Painters on Paintings A conversation between contemporary artists and their influences across time. Tue, 14 Aug 2018 15:27:59 +0000 en hourly 1 Painters on Paintings 32 32 Raoul Middleman on Paul Cezanne Tue, 14 Aug 2018 15:19:39 +0000 There is almost a metaphysical postponement of finish throughout these portraits, a hesitation as if waiting for an informant of the future to complete them.

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Paul Cezanne, The Artist’s Father Reading L’Evenement,1866, Oil on canvas, 78 x 47 inches, National Gallery of Art Washington DC

Crude primal catastrophes from a limited talent.  So might seem the paintings in the first rooms of the exhibition of Paul Cezanne’s portraits at the National Gallery in Washington —  portraits of his uncle Dominique and his father, Louis Auguste, reading the newspaper with one klutzy foot crossed over the other — all raucous likenesses slathered on with reckless abandon. Using only an intrusive palette knife, Cezanne applies the paint like a plasterer in a hurry to finish the job. These emboldened mishaps of expressive energy, much like his early narratives of revenge, rape, and murder, are at odds and so quarrel with the righteous legacy of this artist.

Paul Cezanne, Portraits of Uncle Dominique, 1866, Oil on canvas

Cezanne was part intellect, part animal; a stern contradiction buried deep in his character made the resolution of his paintings nigh impossible. Yet, right from the very beginning, all of his paintings are stamped with the same raw gruff power that constitutes his voice and authenticity as an artist.  As Merleau-Ponty pointed out in his essay, “Cezanne’s Doubt”: the Catholic (as Cezanne preeminently was) argument between Free Will and Predetermination held sway over his entire oeuvre. Regardless of whatever anguish and indeterminacy daily plagued his paintings, they were all nonetheless fated to have a stubborn inevitability, this overall consignment of persona: Cezanne could not avoid being Cezanne. Like Clifford Still, who once revealed about his painting process, “I paint like I mean it”, Cezanne’s paintings have a fierce intentionality, a clear identity, an insistency of self like a flexed muscle.

The opposite of this is Picasso.  He could mimic anything — Greek, Renaissance, African, You Name It — a veritable parrot. Sometimes tender, sometimes brutal, forever a flaneur of styles. And, yet, the central who of him was always up for grabs. His was a protean career of exploitation, a buffoonery of con and irony that set the tone for Modern Art. He stole from art history only to give it the metaphorical finger. In one engraving of the head of a Greek Goddess — done in a continuous line so skillful as to challenge the very idea of perfection — the burin winds up, in the last sweep of its arrogant imposture, cruelly slashing through the eye of the Goddess, not only destroying the serenity of her gaze but the entire pretext for its braggadocian engagement. Only in his last etchings — where looming mortality, lust, and impotence locked arms to fuel his anguish — did he suffer a crisis of authenticity that forced him to finally admit, in old age, of his failure to ever fully express a singular vision; and this admission alone became his triumph, tantamount to his vulnerability, his truth of self.

Paul Cezanne, Seated Man (Detail), 1905-6, Oil on canvas, 25.5 x 21.5 inches

Unlike Picasso, Cezanne was not so fabulously talented. He had to earn the respect of his modest genius by hard work and long hours, and the niggled progress of his work came to him slowly.  An admirer of the 17th Century artist Nicolas Poussin, from whom he incorporated a whole intellectualized system of geometrics, comprising a rhythmic interplay of cone and cylinder, Cezanne endeavored to stabilize the flux and bustle of his paintings, and thus to enhance the tension between the flatness of the picture plane and its volumetric intrusions. His design finally surfaced as an altogether new language of painterly synthesis, tautly held together in its phrasing as if by a Latin grammar — a simultaneous presentation of a logical progression, the beginnings and endings all perceived at once, a continuous reciprocity of a fractured universe juggled into balance.

In 1873 Cezanne joined Camille Pissarro to paint landscapes around Pontoise and Auvers-sur-Oise.  They painted side by side and shared the same motifs.  Under Pissarro’s influence, Cezanne thinned his paint and lightened his palette, tracing the escaping shapes of the motif with shimmering lines of ultramarine blue.  This became a long apprenticeship for Cezanne, the harnessing of his basic temperament to a classical restraint by painting small patches of color to record his “sensations” prompted by the landscape. For thirty years he persisted in this discipline, humbling his inner malaise to a strict accountability of what was directly before him, the thereness of the scene. He daubed on a swarm of parallel strokes derived from Nature, all mainly the same size with the same slant, thus imposing upon the canvas a grid-like uniformity to entrap the chaos of a fleeting and unruly Nature, in the effort of unifying all that turmoil into some kind of Transcendent Absolute.  The desperate flurries of brushwork in the later landscapes, however, such as those of Mont Sainte-Victoire, seem to vibrate with a kind of cosmic nervousness. His was a struggle to dominate this disjointed landscape, not only the ambiguities of its space, or the shifting prism of its light, but the very soul of its presence.

What Cezanne wound up actually painting were his ontological skirmishes with the nature of reality itself.

Paul Cezanne, Seated Peasant, c.1900-4, Oil on canvas, 28.3 x 23 inches, Musee d’Orsay, Paris

When Cezanne finally got back to painting portraits, he cut loose from a strict diet of classical infringements. The contemporary radicalism of these last paintings is owing to the almost irreconcilable fusion of two antithetical circumstances: one, the increased ability of his painting chops to manipulate the language of painting; and two, a belated return to the original ham-fisted expressionism of his early years. “Temperament”, which for Cezanne seems to have meant “Passion”, took over in this abrupt return to the first blunt instincts of his talent.  For instance, in the Soutinesque “Boy in a Red Waistcoat”, the ballooning ear and the way-out-of-proportion arm — expressing perhaps the awkwardness of adolescence — are indicative of an intrinsic wacky outlook. The same goes for “Seated Peasant”, c.1900-4, where the enormous hands and tiny head challenge the conventional credulity of outward appearance; or the giddy tilting of a sullen Hortense in the Metropolitan Museum’s version of “Madame Cezanne in a Red Dress”.

