Painters on Paintings A conversation between contemporary artists and their influences across time. Sun, 20 Sep 2020 19:01:43 +0000 en hourly 1 Painters on Paintings 32 32 Kyle Staver on Janice Nowinski Sun, 20 Sep 2020 19:01:43 +0000 The staccato of the surface gives me the mph of the wind on the beach that day.

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I get up very early in the morning.  Feed the cats, fish and tortoises.  Make my first cup of coffee.

With my cup in hand, I tour my “collection” of art acquired over the years.  I read somewhere that Frick would wake in the middle of the night to roam his collection with a glass of scotch and cigar in hand. I get it. It is a deep pleasure.


Lester Johnson, 3 Men in Hats, 1963


My first stop on my tour is always in front of a 1963 Lester Johnson of 3 Men in Hats. They are perfect in the light right before dawn, maybe even a tad sinister. If someone needed a close profile of these three I would be at a loss to give more than a hazy description. Next to Lester is a Bob Thompson painting called Hunting the Unicorn. It is painted in a soup of pearly grays; again the early morning light is just right. From here I turn to my latest acquisition, a Janice Nowinski, Guy With Surfboard. At a time when I have very little access to paintings outside of my home, having a new painting to get acquainted with has been a godsend.


Bob Thompson, Search for the Unicorn, 1960, gouache and charcoal over pastel on paper, 25 ½ x 39 ½ inches


Exploring a new painting is a lot like getting to know a new friend, first impressions followed by the building of connections and deepening understanding. Sometimes there is nothing to explore after the first look. Thankfully Janice is a painter that makes paintings that give and give. There is no quick “got it.” Rather Surfer Guy reveals itself slowly and on many fronts.


Janice Nowinski, Guy With Surfboard, 2020, Oil on Canvas, 30 x 22 inches


It’s a funny painting. A Surfer Guy, clearly not of the California variety, lovingly poses arm in arm with what appears to be the world’s tallest surfboard.  The stance has that buddy snapshot feel. The light is pure Far Rockaway. This guy would never be caught dead in regulation Malibu swimwear. Instead, he is shirtless and shoeless in his ankle length black jeans. What strikes me is how Janice has managed to make the Surfer both comic and heroic at the same time.

In the middle of the world falling apart, Surfer Guy hits the right note: humane, funny, noble. I love the way her paint has gone down. I can feel her decisions in my nervous system. The staccato of the surface gives me the mph of the wind on the beach that day. The particulars of her color palate nail the scene to a specific geography, time of day, year, and temperature. This is a generous painting.

Each time I visit this Guy I come away with more. This morning it is the discovery of the space between the surfer’s legs.  I have no idea how Janice managed to tell me so much about the character of Surfer Guy by the character of the space between his legs. I suspect it has something to do with her insistence that every part of the painting is alert and responding to the whole. I can feel this call and response across the canvas.

These three paintings get along very well. They share a deep faith in the act and power of putting down paint. None employ any hedge-betting irony to rescue them from their sincerity. They are bravely and openly painted from the heart.


Kyle Staver, Venus and the Octopus, 2020, Oil on canvas, 70 x 58 inches

Kyle Staver is a Brooklyn-based artist. She has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and grants from the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation, The National Academy Museum, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She is represented by Zürcher Gallery in New York and Paris.

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Kyle Hackett on Du Bois’ Double Consciousness and the Freedom in Portraiture Thu, 27 Aug 2020 14:37:48 +0000 I have spent about a decade studying W.E.B Du Bois’ concept of double consciousness: the sense of looking at one's self through the lens of others.

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The material act of painting is, for me, a conversation with the past, that contends with the material present (it has to be made), and future — all the possibilities each painting opens up. I am critical of these simultaneous understandings, their complicated history, and the profound fragility in the question, how do you know what you know?

My need to make art starts with my need to confront social and cultural challenges. I find that making can be self-activation — a type of self-assertion with the potential to lift up voices and awaken individual and collective consciousness. For these reasons, I continue to find peace, productivity, and meaning in my studio as I process all that’s happened in the country and world during these past months. Since I typically paint late into the night when the world is quiet, social distancing and self-isolation have offered natural solitude. I’ve been able to spend upwards of 10-12 hours a day working in my own space(s). For me, there is no currency more valuable than uninterrupted time. COVID has slowed down many aspects of everyday life while creating more time for introspection. I find solidarity with other people in quarantine, knowing that much of the world is forced into a slow inward-looking mode, a prerequisite for the maintenance of moral and spiritual critical thinking and deep reflection.

Kyle Hackett working in the studio, Washington, DC, 2020.

My painting practice remains as it always has — a proving ground. I use it to self-center and contend with ongoing dialectics between race, class and social standing around the constructed image. As a biracial artist of color, exploring identity as an in-between space is the undercurrent of my desire to paint and communicate the nuances of my lived experiences.

I have spent about a decade studying W.E.B Du Bois’ concept of double consciousness: the sense of looking at one’s self through the lens of others. I relate this idea to image making within the art historical canon. Often inspired by nineteenth-and twentieth-century portraiture and their precarious modes of depiction, I deconstruct historical ideas of secure identity and fixed-painting techniques. At the same time, I wrestle with notions of “insider knowledge”, mastery, and privilege associated with academic 7-layer painting techniques, including glazing and a fixed formula for strategically building up the image. I’m intrigued, both technically and conceptually, by notions of “finish” and the grisaille (grey) stage, where color layers are isolated in order to realize form. How can slowing down consumable views of a portrait, while excavating its art-historical construction, challenge understood relationships between image, surface, and material? At the same time, how can this process reveal insights into the psychological state of the painter/painted?

