25 September 2020

J.M.W. Turner, and the shelf of memory

 

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 20 September, 2020, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm


This study is from a few nights ago. This past week we have been blessed with hazy evenings which pleases me to work from. The air has a lot of salt in it, unlike the clear and polished skies which require a rich pigment. Colours used on these evenings are broken even more so than usual so as to unify the relationships with greater subtly. 

This one I liked immediately so I suddenly stopped work on it. I knew it was finished at just the precise moment that it was. As I can easily overwork paintings I am always attentive to the tiny bell inside which gently rings as if in a large cathedral. I can often ignore these moments in the middle of work, but here at least, I am grateful I didn't. After all, does one need to be in a cathedral to hear God?

It is rare when I finish something that I think to myself: "that was really good" without falling down the next day. Usually though, the really great things "I cannot  see" for even weeks or months later on, but this was the exception.

This image reminds me of one of my heroes J.M.W. Turner. I wasn't thinking of him at the time but now I see it so obviously, not only because he still haunts my palette but my daydreams as well. If a writer keeps his favourite authors on a small shelf above his writing desk, then a painter houses his heroes in his paintbox. Memory is everything, I think to myself, every day.

As I have written many times here, Turner's watercolours of the British coastline, along with the Venice lagoon have been seared into my visual memory yet I never think of all this while I am working.  

"Just another day, another dollar" as my uncle Morty used to say.


22 September 2020

the Angels of Auschwitz and Sarajevo

 

 Auschwitz, Summer 1994, Châteaunoir, oil on canvas, 150 X 150 cm


Around 1993, I began a series on the theme of war. I became very upset about the slaughter in the Balkans. Europe faced another genocide. I had put on my studio wall a photograph taken from The International Herald Tribune which was then my main source of news at the time. I still have it somewhere. It was a simple picture of a young Muslim boy at the foot of his father's grave stone. It killed me for some reason, maybe because I had lost my own father, albeit under very different circumstances. But it opened up an emotional hole inside me all the same.

I made a few paintings that summer in my small studio at the Châteaunoir.  It was always hot during the summer months and cold in the winters. But it had a skylight which pleased me, along with two windows, so it was well lit. The picture above came after the Bosian/Sarajevo paintings. Like many people I have always been horrified by the atrocities which the Germans perpetuated upon its own citizens and so many others in Europe during that time. 

I think I have always been more intuitively interested in the suffering of humankind than any spiritual bliss which I might found around me. My early portraits, as a friend once told me, looked as is they were about to commit murder. Though I was a little surprised by the observation I quickly understood its truth. Pathos has always been at the root of my actions whether I liked it or not.

So I wanted to see if I could express the cruelty of war.  I am not sure I succeeded in this but in the next few weeks I will show some of the others which work better, more raw. I rarely ever put these things around my old, large home because they were just too difficult for people. I suppose that is why my painting had changed a little later on to became more mirth, less dark.


17 September 2020

Inmates without doctors sans frontiers

 


              Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 15 September, 2020, oil canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

This was an experiment from the other night. I had gone out with an idea in my head (dangerous!), and without looking at the motif in front of me. I was trying to prepare a sky to receive some olive coloured clouds which I had seen the the other night. Alas, they dissipated before twilight had even set in. I was left with a delicious sky, like a sticky date but without the sticky date sauce.

But I like it anyway, and I was lucky to have exercised an unusual intuition to leave it be! So, I packed up early because the sky had died, dried up of any its usual vibrancy. 

I was also distracted by an acquaintance, an eccentric fellow who sleeps on the beach each night not far from where I work. He had come by to say hello, and then proceeded to discuss UFO's with a another person who had also stopped by. This gentle soul sees UFO's each night and loves to tell anyone he can just how incredible they are.  And each day I hear about how fast they move until they "stop on a dime" to hover over the horizon at leisure, only to zip overhead "glowing". They then return to repeat the same patterns all over again. As the weeks go by the UFO"s seem to get bigger, and go faster. I like this fellow very much so I just smile and feign a vague sort of interest. There are lots of curious souls who inhabit small corners of life around here. 

As I move through this contemporary life, I discover that it's often hard to discern the bonafide inmates from the regulars (regulars??). But I also wonder to myself if there really is a doctor in the house? 

At the end of the day; is painting this mysterious sky any different than watching for UFO's each night?  Imagination is everything, apparently.



