel that’s gone missing. It is fairly clear the lost painting was the spring painting—April into May. Below is my take on that painting.

amenoffGregory Amenoff, Eastertide, 2004, Oil on canvas, 98 x 124 inches

Postscript: From 1300-1850 there were periods of extreme cold, particularly in the northern hemisphere, commonly referred to as the ‘Little Ice Age”. Controversy surrounds the actual extent of those cold spells but interestingly enough one of those periods begins in 1550-60. Precisely the time of Bruegel’s work on the Seasons. On the Wiki page for the “Little Ice Age”, Hunters in the Snow is the featured painting. Art evidences science!

Gregory Amenoff is a painter who lives in NYC and Ulster County NY.  He teaches at Columbia University where he is the Director of Painting. www.gregoryamenoff.com

Lesley Dill on Agnes Martin

Agnes Martin, Untitled #3, 1995, Acrylic and graphite on canvas, 60 x 60 inches

I am writing about Agnes Martin because her work approaches me initially where I think I live, a place of attained quietness through years of meditation. Yet, this presumption of kinship eludes me because my own work and mind are shaped by a noisy compaction.

In Nancy Princenthal’s recent book “Agnes Martin Her Life and Art” she writes that when asked, Martin avowed over and over that her work is about “happiness” and “innocence”. Despite reading about her often intense life, I believe this because this is what the paintings feel like to me – a taut , austere, peacefulness with a mind and hand fully committed to the voice of the painting. If luminosity is happiness then this is what happens. Her work makes you want to sit in front of it and relax the inner mind, as if the mind is sitting in a chair with a cup of tea looking at the ocean and its imponderables.

So, did she make this work so that her life would be as peaceful as possible, controlled within the bounds of the painting? We know she suffered periodically from schizophrenia and, earlier in her life, was a restless wanderer.  Also the book reveals that Martin rarely read or engaged with contemporary events . She made herself a routine transcendent cave in New Mexico and her work comes from there.

How do we artists make our work with ingredients of personality and time and place? I live and work in NYC/ Brooklyn where we are surrounded with a plethora of exhibits and talks and writings on art. It is stimulating and enriching. But many of us feel the need for the renunciation of this world when we make our own art. There is such a desire to contribute to the contemporary field of artmaking, to matter, to be meaningful… that we can over-research, over–look, and get pulled from our personal private orbits.

I, myself, am an introvert and can’t even bear to get the daily mail as it bears too much information. My father was schizophrenic and my childhood had turbulence. But I don’t think I look to my work to be peaceful in contrast or solace… it is more about the inner often complex poetic mind. (“I like a look of agony because I know it’s true.” E. Dickinson) A mind, a heart that is inward. (As Rilke says “What is Inwardness?”) It is a mind of inner theatricality with layered voices speaking to each other. So, with some regret, this sounds so silly, but with some regret I am not of the emotional geography of Agnes Martin… I am able to stay inward because my work can speak for me. It is about language.

two togetherI was lucky enough to meet Agnes Martin one day in Taos. I was beyond excited. She was very kind and asked me about myself. I thought she was a mountain.


dillLesley Dill, Faith and the Devil, Installation.
Big Gal Faith (front), 2012, Oil pastel on fabric, 7.6 x 10 x 20 feet
Drunk with the Great Starry Void (back), 2012,  Oil pastel on fabric, 8.6 x 30.3 feet

Lesley Dill lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. She explore themes of language, the body, and transformational experience through sculpture, photography and performance. www.lesleydill.net

John Bowman on Gian Antonio Fumiani

The_Martyrdom_and_Apotheosis_of_St_Pantalon_-_Gian_Antonio_Fumiani_-_San_Pantalon_-_VeniceGian Antonio Fumiani, The Martyrdom and Apotheosis of Saint Pantalon, 1680-1704, San Pantalon, Venice

Venice has a surfeit of amazing examples of painting, and one is reluctant to choose a favorite from the stunning array of this kind of art on view. One painted artwork that continues to compel my attention is found behind a rough brick façade, at a 17th century church in Dorsoduro near Plaza Margherita, in a building that appears more like a barn than a cathedral. But this humble, damaged looking structure, San Pantalone, houses a remarkable entry into the lists of ecclesiastical propaganda.

