27 February 2024

Beginnings and Endings, veracity and tenacity

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 14 February 2024, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

This came one evening about two weeks ago before the sky's initial promise of splendour had died. The weather had been hot and humid, and still is. The sky was confusing by the end of the day but it's not like I need clarity, though with certain weather, there is a kind of mushiness that sometimes overwhelms the afternoon like some weird gravy at the Thanksgiving dinner of my youth.

But hey! It comes with the territory, as my Uncle Frank used to say up in the Bronx.

But here, the beach up on the North Coast of New South Wales is not the Coney Island of my childhood nor is it ever what one could call crowded. With this sweltering weather it looked like maybe 200 people had showed up and dotted the beach as far as I could see and that is what we call crowded. 

I had arrived a little late and set up quickly. It became evident that the sky was folding in on itself, a sign that my painting session would be limited, so I figured I might only get one study out of the evening. Realising this had curiously relaxed me somewhat, and given that the sky would not cooperate, like a hungry dog, I quickly grabbed what I could. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't. 

Like so many of these things done here, improvisation plays a greater role than viewers might normally imagine. Surprise is the element that binds both the painter and viewer in this hopeful relationship, and a painter like me, is always surprised, indeed. As for the viewer, one hopes for the best. 

The session is pretty standard, from the sky I pluck out things which prick my interest and I try with all my heart to hang on to them, but on this afternoon, it seemed a losing proposition. The sky’s transition at this moment of the day is disconcerting, but instead of allowing it to confuse me, I doubled down on an idea I had begun and I allowed it to guide me to a soft landing. This is how memory works for me, but it’s not typical of the way many landscape painters proceed. Most appear to already have the pictorial idea fixed in their minds. They then rely upon a technical prowess to force feed it into that idea in order to deliver it to an end already conceived.

For others like me, it’s the opposite. I begin with what I see, then improvise, sometimes blindly until the end comes into focus. The idea of the ‘study’ comes to me at the very end. I suppose that this is the Expressionist side of me, though unlike the American Expressionist, I work from a motif in this series because it’s what generates the idea. 

And for those who work from photos (of landscapes) I feel sympathy for it's dead end in my opinion. 

Even Turner, one of the greatest watercolourists of the Modern era, and whose techniques were so extraordinary, they rarely eclipsed his visual memory stored up from decades of improvisation in front of Nature. His watercolours have never be surpassed even in by, what we call ‘Abstract’ painting of the past 100 years.

I am still a rather messy expressionistic painter who appears to love the adventure of painting more than the final result. This fact provides for me an endless stream of surprises because veracity comes in lots of shapes and sizes after all.

24 February 2024

A cuneiform kiss


Babylonian clay tablet, 1800 BC

Seeing the Mesopotamian wing at the Met in New York as a child left me dazed and transfixed, And being so small, these Assyrian statues and bas-reliefs appeared to me gigantic and other-worldly. 

When my father took me there I immediately made my way through the main hall, and drawn like a magnet, I'd find myself lost in the solemn section of bas-reliefs that lined the walls. 

But these early visits to this new 'mysterious world' right in the heart of a modern city locked themselves into my imagination forever. When in grade school we studied Cuneiforms, and the very beginnings of what we now know as writing, I became further obsessed. I remember that my crayon drawings became childishly imitative of these things. 

Ideas as pictures worked much better for me at that age than the sentence structures being drilled into me by an old bag of an English teacher although I instinctively loved any sort of her untidy chaos on the blackboard. 

So when the New Times ran an article about the earliest illustrations of the kiss, it immediately ignited my long-dormant affection for these clay sculptures. 

Best to read the article yourselves. Though it's a sweet Valentine Day's story, its the small clay sculpture pictured top, that is the real star.

This (above) is from the vast British Museum collection from Nineveh which is the current city of Mosel in Iraq. Sadly, many of these temples were sacked by ISIS fighters after the American invasion. 

But what I love in these bas-reliefs today, after fifty years of painting pictures on a flat surface, are the curious resemblances to painters such as Van Gogh and Gauguin. Gauguin's use of the flat antique profiles are well known and easily calculable, but also are the wavy seas that Vincent used so freely in his skies. 

