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 which includes white paint. 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) and moreover, the over-all graphic harmony does definitely 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 and 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, 'the pie in the face moment'. His work seems so emotional which I like but I think much of it would be better expressed and 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 would have been lost for the viewers. Who is to say? 
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 out across the bridge to a place where his big creativity could 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 contemporary egos take up all the space inside them. There is simply too much personality in too 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 find me repugnant to even suggest 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, 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 and this 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.

29 July 2020

Otto Dix, and the problem of men and women together.

As a painter when I speak of colour I think about complimentary harmonies. I really cannot see one colour without perceiving its complement lurking right behind like shy girlfriend. What is a compliment harmony? A compliment to something is generally considered to be a quality which brings out the best in that object of which it is compared or to which it is contrasted. And herein it replicates relationships because just how many times have I found myself with girlfriends for whom I am an awful compliment. I seem to bring out the worst in them and it is usually a two way street, to be honest. Only in the past few years has this become apparent to me. Couples who bring out the worst in one another, alas, are not an uncommon sight. There are like in an Otto Dix painting, where warm pinks have sex with warm yellows, cold reds sleep drunkenly with cold greens. These couples clash like violins Stravinsky's in the Rite of Spring, but unlike in Stravinsky's creation there is rarely resolution. It is a life of continual disharmony. It's enough to make one single. 

But in a painting resolutions are real, and necessary, mostly, usually. There is the work of Otto Dix who defies this idea and turns it on its head out of sheer force of his intense originality. He was a painter of such visual force that he almost singlehandedly created a whole new genre of painting: Bad painting. His work was never 'bad' or 'kitsch' but a whole army of terrible painters certainly looked at his work and made wonderful kitsch from it filling hotel rooms the world over.


22 July 2020

Marcel and Lydia came to lunch at the Châteaunoir

It was reading both Marcel Proust and Lydia Davis which gave me the permission to write with abandon, opening up without the fear of seeming pretentious or foolish. Proust let me into a world of lengthy (and painterly) descriptions of Nature, Paris, and women. Like with so many wonderful writers, reading Lydia Davis has at times seemed to me that I have been invited to an autopsy performed on her characters, still alive, and writhing. I like her sharp incisions into the stuff of everyday life, out in the world, all the banal relationships we have with complete strangers. And also with our own strange selves are we confronted. She has a quick visual acuity which rivals Proust, (whom she also has translated). But where he takes a page, she pares it down to a sentence or two.

It's a tricky thing to write with a public in mind because one can really only learn to write by writing, writing a lot I discovered. And many years of writing for oneself in a diary only prepares oneself poorly for the wide outside world. But, it does teach one to begin stringing sentences together with some assurance. And only after much writing does one begin to feel confident that a small voice will rise up out of the mud to squeak, like in a story by Dr Seuss. And in the end, who cares anyway?

In Painting, many seem to be obsessed with finding a style. An old friend of mine who has been very prolific in her life as a painter suddenly expressed this problem to me the other day. I was stunned to hear her say this because for me, she has always had a style which is natural, very personal to her, and very recognisable. Then she showed me some things on Facebook. What she really meant to say was that she didn't like her style, her drawing. This is altogether different. So we talked about that.
It can happen that an artist will become dissatisfied with their work periodically. The question of Style is different, but it is something which newcomers in many artistic fields do fret a lot about. 

I read a book about the painter Martin Mull who attended Rhode Island School of Design back in the early 1970's. In it he tells a funny story about one of his classmates in Freshman year who idolised Vincent Van Gogh. This fellow not only went around campus dressed up looking like Vincent Van Gogh, but in the studio, he was also trying to paint with Van Gogh's explosive style much to the amusement of other classmates and his teacher. One day, after complaining about not having his own style to the class,  his teacher, asked him to paint a self-portrait as an exercise and he  went on to explain to the confused freshman that any and all of his 'mistakes' in the self-portrait would in fact constitute his 'own very personal style'. His 'mistakes' were in fact, his style. This proved to be a valuable lesson to Mull, and needless to say, it would have been a great moment for all the students. 