16 September 2020

Morocco, found and lost in Tunisia

 


This is a curious painting done sometime in 2008, back in France, from a drawing I made in Marrakesh in 2007. I am not sure what I think of it now but it's the only picture I ever painted in oils from a Moroccan drawing in black and white though I did make a drawing trip to the Atlas mountains in 1974 where I made watercolours. But this was invented from a skeleton of a drawing and memories.

I gave it to a friend who stopped by on her way from a life in Paris back to a new life in New York. Sadly it was packed in a suitcase which was lost in transit. Fortunately, I did have this photo of it, so after 25 years I sent her this image which has ended up on her fridge door, so she told me.

This painting was certainly inspired by so many Klee watercolours from his trips to Tunisia which I had seen over the years way long before I began going to Morocco to just draw. I saw a large show of them in the Met in New York back in the 1990's which opened my visual mind.

I had never been a fan of Paul Klee until I saw these things. They are so very different from so many of the later things he made in his studio. He was an interesting artist, and musician, for sure, he was caught up in a changing world where psychological and mystical experiences created a new zeitgeist away from the Church.

For me, these are landscapes which exist between the mind and matter, as if one foot was in the visual world in front of him while the other was planted in the back studio of his mind. 

It seems to me that these small studies done in Tunisia straddle the the fault lines between where Modern Art was taking flight from Post-Impressionism. Klee, along with Jung and Freud, among so many others, quickly jumped into a 20th century where metaphoric truth would eclipse a visual one.


























13 September 2020

Sisyphus stumbles, phoenix rises

 

cbw
Evening prayer Brunswick Heads, 9 September, 2020, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm


It isn't often that I want to throw in the proverbial towel while working on a picture but I used to, often, all the time, actually. It was because I stumbled and lost faith. This is a terrible fate to befall a painter. This used to happen a lot. 

I enclose these two examples of my recent brushes with failure. This is to say that I had lost hope, and given up when I suddenly found a weird kind of key which re-opened the door to Ali Baba's cave. 

In my time, I have jettisoned canvas boards over cliffs, thrown them into ditches, into trash bins, and even into the Grand Canal in Venice. Only rarely, I did I possess a small hint of guilt for my selfish act inflicted  upon poor Mother Nature. I would find myself in a state of such wretchedness and self-loathing that I was beyond the pale, as they say. I needed an act of destruction to expunge my fragile ego of such failure. And I cursed the Muses who only laughed at me from high up in the clouds. I would make amends if I could.

Fortunately, I have changed over these past few years, so much so, that now  when I 'lose' a painting I seem to be able to stop, take a breath, step back and assess the situation. 

This is that wondrous moment when I decide that I have nothing to lose, that I need just 'let go'. As the Zen wise guys say:

"We are already dead, what's the problem?"

With any means necessary I seem to push and pull at the image as if it was no longer a cardboard canvas but magically made of soft rubber or even kevlar. My brushes go to work on it without fear of retribution (punishment). 

Like failure, even the idea of success falls away, and in a flash, I see the frustrated child in the corner of a classroom trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It was always me.

And somehow out of that fury, a phoenix rises.  My brushes find a pathway back into the painting, and though the motif has lost its bloom, I motor on, on the fumes of memory. 

The memory is everything for an artist. Intuition is boundless grace, I often think to myself proudly.

And I like these studies because they are scarred with uncertainty, and they now live like sloppy solutions to my strange and personal problem of 'how to paint', despite all my efforts.  

Whether a picture works, or not, is irrelevant at a certain point. (again, the Zen wise guys would say it was always irrelevant). But I secretly rebel against these guys, 

"F**k em", I think to myself in the existential pinch.

But it IS the skirmish which really counts;... so was I brave, or a cowherd?

It doesn't matter because I'm dead already.


Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 27 August, 2020, oil on canvas board, 35 X 30 cm

11 September 2020

The World according to Art





The Square is a wonderful romp into the weird world of Contemporary Art. I have seen it twice. It won the Palme d'Or in 2017, and is a delicious satire on the art world. Not much more to say than that, really. 






09 September 2020

Chrysalis and the Bonnard sketch



It is a very interesting thing for a painter to see a master's drawing alongside the finished oil painting of the same motif. In this case it is a view from his small property on the Côte d'Azur. The drawing, done with a small lead pencil, seems to dance around in between various objects; trees, bushes, clouds, houses, sky, with tiny abbreviated lines indicating the sea in the distance. There is no doubt that he made many small sketches of this motif.

