24 May 2022

the mysterious beauty of breath

Lately, at the most very random moments in a day my thoughts turn to a subject which continually abuses my mind about our contemporary culture, notably concerning Art and Entertainment. I say this because they seem to have been reduced to a kind of cultural equivalency. And yes, both are big industries in the world economy, though mostly in the American one, but nonetheless, they are money-making machines,.. cash-cows, as they say on Wall Street.

And so, it has vexed me for the longest time because as any dear reader of this tiny newsletter will know, I do not see Painting (as well as many other art forms) as a form of entertainment. 

I will try not delve into other areas of this dialogue to keep it simple. But inviting literature into this discussion might help my point because I think we all accept that some books are inherently entertaining while others possess something more sacred. And ditto for music, as well as for films, theatre, and television too, for that matter. I am up for it all, though in my own case I almost never read anything to entertain myself except magazines and newspapers online (where I waste too much time) but ditto for music. But I do also watch all kinds of films and serials for many varied reasons. For me, at times, it’s just to watch the end of the world all squeezed together into a mushroom cloud but also, maybe just to be eating mushrooms with a crew of hobbits in Middle Earth. Some nights, I tag along with cops hunting down a serial killer with a fetish for blue feet. So when it comes to films and serials, my taste runs the whole gamut as they say in Tinseltown.

But I do try to discern various levels of artistic input in almost everything I engage with in life. So in films, I can be all over the shop. In music much less so as I am discriminating, but when it comes to Painting, I bring out my scalpels. 

This morning for instance, almost in a flash while playing piano, it occurred to me that this whole thing in my head was actually quite simple. 

The answer isn't complicated; It can be reduced simply to a level of pathos, of mercy, of a compassion built into the painting through the originality and skills of the painter. But of course it also needs to be well rendered too. With these elements it has a chance of moving us, the viewers, allowing us to see both life and death in each brushstroke. And this understanding of it naturally excludes a Post-Modern glib cynicism. 

But it doesn't have to be a Vanitas of Medieval times, filled with skulls and other morbid symbols from a dark monastery. On the contrary, a light-filled self-portrait by Van Gogh is more than enough, for he embodies all these traits I have listed above.  

Entertainment, on the other hand, only reveals a photocopy of that experience, and though it can be deliciously appetising in detail, it is still a kind of junk-food that will leave us empty afterward no matter how much we have ingested.

Personally, I usually feel nothing in front of cheap entertainment, but sometimes I can  freely indulge in it too, as with the guilty pleasure of watching James Bond seduce a woman half his age. But the thing is that I know it's just entertainment, I know that my senses have been manipulated by the cheap thrill of it, and I know I'm being entertained by it all with sheepish pleasure because I have consciously given myself up to it. 

But in the world of Painting where artists compete to entertain the public is where the trouble begins for me, for I like the carnival to stay at the carnival (what goes on in Los Vegas, stays in Vegas)

This an important consideration, a vital distinction which separates the men from the monkeys. For instance, when I read a novel I want something well written, a thing constructed of wit and intelligence, something which comes to me through a wise devotion of craft. I am not interested in dime store novels or airport-reading, though there is a place for them too (somewhere). 

A great (or decent original painting) will also exhibit ‘a thing of wit and intelligence’ two qualities of which arrive only after an arduously long and patient slog on the part of an artist to achieve this wise devotion to craft.

This glimpse of mortality in front of an art work is what moves us, and brings us to tears ultimately. But it isn't as easy in front of a painting as it is watching a film or an opera. If one has never wept in a movie house alongside others, one still has a lot of work to do on themselves, or maybe just change movie houses.

But again, tearing up while listening to Puccini’s Manon Lescaut may be a lot easier than to shed tears in front of a self-portrait by Van Gogh at the Courtauld Institute but they both evoke in us the same feelings about mercy, suffering and death. Ditto for James Joyce’s short story The Dead, from his small book called The Dubliners. 

But yes, it is also in this presence of beauty too, where that very complicated word is inextricably bound up in the poet's own solemn understanding of death.

I am reminded also of Manet's late still-lives which he made the year before his death. Giving up his previous thirst for medals and fame, when infirm, he quietly gave himself to a series of bouquets in vases. The fallen rose petal risks to be a cliché under less gifted painters but I think these things he made at the end of his prodigious life were his very best. They are less grand perhaps but more poetic, they are timely symbols of both life and death in one breath. Today, a still life will suffice when we remember that Nature Morte (in the French) means exactly that. 