Kyle Hackett, State of Deliberation, 2020. Oil, graphite, tape on panel, 20 x 16 inches, with Detail

In State of Deliberation, I consider how elements of identity are often nested inside each other. Meaning can be framed by the seen and unseen. The side borders are actual tape (temporary) and the top and bottom are painted (fixed). Most of my work, in some way, references contraptions or braces from early photography, that might objectify and hold a sitter in place. There is a dynamic perception of freedom in organizing how one presents oneself in an image, which becomes a living document of a particular moment, belief, or striving. While I’m not explicitly depicting narratives or social events in my painted subjects, I’m processing them as I work. I want my paintings to embody rather than describe. Embodying can allow for new states of becoming that are complicated and discursively potent. Freeing.

Revisionist image-making as self-critique is a liberating practice. In a related body of work, I began creating still life “vanitas paintings” from discarded reference photographs of self-portraits that had been crumpled and tossed aside. This work evolved into painting crumpled exhibition cards that featured reproductions of my self-portrait paintings. In Spirits Rejoice, a former reference photograph was quickly crumpled, twisted and hung with a zip tie in my studio to become the new subject. Then the slow process of painting it became an act of documentation and reflection: coming to terms with the initial need to discard or revise. Spirits Rejoice is my largest vanitas painting; figurative components are slightly larger than life scale. I became interested in how light and silhouette can authenticate presence while at the same time allowing a subject to transcend a physical space.

Kyle Hackett,  Spirits Rejoice, 2018. Oil on canvas, 58 x 38 inches
Kyle Hackett, After Builder Series #5, 2020. Oil on aluminum. 20 x 16 inches

In After Builder Series #5, another vanitas painting, my discarded reference photo was crumpled and hung with items on my refrigerator (magnet, newspaper, and postcard). I also included a historic photograph of my grandfather who I never had the chance to meet but saw for the first time in this image — this year. By including his youthful appearance in the painted image, I consider time, legacy, and in-between spaces. This process of image making has allowed me to process my family history and find new connections to my material present. Compressing, expanding, flipping, maintaining, negating, and building positions: the making of this painting and the finished painting are live conversations between the past, present and (hopefully) are opening up new possibilities beyond their own relationships. Freeing.


Kyle Hackett is an Artist and Assistant Professor in Painting and Drawing at James Madison University. Hackett’s work is represented by Goya Contemporary Gallery (Baltimore, MD).

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Barbara Friedman on Merging and the “Extreme Middle” Sat, 15 Aug 2020 19:57:44 +0000 He makes the “I” out to be “a resting zone … a meeting place.”

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I’ve noticed in myself and among my friends that keeping yourself locked up at home encourages every kind of rumination, especially on the condition of being alone and what it was like to be around other people and when that might happen again.

So it’s not surprising that a piece of writing I’ve been affected by during this isolation is Jack Whitten’s ruminative Notes from the Woodshed (Hauser & Wirth, 2018), a log of his studio jottings made over the course of several decades. There are a lot of passages I might cite, but one I keep coming back to is Whitten’s talk about the “extreme middle,” which he calls the place where the “I” is located. It’s a resting place where “the concrete placement of format” can coexist with the accidental. He makes the “I” out to be “a resting zone … a meeting place.”

Whitten’s reflections on the “I” as negotiated middle ground are visibly at work in his 2008 self-portrait Entrainment.  Underneath it I’ve put a very recent painting of mine, Enjambment. I’ve always loved this self-portrait of Whitten’s, but I only noticed its actual name when I was pulling it up for this essay. I’m amused that the painting of mine that I wanted to pair with it has such a similar one-word title.


Jack Whitten, Self Portrait: Entrainment, 2008, acrylic collage and eye glass lenses on canvas, 29 1/8 x 23 inches


Barbara Friedman, Enjambment, 2020, oil on linen, 44 x 55 inches


My Enjambment is an oil painting whose underpainting became the protagonist. Rather than covering up what I thought would merely peek through occasionally, I let the initial alizarin orange layer become the scaffolding of the painting. It only needed a few pieces of opaque blue and one eye to become a Pinocchio, just as Whitten made his painting a self-portrait by merely collaging two glass lenses into the middle of a mosaic of twinkling acrylic tesserae.

Another painting I’ve been thinking about is by Dorothea Tanning, one of the overlooked so-called “Women Surrealists.”  I’d never paid much attention to Tanning; but last year at the 2019 Armory show, the Alison Jacques Gallery presented her “historical works.” Tanning’s 1976 painting Evening in Sedona, in particular, really got to me.


Dorothea Tanning, Evening in Sedona, 1976, oil on canvas, 44 7/8 x 57 1/2 inches


I find something irresistible in the strange shape created by the figure and the massive dog with his hidden dark eyes (or are there two dogs?) against the brooding sky. Maybe because being cooped up in an apartment makes me crave the natural world, I’m discovering that odd creatures are spontaneously appearing in my paintings and connecting to each other in unexpected ways. This merging speaks to me, and obviously to Tanning too, who was quoted as saying “I think I have gone over, to a place where one no longer faces identities at all.”

