Painters on Paintings A conversation between contemporary artists and their influences across time. Wed, 05 May 2021 21:16:20 +0000 en hourly 1 Painters on Paintings 32 32 Barry Nemett on a Random Trinity Wed, 05 May 2021 19:44:14 +0000 A trio of disparate inspirations that helped me wait out the quarantine as I sheltered in place.

The post Barry Nemett on a Random Trinity appeared first on Painters on Paintings.

The world is tentacled. Take a trio of disparate inspirations that helped me wait out the quarantine as I sheltered in place. Besides my wife and children, and painting and writing, three seemingly unrelated gifts—the genius of a singer, the bravery of an eight-armed mollusk, and a stunning ton of un-stunning wall tiles—mingled in my imagination.

The first of those gifts is an Italian church named Madonna dei Bagni. This humble sanctuary houses 700+ folk art maiolica tiles or plaques that grid the interior. None struck me as all that memorable, but viewing these tiles en masse is a mini miracle!

The art school where I taught overseas for more than ten summers is located near that small, oddball, sacred structure where the painted terracotta stories hang. So I have vivid memories of some and digital images of others, and this year I found myself repeatedly going through them. Individually, the tiles portray downbeat subjects like illness, drownings, and firing squads. Collectively, their shapes and colors create upbeat patterns. Whether I visit the church directly or in my thoughts, they exhilarate me, despite the sad subject matter. Art can do that.

Madonna dei Bagni, Exterior; Madonna dei Bagni, Interior

* * * *

I’m not religious. I dislike dogma. And I don’t pray much. But I like places of prayer and meditation in city and forest settings, even in octopus-laden kelp beds. Special celebrations occur within these sanctuaries.

The second gift that’s lifted me up during this season of isolation also occurs in a church. This one was not painted, but sung. Aretha Franklin’s remarkable 1972 Amazing Grace concert took place at an unremarkable Watts, L.A. Baptist house of worship—a mom & pop-scale movie theater before it got religion. The already world famous 29-year-old could’ve blown the dome off an Olympic stadium. But the Queen of Soul, who Rolling Stone Magazine named in 2019 “the number one singer of all time,” wanted the roof-sustaining hallelujahs of her modest roots. Sometimes smaller is better.

Although the concert resulted in the production of history’s top-selling gospel album, due to problems syncing the visual and audio parts, as well as legal issues, the world had to wait until her death in 2018 to see the resurrected concert film.

Sometimes we wait on the unhurried pacing of her songs. In its elegant precision, one critic compared Aretha’s first No. 1 single, Respect, to a Ming vase. In another hit, she and her choir sing: “You can cast the first stone, you can break my bones. But you’re never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, nevernevernevernevernevernever gonna break my faith.” We savor each of her relentless nevers as we wait. Like this past year, how we wait tells our story.

In Madonna dei Bagni, waiting plays a central role. Its one-stop-shop painting installation of ancient and contemporary calamities is still in progress—since 1657! It is located in Italy near the village of Deruta, a center for ceramics since the 1300s.

A terracotta hanging in Bagni illustrates part of the church’s origin story. It involves a man praying in the woods to the Virgin Mary for his bedridden, dying wife. Returning home shortly thereafter, he found her busy at work—cured. Word spread. A tile was designed. A church was built. More calamities. More prayers. More tiles. The rest is history, literally.


Church of Madonna dei Bagni, Terracotta tile, 1657

With all its tragedies, I see Bagni as a symbol of 2020-21. For almost five centuries, individuals have been commissioning Deruta craftspeople to create painted maiolicas thanking the Virgin Mary for responding to their prayers for healing from hugger-muggers of tragedies and trials, like floods, fires, mob attacks, COVID cases, bull bites, and car and motorcycle crashes.


Madonna dei Bagni. The slightly cockeyed PGR sign hints at the bull attack, while the maiden suggests little more than a reluctant partner being disarmingly coaxed onto a dance floor.


Some scenes look as grim as blood; others look slapstick wacky. Each cliffhanging illustration is like a still from a film or graphic novel. Decorating almost every tile are the letters PGR (Per Grazia Ricevuta—For Grace Received). Mary, with a fidgety baby Jesus on her lap, is a logo. These attributes help unify the widely diverse tragic themes, as do the panels’ funky drawing style, standardized dimensions, spacings, hand-painted frames, and mostly blue and yellow color schemes (like Vermeer’s).

