Painters on Paintings https://paintersonpaintings.com A conversation between contemporary artists and their influences across time. Wed, 17 Apr 2019 18:51:47 +0000 en hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.1.1 https://i0.wp.com/paintersonpaintings.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/cropped-PoP-logo-brush-2-e1484761137315.png?fit=32%2C32&ssl=1 Painters on Paintings https://paintersonpaintings.com 32 32 Julian Kreimer on Andrea Belag’s Sunday Painter https://paintersonpaintings.com/julian-kreimer-on-andrea-belags-sunday-painter/ https://paintersonpaintings.com/julian-kreimer-on-andrea-belags-sunday-painter/#respond Wed, 17 Apr 2019 18:51:46 +0000 https://paintersonpaintings.com/?p=3066 The newest paintings convey a lot of those--the lightness that attends letting go, the playfulness and humor that comes when one is attentively waiting, waiting.

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Andrea Belag, Sunday Painter, 2018, Oil on linen, 66 x 72 inches

I’ve known Andrea Belag for 25 years, since she taught my second-year painting class in college. We found out then that we both like talking on the phone and painting in daylight. I had forgotten I’d inherited that habit from her.

So, when I ask Belag if Sunday Painter was made before or after her mother’s death, it’s not too intimate a question. Her mother, in her telling, was a Sunday painter. We’re in Andrea’s studio on a late Thursday morning in March, the great big old windows face west so the light coming in is diffuse but bright. The painting is also big, 66 x 72 inches. She has a show in Chelsea [Inheritance at Morgan Lehman through May 4] so most of the other paintings from the series are wrapped up, but this one is still out; it will stay behind in case anyone visits the studio during the show.

Her mom worked as a designer for her husband, Andrea’s father, who had a children’s garment factory in the city. In 1970, at fortyish, she decided to become a sculptor. While Andrea was growing up in the Jewish Bronx that I know only from Malamud and Ozick stories, her mom wasn’t too happy with her working life. She had a tiny studio in their apartment into which she’d burrow herself on Sundays while Andrea would go to her grandparents’ apartment upstairs, or to the planetarium with her father. She was banned from her mother’s studio, which would sound harsh if I myself didn’t have a nine-year-old daughter, whom I sometimes bring to my studio. I pretend I’ll get something done, but what gets done, on my end, is usually minimal and involves hot glue. If one has only Sunday to paint, banning the kids makes a lot of sense.

Sunday Painter is big, and the shapes are loose. The movement of Belag’s hand is always evident: in the loops that track an arm’s swoop and return, in the two kinds of wipes that come back over the shapes–wipes with a rag, leaving hazy inflections of the shapes and colors that have been swept, and wipes with a broad knife that leave much less paint in their wake but spread the paint out to the edge of the flat blade in roughly parallel spaghetti-lines that change color based on what they picked up last.

It’s not hard to metaphorize those traces, lines left behind by larger swaths of paint that were wiped away, lines whose own shifting colors reveal how they are made by what they’ve touched and changed. But as with so many of Belag’s paintings, the point isn’t to nail down the metaphors. It does affect my reading of the painting to know that it was painted on…she pulls out her phone and scrolls through the calendar… December 17, 2018. Her mother died…Andrea corrects herself, “completed dying” on December 8. Andrea tells me, teaches me, as we’re talking, that death is often a long process. Andrea’s husband, the political philosopher Russell Hardin, died two years ago after a long illness. We talked through the weeks and months leading up to each death, talked about the emotions and thoughts not usually acknowledged in public. The newest paintings convey a lot of those–the lightness that attends letting go, the playfulness and humor that comes when one is attentively waiting, waiting.

  *   *   *

Belag starts her paintings the day before by mixing a color chord of four to six colors. A musical term. I hadn’t really looked at Kandinsky in a very long time, and came upon one of his harder-edged, later paintings at the Guggenheim on the way down from the Hilma Af Klint show. Both of them, the Swede and the Russian, mystics and music nuts, reminded me of what a tenuous business it has always been to look for the nowness and open-ended emotional intensity of music in paintings without, as Meyer Schapiro called it, object matter, the objects in the painting that usually get termed, confusingly, the subject.

Sunday Painter’s forms float and slither. The salmon-colored salmon shapes glide past an Old Holland Violet-Grey paisley teardrop. Purplish Caput Mortuum (aka Dead Head) nuzzles alongside Indian Yellow and Ultramarine Blue. The wipes are the size of Belag’s open hand. A bit of cold wax in the paint gives most of the colors a transparency that glows over the oil primer underneath. With their bunched-up shapes in the center, other paintings in the series remind me that Belag studied under Guston at the Studio School. But Sunday Painter‘s shapes are dispersed, a composition in mid-dissolve.

I bring up De Keyser. She’s a fan. His one-a-day method seemed to mean that each of his shapes can be quite simple, but their configuration on each canvas has some kind of profound rightness, a perfect tune. When I first saw Belag’s work in person, in the mid-90s, she was painting grids, but now she says “the grid only goes so far.” She talks about the challenge of turning your brain and seeing in, that there’s space behind the shapes. I ask her what she means. First, you see something frontally –> then askew –> then, she says, “like that” which she demonstrates by reaching her arms out operatically wide and bending them inward like the hug of Saint Peter’s colonnade.

The argument about provisional painting a decade or so ago got philosophically messy because the provisionality–the ambiguity inherent in whether something is finished–got mixed up with informality. Two quite different things that might seem superficially similar. The former, the possibility of a finish that is unfinished, exciting as it is, isn’t engaged to the same extent with the ineffable thing we refer to when we say it has a “rightness,” or simply “it works.” That phrase, “it works,” is both arbitrary and extremely powerful. For those of us who look at a lot of art, we know it when it hits us. I remember it in the first Mary Heilman I saw that blazed like stained glass, the colors wiggling between Stanley Whitney’s blocks, or the Robert Ryman pieces at DIA in 2004 that changed my mood for the rest of that exceptionally hard year.

In economic terms, we now realize that fortunes go to those able to quantify, algorithmize, figure out “what works”. In Belag’s work, that rightness comes in the form of Beauty with a capital B, beauty in the capacious sense of possessing a profound sense of authenticity that comes from something that feels legitimate to the artist who made it first, and transmitting that profound sense of order and connection, mysteriously, to the viewer. This was Af Klint and Kandinsky’s dream, of shaped colors dancing with each other in harmonies that resonate with the viewer. There’s little else but this in Sunday Painter, but it doesn’t feel distilled or empty. Painting, as a medium always wrestling with itself and the giant corpus of paintings in the world, is most thrilling when an artist reaches some kind of edge condition, further out on one particular peninsula than anyone has gone before.  Belag’s work becomes, for me, an edge condition for painting without flirting with minimalist near-nothingness; it tests out where Beauty can emerge, and what we can get to work. It opens up from a few wiped shapes into a sophisticated object able to transport one into a reverie about slippage, slipping away, the here and not hereness of life, death, and the varieties of love.