Paul Cezanne, The Gardener Vallier, 1902-6, Oil on canvas, 42.3 x  29.8 inches, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

By far the most dramatic evolvements in this return-advance were the portraits of Vallier, the Gardener.  In an outdoor sketch of the seated gardener, the distinction between figure and ground is all but eliminated.  The dark tonality of the surrounding verdure of the garden takes over not only the jacket of the sitter but his entire presence in the painting, leaving only his one cyclopean eye to stare back at the viewer, as if this was the audacious gaping of Nature, intruding as a third eye upon the neutrality of otherness. And even more bizarre are the last two crusty paintings of Vallier, painted in the heavy blues and greens of his earliest paintings.  Whenever the old beggar was unable to sit, Cezanne would dress himself up in the gardener’s garb and take his place in the paintings. The hand lying in Vallier’s lap makes a vacant grasping gesture, a hole or salient gap in the painting’s progress, left bereft and inconclusive, a deferment of functionality. Lets say it could be filled-in by either Vallier’s pipe or Cezanne’ palette. By amalgamating the vestiges of the old beggar with the old artist, Cezanne has painted, surreptitiously perhaps, his last great self-portrait. In his uncanny pairing with this peasant in his employ, Vallier, conceivably a symbol of Everyman, Cezanne (who abhorred human contact and disliked being touched) has outrun the reach of his paranoia to forge a new paragon of humanistic expressionism. However roughhewn and blatant, Cezanne’s final statements insist upon an almost sculptural tactility, an impasto of brushwork where subject is one with pigment and touch. In this way he became, in these monumental late portraits, the unforeseen precursor of Soutine as much as Cubism.

There is almost a metaphysical postponement of finish throughout these portraits, a hesitation as if waiting for an informant of the future to complete them. Only a lifetime on the edge, riddled with doubt and uncertainty, coupled with an allegiance to the problematics of Art, could explain this anomalous lack of resolution. It is this fraught threat of a leap into The New that confers upon this unlikely genius the soubriquet “The father of Modern Art”.

Raoul Middleman, Gallery wall from 2015 MICA exhibition: Selfies: Over 50 Years of Raoul Middleman’s Self Portraits, Photo by Robert Salazar

Raoul Middleman is an artist living in Baltimore, Maryland. He is on the faculty of The Maryland Institute College of Art.




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John Michael Byrd on Kelli Scott Kelley Sat, 04 Aug 2018 20:47:49 +0000 To my eyes, this is a love letter to the maternal archetype—the maternal ideal.

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Kelli Scott Kelley, Orphaned Twins, 2009, Acrylic, paper, canvas,  48 x 30 inches

When I told my partner I was thinking about writing a piece on Kelli Kelley’s work, he said: “You know, she is probably the perfect example of the nurturing free thinker – a real maternal ideal.”  It’s a profound thought, he is absolutely right.

I first met Kelli as her student in the early 2000s, and we’ve continued to work closely together as I made the awkward transition from student to artist to gallerist and eventually to an educator myself. A true kindred spirit, our sensibilities converged on a shared love of material, Jungian analysis, and a strong belief in the necessity and endurance of myth-making. And, as with any gifted educator, her aesthetics influenced me and my fellow students as much as her gentle touch and selfless positivity.

The vast majority of Kelli’s substantial body of work is surrealist at heart, but it is all clearly rooted in the exploration of materials and media: paintings, films, sculptures, prints, drawings, performance pieces, even a book (Accalia and the Swamp Monster). One can’t help but admire her unfailing tenacity and willingness to delve into new materials and create with fearless abandon.  But here, I’d like to focus on one of my favorites.

In her painting, Orphaned Twins, pictured above, a female figure stands on all fours in a long prairie skirt, topless, suckling two small wolf cubs. Hovering above the figure is a long scroll of paper exiting the carriage of a manual typewriter. The ribbon of paper stretches from the writing table to a kitchen chair across a plane of implied space. Biomorphic forms dot the canvas, somewhat akin to germs in a Petri dish. A small stack of books occupies the foreground.

This piece takes its cue from The Capitoline Wolf sculpture, which depicts the mythical She-wolf suckling the orphaned twins Romulus and Remus. But, Kelli subverts the image in her piece, flipping the maternal character to human form and the twins to wolf cubs. It’s an enduring motif in her work: human/animal relationships and bonding. To my eyes, this is a love letter to the maternal archetype—the maternal ideal. I see, in some ways, an expression of doubt and a clear struggle between protection and detachment. The inclusion of the books and typewriter serve as a conduit for the continuation of a dialogue with the maternal force, which cuts a strong path through art history, from the Pieta of Christ and Madonna, to Jan van Eyck and Botticelli, to Mary Cassatt, to the drawings of Jenny Saville.

Here, the wolf, as pack animal, is the archetypal mother, both nurturing and protective. Is this woman a changeling? Is she representative of the many roles the mother must play? I think she is a shrewd embodiment of the conscious and unconscious; the incessant turmoil between reality, such as it is, and the enormous maze of illusions and symbologies just beneath the surface.

A certain maternal awareness is evident in her treatment of the ground as well.  An undercurrent of domesticity recurs in Kelli’s imagery and material choices: repurposed linens, recycled fabric scraps. The undeniable footnotes to traditional women’s crafts are evident in her use of hand embroidery, stitch work, grommets, and layered ephemera. I think the purposeful nature of these recycled/repurposed grounds attests to environmental concerns that are related to the animal imagery, a canny awareness of cultural imperialism and, to an extent, a sentimental stereotype of the feminine.