So, contrary to entertainment, Art isn’t about ‘killing time’, it's the shadow of life folding under the last breath.

19 May 2022

"Je choque donc j'existe", Andre Serrano vs Verrochio


"See, then, that bronze equestrian statue. The cruel ruler has kept the bit in his mouth for centuries. Unbridle him for a minute if you please, and wash his mouth with water."
Thomas De Quincey, British, 19 century writer

Compare these images above with the ones below of that wonderful piece by Marino Marini at the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation in Venice. It is titled L'Angelo della Citta created in 1948. A small anecdotal surprise is that the erect phallus was cast separately so that it could be screwed on and off and used with discretion. Now here is a discreet artist! He was thoughtful enough to not want to cause offence to others who might not appreciate it. This was Italy in the middle of the 20th century after all, when nuns scurried around everywhere in public. And to be honest, I don't remember seeing this poignant detail on the piece back in the early 1970's when I first saw it overlooking the Grand Canal at the Foundation. But then, those were different days because now it seems so unlike our world of Contemporary Art where  few artists would ever consider such a thing, because to shock is to affirm one's artistic right. "Je choque donc j'existe." 

I am thinking of Andre Serrano's Piss Christ, a work made to shock and perhaps insult, but also to make headlines, and lots of money.

But the statue at the top, which I equally adore, is the magnificent one created by Andrea Verrochio which sits in Campo SS Giovanni e Paolo on the other side of Venice. Its massive stone plinth is eight meters high, twice that of the rider and horse. Both this warrior and his horse exude a courageous and unrepentant power. It has always fascinated me. My father took me to see it when I was four years old when we visited one summer as a family unit in 1956. It made a huge impression upon me and somewhere there exists a Kodak photo of the two of us in front of it. 

On a light note entirely, is Donatello's statue of Gattamelata (Erasmo da Narni) made a dozen years earlier and which portrays a different side of the warrior as leader. This was the first Renaissance equestrian statue, one that revealed the warrior as an individual befitting the humanist tide of thinking which swept  through 15th century Italy. 

And here (below) is an earlier equestrian statue from the 13th century in the Bamberg cathedral of Germany. It resides inside the cathedral hall atop a far more modest stone plinth and casually dwarfed by the grandeur of its surroundings so unlike the two statues above which command the empty space encircling them both. This one is delicate, and looking vaguely lost, it is paused, perhaps in a thought of reverie, yet in remarkable contrast to the two equestrian statues above. 

It's a beautiful work and one day I would love to go see it. The rider, unknown apparently, but maybe the emperor Henry II, is unarmed and stationary unlike the Verrochio which feels almost caught in a video still of motion. I really love this piece, gentle, musing and contemplative. The horse is carved out of a stylised 13th century but much like my favorite painting in the world, The Battle of San Romano painted 100 years later in 1432 
by Paolo Uccello at the start of the Renaissance. He made three versions, one is in Paris, the other in Florence, but this one below I love the most at the National Gallery in London. The humanity rendered in this figure and horse just kills me. 

And lastly here is an equestrian work from the British Museum but I cannot find any information on it. I took the photo in the Grand Court a few years back. Unfortunately, they don't have a search engine on their web site to find it but it feels like a Roman copy from the Greeks. They were adept at copies but their thirst for hyper-realism always seems to give them away. In this case the horse feels certainly better than the rider somehow. And look how much larger is the rider than the horse in this version from Rome! it's an abstraction, of course, but he is gigantic. Compared this to the one from Bamberg and I see a rider rather diminutive, as if differing to the gentle horse.

15 May 2022

Colin McCahon, cool modern painter from the cooler Southern Hemisphere


I only just recently heard of this marvelous and original painter on Radio National, the public radio station here in Australia. It was an informative interview with a curator from Auckland. I immediately went to Google to look up some images. 

Naturally, I identified with many of the images straight away through my own way of working here on the Pacific rim of civilization. He was a bit of an eccentric, like me, but a religious one, unlike me. 

The top picture has a bit of Paul Klee in it, but also Raul Dufy too.

I find his sense colour quite interesting, and equally for his sense of light. I love the graphic punch of these things here. There is a unity in his mind when he paints as if he doesn’t fuss with too many ideas; he attacks the canvas armed with an image already formed inside of him. His painting is from New Zealand which is the last land mass before arriving at Antarctica and its cooler colour harmonies reflect that southern latitude.

