24 October 2021

Sophie Calle, Le bathrobe forever!

Sophie Calle forever; I was late to the party in which Sophie Calle bloomed as an artist, woman, and humanist. She eluded my radar for so long. I was too ill-equipped to look at (or understand) her Performance Art because I had seen so much really dreadful Performance Art that I had almost become allergic to it after a certain point. Although I did see some really wonderful stuff here and there, most of it seemed really dumb. And so with that confession I admit that I was myself, blind, deaf and dumb to Sophie Calle until about 20 years ago.

But happily, I have become a fervent, ardent, and besotted admirer of hers, along with many other men (and women too, most certainly). 

She has so many talents that it is hard to know how to begin to describe her as an artist and writer among so many other talents. I will not even try to get into them here. No doubt, she is well known to readers even in this small cubby hole of a corner. 

I have had this small book Les histories vraies for a few years and I re-read from time to time to remind me that there are other wonderful oddballs out there in the world. Her gentle irony avoids the harsh spotlight of so many Performance Artists though she is very well known in artistic circles most everywhere. 

Like other sensitive, curious, and perceptive artists, she sees what is under the shabby rug underfoot because she bothers to lift it up and look. 

A friend, an art critic who is very politically-oriented, once referred to Sophie Calle (with a slight smirk) as 'bourgeois'. And though she is a Parisian, and though she has painted a picture of a friendly and comfortable childhood in an affluent quartier, her curious and eccentric sensibility is anything but 'bourgeois'. Maybe, like so many comfortable families it was a conventional upbringing but lucky for her that she prospered from a sense of security and balance which allowed her the freedom to be crazy in her Art. 

She seems to approach her artistic life as a grey empty vessel allowing her a kind of invisibility in order to be fully present without prejudice. It's an unusual way to proceed out in this big, bad but strangely wonderful world, and yes, very zen, it seems to me. And I really like this about her. She approaches her projects as an open page, not dictated by a plate full of concepts but a mind full of questions and a vulnerable heart. 

In her work, so unpredictably varied, she bravely, stoically, ventures forth in search of poetic meaning. I imagine a woman exploring all the levels of life, like in a tall hotel, up and down all the stairwells and elevators, back and forth on each of its floors, invisible to everyone, she is only betrayed by the passing scent of her perfume.  

"I was eighteen. He opened the door. He was wearing a long white spongey bathrobe. He was my first lover. For an entire year he never showed himself nude from the front, hiding his sex. Only his backside. Even the mornings, if it was light, he arose, he turned carefully around to put on the bathrobe. When he left me he left the bathrobe."

21 October 2021

Marguerite Matisse and bombs pour le dîner


Here is a marvellous portrait by Matisse which I have always loved. Painted in 1951 it was one of the very last portraits he made before his transition to scissors. It looks like it could have been painted quickly, maybe in one or two sessions at most. 

Despite lacking any facial features, it feels expressive in a complete way, similar perhaps to how we can experience antique Greek statues which have lost many of their features. Where there is unity, there is timelessness. But for just that reason, and because it is a painting, it may not be a favourite of the public. Was he aware that he was saying goodbye to a whole way of life, one full of worldly activity and recognition? Could he know that he would soon become infirm and henceforth confined to his small but sunny bedroom in Nice? He died in 1954, just a few years after painting this portrait but only after a prolific love affair with a pair of scissors while trapped in his home.

A few years ago I read the wonderful biography of Henri Matisse by Hillary Spurling. It is comprised  of two volumes; Matisse the Unknown, and Matisse the Master, I highly recommend them both. In these generous books she opens up the stately doors of a conservative 19th century France allowing us to meander freely throughout its transition into a modern age where art played a pivotal role. 

People forget how mocked and disparaged Matisse was for much of his early career. Another great painter suffered the same fate; Paul Cézanne. So when I wanted to throw a bomb into a boring dinner party in France I would say:

"France really hates painters." 