It is not lost on this former student that I have selected a piece of Kelli’s that depicts young creatures receiving nourishment from a maternal entity. The influence of her role as a teacher is unmistakable in her work; the material, imagery, form and color reflect her nature as an eternal student and educator. This symbiotic dichotomy operates on many levels in her work. She is both keeper and infinite seeker.

John Michael Byrd, Pin the Tail on the Donkey, 2017, Watercolor and acrylic on transparent mylar, 30 x 25 inches

John-Michael Byrd’s work is focused on absurdity and the uncanny in an attempt to resolve the gap between the artificial and the real. He works at the School of Visual Arts and is writing a collection of prose inspired by his collages.

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Carol Diamond on Al Held Fri, 27 Jul 2018 21:09:51 +0000 Each hue resonates as cool or warm, deep or shallow, allowing the eye and the sensibility to soak in energy, light and form as pure color sensation.

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Al Held, Untitled, 1952-53. Oil on canvas, 18 1/4 × 24 1/4 inches


I began to get to know and love Al Held’s paintings in the last three or four years, in particular his late phase complex geometric constructions from the 1970’s-80’s, influenced by his time in Rome up until his death in Todi, Italy. Having become more and more involved with perspectival aspects of drawing and geometric forms in my own paintings, Held’s late work captivated me. I now use this work as a basis for teaching projects in my Design and Drawing classes, stressing the playful overlaps of forms within forms, his use of multiple perspectives and deep space, unusual color contrasts, and his fantastical feel for geometry.

Paul Cezanne,  Mont Sainte-Victoire, 1902-6, Oil on canvas, 25 x 32 inches

That said, it stunned me to see the show at Cheim & Read, Al Held: Paris to New York (May 17 – July 6, 2018), which focused on Held’s sumptuous Abstract Expressionist beginnings. These images felt to me like a pure culmination of nature and paint. Jackson Pollock coined the phrase “I don’t paint nature – I am nature,” which philosophically altered the artist’s relationship to the outside world as subject and turned his vision inward, towards a visceral subjectivity. Held was powerfully affected by Pollock, but said he wanted to “give the gesture structure,”* and synthesize the subjectivity of Pollock with the objectivity of Mondrian. I can see Held’s connection to Mondrian; the black and white slashes anticipating his later geometries. But what struck me most in these paintings was the color, and I could only think of Cezanne. Held’s Ab Ex paintings fully embrace the work of Cezanne in a way I have not seen in any other Expressionist painter. Could it be Cezanne’s use of heavily weighted patches of rich color, each hue holding a distinct plane in space while cohering into a mass of foliage or mountain, that influenced Held’s vivid control of hue, value and temperature in his rich palettes? Both Cezanne and Held used pulsing strokes in an allover vibration across the picture plane. And both artists consistently aimed for a duality of sensation and structure, nature and geometry.

Al Held, Untitled, 1952-53. Oil on canvas, 72 x 96 inches

In one of my favorites from the group of untitled works from 1955-57 at Cheim & Read (shown above), Held’s slashes and dabs of pink, gold, umber, deep reds, muted browns, bright whites, greens and pale blues saturate the space. Each hue resonates as cool or warm, deep or shallow, allowing the eye and the sensibility to soak in energy, light and form as pure color sensation. I then turn to Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire landscapes of 1902-6, in which strokes of greens, golds, grays, blues and lavenders pulse against one another, shimmering yet weighty, spreading to the edges of the picture plane while also receding into the depths of land and sky. Looking at these two images together, it is hard to believe Held did not feel the influence of Cezanne when he returned to New York to produce the Pigment paintings, as they are called. In fact, it could be argued that his earlier Paris paintings, shown simultaneously in New York at Nathalie Karg Gallery, with their reduced palette of impasto blacks and whites, hark back to Cezanne’s very early still life paintings, such as Still Life with Sugar Bowl of 1866, with its horizontal composition and thick peaks of bright lights delineating objects against deep black background space.

Paul Cezanne, Sugar Bowl, Pears and Blue Cup, 1866, Oil on canvas, 30 x 41 cm

Cezanne famously said, “What art needs is a Poussin made over after nature,” and “treat nature in terms of the cylinder and the cone.” He was not satisfied with the Impressionists’ emphasis on sensation alone and developed his revolutionary symbiosis of the picture plane with the planar or modulated forms of his subjects. Held too was not satisfied with his own earliest Paris paintings of 1952 (not shown here), because he felt “what they really needed was organic… form.”**, Before the Paris paintings and his New York work, Held found rocks around the Paris streets and drew hundreds of them. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Cezanne was the great master of rock formations!

The connection between Held and Cezanne has resonance with the larger rich tapestry of connections between American painters of the New York School and their European predecessors. Stemming from my knowledge of Held’s late geometric constructions, this sensual body of early Held paintings opened my eyes to the relationship between these two artists and their shared determination to fuse sensation with structure, and nature with geometry and reason.

* Al Held:Paris to New York, 1952-59, essay by Matthew Israel, Cheim & Read
**Smithsonian, Archives of American Art, Interview with Al Held, 1976

Carol Diamond, Fences, pastel, latex paint and photo collage on paper, 25 x 38 inches

Carol Diamond lives and works in New York City and is currently Adjunct Associate Professor at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. She has an upcoming solo show at Kent State University in Fall, 2018.

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This Week’s Highlights: Flesh of Light Sun, 22 Jul 2018 23:26:02 +0000 In David Humphrey’s first post with Painters on Paintings in 2014 on James Ensor’s Protrait of Augusta Boogaerts, he talks about misreading as a way into insight. Mistaking Nietzsche’s thoughts on revelation as “flesh of light,” (instead of the correct but much less interesting “flash of light”) Humphrey sees into Ensor’s work in a new […]

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In David Humphrey’s first post with Painters on Paintings in 2014 on James Ensor’s Protrait of Augusta Boogaerts, he talks about misreading as a way into insight. Mistaking Nietzsche’s thoughts on revelation as “flesh of light,” (instead of the correct but much less interesting “flash of light”) Humphrey sees into Ensor’s work in a new way, with that epiphanic flesh of Augusta Boogaerts igniting ideas for both him and Humphrey about Ensor’s deeper relationship to his partner.