None of the terracotta panels reach the exalted heights of the selections in Aretha’s concerts. However, Bagni’s mostly anonymous terracotta stories are spectacular when viewed as a rhythm of rectangular, painted-framed brushstrokes that grid the walls.

Works of art often build on this against thats. Look again at the at-once silly, charming, and beastly tile of the biting bull. In Madonna dei Bagni, we’re immersed in a hum of dread. Though, together, the artworks break into a pleasing song. There are no soloists here. It’s all choir.   

* * * *

Ironically, during the deadliest year in American history, connections were heightened. As the Director General of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has said: “We will not end the pandemic anywhere until we end the pandemic everywhere.” For better (unity) or worse (contagion), we all breathe the same air. But in this bitterly divided nation of ours, don’t hold your breath waiting for cosmic kinship.

If you want a taste of that, watch the 2021 Academy Award winning documentary, My Octopus Teacher, the third gift that kept me afloat during this period of quarantine. It’s a love story. Sort of. With danger.

With painterly cinematography by Roger Horrocks, two creatures—a man and a subterranean beast—discover each other in the glorious sunlight that filters through a deep-sea swamp. The underwater setting, silent as an empty church, is chockfull of creatures that sometimes out-Disney his cartooniest, goofiest-looking creations. And there are sharks.


Kelp forest scene from My Octopus Teacher


This very human, tentacled story celebrates the relationship between the film’s producer, narrator, and co-star, Craig Foster, and a liquid-y, untamed, unnamed (because it’s not a pet) invertebrate. Before Foster and friend met, the man described himself as feeling emotionally “disconnected.” Afterwards, not so much.      

Octopuses are antisocial. Here, our antisocial “other,” a suctioned, South African cephalopod seems to wait for connection with another other: a Homo Sapien. Ultimately, the anatomically spineless octopus reaches bravely across an aisle, which vertebrate—but spineless—creatures (like most Congressional Republicans) almost nevernevernever do. Turns out that this octopus teacher has much to teach.

For me, a virtual, courageous diva, a diver, and a maiolica-filled den helped right this wrong year. The next time I look at my Bagni photo of a biting bull, I might imagine a kelp forest growing inside a blue and yellow Ming vase borne by a Vermeer maiden. Or perhaps when I next visit the painted ceramic bull in person (can’t wait!), I’ll hear the voice of “the greatest singer of all time.” These artists’ works about connection have become connected in my mind, sprouting strange tendrils of interwoven meaning. They have kept me tied to why I love and make art. They’ve lured this non-believer from his isolated studio and taken him to church.


Barry Nemett, Stone Passages: France to Italy, 10 feet x 20 feet, pencil on paper (with wooden frame by Stuart Abarbanel)

Barry Nemett working on Stone Passages: France to Italy at Stevenson College

Barry Nemett, who has taught full-time at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) since 1971, has exhibited his artwork throughout the United States, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Since receiving his MFA degree from Yale University and receiving a Fulbright/ITT International Travel Fellowship to Spain, he has lectured worldwide, curated numerous traveling exhibitions, and has been a recipient of resident artist grants in the United States, Italy, France, Scotland, Ireland, Africa, and Japan.

The post Barry Nemett on a Random Trinity appeared first on Painters on Paintings.

]]> 0
Elizabeth Johnson on Celia Reisman Sun, 22 Nov 2020 18:39:49 +0000 Her aloof houses are challenging, seem to have their backs turned to me, the viewer, and transform me into an interloper.

The post Elizabeth Johnson on Celia Reisman appeared first on Painters on Paintings.

I’m an oil painter and I try to be interested in social media, I really do. But I’ve got a tiny problem with monitoring local online real estate. (I could stop any day, really!) Red hearts applied to photographs of paintings don’t thrill me like scrolling though snapshots of promising, underpriced properties rife with original molding, hardwood floors, gardens, outbuildings and porches. By now I should know how the story ends––I’m not going to buy a new house––but the kick comes from exploring virtual spaces, other people’s aesthetics and their once-private-now-public nooks and crannies.

Last month, out of the blue, a DM from painter Celia Reisman arrived on Instagram kindly saying that she liked my painting of a street view near my house. It turns out that she lives nearby and her show Borderlands is on exhibit now at Gross McCleaf Gallery in Philadelphia (through November 28). She creates oil paintings from gouache drawings made from direct observation in a parked car, occasionally making small oils on site. She rarely uses photos of a site for reference, preferring instead to return to the original location.

