Thursday, July 23, 2015

Art I'm Making: Recent Collage

This is Untitled Collage No. 107 (Santa Rosa), something I finished during the Art at the Source Open Studios event in June. It uses some plum-colored paper I made recently and scraps from several months back. In this one, I like the tension between two possible readings—one entirely abstract (the reading I intended and the one I prefer), the other vaguely representational, taking this as a view of a ship at the horizon, floating on a plummy sea. In the representational reading there's something that evokes travel poster design of a bygone era.

Acrylic on paper, acrylic monoprint on paper, collage. Image size 15.1 x 17.3cm. June 14, 2015. Click on the image for a larger view. For more, use the "Art I'm Making" tab on the right or visit my collage website at http://ctalcroft.wix.com/collage-site.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Art I'm Looking At: Degas and Friends in Petaluma

It was with some skepticism that I recently visited the Petaluma Arts Center to see Edgar Degas: The Private Impressionist, Works on Paper by the Artist and his Circle, on view there through July 26, 2015. An important Degas show? In Petaluma? Before my visit, I couldn't help feeling there'd probably be one or two good pieces to look at and then much of inferior quality padding out the gallery spaces.

I was wrong. Quite the opposite is true. There's almost too much to look at comfortably here, and the art on display is of a high caliber, with only a handful of exceptions (the pieces by Ingres and Toulouse-Lautrec, for example, are disappointing).

The works in Degas: The Private Impressionist are all from the collection of Robert Flynn Johnson, Curator Emeritus of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. The exhibit was curated by Mr. Johnson and Louise Siddons Ph.D., Assistant Professor and Curator of Collections at Oklahoma State University, Stillwater.  Each piece is accompanied by an unusually long explanatory label. Reading these is time consuming, but you'll want to read them. I recommend allowing two-three hours to give the show its due.

The Petaluma Degas show is worth seeing for a number of reasons. First, it's notable for its breadth. It includes more than 100 pieces, about 40 by Degas himself. The latter include very early drawings, some of which are copies made in the Louvre and other museums, often with one sketch overlapping another. Several sheets have drawings on both sides of the paper (mounted here so that front and back are visible)--images Degas made for practice rather than as finished works. Thus, the early part of the show gives us an unusual glimpse of Degas learning to draw.

Second, the show includes work by Degas in less common media. There are several early monotypes (one-off prints made by drawing with ink or paint on a hard surface--usually glass--and then transferring the image to a sheet of paper). Reproduced here is Heads of a Man and Woman (circa 1877-1878), notable for its combination of spontaneous execution and acute observation. There are etchings and drypoints, many of which are interesting for being late impressions from cancelled plates.  There are prints made in collaboration with publishers that reproduce some of Degas' pastels and paintings as lithographs. There are photographs by Degas.  In a combination of photography and printmaking, Degas in a couple of examples has worked on used Daguerreotype plates to make aquatints. Again, the breadth of the selections is impressive. It attests to Mr. Flynn's expansive taste and explains the show's subtitle referring to the "private Degas": Degas himself publicly showed work other than paintings and pastels only very rarely.

If you're interested in the history of photography, the show is worth seeing just for the eight photographs included (two of these show composers Debussy and Chausson). While Degas' interest in photography is well known and it's easy to see how photography influenced his cropping of compositions in other media, I don't remember ever having seen photographs made by Degas himself--although he was an avid photographer, at least for a short period of apparent obsession with the medium. It seems there ought to be more of his photographs around. Apparently, there aren't. So, this is a rare treat. One of the wall labels on the photographs is rather funny, describing Degas breaking up a dinner party by bringing out his camera and coercively posing reluctant guests in fastidiously composed scenes that then required long exposures.

Third, the show puts Degas clearly into the context of his artistic milieu by including so many works by and of artists that Degas knew and himself collected. Not all of these people will be well known to a general audience, but they include Tissot, Fantin-Latour, Moreau, Gérome, Desboutin, Aryton, and Jeanniot, among others. Better known names include Cassat, Ingres, Cézanne, and Toulouse-Lautrec. Also included are some modern takes on Degas and his work, including a very funny drawing of Degas from 1964 that David Levine made for The New York Review of Books that poses Degas in a tutu standing in the ballet dancer's fourth position, alluding to the artist's sculptures of young dancers.

Some of the highlights of the show among the Degas works include: the lovely portrait of Mademoiselle Dembrowska used on the cover of the catalog and in the show's advertising (circa 1858-1859); a beautiful pencil drawing of a plough horse from 1860-1861; several prints executed in 1934 by Maurice Potin using photogravure, aquatint, and etching to reproduce monotypes of brothel scenes Degas made between 1878 and 1880 but never exhibited; and the above-mentioned monotypes and photographs. Among the work by other artists, there is an intriguing Portrait of a Working Girl (circa 1880) by Annie Aryton (shown below)--which, as the label points out, depicts a woman who looks remarkably like the girl who modeled for a couple of the dancer sculptures Degas made; A bold drypoint self-portrait by Marcellin Desboutin (circa 1875); a portrait of Degas as an older man by Pierre-Georges Jeanniot;  a very fine red chalk drawing entitled Portrait of an Officer (1853) by Jean-Léon Gérome--an uncharacteristic subject for an artist best known for his paintings of mythological subjects; the circa 1854 Portrait of a Man (pictured above) by Gustave Moreau, a graphite drawing that looks more like an Ingres than the small Ingres head on display; a pair of small self-portraits by Jeanniot; and, among my favorites in the show, a circa 1870 graphite drawing by Adolph von Menzel of his sister asleep in a railway carriage (bottom). Fans of the sitcom Seinfeld may find it amusing that one piece in the show is on a piece of paper watermarked "Vandelay."