Similarly Sarah Slappey, in her post about James Ensor’s Tribulation of St. Anthony from 2016, sees the paint-made-flesh of Ensor’s demons and monsters as distinctly different from those of Bosch and Breughel in paintings of the same subject. Ensor’s are more the stuff of psychic horror, nightmares of the mind, than graphic representations of the horrors of hell. In Ensor’s world, the “flesh of light” turns something potentially prosaic into the stuff of the visionary.

Barry Nemett, in his 2016 post on Gwen John’s A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris, explores how the light dissolves form and allows us to see even the most humble and utilitarian of objects — a chair or parasol –as revelatory and transcendent.   All the various objects in John’s room lose their individuality and materiality, as they leave the world of solid form and become themselves a kind of flesh of light, reminding Nemett of lullabies wafting in from the open window of his childhood.

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Yvette Gellis on Katharina Grosse Thu, 19 Jul 2018 17:19:54 +0000 Then there is the color itself - the purity of color and the psychological effects that pure color can have not only on the eye, but also on one’s emotional states and well-being.

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Katharina Grosse, Untitled, 2016. Acrylic paint on wallboard, wood veneer, and steel, 480 x 960 x 67 inches. University purchase, Art on Campus fund, Gary M. Sumers Recreation Center, 2016. Photo by Yvette Gellis.

The soul of French painting in the 1860’s and 1870’s was indebted to Diderot who, a hundred years earlier, wrote about theatricality in painting.  He advanced the idea that a viewer’s experience of a painting should be that of a fluid, ongoing occurrence, rather than about witnessing a dramatic set up, as in the elaborate salon paintings in fashion at the time.  An anti-theatrical approach manifested in the Impressionist movement, which blew apart the solidity of objects; everything was subject to blurring and increasing formlessness. Painting was no longer a “window onto a fixed reality” but subject to the chance effects of atmospheric conditions, contributing to the sensation that the observer was no longer in a static position. A typical critique of an Impressionist exhibition would have highlighted the loose, dabbed brushwork; the way forms dissolve into light or how the fuzzy layers of paint hold forms together from a distance. Impressionism emphasized an extreme visual ocular experience. When Gustave Caillebotte, painted his “Paris Street, Rainy Day” in 1877, we see those Impressionist qualities at play in the glistening reflections on the cobblestones and the subtle shimmering light after a rainstorm. Although Caillebotte had been included in many Impressionist exhibitions, he diverged from Impressionism in his precision and attention to explicit form and compositional freedom. Perhaps this ensued from his interest in the camera’s unique ability to accurately describe form and focus on fleeting moments. This new invention propelled other methods of construction, such as prints that were “collaged” into the background of paintings and created a whole new expansive sense of space.

Gustave Caillebotte, Paris Street Rainy Day, 1877,  Oil on Canvas. 212.2 x 276.2 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago.
This is a photo I took of my mother sitting in front of “ Rainy Day” (as if she could stroll right into the space / street of the painting).

Rainy Day — a painting I first saw as a young girl at the Art Institute of Chicago — dramatically changed how I perceived and interpreted the painted space. Caillebotte captured the new urbanism of the bourgeoisie in Paris, where the entire city space was unrestricted, and the populace, especially women, was able to stroll without recrimination.  With the rise of the bourgeoisie there was money for urban renewal and an openness to progress. In a radical move, the cobblestones were cleaned up, the mud was gone and beautiful architecture erupted everywhere. Wider streets opened up perspectives and encouraged new spaces to be traversed. Prior to the time of Caillebotte, the city was more hostile; now people strolled the boulevards, each and everyone a flâneur. The whole city was a playground that offered freedom to move through space.

In traditional realist painting, the viewer peered like a spectator through a window onto a fixed reality. By contrast, the viewer in Caillebotte’s painting, is not simply a passive observer, but is invited into the painting space. One feels as if one is walking beside the couple on the Parisian street. Moreover, the large painting seems to imply that this particular street extends out into the museum itself, as a space for the Sunday perambulators to continue their walk. Could Caillebotte have presaged the Space and Light artworks/movement a century later, where the viewer’s body actually engages with an artwork physically – such as walking in the light or roaming through a desert artwork?

From this point forward, there was an evolving lack of distinction between stage and spectator. Michael Fried discussed this idea and the new ways of seeing that developed in the 60’s and 70’s. More recently, he elaborated further that “Absorption” takes place in a happenstance manner on the way to defining “Movement and Duration” as the noted trend of the moment.

Katharina Grosse, Untitled, 2016. Acrylic paint on wallboard, wood veneer, and steel, 480 x 960 x 67 inches. University purchase, Art on Campus fund, Gary M. Sumers Recreation Center, 2016. Photo by Yvette Gellis.

Jumping forward to today, the work of contemporary artist Katharina Grosse includes all the sights and sounds of an environment and is, in my mind, a continuation of Caillebotte’s new urbanism. In contrast to Caillebotte, however, Katharina Grosse states she is allergic to composition – in fact you could say that there is no singular point of view in her work, so there is no coherent image. In Caillebotte’s work, we see the idea of absorption at play when a fleeting moment in time is captured; if you look away the picture might change. This integration manifests further when walking through a Katherina Grosse installation.  The viewer is completely engrossed in the paint-covered surfaces and is propelled into participating in a color event. One is engulfed in the work itself – above, below, to the side and back – almost as if submerged in water. If you’ve ever gone deep sea diving, you’ve experienced the sensation of taking in a visually compelling scene in 3-D. This total immersion into the work, propels painting into a new arena beyond “Movement and Duration,” where one becomes one with the work itself and the idea of spectator is lost.

