Roberto Juarez on Hilma af Klint

bc9f0892d27840b2c09ce9c348dde690Hilma af Klint, Violet Blossoms with Guidelines, 1919, Watercolor on paper

The first time I experienced the work of Hilma af Klint was in the 1986 exhibition, The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890 – 1985 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Her paintings spoke to me in a personal yet enigmatic way. I had yet to experience anything like them. Immediately, her work helped me to make sense of things I was dealing with in my own paintings. I am writing this piece as way to better understand my artistic response and ongoing attraction to Hilma af Klint’s work.

Af Klint’s 1919 watercolor Violets With Blossoms Guidelines immediately resonated with me. During this period, I was working with naturalistic imagery such as flowers and plants. In her delicate watercolor, I saw af Klint working with the same naturalistic imagery while going a step further to render the actual auras of each flower. People kept trying to place my work in the Pattern and Decoration Movement and then later in Neo Expressionism. In my mind, those associations didn’t make sense. I felt the P & D Movement highlighted flowers as an ornamental end in itself and I was after something else.

At the end of the 1880’s, Af Klint joined with four other women artists to form the group “The Five” in which, through séances, they channeled automatic writing and drawing which, in turn, led to paintings that were free flowing in form and color. I didn’t have the same spiritual background in aura reading that she did but I felt a relationship to the unseen elements of my subjects. Seeing her work for the first time, I was encouraged to trust my own intuitive sense of innovation and creation.

As a young artist, I met a spiritualist named Mary Denaro who created a school for aura reading (The Center for Intuitive and Creative Development) in Utrecht, Netherlands. During a visit, I participated in an exercise where I sat in front of another person, closed my eyes and imagined them as a plant. She instructed us to visualize what the plant (or person) looked like in front of us and ask these questions in an attempt to visualize the spiritual state of the person – Were the petals colorful and open and fresh? Were the leaves abundant and the roots deep? Was the plant in good shape or were the stalks wilting?

I observed af Klint depict close and delicate renderings of nature along with geometric abstract patterns that represented astral impressions of these same plants. This observation spurred me to embrace a more conscious way of working  between the realms of nature and abstraction in paintings. I found myself thinking beyond nature and even beyond the human condition. I began to envision the plant form as a complete system that circulates life through the air and the earth and ask how I could translate this into a visually abstract language.

the-swan-no-8Hilma af Klint, The Swan, No 8, 1015, Oil on canvas, 60 x 59 inches

The second painting to make a strong impression on me by af Klint was The Swan, No. 8, Group IX/SUW, oil on canvas from the 1915 SUW/UW Series. The painting depicts a transformation of two swans from what one might call their naturalistic state into purely abstract, geometric polarities. The imagery is divided into black and white rectangles with three concentric circles within. The circles are divided into what look like sugar cubes circling a larger centralized sugar cube with radiating blue and yellow lines extending outward from the center.

Based on my reading of Hilma af KlintA Pioneer of Abstraction published by the Moderna Museet in Sweden, I learned that af Klint interpreted the struggle between male and female as an expression of creation and, to her, this struggle was the fundamental idea behind all creative power. The Swan, No. 8 is her way of showing this creative power and the struggle between polarities such as dark and light, feminine and masculine, soft and hard. These concepts are simply and beautifully presented in her painting, and left me to imagine there was more to discover in my own painting process. I realized I could depend on my own intuition and sensibilities to express truths that are beyond the physical, beyond what we see or hear or touch.

I could see af Klint yearning to concretize the spiritual and to articulate the transformation of spirit to matter, as well as how matter becomes spirit through layers of symbolism. Color, form, motion, and direction came to her as the direct result of the channeling of the spirits and entities she had been communicating with since she was 17 years old. Beginning with her abstraction of the sugar cube forms, I sensed she had a refined understanding of the microcosm and the macrocosm and how they can exist together in a single painting.

To understand the idea of how we fit into the Universe is to understand the relationship between the tiny, little individual parts and their relationship to the whole. I began to think of the sugar cube forms as cells; when these tiny, invisible parts are added together, they form a whole entire body, or a human. For me, there is profound spirituality to this concept.

The invisible can become visible and, simply because something is beyond our five senses, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not there. Perhaps these are the first steps in thinking about painting from a spiritual perspective. There are actually certain elements of a painting that are unseen and certain elements pictured that don’t have form in the physical world.

Af Klint does this by describing with a painter’s vocabulary the cosmic principle of vibration. She speaks to us about the power of painting to transcend mere forms and colors in the making of a beautiful image. Her work ignites questions about the universe at large and the cosmic vibrations that unite it all together.

Roberto Juarez, Window / Pater, 2016, Mixed Media on Canvas, 8 x 8 feet

Roberto Juarez is a NYC based painter / printmaker / public artist who works with large scale abstraction and natural imagery. Roberto Juarez Studio

Joan Waltemath on Zen and the Art of Billy Al Bengston

bben021_gearbox_hrBilly Al Bengston, Gearbox, 1961, Oil on canvas, 36 x 34 inches

“Stud”, an exhibition of Billy Al Bengston’s paintings at Venus over Manhattan Gallery this past November, afforded a unique opportunity to see the legendary West Coast painter in New York City. It is clearly a special moment for an artist, who is perhaps not as well known here. Spanning nearly seven decades in 24 paintings with the “B.S.A. Motorcycle” series from 1961 and a new group of Chevron paintings from 2016, “Stud” reveals not only Bengston’s consistent focus on his subject, but also his evolution as a painter.

Encircling the first room are 11 works from the early 60’s, each with a detailed representation of an individual motorcycle part surrounded by painted and sprayed borders that, when seen at a distance, form into isolated and floating orbs in glowing halos. Bengston’s love of the machine fills the room. The gallery feels like a bike repair haven with singular bike parts laying about — a gas tank, carburetor, back fender, and tachometer drive. One painting of the assembled motorcycle contextualizes the parts. The careful brushwork in silver and black of particular bike parts at the center of each painting allows the character of each to become legible and renders Bengston’s knowledge palpable. To the right of the entrance is an actual “B.S.A. motorcycle once raced by Bengston’s longtime friend and race coach, Aub LeBard”*, complete with shining chrome that reflects the gallery lighting. The combination of the bike and Bengston’s works borders not unwittingly on the fetishistic, yet Bengston’s painting deftly draws it back from that edge.

Gearbox (1961) seems like a machine fetus. Embedded in a gray form that feels like nothing so much as a womb here, it hovers, isolated on a pre-primed surface that has been treated with painted and sprayed yellows; its silver parts both ‘reach for’ and ‘receive’ in lifelike motions through organ-like channels. Close up Gearbox sets the focus to the machine’s details but, from further back, an oblong green rim gives volume to the halo’s glimmer and breathes life into the form. With a wholly unique sense of the sensual, Bengston heightens the sexual undertones of his motorcycle paintings and reveals an eroticism that comes as much through the emotion embedded in the haptic qualities of his surfaces as it does through his images.