If I had to nitpick, I was disappointed that no photography is allowed in the galleries, which is frustrating, as it makes it very difficult to later talk about individual works without relying on sometimes-faulty memory, and the catalog is available only as an expensive hardcover edition I didn't feel I could afford. It appears to reproduce all the wall labels verbatim, so it will make an excellent resource, but I had to pass. I noticed that while the drawings and prints are generally well reproduced, the Degas photographs have been given an odd orange tinge not present in the originals on display, which is a shame. Otherwise, I can recommend Edgar Degas: The Private Impressionist wholeheartedly--but make sure you allow plenty of time to take in the full sweep of this remarkable collection. General admission is $10 (free for Petaluma Arts Center members). Thursday through Monday (closed Tuesday and Wednesday) 11AM to 5PM. Open on Saturdays until 8PM.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Art I'm Making: Collage with Antique Silver Leaf

Not long ago I had the pleasure of visiting the studio of local artist Jenny Honnert Abell, a painter who often incorporates collage elements into her work. I'm pleased to say that I'll be showing her work at Shige Sushi in November and December this year. Her studio is full of collected artifacts that find their way into her work--buttons, book covers, wishbones with wishes written on them, old illustrations, scraps of paper. On one table was a small pile of antique silver foil sheets backed with tissue that appear have been part of a (probably Japanese) screen. I admired the sheets and Jenny kindly gave me one. Here is a collage that incorporates some of that silver leaf. It was not my intention to mimic a screen, but the finished piece seems to have the proportions of a screen. Perhaps that was inevitable? This is Untitled Collage No. 106 (Santa Rosa). Acrylic on paper, acrylic monoprint, found paper (antique silver leaf), collage. 21.1 x 11.3cm.

Click on the image for a larger view. For more, visit my collage website at http://ctalcroft.wix.com/collage-site/.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Art I'm Looking At: Turner at the De Young

San Francisco's De Young Museum is now presenting a major show of the late work of J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). Organized by Tate Britain in association with the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, this is the largest exhibition of Turner's work ever mounted on the US West Coast. The De Young show runs through September 20, 2015. The exhibition is a large one, including more than sixty oil paintings and watercolors, but the museum has devoted a great deal of space to their display. The galleries therefore feel spacious, with the works widely spaced on the walls, making it easy to see them without feeling hemmed in by other viewers.

While this show is likely to attract attention for some of the famous large oil paintings on loan from institutions around the world (such as Peace--Burial at Sea (1842), pictured at the top of this page), it's an excellent opportunity to see a large number of Turner's very fine watercolors together. I've always had mixed feelings about Turner. Some of his work seems sublime. Some moves me not at all--for reasons I can't quite articulate, but I don't much care for the allegories, especially those paintings that include figures. I think Turner was at his best when using his eyes to depict what he saw rather than attempting to tell stories. I most enjoy the work that veers off strongly in the direction of abstraction, which is perhaps why I find the often more loosely drawn and quickly executed watercolors especially interesting. The interior scene reproduced immediately above (of one of Turner's hotel rooms in Venice, circa 1840) is a good example. Only the ceiling decoration and the distant view of the Campanile anchor this little painting in reality. Without these, it's mostly a composition dominated by vaguely defined blocks of color.

An 1841 watercolor depicting the Ehrenbreitstein fortress on the East bank of the Rhine, overlooking Koblenz, is similar. Only the fortress on top of the rock is drawn with much precision. The rest of the composition is highly impressionistic, rendered in textured washes. It's easy to see why Turner is often considered to have pointed the way toward Impressionism. There is much in the show that brings Monet to mind. This piece even made me think of Rothko, with its horizontal  bands of soft color. Looking at the pieces in the show (the largest group of Turners I've ever seen at one time), I noticed that diffuse bands of color serve as the compositional architecture in many of his works--although they are mostly vertical bands--typically deep colors on the sides of a composition and a swath of bright, pale color in the middle, suggestive of color field painting, a development that lay about 100 years in the future.


I was also struck by a pair of watercolors entitled The Red Rigi and The Blue Rigi from 1841-1842, depicting a mountain close to Lake Lucerne, in Switzerland (the latter shown here). The idea of painting the same subject in a series in different lights and from different angles immediately brings Japanese printmaking to mind. Although it wasn't too long after this time that Hokusai's most famous series of images of Mt. Fuji (originally published in 1831) was becoming known in Europe, 1841-42 was probably too early for Turner to have been influenced. Monet certainly was aware of Hokusai.

Inclusion of unfinished works at the end of the exhibition is a nice touch. Turner was criticized in his own day for, among other things, his dissolution of form--for his distinctive indistinctness that many took to be incompleteness. Being able to see truly unfinished pieces makes it abundantly clear how calculated Turner's indistinctness was.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Rain: Odd Drizzle

Unusually for this time of year we've had a couple of bursts of rain in the morning or overnight. Welcome, but never enough even to register in the rain gauge more than a trace. The new rain year (the 2015-2016 rain year) began on July 1, 2015. So far, we've had just these traces....

[Update: And a little rain again today, July 9--very unusual for this time of year to have any rain at all. We ended up with 0.10 inches of rain--the first appreciable rain of the new rain year.]

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Art I'm Making: New Collages (June-July 2015)

Two newer collages--these completed in the past couple of weeks. Untitled Collage No. 104 (Santa Rosa) is a tiny collage--the smallest I've yet made, measuring only 4 x 4cm, or less than two inches on a side. This one incorporates a scrap from an engineering drawing from an old book that I found at a Goodwill store. It suggests a cityscape to me now, although I had nothing concrete in mind when I made it. Acrylic on paper, acrylic monoprint, found paper, collage. Completed June 7, 2015.

Having made some bright red papers recently, I made Untitled Collage No. 105 (Santa Rosa). I like this one for the way it simultaneously suggests both motion and stasis. Acrylic on paper, acrylic monoprint, graphite, collage. Completed June 7, 2015.