Grosse’s work has grown from the size of a small painting, to a room, to a building, to the city itself, embracing a tangible physicality.  Metaphors multiply. The artist invites a reconsideration of how art can actually exist in the world. This type of artistic engagement inspires the sense in a viewer of seeing everything, everywhere, as new and full of possibilities. Grosse reminds us that constructing reality is a performative activity that is generated differently again and again from different perspectives, from the close up and personal, to the far away and distant.

Then there is the color itself – the purity of color and the psychological effects that pure color can have, not only on the eye, but also on one’s emotional states and well-being. In Grosse’s color combinations, one thinks of countries like Nicaragua, where the façades on the front of homes are painted with bright happy colors like turquoise or lime green, tangerine orange or lemon yellow. She often goes against the grain of standard color theory, laying the most dissonant colors side by side.

As Grosse’s paintings encompass and “grow into” vast spaces, the conversation around painting grows as well. Much as Christo’s arches, draperies, and umbrellas transformed whole cities, mountains and hillsides, hers are new spaces where one has no place to hide because one is always continuously located in relation to the work. The artwork expands beyond the room, both indoors and out, uncontained by stretcher bars or confining walls.

The bursts of color and the fleeting light in Impressionist works changed the way space was experienced for the viewer. Just as Gustave Cailllebotte unexpectedly drew viewers into a hazy Parisian scene with his radical composition, line and point of view, Katherina Grosse has exponentially expanded our sense of moving and living in our global contemporary world. 

  Yvette Gellis, Liminal Space, Dark, 2018 Oil, acrylic, graphite – wood wedge with mirrored print. 112 x 82 inches

American artist Yvette Gellis lives and works in Los Angeles, California.  Ever conscious of historical precedents, she strives to expand upon the boundaries of painting by setting up structures that echo or reiterate the impermanent and mutable states depicted in her work – – most recently seen at the Pasadena Museum of California Art.

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David Humphrey on William John Whittemore Thu, 12 Jul 2018 15:32:18 +0000 I like thinking, though, that the painting makes a complete body out of dispersed heterogeneous parts, a complicated body constrained and subdivided by guardrails, pedestals, canvas edges, bowler hats and neckties.

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William John Whittemore, Charles C. Curran, 1888/1889, oil on canvas, 17 x 21 inches

Painted representations of palettes make me very happy. Artists can besmirch their carefully rendered image with blobs of gooey color as if it were an actual palette. Paint becomes a representation of itself as well as a reminder of the messy, undifferentiated origins of the crafted picture. Paint is both in the image and falling out of it.

In William John Wittemore’s portrait of Charles Courtney Curran, a palette tips into the picture almost as an extension of Curran’s body. His thumb lies across it to secure a collection of brushes ready for their turn at the brown canvas he is working on. One of these brushes seems to be touching the marble base of a nearby sculpture, as if it was independently painting a loose atmospheric abstraction. Curran is looking at his canvas and his gaze is carried to its destination along the leg of a naked female sculpture squatting beside him. He steadies his hand with a maulstick as he brushes the surface of the painting, but that same hand visually connects to the flexed foot of the sculpture to complete a circuit that connects eye to hand, hand to brush, brush to palette. This is a story about vision tangled with bodies. Curran peers through glasses but also though art history, embodied as a naked female. Her head has been cropped out of the picture but a bust in the upper left corner and a naked torso at the top center supplement the parts we cannot see. Curran’s lower parts are cropped out of the picture too and it looks like Whittemore is staging an all-too-familiar gendered pair; the carnality of a naked woman and the well dressed civility of an accomplished man.

I like thinking, though, that the painting makes a complete body out of dispersed heterogeneous parts, a complicated body constrained and subdivided by guardrails, pedestals, canvas edges, bowler hats and neckties. My intuition is that Whittemore and Curran were committed traditionalists, not in the business of questioning social or aesthetic conventions. But some artworks have the power to break free of their maker’s intentions. Is Whittemore picturing Curran, like Balzac’s Frenhofer, as an artist whose ambition and practiced skill have led him to make a sticky monochrome, the observable world collapsed into fecal shadow? Or maybe he’s portraying Curran making a portrait of his palette, a blank space of potential, waiting for wet colors to be squeezed out and smeared across it.

David Humphrey, Sculptor, 2015, Acrylic on canvas, 44 x 54 inches

David Humphrey is a New York artist represented by the Fredericks & Freiser Gallery. An anthology of his art writing, Blind Handshake, was published by Periscope Publishing in 2010.

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Johanna Robinson on Maria Lassnig Thu, 05 Jul 2018 15:09:47 +0000 ... she only painted the parts of her body that she could physically feel in the moment...

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Maria Lassnig, Woman Laocoon (Woman Laocoön), 1976. Oil on canvas, 193 x 127 cm

While researching paintings of snakes for a recent body of work, I was reminded of Maria Lassnig’s painting entitled Woman Laocoön, 1976. For nearly seventy years, Lassnig, an Austrian painter, focused primarily on creating groundbreaking self-portraits placed within backgrounds devoid of distraction. Her larger-than-life figures often remained ungrounded, suspended within horizonless, undefined planes of pastel candy-colors made up of what could be described as seemingly arbitrary brushstrokes (although I don’t find them to be arbitrary in the least.) What I appreciate most is Lassnig’s dry sense of humor and blunt depiction of imagery. Her work often distorts the body, attempting to reconcile it within space that her form would not normally inhabit. The invented space of the picture plane allows for new opportunities in which the female figure can reside. Lassnig shifts the discourse surrounding the historical representation of the female form in painting by portraying herself in situations that reach far beyond the domestic or exotic, places to which Western depictions of women were often confined.