Julian Kreimer, Schrattenberg, 2017, 24 x 24 inches, oil on linen

Julian Kreimer is an artist, critic, and Associate Professor of Painting at SUNY Purchase College. Recent solo shows have been at TSA LALux Art Institute (CA), and Weeknights Gallery (Brooklyn), and his work has been reviewed in publications such as Art in America, Hyperallergic, and Artcritical. 

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Azita Moradkhani on Louise Bourgeois https://paintersonpaintings.com/azita-moradkhani-on-louise-bourgeois/ https://paintersonpaintings.com/azita-moradkhani-on-louise-bourgeois/#respond Sun, 07 Apr 2019 18:05:28 +0000 https://paintersonpaintings.com/?p=3056 The tension between the bodies of mother and child builds up until the moment of physical separation with the delivery of a new entity in the world. Bourgeois depicts that moment using transparent skins of juicy crimson.

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Louise Bourgeois, The Birth, 2007, Gouache on paper, 23 1/2 × 18 inches

The word birth suggests a physical act, a material process, whereas creation engages the notion of manifesting something into the world without it necessarily connoting physicality. These distinctions harken back to age-old differences between the sexes, in which the disembodied mind was seen as male and the physical body as female, a viewpoint that has provided a cultural basis for an ongoing distinction between male virtue and female physicality.

The Birth by French-American artist Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), which depicts the emergence of a fleshy creature from a woman’s body, is solidly on the physical side of this continuum. The tension between the bodies of mother and child builds up until the moment of physical separation with the delivery of a new entity in the world. Bourgeois depicts that moment using transparent skins of juicy crimson to describe her mother and child.

The elemental, exaggerated round forms in The Birth resemble goddess sculptures from the ancient world, most famously the Venus of Willendorf, created long before recorded history. Bourgeois’ painting is a celebration of birth as an essential act, but its composition and palette signify the pressure and pain present in the act of giving birth, identifying the subject as a flesh-and-blood woman and goddess simultaneously.

Venus of Willendorf, c. 24,000-22,000 B.C.E., Limestone, 11.1 cm high

Contrary to the physicality of birth, creation is generally seen as a clean, non-material phenomenon detached from the body and connected to the power of the mind. The contrast between the stereotypically feminine and masculine qualities in birth and creation, respectively, have been seen and expressed in a variety of ways over the course of art history. The question becomes: if birth looks like a Bourgeois painting and a birther looks like a fertility goddess figure, what does disembodied creation look like?

An example could be Michelangelo’s fresco, The Creation of Adam (c.1512) in the Sistine Chapel. Its composition and masterful technique center around the two masculine figures of God and Adam in the moment of creation. Absent from this painting is any evidence of female birth; the bodily fertility of the goddess has been replaced by an invisible divine spark.

Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam (from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, Rome), c. 1508-1512, Fresco

Inspired by the tension between these dual notions of birth and creation, I used an image of the near-touching hands of God breathing life into Adam in one of my own drawings. My work Becoming is aesthetically connected to art of the past. Through using these hands to point to the womb I present a reversal of Adam’s bloodless creation as an idealized representation of the birth of man. This drawing points out the power of women’s bodies to give birth to humankind while, in reality, a woman is limited in the control she has over her own body, from the way the very shape of it is culturally received to her ability to choose whether or not to have a child.

As a woman, consciously or unconsciously, part of my work will always be influenced by my gender and the feelings I experience within a gendered body. Through my drawings and body castings, I’m examining how social norms are imposed on women’s bodies and what it feels like to be insecure in your own skin.

Procreation fulfills one of the strongest human desires: to survive for eternity, in one form or another. Either through the physical act of giving birth to another being or the process of creating an idea conceptually, we all answer this call in different ways, and with varying degrees of success. From the ancient sculptor of the goddess, to Michelangelo creating Adam, and Bourgeois depicting physical birth, as humans we can’t help but be fascinated by the prospect of emerging from nothingness and potentially living beyond our physical lifetimes. And while this desire transcends gender lines, as Wangechi Mutu says: “females carry the marks, language and nuances of their culture more than the male. Anything that is desired or despised is always placed on the female body.”

Azita Moradkhani, Becoming, 2016, Colored pencils, 16 x 20 inches

Azita Moradkhani was born in Tehran, Iran. She received her BFA from Tehran University of Art (2009), and both her MA in Art Education (2013) and MFA (2015) from Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts & Tufts University.

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Julie Heffernan on El Greco https://paintersonpaintings.com/julie-heffernan-on-el-greco/ https://paintersonpaintings.com/julie-heffernan-on-el-greco/#respond Tue, 05 Feb 2019 15:23:55 +0000 https://paintersonpaintings.com/?p=3023 El Greco emphasizes this theme of separation—head from body, conceptual realm from sensorial realm, upper half from lower half, white from black.

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El Greco, Portrait of Hortensio Felix Paravicino, c. 1609, Oil on Canvas, 44 1/8 x 33 7/8 inches

El Greco’s painting of 17th century Trinitarian preacher and poet Hortensio Felix Paravicino portrays a man of extreme sensitivity, its directness and compositional simplicity suggesting a degree of intelligence and psychological nuance on a different order from most other El Greco portraits.  He painted many portraits, but this is one of the few where he paints more than just the head and upper body of his sitter.  And he makes some distinctive compositional choices that stand out as more provocative and metaphorically rich. What was he doing here? Was he giving us a sagacious portrait of an actual man, someone who was himself wise? Or was he trying to paint something greater than the man himself, something tantalizing, surprising and possibly inspiring on an entirely different level of contemplation?

Fra Paravicino is not a generic or neutral subject. Although a connoisseur of art, he attempted to censor nudity in painting, stating, “The finest paintings are the greatest threat: burn the best of them.” These are extreme views even for 17th century Spain, especially in light of the fact that the King himself had a collection of such works, as did many of his courtiers. Those words of Paravicino’s were never published in the pamphlet he wrote them for, and one wonders how much El Greco was aware of them. Nevertheless, he employs a number of mechanisms that subtly suggest what kind of man Fra Paravicino might have been, or conversely what El Greco might have wanted him to be. 

The painting is starkly lit, with a subdued color palette that, on the face of it, reads primarily black and white. Compositionally, it is divided in half with the upper and lower body bisected at the half way point by the bottom edge of Paravicino’s black chasuble, suggesting an inherent split — either in the man himself, between his upper and lower selves, or in his belief system, between higher and lower (or baser) realms.  Furthermore, El Greco creates an almost perfect square arising from the top of that bisecting line, by conflating the rectangular back of Paravicino’s chair with his chasuble, suggesting the ideal of a rational space in which this man exists, or at least the rational space of a higher realm.  The extreme contrast between the white cowl framing his head and the black background works to further this reading of a man set apart from the concerns of a lower order of existence. There is a stark suggestion that this man’s sensorial and intellectual capacities exist on a higher plane than the rest of his body.