I have seen this painting a few times over the years and always loved it.  It is part of the Philips Collection at the National Gallery in Washington. But seeing it here next to a drawing of the same motif allows me to indulge in the image of the caterpillar undergoing a chrysalis when it transforms into a butterfly. All the information is already stored in the caterpillar cells for the new butterfly to form, and be re-born to a life of colourful flight. 

This mystery of creation is everywhere yet many of us often forget that fact though scientists and artists almost never do.

Bonnard, a kind caterpillar himself, shy and unassuming; he might have looked as if he lived an ordinary life if perhaps described by an ordinary person with indeed an ordinary life. But though he did live a life of a monk in a simple house with a partner and small dog, we know that he painted the dreams of butterflies. 



 

06 September 2020

Silk scarves draped across the sky

                                                                                    vrm

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 31 August, 2020, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm


Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 28 August, 2020, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm


Two more studies from last week which again lend themselves to my increasingly apparent interest in a more formal structure for these somewhat sketchy paintings. 

I like them both. Upon seeing them together I seem to be asking myself whether or not it is possible to transform something as inherently wild as the sea and sky into an image more fixed, more solid.

Thinking of light as something solid is a curious thing to imagine much less paint with oils, come to think of it. To paint clouds, the sea...? yes, but just light itself? 

I seem to have fallen into a form of abstraction which allows for me to think of Light (colour) as a material substance.  They almost appear to look like silk scarves draped across the the sky.

I don't know how far I can push this motif which now goes on for over 3 years but as long as new answers come I keep on working there.


31 August 2020

hookers enshaded in forgetfulness divine

rpc

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 16 August, 2020, oil on canvas board, 20 X 25 cm

Here is small picture from 2 weeks ago which surprised me. It was the last one of three done that night . There is something in the light which I have been after since I first began doing these studies. It's as if it was done during one long exhaled breath. 

Everything natural, unadulterated, simple, and perhaps so unpretentious that it would be invisible if hung on a wall. And unlike so many pictures in a gallery which hustle the public like hookers, this one hides in its own bashful bliss. It  does not shout at the world looking for praise nor attention, but hovers quietly hiding... "unshaded in forgetfulness divine" to quote Keats in Ode to Sleep.


Van Gogh and Walt Whitman, lovers of Nature


from the New York Times




A cricket lodged in the oil paint was found during a recent cleaning of this picture done during his stay in St Remy. The letter (above) reveals to me that he must have worked in a frenzy of speed. It isn't hard to imagine.

I love this story as I like so many others about him. I love the humanity of Vincent Van Gogh. But I also love the humility in the making of a picture, an oil painting, something, in one form or other, which humankind has been doing since the very beginning of civilisation. No matter how the 20th century has tried to do rub away Painting, artists will always paint pictures using Nature and memory as their primal sources of imagination. 

Come to think of it, Van Gogh reminds me of Walt Whitman, a kind of American brother just living across the Atlantic Ocean. Though he lived a full life Whitman died just two years after Vincent's short one ended in 1890. Both were idealists, ill-suited for living in a  world ruled by money, and the acquisition of property. Both consecrated their lives to the possibility of poetry; one to words, the other to paint.


29 August 2020

perilous adventures of the sea and into the clouds

                                                            slh

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 28 August, 2020, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm


Here is a painting from last night. A magnificent sky which bloomed quickly and obliged me to work fast. Unfortunately, one cannot see nor feel the thick paint at the top of the painting due to the i-phone which  misses pale tones, notably yellows. But it's thick as if I am a pastry chef. 

I was happy with it. As I have been writing about the formal aspects which are developing in this series, it has affected how I begin working. Of course, it would, and unlike writing music or a writing short story, beginning a picture is a perilous adventure because mistakes in these paintings are more complex to repair. I see them as studies; quickly done with revealing all the spontaneous decisions then left to the mercy of Time.


27 August 2020

Camus; Sisyphus of love




In the recently published correspondence between Albert Camus and one of his lovers, the actress Maria Casarès, we learn that on the day before his death in a car accident, Camus posted letters to three separate women arranging rendezvous.


I love this anecdote especially because it is so politically incorrect in this age of ours. I like that it reveals the chaotic nature of the human heart and the unpredictable emotions of an artist.


I love that he wrote love letters. But the French are great writers of love, and everything else.