This is an appreciation of “The Martyrdom and Apotheosis of St Pantalon,” a ceiling painting by Gian Antonio Fumiani, made between 1680 and 1704. It is not a fresco, but painted on canvas, covering the ceiling and unfolding down the upper walls of this modest church. My fascination comes not from its size, though at twenty-five by fifty meters, it is listed in some places as the largest painting in the world. Nor am I particularly fascinated by the ‘Di sotto in sù,’ or ‘seen from below,’ method, a compositional technique using of radically foreshortened figures and a vanishing point that seems to open up the ceiling. Fumiani also utilizes ‘quadratura,’ a Baroque technique that projects the architecture upwards, using perspective to heighten the illusion of towering space. These elements create an imposing impression, but for me it is not a vision of the heavenly sublime, and not what draws me back to this haunting image.

This is martyrdom, after all, and Fumiani’s sulfurous version is a smoky inferno, leading to an unexpected apotheosis. These heavenly gates open like the crack of doom, not to the glory of a celestial reward. Spikey clusters of angels dart about then jam together like flocks in a Hitchcockian aviary. Giant centurions glower down from a trompe-l’oeil entablature while furtive crowds of witnesses lurk in the corners and shadows, bristling with armor and weaponry. Familiarity with the Saint’s martyrdom will not help the viewer to identify the actors in this turbulent tableau. Appropriately, it tells a dark story. Pantalon was a healer and a devout Christian preacher, condemned to death by the Emperor Maximillian. Pantalon was very hard to kill, and after trying to hang and drown him, and throwing him to wild beasts, the Romans had to settle for a beheading.

In his church, clouds hang like palls of industrial smog, casting shadows and blocking the feeble light emanating from the illusory heavens. This stygian effect entrances, as one tries to focus on the pieces and parts, while vainly attempting to wrestle it into an embraceable thing. Any such synthesis is elusive, and this work has remained for me a kind of Heavy Metal Sistine Chapel, with flitting harpies amid an acrid haze. It promises not the peaceful repose of beatitude, but a clashing sepulchral hellhole, the site of an infernal canonization. It is more like the experience of an evacuation, a strobing nightclub, or a bus station at rush hour, than the scene of a triumphant entry into paradise. There is something of the tumult, struggle, confusion, and the wonder of our living reality in this savage composition, an apprehension that I find intriguing, and somehow comforting. Someone, this time Fumiani, has told the truth about a collision between individual belief and temporal power.

This sinister interpretation is furthered by the dreadful epilogue to the creation of this unique painting. After toiling on this project for twenty-four years, Fumiani apparently jumped, or fell, or was pushed from his towering scaffold to his death on the floor below. The church is now his tomb.

Andrea_Pozzo_-_Allegory_of_the_Jesuits'_Missionary_Work_-_WGA18353Andrea Pozzo, Allegory of the Jesuits’ Missionary Work, 1691-94, Sant’Ignazio, Rome

All of this doomy drama may just be the effect of the accumulation of dirt and grime, the patina of centuries passing. I doubt that the painting has been cleaned in a very long time. After a restoration maybe the ceiling would dazzle like Andrea Pozzo’s “Allegory of the Jesuit Order” at San Ignacio in Rome. Pozzo’s fresco fairly shines, and its Jesuit saints and attendants sparkle as they drift upward into the radiant ether. Who knows, if given a good scrubbing, Fumiani’s ceiling may light up like the Sistine did, but I doubt it, and I certainly hope not. Such a transformation, like the cleaning of Michelangelo’s fresco, would surely be a revelation, and perhaps give Signore Fumiani a renewed apotheosis, a new lease on the afterlife. But I would miss sliding into that dark, cool, cavernous space, paying the gratuity, and when the weak lights come on, peering up into the gloom at Fumiani’s damned souls crowding and swooping overhead, swirling like bats, forever upward into the gloaming.