Art I'm Looking At: Diebenkorn Around the Bay Area (July 5, 2015)

We're privileged right now to have two shows of rarely seen work by Richard Diebenkorn on view simultaneously in the Bay Area, a show of prints at the De Young in San Francisco and a show of small-scale drawings, collages, and watercolors at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, in the town of Sonoma, a venue that has only recently come to my attention--and that accidentally: I happened to come across a reference to the Sonoma show in one of three books published by Kelly's Cove Press in conjunction with the exhibition, which is subtitled The Intimate Diebenkorn.

In keeping with that subtitle, the Sonoma show presents a selection of smaller works, the largest being no more than about 24 x 36 inches (most considerably smaller) in various media. None of the images was included in the large show of Diebenkorn's work in the summer and autumn of 2013 at the De Young Museum (Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years). Some Bay Area viewers may have seen the bulk of the Sonoma show at the College of Marin (September-November 2013) or San José State University (March-May 2014), but the selection of works now at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art has been augmented by about 12 pieces not included on earlier stops. The show next travels to the University of Montana (September-December 2015).

The De Young show of Diebenkorn prints highlights the museum's "latest significant acquisition of [Diebenkorn's] prints, made possible by the Phyllis C. Wattis Fund for Major Accessions and the generosity of Phyllis Diebenkorn," the artist's late widow--to use the words of the introductory gallery panel. I believe the De Young Museum now has the largest collection of Diebenkorn's prints in the world aside from the Diebenkorn Foundation, from which the traveling show now in Sonoma has been assembled.

The Sonoma show provides an intimate overview of the various styles in which Diebenkorn worked. There is a good selection of representational work including still life subjects, nudes, and landscapes as well as abstract work, both in the fluid, organic style of the Berkeley and earlier periods and the more rarified, highly linear style best known from the large paintings of the later, Ocean Park period.

The works are arranged thematically rather than chronologically, which allows a comparison of similar types of work from different periods, although it somewhat obscures Diebenkorn's journey from abstraction into figurative work and still life and then back to abstraction--part of what makes looking at the whole of his artistic career fascinating. Despite the diversity of subject matter, Diebenkorn was always concerned with formal compositional problems. An interior view of a posed model or a landscape was for Diebenkorn always as much about dividing up space on a flat plane as any abstraction was. The works as shown demonstrate both the breadth of his subjects and the compositional concerns that unite his work. The 1962 figure drawing in ballpoint pen shown here (above) is an excellent example--a highly economically rendered pair of nude figures but, at the same time, a composition consisting in large part of blank rectangular or squarish areas of paper separated by thin lines. The legs of the male figure at the left side of the page are particularly ambiguous. The 1958 untitled oil landscape on paper shown below likewise blurs the line between the abstract and the descriptive.

The Sonoma venue is divided into four areas: the main exhibition space, a permanent art library off to one side, a space at the front of the building where visitors are offered a place to play with paper and drawing tools if inspiration has hit them, and a darkened area behind a wall at the rear, where two videos about Diebenkorn run in a loop. One of these was made at the time of a major retrospective of the artist's work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in 1977. The other shows Diebenkorn at work at Crown Point Press, in Oakland, collaborating with master printers Marcia Bartholme and Hidekatsu Takada, in 1986, photographed by Kathan Brown, the founding director of Crown Point Press. The former is short (22 minutes) and interesting mainly because it shows Diebenkorn politely, somewhat shyly interacting with an adoring public at the opening reception for the Los Angeles exhibit. The latter video (35 minutes) is of greater interest and well worth the time it takes to watch. It offers a rare look at the artist in the studio, showing him proofing prints, working on copper plates, consulting with the printers about changes, and finally coming to decisions about finished versions of a number of pieces (one of which he ultimately decides to abandon after much frustration).

Diebenkorn's working style was highly interactive, restless, and experimental--the interaction having been between the artist and his materials. Each new piece was a kind of conversation with the medium: an idea proposed, considered, approved of or rejected--the artist always listening and responding to the voice of the evolving work--the cycle beginning again, repeating until an equilibrium was achieved. It's a style especially well suited to collage, so it's not surprising that collage enters into many of the smaller works on display in Sonoma. Some of the drawings are on joined pieces of paper. One small abstract work from 1992, the year before his death (shown here), consists of pieces of what appears to be a drawing cut up and arranged on a second blank sheet (coincidentally, highly reminiscent of some of the work of Basque artist Eduardo Chillida (1924-2002)). The Crown Point Press video shows Diebenkorn cutting up proofs and pasting them together to rework a composition--essentially designing a print by collage.

The De Young Exhibit focuses on Diebenkorn as a printmaker. He seems to have been interested in printmaking of various types throughout his long career, and many of the last works he made--when ill health had made it impossible to tackle the large canvases he favored as a younger man--were prints. Most were etchings and drypoints, but the De Young show includes a fair number of lithographs and you get a sense looking at the early examples that he was testing the limits of what appears to have been a new medium for him at the time. Some of these early lithographs are essentially line  drawings in crayon, others look like puddled ink drawings. Later color lithographs from the 1980s are more mature, looking very much like Diebenkorn the painter. Again, the subject matter in the De Young exhibit is diverse, including figure studies, landscapes, still life subjects, and abstraction. Again, nearly all the pieces exude something essentially Diebenkorn despite that diversity.

The show at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art (one half block from Sonoma’s historic Town Plaza: 551 Broadway, Sonoma CA 95476, (707) 939-7862) runs through August 23, 2015. The show at the De Young Museum in San Francisco (Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr., San Francisco, CA 94118, (415) 750-3600) closes October 4, 2015.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Art I'm Making: More Collages (June 28, 2015)

The recent Art at the Source Open Studios event afforded me a lot of time to work. I finished several new pieces while hosting visitors to my display area and just before and after the event. Here are two newer pieces. Above is Untitled Collage No. 102 (Santa Rosa), using acrylic on paper, and monoprinted paper elements. This one uses blank areas to anchor the overall composition, small jots of color to keep the eye moving at the same time. The freer, linear element at the center was made by drawing in paint on a glass plate with the back end of a paint brush. June 1, 2015. Acrylic on paper, acrylic monoprint on paper, collage. Image size 11.4 x 11.5cm.