In one letter to his lover Maria Casarès he enclosed a twig of thyme which which reminds me that Rilke once received in a letter from his wife a sprig of heather from Scotland that he contemplated for weeks afterward.


I know that much fond feeling floods the internet, but have I forgotten the emotion just to feel the paper which one's lover has folded in thirds as it comes out of the envelope? And what of the quirky or clean penmanship? Or the stamps licked by one's lover too? The blue ink or black? What about the intoxication one submits to unwillingly for a letter which one has awaited long days or weeks even. 


These are a few things which have evaporated for most of us due to our speedy needs. 


The love letter, this antique vehicle, is not dissimilar to another relic of old France which has it that the best part of sex is climbing the stairs to the bedroom.


His letters were published in Paris not long ago. I almost want to read them but wouldn't it be better to write them myself? 

Again Shakespeare:


Forsake the rose

and blush thyself!





26 August 2020

The transitory and the permanent, Vincent Van Gogh


“Ce qui ne passe pas dans ce qui passe”, 

("That which remains, in what passes")

I am sure that I have already (and recently) spoken of this consequential observation but it continually seems to be something I deem essential in how I look at Painting, mine or others. It comes through Léo Marchutz who read it in a letter from Vincent to his brother.

'I think that if one has tried to follow the great masters attentively, one finds them all back at certain moments, deep in reality, I mean one will see their so-called creations in reality if one has similar eyes, a similar sentiment, as they had. And I do believe that if the critics and connoisseurs were better acquainted with nature, their judgment would be more correct than it is now, when the routine is to live among pictures, and to compare them mutually. Which of course, as one side of the question, is good in itself, but lacks a solid foundation if one begins to forget nature and looks only superficially. Can’t you understand that I am perhaps not wrong in this, and to say what I mean even more clearly, isn’t it a pity that you,   for instance, seldom or hardly ever go into those cottages or associate with those people or see that sentiment in the landscape which is painted in the pictures you like best? I do not say that you can do this in your position, just because one must look much and long at nature before one becomes convinced that the most touching things the great masters have painted still originate in life and reality itself. A basis of sound poetry which exists eternally as a fact and can be found if one digs and seeks deeply enough.'

The simplest way into an understanding of this is that it takes me right to his self-portraits. In these portraits he gives his own transitory life a permanence in the most unadulterated fashion. His 'self-expression' takes a back seat to his devotion to his craft as a painter. Because of his profound understanding of portraiture in Art history, his expressive style was assured without a hint of the fraudulent need for the 'self-expression' so prevalent today.











25 August 2020

Simca, and the right to drive on the left.



'Simca' Dieulefit, August 2013, oil on canvas, 150 X 150 cm

A friend wrote me to say that my recent rants about Post-Modernism seemed "a bit cheecky" as she put it as nicely as she could.

"You have made loads of paintings which might be defined as Post-Modernist, aren't you playing the fool with all these ideas of yours?"

Of course, she is right because I am interested in so much of everything, and I'm flooded with ideas most of the time. But generally I like to stick to Painting, and the question always comes down to whether or not there is a coherent way of expression which suits a particular medium of Painting. 

As I haven't replied to her email but if I did, I would tell her that lots of ideas fly into my head all the time, they mostly fly straight in through one ear and out the other. But others can take up residence inside me like swallows in a draughty barn. They can hang around for months, and years. Some even die in there but it's all good, as they say in Australia.

I would say that I like all sorts of Painting, and am curious about how they work, (when they do), and curious how they don't, (when they don't).

Simca is from a series of large paintings done in France. I was experimenting to see if I could create non-objective-looking pictures, but they had to be images which possessed meaning, however obscure. 

I would explain that I had seen an exhibition one wintry day in Paris about 15 years ago at the Dina Vierny Foundation. It was devoted to the Russian artists at the time of the revolution. There was of course, Malevich for whom I haven't a great fascination, but so also many other graphic artists like Rodchenko and Lyubov Popova for whom I do, and I was thunderstruck that afternoon where I spent the day. I had never seen so much refined humour in such serious work. I thought about it for months afterwards but it would be a few years before I would begin thinking of a new direction for my own painting after what I had seen.

One thing I was sure of was that it would not be too serious in nature because I am not a serious man.  I am more Tati than Tatlin, but I understood that much of this work from Russia had an immense influence on everyone everywhere else around the world. It was a creative wave riding atop the revolutionary tide, for at the beginning, at least, the artists were believers in the possibility of a whole new society, however short-lived. This yielded to other movements like in Paris around the same time, but where Russian artists were springs of hope,  Dada was a cloud of cynicism. (Sacré Bleu! Zeez French!)