So all because of Marcel Proust and Lydia Davis, I learned to indulge myself, page after page of delicious descriptions of roaming The Louvre, spending time with Titian, and Goya whilst all the while obsessing about the hat check girl at the entrance who took my overcoat.

20 July 2020

I, moi, et Michel de Montaigne

A friend came over for a small dinner last week, someone whom I don't know well but I already consider that this someone 'might be a friend' perhaps one day (I am giving her the benefit of the doubt so far). But there is always this netherworld of space around people before and after friendships begin and end. 

Before a person is considered a friend they are but an acquaintance, certainly not yet a friend, and just as certainly after a friendship has ended, for whatever the unpleasant reason, they are also certainly never a friend (though that can always change). But they are never again, an acquaintance.

But in this netherworld, in this space between a friend, or not, it can be confusing, and I am not someone who lets just any idiot into my life.

So, I had bought a Japanese toilet two years ago and it is always a big hit when people come over and use it. It is a civilised way of 'doing business'.

Doing 'business' in France was almost always an unpleasant affair if away from home. We had gotten too used to smooth paper (to wrap freshly baked bread) and newsprint, both poorly trimmed and always hung to the side of a mangy wall from an old nail, sometime with a string. But this was a long time ago, and I doubt the young well-dressed generation of today would put up with this! And then, many, many years later, I went to Japan to discover the meaning of civilisation.

And I won't linger to speak of where "Ça va?" comes from, other than to say that it was an intimate dialogue between the king of France and his personal physician several times a day. This business, as it were, gave rise to that expression 'Sitting on the Throne'. 

So now I often read on my own personal 'Throne', usually the more erudite books in my library, better to contemplate life on earth in the most humble but somewhat comprising of positions (though my brother strongly advises me against too much time there).

I had started the lengthy In Search of Lost Time (en Anglais, hélas) on my comfortable  sofa, but then we went to bed together, and then, months later, poor Swann ended up next to the throne where I could linger like a hesitant fawn in the woods. At present, I am reading Montaigne (en Français) whom I have revered for decades. A page or two a day keeps the doctor at bay, I try to think.

So, "revenons aux moutons", as they in the French countryside. This women at the dinner party went to use the loo (as the Brits call it, and maybe Wikipedia can explain) and, having seen Montaigne placed upon a small chair in front, asked me, when she returned to the living room if it was 'for show', as she put. As if to say: "Who would really read Montaigne on the "John" in Australia?... and isn't this just to show off?"

I laughed, and I said something on the order of "when you know me, you will know" sounding cryptically like a wise man from the East. Then I served dessert.

Post script: She became a friend and lover but then became an ex-lover and most unfriendly.

16 July 2020

Beginings, middles, and the end of the canvas

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 12 June, 2020, oil on canvas board, 40 X 35 cm

John Cage says that life is never-ending, that the Beginning, the Middle and End is not part of the natural sequence. He also says that it is the reason why recordings are not music (he hears the trees rustle as music for instance, as a better model of Art)

I disagree, with all due respect to him. I say that Art (and music) is manmade, not natural, therefore one cannot confuse this with life. And because this is so, the beginning, middle and the end of a work are crucial partitions in separating Nature from Art. 

And yet, the Natural world also behaves in cycles of beginnings, middles and ends, so an artist makes these abstract partitions necessary for Art to function as independent of Nature. A painting is after all, an abstraction, pulled from the nature world and 'man handled' onto a canvas or whatever other form, but to say that this is Life is making a mistake. I agree with Cage that it isn't. It is ART, and it is manmade and so unique. But all animals, insects, microbes also create form with wilful intent.

I think we must take from the natural world and re-configure it into something human such that it symbolically follows our own lifespan, our beginning, middle, and our end...

11 July 2020

Two cousins, two continents

So the first image is one of Mondrian’s early pieces. It, like the second image, has been parked on one of my desktops for a hundred years. They sit crowded amongst many others like aircraft stored in the California desert awaiting re-use.

The second one is from the back of a truck which was parked for the longest time in the Industrial zone of Byron Bay here in Australia. I kept seeing it on different streets and the image grew on me over time. Finally, I snapped a picture of it so it could be parked on my own desktop.