Below is Untitled Collage No. 103 (Santa Rosa), the result of a chance meeting with some of the people at Iota Press, in Sebastopol. Next door to the press is Beekind, where I sometimes buy beekeeping supplies. I noticed the Iota Press sign as I was leaving Beekind. I dropped in and got into a conversation with the man that runs the place and got him to give me some paper discarded in the wastebaskets. One of these (the torn scrap in the center) I've incorporated into this piece. June 5, 2015. Acrylic on paper, acrylic monoprint on paper, found paper (printer's scrap), collage. Image size 23 x 21.5cm.

Click on the images for larger views. For more, visit my collage website at http://ctalcroft.wix.com/collage-site/.




Serendipitous Art: Museum Shadow (June 28, 2015)

Shadows in a stairwell at the Aviation Museum at San Francisco International Airport looked like art to me. Serendipitous art, unintended art, found art.

For more unintended art, see my blog Serendipitous Art.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Wines I'm Drinking: Two Primitivos from Salento (June 24, 2015)

At my local Grocery Outlet today (Santa Rosa), I came across two Primitivo wines from the Salento region of Italy. They were attractively priced, so I decided to compare them. Salento, in Puglia (Apulia), is essentially the heel of the Italian boot. The region has been known for the quantity rather than the quality of its output in the past--much of which has traditionally become the base for vermouth. As in so many parts of Europe, however, legal requirements to reduce grape acreage and more modern winemaking techniques seem to be raising the overall level of quality--although Primitivo from this area has long had a reputation for being among the region's best products. So, it was with some hopefulness that I snagged these two bottles and gave them a try. Brief tasting notes follow:

2010 Duca Petraccone Salento Primitivo (Antica Vigna): Deep ruby red but with a hint of the garnet color of a mature wine. Dusty rose petals on the nose. A hint of tobacco. Raisins. But, overall, fairly closed on the nose, at least initially. Pretty nonetheless. Medium-bodied. Ripe, soft, slightly raisiny fruit flavors on the attack followed by a softer mid-palate and then a rush of acidity toward the finish. Decent length. Very soft tannins. Easy-drinking and surprisingly delicate overall. Appealing although not especially complex or deeply interesting. Both wines were disappointing. Still, probably a decent food wine--solid, but unobtrusive; in other words a wine that would not distract from good food either by being especially distinctive or by being obviously flawed. A good value at only $4.99.

2013 Caminetto Salento Primitivo: Deep ruby red, but not quite as opaque as the above wine. Earthy scents. Clay. Raisins. A hint of rose petals. Again, fairly restrained on the nose at first, but pleasant and inviting nevertheless. Sweet fruit flavors with some balancing acidity, although perhaps not quite enough. Raisiny mid-palate. Moderate length, with delicate tannins lingering. A little brighter and fresher tasting than the Duca Petraccone wine, but not as subtle. I suspect this wine might quickly tire the palate because of its up-front grapey fruitiness. Perhaps an excellent summer wine to serve cold with a splash of soda water--or as a base for Sangria. Inexpensive at $7.99, but I won't buy this one again.

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Cocktail Glass Collection: The Washoe House

At the corner of Stony Point Rd. and Roblar Rd., to the west of Cotati, CA, sits The Washoe House, a run-down roadhouse dating back to 1859. Still a bar and restaurant, Washoe House has been an inn, a restaurant, a bar, and, according to Wikipedia, a butcher's shop as well as a post office and a community hall. It was a stage coach stop on routes between Petaluma and Santa Rosa. Ulysses S. Grant is said to have given a speech here once, but the Wikipedia article points out that no supporting evidence for the claim exists. I drove by the place at night tonight for the first time in many years, which afforded an opportunity to photograph the neon cocktail sign lit up--the latest addition to my growing collection of neon cocktail glass signs in front of bars. For more examples, use the "Cocktail Glass Collection" tab to the right.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Plants I'm Growing: Zucchini (June 11, 2015)

Everything is ripening early this year. It's only the first week of June but we're already harvesting delicious, fresh zucchini. The trick is to pick them when they're still small--before you have to start looking up imaginative recipes to use them up and before you start annoying your neighbors with too many zucchini offers.

Art I'm Making: New Collages (May-June 2015)

The second weekend of Art at the Source Open Studios event is approaching. I've got new art to show--new collages I've made during lulls in the stream of visitors to "Studio 48." I put that in quotes because I'm actually showing in my mother's nicely repainted garage, not in my home studio.

Art at the Source (unlike Art Trails, the October Sonoma County event) requires you to show on the west side of Highway 101. Here are a couple of my newest pieces: Untitled Collage No. 101 (Santa Rosa), shown above, and Untitled Collage No. 102 (Santa Rosa), shown below.

Click on the images for larger views. Even better, come see my work in person during the second weekend of the Art at the Source Open Studios event, June 13 & 14, 2015. I'll be showing at Studio 48, in Sebastopol. Come see my photography (abstract work, nudes, bird photography), printmaking, and, of course, collages.

For more about my collage work, visit my collage website  at http://ctalcroft.wix.com/collage-site/.


Friday, June 5, 2015

Art I'm Making: Art at the Source Open Studios Event (June 6-7 and June 13-14 2015)

Art at the Source--Open Studios. Tomorrow, June 6 and Sunday June 7. Then again the following weekend June 13 and June 14. Showing photography, printmaking, and abstract monoprint collage at Studio No.48, in Sebastopol. 10:00AM to 5:00PM

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Beekeeping: New Bees Settling In (June 3, 2015)

I captured a large swarm from my existing beehive this spring and, finding no one to give it or sell it to, I got a new hive box and installed the bees in what is now our second backyard hive. I painted the hive bodies the same color as the original hive.