In its manner of rendering detail, Gearbox recalls the painstaking nature of Warhol’s early hand painted pop masterpieces, yet here Bengston’s yellow fields expand and his strange anthropomorphic mechanism retracts to form the essential conflict that allows this painting to hold our rapt attention. It is noteworthy that Gearbox predates by several years Warhol’s 1963 Artnews interview where he famously states, “I want to be a machine”. A deep passion for racing bikes that serves as an inspiration for these works sets them at a remove from the advertising and cartoon-based Pop art of many of his contemporaries in the East.

bengston-parrasch-01Billy Al Bengston, Carburetor I, 1961, Oil on canvas, 36 x 34 inches

The off symmetry of the central white star in Carburetor I (1961), partially and quickly over-painted in a bright deep yellow activates a grey whose purple halo is dancing in step with the sprayed bronze edge around the central form. All this emerges slowly, slower than we are used to in the digital world and in doing so it emanates a subtle warmth that seems like it could only ever happen once. The remarkable halos surrounding his images of machine parts elevate them to the status of icons, while the precisely painted components resonate Pop with a West Coast vibe.

A number of works in the series create a sensitive color aura with the spray paint’s diffusion, which in turn plays off the harder edges of the silver details in Bengston’s centrally located subject. Yet, in each, their unique and dynamic color interaction gives them a precise emotional resonance.  While the metallic paint along with the use of spray paint brings you right into the bike shop with Bengston, and there is no doubt about the symbiotic relationship between these two aspects of Bengston’s professional life as both a motorcycle racer and painter, his work is more than a translation of this subculture’s imagery into a high art form as he moves from one mode of operation to another.

Spending time in the exhibition with Bengston’s quietly powerful works, many of his contemporaries come to mind. The circles and ovals surrounding his centralized images recall, for one, Kenneth Noland. The contrast distinguishes Bengston’s color sensibility and his varied application of paint, both of which work to generate tension on multiple levels as distinct from the centering calm of Noland’s works. The centralized subject is an approach that stayed with Bengston throughout his career and gave him space to develop color as a primary aspect of his work. In the two blue rooms comprising his current work from the “Chevron” series, the sensations one experiences reveal the mastery of Bengston’s color.

bben003_image_lr-256x256Billy Al Bengston, Blue Groove, 2016, Acrylic on canvas, 78 x 72 inches

The largest piece in the room, “Blue Groove” (2016) is a spattered field of low key grey, with white and light-blue drops, arranged in a more or less evenly dense field in which a central oval of intense baby blue and matte green then levitates. The painting itself pushes towards a reading from a bird’s eye perspective and in this context it reads like an overview of the racetrack. The simple form allows color to do all the heavy lifting.

We know that color enters the eye more slowly than contrast, so if you can be still and let the fields of blue in, then Bengston has forced you to slow down and become sentient. It is eminently pleasurable.

There’s a story about Bengston as a young man that heightens the subtext of this adventure: When he’d finished working on the bike, Aub, his racing mentor, told him he could paint the B.S.A. any color he wanted as long as it was blue. Here, more than half a century later, Bengston has managed to evoke what feels like a full spectrum of color, even though the only color in the room is blue.

With the likely and unlikely combinations of his blues, Bengston can engage a wide circle of thoughts. The turquoise and ultramarine blue play off each other to heavenly effect in Backed In (1961) and elicit memories of the blues of Konya, Seville or other Islamic architectural and ceramic tile patterns. Each visitor, no doubt, will enter his or her own world of experience in the ambiance Bengston’s affords. Yet, Bengston has gotten somewhere with his color that goes beyond convenient associations; they are combinations that formally open up vast distances where his familiar chevron pattern often hovers like a mirage or disappears into the atmosphere. The patterns never take on too much importance, but serve as a signal for his well-known subject matter.  Cleary it’s the journey into the mystery of blue that’s worth focusing on here. The steady unfolding of color that affects a constant shifting of depth offsets the static nature of symmetry and thwarts the tedium that could arise from the lack of variety in pictorial solutions that rely primarily on a centrally located square.

Billy Al Bengston, Aub, 2016, Acrylic on canvas, 58 x 78 inches

Aub 16 (2016) is a particularly striking combination of a deep translucent color in the range of a Paris or Helion blue – but not exactly either of those – and a pastel blue painted over a darker diagonal stripe around the edge. This simple yet precise relationship causes the field around the chevron to go deep, opening up a space where one could spend a good amount of time riffing on a subconscious wave and turn around an emotional tangle that has been haunting or painful. Across the room, the turbulent ground of Tiblin (2016) works to opposite effect, placing its turmoil in full view.

Bengston’s lifetime of experience is present in every decision. I can remember when I first laid eyes on a Bengston painting as a young artist, and it’s a pleasure now, so many years later, to discover the rewards his sustained concentration has wrought. While any number of artists become myopic and in their evolution search for refinement, Bengston has given us a gift in breathing open his broad horizons.


Joan Waltemath, Men/many (East 2 1,2,3,5,8…), 2014-16, Oil, aluminum, bronze, interference, glimmer, phosphorescent and florescent pigment on honeycomb aluminum panel, 39 ¼  x 18 ⅝ inches

Joan Waltemath is an artist who lives and works in New York City. She has shown extensively and her work is in the collections of the Harvard University Art Museums, the National Gallery of Art, the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Modern Art

* gallery press release

And then the Real Nature Showed Up: Emilie Clark on Rubens

dt5526Peter Paul Rubens, Fox and Wolf Hunt, 1616, Oil on canvas, 96 5/8 x 148 1/8 inches, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Last week I went to the Met to pick out a painting to write about for Painters on Painting. I had initially thought that I would write about a contemporary work, always feeling that I need to broaden my knowledge of contemporary painting. But then the election happened and I wanted to be in the Met. I wanted to be in a place I have always found cozy and reassuring. I’ve been working on a project for the last couple of years that has driven me to hunting for food. After preserving and studying my own food waste in Sweet Corruptions, I wanted to go backwards in the food sequence and investigate the parts of the meal and the worlds out of which they come (air, water, soil). Doing so seemed like another step in exploring the literal meaning of ecology as “earth’s household.” The aspect of my work that involves taking on unfamiliar practices in order to immerse myself in the world in a new way is often uncomfortable. Usually the discomfort fades as I dig in and live inside this new world. But this has not been the case with hunting mainly because of the gun.