The upper half of the painting is also broken up into realms of higher and lower existence.  Paravicino’s eyes line up with the top edge of his chair back but are positioned just below the line break separating the chair from its background.  By placing Paravicino’s eyes at that level, El Greco suggests that the preacher exists sensorially within the realm of the earthbound chair, not in the realm beyond or above, personified by the background. His forehead, however – representing the mind, our conceptual apparatus for perceiving the divine — is firmly situated in that upper realm.  El Greco emphasizes this theme of separation—head from body, conceptual realm from sensorial realm, upper half from lower half, white from black – to suggest that this preacher is a man of distinction, with a calculating intelligence and rich array of higher faculties.

The lower half of the painting is where things get interesting.  In this lower realm El Greco explores a reading of Fra Paravicino that is proto-Jungian in how it presages the idea of merging the male and female in higher consciousness individuals. While Fra Paravicino should be seated, given the usual circumstances of such a pose, El Greco has depicted him instead in a weird enigmatic posture, the vertical thrust of his white robe suggesting more standing than sitting, although his arms are clearly resting on the arms of his chair.  Furthermore, the position of his left hand is tantalizing, inserted in a sexually suggestive way into the small book, which is atop a larger book that his other fingers are holding onto. The large book is resting against his hip, which effectuates a deep wrinkle in his robe that suggests a vaginal form, the crevice of which meanders down to the bottom of his robe, where a veritable hole appears. That reading is made more emphatic by the black and red cross on Fra Paravicino’s robe that itself looks more like a wound than an insignia, due to the marked highlighting around the cross that creates negative space. But, most significantly, the combined shape of his white robe, sleeves and hands unmistakably suggests the shape of female fallopian tubes.

Now, I do not know what El Greco knew of female reproductive anatomy. But this resemblance has always struck me as so self-evident that I do wonder whether he was suggesting that Fra Paravicino was a man existing on a higher plane of being, where distinctions between male and female fell away.  Was El Greco really proto-Jungian, anticipating the dissolution of the binary that we are now experiencing in our own culture, which one hopes might signal a shift towards a more capacious understanding of what human beings are capable of? There is no way to answer that question with certainty. But El Greco was a great artist, whose imagery has the power to take us to a higher plane of contemplation, and the question has long nagged at me: was Fra Paravicino himself worthy of that kind of complex and layered portrayal, or did El Greco simply use him to say something both simple and profound about what it is to be human? Either way, the portrait is a gift, an image of wisdom that continues to resonate.

Julie Heffernan, Self Portrait with Lock, 2018, Oil on canvas, 68 x 58 inches

 

Julie Heffernan is a Professor of Fine Arts at Montclair State University, represented by Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco. Heffernan is a Board Member of the National Academy of Design. Her work has been reviewed by major publications including the New York Times and Artforum; and in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum and VMFA among others.

 

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Brenda Goodman on Her Work in Stages https://paintersonpaintings.com/brenda-goodman-on-her-work-in-stages/ https://paintersonpaintings.com/brenda-goodman-on-her-work-in-stages/#respond Wed, 23 Jan 2019 17:05:30 +0000 https://paintersonpaintings.com/?p=3010 There is something about feeling that rightness of a painting when I’m 75 that feels so very satisfying.

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Brenda Goodman, Impending, 2018, Oil on Wood, 80 x 72 inches

Looking back at my work over a 53-year span, I sometimes think that I could do this or that passage of a particular painting better now, but I have never gone back into a piece once it was done. I always felt that I did the best I could do at the time and it wouldn’t be right to go back years later and change it or improve it.

Impending (Stage 1)

I also have never destroyed or slashed a painting in progress. I work on each one, and still do, until it finally feels right, and when it’s right, it’s right!

I’ve been thinking about what it means to have a painting feel RIGHT for a while now. Every artist, no doubt, has a stopping place in a painting when they feel everything works together and is therefore done. It’s intriguing to think about it because every artist has a different RIGHT for themselves. How many times has someone come into your studio and said: “It’s done! I wouldn’t do anything else to it!” This can be really irritating! Yes, it might seem spontaneous and fresh at the point they saw it but you know it needs more work. The trick is to work more deeply into the piece and preserve the freshness, while also developing it into a richer and fuller image.

Impending (Stage 2)

So, something clicks in my head when a painting is done, when it’s right. It always has but there is something about feeling that rightness of a painting when I’m 75 that feels so very satisfying.

Impending (Stage 3)

Here is a series of images that show the progression from beginning to end of one of my paintings, “Impending,” now showing at Sikkema Jenkins. At about stage 4, someone was in the studio and said, “Oh, that curved figure is great! I hope you don’t change anything.” But I knew the painting needed more and I added the grey ball shape. Without that shape, the space felt empty. And because of the black shape looming above, I wanted the curved shape to be hugging or embracing the ball. Protecting it. Trump actually came to mind when I was painting the black shape so it made sense to me that the ball shape needed comforting. That’s what I felt listening to the news all day. From far away, I also saw the grey shape as negative space. That makes it even more complex in its interpretation, depending on the perspective of the viewer. So that shape, which I added at the end, is what made the painting so poignant for me. Then I knew it was done. It was RIGHT. For me.

Impending (Stage 4)

Brenda Goodman is a seventy-five year old painter. Born in Detroit, she spent thirty-four years on the Bowery, and now lives in the Catskills. She has exhibited widely throughout the United States and her solo show at Sikkema Jenkins, A Lighter Place, runs from January 24th to February 23rd in Chelsea, NY.

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Lavar Munroe on Folkert De Jong and Expansive Painting https://paintersonpaintings.com/lavar-monroe-on-folkert-de-jong-and-expansive-painting/ https://paintersonpaintings.com/lavar-monroe-on-folkert-de-jong-and-expansive-painting/#respond Thu, 10 Jan 2019 15:45:31 +0000 https://paintersonpaintings.com/?p=2995 Evidence of deconstructing form and then “healing” those breaks was apparent in the yellow and pink adhesive substrates bleeding through the crevasses of incisions.

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Folkert De Jong, The New Deal, 2012, Styrofoam, pigmented polyurethane foam and pallet

What constitutes a painting? Is it possible to create a “painting” that occupies space, has actual volume and is made with unconventional materials? These questions point to an expansion of the definition of “painting” as it relates to the action of painting.

I have been an avid fan of the work of Folkert De Jong for many years, in particular his works that occupy space and are three-dimensional. I was privileged to see a few of those pieces in person at UNTITLED Miami Beach a few weeks ago. Although I am not a huge advocate of viewing and appreciating works in such spaces (Art Fairs), the works on display gave me some visual and intellectual insight into his working process.