Obsessive as I am, my first question for Celia was whether the idea of real estate had any bearing on her landscapes, since her work depicts yards, fences, back alleys, and the places between houses favored by children, pets, stray animals, and devoted walkers. These are the kinds of places that I’m drawn to daydream about and paint. “Rather than looking for the picturesque,” she answered, “I gravitated to the smaller aspects of a scene––so I like the areas that are not groomed or cared for but showcase one’s daily life. Also, an unusual color or shape grabs my attention. I sit in my car and really am a voyeur. People tend not to notice me, and I like that. I can concentrate when I draw. If they do see me and come over, I explain I’m painting, and they are pleased and leave. Usually, the conversation ends with no explanation.”

She continues, “I do find some excitement in the fact that I am noticing things that are so mundane. Something that I think is worthy of paying attention to, recording, and staring at, is disregarded by the owners.  People are staging scenes for me; they own it, they built it, but they wouldn’t elevate it. And I guess by painting it I am elevating it. I get upset if I go to paint a place and things have been moved. It no longer holds the same magic.”


Celia Reisman, Half and Half, 2020. Oil on canvas, 40 x 40 inches,  Image courtesy of Celia Reisman and Gross McCleaf Gallery


Centered yet divided against itself, Reisman’s Half and Half depicts a grey and white duplex and surrounding buildings in modulated tones and sharply divided or shadow-splashed planes in the realist/cubist manner. Small bits of bright color that bait the eye gain strength next to monochromatic buildings and hazy, remote trees. A red flower pot, a sunny hedge, garish outbuildings and color-filled windows suggest multiple experiences and moods. A long patch of grassy median, railings and walls flatten in opposition to the dimensional effect of blue sky reflected in oblique windows, a shadowy archway, or a receding row of shrubs. Together these details––directives, really––stress the emptiness of the foreground.

To captivate buyers, real estate photos don’t include people. Reisman “occasionally adds a figure in the windows or hiding in the yard. . . . .Sometimes it works, and I like the idea of a hidden narrative.” Her unpopulated paintings make me feel self-aware in a different way from real estate photos: her aloof houses are challenging, seem to have their backs turned to me, the viewer, and transform me into an interloper. She wants us to “peek around the corners and in the back” and “pay attention to the outskirts around the architecture.” She states, “I’m not aiming to talk about isolation or privacy, even though there’s a feeling of remoteness. I accept the moods that develop.” She explains, “By using fewer windows I’m aiming to make the paintings less descriptive and more about the formal relationship; scale of shapes, color structure, mixed perspectives and spatial inconsistencies.”


Celia Reisman, On The Way, 2019, Oil on canvas, 20 x 22 inches, Courtesy Celia Reisman and Gross McCleaf Gallery


Nocturnal, smudgy, unified by dark tones, On The Way interlocks layers of trees, grass and shrubbery to frame a distant, artificially lit, red tree within an archway. Our view is tight enough to block out the night sky, allowing the tree’s leaves to stand in for stars, and shadows cast across the lawn to suggest people or animals in the wings. Somnolent, dreamy, abstract and centered, the painting evokes emotional security and feelings of hominess within nature, a primary goal in real estate fantasyland. In contrast, Half and Half appeals as a puzzle of different cues that invite the viewer, almost like a buyer, to assess realistic, practical subjects such as safety, ambience, and repairs to be made: the relevant difference is that shabby houses are always more charming to look at than to live in.

Along with the emotional and practical links to real estate that Reisman’s work stimulates in me, it makes sense that she would respond to my painting of a corner near my house, Ceiling Below Landscape, since it contrasts a planar, interior view with an external, open perspective. It substantiates being in two places at once. Painting imaginary spaces that evolve from real ones, she and I claim private, brief proprietorship of marginal and temporary suburban structures.


Elizabeth Johnson, Ceiling Below Landscape, 2020, Oil on canvas, 24 x18 inches


After graduating from Bard College and living in San Francisco for many years, Elizabeth Johnson makes oil paintings, writes reviews for, interviews artists for figure/ and organizes exhibits that mix urban and local artists for Lehigh Valley colleges. Her Anti-Story paintings layer plein air and studio paintings with random, flat, curved and warped images to build a confusing but appealing space that resists narrative.

The post Elizabeth Johnson on Celia Reisman appeared first on Painters on Paintings.