The bees have been in there for almost a month now (I installed the swarm on May 5), so the first crop of truly new bees will already have begun hatching (a worker bee takes 21 days to develop). The population of the hive should begin to take off. In a week or so, I'll open the hive and have a look to see how much of the foundation they've drawn in to new comb, and to look for signs that the queen is laying.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Art I'm Making: New Collage

Painting a thick layer of pale acrylic color on glass using a toothed plastic brush left me with a mono-printed background texture that became the starting point for my latest collage piece--Untitled Collage No. 100 (Santa Rosa). Working on a glass plate that wasn't well washed after its last use resulted in flakes of blue getting embedded in the paint--an effect I rather liked. The bottom half of this piece is constructed from fragments of assemblages that became other pieces of art. May 28, 2015. Acrylic on paper, acrylic monoprint, found paper, collage. Image size: 13.9 x 22.2cm.



Click on the image for a larger view. For more, visit my collage website at http://ctalcroft.wix.com/collage-site/. Or, come see my work in person during the Art at the Source open studios event, June 6 & 7 and June 13 & 14, 2015. I'll be showing at Studio 48, in Sebastopol.

Books I'm Reading: Vision and Art; Forbidden Knowledge; Turing's Cathedral

A lot of reading recently but not much time to write about what I've read. So, a quick look here at the three most recent books I've finished.

Margaret Livingstone, a Harvard neurobiologist, has written Art and Vision (Abrams 2002), a volume on the biology of seeing ("the biology of seeing" is the book's subtitle) that will be of interest to anyone curious about how we see and especially to artists; the book reproduces many, many works of art that illustrate the biological principles the author lays out. Livingstone covers the nature of light itself before moving on to an explanation of human color vision and then to a chapter on luminance and night vision. These early chapters are worth reading more than once before moving on; most of the rest of the book assumes the reader has taken this information fully on board. Despite being challenging in places, a very attractively laid out, informative book that I'll probably go back to many times.

Roger Shattuck's Forbidden Knowledge (St. Martin's Press, 1996) is subtitled "From Prometheus to Pornography" so it's not surprising that the book begins with a discussion of the Prometheus story and is mostly finished by the time the author has discussed the writings of the Marquis de Sade in some detail, although a final chapter and an appendix attempt to summarize arguments laid out earlier in the book. Shattuck asks very basic questions: Is there some knowledge best left unknown? Are there experiences best imagined? Are there lines better left uncrossed? Then he looks at the implications and consequences of answering these questions in different ways. The first part of the book takes a mostly historical approach, covering Prometheus, biblical sin, Milton and the Adam and Eve story, Faust, Frankenstein, asceticism (La Princesse de Cleves), aestheticism (Emily Dickinson), Melville's Billy Budd, and Camus (The Stranger), before a set of "case histories."

These case histories look first at science and technology. Shattuck discusses development of the atomic bomb and pursuit of The Human Genome Project as illustrative of two sharply contrasting attitudes toward the advancement of scientific knowledge--one, deeply ambivalent, sees the advance of science as perhaps inevitable but at the same time sinful; the other makes no apologies for supporting unbridled scientific investigation. The section on the writings of the Marquis de Sade asks whether they deserve the appreciation they've attracted in recent decades, examining along the way the question of how they may have influenced serial killers and other sociopaths. The final chapter is a summary that itself refers the reader to an appendix in which Shattuck attempts to categorize the types of forbidden knowledge discussed in his book--these being: inaccessible or unattainable knowledge; knowledge prohibited by divine, religious, moral, or secular authority; dangerous, destructive or unwelcome knowledge; Fragile, delicate knowledge; knowledge double-bound; and Ambiguous knowledge.

The first four of these, as the author himself points out, are fairly self-explanatory. Shattuck's last two categories are less so. Knowledge double-bound refers to the mutually exclusive nature of objective (exterior, contemplative) knowledge and subjective (gained through direct experience) knowledge. "Exterior objective knowledge will never carry us to a full grasp of any subjective experience. On the other hand, as the French proverb suggests [Tout savor c'est tout pardoner: To understand all is to forgive all] full empathy with another experience or another life takes away from us the capacity to see it objectively and judge it aright." Ambiguous knowledge refers to the sometimes contradictory effects of knowledge. Well written, dense with intriguing ideas, and well worth the time it requires to read, although this is the kind of book that you may need several readings to fully absorb.

Turing's Cathedral (Vintage 2012) by George Dyson, son of Freeman Dyson, is breathtaking in its detail--both personal and technical. I had expected a book about Turing when I picked this up, but there is little in it about Turing the man. The book simply takes Turing's 1936 notion of a "universal machine" as its starting point. A universal computing machine is hypothetical, not material, but Turing's idea is usually taken to be the germ from which Von Neumann created the computer architecture that bears his name and that remains to this day the architecture behind virtually all computers. Turing's Cathedral is an exhaustive look at the contributions of the people behind the word's first digital computers (so many people that the book starts with a six-page list of "principal characters"). These computers were developed mostly at Princeton just after the end of World War II, supported to a great extent by the US military as computing machines were wanted for modeling atomic and hydrogen bomb explosions. Dyson's book looks at the computers themselves, at the people who made them, and at how computer code took on a life of its own in the early stages of a revolution that continues today. A fascinating look at how the birth of the hydrogen bomb and the digital computer went hand in hand and how the digital universe we know today came to be.  

Friday, May 29, 2015

Art I'm Looking At: Seiko Tachibana on the Art Wall at Shige Sushi, Cotati (June 2 through August 2, 2015)

In my role as a curator, I'll next be showing the work of Oakland-based artist Seiko Tachibana on the Art Wall at Shige Sushi in Cotati. The show opens this coming Tuesday, June 2 and will run through August 2. Artist reception Monday, June 8.