While I was in New Hampshire to hunt and work the week before the election, my relationship to hunting experienced a shift. I still went out every morning before dawn and every evening before dusk, bracketing my day with the coming and going of light and true darkness. On the second morning, just before the sun rose and there was a mist and glowing light on the marsh, I shot a goose. It fell from the sky and then continued to move so I shot it a second time. The stillness, the acute awareness. The sense of all movement, moisture, wind, and sound, is so utterly and violently destroyed with the shots fired. I can’t seem to get used to it. I get hot and my heart moves to the front of my chest, pounding. The sound of the shot echoes over and over again across the lake. I went in the canoe to retrieve my bird and it was gone. I had eyes on it the whole time and it never flew. It was a terrible mystery, which produced my worst stubborn self and I insisted on searching in the thickets, in the marsh, for an hour. I emerged wet and cold and scratched, with no bird. The rest of the day I wanted never to hunt again. I kept asking myself why I had such an intense reaction. When I’ve killed birds before, I’ve gotten over the violence of the gunshot and I’ve even felt exhilarated in the handling of the dead bird. I had left something in the world wounded and this was why I was upset.  What does that say about death and killing?

My husband Lytle had been in the Met recently and asked me about the Rubens hunting painting with wolves and foxes. I knew it, but not well, and decided to go there first. My first response to the painting was that it was so utterly different from my experience of hunting—the part of hunting that brings one closer to the physical properties of the environment that I just spoke about. The intense focus, the awareness—makes the natural world feel like tracks in a recording, where one gets to hear every instrument separately—the sounds of air moving over water, distinct bird calls, leaves blowing, one’s own breath. Incremental shifts in temperature and light are registered, felt. Ones’ sense of nature and the world become both larger and smaller at the same time. The only thing that seemed familiar to me in Rubens’ painting was the sense of combustion, of bursting. It’s as if the ass of the nobleman’s horse is percolating, on the brink of explosion from within–the mottled flesh painted with bubble-like circular strokes. The mottling is mimicked in the bugler’s face, which is exploding—through his horn. However, this particular energy is only similar to the part of hunting where the shots have been fired and the peace disrupted.

Like many hunting paintings from this period, Fox and Wolf Hunt seems embroiled in politics and social hierarchies—at the service of affirming nobility, the landowner, and establishing class. Unlike my personal narrative of hunting, Rubens’ narrative depicts a man’s world, triumphing over nature, a domesticated nature, a nature where everything is constructed—making it known, understood and not expansive and unfolding. In line with this constructed version of nature is also the very naming and narrative depicted in the painting. Fox hunts do not happen at the same time as wolf hunts: the animals are pursued differently.

I studied the painting before I read the wall label. Knowing that fox and wolf hunts are not combined, I had come to the conclusion that Rubens was teasing the viewer—that he wanted to introduce the possibility that nature might win, only to then affirm that it wouldn’t. I read it as a political allegory – at once confused, purposeful and powerful. Without knowing the title, I saw the wolves as disrupting the fox hunt. The inverted triangular composition, a sort of upside down pile, along with the convergence of animals and people, suggests a stop-action photograph, conveying that the next frame, if allowed to happen, would be a combustion, a collision of animal and man. Gripped by this centripetal pull toward the wolves, the dogs ignore the foxes; the servants are struggling with their spears, and one wolf is even biting the blade, temporarily winning. The fox in the middle of the canvas has clearly been killed by the wolf next to it—beating the fox hunt and its hounds to the task. Man’s dominance over nature is fragile and messy—this I too discovered with my wounded goose. The wolves have stolen the scene temporarily. And yet the central wolf is eying the nobleman, as if it knows it will be killed, respecting authority and human hierarchy. In Rubens’ work, we are given visual information that leads us to believe that the nobleman will still (and always?) prevail, and be all the more rewarded for having confronted the unexpected wildness in the hunt—a hunt when actual nature shows up. The nobleman here, hand perched on sword, will save the day (at least for the humans). The wolf will meet its demise, not by the servant’s spear, not by the bat like club, not by the dog nips from their domesticated brothers, but by man.

Rubens accentuates the individual animal species’ relationships to humans by playing with where the animals’ eyes are looking and where each animal is placed in the composition. We are meant to see the horses as separate from the dogs, from the fox, and from the wolves. The horse is the animal closest to man—fully under his control and service, supporting his efforts even against other animals. The eye of the nobleman’s horse looks out at us as if to acknowledge this. The female rider, whose head is cocked, making room for her goshawk (another symbol of sovereignty and nature conquered)—bows towards her noble riding partner, and looks to the wolf who returns the gaze. The horse traps one of the foxes under its frame. The central dog (man’s animal) looks out towards us. I’ve often wondered in my short experience of hunting, if the animals I’m pursuing are looking at me, do they understand what I’m about to do? Is a goose’s intelligence such that it will want revenge for what I’ve done?

While foxes are clever and therefore of interest to the gentleman hunter, the wolves are thought to be savage beasts. Is this perhaps a different, more dangerous atmosphere than the aristocrats had bargained for? The golden sandal on the man’s foot is at odds with the glistening teeth of the wolves and the aggressive standing position of the one wolf. The wolves are on the brink of taking control, of enacting revenge. I’ve learned that in the 17th century buglers were required to be at a hunt, by law. The bugler’s placement in the center of the composition would also be at the very center of the crash. Are we meant to see Rubens’ fragile depiction of this man as another indication that the wolves are a threat to law and order itself?

While much of the paint handling serves to defy the energy and force of convergence with its compartmentalized techniques (the result of many hands?) the wolves and the central dead fox are exquisitely painted–with the greatest attention to detail and naturalism. Clearly having looked at specimens, Rubens seems to want to extract from nature a twisted and heightened description of musculature and anatomy to serve his own narrative. Having myself painted from my freshly killed specimens, I recognize the combination of the specific detail that can be studied when one can hold and examine a dead creature, and a sort of emptying out of form that we see in the dead fox in the foreground. At the same time, once I’ve freshly taxidermied a specimen, it is filled up, literally “stuffed” with an effort to create the perfect armature to idealize its form. The artist then twists and tweaks the taxidermied specimen to “capture” the dynamic movement of the beast—even using a blow dryer to get everything in place. Rubens’ specimens must have been fresh and not yet shrunken or deflated as taxidermy quickly became during that time.

Up close, the animals become total abstraction—a writhing, piling of brush marks, allowing for a separation between figures only through light and color—almost as if to suggest what the pile of man and beasts would look like if in fact the painting advanced one frame. Nature in terms of landscape is irrelevant here—a banal, cleared, domesticated plane of green, generic trees, a mere stage for action. A landscape constructed for man’s play. Another fox hunt proceeds in the background, unaware of the mayhem underway.

unnamedEmilie Clark, Untitled (TH-14), From Meditations on Hunting, 2016, Watercolor on paper, 54 x 54 inches

Emilie Clark is a New York artist working in painting and installation.