I have not listed the sizes because I couldn’t find them for these images on Google, which for all its greatness, is still lacking. I will let the images speak for themselves and the readers investigate online as well.

02 May 2022

a leap of faith with a dollop of cloud


Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 27 April 2022, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

Here are some recent things from the beach at Brunswick Heads that I like. I haven't been to crazy about recent work there which is why I haven't posted anything. 

It wasn't a 'great' evening, the clouds were uninspiring until after dark when I was able to capture these two things quite quickly. In fact, until the next day I had deemed them both a write-off despite being happy to have gotten out to work out there. It was only a few days later when I realized that they were pretty interesting. 

The top one, (done second to the one below) for instance, was nothing until I took a chance and swiped a gentle dollop of orange/red over the irregular line of blue violet clouds. It was an improvised dab of intuition and I am grateful for its appearance because it completes the image. My weakness in these things is that I can become overly cautious at a certain point towards the end of a picture. It was getting dark and I could barely make out the colors on the palette so it was a leap of faith, one which surprised me, and woke me up. 


Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 27 April 2022, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

30 April 2022

Close cousins, Art and Science.

          Georges Seurat, The Morning Walk, 1885

I was thinking this morning while practicing the piano about just why some people are more of an artist than a scientist though both are equally are highly esteemed in my mind. They say it has to do with right vs left brain but even that seems almost too abstract,  too irrelevant an explanation.

I was thinking about it because in this Post-Modern academic world-view an artist is expected ‘to say something’, to comment from their own perspective, to assert a point of view about something. But for someone, a painter in my case, who simply desires to see Nature out in the world away from self or point of view, it can be a letdown for the viewer who expects this ‘discussion’ about Nature, either as an interrogation or affirmation. But for the painter (me) who is not generally interested in this kind of dialogue using Art, there is no other purpose to the work of art than to behold it, to be swept away by its expression  of personal truth. The meaning of it is in the transfer of a feeling from one person to another.

So a painter, in this long vertiginous line of landscape painting; in the West, the East, and in the wild worlds of Africa and beyond, I am loathe to question or affirm ideas that I might have about the Natural world, rather, it is my wish to simply express it visually. And as a painter I desire more than anything to run naked into the motif, exploring it fully, like a teenager kissing their first beau, or belle, for the very first time.

A scientist, on the other hand, wants to poke it, turn it over, and open it up like a frog's heart or a new thesis. It's a different exploration, and it gives up different results. The scientist seeks an understanding of Nature through facts whilst the painter seeks out an artistic solution to the aesthetic challenge posed by the those facts in Nature. They are both searching for a concrete resolution to their respective curiosities. And both are looking for order too, as they get lost in the sublime irrationality of the natural world.

So this makes me think of Leonardo da Vinci, who both as an artist and scientist explored the natural world with an erudite curiosity, designing all sorts of practical things for humankind, but at the same time, painting the mysteries of a smile.

Science and Art are close cousins, and they have been since the beginning of time, and they also appear to eye one another with suspicion and envy, just like cousins. But, this is good because it provokes a friendly sense of competition. There have been many, many moments in history when Science has poached artists away and seduced them with its base medals. Pointillism, at the end of the 19th century in Paris comes to mind, when Georges Seurat thought he had found the Holy Graal by devising a system to create paintings using tiny fragments of color. It was an interesting concept, and he made some beautiful pictures at the beginning of this voyage but less so in his later pictures, many of which are his most famous. La Grand Jatte was painted when he was barely twenty five. Sadly, he died way too young at the age of thirty-one. He was so very gifted that it's hard to imagine what he might have done with his immensely generous gifts. His earlier pictures are sublime. They possess a sensual intuition unlike La Grand Jatte (just below), which feels contrived and systematic, more like an illustration than a picture that truly lives and breathes life. It's as if he made it in a laboratory instead of a studio. But below are some of the smaller pictures, studies, some of them that are wonderful. 


La Grand Jatte, 1886

Seurat almost pulled in old Pissarro, who himself was fascinated by what could be possible with a more systematic use of coulers on canvas. But it didn’t last long for he quietly went back to his own squirrelly brushstrokes. 

But Seurat did indeed create a school of sorts, and his doctrine was rigorously pursued by Signac and other followers. Unfortunately, none of them had the genuine gift of the young Georges Seurat.