Immediately, I was drawn in by De Jong’s color and painterly gestures in The New Deal, 2012, most of which seemed to be achieved with unconventional, non-traditional painting materials.  His clever use of materials and color to achieve a sense of painterly gesture instantly compelled me to look closer, to inspect his choices, consider the conceptual underpinnings of those choices and attempt to digest the grouping of objects. Evidence of deconstructing form and then “healing” those breaks was apparent in the yellow and pink adhesive substrates bleeding through the crevasses of incisions. The rigor by which color was excavated through the subtractive process of carving coupled with the “chemical” color of various adhesives he used, strategically accented with what seems to be conventional house paint, in my opinion, pointed to a beautiful expansion of the definition of “painting.”

Pablo Picasso, Acrobate et jeune Arlequin (Acrobat and Young Harlequin), 1905, Oil on canvas, 191.1 x 108.6 cm

Intellectually, much of the work points to specific and substantial histories — art historical representations of both painting and sculpture — while simultaneously straddling imaginative territories. I am reminded of Picasso’s Harlequin paintings from the early 1900’s (Blue and Rose periods) in combination with the grotesque figuration of Goya, when confronting De Jong’s work. The Harlequin paintings point to a darker history — of circuses, world fairs and human zoos — that are today suggestive of our fraught racist and bigoted political climate, among many other things. I am also reminded of those themes of darkness and evil associated with childhood fairy tales and fables.

Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son, 1819-1823, Oil mural transferred to canvas, 143 x 81 cm

The grotesqueness of encrusted materials in De Jong’s forms forcefully compel the viewer to associate that ugliness with its opposite — beauty, elegance and suaveness — in how he handles his materials, specifically the “natural” colors of wood that are revealed in the process of excavating the materials used to construct his forms. Though initially created to serve as “sculpture,” the multiplicity and manipulation involved in the making process “cries” painting, both from a visual and technical standpoint. To redefine and expand on the notion of painting is, for De Jong, to break rules and defy conventional boundaries.

Whether the viewer is convinced that these works are paintings, or are even in conversation with the practice of painting, is very subjective. But I myself find comfort and feel confidence in this work that is so multi-lingual in terms of its making. It speaks the language of many practices, but resonates, for me, most fluently with painting.

Lavar, Munroe, Boys, 2018, Acrylic, spray paint, fabric, cigarette buds, rubber, string, feather and makeshift ball on cut canvas, 64″ x 80″

Lavar Munroe was born in Nassau, Bahamas and currently lives and works between Bloomington, Indiana and Nassau, Bahamas. He received a BFA from the Savannah College of Art and Design, an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis and was later awarded a Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Exhibitions include the Liverpool Biennale, 56th Venice Biennale, 12th Dakar Biennale, and Prospect New Orleans 4.

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Constance Mallinson on Manet’s and von Werefkin’s Ragpickers https://paintersonpaintings.com/constance-mallinson-on-manets-and-von-werefkins-ragpickers/ https://paintersonpaintings.com/constance-mallinson-on-manets-and-von-werefkins-ragpickers/#respond Sat, 29 Dec 2018 21:59:52 +0000 https://paintersonpaintings.com/?p=2977 Few previous painters were capable of challenging and disturbing the consumerist mentality and self-satisfaction of the middle class and the economic and social systems that sustained them.

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Édouard Manet, The Ragpicker, 1865-1870, Oil on Canvas, 76 3/4″X 51 1/2 inches, Collection of Norton Simon Museum

While researching Edouard Manet’s Ragpicker painting, I found other images of that 19th century genre which depicts the urban destitute collecting old rags to supply the paper industry. The realism of Courbet, Manet, and later Van Gogh’s working class approbations, elevated the working poor and their conditions to art worthy status. Manet’s Ragpicker (1869) is a magnificent tribute to those who toiled amidst the misery coexistent with Parisian bourgeois life. Set within an ambiguous shadowy space — either the artist’s studio or an alleyway alluded to by the small trash pile in the foreground — a ragpicker stands hunched- old, dirty, disheveled, propped up by his walking stick with a sack slung over his shoulder. Unlike the painter’s Olympia, who wore a haughty, confrontational sneer and flaunted her sinful trade, he looks downward to the side. The imposing figure of the stereotypical street person, defeated and worn, surely must have provoked the same uncomfortable reactions then as those of today’s urban elites to our homeless populations. Few previous painters were capable of challenging and disturbing the consumerist mentality and self-satisfaction of the middle class and the economic and social systems that sustained them. Such paintings anticipated Modernism’s 100 plus years of artistic infatuation with overlooked realms of culture in pursuit of novel approaches to artmaking: think Picasso’s demi-monde obsession, the Ashcan school as well as Mike Kelly’s more recent abject visions or contemporary painter John Sonsini’s series of day laborer portraits.

 

Maryanne von Werefkin, La Chiffonier, 1917, Tempera on Paper, 67 x 97.5 cm

Ragpicker imagery surfaced in the mid 19th century but it curiously reemerged much later in a 1917 painting La Chiffonier by a little-known Expressionist — the Russian-German-Swiss painter Marianne von Werefkin. In its World War I period incarnation however, the “identity politics” of the subsistence worker was downplayed in favor of different narratives.

Von Werefkin had lived with her renowned partner Expressionist painter Alexej von Jawlensky in the early 1900’s but, as was the expectation, abruptly stopped painting for 10 years to support his career. Kandinsky, Franz Marc and other key Expressionists comprised their influential circle. When the First World War broke out, she and Jawlensky emigrated to Switzerland but separated soon after.  There in the midst of Alpine lakes and towering mountains she painted her modest sized but highly dramatic tempera painting on paper. It depicts the spindly black spidery form of a man carrying a walking stick and bearing a basket on his back. Slightly beyond him is another smaller bent-over figure sifting through a rocky pile. Unlike Manet’s figure that powerfully fills the space, both are dwarfed by an animated technicolor landscape of toothy jawboned mountains dueling with fists of descending turbulent dark clouds. A section of the icy lake waters burns bright red from the sunset’s reflection. Characteristic of the early Expressionists, the bold color is freely applied in brash unmodulated strokes; here the painterly swathes are rather ragged and patchwork, underscoring her figures’ impoverished state. Oddly out of context, as there could not have been any rags to collect in this landscape, one can only guess why the painter inserted ragpickers there.

The painting essentially marries two genres — the sublime landscape and the iconic impoverished street habitue’, the predecessor of today’s shopping cart pusher. Multiple interpretations arise. The threatening clouds above the urban dweller might, in the tradition of the sublime, symbolize humanity’s existential struggles with the immanent cataclysm of war. Or von Werefkin might have simultaneously intended to reinforce nature’s ultimate power and endurance over the irrational, self-destructive actions of man — depicted as small and vulnerable here.  Maybe this is a snapshot into the future when starving humans are forced out of cities to survive in the wilds. Von Werefkin could have also intended her figure to represent a female top hatted and tuxedoed cabaret figure prancing across this grand outdoor stage. The marginalized female artist is forced to mimic a male in a male dominated world and “performs” her transformation or fantasy of freedom. A feminine narrative of the sublime’s fiction of renewal, she would experience a “coming out” by her contact with the shock and awe of natural forces.