But, anyway, I had an idea which has hung from the rafters inside me since then. I still work on these pictures but sadly, they live like orphans in my studio until finished. If my dear old friend doesn't get an email from me she can read this post instead.


23 August 2020

dinner of spicy thoughts

The thing about Post-Modernist painting, if I can ask such a thing, is that one has to come up with something better than what Nature has already offered up as a visual language.

In other words did Abstract Expressionism, which directly proceeded Post-Modernism, give us a new way of expressing ourselves? As painters, did it offer a pathway which transcended our desperate need for self-expression?   

Has our pursuit to liberate ourselves, in this post-industrial age limited our goals to that prized commodity of mere self-expression? Don't get me wrong, I love self-expression but not if if it lacks a visual language enabling communication.

Haven't we sold ourselves short in this quest for truth? 

These are questions I eat for dinner most nights.

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 19 August, 2020, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

21 August 2020

Blooming twilight and Formalism in Nature

 


A painting like this done the other night reminds that somewhere deep inside me, is a strong desire to render these often messy studies into something more formal, not symmetrical, but balanced. They are about as 'Greek' as I can imagine, if I stretch the parameters of an Athenian sense of aesthetic.
It's as if I can reduce all of Nature's magnificent beauty down to a canvas board of 25 X 30 cm. A tall order, ha ha. But there is a truth to this understanding inside me. 

After all, I stand at twilight in front of the vast sky and sea in all directions. This is the 'blooming' hour when colours morph away from the shadows of day into the light of night. It is in these instants of 'bloom' when magic ferments.

The study below, which I like very much and consider a success, is entirely different. 
The sky was certainly less balanced than the study above and with an irregular design which provokes a particular feeling in me when I begin working. It might be the changing aspect of the sky which pushes an urgency to find a solution for it. This can lead me to more risk and the capricious rendering is a result of all this. 

But also, I can be very insouçiant in front of such a sky and sea which isn't as easy to figure out in such a short bit of time. My uncertainty is what can create greatness. Left to my own devises in front of a steady designed motif and I shall resort to what I already know. And this rarely results in something new, or maybe even great, in its own way. 

But, I like them both. They were done about ten days apart so they are cousins, so to speak. 



18 August 2020

San Giorgio in Australia

     Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads,`12 August 2020, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm



These two studies were done within days of one another. They look as though the sea and sky were somewhat the same on both nights. They may indeed have been but what was really the same was my interest in pushing more pure colour with less white paint from the start. In them is more 'body', more substance than I typical use for the sky, in particular. They are quickly put down, and always start with the sky. This is completely different than how I have ever worked before in my life. I had always established the 'shadows' before introducing the sky. In this series I jump into the sky first and consequently I was 'fixed' to the 'value' of the 'light', in this case the sky, for the rest of the painting. I am doing the reverse of what I have spent my life doing in painting. This abstract motif is well suited for this kind approach though.
 
I remember working this way at the very beginning in my earliest days of learning to paint. In Venice I made a small study of San Giorgio back around 1974 from my hotel room. It began to appear across the little white canvas board in very much the same way, as these as if I am conjuring up an image out of some part of my memory. Once put down, it is not touched again. It is finished.

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 5 August, 2020, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm


And then, there was this study done at the beginning of the series three years ago. I had been working in the studio, far away from a 'motif' so consequently I was too aligned too closely with my memory only. It is of a very different conception, one more expressive, more painterly perhaps. I like it as much as the new things. I accept it. It reveals my deepest and often unconscious desire to go back into a childhood of messy play, something I was discouraged in childhood. And yet, there is the rigour of design; of a contained picture, one coming out of a tradition of landscape albeit wild and free. It's pretty weird in fact.

Only continuous work reveals the whole story of a painter's life. This is why it is imperative for him/her to keep working everyday if one is lucky to do so. Every day, every new picture is the source of spontaneous pleasure. For me, it is akin to being allowed to return to the child's playroom, and a chance to revisit the scene of the crime, so to speak.



16 August 2020

Giotto's joy of Donkeys and the gift of invention

 


One of the earliest forms of invention in Painting has to be in Giotto's work. Yes, everyone goes crazy for the Renaissance but it is in Giotto where one first finds the hint of Cézanne. 

What???...What a thing to say!  What rapport??