I love them both for their unity of expression and their delicate colour harmony. The Mondrian is quite small, certainly not larger than A meter across but probably even smaller, about 40 centimeters or so. It is an intimate portrait, a dyslexic and future version of American wallpaper. It is an example of Modernism at it’s very precise best. It set off a whole movement of what I believe is called “Formalism” in the American school of the late 20th century. 

The ‘tagged truck’ could be a signature of letters but I cannot decipher them. There is a self portrait of the artist as ‘bad boy’ in the lower left which I find endearing. Anyone who knows me well, will know that I have always hated graffiti. I am someone, who, when strolling about town likes to ‘possess’ an empty, even ugly boring cityscape just for myself, for my own imagination. But I am of another age certainly, and yet, I have liked a few things over many years but only if they are transitory. 

I love the colour scheme here; the intense pale tropical blue signature against the ruined look of the metal, at times golden. The matt black of a solid shape sits in the very center like a weird bear and makes me think of Philip Guston.

08 July 2020

killing me softly in a public space

Sadly, I cannot remember where this is from but I loved it instantly. A public statue which speaks softly and doesn't carry a big stick. 

02 July 2020

Daffy Duck at lunch with V.

 Evening Prayer Brunswick heads, 15 June 2020, oil on canvas board, 
30 X 25 cm

I met V. for lunch the other day, her lunch, really, whilst I watched her eat. Her tiny arms and small hand made me think of a wounded bird. She had explained to me when I first met her months ago that she had contracted Lyme disease, and since then, she was losing the use of her right hand. Immediately, I had felt pity. Now, not 3 months later she said that her other hand seemed to be 'going’ as well, as she put it somewhat cautiously. I think she is brave but also she puts on a good front to mask the fear. Who wouldn’t? But she doesn’t complain, a quality I like in people. I have a few friends who complain incessantly and I want to run the other way when they start up.

This was our first lunch date, as it were. We had first met on the street in a small town near home last year. A mutual friend introduced us, but quite briefly. Then we met again on the beach where I paint most days. She sauntered down the small pathway looking a bit fabulous in an outfit right out of Vogue and wearing a large hat from the 60’s. She’s quite slim actually, and thinks a lot of herself.

Then, a while later, she began to compliment my work on Instagram to which I responded warmly, in my own way. When anyone reaches out to me, I thank them. I was taught to do so from an early age. 

Shortly afterward, V. (who didn’t want her name mentioned) not only gave me likes to the work I was posting but also began making up titles for the pictures relating to the colour and her own impressions of them. Most of the time she got it right though. Things like ‘Cassis framboise, fromage blanc’ and ‘Baked Alaska’, and one of my favourites; ‘Indecisive Enlightenment’. My small pictures and her crisp visual metaphors, coupled together as if Katherine Hepburn was in the sack with Marcel Proust.

So, that was then, how we began our acquaintance. And I insist, it is still an acquaintance, but beginnings do begin somewhere, after all. 

She began sending me rather cryptic voice messages on Instagram each night before she went to sleep to which I responded with even more cryptic GIFS. I sent them  later in the night because I am a night owl. GIFS are marvellous things. They display just the right touch, the light touch of the quixotic quip; Dorothy Parker drinking gin with Daffy Duck on a back lot at Paramount.

Thus, we continued exchanging a few thoughts online for a few months but when it seems to fizzle a bit and I don’t hear from her after a week I send her a GIF to stir the martini.

She likes calling me Mr Magoo which to be honest, kind of irritated me for a while. (Am I that bald and blind?) Go figure. But then she told me that she sent me voice messages because it was easier than typing with her crippled hand. So I felt sorry, and forgave her for the Mr Magoo thing. 

She likes speaking French. I do too, but somehow I felt awkward speaking it with her in the middle of this small town at lunch. But truthfully, I hate speaking French with other Anglophones, it’s unnecessarily pretentious I find. So we conversed in English and I watched her eat a Middle Eastern dish with her poor wounded hand using a large spoon. That same hand which I imagined wrote lots of interesting things back in the day of her career as a journalist. She seems to be a bright, clever woman despite the infirmity, I think to myself. 