UntitledJohn Bowman, Holyland, 2013, Oil on canvas, 46 x 54 inches
Courtesy Winston Wachter Gallery, NY

John Bowman is an artist represented by Winston Wachter Gallery who lives and works in New York City and Howard, PA. He taught at the New York Academy of Art, and is now a Professor of Art at Penn State University.  www.johnbowmanart.com

Elizabeth Huey on Fra Angelico

unnamed-1Fra Angelico, Perugia Altarpiece, 1447, Tempura and gold on Wood, this panel measures 34 x 60 cm

The predella panel of Fra Angelico’s Perugia Altarpiece envisions the humble yet heroic life of Saint Nicholas, also known as Nicholas the Wonderworker. This painting conjures characteristics that Guido di Pietro, later christened Fra Angelico– the “Angelic Friar”– was familiar with: sacrifice, devotion and allusions to the miraculous. The Perugia Altarpiece, painted from 1447 – 1448, followed his famous tenure at the Convent of San Marco in Florence where he painted frescoes with monetary support from the Medicis in the prayer rooms and meditation cells. Considered the intermediary between the Gothic and Renaissance eras, Fra Angelico teetered assuredly on the threshold of both. This is evinced in his work by his theatrical stage sets, generalized features, and glittery details as well as his advanced perspectival renderings and naturalistic weight of forms.

Paintings in the 1400’s were like billboards for Catholicism – burdened with the task of acting as persuasive progenitors of moral acts – as well as early cinema, entertaining society at large with stories of salvation. Under the watchful eye of church and government, it is indeed astonishing that Angelico expressed a reservoir of calm, creating images that tap into the sublime as well as his personal vision of life’s idiosyncrasies. His geometric structures, embellished with orbs and bulbous shapes convey both the warmth of domestic charm and the cool elegance of grandeur.

In the bottom left panel of the altarpiece, Saint Nicholas is pictured three times, haloed in gold, like cliff-notes to his early existence. The first scene, one of two open interiors, reveals his birth. Stories circulated that Nicholas, during his first bath in a wash-basin, stood upright, unassisted. An elderly woman watches him rise to life from her deathbed. The second frame, an open quadrant, highlights his vocation. He is pictured amidst a seated crowd, again standing, attentive to the bishop, arms in reverence over a jasmine field symbolic of amiability and grace. The third moment features the Saint’s charity as he anonymously reaches through a barred window to deliver bags of gold to a father of three poor girls, consequently saving them from prostitution. The hooded Father is seen at the foot of the bed wearing slender black shoes, hands folded over in prayer, head hung in genuine sadness. Enveloped in the covers, his girls seem frail and innocent like three pale doves tucked into a cloud.

Perhaps great paintings, like great lives, hold in equal measure chaos and order? Employing repetition, Fra Angelico offers both symmetry and surprise in his use of the color red, raised arms, and rectangles. Red is a primary hue and the first color of the spectrum. Red tunics dance throughout, rhythmically. In the third scene a red cloth hangs overhead in a square of dark absence, like a slab of raw meat or a pair of tired lungs, reminding us of mortality. The horizontal line of the wooden dowel connects with a thinly strained cloud shooting rapidly across the expanse, akin to the speed and weight of one’s life passing.

Raised arms move across the landscape in a syllabic pace like a heartbeat. The gesture of pointing upwards can be seen as ecstatic delight, reaching for something outside one’s own body, a blessing or a warning. The buildings on either side reach out towards us, the viewer, as if to offer an embrace — to envelope our existence. The central rectangular door acts as the heart of the painting. In this passage a man’s silhouette is barely seen as he exits, tantalizing one to wonder what is inside or on the other side. He seems to be beckoning us to another realm or simply going backstage – a reminder that the painting itself is a rectangle, conscious of its objecthood, a corporeal entity.

An accordion of rectangles fold onto one another. Cypress trees, recognized as symbols of sorrow, are restrained by the fortress wall. Rectangular windows and door frames populate the painting. The bed is another rectangle. We enter and exit the painting as in life, through beds. The distant brume is pierced only by what appears to be a singular rocket or a lone candle on the top of a decorated cake. Nature is personified and misbehaves, operating on its own laws: a groomed tree leaning over as if to take a snooze or listen closely to the bishop. And below the tree, the central building like a camera – the oval window its lens, who is the half-rendered mysterious figure looking back? Could it be Fra Angelico watching us? We wonder and wander.

unnamedElizabeth Huey, Chemistry, 2015, Acrylic and Oil on Wood Panel, 60 x 48 Inches

Born in Virginia, Huey recently moved to Los Angeles after 15 years in New York. Before earning her MFA from Yale University, Huey obtained a BA in Psychology from Mount Vernon College (now George Washington University) and studied painting at both the Marchutz School in Aix-en-Provence, France and the New York Studio School.