Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Studio Progress

Welcome to Sarajevo
Oil on canvas, 24"x30"

My painting Welcome to Sarajevo is in the "Mayhem" juried show in Arlington, Virginia.  "Mayhem" is this month's exhibit at Gallery Underground in Crystal City.  The theme is mayhem and chaos of all sorts: conflict, domestic strife, burnt breakfast, rush hour traffic, you name it.  My painting is a quiet mayhem, the aftereffect of really violent actions, so it will be interesting to see how it is received.

Welcome to Sarajevo was an important painting for me.  It marked a shift from my political satire series to something that I hoped would be more significant.  The satirical paintings were fun to do, but there were two serious issues with them.  One, they required that I get really angry about something, usually about politicians who were running the country into the ground.  Getting angry was key to getting the vicious, snarky, and cutting commentary that came out in the paintings.  After a while, getting angry was just draining, and I needed to get away from it for my own sanity.  The other issue is that satire is very time-sensitive.  I found that a lot of the works were irrelevant after several months.  The issues changed, people left, and suddenly a painting that I worked on for weeks no longer had anything to say.

So I started the "Meditation on War" series.  War is, unfortunately, timeless.  It will always be with us in one fashion or another.  The paintings focus on the aftermath of combat, the things and people that are left.  The works were initially a counter to the rabid pro-war drumbeat that was part and parcel of the Iraq invasion.  If you want to go to war, you ought to think about what the consequences are going to be.  People die.  People get hurt in ways that affect them for the rest of their lives.  Stuff gets torn up, often stuff that can't be replaced.  Incredible amounts of money and resources are wasted.  And it always goes on for longer than you think it will.  I'm not anti-war or anti-military: there are times when we really do have to go to war to stop something worse from happening.  Desert Storm was an example.  But wars we don't have to fight shouldn't be fought.

It looks like I'll continue to do paintings for this series for quite a while.  I just started a new one today.  Didn't really mean to, but there it was ...

Yesterday I finished and signed the painting about my friend Pete, who was a Marine in Viet Nam.  It's done, finally, the first in my new series of paintings about survivors.  Now I need to come up with a title.  And also yesterday, I painted over the other artwork-in-progress from the survivor series.  It wasn't going anywhere except downhill.  Gotta start from scratch on something I've been working on since September.  It will get there, I just don't know how or when.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

DC Visit

I had a business trip to Washington, DC, last week for some meetings related to my consulting business.  I drove up on Monday - drove rather than fly because flying is no fun anymore.  Driving, at least for trips of up to maybe 10 hours in the car, is much more enjoyable.  No TSA screening, go at your own pace, no delayed or cancelled flights, much more comfortable seats, nobody with a cold sitting next to you (unless you take them along, in which case, it's your fault), stop when/where you want, big choice of places to eat, the scenery is much better, it takes about the same amount of time once you include the drives to/from the airport and waiting time, you have a car when you get there, and it's much cheaper all the way around.  To me, it's a no-brainer.

I had meetings on Tuesday through lunch, and then had time to myself, so I hit the National Gallery of Art.  It's one of my favorite places in the world.  And, of course, they were in between exhibits.  Not only that, but the East Wing is undergoing renovation, and everything there is closed.  Dang!  But the regular galleries in the West Wing were still open, so I wandered through them.  As usual, I had my sketch pad with me and made a lot of quick sketches with notations.  To me, a good art museum is a great learning tool.  I see how the really good painters created their works, and I can try to transfer that knowledge into my own.  However, I find that I keep re-learning the same lessons.  Here's what I noticed this time:

  • Accurate but loose drawing.  The masters make it look easy: their brushes quickly describe the form.  Their proportions are spot on, the brushwork is loose, and it looks like it was effortlessly done.  Right, just like an Olympic figure skater's moves are effortlessly done.
  • Small areas of strong color against large areas of muted color.  At least until the Impressionists, this was true, especially for people like John Singer Sargent and James Whistler.  The muted colors provide the setting for the richer colors to sing.  Actually, this is a good metaphor.  Think of a music band: most of the musicians are providing the beat, the underlying melody, and supporting vocals, while the singer or lead guitarist (or whoever) works their magic.  Bright color against more muted colors does the same thing.
  • Most edges are softer.  This is a subtle thing that most non-artists miss.  Look at the edges of the forms and most edges are soft, or slightly blurred, and some are lost altogether.  The hard edges will be found where the painting's center of interest is.  Our eyes are drawn to brighter colors, harder edges, and higher value contrasts (light/dark contrasts).  So artists use more muted colors, softer edges, and lower value contrasts in the supporting elements, and the opposite around the focus.  I try to as well, but my natural tendency (like most people) is to try to delineate every individual thing very clearly.  So this means harder edges and more detail and development than is usually needed.  Save that for the main item.