John Dubrow on Titian

fullsizerender-9Titian, Flaying of Marsyas, 1570-1576, Oil on canvas, 83 x 81 inches

I first saw Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas in the winter of 1984. I had moved to Brooklyn from the Bay Area just 5 months before, when I heard the Flaying of Marsyas was at the Royal Academy in London for an exhibition on 16th Century Venetian painting. I quit my job, got a cheap flight and flew over.  I had been looking at this painting in a beaten up old art book for several years and so I was duly prepared for the gruesome yet strange calm of the image, the intense frontal geometry and the V shapes that dominate the picture. What I wasn’t prepared for was the emotional impact this painting had on me, it was quite unlike anything I had felt up to that point, and at the time I don’t think I could have described exactly why. I was completely overwhelmed. I spent five days with that painting, transfixed.

Since that time the Flaying of Marsyas has traveled every few years for exhibitions all over Europe and America and I’ve seen it in four more venues, in Washington, Paris, Vienna and, most recently, at the Met Breuer this last summer. The experiences I’ve had with the painting after that first week in 1984 have ranged from curious to perplexed to admiring, but I somehow couldn’t recapture what I guess was a kind of first love feeling I had had in London in 1984. That is, until The Met Breuer show where, after a disappointing first viewing, I somehow powerfully reconnected to the picture in numerous visits in the subsequent months. In the last days of its time here, after hours with it, I couldn’t tear myself away.

As we know from research done for the 1984 exhibit, the painting might reflect a contemporary event in Venetian military history. A famous Venetian admiral had been flayed alive in the war with the Turks in the 1570s, and perhaps this prompted Titian to revisit a composition that he had made years before. But contrary to the sensationalism of the barbaric reports received in Venice, Titian has drained most of the drama and all of the theatricality out of the event. The flaying has become ritualistic and there is a mesmerized quality to the action. There is an extreme frontality to the painting, everything is pulled up so close to the picture plane; meanwhile the overall quality of the fracturing of form and color disperses energy, and an ethereal light dances across the surface. The landscape that is emerging between the figures refuses to sit back in space- the air seems absolutely as volumetric as the figures and is also pushing towards the surface. Titian allows you to tightly circle around Marsyas but he does not allow you to easily move into and rest in the deep space of the landscape- you are continuously pulled back to the picture plane by the density of the space and the intense compression that he is creating.  And so you are continuously thrown back to the central event – of this strange elongated upside down creature being tortured, and all these Vs of arms, a perfect pacing of Vs, some more narrow, some widened, which for me becomes this wild creature, all these arms made up of 5 figures but combined into one crazy zigzagging form running straight through the center of the canvas.  There’s both an incredible connectedness in the volumetrics of form and space and, conversely, an abrupt disconnection at times where he has chosen to paint with sudden shifts of detail and sensibility, dependent on aesthetic whim. The overall-ness of the paint quality is truly remarkable, not just because it was painted in the 1570s- Titian had learned some of that from the younger Tintoretto, but what he had done with it, Tintoretto had never of dreamed of. Titian foreshadows late Cezanne.

One of the most convincing passages of form is the strange, awkward, kneeling Apollo on the left, whose arm, in a V of course, has a weight and density to it that seems to not be a painted thing, but real, as real as the air in this painting. And underneath that arm there is a cavity of space. It’s one of the only areas where Titian has carved out a hollow volume – it seems so at odds with the compression everywhere else. The tension of compression coupled with chromatic and pictorial fracturing is palpable; this picture is going so far into pure painting, and by doing so has taken on a deeply spiritual component.  There’s a sense these figures in the woods, performing this strange and gruesome activity, calmly and methodically, will always be there. They will always be performing this ritual, suspended in time, not unlike Titian’s hand and mind as you follow his improvisatory paint surface and shimmering light and feel him completely and utterly there.  And perhaps the most remarkable thing about the painting – with its surface tension so taut, so like a skin of paint on the rough linen – is that, as Apollo and his crew are flaying Marsyas’s hide, somehow Titian through suggestion or identification is able to conjure up the sensation that the painting surface is also being flayed.

img_1118Giovanni Bellini, Drunkenness of Noah, 1515, Oil on canvas, 41 x 62 inches

The Flaying of Marsyas has always seemed so singular that it was stunning for me this summer to see a painting that his teacher Giovanni Bellini painted 60 years before. In the Drunkenness of Noah, Bellini uses many of the same elements that are present in Titian’s Marsyas and evokes a similar kind of enchanted quality, a silence deep in the woods, an event we stumble onto and become part of by witnessing. The frontality of Noah in this earlier painting coupled with the sensation of looking down on him in his passed-out nakedness makes him even more vulnerable than Marsyas. There is less emotional remove in the Bellini; it’s less about the act of painting. I assume that the young Titian had seen this painting in Bellini’s studio, even though at that point they were competing artists in Venice for the commissions of public and private pictures, an old man and his former student, whose painting studios were not far from each other. It’s all conjecture on my part, but the similarities seem to me undeniable. I wonder if this strange and uncharacteristic Bellini painting, which is perhaps his very last work, might have lodged in Titian’s mind and years later served as a catalyst for one of his own last and strangest paintings.

John Dubrow, Tribeca 1, 2014-16, Oil on linen, 70 x 64 inches

John Dubrow is a painter living in New York City.

Richard Kalina on Stuart Davis

stuart-davis-rue-lipp-oil-on-canvas-32x39-1928Stuart Davis, Rue Lipp, 1928, Oil on canvas, 32 x 39 inches

A little while ago I went to the Stuart Davis retrospective at the Whitney. I was expecting to like it, and I did. I’ve seen my fair share of Davis’ paintings over the years, and I have particularly fond memories of his solo 1991 Metropolitan Museum exhibition, Stuart Davis: American Painter. That show (his first retrospective in 25 years) provided a chance for me to experience Davis in depth. It opened my eyes both to his thematic continuity and his delight in improvising on those themes. The prospect of the Whitney exhibition – after another 25 years – whetted my appetite. I’d always been attracted to the complex, jazzy, and colorful paintings for which Davis is justly famous. I’ve admired them for their verve, intelligence, workmanlike commitment, and painterly savvy — for the way that they move the cubist project forward and outward, without repeating it or diluting it. Cubist painting, having a strong methodological underpinning, was capable of many variants, not just in structure, form, and intention, but also in the flavor of — for want of a better description – its place of national origin. The bulk of cubist paintings are French, but Davis’ are great American paintings and they strike a sympathetic chord with me. One reason, pretty surely, is that those high-keyed paintings have something in common with the work I’ve been doing over the years. So, with this writing project in mind, I was prepared to discuss a painting like the electrified yellow, fuchsia, scarlet, black, deep lime and cerulean Owh! in San Pao (1951) or the pulsating 1938 mural, Swing Landscape, with its kaleidoscope of saturated colors and its treasure trove of small, interlocking, seemingly endlessly elaborated shapes.