And I confess that I don't have anything of academic import to support this but through the images and from my own intuition. But it could just be that in Giotto's world of flat abstraction there is a simplicity which left Western Painting until the arrival of Cézanne 500 years later. And in Cézanne, there was a studious desire to return to a simplicity which centred around the shapes of a cube, a ball, and rectangle. He famously described drawing in those simple terms; the Aix landscape in particular, if I am not mistaken. 




And Giotto's simple structures which he created for his figures seem to be bursting out of the Byzantine crypt. 









Inspired by Cézanne, the early Cubist paintings also made a retreat to simple forms necessary to render their own concept of figures and landscapes. 

In both Giotto and Cézanne human figures feel cold and remote from feeling, almost of another of human world. My father had reproductions of Giotto scattered around his bathroom wall and as a child I felt almost scared just looking at their human faces. And yet, the animals are forever sweet and childlike. Indeed, animals throughout the Renaissance Painting world seem to be the chosen symbol for a humanity depicted side by side with human cruelty.


I wonder if anyone has written about this?

There is so much to say. I simply wanted to find an excuse to put up this top picture of these gentle and happy donkeys.


14 August 2020

Mallarmé and the effect of dusk on a man's soul.


zlv

I am not sure which painting (or painter) Mallarmé was thinking of when he made the following observation, (to paraphrase) 

"to paint not the object but the effect it produces might be the essence Modern Painting."


I am always looking at Turner's watercolours which have probably been the biggest inspiration for this series done in Australia.

With lighting speed I chase after these 'effects' of Nature at the end of the day and before nightfall. 

I am more Expressionist than Impressionist. I have already re-iterated this many times over the last few years in these pages. But, I say it again because after both French Impressionism and American Expressionism came a tsunami of copiers, ('followers of', to be less harsh). But still, like after every great new innovation in the Arts, what follows is almost always an imitation of the real thing. Painters develop strong techniques (effects) to compensate for a lack of vision based in personal memory.

I am not an adherent of American Expressionism but I am an adherent of speed, of painting quickly, without hesitation, without monkey mind, and mostly without the cursed 'attention to 'nice painting effects'; the plague of the Painting world. I attack a motif like a scorpion once I have seen something in it with my eyes. From then on, I break down the pillars of my own thought and constraint, and the messiness left at the end of the short session is the picture. These studies rarely take more than 10 or 15 minutes. 

My attention is always focussed upon the canvas board and the unified pictorial image which does not rely on the tricks of the trade in the Painting world at large. And yet, on occasion I can fall into propping up a picture using any means necessary to bring off a painting. 

This same thing happens in the world of Jazz. Followers still imitate the great innovators (with great technique) but turning so much of contemporary Jazz music into pablum. Another time to explore this idea which will upset most people.




11 August 2020

Brooks Brothers and the oasis of Madison avenue.

bsc

      Summer for Certain, Dieulefit, circa 2005

When I was a small boy I often visited my father who lived in a hotel in New York. I went mostly on weekends and he would always take me to Brooks Brothers for a tie, or shirt, or a pair of shoes. Though usually it was a tie. 

Looking back on those forays I suppose that he may have been trying to make up for his sudden absence in my life, and perhaps he made other forays to other shops with his other children.  

But for me, it was the ground floor of Brooks Brothers with two large entrances at both Madison Avenue and 44th street to the south which fascinated me. It seemed to be a bright place where the morning sun flooded over the wood floors. The Salespersons were plentiful, and they were constantly hovering around clients. It was good service and they were very kind to young boys like myself. At the center of the floor, as I remember it, were long display cases made of polished wood which extended out into the large room. In them all were narrow slots which housed the ties. Hundreds of colourful ties were lined up for inspection each in their own wooden coffins. I loved roaming these cases and it was certainly then that I became hooked on stripes. Every colour combination, every stripe size. There were more colour combinations than I had ever seen before and I was fascinated. I became an addict for life, and imagined wearing ties for the rest of my life.

And this striped obsession has remained with me since then. I fell into picking up silk samples from India, Turkey, France, Italy, Morocco, and just about everywhere I travelled. I didn't need more than a meter of it. It wasn't to use as bedcovers or for some other utilitarian purpose, it was simply to have in my possession a visual bit of sensual beauty like a man who needs a beautiful woman on his arm at all times. Many have now been lost or been given away but a few still remain to hang over chairs and hooks as faded reminders. Still in glory to themselves they exist.