A hundred years later the world is once again at a human-made critical turning point with unimaginable consequences, this time with climate change. Less Manet and more von Werefkin, I paint my immediate surroundings and, like her ragpickers, I strap on a backpack daily to roam my urban neighborhood collecting consumer detritus.  I mingle with street denizens in order to rummage through dumpsters in fetid corners, our purposes quite different. As a flaneuse, I am wary and defensive. The found refuse is then portrayed in monumental, post-apocalyptic still lifes that I pose against foreboding atmospheric backdrops. Capitalist-globalist-consumerist dreams run amok; they are in turns monstrous and beautiful. The breathtakingly high purple mountains and pink orange canyons above Los Angeles loom large at every turn of my wanderings, a constant presence in the sprawling city. Recently I witnessed from my studio doors the terrifying spectacle of nearby atomic blast sized mushroom clouds of smoke from the Southern California fires roaring through these mountains. Von Werefkin could not have known about global warming and its effects but, as the sky darkened with ash, her emaciated ragpicker seemed to uncannily foreshadow my experience of nature’s power.

Both of these two very different portrayals of the same subject manage to shift seamlessly from past to present socio-cultural critiques.  The Ragpickers encourage my belief that the idea and practice of painting will continue to outlive its historical borders to uniquely and vividly provoke debate on the perennial human condition.

 

Constance Mallinson, Still Life in Landscape, 2017, Oil on Canvas, 5’X14′

Still Life in Landscape (Detail)

Constance Mallinson is a Los Angeles based painter, writer and curator. Her work is included in major public, corporate and private collections and will be featured in an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in Fall 2019. She has written for numerous art publications such as Art in America, X-tra, Artillery, and the Times Quotidian as well as published many exhibition catalogs.

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Wendy Letven on Simona Prives https://paintersonpaintings.com/wendy-letven-on-simona-prives/ https://paintersonpaintings.com/wendy-letven-on-simona-prives/#respond Tue, 18 Dec 2018 16:24:07 +0000 https://paintersonpaintings.com/?p=2960 The alchemy of using a fragment of a scan of parsley to represent a forest was a revelation.

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Simona Prives, Black Matter, 2018, Sumi ink, monotype and collage with xerox transfer and watercolor, 70 x 44 inches

 

Simona Prives creates images that describe shifting, changing imaginary worlds inhabited by human beings and all their detritus. From a distance, one is at first drawn in by the sweeping brush strokes that make up the “stuff” of these compositions. On closer viewing, we see all order of human activity embedded in the abstracted landscapes. Cities are under construction, or crumbling, territory is being colonized as acrobats catapult themselves into oblivion. Prives says that her work is about “locating ourselves in the built and natural environments at this particular moment in history”.

Prives’ current solo show curated by Grace Noh at John Doe Gallery is called “Time Waves”. The exhibition includes projected animations, and works on paper made with Sumi ink, monotypes, xerox transfer, and collage, both physical and digital.

One of the largest of her works on paper (four by six feet) is Black Matter. The aspect of scale and the yin yang of positive and negative space are used to powerful effect here, in terms of both form and content. Each passage flows seamlessly from dark into light, from being into nothingness, from clustered marks and color stains into the emptiness of white paper. Voluminous, layered washes of pigment define the space and contrast with hairline networks of feathery roots, topographic maps, architectural diagrams and patterned geologic forms, the details of which are both obsessively rendered and captivatingly seductive. There is a sense of change and motion in this work that one rarely sees in a still image. And there is an added element of intrigue in discovering each of the fragments of representation, which give us a deeper entry into the pictorial space.

Simona Prives, Black Matter (Detail)

You would need to enroll as her student at Parsons or NYU to get an inkling of the multi-step processes of drawing, painting, printmaking and photography that encompass Prives’ art practice and the sophisticated digital skills needed to create her mixed media prints and animations. Prives studied printmaking in the MFA program at Pratt, but it was through collage that her work began to come together. The process of decomposition and reconstruction lent itself perfectly to her surrealist inclinations. She related to the brand of surrealism that sprang out of Dadaist practices, which access subconscious thinking by taking images and objects out of context to create new meanings. The alchemy of using a fragment of a scan of parsley to represent a forest was a revelation.

Simona Prives, Black Matter (Detail)

Her references for Black Matter and many of the other works on paper in the show, come from her studies of Chinese scroll painting. Prives began experimenting with combining drawings and prints with watercolor and ink, mining their potential for establishing atmospheric perspective out of which her imagery could spring. Rejecting the golden mean as a given format, she opts for the elongated length of those famous scrolls, which artfully sets the stage for drama, slowing the reading of the work from one side to the other.

“Time Waves” also includes animations of her collages, which was a natural next step in the evolution of the work. Watercolor and ink, again, provide the fertile ground that anchors the cycle of formation and decay and, in this case, actual motion, with video capture of ink bleeding onto the page. The sound design, a collaboration with composer Ross Williams, accompanies each pulse of ink with a clashing rush of natural noises and the din of humanity, literally making its mark upon the land. It mirrors the ebb and flow of images and, together, their rhythms call attention to our own, from small bodily repetitions, to tides, and planetary patterns.

Wendy Letven, Interdimensionality Triptych, 2018, Acrylic on panel, 30 x72 inches

Wendy Letven is a painter/sculptor who also teaches at Parsons School of Design. Wendy’s suspended public sculpture “Drawing the Invisible”, is being exhibited through January, 2019, at The Flatiron Prow Artspace at 175 5th Avenue in New York City.

“Time Waves”, curated by Grace Noh, is showing at John Doe Gallery (112  Waterbury St) through December 23. Black Matter will also be on view at Art On Paper with Heather Gaudio Fine Art.

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Laurie Hogin on Grant Wood https://paintersonpaintings.com/laurie-hogin-on-grant-wood/ https://paintersonpaintings.com/laurie-hogin-on-grant-wood/#respond Mon, 10 Dec 2018 14:22:17 +0000 https://paintersonpaintings.com/?p=2943 The readmission of artists like Grant Wood into high art discourses may open the door to many more types of representation, inclusive of many more places, lives, and subjectivities.

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Grant Wood, Young Corn, 1931, Oil on canvas, 24 x 29 7/8 inches

Regionalism. The wide-open air that settles on the Midwestern agoras is heavy with the sticky oppressions of cultural stillness, corrupt power structures, and close, stifling folkways. Urbanism. The frantic richness, collaborative reinvention, and cacophonous promise of cities opens onto worlds of progress. There’s been an aesthetic dichotomy, too, with urban avant-gardes opposing strategies which engage with narrative, representational traditions. This has been among the modern century’s organizing metaphors. Even lately, many cosmopolitans in the cities and the deep blue islands of college towns, perhaps with their own orthodoxies, corrupt economies, fears, fetishes, folkways, myths, contradictions, and subtle oppressions, still organize the world accordingly.