These are universal forms and they can be found throughout art history, and just for fun, here is an example from the church at Moissac, in south-east France. Although no longer the bas-relief of Mesopotamia, a full-fledged Jeremiah with a lovely flowing beard adorns a center post of the south portal on this amazing church. My personal regret of oceanic proportions, is that I have not yet visited it, but I will.


11 February 2024

Let them eat clouds!

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 2 February 2024, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 2 February 2024, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

So another great few days this week at the dunes. These three studies came out orderly, one after the other like triplets. Magnificent Blooms that I never seem to capture and which make me feel like a certain cartoon character chasing after its arch enemy

But I wonder if I ever did catch this elusive ‘thing’ I'm seeking, would I no longer need to keep painting it? Or is that just a cliché?

I ran into an old acquaintance in town yesterday who used to be in the art game back in London and who was curious to see how I had been spending my time (me too, I'm always curious about this). So I pulled out my phone and showed him the first two images (above) from Instagram. He remarked immediately, 

"Oh, that's Rothko"

I replied that another of my Brit-Arty-Smarty-Pants kind of wise guy/gal had also told me this about some of my paintings. But I said it more politely. I guess I can understand that some make this association, (doesn't it give us something to talk about? Or is it simply a way to show off our culture?).

Regardless, I take it all onboard. It's easy for me to speak about what I'm up to in Painting, as any regular reader here will recognise, but just the same, I'm sort stumped when I have to speak about myself and a painter like Rothko whom I've only come to appreciate over the past decade. We do both seem to share an affection for thick wide stripes which sort of makes us like cousins.

But, my ideas come to me naturally from the motif, I don't know where Rothko's ideas came from,... were they visions of the desert that jolted him and charged his imagination in his earlier years? Were they ever from a landscape? Like my own, were they memories of the sea and how and where it meets the sky? If painters work from obsessional ideas, where did his come from? 

Over the years as I've already revealed, the origins of my own obsessional 'Stripy Thing' seem to come from varied sources. I've always had a thing for thick horizontal lines too, whether from early childhood drawings or roaming the vast landscape of ties on the first floor of Brooks Brothers where all kinds of brightly coloured stripes are gently arranged in their own little coffin-like mahogany boxes and spread out across the main ground floor upon elegant display cases. But this is probably just one place of origin because in the human mind, as all shrinks know, the memory, visual and otherwise, is a mystery.

Personally, I think it behooves any visual artist to investigate one’s own pictorial memories (and obsessions) because every painter will eventually exhibit uncontrollable patterns early on in their creative youth. Do all painters investigate these visual roots? Some do, while others don't. But the trend in Contemporary Art is a definite YES! This is a new young Art World where personal identity is no longer sheltered away, where no dark shameful secrets and obsessions are withheld anymore. Everything in today's world of digital transparency is an open secret and I say sure; why not? Bring it on, but please make it a cohesive, not just indulgent. (SVP!)

Yet it's also inevitable that a painter's original (and graphic) DNA will manifest at some point during their own creative journey. Intuition for any painter lies out there on the horizon line, and the faster we row out to retrieve it the better. Why waste time chasing other's dream?

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 2 February 2024, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

Regarding this last study (above), as the twilight began to arrive, the horizon line was stripped of excess atmospheric clutter present in the previous two. 
Due to this, it lends itself to an almost crisp but subtle design. And it is to this aesthetic where my intuition has lately been pushing me to visit. 

Clouds, like four year olds at a birthday party, can be mischievously disruptive to an otherwise clear, calm, blue backdrop. A sky full of clouds of no matter what sort, will generate different varieties of paintings. Indeed, there is a whole genre of 'seascapes'; everything from wispy views of the calm sea to stormy, dark, and menacing pictures that are all considered 'picturesque' for the amateurs of art. 

My small study is not that but on some days it certainly could be. There are skies that lend themselves to these genres and I might easily make a more picturesque-looking painting for no particular reason other than it looked just like that. Almost everything depends upon the sky and what it's doing at a particular moment. All, except that there is also my own mood too. 

I think for me, clouds are but colourful outfits worn by the sky, which left to its own devices, would otherwise be just a space; empty and naked, waiting to be dressed as if it were Marie Antoinette. And just like us, on some days it will step out in a fancy frock while at others, a lumpy pair of sweat pants and a hoodie. Like a mannequin in a store window, the sky can wear anything and everything. I've seen its whole wardrobe, trust me.