The table would go silent, then I would invariably need to develop my argument by proving it with examples. Essentially, the French love ideas way too much to appreciate Painting! Ha Ha.. They are intellectuals after all, and logic, verbal and literary communication are paramount for its cultural prestige. If it weren't for the Americans (I point out) who came over after the first World War with buckets of cash, along with their quaint curiosity, nobody would have looked at Matisse or Picasso. Thus went some of my argument etc, etc... 

The British love Painting (I do go on), as do the Dutch and the Danes, the Belgians, and the Germans too, though both latter nations are equally mad about Contemporary Conceptual Art. The French, on the other hand, are mad for literature and poetry. They adore contemporary architecture and cool opera. But more than anything they love wordplay to convey an emotional state through an idea. Their passion is really for ideas which is why they are more at home with Conceptual Art, far more than paintings which cut through ideas. But I won't try to convince anyone here of all this, not now anyway.

These bombs were always fun for me, and it was often done in French which naturally added its own drama. My success was usually dependant upon just how much or little wine I had consumed during the meal.  

But this is an idea I still believe more than ever, even today, so many years later. Unlike Americans, the French, though they are eloquent speakers, are just never comfortable expressing feelings about themselves, except in French cinema and books of course. Their passion hides behind their reserve. La pudeur is a fine and sophisticated quality which the French possess in boatloads unlike us Americans. Their passions are for ideas, ideals! And we all love and cherish them for this.

My favourite Matisse portrait is one he painted of his daughter Marguerite among many he made. This one is in Paris at the Musée Picasso though I could swear that I have seen it at the Musée de Grenoble too. It was painted between 1906-7. It is so simply done that it takes my breath away. Its colour harmony is simple, just like the drawing. For me, it is just the feeling of it which keeps me looking with astonishment. It has an almost primitive kind of expression as if it were done on a farm somewhere in rural France by an amateur painter. This is perhaps why I like it so much; its complete lack of pretension. In fact, Matisse, unlike so many painters, was without pretence.  

Marguerite was in the Resistance during the war when she was tortured by the Gestapo. She was very lucky to live through it. She was always painted with a ribbon or scarf around her neck to hide a scar from the tracheotomy she had endured early in childhood. This portrait was done almost fifty years before the one above.

Matisse made a remarkable voyage of his life. 

19 October 2021

Metro in Aleppo

I picked this up from Google somewhere a few years back and it has sat on my desktop ever since. I wanted to use it somehow in a painting but haven't yet. Put simply, it inspired me. I love the colours, the lime green and warm yellowy pale pink. I like the drawing of a simple demarcated line too, its absurd graphic certainty seems to change its mind, zigging one way then zagging another. 

It appears to be an arbitrary boundary, somewhat artificially drawn up by a cynical colonel or a Contemporary artist in New York. The ISIS soldier is dressed in existential black (and chic) Islamic sartorial cool. He seems to be contemplating the meaning of this image just like a tourist in the Louvre. 

What could he possibly be thinking? Or even feeling for that matter, whilst gazing at this marvellously obscure image, the kind of which one would love to see in the Paris Metro?

If I remember vaguely, it was taken around the time that ISIS was destroying the age-old monuments around Aleppo. Like everyone else, I was upset. But then the whole war was upsetting because of all the pointless killing everywhere. At the time I also remember feeling  that all the large Powers were responsible; the Americans, the British, The French, Russians, Saudi's, the lot. 

I remember how fooled I was by the younger Assad who often came to France and spoke intelligently on News shows with a suave European sensibility. Like many others at the time I thought to myself: 

"I am sure that he will be a more sensible 'dictator' than his ruthless father." 

But how wrong I was, how wrong we all were.... He was a beast who slaughtered his own women and children.

Then, ISIS arrived to finish off History. The awful thing about this destruction was that it was hard to lament the wreckage of the monuments while so many civilians were being murdered. I regret not visiting Syria when I had the chance back in the 1980's. 