The enforced isolation, and a social life that exists in two dimensions, have made me appreciate the sight of living forms draped over each other, as in Tanning’s painting but also as in this new one of mine:


Barbara Friedman, Cross Purposes, 2020, oil on linen, 51 x 25 ¼ inches


This sense of endless time has made me more patient. It is easier for me to wait for incidents and imagery to reveal themselves though my process.  On page 120 of Notes from the Woodshed, Whitten writes, “I want this raw material to be my playpen… a means of doing anything I wish…to exercise every fantasy, myth, every feeling of the absurd within my grasp.”  I want all that too. During this chapter of such uncertainty, I let forms appear in their own time. They keep me centered and hold each other close.


Barbara Friedman, Family Man, 2020, watercolor on paper, 16 x 12 inches


Barbara Friedman makes painterly paintings of unreliable narrators in scenarios that are unsettling both narratively and formally. Reviews of her work have appeared in the New York Times, the New York Sun, The Irish Times, NewsdayArt in AmericaARTS Magazine, and Artweek. She lives, paints and teaches in New York City where she has been a professor of art at Pace University since 1983.

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Stephen Benenson on Goya and Picasso in Madrid Thu, 30 Jul 2020 14:29:58 +0000 It was as if the life in them burned up like cellulose melting in a projector.

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Francisco Goya, Fight with Cudgels, 1820-1823, Oil mural transferred to canvas,  123 x 266 cm

In the summer of 2001, after my Junior year in college, I backpacked across Europe with my friend David. We had worked together to organize the two-month trip around two main factors. First, going to four concerts: Radiohead in the south of France, David Byrne in Madrid, Beck in Paris and Bob Dylan outside of Genoa. The second consideration was going to a dozen or so museums that I was desperate to see.

About midway through our travels we arrived in Madrid, which is home to the Prado Museum. I was more excited to see this museum than any other. In particular, I wanted to see Goya’s late “Black Paintings”, which are also known as “Quinta Del Sardo” (The House of Deafness).  In his late 60s, Goya had moved to a small converted farmhouse outside of Madrid, in a sort of self-imposed exile. Ironically, while Goya was deaf at that point in his life, the house was not named after him, but rather after the old man who had inhabited it before him. Living in a sick and silent world, wracked with anxiety, Goya painted a series of bleak paintings directly on the plaster walls of the house.  Goya had been the highest court painter for the Spanish royalty, and had seen them commit, as well as endure, horrible atrocities. These dark paintings seemed to have sprung from the grim state of his world; how it had collapsed around him, done in by how little respect he witnessed for the dignity of human life. His waking world was filled with grotesque demons, masquerading as people. He seemed to have all but given up on beauty, instead needing to rid himself of darkness, to purge it directly onto the plaster walls of this small dwelling. The result was some of the most haunting images ever created. To our knowledge, he never mentioned or wrote of these paintings. Decades after his death, they were removed from the walls and transferred onto canvas. It’s not known how much was lost or changed in the process.

I was obsessed, in the same way that a 20-year-old gets embarrassingly fascinated with Dark Side of the Moon or Edgar Allen Poe. I poured over images of the paintings in books and read whatever I could find written about them.

I awoke early on our first morning in Madrid to be the first person in line at the Prado. I arrived almost two hours in advance to ensure it. I had studied maps of the museum, so that I could scramble past the hordes of museum goers and race to the Black Paintings, guaranteeing a little time alone with them. It was like planning a bank heist.

For most of the trip, we had been drinking too much at night and eating breakfasts that consisted mainly of candy bars bought from train and bus station vending machines. I was groggy, but excited as I left our youth hostel and stepped onto a Madrid bus headed to the museum. I arrived at 7:30 am, and was relieved to see that I was, in fact, the first person in line.

And there I stood, outside of the museum for two hours, utterly alone. The whole time. At 9:30, a disheveled guard wandered over and unlatched the iron gate, swung it open and let me in, alone. I bought my ticket, and decided that I was going to pretend that it was still urgent; so I rushed up a flight of stairs and down the long hallway to the room where they are kept.  As I walked in, I saw that it had been set up to mimic the configuration of the tiny house the paintings had been created in.

They were shocking and grim. Awful and stunning. I wandered around amazed at how much I had not seen in reproduction. At one point, all the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, as I noticed a face, calmly but malevolently locking eyes with me from the center of a crowd of singing travelers. In another painting, a dog’s tiny, worried head is barely visible as a sandstorm slowly buries him alive. The sand glows as it floats down, like a demonic Rothko. In another, two men needlessly batter each other with clubs while fatally sinking into quicksand.


Francisco Goya, (Saturno devorando a su hijo) Saturn Devouring His Son, 1819–1823, Oil mural transferred to canvas, 143 cm × 81 cm


The most famous and grotesque of the Black Paintings depicts the God Saturn devouring his own child. It is nearly too much to bear. It’s hard to fathom a more upsetting image but, in fact, it is now known that the sexual suggestion in this painting was censored and edited after Goya’s death; it’s original imagery would be too shocking, even by today’s standards.

At about 10:15, a busload of tourists clambered into the gallery, smiling and bantering, their faces covered by cameras like venetian masks. And, just like that, the paintings dimmed and hardened. It was as if the life in them burned up like cellulose melting in a projector. They became illustrations: plastic, melodramatic and cheesy, ruined by commotion. Suddenly, I felt hungover and tired, and even a little shaky….maybe they weren’t really as strong as I thought, maybe I was tricking myself because I had built them up so much.

I tried to see the rest of the museum, but everything felt hollow. I was done for the day. Sorry Velasquez.

After some lunch, (ham and potatoes was the only thing they seemed to serve in Spain at the time), and feeling a little less wobbly, I took the short walk to the Reina Sofia Museum, mainly because I felt obligated to see Picasso’s anti-war masterpiece from 1937, Guernica. It seemed like not seeing it would be like going to Florence and not seeing the David.