Seiko Tachibana completed her Master of Art Education degree at Kobe University, Japan. She received an MFA from San Francisco Art Institute and has since received many awards for the body of her work. She has had many solo and group exhibitions internationally. Her distinctive art balances Asian tradition with minimalist modernity. Her work shows an interest in a wide range of media, including drawing, painting, mixed media, and printmaking. Among printmaking techniques, she is a master of intaglio processes, particularly aquatint. Tachibana’s prints are in the permanent collection of the Los Angeles County Museum, The Fine Art Museums of San Francisco, and the Portland Museum of Art, among others. She is widely collected in the US, Europe, and Japan. In the Bay Area, Tachibana is represented by the Ren Brown Collection, in Bodega Bay.

Shows on the Art Wall at Shige Sushi are curated by me, Colin Talcroft. For information about artwork or artists, about purchasing art, or about showing art on the Art Wall, contact Colin at Shigecurator@yahoo.com. For more information, visit http://ctalcroft.wix.com/artwallatshige/

This week is the last week to see the current show: Suzanne Jacquot: Abstract Painting. For more information about what's going on on the Art Wall, visit http://ctalcroft.wix.com/artwallatshige/


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Cocktail Glass Collection: Pine Lodge Club, Pollock Pines, CA

A new addition to my growing collection of neon cocktail glass signs in front of bars. This one is up in the Sierras, in a little town called Pollock Pines. This one has an unusual flourish in the shape of the stem. The glass itself is unusually shallow. The arrow is a nice touch. It looks like a custom design. For more, use the "Cocktail Glass Collection" tab to the right.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Miscellaneous: Blues Legend B.B. King: RIP

It was in November of 1997 that B. B. King released his 35th studio album "Deuces Wild," a collection of duets with the likes of Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Dionne Warwick, The Rolling Stones, Joe Cocker, and Willie Nelson. Tokyo-based blues writer Allan Murphy, a friend, had been given a one-hour interview slot with Mr. King while the musician and his band were on tour in the city just after Deuces Wild had been released. At that time, Allan had been helping my brother, Ian Talcroft, and me produce "And This Is Maxwell St," a three-CD set containing music recorded for the soundtrack of Mike Shea's 1964 film "And This Is Free." I went along to the interview as the photographer.

Mr. King impressed me immediately as a soft-spoken, intelligent, thoughtful, and gentlemanly man. He was dressed in a suit, wearing glasses, and carrying one of his guitars--guitars that were always named "Lucille." He set the guitar aside as we began to talk. The interview started with the usual courtesies and questions about "Deuces Wild," but quickly ranged widely with much talk about Mr. King's early career and what it had been like growing up in the south in the early part of the 20th century. It finished with some talk about the Maxwell St. Market area in Chicago--the subject of Shea's film. We got Mr. King to wear a "Save Maxwell Street" button for us (at the time, the old market area was slated for redevelopment). At the very end of the talk, I asked if he'd stand up with the guitar for me so I could get a few photographs. He politely asked if it would be all right to do the photos sitting with the guitar--as he was "getting old." One of my shots is shown above.

Allan happened to mention just as we were preparing to leave that his second daughter had been born that morning and that he'd be rushing off to the hospital to join his wife and the new baby. Hearing that, Mr. King quietly removed his wallet, pulled out a crisp $100 bill, and picked up a black marker that had been sitting on the table in front of us. He signed the bill "B. B. King" and then added "For the little one" and the date (February 28, 1998). He handed the bill to Allan as a souvenir.

Allan's daughter's middle name is Lucille. One classy man. It was a privilege to have spent an hour with him. RIP.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Art I'm Making: A Collage in Prussian Blue (May 6, 2015)

A new collage: An arrangement of tones in Prussian blue, with a couple of sidesteps into other colors. Untitled Collage No. 99 (Santa Rosa). Acrylic on paper, acrylic monoprint, collage. May 6, 2015. Image size 8 x 11.6cm. Sometimes I think I'm happiest in Prussian blue.



Click on the image for a larger view. For more, visit my collage website at http://ctalcroft.wix.com/collage-site/. Or, come see my work in person during the Art at the Source open studios event, June 6 & 7 and June 13 & 14, 2015. I'll be showing at Studio 48, in Sebastopol.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Art I'm Looking At: John Anderson at Paul Mahder Gallery

On the same night as the opening of "Aint Natural" at the Hammerfriar Gallery, Paul Mahder Gallery, also in Healdsburg (and quite new, apparently; I discovered it by chance only a couple of weeks ago), opened a retrospective of work by John Anderson (1932-2011). John Anderson is a new artist to me, although he appears to have a solid reputation. He was long the assistant of painter Gordon Onslow Ford, early a surrealist who was later occupied with depicting inner realms of consciousness and trying to escape from what he seems to have seen as the tyranny of the visual. Ford was a mentor to Anderson and Anderson's work shows a similar concern with capturing expressions of inner consciousness.

I'm always suspicious of art that seems to rely heavily on theory or that claims to be entirely spontaneous and unguided. The idea of representing inner consciousness without reference to the visual is an intriguing one, but is it really possible? What does consciousness look like? The surrealists looked to dreams for images of the unconscious, but that approach was inherently contradictory; dream images ultimately are images rooted in the visual, images from waking life (which isn't to say surrealism didn't yield some good art). Ford and Anderson apparently wanted to go beyond dreams to directly depict a world beyond consciousness--Ford emphasizing speed and spontaneity, Anderson taking a more deliberate approach, at times trying to work in a trance-like state.

