30 November 2023

Inviting disaster

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 25 October 2023, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

 Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 25 October 2023, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

These two studies are from a few weeks back. The weather has been uneven and though there have been evenings when I could have, or should have gone out, perhaps,... but I didn't, I guess because I'm becoming a little bit snooty vis-a-vis the weather conditions, maybe like the apartment dog that refuses to leave the comfort of home for a dog walk when raining, or Heavens! it's snowing and the streets are full of slush. Dogs are hip to to this when they see the husband or wife wrapped up in galoshes and a raincoat. 

I used to go out under almost any kind of sky, but these days, I seem to be patiently awaiting the luminous light like a snob, and as I've said before in these pages I've painted my fair share of grey seas to last me a lifetime. So non! No more sickly Northern skies or bland seas for me. 

But of course, this could all change, like if I were to begin working out in the landscape again, where a pale and dull-looking slate sky compliments the very best of the earthy shrub and will usually always accentuate the arid landscape or lush greenery.

In such earthly spots a painter can exploit a range of orange umbers and red sienna's that are born of the desert sand and ground into the mountains. 

But by the seaside it's the opposite, for these plum reds, yellow pears and lime greens yearn to shed their earthly pigments and want nothing more than to fly away from earth. These tints gravitate to towards the blue-violet spectrum of serenity. 

Like human souls, these colours yearn for celestial height as found in the heavenly blue of stained-glass windows at Chartres, for it's all about being cool.

I like these two pictures, but especially now after a few weeks have passed as I see they've not lost their 'life' for me. As I can say too often in these pages there is no point in creating any picture that, (unlike perishable foods), does not 'live' beyond its execution date. 

One recent thing I've changed is that I picked up some smaller brushes and this has shaken  things up for me in a good way. I felt that I needed to get back into a different way of building up an image. I've seen for some time now that I had become too reliant upon larger sweeping swarths of colour and I wanted to get back to a busier, more frenzied set of planes; more unrestrained frenzy actually. 

This might be because I've spent a lot of time looking at paintings from these earlier years when I began the series from around 2017 and 2018 (as I am indeed putting a book together from all this). 

Here is one from those years to better show what I'm trying to express. This kind of image may not appeal to the general public but hey,,, who cares?

     Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 22 March 2018, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

In this study from March, 2018, there is an almost 'messy' or 'scrappy' aspect to this image. It reveals an expressive struggle between the winning and losing of a picture, and as with any battle, a painter gains more when blood has been drawn. 

But there is something in this study that I want again in my work, this untidy darkness and messy uncertainty that appeals to the insouciance of my personality. I want to go back and re-explore this careless sensuality because I sense that I need a sea change, as it were, from too much smooth sailing. 

And of course, 'Mark-Making' has become a major sub-genre of Contemporary Art in itself, ever since Twombly then Basquiat, who both arrived on the Painting Scene one after the other, and created mayhem for many, but also changed the way the public looked at Art. 

For me, this Mark-Making school is certainly an extension of Abstract Expressionism, and though I do find it sexy and all, it's too temporal. But also, in front of a 'motif' at the beach it's also not a solution for my way of painting. 

For many artist today, 'Mark Making' as 'method' is a whole way of life in studios and schools around the world but for me, it's just a means-to-an-end, not the other way around, because after all, I'm still a figurative painter.  

One cannot change course so easily and my process is still a slow progression. My working system cruises along adroitly like an ocean liner whose course is somewhat set, yet re-configured for changes to the actual currents. 

In summary, this study from 2018, also possesses an adventurous spirit and beckons danger and accidents like at night when I'm crossing over the middle line of a road and inviting failure, disaster even.


24 November 2023

Henri Matisse, and the elegant Autumn


Henri Matisse, When? Somewhere? or somehow!

One of my favourite paintings by Henri Matisse! Certainly not one of his groundbreaking pictures and yet it embodies an elegance so deceptively simple and refined that it would easily be overlooked by today's artistic circles which tend to lean more towards a Post-Modernist messaging.

I have no idea when or where it was done but I might guess somewhere in the South due it's warm light. It feels like Autumn, though a clement one unlike those of the North. Driving through any number of small villages around Provence one could easily stumble upon a village exactly like this one.

It possesses that fresh feeling like he knew exactly when and where to stop working on it. This is special talent and one that most people (generally the public) ever appreciate much less notice, but painters love it. But it's also a rare gift and one that few painters are blessed with.