But on the way to those later works, another earlier group of paintings caught my eye and spoke to something else in me. As a younger man, Davis was a member of the Whitney Studio Club, and was one of the few in the inner group who had not gone to France. He very much wanted to do so and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney financed a trip for him by buying a number of his paintings. Davis left in 1928 when he was in his mid-30s and spent thirteen months in Paris – a time he referred to as the most seminal in his artistic life. Rue Lipp (1928) comes from that period. When I refer to Davis’ later paintings as great American paintings, I mean that they in some way fully inhabit an American identity and experience: jumpy as they are, they are existentially comfortable with themselves. Rue Lipp, on the other hand, while less formally innovative, is nowhere near as sure of its basic cultural premises. And this works very much to its advantage.

It is a painting that is happily invested in a new artistic, personal, and cultural milieu. Set in the Brasserie Lipp, a Left Bank restaurant Davis frequented, the painting combines a still life of drinking paraphernalia with a street scene viewed from the restaurant’s second story. You sense its openness – its tipped planes are nowhere near as closed in and reflective of the forms around them as are the structural elements of the later paintings. Its lightened colors too – warmly scumbled pinks, lemons, grays, tans, and off-whites, cut in with muted blues and reds – seem welcoming, and the painting’s calligraphic flourishes, combined with the elegant but slightly awkward lettering set into the composition’s perspectival diagonals, impart a kind of pleasant giddiness to the ensemble. We can feel Davis’ joy in drawing, the confidence that he was developing that would allow him to meet the challenges that advanced French art presented to him.

At the risk of oversimplification, the underlying practicality and work ethic of America is an impediment that many at key times in their lives (especially artists, writers and musicians) are delighted to jettison. For an American to live in a country like France and feel immersed in a culture oriented to the pleasure, ease, and graciousness of ordinary life and still be productive is truly liberating. We can see that Stuart Davis is taking in the quiet hum and pulse of another way of living and making, enjoying the kind of nourishing cultural estrangement that leads to unanticipated developments and surprising growth.

Rue Lipp brings to mind another artist who I have been looking at with increased interest – Raoul Dufy. Dufy’s work, often dismissed (and unfairly so) is elegant, imaginatively composed, and sweet in the very best sense of the word — an extraordinary amalgam of luscious color, graceful line, and a finely tuned but loosely sprung planar scaffolding. I think that Davis took something indelible away from France and artists like Dufy and Matisse, a certain joie de vivre that saved his art from the potential aridity of later machine-oriented constructivism. One of the joys of going to a great exhibition is making connections that you might not normally make, of upending your expectations. Of course the more typical Davis paintings will continue to be exciting and inspiring – and it is clearer than ever that he inhabits the upper tier of 20th century painting. But it is the Paris paintings that stick with me, the ones where I sense him settling into his true artistic self.

richard-kalina-kromos-3-2016Richard Kalina, Kromos 3, 2016, Oil on linen, 35 x 38 1/2 inches

Richard Kalina is a painter and critic based in New York and East Hampton. He teaches at Fordham University and is represented by Lennon, Weinberg, Inc.

Nancy Hagin on Giorgio Morandi

morandiGiorgio Morandi, 1958, Image from the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Catalogue

The first Morandi painting that I ever saw was at the Pittsburgh International Triennial Exhibition of 1958. I was a first year art student at Carnegie Mellon University, then called Carnegie Tech. I had been sent by one of my teachers to see the show and to write a paragraph on a work that I liked and another on one that I disliked.

The show was astonishing, full of cutting edge works by all the major artists of the day. I saw my first Ellsworth Kelly there. I believe that his piece won the exhibition’s big painting prize. A large poly-chromed sculpture by David Smith had me going round and round, to see it from every angle. I remember thinking that the Picasso piece was disappointing, not one of his best.

1Giorgio Morandi, Natura Morta, 1957, Oil, ca. 14 x 16 inches

As I rounded a corner into a new room, I came upon a little gray, putty colored still life painting. It was small and monochromatic, except for one bright salmon colored shape. The objects were all huddled together in the middle of the image. I’d been studying design and this seemed such a poor use of the rectangle. I decided that this was the dumbest, most inconsequential painting in the show. I set about to write my negative paragraph on Morandi’s still life.

As I began to describe the painting and its structure, things turned around for me. Something that had seemed like a bad idea began to seem ingenious. The placement of the salmon shape was perfect: it energized the entire space. The longer I described the picture, the better it got for me. In the end, I was mesmerized and it became my favorite painting in the show. I no longer remember which piece I chose as its opposite.

2Giorgio Morandi, Natura Morta, 1955, Oil, ca. 12 x 16 inches

It has been many years since I’ve seen this painting. I searched for references to it in the Carnegie Museum’s 1961 archives, with little success. I searched the Google list of Morandi images and found several that it could have been. It seems that the single salmon note was one of Morandi’s favorite devices. I thought for sure that I was an older student when I saw the painting, but I was wrong. Further searches in the archives proved that it was in the 1958 exhibition when I was a lowly freshman, who hadn’t even begun painting yet.

The museum finally provided a black and white photo of the painting and there it was, as I remembered it. Looking at it and the other similar ones from Google, I marvel at his various strategies. He loved to play games with the table’s back horizon line and the tops of the objects. He always placed the salmon shape exquisitely, sometimes sandwiching it tightly between forms. The dominant light brownish gray is beautiful. How did he mix it? The paint is lush and simply applied. It looks easy to do, but it is not.

3Giorgio Morandi, Natura Morta, 1958, Oil, ca. 12 x 18 inches

This painting began my long love affair with Morandi’s work. In 1963, I was in Italy and saw his retrospective in his hometown of Bologna. Morandi was still alive and my companion and I thought about tracking him down and knocking on his door. We didn’t have the courage to impose on him that way. What could we say? “We really like your work Mr. Morandi.” That wouldn’t do. The same year, we saw Fellini’s film “La Dolce Vita” where an early Morandi was prominently displayed and discussed in one of the cocktail party scenes. It was in Italian, so I’m not sure what was said, but I was thrilled to see in what high esteem he was held.

Finally, Morandi gave me the courage to stop worrying about my work being ground breaking or on the “cutting edge.” His example let me follow my instincts to paint ordinary situations, from direct observation. I’m a still life painter too, though not as starkly simple or as eloquent.

35bNancy Hagin, Lace, 2014, Watercolor, 30 x 42 inches, Collection of the Canton Museum of Art, Canton, Ohio

Nancy Hagin is a painter who lives in New York City. She is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon and Yale University and has been represented by Fischbach Gallery since 1980. After teaching in college art schools for 42 years, she retired in 2006.

