Month: March 2015

Reverse-Engineering the Masters

In the movies, painters tend to be seized by bouts of inspiration at unpredictable intervals, upon which seizure they spontaneously and spasmodically squish paint into a masterpiece. Mike Leigh’s recent film Mr. Turner was no exception. The spastic-inspiration trope is the default mode for films about more Jackson-Pollocky types, of course, but Leigh’s William J. W. Turner was seized by this affliction when he gazed at the sea or the English countryside, naturally. In reality, painting and drawing a landscape is rather difficult, and Hollywood cliches like these are misleading about the mechanics and intentionality of composition that are actually required to make a picture of anything, including abstraction.  It’s too easy to assume that good landscapes come about through some kind of direct channelling of the scenery, making it all the more frustrating when beautiful or interesting scene you see in real life does not make a beautiful or interesting painting on your page. Even landscapes have to be composed by the artist. Composition is the mechanics, or machinery, of a picture. It’s how it directs your eye from here to there, lets in linger in some places, and return to the subjects that the artist wanted to you focus on. In the class that I just wrapped up, Making Your Own Work: Subject and Composition, a group of experienced painters exposed the picture-making machinery of the masters, teased out the separate elements of that machinery, and began to employ those strategies to their own ends.

We began the first few classes with gesture-drawing from art history. Recording what you see in the first minute of looking at a painting tells you a lot about where the artist has directed your eye.

A one-minute gesture drawing of Wyeth's Christina's World in ink and pencil

A one-minute gesture drawing of Wyeth’s Christina’s World in ink and pencil

Gesture drawing of Giotto's Annunciation

Gesture drawing of Giotto’s Annunciation

Your eye tends to look at the largest form first. In order to better see the hierarchy of forms, we broke them down into two tones, grey and white, simplifying shapes, to get a better idea of the overall order and direction in which one views the painting.

Sandy's two-tone interpretation of Vermeer's sleeping maid

Sandy’s two-tone interpretation of Vermeer’s sleeping maid

Vermeer - Girl Asleep

We also made quick five-minute interpretations in black and grey paper cutouts of projected paintings. Here are four different student’s quick collages of Manet’s 1862 Portrait of Jeanne Duval

: manet

And the original…

whitedress

Four interpretations of Andrew Wyeth’s Master Bedroom

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And the original . . .

Master Bedroom by Andrew Wyeth

Andrew Wyeth proved to be particularly helpful to study for composition. His subjects were deceptively simple, and he mastered the art of editing and simplifying, while working in the style we erroneously call “realistic”, as if it involved copying from nature. Really, nature is a mess, and you have to tame it. (Just ask Mr. Turner.)

Wyeth’s Brown Swiss, which seems to the untrained eye to be a straightforward rendering of a farm house, is actually a feat of engineering.

Wyeth, Brown Swiss, tempera, 1957  Image: Artstor

Wyeth, Brown Swiss, tempera, 1957
Image: Artstor

A photograph of the same spot reveals that the composition didn’t just present itself. The placement of the house just a wee bit from the left edge makes your eye run over there, too, but then jump down to the reflection before you fall off, then hang a right, sending you back into the painting.. The stream as a big, light, horizontal bar across the lower third was a deliberate choice: water can be dark or light depending on when and where you look at it. The reflection of the house didn’t just happen, either: The artist chose it as an element, its presence and shape dependent on where he stood and the time of day he decided to grab it from. The long shadow on the side of the hill under the house is essential, as is eliminating the sky: the long horizontal shapes are ordered by size, and alternate dark/light. Everything in the picture serves the composition. We can’t say the same for the actual site, which is a lot busier. Granted, the evergreen tree apparently wasn’t big enough to block the house when he painted the picture, but if it did I’m sure he would have found a way to make it work.

wyethphoto

Here is a sketch in which he worked out the composition. It’s possible he started with a more literal drawing and just kept blocking out what he didn’t need with ink until the shapes looked right.

wyethsketch

We tried to get inside long-dead artists’ heads and learn their tricks by reverse-engineering a composition. This is one student’s analysis, of shape, value, and directional lines, of The Judgment of Paris by Cranach the Elder:

judgmentparis

Lucas Cranach the Elder - Judgment of Paris

Students took their own subject-matter, in the form of personal or magazine photographs, and inserted them into the structure of the masterwork. Here a Vermeer becomes the armature for a reinterpretation of one student’s old family snapshot.

vermeergreysandygirls

Treasured snapshots are as difficult to work with as nature. You’re usually too close to the subject matter to know why you like it: Is it the figures, the furniture, the faded colors, or just its emotional associations? It’s nearly impossible to know what is worth keeping and what should be discarded in order to get to an interesting, successful painting. Sometimes the accidental nature of the composition, its very awkwardness, is the best part. This exercise was a way to get a bit of objectivity, and license to move reality around to suit the artist’s purpose.

A continuation of Making Your Own Work: Subject and Composition will begin in late April.