17 October 2021

Van Gogh at the optometrist.


A real curiosity done sometime in 2019, maybe a July painting of a winter storm though it's hard to tell. But I came across it the other day and it started a small dialogue in my head.  

To be fair, it is a bit of wreck if one judges it by technical virtuosity alone, which of course it lacks in a conventional sense. But when I saw it again a long while, I was surprised at how well it conveyed the feeling of stormy clouds over the dark mysterious sea. Though I don't remember most of these small pictures, I do remember this one because I couldn't get the picture unified for the longest time until out of frustration, I took a larger brush and began sweeping it with circles as if I were using a broom. To my surprise, it worked so I stopped, and just let it be. Curiously, what holds the picture together are the pink bits of open sky in both the right and left hand corners. Like fingers, these bits of pink  grasp the large form, and they hold it firmly in place.

The effect of the picture is immediate. It's in your face, whether you like it or not. It seems flat, as if the massive and menacing clouds have been pressed into time, immobile, yet full of ruptured energy. It might even appear 'ugly' at first. But as Baudelaire once said:

"All truly great and original paintings often appear ugly at first". 

He could have been speaking of Van Gogh, but also Stravinsky. And I feel confident enough that he could be speaking about this image too. 

I want to paint things truly alive, almost breathing fire. In front of a picture, I wonder if I don't just desperately desire to feel that 'poof' of a feeling, as if one is at the optometrist when given the glaucoma test. In a fraction of a second the machine punches out air at high speed against your eyeball testing for pressure on the cornea. In the painting above I want that intense sensation thrown at the viewer in the same way. 'Poof', either one gets it or one doesn't. If one doesn't then either the picture isn't successful, or the viewer isn't. 

If I had not painted this picture, I believe I would still approach it with some surprise which is the only way I could express it. And though it was done in a decidedly European manner, it feels like an image which might have been done by a Japanese Zen monk who also happened to study Painting in the South of France! It shows an unusual aspect of Nature but from a very particular perspective; close up, and cropped. It doesn't manifest Concept (anathema to Zen) nor a conventional viewpoint. Yet it is a natural subject. It is a set of clouds mushrooming over a sea at dusk in an almost miniature scale as if chosen by a 75mm telephoto lens. It possesses a curious abstraction, maybe a bit too strange for most people's taste though. It reminds me of the music of Thelonious Monk; off kilter, and in your face, primitive and primeval, where technique is disguised as an autistic child.
It also made me think about what constitutes "being a painting". In this age of contemporariness, is it a mere momento? or perhaps a souvenir, or just out of date? 

But if an image conveys a feeling of the subject matter (the motif) like Monk, then, is it not at least partially successful? When I use the word feeling in discussing painting I never stray far from thinking of Vincent Van Gogh. We love him for his beautiful, terrible, and overarching uncontrollable feeling, as if he lived within an earthquake. 

He also seemed to have lifted the verisimilitude off the three dimensions of a theatrical stage by compressing them into a two dimensional drama on canvas.

He was a slave to his unabashed devotion in giving viewers his own sense of reality in pure and emotional terms. So though I don't compare myself to him, I do hold his work up as a model of how it can be done. It has been that way ever since I first read his letters at the important time when I was beginning to paint. He was certainly my greatest influence. 

12 October 2021

Pantone's Yellow Submarine!


This top image is a cropped detail from a painting done last week. I wanted to look at this simple space where the two colours meet. It's very small because the painting itself is only 25 X 20 cm

I am just crazy about this set of colours for no other reason on earth than the pleasure they offer me. What else can I admit? I have loved this rich yellow since I was a kid, and long before I began using Crayons. It still evokes in me that fuzzy feeling that I hope others might also carry in their own dreamy hearts. Although I do absolutely hate the hyperbolic (really!!!) I would say nonetheless that it could very well be a string in our human DNA to love this colour! 