This all reminds me of an LSD trip to the Nat'l Sand Dune Park in Colorado way back at the end of my freshman year in University. It was miles from anything, an enormous pile of sand at the end of a long valley Southwest of Denver. I was with some college friends and we climbed to the top of it during a June afternoon. We took acid but we forgot to bring water. (This was 1971, after all) At one point, the entire sand dune appeared to be made of millions upon millions of striped snakes. Picking up a handful of sand  then suddenly watching hundreds of brightly coloured snakes slip through our fingers as if in an Oasis in Arabia proved to be a big hit for us. I don't remember much else.



31 July 2020

Short stories: Black Lives Matter and making Basquiat great again




Now, to be upfront, I have never really been a big fan of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Yet there are many pictures which I like very much, and I have always recognised his creative gifts as a visual poet. My taste is kind of idiosyncratic but generally it might seem conservative to others in our contemporary moment of time. 

My rule in this Art thing is to only judge the  work, not the artist who made it. I learned that when I had to formulate for myself a way of reconciling the vast quality of Picasso's work: the sublime, the less so, the dreadful, and all the truly awful works in the bottom of the bin. 

So, when someone asks me what I think of Picasso, which is rare, to be fair, I reply with a request for a specific work in that person's mind even if they weren't thinking of one. It has become an easy, practical and diplomatic way to navigate Art criticism. 


But, back to Basquiat, now deceased, we know that his commercial success lives on a planet far outside of our own general orbit. I have seen pictures which I have liked very much, many of which have stuck in my visual memory bank for years. I also find his work quite meaningful in this time of Black Lives Matter and COVID all mixed up together, prescient, even.

This picture above is one which captivated me  but I was always bothered by an indiscriminate use of 'local' colour. So I decided to change things around to see if I could make it work for me. Its problems have to do with light and its arbitrary colour, but specifically, its overall  lack of graphic unity which can either kill a painting or send it up to the Louvre. Either way, it is something which can make or break an image's success or failure. I present his painting above in its original state. The following one (below) is with my alterations, for better or for worse.



I see now that I have rendered it more simply, more rather, 'directly and to the point', so to speak. It appears more austere because I am less distracted by the the slash or (splotch) of gold on the upper right corner. To me, it did not add anything to the picture (but I confess now that maybe it isn't as bad as I had felt it was when I first discovered this image years ago) Moreover, the over-all graphic harmony does also seem more coherent to me now. I cleaned up the figure's right leg and also around that quirky-looking bird cage halo so that it doesn't get lost in all the surrounding pink space. It is decidedly more straightforward. If it were a short story, it would be one which had undergone many revisions which is not a bad thing. I do understand, though, that his great universal appeal is all about that brutal urban drama, that 'in your face' splash of cold water. His work seems so emotional, which I think is OK, but I think much of it would be more profound, and would last longer in my imagination if it went beyond what writers call the 'shitty first draft'. Writers revise, revise, and revise again. Basquiat could have revised but then, perhaps, too much of his emotional anguish could would be lost for many of his fans. Who is to say?
 
(Addendum) 
I think it's a shame that such a talented poet of a man, didn't find his way out beyond his own bedroom walls, so to speak. Of course, he flourished inside them but he didn't make the leap across the bridge to a place where his big personality would give way to the long shadow of Painting history. He could have learned great things from Van Gogh, for example. But I know that large famously successful artists, especially since Picasso, often don't possess enough of an understanding about Painting history  because their egos take up all the space inside them. There is simply too much personality in so many paintings. (I know of a few who fit this bill and their work suffers because of it). I also understand that there will be many who will disagree with me on this. 

That Basquiat began as a graffiti artist is no surprise because his paintings on canvas and wood panels are graphic illustrations, and he is very, very good at making them. Sadly though, I too often I find that (straight from the tube) white paint a very abusive substitute for LIGHT. And the same could be said of Picasso whose abundant use of white paint  created truly appalling things. Indeed it is a big problem, this lack of LIGHT. I capitalise it because it is the light of a painting which can unify a coherent drawing or design of a picture. Sadly, too many painters use white paint to replicate the luminosity of light, which it is impossible.

Many of Jean-Michel Basquiat's pictures are still very sexy chic and made for this era.  This is also the era of Grunge-Chic where heroin and tattoos meet investment banking in condos high above the grit of Manhattan streets.

Here are some things which I really love for their simplicity.