As I entered the museum, I saw that they had hung a massive temporary show of late Picasso paintings. wandering into galleries, I noticed that many of the paintings were huge and sparse; eight-by-6 foot paintings with MAYBE an hour of brush on canvas time in them. At first it felt a little cheap, like maybe he was banging them out for a buck. The fame he had toward the end of his life meant he could sell anything he touched. There is a story of a woman who begged him to paint a mural on a large wall she had in her house, and told him that money was no object. He told her his price, which was exorbitant, and she agreed. He went to her house and painted a small yellow dot in the top corner of the wall and said it was the sun. He was done. He took the money and left. She was ecstatic. Or so the story goes.

In another story, he went into a small store to buy some wine and tobacco. The starstruck store owner asked if he wanted to do a doodle on a napkin, instead of paying. He replied, “I wanted wine and cigarettes, not to buy the store.”


Pablo Picasso, The Family, 1970, Oil on canvas. 162 x 130 cm.


While I had always admired Picasso’s work, I really had not seen much in person and, as I walked around the massive gallery, I started to experience a growing sense of relief and lightness. An almost lustful excitement started welling up in me. THESE were the antidote to Goya’s well-earned darkness. These paintings emerged from an extreme, almost buddha-like freedom, rather than the closing walls of death and human cruelty. The Picassos were prodigious, in the true sense of the word; he seemed to channel them, rather than paint them. His main objective was trying not to slow them down as they flowed through him. Details and virtuosity couldn’t matter less, he was laughing and crying with paint. They were childlike and silly, but also weighed a thousand pounds from the heft of their humanity and pathos. They were fearless in the truest sense of the word; they were not of fear, not from it, not in it, had never met fear. I felt light and desperate to create, and I understood for the first time that beauty could be utterly divorced from the illusionistic depiction of the external world. For a man who has been quoted a lot, perhaps his most famous rang true: “I don’t paint things the way I see them, I paint them the way I feel them”. And he loved the world, deeply.

Back from the dead, I returned to the Prado and walked again through dozens of rooms of old master paintings. Everything looked new and bright, as if lit from behind. Everything except the Black Paintings.


Stephen Benenson, After Giorgione, 2014, Watercolor monotype, drypoint etching, and woodblock printing on paper, 35 x 24 1/2 inches


Stephen Benenson is an artist and teacher living in Maine. He received his BA from Wheaton College in Massachusetts, and his master’s degree from the Yale School of Art. He lives with his wife, 2 children, 10 sheep, 9 chickens, 1 dog and 1 gerbil. He also spends too much time foraging for mushrooms. | IG

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Sean McDonough on Steve DiBenedetto Sun, 19 Jul 2020 16:00:44 +0000 The piece is an exquisite consciousness enhancer.

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Steve DiBenedetto, REworked, 2019-2020, Oil on linen, 25 x 19 inches


In April, John Yau wrote a piece for Hyperallergic on Steve DiBenedetto’s work during isolation: “What Do Artists Need to Make Their Work?” Everything looked fantastic in situ. I wanted more and, sure enough, Landing on Fractions, an online exhibition of Steve DiBenedetto’s recent work (Derek Eller Gallery), launched on May 28.  My first visit was on my phone. The online exhibition, like innumerable others during the pandemic, is essentially an elaborate press release due to the lack of in-person viewing. Eight artworks are presented with a Q&A and two studio shots, end-capped by a painting from two years ago for context.

When visiting a show in person, art is subject to viewing from all angles, providing a wealth of haptic information: impasto, shadows, brushstrokes, sheen. Technical questions arise: Was the paper prepared? How was that white ink applied? Was solvent used? Online, my autonomy as a viewer is gone and I don’t know what I’m missing.

Because the minutiae of physical inspection isn’t available to analyze, I wander into pictorial wonderlands of interpretation I rarely allow myself to take. DiBenedetto has previously said, “I want to keep the idea that I don’t know what I want to paint as the operative force in the work, in spite of the fact that sometimes things do get painted, you know.”


Steve DiBenedetto, Foinsapp, 2020, Color pencil on paper, 17 x14 inches


The show has two oils and six works on paper. Foinsapp speaks directly to me. It’s like a tuning device. We’re on the same frequency and it zings up the fuzziness. It’s a painterly wrestling match of layered pigments.

A dark form with undeniable SpongeBob features hovers, surrounded by sky blue. A virus-like form on the left appears caught in the vortex of a breath. Inside is a mysterious cacophony of forms. There are three oculi, which I sometimes perceive as the Three Graces — the central being in operatic song. The left oculus is a throbbing labyrinthine energy source. Gravity may be operative, but it’s suspended in electric shock. The piece is an exquisite consciousness enhancer. It captures its moment perfectly.

Foinsapp is apparently the onomatopoeic word for the sound made when a saw smacks a person in the face, taken from Mad Magazine (Issue 23, 1977). In a physical gallery, I might not have even checked the title, let alone looked into its meaning.

Painting seems inherently suitable for online viewing — it’s flat, it photographs well, it’s still — but at what cost do we just accept painted pictorial imagery as digitally reproducible? Certainly, digital platforms have earned their place at the art world table at this point. But, without physical artworks to inspect, they present us with an incomplete experience. The missing pieces don’t deepen the mystery, they obscure it. I look forward to another opportunity to see DiBenedetto’s work in person.