Boy, the way Glen Milla played. Songs that made the Hit Parade. Guys like us, we had it made. Those were the days. And you knew who you were then! Goils were goils and men were men. Mister, we could use a man like Hoibert Hoovah again!  — Theme song from “All in the Family”, set in Queens, New York, 1971-1980

I live across from a vast, industrial farm field, the kind that consolidates the lands of several small farms—a capitalist version of collectivization—to make massive, single-crop fields, typically alternating corn and soy each year. Even so, the myth of the American pastoral lays like a golden sepia mist over this genetically novel monoculture. The fields and skies still look like what Grant Wood saw. I see grey thunderstorms over fields of pale cornstalks and seas of blue-green soy undulating under the prairie wind, and I think of Grant Wood’s paintings. I wonder how they can speak to us now. It seems urgent.

Up and down the roads here, empty farmhouses sit with their backyard apple trees, now ancient and twisted, next to the weather-worn ruins of collapsed barns, the wood silver with age (and ripe for the recent trend in upscale decorating with reclaimed wood). New barns, belonging to farmers who live elsewhere, are metal, with roof spans that can accommodate the kind of machinery needed to farm 1000 acres. (They are indistinguishable from the types of warehouse buildings found in urban industrial corridors.) The land is dotted with manufactured homes, shaped like shoeboxes and often moldy or mossy (like ours). Some are duplexes or small apartment buildings. Old trucks, machine parts and appliances, stacks of building materials, refuse fire pits (ours is recreational), and folding chairs crowd tiny yards. Some have gardens. Many have American flags, a few Confederate flags (I want to fly an Ecology flag). Trailers languish under big, shedding trees and new “sprawl” subdivisions have curvy networks of smooth, new roads and new houses with trendy dormer deformities and long, stony faces, putty-colored and full of tall windows. The “new country” neighbor to our south has a 15-foot, inflatable Bambi Christmas balloon in his front yard. Our “old country” neighbor to the north has a plastic Santa with a rifle and a deer-shaped array of white Christmas lights hanging from a tree. From its nose, a wonderfully abstract cascade of blood in red LED’s. The deer are everywhere.

Whose fields these are, I think I know, Monsanto makes ‘em GMO. They will not see me stopping here. The stock’s in my portfolio?! My little truck must think it queer to stop without a pole barn near, between the corn and soybean seas, to watch our natures disappear. — After Frost

With any luck, this old truck (Rare find. Purple ’98 F-150; reg. cab, LB, 6 auto., perfect for hauling, etc. (Perfect for me.)) gets me down these county roads to the Interstate. Museums appear on my Google Map! There is a Dick Blick outlet store in a patch of lonely woods amid the corn and soy fields in Shelbyville, Illinois, selling damaged 150-milliliter tubes of Williamsburg brand oil pigments; luminous earth colors and cadmiums dense and toxic as isotopes; brushes made of Chinese hogs’ bristle cloned from the skins of Iowa hogs, among other things the store’s truck-stop neighbors might think are queer.

According to didactics on museum walls, books I was given, and art-school hipster cultures, all of which have sought to organize my art viewing since childhood, American Regionalism was an essentially retrograde practice; the bad kind of populism, formed in xenophobic, rural, white identitarianism and nostalgia, an early expression of the disease that erupted in Trumpism. Nationalist and romantic, it trafficked in reassuring notions of everyday life in the Heartland, conservative in concept and aesthetic and constitutionally unable to evolve towards urbane Modernism’s revolutionary destinies, and so my love of it dared not speak its name. The recent Grant Wood show at the Whitney, and the writing about it by Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker, Dennis Kardon in Hyperallergic, and Richard Meyer in the catalog essay, indicate that this is changing. There is a new interest in Wood’s American Regionalism, and an acknowledgement of who he was and his intentions with his work. Perhaps this new interest is inspired or made urgent by the shock of realization that the lived experiences and mental phantoms of flyover folk have consequences for everyone. Close examination of the paintings themselves reveals that his was a very queer eye.

Where can the horizon lie, when a nation hides its organic growth in the cellar?
— David Bowie, The Man Who Sold the World

But there is something else also going on. Landscape is a set of operations; it is well-understood that the practice of framing is useful in establishing a difference between inside and out, structure and chaos, self and other, here and there. The history of landscape has rightly been theorized as a machine that manifests power relationships, inventing an ideological gaze, or a gaze that becomes ideological because of the selfish gene, or the will to power, or perhaps toxic masculinity depending upon one’s library. But there is a different kind of story available through landscape. My experience as a body in landscape is not one of transcendent objectification, or celebration or mourning over a sense of place, but rather of profound mirroring.

Grant Wood’s “Young Corn” is widely acknowledged as a landscape-as-body. Possibly, there are two bodies. This well-known work, often noted for what has been interpreted as a representation of pleasant idealized rural life, depicts a rolling corn field studded with nubby, nascent cornstalks. Soft, fair-weather sunlight creates subtle shadows on sensuous, bulbous swellings that represent hills which cradle a central, lowland field. Three tiny figures operate in the field, invoking the transcendent solipsism of engagement with the miniature. A simple, yellow farmhouse sits adjacent to a curving drive that borders a likely alfalfa field. The central hill’s subtle shadow reveals its topography, which resembles a belly sprouting a deliciously neat trail of body hair. In the distance, up in the top left corner of the picture where the head of the figure might be, a windmill faces us like an open eye. The pale color, though green in hue, has a value appropriate to represent a certain flesh tone, and the soil in the newly-sprouted cornfield that leads the eye into the picture is the color of slightly tan skin. The central cornfield, striped like fabric, lays across the hill’s hips like bedclothes. This gentle, erotic vista provides the kind of visual pleasure promised by landscape’s various ideologies, but something else happens here. Mirror neurons are activated. The landscape-as-body gives me a subject position not only in the narrative, but in the landscape itself. The tour around the scene is an inventory of my own physical being in the landscape, mirrored in the landscape; there is an equivalence between the space and me. In this representation, the ideology of landscape becomes one of erotic empathy and identification, delivered as poetic fable.

Artistic strategies of all kinds are productive when you have an MFA and teach in art schools. I am always thrilled by innovative strategies—they define notions of “progress” in our field. Educational privilege grants access to an understanding of those strategies, and to cryptic, avant-garde aesthetics. (These seem no sooner invented than co-opted by the dominant culture for purposes that serve existing economic structures, though trickle-down aesthetics arguably fortify the liberatory “soft power” of desire-based free markets.) These afford great pleasures in decoding and interpretation. Their novelty often demonstrates the stunning creative capacity of human cognition. But, all my life, I have loved art that also depends on elemental, ancient habits, art that is storytelling, skill-oriented, retinal, engaged with the project of re-presenting sensory phenomena, and representationally legible—in other words, pictures. Once I enrolled in art school, and joined the ranks of the institutionally initiated, I had to hide this. These strategies and aesthetics lacked prestige and cache. They were somehow corrupt, pilloried as “conservative”, as though this aligned them with conservative politics. In fact, the opposite is arguably true; the politics of representation and political ideals are sometimes at odds in institutional priorities. A great political potential lives in works which are democratically accessible, and represent working-class values like skill, and experiences from the margins, outside of the cosmopolitan intellectual life of cities—and, like Wood’s queer eye, can assert other identities, other experiences, other types of agencies, into our broader cultural discourse. The readmission of artists like Grant Wood into high art discourses may open the door to many more types of representation, inclusive of many more places, lives, and subjectivities.