I suddenly realised that she reminded me of my dear friend Joyce who passed away 4 years ago. I loved our friendship so much. I last saw her when I said goodbye after a dinner in her château in Autichamps. I was leaving the next day for Australia. It was early December. She knew we would not see each other again. She knew she was dying, and I imagine she was pretty sure she would end it herself a few months later before my return to France, but I couldn't know any of this that night, for me, we were just having a hug under the cold winter sky.

When I wrapped my arms around her to say goodnight she seemed so frail and fragile that I felt that I was holding a small bird in my arms. She walked me out the gate and waited till I got in my car to leave as was her habit. The good manners of a Dutch woman from another age persisted. It was freezing cold, but there she was, waving her farewell to me as I drove away into the black night. 

So at the end of our lunch date V. and myself said our goodbyes. I was off to an appointment with my doctor at 14h, and her, I don’t know where she was going. And though everyone seems to hug in this town we didn’t due to Covid, due to discretion, or due to what the French call Pudeur, sans doute.

01 July 2020

Léo and Giotto, Unity and Form

(This is a reprint of a text that I wrote for the Marchutz Blog Autour de la Table in 2019)

There are many places where Leo speaks of Volume directly. And yet in my memory, I believe he also often spoke of Unity when describing works which he felt manifested Volume, or a unified whole. And, though I have not read through all the transcripts there is something here that raises questions for me. I wonder if the transcripts will reveal them?

ONE NEEDS FAR MORE than just a few paragraphs to explore this idea because for me, there is nuanced distinction between Volume and Unity even though Leo would frequently interchange these words. Leo most certainly used these words to express something vital for all of us. But how did he mean them?

Over time, I have personally come to understand that a painting can possess Unity but may not necessarily manifest Volume. Yet, on the other hand, a painting that manifests Volume will always possess Unity. Of course, this my own idea, and I don’t know what Leo would say about it. There are so many questions that I would like to ask him now, 45 years on, since I became a painter.

BACK TO THIS QUOTE, I think we all understand that he is speaking about the unified whole of a work to which nothing more can be added. But then too, Leo often spoke of a unified surface when speaking about the success or failure of a certain painting.

The second part of the quote could be a bit confusing because this was an improvised discussion, and Leo moved uneasily between German, French, and English. We often knew what he meant, but sometimes, for someone unfamiliar with his manner of speaking, the syntax and semantics had to be disentangled.

BY THE TIME LEO BEGAN WORKING in Tholonet in the 1930’s, one can see from his early oils that his understanding of both Volume and Unity held the paintings as if in a tight grip. His study in the museums would have prepared him for the structure of the Aix landscape, though perhaps the light of Provence would have come as a shock. One can easily picture Leo working out in the landscape because we have a few photographs of this. We could also imagine him painting a group of blue trees together in the hillside. But in that moment, what we wouldn’t discern might be his memory of seeing the extraordinary Volume in The Kiss of Judas by Giotto. We know through all of Leo’s subsequent work of the large imprint of that fresco upon his artistic sensibility. And too, it has a unified surface of which he always spoke with such amazement.

This reminds me of a late afternoon in his studio, probably in the Fall of 1975. We were looking at a large version of Peter with Christ (The Denial of Peter) and I remember saying to him:

“There is something of Giotto in this”

And he looked at me, and replied

“Yes, certainly… there is, but also… there is something in it which is not in Giotto!”

I remember it so clearly, it was one of those moments when he lit up in the autumn of his life.

I THINK ALSO OF HIS OWN LATE ST. VICTOIRES, and the late drawings from Venice from which he made color lithos. In these works there is both Unity of Surface, and Volume of image. Anything extraneous to the organic whole becomes a kind of bricolage, which Leo always abhorred. Bricolage is the term that François de Asis usually employs to describe a painting that doesn’t come together coherently. It is a picture that has been merely stacked up in a disjointed manner, one element after another, with neither visible Unity nor Volume.

So Unity and Volume are both elemental in the work of Leo. But how would he define these words and ideas?