It's as fresh as if painted last week and it unveils the unique brushwork of the artist, his personal DNA, if you like. But at the same time it also reveals a picture's skeletal innards like that of an X-ray showing a picture's overall health. Is everything in place? Do the parts all work? And does everything function together?

All these things are discreetly hidden away and out of sight, and normally, viewers will not notice any of this anymore than a passenger on a A380 knows much of what goes on inside the fuselage. The art of Painting isn't all airy-fairy, as some think, it's the art of craft just like everything else that's made with human hands. And like any craft, it's an aptitude that comes with both love and discipline for the product (which is actually an odd thing to say about a painting, but I just did).

Looking at it in this moment I imagine it was painted quickly, maybe in just one session perhaps. As a viewer I feel a fleeting sense of haste in it as if a magic wand was waved briskly overhead during its execution. 

There is a French expression that comes to mind: "Jeter la poudre dans les yeux" which dates back to an époque when the king and his entourage swept swiftly through small towns without stopping, their many horse-drawn carriages spewed dust into the villager's eyes, blinding and  dazzling them. Today it basically means to fool someone, snow them with glitter like Trump does. 

And this painting is a marvellous example of a space manipulated with colour. Matisse bewilders me like a magician who has surprised his audience by pulling a red rose out of a wife's ear whilst stealing a billfold from the poor husband's back pocket. 

The colour palette is remarkably simple. I wouldn't be surprised if it were composed of just a few colours; Ultramarine Blue, Madder Lake, Lemon Yellow, Prussian Blue (to make the black) and Titanium White. With so little, so much can be created in the right hands and with an artistic sensibility. And these colours gently appear to caress one another so spontaneously that I'm reminded of Delacroix's description of how the future of Painting would henceforth be based around his notion of 'drawing with colour' (and he was right). This is a kind of drawing disguised as colour that dictates the plan of organisation. 

The whole wall of trees on the right side of the painting appears implausibly uneven and yet it works so well. It has been both flattened and simplified allowing my eyes to keep moving around the picture plane with ease. Below it, a misshapen stone wall recedes like a snake and acts as an anchor for the mass of trees overhead.

The farmhouse on the left pulls the viewer's eyes down into the 'rear' of the picture towards the end of the road. It adroitly guides me down  and around the bend to the right, out of sight. Then, this bright Veronese green/blue thing (a shutter, or oeil de boeuf?) seems to pop up and come as a complete surprise as if Matisse sensed my somnambulant state so he had to wake me up in a hurry. 
Above, a 'Genoise' frames the roof of the farmhouse wall  by giving it weight that might otherwise feel flimsy. It's also an integral colour that fastens the sky and trees back down to the road. 

The colour harmony! Ahhhh,,, so discreet and deceptively simple, it's a great lesson into how colours interact on the colour wheel. It's a sumptuously rich understatement and it almost feels edible.  

As an addendum, I throw this in at the last minute because it reminds me so much of the Matisse though done roughly fifty years earlier. It too, was done in the Autumn and it possesses that same sort of gnarly spontaneity, but it's far more developed as a picture. Today, it appears to me just a less fluid when I compare it to the Matisse, but this is not a slight, just a nuanced observation, perhaps due to the painterly space between the two centuries. 

But, it was one of my favourite things at the Met when I lived in New York. It was also a picture of the rural French countryside that taunted me continually for living my urban life there. 

Alfred Sisley The Road from Versailles to Louveciennes circa 1879

12 November 2023

Hey lighten up!

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 23 October 2023, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 23 October 2023, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 23 October 2023, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

Above are three studies from two weeks ago (already!) How this idea of time shakes us down like the local Mafia!! 

We're robbed of it not at gun point, but stabbed a thousand times a day, and not by tiny sharp things but by the very point of our own lives.

After all, does it really matter how we die? All that matters, as the wise guys from the East remind us, is that we should live full and rich lives, but still, what is this point of life? And in this wide world, this is even a most luxurious of questions to ask, for most people don't have the luxury of very much free Time nor the temerity to even pose the question.

In this modern era of such awful wretched human behaviour I confess that I personally feel inadequate in my chosen vocation. Indeed, as an American, I was very fortunate to have had the luxury to even choose my life in the very first place. But lately, yes, like so many friends have revealed to me that, 'everything seems out of whack’. And in America, on top of all that is THE Cheshire Cat of Orange Clowns, that relentless and perfidious cancer cell.  But hey!! I try to remind my friends that Life has always been out of our control ever since man first discovered how to make fire on his own. 

