30 September 2020

Prussian Blue, I love you in Harry's Bar

Salute, 1985, oil on canvas board, 35 X 27 cm

The vaporettos of Venice are as crowded at rush hour as any buses in New York, Paris or London. Everyone is packed tight like sardines in these boats. In Venice, the vaporetto churn and sway, pushed around by other sea traffic much the same as a New York subway car.

Many years ago when I used to go to Venice to paint I carried an old army pack which housed my paints, turps, brushes, and such. I also attached the laminate palette to the army pack so it hung off the back. At that time I didn't remove the slabs of oil paint from my palette, I cleaned only the large surface of it while leaving the swabs of colours hanging in thick splotches. So in transit, the primary colours were left to fend for themselves on the palette like sherpas on a mountain face. It was a stupid way of operating and I was kind of aware of it too.

One late afternoon I was on the vaporetto on my way to the Gardens to paint San Giorgio at sunset. I had gotten on a vaporetto at Accademia heading East towards San Mark's and it was loaded with a great variety of fellow commuters; shopkeepers, tradespeople, maids, tourists, business types, glamorous couples, and everyone else. I was seated on the right side and people were pushed up tight around me. My bag pack was on my lap with the palette facing away from me, out towards the world.

At Ca' Rezzonico a big crowd got on the boat making it heave from side to side and a glamorously tanned couple were discretely pushed up against me by the sudden influx. The woman who must have been in her thirties, was talking rapidly with her companion. He was was wearing one of those slim Venetian tan suits, a blue shirt, and wearing an elegant tie. He wore slim Italian loafers which I could see where I was seated just below him. A handsome man, jet black hair flying in the wind, he was the kind of man who in those days might have elicited a slight envy in me I confess. The woman was right out of Vogue. Her chestnut coloured hair held in place by a colourful brooch, and like so many Italian woman she needed little make-up but for a discreet black line to highlight her green eyes. And being a Venetian she wore a pair of flat shoes, sensible to navigate the bridges and cobble stoned alleyways. But finally, she wore a magnificent silk dress patterned in small Ultramarine blue stripes running every which way if I can remember it after so many years. She was beauty, and I was flustered especially when she was jolted towards me, glancing quickly at me and softly said "Mi scusi". Though we were all in the magnificent lagoon underneath the the shadow of the looming Salute to our right, it was still the sloppiness of Rush Hour like anywhere in the world.

The next stop was on the left at one of the first of threes stops for San Mark's and the Hotel Europa. The exit ramp gave away to a small alleyway which went right past the discreet entrance to Harry's Bar on the right.  

These boats approach the dock slowly but then roar into reverse throwing everyone off balance anew. As we pulled into the next stop, the boat lurched, heaving everyone back and forth. And  it was this last jolt of the vaporetto, and as a consequence, created for me a dilemma from which I recoiled with the grandest cowardice. For on that last jounce this beautiful woman's dress collided with my palette, brushing it lightly as the French might say: "ç'a frôlé", like a butterfly's wing.

Completely oblivious, she moved with ease among the other disembarking passengers to the boat exit with her handsome man in tow while I focused on her dress. For I saw with distress several fresh Prussian Blue streaks across her backside. I froze.

To be fair, I didn't have much time. I mean, what a terrifically awful scene it would have been had I jumped up and out at her to explain in my fragile Italian that due to my civic recklessness I had destroyed her beautiful silk dress. This alone would have created a completely different outcome to the story.

Then, again, the recklessness, no,.. the utter chaos of what I had unleashed would have been far worse.  For I had understood that such a well-dressed couple were not returning home after a day at the dry cleaners, no,,, they were out for the evening, and first stop was Harry's Bar where tout le monde went to be seen, to drink caprinis with movie stars and wealthy aristocrats.

All this flashing through my poor brain in a nano second while the boat, having filled up with fewer people now prepared to chug onward towards the Lido which was its final destination.

I sat in a state of shock and shame, and I slowly turned the palette around to see it disfigured with a broad swarth of blue and a bit of  lemon yellow. My mind filled up quickly with scenes from a film in my head about what was shortly to transpire. As the vaporetto pulled away, I watched the woman casually walking up towards Harry's Bar, cool and beautiful, unaware of the storm awaiting her fabulousness,.. and I thought,

 "What have I just done?"