Athanadoros, Hagesandros, and Polydoros of Rhodes, Laocoön and his Sons, Early first century C.E., Marble, 6 ft 10 in × 5 ft 4 in × 3 ft 8 in

In Woman Laocoön an arm appears dislocated, as if to represent an error of translation or anatomical incompatibility. Lassnig’s own body is superimposed within the sculpture that is the image’s source, Laocoön and His Sons, found at the Vatican. Lassnig emphasizes these distortions through painting on a large scale with loose brushwork, giving a sense of physical presence to the figure and the world it exists within. Her calming seafoam greens and pinks are at odds with the imagery she is depicting. In the original sculpture, Laocoön and his two sons’ limbs are broken, all three missing either a right arm or hand, their anguish now not only referring to the struggle with the serpent but also with the passage of time. Meanwhile, Lassnig’s limbs are reconstructed through the action of painting, most likely through her trademark method of “body awareness painting” in which she only painted the parts of her body that she could physically feel in the moment (thus the absence of hair in this portrait). The work functions as a visceral reaction to an idea. Laocoön’s two sons are not present in Lassnig’s version; she appropriates this Greek tragedy, dating from somewhere between 29 and 19 BC, to apply to herself alone. In her rendition, the snake’s mouth is closed, posing no threat and appearing more as a prop. Another difference is that Lassnig’s face does not portray the same misery that is present in Laocoön’s, which has been described as “the prototypical icon of human agony” in Western art (1). Rather, her face appears bordering on indifferent, a slight sign of physical exertion at most—an expression common to many of her self-portraits—suggesting that the struggles she faced as a woman in mid-twentieth century Austria were routine and unfortunately anything but a remarkable tragedy.

This painting was most recently shown as part of Lassnig’s exhibition at documenta 14 in Athens, appropriately titled The Future is Invented with Fragments from the Past. I’m interested in the way that meaning is embedded in subjects through representation, how a subject can become the site for new meaning, and how meaning shifts over time. Lassnig’s appropriation of Laocoön as herself is an excellent painting to exemplify this process.

Johanna Robinson, Data Transfer, 2018, Oil on Canvas, 60 x 48 inches

1) Spivey, Nigel.

Johanna Robinson (b. Mt. Kisco, NY) is a painter whose work explores the limits of constructed knowledge. Within her paintings, imagination is given primacy as a source for truth-seeking and world building. Robinson is a 2018 graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University’s MFA program.

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Suzanne Stryk on Maria Sibylla Merian Tue, 26 Jun 2018 19:36:02 +0000 Most alluring to me is her enviable touch—the delicately notched antennae, chomped and curled leaves, or gooey-pale larvae casting shadows as they inch along.

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Maria Sibylla Merian, Pineapple with with insects, Hand colored engraving, 1719

In the late 1980s, my curator-friend Carolyn returned from DC bearing a small gift from the National Museum of Women in the Arts: a two-by-three-inch fridge magnet with an incredibly incisive image of a cockroach hovering over a pineapple, another scampering along a toothed leaf-blade.

She knew I was a sucker for anything about buglife. But who painted these? Even with a magnifier I could barely make out “Maria Sibylla Merian” in miniscule print—not a name I recognized from my art history studies (in which a few male naturalist-artists were given passing attention). And in those pre-internet days, I couldn’t rush to Google where countless images would pop up like weeds. It would take a few years to discover more about this extraordinary naturalist-artist.

I’d later learn that Merian (German, 1647–1717) was one of the first to document life cycles of insects and amphibians—egg to maggot to pupa to fly, squiggly tadpole to acrobatic frog, and the caterpillar-chrysalis-butterfly or moth metamorphosis. All this at a time when most still believed in spontaneous generation. And more, Merian got down and dirty with these critters. Raising them herself, she recorded not only their developmental stages—at times spanning weeks, months, even years—but also grew the larval food plants for each species. For that reason, she could be considered the first ecologist, linking fauna and flora in inter-reliant webs. In her fifty-second year (1699), the artist sailed to Surinam on what was the first independently financed expedition to the “New World.”

Maria Sibylla Merian, Studies of Frogs with spawn and tadpoles, Watercolour and bodycolor on vellum, circa early 1700s

But the main reason I’m drawn to Merian’s arresting imagery is far more personal. And this personal attraction is contained in that word, arresting. As a practicing naturalist-artist myself, I’ve come to realize that Merian not only captured the natural world with the precision of a dedicated field scientist, but she also allowed the natural world to, in turn, captivate her. And this fascination is readily seen in her concern for the most minute morphological detail or life stage, which I know from experience takes ultimate patience to observe, having recently waited half a year to watch an Imperial moth emerge from its pupal case.

Further proof of Merian’s probing artistry is her avoidance of the merely fashionable—like tulips in an arranged still life—to focus attention on such subjects as an ant gnawing on a hapless spider, or a predatory wasp laying eggs in a butterfly caterpillar. Most alluring to me is her enviable touch—the delicately notched antennae, chomped and curled leaves, or gooey-pale larvae casting shadows as they inch along—sometimes all those painted effects on the same single sheet of vellum. She enshrines both lovely and unlovely truths about the natural world with a mystical crispness, propelling them into the realm of art.

 Maria Sibylla Merian, Spiders and Ants, Engraving based on watercolor original, Circa early 1700s

But for decades now I’ve also pondered the ordeal of what a woman of her time experienced to produce her biological studies and books of engravings. Not the least of which was being expected to wear long dresses, even in the field. But worse, fear she’d be persecuted as a witch for her curiosity about insects and reptiles, creatures associated with the devil during her lifetime. And she was deeply disturbed by the brutality of slavery in the Dutch colony of Suriname, where she also witnessed first hand the ravaging of the natural world.

Yet in the face of what Merian herself endured, she made real contributions to science, among those is the impressive fact that her work was credited over a hundred times by Linnaeus in his Systema Naturae, the classification system that revolutionized biology. Since Merian’s time, there have been many revolutionary discoveries in evolutionary biology. Her work predates but supports Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Turning the tables, I feel fairly certain that she would marvel over the contemporary revelation of hidden coils of DNA in every living cell, a strand I often weave into my own naturalistic images.