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A Poodle Grayscale, a Fake Historical Site and Other Treasures of the High Desert

In Southern California for my show this winter, we took a little detour to the gorgeous Joshua Tree National Park, known for its fabulous boulders and breathtaking scenery, but also for the oddball collection of artists who have made the area around it home. Looking up into the hills, you might spy a little compound  – an old Airstream, say, a few broken-down trucks and toilets scattered about, a collection of dwellings made of corrugated metal or tires – and you think to yourself, who’s living up there? Artists or rednecks? It’s really hard to tell, and just as likely to be the one as the other. Welcome to Joshua Tree!

Up in the rocks here you can see a little glowing obelisk from the highway.

obeliskfar

It’s a untitled piece by Sarah Vanderlip, made from welded truck bumpers. It’s glowing because the sky and the light of the desert are reflected in its smooth surface.  The whole ten-acre parcel is called Behind the Bail Bonds (which was helpful in locating it) and features some rotating projects as well.

obelisk

Onward to Krblin Jihn Cabin, the promised fake historical site, complete with official-looking plaque and backstory involving a made-up religion (isn’t that redundant?) and made-up religious civil war. It’s an old miner’s cabin, of which the area boasts many, retrofitted for an imagined past. The actual history of the American West is so full of cults, revelations, weirdos, and skirmishes over promised lands that this fake version, with its taboos against certain vowels and nine-pointed compass, really doesn’t seem that far-fetched.

krbncbncbn2

This cabin is the work of artist Eames Demetrios. For his whole constellation of fake history sites scattered around the globe, you can check out kymerica.com.

For some actual history, we proceeded to Noah Purifoy’s Outdoor Desert Art Museum, the artist’s home and studio that have been preserved pretty much as he left it at his death in 2004. Mr. Purifoy was instrumental in recognizing and preserving the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, and himself later created sculpture from the burned remains of the Watts riots in the 1960’s. He decamped to the desert in the late 1980’s and spent the next fifteen years creating the large-scale found object constructions that fill the ten acre parcel. His neatly sorted bins of scavenged objects are preserved there, too, awaiting the next project.

Cafeteria trays from the nearby military base become the spine of an imaginary animal

Cafeteria trays from the nearby military base become the spine of an imaginary animal

purfoytvs

An homage to Frank Gehry

An homage to Frank Gehry

Some of the art you could walk right into. . .

adrianstheatre

. . . and find more cafeteria tray sculptures there.

. . . and find more cafeteria tray sculptures there.

legspurfoybowlingballspurfoyceilingpurfoybikes

Toilets, presumably also military surplus, figure into many of the pieces. Simultaneously creepy and banal, there is something really disconcerting about encountering something so private in such an exposed space.

toilets

Another site, Andy’s Gamma Gulch Parcel, rotates site-specific art projects. We hiked out to, and climbed into, Gradually/We Became Aware/Of a Hum in the Room, a triangular structure with circular holes cut into the walls, framing the desert. The interior is painted with colors that reverse the colors of the sunset, according to the artist’s statement. I can’t assess whether or not they were successful in that intention, as I was there in the middle of the day…

hole hole2

..but the effect of the winter light projected through the circular cutouts onto the painted walls was striking it its own right.doghole

In the town of Joshua Tree itself, we visited Art Queen, the studio and gallery of the lovely and welcoming artist Shari Elf. Shari curates the World-Famous Crochet Museum, a Fotomat-like pod painted lime green and stuffed full of some spectacularly ill-advised craft projects, all crocheted, as the name implies.

crochet

I think we know who is dinner in this Thanksgiving scenario, and it ain’t the turkey. Unless the pink pony or Mother Goose gets to those tasty pilgrims first.

I think we know who is dinner in this Thanksgiving scenario, and it ain't the turkey. Unless the pink pony gets them first.

Here is the rest of the poodle grayscale:

poodlepano

And I am wondering how I managed to get through this much of life without having previously encountered a crocheted taco. Genius.

crochettaco

Speaking of tacos, perhaps the most memorable art emporium of all wasn’t in the Joshua Tree area at all but in the middle of Riverside, on the way back to Los Angeles. Tio’s Tacos is both a tasty lunch stop and a city-block-sized art project, the work of artist and restauranteur Martin Sanchez, who immigrated from Mexico in 1984 and proceeded to build this visionary dream house.

Take a stroll on found-pottery-mosaic colored paths and into small chapel-sized buildings made of stacked and cemented bottles.

tiosbottlehouse tiosbottles

Entire palm trees have been made into benign giants who stand guard over all this abundance. These lovely ladies are made of rusty #10 cans: whole ones encased in chicken wire form their torsos, and overlapping flattened ones wrapped into cylinders are their legs. Their hair is made from fishing nets.

tiospalms

Even the lights are anthropomorphic (more can-people) and the palm-tree creature on the left is partly constructed of plastic bottles. I am partial to the cowboy-boot-shod lineman. And of course, Santa-on-a-bike.

tioslineman2tiossanta

The whole desert art tour embodied for me something quintessentially American: Visionaries light out for the wide-open spaces, where they build unexpected paradises of weirdness out of quite ordinary detritus of our throwaway culture, redeeming it, and maybe us a bit, in the process.