]]> 0
Lincoln Perry on Frank Auerbach and Marino Marini Wed, 28 Oct 2020 13:54:00 +0000 This wasn’t a decapitated head, but a self-sufficient object, as autonomous as a meteor.

The post Lincoln Perry on Frank Auerbach and Marino Marini appeared first on Painters on Paintings.

“Only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter do good things.”  – Edgar Degas

The crucial words here may be “no longer.”  This implies that Degas knew at one point, or thought he knew, a way of working that he subsequently came to question.  This differentiates him from those artists who either never knew what they were doing, or never transcended an accepted or conventional way of working.  The first brings to mind the contemporary fashion of the “de-skilled,” involving an actual hostility or distrust of competence, which usually translates less as a renunciation of skill than as a rationale for never having had any.  The second can be seen in many current products of the atelier system, where artists who understandably reject “de-skilling” look for solid ground in the practices of the 19th century academies.  Degas received an education not unlike theirs, but came to feel its confines and to profoundly question its assumptions and, only then, he implies, did he begin doing good things.

My purpose here isn’t to untangle either fashionable contemporary art or the reaction being seen in new academies across the globe, but rather to apply Degas’ quote to some recent paintings and sculptures of human heads:


First: Lisa Yuskavage, 1995, Oh 2, Oil on linen, 10x 8 inches
Second: Daniel Graves, The Spanish Sculptor, 2014, Oil on canvas, 31 1/2 x 23 2/3 inches

First: Jeff Koons, Michael Jackson and Bubbles (detail), 1988, Porcelain, 42 × 70.5 × 32.5 inches
Second: Thor Larsen, Portrait of Niamh Butler, 2102, Finished Clay, Life size


The two on the left are served up to a relatively exclusive club of cognoscenti. Yuskavage parodies the reduction of beautiful blondes to labial orifices, blinded receptacles for male pleasure, and Koons sends up our obsessions with celebrity.  Those who get the joke can join in, simultaneously critiquing and celebrating banality.  Skill is either rejected or mocked, even if the Italian porcelain workers making Bubbles are fine craftsmen. On the right, is a portrait by Daniel Graves, Founder and Director of the Florence Academy of Art, one of the ateliers around the world currently teaching this approach. Discontented with the mind-set of Yuskavage and Koons, many look for solid ground in past art, not to appropriate or mock it, but to find common cause, and in this I’m entirely on board. But half of Degas’ equation may be missing, where, after a good academic education, one steps off into the deep end and starts to swim.

I can’t help wondering if these two approaches might have more in common than meets the eye.  All four artists have produced something of a visual fait accompli, statements not noticeably questioning accepted assumptions within their support group.  Yuskavage and Koons understand their rules of engagement, having done their post Duchampian homework, and can’t be said to care much about the mysteries of perception.  They’re in the business of memes, self-replicating cultural signs that function more as illustrations of an ideated world-view than as observations from life. Artists like Graves and Larsen work from models, though may be seeing through pre-conceived filters as well.  In duplicating every skin tone, in rendering every muscle, by getting it “right,” they can become somewhat insulated, reassured by accepted practice or skill.  But while I, too, want to learn from our betters, I’d guess the old masters tended toward a more feisty and subversive antipathy to convention than some of the faculty at the Florence Academy; look them up on the web and see if you agree.  You’ll find admirably competent work, where craft is taken seriously, and the assumption may be that students will go on to manifest their own sensibilities over time.  Some have done this, particularly in sculpture, though others believe they can avoid uniformity by painting or sculpting purposely weird subjects, crowning, for example, an almost photographically rendered male model with antlers, or fastening wings on a naturalistic nude woman. There can be a dispiriting homogeneity in the sensibility and appearance of much of this work, and it risks being as smugly conventional as what I see in most galleries around the world. (I hesitate to label it academic, for that word applies to whatever is being taught in the Academy, which these days gravitates to Koons rather than Graves.)

Back to Degas, who both benefited from, and subsequently questioned, his education.  Just look at his work to see this had nothing to do with becoming “de-skilled.”  His was, instead, a plea for openness, even uncertainty.  Years ago, the fine sculptor Natalie Charkow was asked, as an outsider, to judge the life-sized figurative sculptures produced over the course of a semester at Boston University.  The students wanted to kill her when she chose the one the rest considered the most clunky, the least resolved and graceful.  She saw avenues of potential exploration in the winning piece, paths that transcended getting it right, an experimental curiosity about form. She objected to the mentality that makes art into a product, a commodity designed to reassure the buyer.  I’d argue that the anxiety the phenomenologist Merleau Ponty describes in his essay, Cézanne’s Doubt, was operative even for such notoriously and justifiably secure artists as Michelangelo.  Study his last work, the Rondanini Pieta, and consider whether the B.U. sculpture students would have chosen it as the winning entry.