Maria Sibylla Merian, Butterfly (egg to adult) and Lizard, Engraving based on watercolor painting, 1705

Cockroach magnet still on my fridge, I now have a yearly ritual of visiting Merian’s masterwork, Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname (1705), housed at the British Museum’s long, high-ceilinged Enlightenment Gallery where it’s surrounded by cabinets crammed with curiosities. It opens its large ruffled wings to reveal a single image of tantalizing bio-wonders, the page turned every third month. I stand on tiptoes to peer at this shrine to life’s variations.

If not for the vitrine, I’d have to use every ounce of restraint not to turn page after page, feasting on Merian’s book of quiet earthly dramas. On last year’s visit, the volume was opened to a vibrant whiptail lizard and a floating Teucer owl butterfly, the later striking me as if it had just fled its entomological pin, so neatly arrayed were its antennae and wingspread.

It occurred to me then that Merian’s images are natural, and not. For her eye merges imaginative vision with the unfiltered scrutiny of science. It’s the perfect cross-pollination of these two disciplines that speaks to me in her imagery, again and again.

Suzanne Stryk, Spontaneous Generation, 2007, mixed media on paper, 11 x 8 inches

Suzanne Stryk’s place-based series “Notes on the State of Virginia” began its statewide tour at the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke (2013) and will close at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville (2018). Born in Chicago, she now lives and works in Bristol, Virginia, where she just documented the emergence of an adult mantidfly in her sketchbook.

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Sam McKinniss on Aaron Zulpo Tue, 19 Jun 2018 16:04:12 +0000 ...the evidence of his happiness made me happy, and for that I was grateful.

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Aaron Zulpo, No Swimming After Dark, 2018, Oil on polyester canvas stretched over board, 46 x 36 inches

I wasn’t expecting to say this, but heterosexual coupling looks like it might be a lot of fun. At least that’s what I started to think after a recent visit to Aaron Zulpo’s show, Up & Up at 1969 Gallery in New York. The gallery had seven oil paintings accompanied by a selection of brilliantly colored and expressively rendered small-scale oil pastel drawings on paper, all dated 2018. Gallery goers were treated to views capturing the escapades of a man in love with a woman, the two of them romping across the various indoor or outdoor scenes, dressed or undressed, pictured at all hours of the day or night. Mountain climbing, exploring jungles, skinny-dipping, dancing at home, attending the opera, kissing at the aquarium, doing it in the hot tub. I was told the reappearing couple is in fact meant to portray the artist and his girlfriend. They do seem to have fun and I daresay they probably love each other.

The glowing, high-chroma color schemes and complex narrative structures craftily built into each composition lend credibility and substance to the romance. Zulpo knows how to put a convincing story together using paint-on-canvas or pastels-on-paper. I suspect he’s a big fan of sequential art in general, and of the comic book format. Playboy Magazine cartoons stood out in my mind as a possibly relevant influence, art by Buck Brown, Eldon Dedini, Doug Sneyd and the like, supported by studious appreciations for Balthus, James Bond, Paul Gaugin, Karen Kilimnik, and Jansson Stegner. Although apparent and somewhat rehearsed, these influences coalesce and vanish behind a set of strengths all his own, raising the stakes and evincing a distinct point of view. I believed what I was looking at. As in, the evidence of his happiness made me happy, and for that I was grateful.

Consider the medium sized canvas, No Swimming After Dark, a scene caught breaking the rules of its own title. Viewers play witness to a little midnight scandal on the grounds of a tropical island resort, as our naked heroes crouch hidden behind an enormous ornamental poolside boulder. They are hiding from the hotel security guard, who may or may not be about to catch the pair in the midst of an intimate dip after dark. The uniformed man wields his flashlight, the world’s most effective weapon against illicit public sex. Overhead, the navy blue nighttime sky is gently lit up by a friendly full moon as intense chartreuse light emanates from the glass-walled twelve-story hotel. Save for the partly cloudy sky and sea, the picture is all greens on greens on greens, trending across the spectrum from dark blue-green to hotter electrics, as close to yellow as you can get while still being green. Tensions arise via optical effect, i.e. hot versus cool, as well as by narrative conflict, i.e. narcs versus love. I found myself rooting for Aaron and his girlfriend because I hate cops, but also because I enjoy swimming with friends in the nude.

Aaron Zulpo, She is Always the First One In, 2018, Oil on canvas stretched over board, 30 x 28 inches

My favorite painting in the show featured quite another kind of skinny-dipping adventure. She is Always the First One In finds the pair enjoying a secluded mountain lake on a nice sunny day. A mansard-roofed hotel arises out of the distant evergreen forest, foreboding at the base of a snowcapped peak. Some kind of alpine ski resort, I’m sure, like the one in Kubrick’s The Shining. Aaron is totally nude save for the white shirt he’s pulling up over his head, shoulders, and elbows, flexed and standing on top of a boulder jutting up from the middle of the lake like the tip of an iceberg. Freshly exposed to the clean mountain air and the sunshine, his exultant pose echoes that of the Barberini Faun, but looks more like one of Eakins’s boys at The Swimming Hole. The girlfriend is already wet (hence the title), half submerged and gliding through the glassy pond like a Waterhouse nymph.

All this activity is extremely pleasant to spend time with, imagining how it would feel to swim in a hole like that with somebody you love, free from harassment by the authorities. But what really sets this thing off is Zulpo’s funky, sex-crazed compositional strategy, combining single-point and atmospheric perspectives together at once, the better to nestle himself and his girl into a wilderness organized by foreground, middle and background. A ridiculous tree trunk butts into Zulpo’s picture at left, running along top to bottom, with a skinnier branch near the top stretching diagonally up, cutting out and over toward center. This jarring interruption does more than just look stupid. I don’t think it’s stupid at all, obviously, but “dumb on purpose,” and to great effect.