Kristen Schiele on Charles Burchfield

1_burchfield_sphinxand-milkywayCharles Burchfield, Sphinx and Milky Way, 1946, Opaque and transparent watercolor, chalk and crayon on paper, 52 5/8” x 44 3/4”

Charles Burchfield’s landscape paintings are riveting. This painting, Sphinx and Milky Way, with its bat-like shapes, celestial falling stars, deep midnight blue and black center, flowers with faces, and symbolic points of light, pulls me in with a kind of intensity I’ve discovered in few others. Burchfield was an avid archivist and journalist. I have a large archive of my own that includes movie stills, design patterns researched from libraries, sketchbooks, and photographs that I jumble together to create new work. After years of collecting, the ideas behind my impulses are still being revealed to me. For this reason I was thrilled when I discovered Burchfield cited inspirations dear to my own work, and in a mania of excitement I started drawing parallels from these artists to what I feel, intuitively, is behind Burchfield’s mysterious landscapes. One such artist is Paul Bowles who wrote “The Sheltering Sky”(1949). I recall reading this book in my Berlin apartment with oil paintings drying around me, not realizing yet that they were taking the oxygen from the room, making me feel sick. So I thought, I’ll just lie down and read this book… When you read the main character’s first-hand telling of his experience as he catches an epidemic fever, you call me up. Like Burchfield’s paintings, that story reaches into you, grabs hold of you and pulls you into a state-of-being that is profound, dark and terrifying.

2_burchfield_orioninwaterCharles Burchfield, Orion in Winter, 1962, Watercolor, white chalk and charcoal on paper, 48”x54”

Burchfield was born in a small town in Ohio in 1893. He graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art then returned home to live with his mother until he was 28. He describes his early years living at home as his “Golden Years” of painting. For the next twenty years he worked as a wallpaper designer in Buffalo, attaining fame and success with his painting. However, it was not until the age of 51 that he returned to what he considered his great body of work, the fraught landscapes of his “Golden Years.” He took his early sketches and began adding paper on the sides and at the bottoms to elaborate the scenes. In notes he cites going back to many of his earliest influences, including the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun. They shared a love for life lived in nature and of deep isolation. Speaking from personal experience, the cold, overcast winters of Norway, Buffalo and Ohio are interchangeable and hence a similar presence in the work of the two artists. Hamsun pioneered “psychological literature” which incorporates stream of consciousness and dialogue from within a character’s mind. Hamsun took from Dostoyevsky and later influenced Thomas Mann, Kafka, Hermann Hesse and Hemingway. There is strength and conviction in Hamsun’s writing, a passion bordering on dark insanity. It is Hamsun’s total immersion in nature and his description of invisible forces that I see in Burchfield’s stylized depiction of the natural world.

“I was conscious all the time that I was following mad whims without being able to do anything about it … . Despite my alienation from myself at that moment, and even though I was nothing but a battleground for invisible forces, I was aware of every detail of what was going on around me.” —  Knut Hamsun, “Hunger” 1890

3_charles_burchfield_sunrise_in_the_forest_1917Charles Burchfield, Sunrise in the Forest, 1917, Watercolor on paper, 22″x 18″

Burchfield paints the twilight hour. Even in scenes where you see the sun breaking through, the atmosphere is dark and mysterious. In the Ingmar Bergman film “Hour of the Wolf” (1968) the main character is a painter who claims twilight is the hour of the wolf, “the time when the most births and death occur.” This time of night has long been cited as a “witching hour” and is the source of anxiety in stories and legends. This twilight of Burchfield’s also brings to mind the brilliant paranoid visions of Wolfgang Von Goethe’s “Faust” (1808) where the devil is physically present trying to lead the young scholar astray. Similarly, Burchfield’s forests animate into a million paranoid eyes of animals or demons. Burchfield has trained himself to see the world through this kind of mysticism, or perhaps has allowed himself the time and seclusion for it to come to him. His worlds take on passionate form, and the trees and rocks around him seem to animate.

Charles Burchfield, Genesis, 1929

Burchfield struggled with the Methodist religion of his upbringing and his small town. His paintings are rife with anxiety and sacred symbolism. The patterns Burchfield creates within his work feel like the visual manifestation of sound or vibration or of something deep within the DNA of all living things. Patterns have been used in rituals in psychological, theatrical and religious ways as long as humans have been expressing themselves. Perhaps they are formed through our search for order or what we call religious connection to something unknown and larger than ourselves.

Charles Burchfield, The Four Seasons, 1949-1960, Watercolor on paper, 56″x 48,” University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

In The Four Seasons, as with much of his work, Burchfield creates a theatrical set, drawing pattern and lines with trees and foliage. He creates a proscenium that forms archways through which we travel. He notes being influenced by Leon Bakst, a Russian artist of the avante garde who worked as a scenic and costume designer for the famous Ballets Russes in Paris 1919-1929. I would argue the influence of theater and Bakst was much stronger on Burchfield than the much-cited parallel people find in the works of the Romantic painter Casper David Friedrich (1774-1840). However, perhaps Burchfield was a romantic as well as an expressionist. He was a genius of design and also known to be a depressive. I think he felt deeply and needed a way to touch a side of the world invisible to us.

Burchfield shares a deep vision with Leon Bakst, a Russian Jewish exile, Knut Hamsun, a recluse genius, Paul Bowles and his book “The Sheltering Sky” and Ingmar Bergman and his “Hour of the Wolf”. Burchfield draws from these great, emotive artists to create a powerful mix of artifice, drama and theatrical space. He is unparalleled in his ability to animate nature and present a complex picture of its psychology.

Kristen Schiele, Detail of the mural “Battlestar Galactic Beach Party” currently installed at the Drake Hotel, Toronto. 2016.

Kristen Scheile is a painter in Brooklyn, NY.

Caroline Wells Chandler on Katherine Bradford

image1Katherine Bradford, Prize Fighter, 2015, Acrylic on canvas, 80″ x 68″

The first time Katherine Bradford came to my studio I thought she was messing with me.  I had recently graduated from Yale’s painting program and was feeling pretty down with a bad case of post grad school malaise.  I was having a hard time navigating how to balance art and life in New York on top of recently coming out to my friends and family.  She leaned in, peering over her glasses, and said to me, ‘Well we’re just a bunch of animals in here.’  I was scandalized and I thought it was a trap. I couldn’t believe that I had finally met an experienced painter that valued object making and intuition over propping up work with academically sanctioned theory.  She said this shortly after telling me that one of her favorite movies from childhood was Giant, starring Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor.  That movie informed her idea of what Texans were like.  It was revealed at some point in our visit that my mother’s family was from Texas and that I had also done time there.  Katherine looked around my studio and said, ‘It feels like there’s a big Texas personality in here,’ and then she did the most unbelievable thing and bellowed the best ‘Yeehawwww’ I have ever heard from a New Englander.  Bewildered and delighted, I was hooked.  I couldn’t believe that my favorite living painter, which I don’t think she likes me to say, was indeed an awesome badass.  Slowly Katherine and I have become friends, maybe because I’ve borderline harassed her via email.  I’ve probably written more about her work in our online exchange than I have about any other artist because her paintings continue to surprise me, and I like that.

Katherine started painting about forty years ago as an abstract blunt mark maker and more recently she has moved towards the figure.  She relocated to New York in the 80’s as a single mom with two school aged kids to live a Bohemian life and be a painter.  Most recently Katherine was appointed Senior Critic at Yale.  I hope she is able to help her students find their own freedom as she did with me and so many countless other artists whom she has touched with her work and choice to live an authentic life.