But it should never be used in a painting in its pure form as it would be too strong, like ingesting too many tarte-aux-citrons at a lengthy Sunday lunch. 

This colour, like for all colours on a painting surface, needs to be ('broken') or it will likely explode. 

Somehow, I remember that a Pantone Yellow had been declared the colour of the year for 2021. Not sure how they decided that but it shared the honour with the company's Ultimate Grey as well.

What really interests me about this news is that they present these two colours together. This is a very painterly decision on their part and unusual because for me, I only really see colours in pairs, as in complimentary pairs. It is wonderful that they present both their Ultimate Grey and Pantone Yellow as an ensemble. 

nothing special, Dieulefit, August, 2012, oil on canvas board 150 X 150 cm

This picture above was painted almost a decade ago. It was conceived around these two colours and it reveals my own great affection for Yellow and Grey. But as a painter I prefer them both slightly broken with a little of each infecting the other. It marries them and allows for a harmonisation. The grey here is rather warm so that it compliments the 'cool' yellow because in the world of Painting, warm always compliments cool, and vice versa.

It is clear that this Pantone Yellow is cool, cold really, as this Ultimate Grey. Personally, I imagine that maybe the cooler hue of all colours almost always seems to work better for any commercial application of these bright pure colours. They tend to shout out clashing and attracting attention at any cost, which is of course the purpose of advertising, though not always aligned with pictorial artistry.

Concerning the small detail (top) the 'grey' sky is in fact a pale warm grey transition between the yellow to the faint, pale Prussian Blue higher up barely perceptible. And because it was painted at the beach in natural light, the harmony was my idea, my colour scheme, and it came from observance not convenience. It was an empirical choice.

And (below) still another detail which includes a bit more of the painting, while further below at bottom, the full painting from which they all came.

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 5 October, 2021, oil on canvas board, 25 X 20 cm

08 October 2021

IKEA and a bachelor life in Australia



Here are two old pictures which I re-worked a few nights ago at the beach. I had brought them there to see if I could 'make something of them'. I didn't want to 'repair' them in the studio because I needed the beach, the sea, and the sky, something to cling onto with colour and light even if to wasn't the same. And also I knew I would have a palette already made, wet and messy; a painter's dream.

I have been organising all these paintings, (the entire  lot), over the past week because they had not been properly filed chronologically. In fact, not just my kitchen but the entire house has become a flop house for these things. I had chosen to store them here in the house because it is cleaner and receives warmth in the winter months preventing mildew which is a huge problem in this humid climate. The separate studio is problematic in this regard.

Over four + years, these studies have been filling up the IKEA bookshelves in my living room. But before they get there, they need to dry so they lay in shoe racks in my kitchen where the sun pours forth in all seasons. Then due to laziness on my part they begin to inhabit every horizontal surface available until it drives me crazy enough to put them away every so often. I make so many of them most weeks they seem to multiply like mice. So I needed to gradually displace the books with the paintings in the IKEA shelves in the living room. Though the books are not happy with this arrangement the paintings decidedly are. What can you do? It isn't difficult to understand why I am a bachelor. 

Thus, having re-organised all the paintings, needless to say, I Have found many, (many older ones from 2017 and 2018 in particular) that are inferior for a variety of reasons. Mostly though, because they are just not very good! they are not 'realised', is one way I can describe it. They might be undeveloped, or the sea is wrong, or the sky is all wrong, or the light has been pushed into a dark cave; any number of reasons really. When paintings don't work, they don't for any number of reasons which a discerning eye can readily see. But when paintings work, they work for a multitude of often discreet and subtle reasons which may not be visible to many outside of the world of Painting.

In this case of doing so many each week they just feel like 'exercises' and I probably should not really share them to polite society. Of course, the problem is that I make a lot of these paintings as exercises. There are certainly over a thousand by now but I haven't yet counted them all.