What does inner consciousness look like according to John Anderson? Inner consciousness appears to be crackling with energy--radiating energy--and filled with particles--points, tiny circles, dots, blobs. Read the dots as stars and the images evoke the infinite. Read the dots as subatomic particles and they evoke the infinitesimal. Much of the appeal of Anderson's work comes from this ambiguity; are we floating in space or are we on Jules Verne's fantastic voyage?

Another ambiguity is created by the way Anderson's visual vocabulary simultaneously evokes physical phenomena on the one hand, living creatures on the other. Lines radiating from a bright spot and surrounded by a field of dots. Rings of increasing size as they move away from a point of apparent origin. Wave forms. Star clusters. Entire galaxies. Lines that suggest the tracings of subatomic particles in a particle accelerator. Electrostatic charges in a Van de Graaff generator. Excited plasma. Electron flows. All these images come to mind. Some of the paintings put me in mind of Dr. Frankenstein's lab equipment (at least the Hollywood depiction of his lab equipment). At the same time, it's easy to see circles filled with radiating lines as diatoms or pollen grains greatly magnified. Much of Anderson's imagery is as reminiscent of microscope views of living things as it is of physics experiments. Volvox, an old friend from high school biology class, is here. Cells and their nuclei and fields of protoplasm are here, some with embedded mitochondria and with vacuoles. The double helix of the DNA molecule is here.

The paintings by Anderson in the new Paul Mahder show seem to make abundant reference to the visual--specifically to the visual language of physics and biology. Thus, I wonder how successful Anderson can be said to have been at escaping the conscious, the visual. Perhaps it doesn't matter. I don't belittle the attempt. The process is important, and the art that resulted from years of effort toward achieving a goal (however elusive) is compelling. John Anderson at Paul Mahder Gallery will be on display through June 2015 (the gallery website does not give an end-date in June). Well worth a visit for the John Anderson work and a great deal of other good work in this very large display space.

Beekeeping: Bees Swarmed, Bees Captured (May 4–May 5, 2015)

Our bees swarmed yesterday. Rather conveniently, they initially landed in an accessible place in our next-door neighbor's yard. It was fairly easy to get them into a box and seal them up for the night. I was going to try to sell them (a swarm of bees goes for about $100 these days), but, with no immediate takers on Craig's List, I went down to Western Farm Center in Santa Rosa and got a basic hive set-up to give them a home at least temporarily. I may sell the whole shebang if someone's interested. I may keep them. For the moment, anyway, we now have two beehives. I'm giving them a little supplemental food (the sugar water feeder visible in the photo) to get them started. It's amazing how quickly bees will settle in to a new space. They start drawing comb almost immediately. Bees line up at the entrance fanning their wings, spreading the queen's pheromones, encouraging stragglers to come into the hive. I cut the swarm from a half-dead juniper. Inevitably, pieces of the tree got mixed up with the bees. Within minutes, housekeeper bees were pushing debris out from the front of the hive box. They're behaving as if they never left home. Next task will be to paint the exposed wood areas.

Art I'm Looking At: "Ain't Natural" at Hammerfriar Gallery in Healdsburg

I attended the opening of the latest show at Hammerfriar Gallery in Healdsburg on May 2. The show, called "Ain't Natural," brings together four superb collage artists working in the Bay Area--Jenny Honnert Abell, John Hundt, Sherry Parker, and Scott Wilson.

Collage unites the four artists but they work in very different styles. Jenny Honnert Abell's work combines the surreal with religious iconography. Brought up a Catholic, she attended parochial girls' schools through high school. While explicitly religious themes don't seem central to her work, clearly the imagery of the church made a lasting impact on her sensibilities. In talking with her about her collages I sensed in her an uneasiness about making fun of the religious imagery she appropriates, a hard-to-shake compulsion to take it seriously, at least at some level. Yet, the work is irreverent. The show includes several small pieces on worn but fancy book covers, in themselves evocative of churchly things like decorated vestments. Onto these covers she's attached perches for Jesus-headed birds that somehow manage to look content and not unnatural--the serenity of expression of the Jesus heads doing its work. In other pieces on display, bird heads grow out of tree branches. Pictured here is a somewhat different piece entitled "The Monroe Flower" that I liked for its use of color and the multiple levels of enclosed detail it employs.

John Hundt seems to work exclusively with engraved book illustrations. He carefully cuts out architectural fragments, figures, animals, snippets of scenery and other elements with a tiny pair of scissors and assembles the pieces to create imaginary spaces that are clearly unreal but spaces that use perspective and subtle overlaps to trick the eye into seeing them as plausible, inhabitable. I'm reminded of the photographic work of Jerry Uelsmann. Merged and blended contradictions in Hundt's work involve not only physical space but also time; inevitably the old engraved images are evocative of something old-fashioned--we no longer illustrate books with engravings much and the subjects Hundt chooses are often historical--but, at the same time, the strange juxtapositions seem modern--at least modern in the sense the word is used in art history.

Sherry Parker is among the most delightfully inventive artists I've encountered in the Bay Area. Her work is consistently of the highest caliber. She has an exquisite sense of composition. Her subtle color sense is equally impressive. Most especially, though, I like her work for the slightly edgy whimsy she nearly always achieves. Bizarre creatures, part human, part machine, inhabit her surreal landscapes. These are dream worlds, yet they are familiar enough to be both seductive and deeply unsettling. They are inviting and a little frightening at the same time.

To take just one example, "Yellow-throated Lookout Bird" is immediately amusing because of its title, which plays on the conventions of real bird names, and many of Parker's titles are funny, but here we see a lone, one-legged sentinel on what looks like a coastal rock, keeping its squinty eye out for signs of approach. But its ability to see is illusory. The bird's eye is just a screw at the base of a blade from a pair of clippers--a rather long, decurved blade from a nasty-looking pair of clippers. The antenna, perhaps, takes in more useful information?