The first thing to note is how the red hot bark of the tree slices the otherwise cool, tranquil scene into three disjointed, unequal pieces. Secondly, it draws the eye down to the immediate foreground, placing we voyeurs on land, near camp, and therefore separate from the two lovers at play. This leaves them necessarily alone and apart, safe from intrusion, in order that they may enjoy their romance more perfectly, or so it should seem.

Thirdly, the trunk and its branch form two sides of a triangle completed by the canvas’s top edge. Another, smaller triangle is formed by an even tinier branch sprouting up at center. This smaller triangle acts as an arrow pointing the viewer’s gaze back toward the picture’s interior, in the direction of Aaron’s naked body. Then you start noticing triangles everywhere, such as the area formed between mountain slopes, or the dozens of conical pine trees, or the narrow space between Aaron’s legs leading up to his crotch, met there in opposition by the abdominal V, the funneling shape of which sends my gaze right back down to his dick. Zulpo hides these triangular shapes within the composition to help move the eye around the natural swirl of the picture, always redirecting back toward his pendulant member, smack dab in the middle of his own damn painting.

I think this is hilarious in a naughty way but it might be ironic. Notice Aaron’s penis aimed in the direction of yet another triangular arrow. The rock upon which he stands is indeed a right triangle, its lower right corner pointing at the girl as she swims away from him. Why would she be doing that? Is she making an escape? Her right hand is raised and stretched out toward land. What if she’s actually the first one out, breaking the rules of this picture’s title? We may never know, but if she were to bolt, this would be the time to do it. He’s got his shirt up over his face, covering his eyes. If love is blind, so, also, at this precise moment, is Aaron. He’d never see it coming.

Sam McKinniss, Ellie Sattler, 2017, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 60 x 48 inches

Sam McKinniss is an artist in New York. His work is part of “Cliche,” organized with Bill Powers, running June 20 to July 28 at Almine Rech Gallery, 39 East 78th Street, second floor, New York, His work is also part of “Safe,” running June 21 to July 27 at Gladstone 64, 130 East 64th Street, New York,

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Brandi Twilley on Lynette Yiadom-Boakye Tue, 12 Jun 2018 23:33:54 +0000 ... Even as invented portraits, they have that quality that “someone is home.”

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Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. 4am Friday, 2015, Oil on canvas, 78 3/4 x 51 1/8 inches, Courtesy of the artist; Corv-Mora, London; and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

I met Lynette Yiadom-Boakye briefly in 2015 in London the day before I saw her show at Serpentine Sackler Gallery, “Verses After Dusk.” If only I had already seen it I would have told her how moved I was by her work.

The first thing that struck me about her paintings was the whites of the eyes of her figures. They are bright white, literal local color, but I can’t imagine them painted any other way. Seeing these bright whites shining in each portrait I couldn’t help but sense meaning in their exaggeration.

The second thing I was struck by was the freshness of these paintings. They are painted until the painting takes on life and not a moment more. In some, the bare canvas is visible, bursting through like light. I’m always excited to see raw canvas. It’s like seeing a bit of skin that is usually covered and forbidden. Later, having learned more about Yiadom-Boakye’s work, I discovered that she paints each canvas in a day.

Walking around “Verses After Dusk,” I wondered who these figures were. I learned that they weren’t portraits of her family, people who sat for her, or historical figures. They were all conjured from her imagination or from her subconscious. They felt like people staring out of another dimension into ours. The fascinating thing, though, is that even as invented portraits, they have that quality that “someone is home.” Its the quality that really good portrait artists impart to their paintings that goes beyond likeness or rendering, the feeling that the portrait has a living presence and a consciousness. Yiadom-Boakye says of the people in her paintings “People ask me, ‘Who are they, where are they?’ What they should be asking is ‘What are they?’” This quote is alarming in a good way. Do the portraits contain spirits from another realm? It gets my imagination going. 

I was also captivated by Yiadom-Boakye’s dark on dark compositions, in which black figures emerge from shadowy backgrounds. In person, it is a pleasure to read the subtle shifts between browns and blacks and the texture of brush work as forms move into deeper and deeper depths of darkness. In a photo, they flatten into abstraction or disappear completely. This effect reminds me of the racial bias of photography companies, many of which have calibrated their cameras for white faces to show up well, but fail to find black faces with recognition software or adjust them into artificial whiteness. Yiadom-Boakye fully embraces the darker ranges of color. I was also making dark paintings at the time I saw her show and it was nice to see another artist making work so unfriendly to Instagram. 

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, In Lieu Of Keen Virtue, 2017, Oil on canvas,78 3/4 x 51 1/8 inches, Courtesy the artist; Corvi-Mora, London; and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

I saw her work again at the New Museum in 2017 in her show entitled “Under-Song for a Cipher.” It was one big room of portraits and the walls were painted an earthly red. Different things struck me this time around. Many of the paintings were made on very coarse herringbone linen. The colors were somber, but not as dark. I also couldn’t help but notice all the awkward things in the paintings. For example there was a very odd looking cat that looked more like a stuffed toy than a real one perched on the shoulder of a beautifully painted man in “In Lieu of Keen Virtue.” Other times it was a not quite right looking wrist or foot. She paints each of them in a day and that means no fussing around. If it’s weird or awkward the imperfection just makes it more human.

Yiadom-Boakye is a writer as well as a painter. I like that each of her paintings feels like an entire invented world, like the world laid out in a novel. In the surfaces of her paintings I can trace all of her moves and sense the exhilaration of applying all of that wet paint to the whole canvas. So long as this experience is still sublime for painters and the results so moving for viewers painting will never die.


Brandi Twilley, The Window, 2016, Oil on canvas, 46 by 64 inches

Brandi Twilley is a painter from Oklahoma. She has mounted solo exhibitions at Sargent’s Daughters (New York, NY), Lord Ludd (Philadelphia, PA), and Hood Gallery (Brooklyn, NY). She currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.

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