In Katherine’s paintings lumpy superheroes defy gravity, ships toot along determined to reach their destiny, the vastness of paint splattered night skies morph into Rothkoesque oceans, fathers soak in hot tubs surfing in outer space, friends swim together, and frogs scream for their lives.  The latter is a secret painting and a favorite of Chris Martin and Peter Acheson.

Katherine Bradford, Uvula, 2014, Oil on canvas, 36″ x 20″

Katherine works with a treasure trove of culturally loaded signifiers.  Superheroes, swimmers, ships, astronauts, arenas, time keepers, and the Titanic are a few recurring motifs in her prolific output of work.  The poet and critic John Yau has described her work as being a ‘meditation on masculinity.’   I tend to think of some of these nameable buoys in her paint fields as destabilized archetypes of white male heroism.  She will never admit it, but sometimes I suspect that her paintings are self portraits.  Her daughter Laura agreed with me when I asked her about that at Katherine’s blockbuster solo show after party.  This sentiment especially rings true for Prize Fighter (2015) which portrays a shirtless boxer raising neon green gloves victoriously at night.  I’m convinced that it’s Katherine in her astral body feeling good about working her ass off in the studio.  There aren’t fixed rules for looking at Katherine’s work.  Sometimes the pink figures in her paintings transcend race and gender.  Her figures make me think of the humanizing pink in Trenton Doyle Hancock’s paintings, which reminds us that we are all pink on the inside.


Katherine Bradford, Blue Swimmers, 2015, Acrylic on canvas, 60″ x 48″

Katherine’s paintings are allegories for spirituality within the human experience.  They make us feel as if we are part of something larger than ourselves.  They help us cope with the less pleasant parts of the individual such as painter’s ego or the very American idea, ‘too big to fail.’  One of the weirdest paintings in her 2016 show at Canada, Blue Swimmers (2015), felt like death.  In context with the other works in the show it placed us on the inside of the painting looking through as if we had crossed over or perhaps we are about to cross over.  I suspect that Katherine is able to achieve a wide range of interpretations of experience because she allows her paintings to be what they need to be.  Katherine paints in service to what the work requires.

I am the steward of five of Katherine’s paintings.  Superman Responds Ship (2014) is one of my favorite paintings because of the way it makes me feel. I get to enjoy my coffee with it in the morning.  Many of Katherine’s titles tend to list an object or action.  This title does both.  In just about every experience I’ve had with one of Katherine’s rorschachian paintings I am never told what to think, which leaves me wondering: what am I to make of the image?

Katherine’s paint is always dynamic.  Her paintings have a freewheeling curiosity and this is most evident in the mark and the application of the paint, which is used differently in just about every painting.  Recognizable imagery in her work is culled out of preexisting marks and veils of paint.  I’ve never seen Katherine paint, but I imagine that she stares at her paint until the marks cause her to hallucinate and see what needs to be there.  I think there is a lot of bravery in that.

Katherine Bradford, Superman Responds Ship, 2014, Oil on canvas, 18″ x 24″

Superman Responds Ship as a painting in and of itself is captivating.  When it is contextualized in the larger body of work that Katherine has made, it moves me even more.  Somehow it appears as if the Titanic and the iceberg have reconciled and joined as one.  It is in the realm of the coincidentia oppositorum, a Latin phrase that means the unity of opposites, that Katherine works her magic.  When I look at this painting my forehead gets heavy.  I feel like I’m being shaktipata’d by a swirled ying yanged berg-ship that glows like something not from this world.

The best looking beaded up aqua water that anyone could hope for rests at the bottom of the painting.  There are also some wonderful white paint splatters that look like stars or moons.  I like that I can’t tell if they were intentional or if the painting happened to be in the line of fire when she was working on another piece.

Above the ship seven supermen respond.  I can’t tell if they are floating, soaring above, rising out of the sea, undergoing baptism, or descending below.  Perhaps it’s one superman moving in a Muybridge fashion.  I don’t know and I’m okay with that.  This painting makes me feel okay with not knowing.  Like so many of Katherine’s paintings, Superman Responds Ship lets us feel at home with the mystery of being alive.  Perhaps that’s why her work makes me cry.


Caroline Wells Chandler, Super Painter Impersonator, 2015, Hand crocheted assorted wool, 36″ x 53″

Caroline Wells Chandler is an artist who lives in Queens.

Julie Heffernan on Andrea Mantegna

mantegnaAndrea Mantegna, Parnassus (Mars and Venus), 1497, Tempera and gold on canvas, 63 x 76 inches

Andrea Mantegna offers up a grand celebration in Parnassus (Mars and Venus), brilliant in both its design and its conception of an event. It is a fete champetre par excellence featuring gods and Muses a-swingin’ and a-swayin’ in godly and ungodly ways. The Great Ones show up to cavort and make merry with dancing ladies who represent an allegory of universal harmony and the minor gods show up to support the main event. Presiding atop a convenient rocky archway are Venus and Mars, stand-ins for Isabella d’Este, who commissioned the piece, and her husband Francesco II Gonzaga. They gaze benevolently down on the events below. Gals carouse, Anteros (symbol of heavenly love) aims a blowpipe at angry Vulcan’s genitals, and Mercury looks like he’s giving Pegasus one of those irresistible, come hither looks that horses so enjoy. Quite a carousel of fun and divine hijinks, you might say if you happened to venture onto this scene from the surrounding caves or the tiny town nestled under Mount Helicon in the distance.

But there is more to this scene than just fun. The best artists always find ways to subvert the so-called natural order of things – Caravaggio’s Madonna di Loreto a great case in point – and Mantegna in 1497 was no different. Mantegna weaves all these disparate moments together into a tight composition via his use of distinct geometrical shape orders—large, medium and small. Leonardo da Vinci once theorized, echoing Egyptian theosophy, that the square was male, representing the material world and the circle was female, symbolizing the spiritual domain. In Parnassus, one very large square shape plays the largest compositional role, hugging the left-hand side of the picture plane. It contains within it almost everything of dramatic importance: Venus and Mars, the dancing Muses, Apollo with his lyre, and the rocky outcropping to the left with a cave that houses Vulcan, Venus’ husband. True to the kinkiness of the scene, however, this same bold square kicks out at the bottom right with the feistiness of a can-can girl, as it follows the diagonal line of one of the Muse’s legs.

Negative shapes also contribute rich material to this story, and there is one large and marvelous phallus-shaped area of negative space driving a wedge down into the square from the top left of it, literally penetrating the grand square and just missing the large circular negative shape to its right – the archway or portal opening directly underneath Venus. Other wonderfully phallic, negative shapes of sky and background descend into the scene in several places, like post-coital members still hoping to play.