By the time the vaporetto was making its next stop further onward at the end of St Mark's Square I had already created a timeline for the mess I had made. Chaos would be unfolding, as the woman took her seat at a table. Prussian Blue would quickly find its way outwards and into the dining room like a virus. It would move with stealth everywhere. It was just a matter of time, I surmised, before all Hell would break loose.

I imagined several scenarios but the one which stayed with me after 40 years is this one:

I saw the Head waiter showing the couple to their table. There might be a little air-kissing for acquaintances on the way. The Head waiter would then hold the back of the chair for the madame, the madame would gently fold the back of her dress with one of her small hands to glide herself smoothly in so as not to crease her lovely dress. And just from this gentle manoeuvre she might have felt the sticky oil paint with her delicate fingers before bringing her left hand up to see an errant blue swatch imprinted across her fingers.

Even after all these years, I can not envision the look of confused horror which must have lit up her face as she jumps up, spins around and sees Prussian Blue on the base of the chair while at the same time grasping at the back of her silk dress incredulously.

Would she yell at the poor bus boy nearby? Would she scream, or just cry out with anger? Who would she blame? The entire room would go deathly silent for sure, and our poor heroine, whom I now call her, is shaking her slender tanned wrists with emotion. Flapping their clean hands, waiters in white, scurry around the table like impatient geese. This is now an Italian film. Her handsome companion suddenly standing up in solidarity, clueless. Who could blame him?

How long before all the main actors found the cause of this pandemonium? 5 minutes? Ten? At least for a few long moments anyway, I mused to myself already, at a safe distance from ground zero by now. But Prussian Blue would have the upper hand in this comedy, or drama, depending on whose perspective.

Eventually the culprit would be identified as the poor woman's dress and she would eventually find her way to the ladies room where the smartly dressed but elderly attendant would help her smudge out the paint while ruining at least a dozen white linen towels. Our heroine hoping to clean it up enough to get through dinner. Her mind, dizzy with questions. How? What? why? (Ma come?) Would she remember the weird looking fellow with a palette seated on the vaporetto? 

Meanwhile, in the dining room, waiters would have removed the infected chair, replaced it, and cleaned away anything Blue. The Head waiter like a house dick in a 40's film would have nervously circled around other tables to see if there was a bigger problem of BLUE elsewhere. (BLUE! Sacré BLUE!)

The other diners discreetly inspecting  jackets, dresses, jewelry, and even socks and shoes before getting the "All Clear", turned back to their own meals. Suddenly, there was something interesting happening! And this would be great dinner gossip for years to come.

Eventually our heroine would return to the dining room. And because of her beauty, her return might elicit a brisk applause as she entered, cheekily inspected her new chair to everyone's amusement before seating herself quickly, though now on a towel placed over it stealthily by a quick thinking waiter.

At the same time, the cowardly painter having arrived at his motif, had set up his easel and begun to paint San Giorgio before the sun set.

28 September 2020

evidence of time and place


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


Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 26 September, 2020, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

These two studies are from the past few days. The skies have been salty and full of humidity which are great for painting. I am always amazed at how different each of these studies are. Each evening light is different, and after all, I too, am different each evening.

Today, I found myself thinking about the relevance of these small studies. It wasn't at all in any unpleasant way, just contemplating their worth in the grander scheme of things. I guess it means that I hope that they communicate something to someone else. Do they have an inherent worth? Are they able to convey an emotion to another human being? Do they surprise anyone? 

I do have this weird way of judging them. I imagine one 
of these small studies on a wall in a Museum tucked away from a main gallery. Would I notice it as I walked in? Would I make a bee line for it? And would it take its place among the better pictures?

When I am in a museum and move through galleries I first like to stand in the middle of the room and do a 360 degree turn while scanning for something to catch me off guard. 

I want to make things which are alive, but which also reveal evidence of time and of place. And I also wish for paintings to be windows into somewhere else which transcend the image itself. Sounds like a tall order but in fact these are just ideas I have when I am not painting. Ultimately, is what I am doing of any interest beyond myself? Does my pleasure in making them transform into pleasure for a spectator?

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


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 and 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, 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, and now I would make amends if I only 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 to 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 because it was always me.

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

The memory is everything for an artist. And 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, becomes irrelevant at a certain point. (again, the Zen wise guys would say it was always irrelevant from the beginning). But I secretly rebel against these guys, 

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

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

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

P.S. I didn't see the two subtle splotches of paint at the bottom below, on the left and right which resemble two dogs. There is marvellous unconscious dog within me after all. 

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


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.