Sean McDonough, Beta Star Maker, 2019, Acrylic, canvas, linen, denim, threads, 87 x 96 inches


Regarding my own practice, I always have two bodies of work going. For the past few years, they had been large-scale sewn paintings and watercolors. The sewn paintings, which I assemble from individually painted components, take up my entire East Williamsburg studio. Since March, I’ve only been there twice to pick up supplies.

At home in Queens, I resumed regularly working with oils. Time was all mine. Simple line drawings came easily; I completed six paintings consecutively based on these drawings. They’re orderly, colorful and unabashedly phallic. As I began another, civil unrest following George Floyd’s murder became our new zeitgeist while COVID-19 rages out of control. As usual, I allowed self-doubt to beckon as I absorbed reality. I don’t even know what to make of those six paintings yet. Meanwhile, I’ve continued working on components for two sewn paintings, but can’t assemble them until I’m back at my studio regularly.

Weeks passed without an urge to use oils again, but I’ve continued with drawing and watercolors. Time reassured me I was on an honest path. Social justice isn’t a part of my practice; I’m not here to pander to a moment. In the Q&A section of this exhibition, DiBenedetto wrote about a time in high school when he dropped bricks onto a painting, an early adventure into “the virtues of pictorial abuse.” I love that description of his process. It lends me freedom to let my paintings develop on their own, outside of any order, as they used to before self-consciousness became constant. Despite craving an orderly process, the planning I put into these current oil paintings is inversely proportional to my own satisfaction. I’ve begun several more canvases with zero expectation of completion. Not knowing is my current status.


Link: Landing on Fractions, an online exhibition of Steve DiBenedetto’s recent work at the Derek Eller Gallery

Sean McDonough (b. 1985, Brooklyn, NY)  is a painter and teacher based in New York. He received a BS from New York University and an MFA from the Hoffberger School of Painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art. He attributes a high school internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to transforming the direction of his life, and counts the connoisseurship of painting as his pedagogical focus. More of his work can be seen at

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Raoul Middleman on Lockdown with Velazquez and Art as Play Sun, 12 Jul 2020 16:01:08 +0000 Raoul Middleman, Recent sketch The Pandemic has shut down museums and for the time being we’ve lost that kind of first hand visceral experience we get looking at art. I already miss the oomph and goop of oil paint escaping from the pores of the canvas: brushed, knifed, scraped, mixed, layered or smoothed out into […]

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Raoul Middleman, Recent sketch

The Pandemic has shut down museums and for the time being we’ve lost that kind of first hand visceral experience we get looking at art. I already miss the oomph and goop of oil paint escaping from the pores of the canvas: brushed, knifed, scraped, mixed, layered or smoothed out into tropes of sensual compliance.

Raoul Middleman, Recent sketch

Perhaps as a consequence of that dearth, I’ve lately been jolted from my sleep by images both sinister and absurd. Dreams are the fodder for of my narrative drawings and gouaches as they morph into sagas of ambition, beauty and eccentricity — even vulgarity — for my sequestered amusement during the pandemic. The confines of my studio are the presumptive stage for these oddities: floozies surrounded by a funky slew of sidekicks, barkers and the ever-lurking licentious monster of autrefois.

I can no longer hire models, so everything must be made up. In a semiconscious state, I let my pen amble along at will. The imagery it comes up with is often chimerical and dreamlike.

Raoul Middleman, Recent sketch

A French poet, Rene Char, once said that he used to go to dreamland to escape from life, whereas now he goes there to live. An uncanny compilation of fact and fiction, the peerless 1656 masterpiece, “Las Meninas” is perhaps Velazquez’s most idiosyncratic painting, a sly insubordinate dream of revenge against those who would keep him down as lowly craftsman of the mechanical art of painting, a mere flunky in service to the Royal establishment.

Las Meninas, by Diego Velázquez, 1656, Oil on canvas, 125.2 x 108.7 inches,  Museo del Prado Madrid

This painting is full of non-sequiturs. Does the mirror on the back wall reflect what is painted on the canvas or the real life posing of the King and Queen? It’s an ontological question that probes the subtle divide between fiction and reality. Taking place in the artist’s studio at the Royal Alcazar with the King and Queen as ostensible subjects, the real focus and center of the canvas is the 5 year old Infanta Margaret Theresa. The fresh and spontaneous brushwork of flesh, hair and garment makes for a miraculous glow of silver and gold.

The surrounding entourage includes, on either side of the Infanta, two curtseying ladies in waiting, plus a dwarf and a little person whose foot stirs the slumbers of a sleeping mastiff —all approximately of the same height. Velazquez beside his canvas, towers above the phalanx with proud resolve. What all these attendees have in common is a lack of freedom to be other than what destiny has in store for them. All of them, even the Princess, are imprisoned from birth. On the other hand, the painter, as the emblem of a red cross on his chest testifies, is free to transcend his plebian origins.

In The Critique of Judgment Immanuel Kant attempted to rationalize aesthetic judgment. He concluded that great art couldn’t be reduced to a concept.

Raoul Middleman, Recent sketch

Now with no museums, no galleries, no critics to hobnob with, the practice of art conforms most to Kant’s purposeless purpose, and freedom becomes pure galactic play.

(Excerpted from Raoul Middleman: “Velazquez at the Picadilly Club”)

Raoul Middleman is recently retired after 58 years of teaching at MICA, allowing him to wake up everyday early enough to paint the sunrise over the Baltimore Harbor, and then go back to bed.