 

Laura Hogin, The Sleep of Reason (Silver Bullets in the Garden of St. Augustine, Oil on canvas, 72″ x 96″, 2008

Laurie Hogin is an artist and writer who lives with her dogs, photographer husband, and teenage son in rural East Central Illinois. She teaches in the Studio Art Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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Zorawar Sidhu on František Kupka https://paintersonpaintings.com/zorawar-sidhu-on-frantisek-kupka/ https://paintersonpaintings.com/zorawar-sidhu-on-frantisek-kupka/#respond Wed, 28 Nov 2018 15:58:35 +0000 https://paintersonpaintings.com/?p=2931 Within a year of exhibiting it, he would never paint like this again

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František Kupka, Planes by Colors: Large Nude, Oil on canvas, 1909-10, 59 ⅛” x 71 ⅛”

Planes by Colors: Large Nude is František Kupka’s only surviving large scale figurative painting. Within a year of exhibiting it, he would never paint like this again, instead developing a personal language of total abstraction. In that moment of transition, I think of this painting as a manifesto, a way to address the canon of Western painting while simultaneously declaring a departure from it.

Born in 1871, Kupka was educated in the 19th century Academies of Prague, Vienna and Paris. He was briefly enrolled at the Académie Julian which, at one point, had William-Adolphe Bouguereau appointed among its faculty. Bouguereau’s conservative paintings represent much of what I find to be problematic about French Salon painting of the nineteenth century — objectified, passive female bodies offered for the consumption of a primarily bourgeois male viewer.  Despite the subject of this painting, I don’t think Kupka was simply intending to make an object of desire for his audience. When it was originally exhibited in the 1911 Salon d’Automne, Planes by Colors, Large Nude was met with revulsion. In their reviews of the exhibition, the magazines Fantasio and Mercure de France described Kupka’s figure as decomposing, with diseased, infected skin.

František Kupka, Study, 1904

It seems that Kupka began this painting firmly planted in the conventions of nineteenth century academic painting. This early study, signed and dated 1904, only survives in reproduction, with its current whereabouts unknown.

Leda and the Swan, a 16th-century copy after a lost painting by Michelangelo, National Gallery, London

In a vaguely neoclassical gesture, Kupka borrows the pose of the figure from Michelangelo’s (now also lost) painting of Leda and the Swan. Without the swan, the picture is purged of its mythological and zoophilic content, thereby becoming an exercise in illusionistic rendering. The result is a literal depiction of the artist’s model posed on a chaise lounge in a dimly lit studio, which, for 1904 Paris, appears staunchly conservative.

From an academic standpoint, Kupka’s 1910 nude retains the studious rigor of the earlier version, with all the anatomical landmarks of nineteenth century figure painting indicated — the tenth rib, the xiphoid process at the bottom of the sternum, the olecranon at the tip of the elbow, etc — they are all accounted for. The crucial difference, of course, is the color. The title of the painting, Planes by Colors, explains the premise of the picture: each plane of the human body represented by its own color, as if it were a diagram. Presumably, if Kupka applied his color-coding system to his 1904 study, the result would be 1910’s Planes by Colors, Large Nude.

Upon close inspection, however, this proposition is a misdirection, as the planes are not single colors at all. In this detail photograph of the figure’s left knee, one can see the layers of Kupka’s activity through the painting’s presently cracked surface. Dry, crusty pinks are dragged over saturated oranges; yellows and greens are mixed directly on the canvas, and subtle yellow glazes nudge Kupka’s planes into differentiated surfaces. This is an exciting confluence of technical approaches for a painter at the turn of the century. Kupka draws from Cennino Cennini’s description of the Renaissance verdaccio technique, where the effect of flesh is created by layering pinks over a green underpainting, as well as from his contemporary Henri Matisse’s depiction of half-lit flesh as passages of intense green, as in his 1905 Green Stripe. In the crook of the knee, layered strokes of red, yellow and blue resemble George Seurat’s accumulated touches of pure color, while also harkening back to the hints of vermilion in Peter Paul Rubens’ hot shadows.

František Kupka, Planes by Colors (Detail)

František Kupka in his studio, 1906

I think Planes by Colors, Large Nude was an emblem of the space between the figurative realm and what lay beyond for Kupka, despite the relative lack of such painting in his oeuvre. Here he is in 1906, early in his career, when he was supporting himself as an illustrator. A painting resembling Planes by Colors hangs in the corner, perhaps on an easel, but already in a frame. Fifty years later, after decades of painting exclusively abstractly, the painting still occupied an important place in his studio:

František Kupka in his studio

 

Zorawar Sidhu, Last Day of Pompeii. After Karl Bruyllov, 2016, Latex ink on Backlit Film, 149 x 86 x 92 inches

Zorawar Sidhu was born in Punjab, India and currently lives and works in New York. He received a BA in the History of Art from Johns Hopkins University, a BFA from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and an MFA from Hunter College. He has exhibited projects with galleries and museums nationally, including solo exhibitions in the Museum of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Museum of The Town of Vestal, NY.

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Eric Fischl on Max Beckmann’s Departure https://paintersonpaintings.com/eric-fischl-on-max-beckmanns-departure/ https://paintersonpaintings.com/eric-fischl-on-max-beckmanns-departure/#respond Tue, 23 Oct 2018 13:30:20 +0000 https://paintersonpaintings.com/?p=2913 The woman and man are eternally bound in a psychopathologically perverse interpretation of yin and yang.

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This essay was first published in the exhibition catalogue for Max Beckmann in Exile at the Guggenheim Museum in SoHo, New York on October 9, 1996. 

Max Beckmann, Departure,1932, Oil on canvas, Side panels 7′ 3/4″ x 39 1/4″, center panel 7′ 3/4″ x 45 3/8″

At the time that I “discovered” Beckmann’s Departure, in the mid-1970s, I was in a state of turmoil and discomfort over the abstract paintings that I was making. I had known Beckmann’s work, mostly through reproduction, when I was still a student. Attracted as I was to his paint handling, there was such a prejudice against any kind of representation in painting that I virtually ignored him as a possible source of inspiration or as a way into narrative painting.

I visited the Museum of Modern Art on a day when I was feeling either relaxed enough or lost enough to stop in front of this great work and ask it a few questions. For me, Departure, like all of Beckmann’s triptychs, seemed daunting. His iconography is both historical in a literary and eventful way, as well as personal almost to the point of being a private language. My fear was that I could never penetrate its content without first reading what he or others had to say about it. This I am loath to do, believing, as I do, that painting is and should be a direct experience of audience to painting, as it is for the artist, painter to painting.