Here in Australia, Aboriginal peoples have lived for thousands of years in relative peace yet at the same time surrounded by the random 'cruelty' of Nature. They view their life’s purpose so differently than Western Man because like other indigenous peoples in the America's, and Asia, the stories they have created to sustain their culture and give their lives meaning is ordered through the behaviour of Nature. We of the West, in contrast, have created stories to maintain an order that mirrors the behaviour of Mankind itself. The Christians went even further by creating a God modeled after Man himself, (go figure). 

Our civilised world has always behaved just out of humankind's control despite everything done to the contrary to rein it in as if it were a horse drawn carriage. To dream otherwise is a fool's errand and a waste of our Time, and our lives.
"Hey, lighten up!" I hear my guardian angel exhort me.

Well, what I really wanted to express is that despite the world around us, many of us still create stories through words and pictures to sustain and maintain our sanity through the vagaries of this difficult world in which we live. Some of us do it through pictures just like the Neanderthals, who decorated their caves about 40,000 years ago. They certainly would have had different dreams than our own, but their figurative language was still as original and vivid as our best painters today. And because of this, painters belong to one of the oldest vocations in the world.      

The five pictures here are all generous gifts from these Springtime skies here in Australia. There is not much else to say about them except that I wanted to capture something of what was 'out there' at the horizon line but also to communicate that feeling to someone else. It's not rocket science as they say. They also might be my own images with which to mirror back at Nature.

The top three and bottom two are all shown in the order in which they were painted, I think.

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 27 October 2023, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 27 October 2023, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

02 November 2023

Fire Exit


Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 18 October 2023, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 18 October 2023, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

These are from two weeks ago when there was a fire that began on the outskirts of Byron Bay and made its way all the way up to Brunswick Heads, where I paint, I guess about 15 kms or so. Unfortunately, a wild Southerly was blowing which accentuated the situation. For a week it steadily crept along the beach but then, like a clever dragon, it dove into the peat below the surface, and so for now it's burning underground. Not peep out of it for  a week now, no smoke, no nothing. I didn't know there were peat bogs here, but I suppose they are pretty much everything where there have been forests. Duh.

In any event, I mostly avoid painting when there are fires around because, though it looks beautiful when the sun lights it up, it quickly goes a sepia brown and mucks up everything once the sun sets. It's what some of us call 'local colour', and it can ruin all the natural colours in the sky. So, consequently I avoid it when smoke drifts overhead from anywhere. But it's fire season and it's quite dry already, but hey! It's better than an earthquake cracking open the beach or a ground invasion.

In the top one that was painted first, the smoke still looked kind of sexy pink so I just made a quick study of it to compress these wide colourful stripes like I was a dressmaker working on a pattern. I like it. It's the sort of picture I dream about all the time, a synthesis of this twilight sky. And like the seamstress, I adore the texture that it evokes. As all painters (if they are self-reflective) my pictorial obsessions are always being freed from the bonds of my mysterious childhood. The key is to become aware of them, then exploit them completely. Mine are centred around a sort of graphic sensuality, among a few others. But if one looks at any painter's oeuvre, this is discernible to all clever amateur sleuths of art because the creative fingerprints of our DNA are readily visible. 

The second picture was painted after the smoke switched direction and infected the rest of the sky and sea and all around me. Helicopters were scooping sea water using drums that resembled tiny thimbles hanging by wire perilously below them. For several hours there was a continuous buzzing back and forth in front of me like they were yellow jackets collecting mud on a hot summer day. I painted somewhat blissfully oblivious to the circus around me because there was nothing I could do about any of it.

And tourists too! They all came out with their phones to take selfies, sometimes of me in the background, go figure. I am such an odd relic out there braving the wind, the fires, and whatnot. Painting out there alone on a dune, people passing by hardly know what to think of me even on normal days. 

But this second study opens my imagination now to reveal the stale smokey and diaphanous atmosphere of the night, like in a boudoir of a 1950's film. Perhaps in this sleazy Hollywood hotel, a sulky blonde in a silky negligee stands by an open window, bored, and looking out at nothing.

And in this picture I got a little lost but gradually felt my way around the smokey haze until I found the fire exit, then finished it.  Whew.....