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Camilla Fallon on the Intimate in Isolation Wed, 01 Jul 2020 13:42:24 +0000 I thought of the Intimists... and how they make ordinary objects, including cats, absolutely transcendent.

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Much has changed since I wrote a short Art in Isolation piece for Paintings on Paintings. Now, not only are we in a global pandemic that will change our lives forever, we witnessed the callous murder of George Floyd on video and Black Lives Matter mushroomed into a global movement. I’ve heard the chanting and the helicopters’ fractious sounds in our apartment while drawing. (It is not wise for me to join a march myself for different reasons.) One Sunday a group went by our place, some marchers dancing, and all carefully distanced. The movement’s energy is truly extraordinary.

*   *   *

During Armory Week, I was concerned about the coronavirus pandemic but went on Saturday to my friend’s group show. We talked about the wisdom of cancelling a trip to Big Sur the following week because California might be considered risky and it could be difficult to get a flight back. I knew I did not want to go to the piers for the Art Shows, mask or no mask. I had a friend in Milan who hadn’t been out at all except to get necessities, which made me wonder how that would play out in NYC.

I then realized that I might also have to cancel an upcoming trip to see my 101-year-old mom in Maryland, wondering if I would ever see her again. The days in lockdown blend together much like life in the sanatorium in Mann’s The Magic Mountain, an old favorite novel that I’ve picked up again. My routine has changed so much through its present limitations that time has altered. It feels like there’s something magic going on here, too. The days are nearly indistinguishable and I have to really think about how many weeks it’s been since this or that happened. My calendar is no longer needed except to mark the time. I have been at home and nowhere else since then, except to go out for brief excursions for necessities: groceries, odds and ends, and walks in the parks for exercise.

Camilla Fallon, First sketch in quarantine

Camilla Fallon, Bluebell

During the first week staying indoors, I made sketches of our cat. We have a spacious apartment and I began to use the extra bedroom as a studio. I thought of the Intimists — Bonnard, Vuillard — and the show I saw of their work last year at the Phillips Collection in Washington, of Manet and great still life painters like Chardin and Morandi and how they make ordinary objects, including cats, absolutely transcendent.

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Still Life with Cat and Fish, 1728, Oil on canvas, 79.5 x 63 cm

I set up a few familiar objects to draw at first and then bought some tulips to add to my still life. I love having flowers in my workspace and this year their quiet beauty means more to me than ever. Spring has been especially poignant: birds and flowers are oblivious to our present crisis but birdsong is conspicuous since there is no street noise, save for ambulance sirens.

The days go by quickly when I’m drawing and I don’t want to stop. I’ve been drawing from observation exclusively; I find it grounding and I’ve been compulsive about making a drawing a day. It is almost like a diary. I regard these flowers and household objects with ardor and try as I might to make the marks on the paper reflect their presence and spatial relationships. Without it I’d be lost.

Camilla Fallon, Home studio

I don’t know what it will feel like to go back to the studio and whether that work will seem at all relevant after spending so much time alone with my husband, very much slowed down. We are grateful. It won’t be easy to go back to the general frenzy of life in NYC. The uninterrupted time is a gift, although the anxiety only recedes so much. These drawings feel casual. The work in the studio feels riskier: it takes preparation, thought, planning, materials, it’s expensive to make, and takes much more time. My home studio makes for a more easeful approach. In some ways it feels more authentic and less self-conscious. Maybe I’ve hit on something that will grow. And my piano helps, I’ve had a few lessons on Zoom and it works surprisingly well. I’m set: I’ve almost learned an entire new Chopin Waltz; I walk to the wonderful parks near where we live in Yorkville and spend the day drawing.

Two poems play on loop. Each walks us to the end of what is known and keeps walking.

Toward the Unknown Region

Darest thou now O soul,
Walk out with me toward the unknown region,
Where neither ground is for the feet nor any path to follow?
No map there, nor guide,
Nor voice sounding, nor touch of human hand,
Nor face with blooming flesh, nor lips, nor eyes, are in that land.
I know it not O soul,
Nor dost thou, all is a blank before us,
All waits undreamed of in that region, that inaccessible land.
Till when the ties loosen,
All but the ties eternal, Time and Space,
Nor darkness, gravitation, sense, nor any bounds bounding us.
Then we burst forth, we float,
In Time and Space O soul, prepared for them,
Equal, equipt at last, (O joy! O fruit of all!) them to fulfil  O soul.

Walt Whitman from Leaves of Grass

Final Curve

When you turn the corner
And you run into yourself
Then you know that you have turned
All the corners that are left

Langston Hughes

Camilla Fallon, Arch, 2019, Oil on canvas, 40 x 50 inches

Camilla Fallon lives and works in NYC and shows in scattered venues around the city.

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Maria Porges on Looking for the Lodestar Fri, 26 Jun 2020 16:13:54 +0000 I have everything I need, except the lodestar that has gotten me this far, in a life that has revolved around art.

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I wrote this letter to Julie on May 23rd. It represents my frame of mind during the first months of quarantine, when the most difficult problems I was encountering were being able to buy what we needed and having to stay away from other people. On May 25th, George Floyd was killed and the world reacted, making the issues of the early spring seem trivial. Since then, I have become certain of two things: first, that 2020 will be remembered as the year that our lives changed – a hinge point in history. But art still remains the balm and the curative that I have often felt it to be, with potential to do more than it has for a long time. That doing part is up to us.

.     .     .