So the point is that I don't go out to the beach most evenings to make masterpieces but to just paint. Luckily though, they are sometimes masterpieces, small and compact but it's rare. I go out there to feel the wind, watch the waves, see what the sky is doing and I mix a palette. That part of it is pretty simple and quite agreeable. The work too, can be simple and agreeable most of the time except when it isn't. 

Yesterday, I thought to put a few of these into the boot of the car with the idea of taking them to the beach. I figured that I could work as usual on some new ones, then at the end when I had a palette full of colours I could put the pictures up to see what I could add, 'correct them', investigate possibilities.

These two above, are the first two 'trials' and I was quite happily surprised by what it felt like to come back into a dry painting with fresh new oils. They are not great by any means but they open up something a new avenue for me. Painters like that.

07 October 2021

a field of flowers each night


Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 5 October,   2021, oil on canvas board, 25 X 20 cm.

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 5 October,   2021, oil on canvas board, 25 X 20 cm.

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 5 October,   2021, oil on canvas board, 25 X 20 cm.

To my great surprise, these small studies rose up and out from the sea as if they were a field of  daisies, bellflowers, and violets. It made a magnificent 'bloom' last night, but for some reason I almost resisted going out to work. I had been in the studio in the afternoon and found myself full of doubts about the motif.

"What more I could generate from the this motif?"

It may have been precipitated by a remark a friend had made earlier in the day when he said,

"You should move on from these little paintings and make your big ones."

I knew he liked the things done in the studio. I was not really bothered by the remark except that I had had a difficult session the previous night, one which pretty much said the very same thing to me. Its one thing when some else makes a critical remark about your work (or life), but another thing altogether when your own work speaks directly to you through itself!

But in the end, all I needed was a great session, an evening 'bloom' blushing wildly for me alone to replenish my curiosity again for this motif. After all it is for me alone, and similar to this Blog, maybe the results will please others, but the pleasure of ‘doing’ is all mine alone. 

04 October 2021

Erik Satie meets Einstein as a pear

I have been learning a few of these pieces in the last year. It's an exercise in patience, something I have developed studying music late in life. They are not difficult at all except that to memorise them requires diligence, a cousin to discipline. But I am getting there, the body (fingers) has a wonderful memory mechanism almost oblivious to what goes on in one's head. Play them play them play them is the only way up the mountainside!

In many of Satie's small compositions there is no indication of time or measures. The small black and white notes are only held together by a cohesion of the harmonic line. They appear as small birds alighting briefly on telephone wires, flitting upward and dropping below seemingly at random in the winter sky. 

For Satie, like Einstein, Time doesn't exist, it was created by Humankind to create order out of a dis-ordered and natural world.

The Buddha-wise-guys in the East also share this understanding. Time is but a concept to measure and quantify passing moments. 

Time for a composer is a way to arrange a framework within which the musician and singer can operate, and unlike our ticking clock it is arbitrary. It is a composer's choice, a kind of map with which to navigate a musical idea. 

Here is a remake of the original Parade for which Satie created the music. A lovely 'carte postale' from some of the infamous Avant-garde. And it is interesting to note that it was made during a time when French, British, Belgian, American soldiers, and other poor souls from colonial outposts were being sent to their deaths daily in the first World War, a war which they all, at the time, imagined to be the last great war.

More to be revealed.

01 October 2021

Cézanne meets Mondrian meets Rothko

This morning I was looking at a catalogue for an old Cézanne watercolour show and I was reminded of something I have often felt when looking back on my early years in Aix. 

It was difficult for me as a young painter when just starting out to spend so much time trying to learn from the late work of Cézanne, his watercolours in particular. They are unfinished and abbreviated, and trying to understand them might be like a young student of Mathematics stumbling upon a set of cryptic notes from Einstein at Princeton. 

I have seen this difficulty with many other painters as well. I saw that it is a perilous path to jumpstart an influence solely pushed by the later stages of a painter's work (evolution). 