Scott Wilson's work is also slightly disturbing, but in a different way. Made largely from illustrated medical texts, the collages are interesting for their formal qualities of composition and attractive for their combinations of pinks and beige and palest orange--the colors of flesh and viscera. But many of the images used illustrate pathologies, so this is diseased flesh we are looking at. Collage titles name the diseases. Wilson presents his odd combinations as if they are plates in an actual text--deformities to be studied, learned from, repelled by. Abstract shapes often overlay or augment the human body parts suggesting early 20th century Russian abstraction. As a child, I remember being given an encyclopedia of the insect world. It was a very thick volume. I don't remember the text, but the plates were photographic and numerous. Each plate was an array of related insects--bizarre insects, large and small. Round beetles, oblong beetles, elongated beetles. Beetles with antennae longer than their bodies. Grasshoppers of every description. Walking sticks. All in black and white. Repellent yet fascinating at the same time. I spent hours looking at that book. I was immediately reminded of it when viewing Wilson's collages. They are likewise simultaneously fascinating and repellent.

Hammerfriar Gallery is at 132 Mill Street, in Healdsburg. The "Ain't Natural" show will run through June 22. Well worth a visit.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Music I'm listening to: Two San Francisco Symphony Concerts

I recently attended two excellent San Francisco Symphony concerts. The Symphony performed with Pablo Heras-Casado conducting and Igor Levit at the piano on Thursday, April 17 at The Green Music Center and I heard the April 24 concert at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, with guest conductor Vasily Petrenko on the podium. The soloist was Sa Chen, who performed Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2. It's always best to write about concerts when the memories are fresh. Work and other obligations have caused me to delay in this case, but a few thoughts follow.

The Green Music Center concert was remarkable mostly for its overall clarity--everything where it should have been from start to finish. Heras-Casado conducted Haydn's Symphony No. 44, followed by the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 9 (with Levit at the piano) and, after intermission, Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun (Debussy) and Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements. Levit isn't a showy performer, but he handled the Mozart deftly.

The hall, sadly, was only about two-thirds full, which is a shame. I really don't understand why Sonoma County classical music enthusiasts haven't supported the SFS concerts at the Green Music Center with more attendance. This is one of the finest ensembles in the world. It's so much easier to see them here in Sonoma County than to drive into the city, and the ticket prices have been very reasonable. As a result of the poor turnout, the Symphony will not continue the Green Music Center series next season--again, a shame.

I sat in one of the balcony seats over the performers at the Green Music Center, where the sound suffers a little but you get a good view of the conductor and you can watch the music move through the different sections of the orchestra. The program provided a lesson in the development of orchestral ensembles. The Haydn piece, written in 1771, was scored mostly for strings with the exception of two oboes and two natural horns. Natural horns have no valves and are limited to a single key, if my understanding is correct, but the key can be altered by adding extensions of curved tubing to the existing tubing. It was fun to watch the changes from above. The Mozart, written only six years later, was scored for a nearly identical ensemble. The Debussy, written more than a century later (1894) adds three flutes, English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, two harps, and antique cymbals. There are four horns instead of two, and these are now modern, valved horns. With the Stravinsky, the ensemble swelled further.

The April 24 concert in the city was memorable mostly for Sa Chen's playing. I had never heard Sa Chen play or even heard of her. There are so many young Chinese piano wizards these days, it's hard to keep track sometimes. I don't really like Rachmaninoff's piano concertos--much too much bombast for my taste, but I know they're admired by many and they're known for being technically challenging. They require speed, precision, and power. Sa Chen, although she is a small woman, has all three of these qualities in spades.

My seat is in the fourth row, slightly to the left of center (from the audience's perspective). That puts me right across from the soloist, giving me an excellent view of a pianist's hands when the soloist is a pianist. Sa Chen wore a gold lamé gown off the right shoulder, allowing a view of her entire arm on the side closer to me. Her skin is pale and the spotlights from overhead made her arm look like it was carved from ivory-colored marble--although marble that was clearly alive. I was put in mind of the Pygmalion story. Watching the muscles move in her well developed forearms and her sometimes difficult-to-follow fingers was fascinating. Her hands are not especially big. It's remarkable that she achieves what she does. Her playing has the same compact, muscular power that you sense just looking at her. I was more impressed with her playing than I was prepared to be. She got an immediate standing ovation at the end of the piece and the applause lasted long enough to bring her out for an encore--a Rachmaninoff prelude, which was disappointing, as I had had enough of Rachmaninoff. I had hoped she would choose something more lyrical. I'm very curious now to hear what she sounds like playing other styles. Does she excel only at the biggest late romantic works? What does she sound like playing Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Debussy?

The second half of the program was taken up by Shostakovich's Symphony No. 12. Shostakovich is one of my favorite composers, but not because of the symphonies. I mostly enjoy him for his piano works, the string quartets, and the many quirky little pieces he wrote. Symphony No. 12, written in 1961, is subtitled "The Year of 1917." It's dedicated to the memory of Lenin. It paints a picture of the events of 1917 in four movements headed "Revolutionary Petrograd," "Razliv," "Aurora," and "The Dawn of Humanity," but the headings might as well have been "Loud," "A Little Less Loud," "Louder," and then "Very Loud and Drawn Out." The ending of the fourth movement--the end of the symphony--seems to go on forever. It's rather too triumphal for my sensibilities, or perhaps Petrenko failed to give it enough nuance to keep it interesting. The piece was interesting to hear, nevertheless, and despite the above remark, I'm confident Petrenko's reading was a good one. Petrenko was a pleasure to watch. He is tall and thin with somewhat spiky hair--and very Russian-looking. His gestures are big, but not overdone. His hands are immensely expressive. I got the feeling that there was a very strong connection between him and the orchestra--which is not always the case. I enjoyed the concert even if the music on offer wasn't of the sort I normally listen to.

All photos courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony website. Photo of Pablo Heras-Casado by Harald Hoffmann for Deutsche Grammophon. Photo of Sa Chen by Hong Wei. 
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