As one often hears (though I never, ever believed this myself) that clothes make the person, clouds, by contrast, will always define the sky, and this I do believe, empirically so. 

And just as clothes can alter our appearances, clouds too, can be sexy and pretty, elegant and spry, dark and brooding, but at the end of day it's all just a cover-up! Naked, like us, an empty sky will gently reveal its natural state come nightfall. And this is what I attempted to capture in this last small painting the other night.

And finally, I do admit it; all this sounds so terribly pedantic, probably too wordy and too nerdy, but I assure you that in many ways it's about the essence of how any picture functions because in the end, it's really just about a confined space and about how painters fill it up with colours.


06 February 2024

Twin sisters, the taming of the shrews


Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads 31 January 2024, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads 1 February 2024, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

Here are similar studies from two successive nights this last week. I am so grateful to be out there painting again after several months of mushy weather that was not compatible with painting nor with my personality. Yes, one can, and should paint in any weather, but hey! I'm a guy from the Bronx, and as we age we get real fussy, OK?

But honestly, these do not do justice to the 'Blooms' of the past week where the magnanimous gods were so generous to me. And alas, I cannot seem to get anywhere close to rendering their outrageous beauty nor their brazen outlandish elegance. Though they are from different evenings they feel like twin sisters.

These humid days I have to push myself out of the house to paint down at the beach. They may sound awful to someone in the wintry Drôme, like a whiny, curdled old man who exclaims: "I have to go the the beach just 10 minutes away. Yuck!.." Indeed, it would also come off awfully  spoiled to someone living under grey skies of Paris too... Boo Hoo...

But anyway, this is my life, not at all glamorous nor exciting, but not uninteresting and with a touch of bohemian chill. 

So, eventually I gulped an expresso, and before I knew it, I was out the door and leaving my lazy dog of a personality on the couch. 

Arriving at the dunes, I unpacked and quickly made a palette. I generally try to give myself enough time to jump into the sea before painting because this is what really wakes me up. The sea is wonderful of course, but also 'rippy', full of fast moving tidal rips so I'm careful after almost having drowned here about six years ago. But as usual, I then began to paint just as the sky was about to ripen. 

For both of these studies, the same thin, pinky line of clouds were crossing the horizon, it was a classic evening. They both began the other night with an unusually strong acrid yellow in the sky, that colour Van Gogh adored, and it does appear from time to time around here. It's so yellow green that it looks like penicillin growing upon a lemon on the shelf. But quite soon, on both nights, all hell broke loose and colours flew around like embers from a giant fire. Pink turned Purple and then into a pale Prussian Blue almost like a faint shadow. It resembled the deathly hue with which some many painters depicted Christ in early Renaissance renditions of the Pieta. Then, as if dead, this ghostly colour rises into the heavens to evaporate miraculously. The sea below, discreetly follows suit, and honestly, it's so fantastical that at times I cannot distinguish between hallucinations and real life. Is it me or God?

But in any event, these skies feel so alive and so unreal at times that I think I'm going to pee in my shorts.

The downside to all this divine ecstasy is that despite these studies that began so enthusiastically bold, so wildly spontaneous and free, I nonetheless managed to tame them as if they were dangerous circus animals. Oh, what a shame! I fall prey to my inner obsession with formal structure and thereby reducing the picture to thick stripes; careful and sure.

It's not always the case, but it usually happens when I begin to over-work a study. I groan when I feel it kicking in but by then it's almost impossible to correct course. Apparently, there is a policeman living inside me along with the lion trainer. I think I need an angel to intervene.

I close with this short bit of wisdom from one of my only heroes of 20th century American Painting, the great Philip Guston. 

"Everyone destroys marvelous paintings. Five years ago you wiped out what you are about to start tomorrow. 

Where do you put form? It will move around, bellow out and shrink, and sometimes it winds up where it was in the first place. But at the end it feels different, and it had to make the voyage. I am a moralist and cannot accept what has not be paid for, or a form that has not been lived through.

Frustration is one of the great things in art; satisfaction is nothing."

Because I'm a wise guy, a smarty pants of the worst sort, I would add a small twist to this right after the first paragraph. Here goes:

"And today, you will ruin what you will succeed doing in five years hence."  


03 February 2024

Furry friends!

Well, because it's the third of February, I thought I would keep quiet for once and let my furry friends speak up.