Of course every artist is different but I definitely wouldn't say this about Vincent Van Gogh's work. He is an exception, and exceptional. One could learn from any chapter of his life's oeuvre. The early work revealed his scrabble to grapple with how to draw, then to discover the surface of a picture plane. His later work is so full of harmonious colour that one could learn everything from just looking at him alone. But he is very unusual, (remarkable) both as artist and teacher. Of course, there are no real answers to any of this because it's my own observation, regarding my own path. 

The problem is that in this case with Cézanne, he had already painted most of his whole life before arriving at these watercolours. And possibly, it may have been his austere drawings done throughout his working life that actually prefigured the spare watercolours later on. There just isn't enough information in these late things to glean, and forge a pathway forward for a young painter. By copying these things, work would just resemble 'late Cézanne' and wouldn't contribute to the student's originality.

I can see the beauty in this abbreviated watercolour (above) but I cannot see that it can help me by studying it. I suspect also that many of these 'unfinished' drawings and watercolours were simply just left for a reason only known to Cezanne. He certainly could have gone further but he stopped, why? Only he knows, but maybe he has cited reasons for it somewhere in his letters. Yet it may be that he just stopped because he liked what he had achieved, and he didn't want to ruin something which he might want to remember later on. Who knows? I am not scholar but a student of Cézanne.

The same goes for Mondrian, whose work at the end of his life is barely recognisable compared with his earlier things done as a young painter. Trying to learn something from his work at the end of his life would be extremely difficult and a trying experience. Maybe not impossible, but Olympian in any case. Why bother? 

I think (in my own case regarding Cézanne) it's because as a student painter, it was like I was trying to read the last chapters of a book without first knowing what came beforehand. So as a result, I was merely copying a style, (for lack of a better description), and I was bypassing the messiness (and failure) of all the work that everyone needs to slog through  in order to discover their own originality. Like anything, it's a lot of pure labour.

Fortunately, I was never too crazy about Cézanne's watercolours so I didn't spend too much time with them. They did not appeal to my messy and aesthetic nature. 

Regarding the picture below, I would ask; how could a painter learn from this Mondrian? It's not rhetorical, it's a serious question. What could I take from this late work of Mondrian? And what I could make out of it, and into something of my very own? Maybe something, but I fear I would be like a marathon runner who jumped into the race at the 20 mile mark.

I actually do really appreciate this particular Mondrian though it wasn't always the case. I don't understand it, but its power and emotion appeal to me for many of the same reasons I love Russian Revolutionary Art. The emotional impact here seems to deliver like squeezing water from stone.

I don't have answers to this but of course I like to throw out ideas. It seems to me that that Painting had come to the end of the road by early part of the 20th century. Painters, as they still were in those days (unlike today, where whole different means have opened up to express an idea, or a feeling) were desperate to create something wholly new. Many of them went into the realm of pure feeling, while others locked into the way of design and science, even. 

Of the following Rothkos below which I clip from Instagram, I find two of them quite beautiful but I couldn't imagine trying to learn from them despite all my admiration. I have come to the Rothko party so late but I do now have a better inkling into what he was trying to attain through colour and design. It is curiously both the SAME, but also the OPPOSITE of the Mondrian above. It is both 'designed' and 'emotional'. He seemed to be after a personal mood arising possibly from his need to level out his own depression. That's what many artists of all kinds really do. 

I like the tremendous JOLT of colour in the piece below. It speaks of the earth and sky but also of man's soul which might need Art to survive. The dark one below is another mood, another day, in Rothko's search for escape or maybe redemption? 

They say something, but what? Many people would say that it doesn't matter, as long as it speaks to someone, anyone. 

But to return to where I began, can a young painter on his/her path of Painting learn from them? And how? (still no rhetoric)

And below, a painting by Mondrian done around the time of his transition into his late work (like above). It certainly possesses a Cubist sensibility, but it's still mystery how one could learn from this work.

More to be revealed.