Frank Auerbach, Portrait of JYM, 1984, Charcoal on paper

Frank Auerbach has had a long career and, while less drawn to some of his landscape oils, I’ve always loved his portraits, represented here by a drawing, Portrait of JYM from 1984.  If you’re starting to identify with the B.U. students who might have preferred Graves to Auerbach, bear with me.  Yes, it may look a mess at first, even a bit arty with its seemingly slap-dash bravura.  But this isn’t pizzazz for its own seductive sake, but a very long and drawn out investigation into how we see and, even more, feel the existence of others.  Over a period of weeks, even months, Auerbach would whack away with compressed charcoal, looking for ways to convey the solidity of the phenomenally patient JYM’s form, often erasing until the paper disintegrated, even adding more to the sheet if need be.  And what was that need?  Not just a craving to learn as he went along, but a deep aversion to easy answers or reassuring likenesses at the expense of a discovered spatial actuality. I could respond to and learn from this one drawing for hours, drawn, say, by that line shooting like a stroke of black lighting from one eye, down around the mouth and continuing in a charged electric squiggle to the pit of the neck.  In photographic records of a given drawing’s various stages, I prefer some of the iterations half way through to later versions, so perhaps like Willem de Kooning, Auerbach doesn’t so much finish a drawing as abandon it.  When it comes to uncertainty, both these men belong in the camp that doesn’t just tolerate openness but demands it, preferring seeking over finding, becoming over being, process over product.  It’s as if Auerbach is still working on this drawing of JYM, connecting us to him and then to his model in real time.


Marino Marini, Portrait of Emilio Jesi, 1947, Bronze, 24 x 25 x 20cm


I saw Marino Marini’s Portrait of Emilio Jesi in Milan’s Brera Museum, though the word “saw” doesn’t do justice to my reaction.  It was more like a bowling ball hitting my chest, an entity radiating a take-it-or-leave-it solidity.  This wasn’t a decapitated head, but a self-sufficient object, as autonomous as a meteor. Not reading the label to discover who Signor Jesi was, or when it was done, or having any interest in categorizing this work as modernist or otherwise, it was as if I’d encountered it on a rock-strewn path in Bryce Canyon, Utah.  It didn’t appear, like Auerbach’s JYM, as a work in process, but seemed to have always existed, timeless and indifferent to the studio.  Its asymmetry, the subtle distortions not communicated in photographs, encouraged doubt about what constitutes a human head, including my own.  Not just the discrepancies of eye or nostril, but the anamorphic oblate spheroid of the skull itself, subjected to some pressure we sense as much as see.  It did, of course, read not only as a glorious object but as a human being, one subject to the same existential or psychological pressures as we all experience.  Far from a gilt-edged porcelain head as cultural sign, and far from reassuring (or depressing) me with its “rightness,” it was a mystery in bronze.  Emilio Jesi seemed to spatially expand, both volumetrically and emotionally, while over time Koons’ Jackson and Bubbles and Larsen’s Niamh Butler come, for me, to feel static, perhaps even to shrink.  Consider just the eyes in all three works.  Marini circumvents convention and invents squinting slits as a correlation for vision.  We’re not asked to get the joke or respect the skill, but to engage as participants, moved by an elusive poetry both other and internalized.

The ability to transcend one’s education, one’s historical moment, or the limitations of one’s talent, is rare in any age.  This has always been the case, as is our need to be reassured that our behavior fits in with the proclivities and at times prejudices of our comrades.  Whether we are products of the hippest art schools or the new ateliers, we want acceptance and approval, which can result in a certain homogenization.  I don’t have the answers.  Educated by artists who endorsed “post abstract figuration,” meaning work that was cognizant and appreciative of early 20th century modernism, my professors encouraged us to integrate rather than reject such experimentation.  Teachers are aware that upon graduating, many will spend their lives regurgitating without evolving, and the more watertight the assumptions of the department, the less likely it is that students will question their program.  When I taught at the University of Virginia, the contemporary art history class required for studio students made no mention whatsoever of the modernists I admire and emulate most.  It was as if Vuillard, Bonnard, Balthus, Giacometti, not to mention Marini or Auerbach, were somewhere between irrelevant and non-existent.  Students were explicitly warned not to go to an exhibition of Bellini, Giorgione, Titian in Washington D.C. for fear of being “seduced.”  While the Florence Academy must avoid such nonsense, (the city itself is a huge museum), subtle steering is hard to avoid.