Breaking down the composition further, we find still more enticing relationships that reveal more sides to the story. In the very top middle of the composition is another square — this one medium-sized — in the form of a bushy tree jutting out in four corners and acting as a foil for the figures of Mars and Venus standing atop the arch. Mantegna’s bushy square is distinctly dominant over the large circle of negative space formed by that rocky archway, and this relationship reinforces the hierarchy of the genders: man dominates woman. Interestingly, the jagged edges of the bushy square are echoed in the jagged rock form to its left, atop (behind) Vulcan’s cave. But the rocks are dead forms while Mars’ bush is alive with fruit, at least on his side. Venus merits only one piece of fruit on hers. Could this be an allusion to the great number of sperm it takes to fertilize one egg? Was Mantegna ahead of his time since Antony Van Leeuwenhoek wouldn’t discover that multitudes of sperm strive together to fertilize one egg until 1677? We can’t know what he was tapping into, but Venus and Mars are clearly united, their bodies forming semi-circular halves of a lovely oval.

However — and here is the capstone of the painting — Venus is not only posed in the middle of the square, she also comprises the central focus of the composition, and she seems to be slightly pushing Mars off the apex of rock that they are occupying. What is Mantegna saying with this positioning? What does it mean that she appears to be displacing the war god? Remember, it was Isabella who commissioned this piece, so perhaps Mantegna is arguing that Venus, not Mars, dominates the masculine realm. She, glowing in all her ivory nudity, is like a flashlight, eclipsing him. All he can do here is give way to her beauty, with staff in hand to keep himself from falling over. In this light his armor even seems compensatory. Thus Mantegna swiftly upends the social and gender hierarchy of his age.

Below them, the Muses dance in front of the large circular void of the rock arch, which provides a misty view of deep space. Nestled in the distance is that small town and, even further, a range of mountains, first two peaks then one furthest away — the uniting of two into one. This is a feminine space, beckoning us to enter it deeply. The women dance in a circle, reinforcing the circular shape of the arch. Other circles echo in the linking of arms by two Muses in front and one in back who create a kind of wedding ring for Mars and Venus out of their entwined arms. This conflation of space — when events in the background collide with those in the foreground to make meaning — is something only two-dimensional work can do so beautifully and uniquely.

Circles are echoed again and again in the spiraling cave structures in the hills. They speak pictorially to us of the marvels of all that femaleness, generously opening distant, yet unexplored, realms of being to the viewer. The scene is one of ecstatic unfolding as boy gives way to girl, husband submits to wife, man to beast, and the dance of life goes on.

Julie Heffernan, Standing my Ground, 2016, Oil on canvas, 68 x 66 inches

Julie Heffernan is a Brooklyn-based painter who exhibits widely throughout the US and internationally. She will be exhibiting her new work in November at Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco. She is co-founder of Painters on Paintings.

Sarah Slappey on James Ensor

James Ensor, The Tribulations of Saint Anthony, 1887, Oil on canvas, 46 ⅜ x 66 inches

James Ensor, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and Hieronymous Bosch have all painted depictions of the torment of Saint Anthony by demons and monsters. In Ensor’s Tribulations of Saint Anthony (1887), he makes undeniable references to both of his predecessors’ works. Many of the ghouls, chimeras, and devils are remarkably similar in all three artists’ versions: fish walk on land and float in the sky, figures and animals have either an overabundance or curious lack of faces or limbs, and various forms of excretion and excrement are sprinkled across the landscape. The figure of Saint Anthony himself is of little importance in all of the paintings. Aside from the nearly 400 years that separate the works, there is something else that makes Ensor’s Tribulations stand apart. The figures in Bosch and Bruegel’s paintings are humorous caricatures, and while there is humor in Ensor’s figures of pooping devils and insect-humans, it is sardonic. It is the kind of laughter born of cruelty instead of fantasy. How can such an emotional difference between paintings depicting imagery that is remarkably similar be accounted for? I think it has to do with touch.

boschHieronymus Bosch, Triptych of the Temptation of St. Anthony, 1501, Oil on panel, 52 x 90 inches

Bosch and Bruegel’s figures are undeniably present in the space of the landscape. The lines are clear and tight, and each micro-scene is delineated with the same level of precision. By contrast, the figures in Ensor’s painting are constantly forming and then fading–disintegrating, really, into chaos. Most of the painting is created using a scratchy, scumbling mark that sometimes disappears, particularly around the canvas borders. Some parts of the painting are completely untouched, leaving the blank canvas exposed. Many of the demons and monsters are drawn with a line so delicate it is almost not there. Because they are drawn on top of the background landscape, which is a complete abstract painting in itself, they appear as an afterthought. Alternatively, there are beings missing their outlines: they emerge from the blobs of color that make up the structure of the composition. These paint monsters have no discernible ending or beginning. They float around as thick splashes of Venetian red or exist as a scribble of goop with eyeballs. The smooth fat of their paint-bodies is cut into with some sharp object, perhaps the opposite end of a paintbrush, in a hurried frenzy. The upper right corner of the painting completely devolves into rapid fire strokes of paint in colors reminiscent of a combination of mud, blood, bile, and raw meat. It is a color and consistency that Paul McCarthy would likely admire.

ensor3James Ensor, The Tribulations of Saint Anthony, (Detail)

Spatially, the painting is rather flat. Aside from the distinction of the reddish foreground and white-blue background, there are no other planes. Even the objects in the foreground and background have no depth or dimension. Rather, they are a collection of marks sitting atop the surface that occasionally and haphazardly come together to form a sea monster’s face or a lanky skeleton. In this sense, the painting is distinctly modern, positioning the act of painting and the physicality of the paint as equally important as representational imagery. The illusion of believable space would be a disruption to the painting’s emotional tenor. Gravity has no place here. Bruegel and Bosch employ the same kind of displacement of space: the ground in Bosch’s Temptations tilts towards the viewer rather than receding, destroying the illusion of foreground, middleground, and background. In a flattened space, everything happens at once–NOW–creating nonstop simultaneity in space and time.

img_5761James Ensor, The Tribulations of Saint Anthony, (Detail)

Bruegel and Bosch frighten us with clarity of imagination and keen speculation of Hell’s creatures. The terror of Ensor’s Tribulations is that of speed, mania, and resistance to resolution. Ensor replaces the physicality of monsters and devils in the sixteenth century with the horror of the nonphysical, specifically, the horror of the mind. Ensor did not use paint as a means of illustrating this tale, but rather reenacts the frenzy of a madman driven insane by psychological demons. To me, this painting is a century ahead of its time. Ideas of painting as performance and medium as subject are combined effortlessly, brilliantly, with image making and figuration. Tribulations is a delicious peek inside Ensor’s mind and his love of the beautiful-grotesque. It is the realization of a lush dream that slips into a nightmare.

Sarah Slappey, Picnic, 2016, Oil on canvas, 72 x 60 inches

Sarah Slappey is a Brooklyn-based artist exploring fear, delight, shame, and beauty. She received her MFA from Hunter College in 2016 and has exhibited throughout the US.