Hi Julie.
Quiet morning here. I’m writing to you from my cave (a ground-floor room that was my first studio at this house, before we built the one in the back yard), where I currently spend at least sixteen hours out of 24. It’s my office and I sleep here – husband’s snoring drove me out of the bedroom upstairs a couple of years ago. I sit at the computer for way too many hours every day, between all the various projects I’m currently juggling: a book on mending as an art form and metaphor; an essay for a book on repair (see, it’s getting to be a popular topic now that the world is broken); and  trying to finally finish the design work for my artist’s book Some Short Stories. But I love this little room, with its books and rugs and the yellow velvet slipper chair I got recently so I could sit comfortably and read.



I’ve been thinking about the number of little retreat-ish spaces I have had in my life – the tipi-shaped attic bedroom covered with silvery insulation in a farmhouse outside of New Haven; the remodeled tool shed I sublet in Berkeley where snails used to crawl in under the door overnight; even the room on the roof of the pasta factory where I had a studio for seven years. That roof-top space was actually a shipping container, craned up there at some point in the distant past, and I slept there (even though the metal stairs were scary) because it was the only enclosed space in 2000 square feet. Cold in the winter. But still cozy somehow. Coziness on some level seems necessary now – feeling safe and held: I’m reminded of Wendy Jacob / Temple Grandin’s chair that hugs you firmly. I’m quarantining with one of my daughters. (I have fraternal twins, turning 19 in a couple of months.) Drexel, where she’s studying fashion design, sent everyone home, and I’m grateful to have her here, as she comes to me for hugs several times a day. When she arrived, after an insane 17-hour plane trip from Philadelphia via Houston, she announced that she was done with ‘adulting’ for a while. Sometimes, I wish I could make the same declaration.

She has discovered that taking studio classes online is pretty terrible. Figure drawing, for example, involves the teacher sending her some photos or, worse yet, DRAWINGS and telling her to draw from those. And I don’t mean master drawings. I mean cheesy how-to-draw illustrations. Sigh. She is having better luck with her flat pattern-making class, because I gave her the biggest table in my studio. Currently she is out there (it’s in the back yard) making a dress mannequin out of duct tape and chicken wire. Ingenuity! Her final assignment for another class is to design and make a dress out of whatever’s at hand. She considered a minidress made from an IKEA bag, but settled on using some of the book pages I saved from recent sculpture-making, stitching them onto pieces of the copper screening she found in one of my cabinets. I have saved so many miscellaneous materials – she is surely luckier than her classmates. Then again, who can say… We buy, use and shelve so much stuff that almost everyone has interesting crap. Don’t they?



My life in isolation isn’t so different from the life I was leading before the pandemic. I’m on sabbatical this year, which either makes me lucky – or supremely unfortunate. Lucky to not have had to figure out overnight how to teach classes online: guiding graduate students through a non-exhibition, undergrads through studio classes with no studios. Unfortunate in that it stopped feeling like a sabbatical when I had to come home in a big hurry from the East Coast and cancel a residency in Belgium that I’d dreamed of for months. For years. I came to teaching rather later than most and childrearing later than pretty much everyone I know, so this was my first sabbatical (I’m 66) and may be my last. Yet I am alive and healthy, and so is most everyone I know. So, lucky. But it is hard to focus and to function fully, hampered by this pervasive sense of dread and uncertainty – of something lurking around the corner.



I miss going to galleries and museums – something I used to do quite a lot, as it turns out, looking back through the pictures on my phone. Not just because I write about art and, after forty years here in Oakland, know most of the players on both teams (artists and gallerists/curators). In their absence, I am reminded, painfully, that I really do love looking at all of the things and images that people make. I’ve always been intermittent in my studio practice – there have been gaps of months, or even years. But I don’t think I’ve ever stopped looking. The idea that a third of the country’s museums won’t make it out of lockdown makes me start to tear up. Then again, lots of things do that, watching Barack Obama speaking to the class of 2020 made me weep. We’re on a ship in the middle of a giant storm, the sails have just ripped to shreds, and there’s no one steering. Sorry, that’s a bit extreme. Or it isn’t, but we just don’t know.

In the meantime, I try to do things that are comforting and feel constructive. I’ve planted tomatoes in two giant pots on the front porch, and herbs too. I walk, every day, in big loops around my stucco-bungalow neighborhood, looking at everyone’s flowers and topiary and cursing my allergies as my nose runs under my mask. I text my other daughter often (she’s holed up with two friends in an apartment in Santa Barbara, also finishing her quarter online) and I look forward to driving down there to bring her home.

I have everything I need, except the lodestar that has gotten me this far, in a life that has revolved around art. I’m sure you miss it too.
Best, MP


Maria Porges, 2020, In progress ceramic works

Maria Porges lives in Oakland, California, writes about art and artists – both truth and fiction – makes objects, teaches at California College of the Arts, and raises twin teenage daughters and lots of succulents. She is working on a book about mending as an art practice across media, parts of which can be read at

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Anne Harris on Nowinski and Williams: Looking In and Out Sun, 21 Jun 2020 16:04:13 +0000 These two artists represent my dilemma: private vs. public, personal vs. political.

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What art are you looking at during this time? How has your studio practice shifted?

A month ago, PoP sent me these questions. It’s taken me a while to sort out my answer, because “this time” isn’t just now. Four years of political pounding has wrecked my studio habits. I used to be so private, as in never-interrupt-me-I’m-in-the-zone-do-not-knock-on-my-door-go-away. Now, I disrupt myself all the time with my own anxiety.