So I guess what I am trying to say is that a Scientific approach in creating Art will always be inferior due to the lack of the inherent intuitive, irrational nature of the artistic way. But that does not mean that a scientist cannot rely upon his/her own artistic intuition to solve problems in their own Scientific realm because intuition moves easily throughout all creative endeavors

And Painting is about developing an intuition based on empirical knowledge about how the visual world operates, and it can never be rational.

21 April 2022

vaulted ceilings of sky

These are a few studies from this past week. The Autumn skies are upon us but there has been  so much rain they've been hidden.

These two were done under a sky in full bloom, so much so that I decided to ignore the sea below. Now, a friend has informed me that she understood the blue violet at the base of each study to be the sea,... alas, ... Mais Non! 

But hey!, it doesn't matter because these studies must stand up in the original architecture of their own abstract conception. In essence, they need to stand on their own, and not from any outside visual bias.

I was happy with them when I finished and began to clean up and pack my things at the beach. It was a magnificent twilight, and I could have kept working but the palette wasn't easy to see nor to differentiate colors. But what a light to behold! Standing at the beach at the end of a short painting session I sometimes I feel like a child walking into a great cathedral for the very first time. In spite of the vaulted ceilings the space seems to go on forever in one's young imagination. And the beach too, only limited by the far ends of the horizon on either side feels limitless. But it does have limits, and the painter himself must create them, define them, through the drawing. This is where one's own sense of abstraction is so vital, but it requires originality. This 'seascape' genre is a rundown motif, like an old whore; used, and abused by generations of painters, and it can rob one of all their noble intentions in front of such magnificence. The lessons are limitless too if one is original. And to be fair, many of my studies are not. But sometimes they reveal something new, and for this reason I come back for more.

But anyway, these are open pictures, that is to say that there is no earthly boundary unlike studies made using the sea at the base of the picture frame. I hope these open up something new for me.

Evening Prayer 11 April 2022, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

Evening Prayer 11 April 2022, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

18 April 2022

Donald Baechler's war zones of paint where angels slug it out


I have always had a soft spot for this artist so it is sad to hear of his death last week at the age of 65.

I really loved his quixotic and weird pictorial imagination which he used in a multitude of different ways. I knew his paintings and drawings but he also made sculptures too. He was certainly painter's painter, and by that I mean that his first love was always the expressive graphic punch of an original image while using lots of paint. And painters love both originality and lots of paint.

His canvas's often resembled delicate war zones where angels slugged it out in the airy open. This is not a tortured Edvard Munch, this is a guy who clearly had fun in his studio and hopefully, and (presumably) in his New York life. I always felt a little envious of his unrestrained creativity, his devil-may-care insouciance.   

His imagination, though playful and childlike, also resembled an autistic playground as well. He made lots of wild-looking cartoons out of every kind of household object, and he must have watched a lot of television as a kid too. And as the actor Jim Curry had reportedly learned many of his cartoon voices and sounds from and 60's television, then so did Donald Baechler, who filled his own head with the same cartoons from this golden era of American camp.

But his visual focus was mostly always like a direct hit at the viewer. His ideas, always just out of reach of our rational expectations, seemed also rooted in the depths of art history. At times Byzantine, at times Cycladic, but sometimes just a hop and a skip from Disney World.

One of my very favorite paintings is called Deep North (just below). He manages to create a world of allegory, both rational (in pictorial terms) and absurd. The stern zen master might approve.


In these earlier works from the 1970's and 80's there is a visual clarity so unlike the often shoddy ambiguity of his contemporary, Jean-Michel Basquiat though I admit it is really unfair to compare artists. I say this because I gradually came to appreciate the visual poetry of some of Basquiat's work but too often, I felt this quality was lost in his undisciplined approach to his chosen craft (Painting). And also in Basquiat's work, I miss the concise, visual acuity that I find in Donald Baechler's work which is always his strong point. But don't get me wrong, I do like ambiguity, but not the unclear and mushy, disguised as ambiguous, which I find inferior.

One can see this difference in all sorts of paintings throughout history. Some painters indulge in a kind of mushiness, maybe out of a lack of drawing skills, maybe a fear of conviction but one rarely feels that with Donald Baechler. Even if one doesn’t appreciate his content, it is at least clear. Here are just a few more of my favourite things…