Here's a clip from my sketchbook.  I found Rembrandt's self-portrait and found it incredibly moving and powerful.  In my opinion, one of the finest portraits ever painted.

This is a typical set of notes from studying a painting: a quick sketch, some identifying information, and then notes on what I see as to how it was painted.  In this case, the painting was done with muted colors and soft (or lost) edges everywhere except the face, which was richly colored and done with thick swirls of paint.  Rembrandt's focus was on the eyes.  They were the most defined section of the painting, and the sheer intensity and humanity in those eyes is astounding.  Here is a man at his rawest: capable, vulnerable, successful, and a failure (he was financially ruined at the time of this painting).

I saw artist easels in most of the rooms.  Man, I would love to be able to spend time in there, making copies of some of those paintings from the real thing rather than a photo in a book!  The difference is huge, even in a high-quality reproduction.  The real thing has subtleties that you just don't see in a reproduction, I don't care who makes it.  So what would I copy?  Rembrandt's self-portrait.  Anything by Sargent or Whistler.  El Greco's "Laocoon" or "View of Toledo".  Velasquez.  A good Raphael Soyer.  A dozen others ... and those are just the ones I saw that day.

On Wednesday, I had another business meeting in the morning, and in the afternoon I went to the Museum of American Art.  More drawing from amazing paintings.  A painting by John White Alexander of a woman backlit in front of a window was stunning in its handling of light.  A huge, mural-sized painting by Thomas Hart Benton was complex, carefully structured, and full of life.  A Sargent painting about knocked me out.

Needless to say, I was a happy man!

So that was DC.  Next I went to Baltimore to visit my aunt and cousin.  We had a great time, as always, and I love visiting with them.  While I was there, I went down to Maryland Institute College of Art, or MICA.  I was a student in MICA's continuing education program back in the mid-90's.  Now, three of my fellow UNCA students are teachers there.  One of them, Paul Jeanes, invited me to come talk to his class.  As I've noted here before, this sort of thing really energizes me.  I focused my talk on how my work has developed since graduating, including how it was affected by my Iraq and Afghanistan deployments.  The students were very interested and asked lots of really good questions.  Only a couple of them went to sleep.  I wound up talking with them for far longer than planned, but we were on a roll, so it was all good.  And I got to see one of my teachers from way back when.  Michelle LaPerriere is still teaching there, and it was really wonderful to see her again.

All in all, a great trip.  And now, four days after getting home, I'm still not caught up on all the work, home, art, car, and other things that have been lying in wait for me.  Maybe next week ...

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Lots of Shows!

When shows come, they seem to come in bunches.

Right now, I've got two paintings in a curated exhibition at Tipton Gallery in Johnson City, TN.  The show is "EQUAL: Modern Family in Contemporary Art".  My two contributions are Pleasantville and The Dancers:

Both of these have been around for a bit.  Dancers was painted in 2003 and Pleasantville in 2007.  Both have been sitting on the rack in the studio for too long and needed to get out in public again.  The exhibition is pretty good and one work in particular knocked me out.  Laura Chenicek's tiny piece No Matter How Hard I Tried is easily described: it's a small broken eggshell that has been sewn back together with silk sutures.  As an artwork about the fragility of relationships, it is extremely powerful.  Click on the link and take a look.

I'm in another show that opens tomorrow at the Fine Arts Museum at Western Carolina University.  "Remote Sites of War" is a curated 3-man show featuring my drawings from Iraq and Afghanistan, photographs of Guantanamo Bay and military training by Christopher Sims, and photographs from Palestine by Todd Drake.  It's quite a strong show.  The museum director, David Brown, arranged all my drawings on one wall:

I really like the effect.  There is a definite rhythm to the layout and it kept pulling me along.  I went down there today to speak to a history class about my experiences in Afghanistan.  Rather than just talk about pictures or events, I tried to talk about the complications and contradictions behind simple images of people, with the message that they need to be aware of unseen complications in their own lives.

So I'll be back at Western tomorrow for the show's opening, then again on Monday to speak to two other classes.  I really enjoy these talks.  

And I learned that I'll be in another exhibit at the end of the month.  My painting Welcome to Sarajevo will be in the national juried show "Mayhem" at the Gallery Underground in Crystal City.  The show will run from Apr 28 to May 31, with an opening reception on Friday, May 2, from 5-8 pm.

So there you have it.  I've been busy as hell with a lot of other things, too, but they can wait for another post.  Meanwhile, if you're in western North Carolina, go see the "Remote Sites of War" exhibit at WCU.  And if you're in the DC area, go see "Mayhem" at the Gallery Underground in Crystal City!