To illustrate, in a quiet corner, on my south studio wall, is a Janice Nowinski I bought last fall. This painting is a tiny knockout, awkward, intimate and private. I should hang her in the house, but I see her more here. She keeps me company and taunts my paintings. “Be this good,” she says.


Janice Nowinski, Nude with Long Black Hair, 2019, oil on board, 7 ½ x 9 ½”

Janice and I are in the same tribe—the slow nudgers. We spend eons mulling over the same few inches, pushing paint back and forth like tuning ancient radios. For the last 30 years, my studio practice has meant slowly, privately, painting this way.


Facing east, here’s my painting wall today. If all goes well, I dig in and paint for hours, but lately that’s the exception.


Peter Williams, Sandra Bland, 2016, oil on canvas, 72 x 6o”


This is Peter Williams. This is also the world hitting me over the head. I’ve been looking hard at Peter’s work this year. I’ll add, Peter owns several of Janice’s paintings, so we love the same painter. But Peter—and by “Peter” I mean “the world”—is so demanding. Janice’s work comes from the quiet corner; Peter’s is brash and noisy. His paintings are deft, fluid, abrasively musical, and not private. They begin with personal pain but their impact is political and epic.

These two artists represent my dilemma: private vs. public, personal vs. political. To paint, I stretch a membrane of concentration around myself, but this now keeps ripping. I feel terrible fear that if I stop paying attention to the world, we’ll fall off the edge of the earth and it will be my fault.  For me, pandemic quarantine is more of the same, but now the explosive urgency surrounding George Floyd’s murder makes my introspective paintings feel…  to me… irrelevant.


Peter Williams, Specimen, 2017, oil on canvas, 72 x 60″


So, I think about Peter’s paintings. I think about their fundamental contradiction. They are an exquisite gutting. He paints, with reverence, the eviscerated body of monumental oppression. His artistic kin include Grünewald, Kahlo, Salcedo and Marshall. I think about what Peter refuses us—illusion and comfort. And I think and about what he gives us—empathy, and a deep love for painting.  These gifts then push me back to work. And, when I’m working, worry disappears. My introverted pleasure over-rides everything


Matthias Grünewald, The Small Crucifix, c. 1511/1520, oil on panel, 29 ¼ x 23 ¼”
Kerry James Marshall, A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self, 1980, egg tempera on paper, 8 x 6 ½”


Frida Kahlo, My Birth, 1932, oil on metal panel, 12 x 14”
Doris Salcedo, Installation, 8th International Istanbul Biennial, 2003


A few days ago, I was zooming with my friend, the painter Tully Satre, about all of this—white guilt, fear, ruined concentration, hating Trump, activism, and loving painting. Tully consoled me by quoting Susanna Coffey. She said to him, and so he said to me, “If you don’t make your paintings, who will?”


Anne Harris, Portrait (Newborn), in progress, oil on panel, 11 x 9″


Anne Harris’s work is in such public collections as the Fogg Museum at Harvard, the New York Public Library and the Portland Museum of Art. Awards received include a Guggenheim Fellowship and an NEA Individual Artists Fellowship.  Harris teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and is Chair of the Exhibition Committee for the Riverside Arts Center. Harris is also the originator of The Mind’s I, a traveling expanding drawing project she does with other artists. Mind’s I events have taken place across the country and internationally.  Harris lives with her family in Riverside, IL, just outside Chicago. Her studio is behind her house.

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Peter Williams on George Floyd and Art Not in Isolation Thu, 11 Jun 2020 13:45:15 +0000 I never felt in isolation; there was a life I needed to address.

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Peter Williams, The Death of George Floyd, 2020, Oil on canvas, 48 in. x 60 in. COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND LUIS DE JESUS LOS ANGELES.


Making things allows one to be a member of a group: of ideas, forms, awareness, sensitivities, none of which is ever in isolation. You can always feel the spirit of those fleeting thoughts and mega-disciplines which keep you in focus and feeling alive while having an exploration in paint. I have discussions with myself; I become the Other.

But these days are special — since my work has a political quotient and a responsibility.  The root of my recent journey these last five years has been documenting black life and the repressive nature of the police and mass incarceration. The death of George Floyd hit me like a hammer; the view of him dying in front of my eyes meant I was not in isolation. I would need words and feelings and images to manifest my inner thoughts. The painting I made of that horrific event was published on the Forbes website today (6/9/2020). Again, I never felt in isolation; there was a life I needed to address.

The discipline one needs to remain out of isolation is huge; in my studio are all my peers and friends. Some call out to me for conversation and ideas. They come to me as thoughts and the research I do, choosing a color, building a composition. Struggling to find an answer, I know that being mindful is about awareness, self and body awareness. Nope, I’m not alone. Then there’s critical awareness of the subject — how to bend, fold and staple an idea. Well, I do admit, my partner also keeps me out of isolation with her creative abilities and thoughtful reflections.

Finally, there is the crazy vast love for chronicling this life I’m living now, hardly easy, often painful as a Black man. Whiteness has obliterated a subject that is huge — the lives of black people — and washes over centuries of history, not merely the enslaved, but the underbelly of white culture — bereft of empathy at times, downright vicious at others. But, this time, I am not alone.


Peter Williams holds a B.F.A. from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and an M.F.A. from the Maryland Institute College of Art. Currently based in Delaware, he lived in Detroit for seventeen years, where he taught at Wayne State University. Williams has received numerous awards, including a Ford fellowship, a McKnight Foundation fellowship, and grants from the Joan Mitchell Foundation and the Michigan Council for the Arts. His work is included in the collections of the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

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