Art hints at how the artist approaches life.  Koons might see everything as immensely absurd, quite literally a rich joke.  Graves might feel that in getting his painted head right he’s helping to repair a broken world.  Auerbach may want to feel as alive in the moment as possible.  Perhaps Marini, tired of himself, craved something larger and independent of the quotidian.  Who knows, Degas may have found his own skill untrustworthy or even boring.  Art isn’t biography, but I’d prefer life as an Auerbach drawing, open to possibility, even at the risk of Cezanne’s nagging doubt.  In medicine, researchers in vaccines deal with uncertainty by diligently doing repeatable experiments, until the results confirm a hypothesis.  The artist will never have this confirmation, and has to accommodate doubt, so if this makes someone uncomfortable, they might consider another line of work. Doubt has its dangers, and can take the form of a profound insecurity and loneliness, as debilitating or hazardous as the heady feeling of certitude.  Despite my ostensible attraction to doubt, certainty is tantalizing, hovering forever, frustratingly, out of reach.

With all of the problems on our horizon, from the pandemic to climate change and social upheaval (revolution?), art may be small beer.  Imagined tussles, such as Koons versus the Florence Academy, may be an argument about deckchair placement on the Titanic, and art itself may come to resemble the orchestra playing until we slip beneath the waves.  Also, I should insert a disclaimer, for having worked all of my life trying to make sense of my life through visual means, I sympathize with anyone doing their damnedest in such a project and questioning whether it has any influence on the larger world.  We all have our biases and beliefs, and the truth is that a significant percentage of what we intend as art never really takes off to transcend its means or interrogate its premises.  Much of what seems bright fades over time.  We can do our best, conscious of our choices about how we live and, eventually, the work will, or won’t, speak for itself.


Lincoln Perry, Diana’s Baths, 2015, Oil on canvas, 68 x 96 inches

Lincoln Perry has worked as a figurative painter and sculptor for decades, blowing off steam by writing essays on art, some of which will appear as a book with Godine Publishers in the near future. His murals can be seen at UVa in Charlottesville, in Tallahassee’s Federal Courthouse and at 1700 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C.

The post Lincoln Perry on Frank Auerbach and Marino Marini appeared first on Painters on Paintings.

]]> 0
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.

The post Kyle Staver on Janice Nowinski appeared first on Painters on Paintings.

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.

The post Kyle Staver on Janice Nowinski appeared first on Painters on Paintings.

]]> 0
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.

The post Kyle Hackett on Du Bois’ Double Consciousness and the Freedom in Portraiture appeared first on Painters on Paintings.

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).

The post Kyle Hackett on Du Bois’ Double Consciousness and the Freedom in Portraiture appeared first on Painters on Paintings.

]]> 0
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.”

The post Barbara Friedman on Merging and the “Extreme Middle” appeared first on Painters on Paintings.

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.

The post Barbara Friedman on Merging and the “Extreme Middle” appeared first on Painters on Paintings.

]]> 0
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.

The post Stephen Benenson on Goya and Picasso in Madrid appeared first on Painters on Paintings.

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

The post Stephen Benenson on Goya and Picasso in Madrid appeared first on Painters on Paintings.

]]> 0
Sean McDonough on Steve DiBenedetto Sun, 19 Jul 2020 16:00:44 +0000 The piece is an exquisite consciousness enhancer.

The post Sean McDonough on Steve DiBenedetto appeared first on Painters on Paintings.

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

The post Sean McDonough on Steve DiBenedetto appeared first on Painters on Paintings.

]]> 0
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 […]

The post Raoul Middleman on Lockdown with Velazquez and Art as Play appeared first on Painters on Paintings.

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.

The post Raoul Middleman on Lockdown with Velazquez and Art as Play appeared first on Painters on Paintings.

]]> 0
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.

The post Camilla Fallon on the Intimate in Isolation appeared first on Painters on Paintings.

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.

The post Camilla Fallon on the Intimate in Isolation appeared first on Painters on Paintings.

]]> 0