I begin today as I did then, with the left panel and with its central figure, which I described to myself as a sailor, perhaps a pirate. Why do I think that? The shirt — the purple and black-striped shirt. It is a kind of uniform, neither military nor naval, but that of a sailor/fisherman/pirate. I think possibly pirate because of the way he wields that ax. It is malevolent. Ax? Yes, ax: like an executioner he is going to cut off the hands of the bound woman. He has already cut off one person’s hands. The whole scene reeks of destruction and chaos. Ax? Wait. It is not an ax. It is a fishnet with fish in it! How could this be? Were my associations wrong? Or has Beckmann painted images in such a way that they flip back and forth? Ambiguity reveals dualities of feeling as well as states of being. Here stands a man, executioner/fisherman/pirate/nurturer. I say nurturer because the fisherman brings fish to eat. Is Beckmann, by combining fishing with this violent scene, saying life feeds off death, literally?

And the woman? Tied and gagged, dressed like a whore, humiliated and offered up for sacrifice. Woman, the symbol of purity, mystery, innocence, and ruse. Beguiler and saint. Here stripped, not naked, but tarted up, debased as symbol and object of desire, object of love. Here, she is thrown over a large glass ball; her face peers into it. A glass ball? Not your butcher’s block! A glass ball like a fortune-teller’s. So, she still has powers! What does she see, this sorceress? The future? Underneath the ball is a newspaper: the front page of Die Zeit. “You want to know the future?” Beckmann is saying, “The future is on the front page of the newspaper. The future is what is happening today played out tomorrow!”

Why is our executioner/fisherman going to harm her? Cut off her hands, mutilate her? Is he going to kill the messenger? Beckmann had a thing about hands, and in this panel we see perhaps his most definitive and anguished statement. Hands: the first tool. What we clutch, what we release, what we build, what we destroy, and how we feel, literally and metaphorically, are expressed through the hands. So what we feel coming from this panel is a lot of anger and derision directed through the hands.

There’s a guy, his back to us, waist-deep in a wine barrel filled with water (a liquid anyway), hand tied behind his back — this guy ain’t going nowhere. What an expression of impotence! There is the other man, gagged, bound to a pillar (representing cultural and male sexual power?), his hands already severed. And, of course, the woman who is about to lose hers.

In the midst of such violence, a still life, absurdly large. Its specific meaning eludes me. It is a quiet moment in this tempest of insanity. It is the only thing in this picture that doesn’t need anything. Therefore, its experience must be purely aesthetic. The still life is an introspective, artistic reflection on the abstract problems of composition. Weights, balances, shapes on a flat plane and in space. Volumes, density, color, light — historically, the still life has been the humble expression of awesome metaphysical ambition. And here, Beckmann surrounds this still life with blinded eyes, gagged mouths, and mangled hands — all the tools required for the perception and expression of these values are damaged. This panel is a profound statement of outrage.

By contrast, the middle panel is the essence of calm and order, familial order. The nuclear family is here mythologized, elevated to metaphor, and given magical powers. It is the family of both royalty — king, queen, prince, and attendants — and holiness — Christ (the fisher king), the Madonna and child, and disciples. The father/king/Christ, is fishing. That is to say, he is holding a fishnet, but in such a stunningly blasé way! His back is to us, to the sea, and to the fish he has captured. He stands counseling/comforting his family. Beckmann here is brilliant. If you look closely at how he has painted the fish, you will see that he has with paint created a double entendre. You cannot tell whether the fish are swimming into or out of the net. In doing this, he reinforces the reference to Christ, for the fish is the symbol of the soul and Christ is both the gatherer and the releaser of the soul. So the middle panel appears to offer redemption from the chaos, violence, misery, humiliation, and disappointments that surround it.

There is in this panel, as there are in the other two panels, elements that I cannot be sure about. Like the oversized beak of an exotic bird and what appears to be a mask from some exotic culture in the background of the left panel or the strange architecture of the right panel, there are some things in the boat that I just don’t know what to make of. There is the man behind the mother/Madonna with what appears to be a pot on his head. A cooking pot! Why? There is also a soldier whose helmet shape makes him look very much like the large fish he is holding. What is that connection? There is also the fish itself. One could take a cynical approach to this scene by describing the king’s handling of the little fish in the net as careless, rather than the way I described him above, in lofty, metaphysical terms, as the gatherer and releaser of souls. I have always felt that the calm of the middle panel is akin to the calm at the center of a storm, a very bad storm.  

The right panel echoes the malevolence of the left panel, but also shows the resulting malaise. At the center is our family, no longer royal, no longer magical. The woman and man are eternally bound in a psychopathologically perverse interpretation of yin and yang. She is dressed in white and holds out a lamp, symbol of the muse, of wisdom and insight. She seems confident that she still knows the way, though I am not so sure. The upside-down man/lover/father is bound to her, and, judging form the wound on his back, is quite dead. “You always kill the one you love,” Beckmann is reported to have said, and, judging from the recent tabloid stories, he is probably correct. The offspring of this murderous love is, as you might expect, a dwarf homunculus, who tugs at his mother’s hem. Next to them stands a messenger blinded by his hat, which has fallen over his eyes. He carries a fish, which he is perhaps trying to deliver. I think, here, the fish is no longer the mystical symbol it was in the middle panel but has become a sexual one. Perhaps the messenger awaits the answer to the question of what to do with sex after love has been destroyed.

As I said earlier, the architecture of this panel is a mystery. It is colonnaded and balustraded, arched and stairwayed. The main characters stand on what is possibly a stage. In the background are people going up and down on a stairway. Where are they going? And why during the performance? In the foreground, we find our king sporting an ill-fitted golfing cap and an ermine and velvet waistcoat. What? No long robe? He is carrying and beating a drum slung around his neck. Somewhere between a bellhop paging Philip Morris in a hotel lobby and a vendor hawking peanuts at the ballpark, our king is soliciting some kind of attention. Tucked between the straps and the drum skin is a newspaper that calls us back to the fortune-tellers in the left panel. Is that what our devoted king is doing? Pounding on the drum to get us to pay attention to the headlines?

There is no summary that can be made of this masterpiece. I have thought about it ever since I opened myself to it twenty years ago. It is not a moral tale. There are no lessons to be learned. Beckmann is not calling for a shift in course. You cannot change what comes as a result of what has been; a murderous love produces a corpse. Departure bears witness to this in human nature. The brilliance of Beckmann is the insight he achieved by overlapping and conflating the various structures and times, political, social, mythological, historical, religious, and familial, in which we, both culturally and individually, have placed our beliefs, desires, and needs. I can almost hear Beckmann saying, “Read it and weep.”

Eric Fischl, Krefeld Project; Dining Room, Scene #1, 2003, Oil on linen

Eric Fischl is an internationally acclaimed American painter and sculptor.

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