Thursday, July 18, 2013

Art I'm Making: Collages (July 18, 2013)

On the 14th of this month I sat down with some acrylic paints and a canvas for the first time in a spell. For a long time now I've been trying to explore painting with acrylics, having painted in oils my entire life--which is not to say I've completed a large number of satisfying oil paintings over the years--only a handful, in fact. I've always liked the feel of oils but found it frustrating to have to wait days for the paint to dry before being able to paint over things. I like to work quickly, watching things change as I go, and I like to work in layers. Oils make that difficult.

I've never liked the feel of acrylics, but I'm beginning to see that the quality of acrylic colors has greatly improved and there is now a dizzying selection of mediums and gels and pastes and other additives available to keep things interesting. That said, I typically splash some paint around and quickly get frustrated because the acrylic colors don't leave behind the kind of brush strokes I like. The paint layer can look flat and lifeless. I've yet to figure out which gels to add to get the textures I want. Next week I plan to attend a demonstration hosted by the Sennelier company (which makes beautiful printing inks and has recently released a line of equally beautiful acrylic colors), to see what their colors are like and to get some hints. We'll see what comes of that.

I've long been attracted by the idea of printmaking using paper cutouts as the printing blocks, but never wholeheartedly pursued the idea. It's largely because I don't like the look of the shapes I cut with scissors (I'd like to be able to convert designs I make on the computer to paper cut-outs, but don't know how to do that). With the acrylic paints out, though, I splashed some on a cut-out and pressed the painted paper against another sheet, using a Japanese baren to get good contact--but that was too much and I simply glued the two sheets together. The paper tore when I tried to pull the "block" away. It turns out that I liked what was left behind, however, and the torn ochre surface I inadvertently created became the starting point for some exploration with dabbled paint and painted paper and more cutting of shapes that I then began to lay over what I'd started with, using the acrylic paints to glue layers together. After a couple of hours of absorbing fun, I came up with a composition I almost liked, but there was something disturbing about it. With my paper cutter I hacked off the offending part and, after a few more tweaks, I settled on the collage shown at the top of the page*. On the following day, I started to look at the cut-off portion and began adding to it until I got the little collage in the lower picture. I had a lot of fun making these two small works. Perhaps I've finally found a way to work with acrylics that suits me? I like that the paint dries quickly, so I don't have to interrupt my thinking while waiting for a surface to dry. I like that you can paint over things almost immediately. The layering of paint and paper gives a solid look that I've never been able to achieve just spreading acrylic paints on canvas. I'm eager to do more of these....

*Since writing this, I have completely reworked the first piece. Nothing much of it remains. The photo here is now the reworked version, completed two weeks after the initial creation.

Miscellaneous: The Martini Glass as Icon (July 18, 2013)

Interesting how the martini glass with a skewered olive or cherry remains the icon of choice for a certain kind of old-school bar. I was in Calistoga yesterday and saw this one over Susie's Bar, a place I'd never noticed before right on the main street. I liked the neon martini glass with what looks like a skewered  red cherry in it.

To see others in this series of photographs, click on the "cocktail glass collection" label. 

Wines I'm Making: Wine Labels (June 18, 2013)

I finally got around to designing, printing, and affixing labels to our 2012 Sangiovese Rosé and the 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc. I created a suitably sunny label for the rosé, which normally disappears over the summer and a somewhat more sober and serious-looking label for the 2011 Cabernet wine. I will bottle the 2012 Cabernet sometime before or just after harvest this year, so, in the next couple of months. Right now, the biggest chore continues to be cleaning weeds and debris from under the vines so I can get the electric fence up and running again and get the nets on before the berries start showing enough color to interest the raccoons...


Books I'm Reading: The Crimean War by Orlando Figes (July 18, 2013)

The Crimean War--a long-ago war often referred to but one that people seem to know little about anymore. Having said something on that subject to my mother a while back, she gave me a copy of The Crimean War (Picador, 2010), by Orlando Figes, a succinct, well written account of the conflict, which seems sadly relevant today. The opening chapters dealing with the causes of the war and the war aims of the nations involved sound eerily familiar--involving much squabbling over rights of access to sacred sites in the holy lands, religious jingoism, squabbling about territorial boundaries in the Balkans, jockeying for political influence, and irredentist meddling. Figes brings to life the political background but also the horrors of the fighting, particularly during the siege of Sevastopol for both those in the bombarded city and the ill-equipped soldiers besieging the place. Much sounds depressingly familiar. Perhaps governments should have ministries of history to help avoid pointless wars that repeat the idiotic mistakes of the past. About the only good thing to have emerged from the Crimean War appears to have be an historically new concern for the well being of the common soldier. The blunders of the Crimean War led to real reform (especially in Britain) in sanitation and medical care, military organization, and recognition of merit. That Sebastopol, California, the town neighboring Santa Rosa to the west, is named after the siege is testament to the widespread impact reporting on the war had around the world. A worthwhile read.

Art I'm Looking At: Artful Animals at the Legion of Honor (July 17, 2013)

Next to the "Impressionists on the Water" show at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco is a small but engaging exhibit of works on paper depicting animals, drawn from the collection of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts. "Artful Animals, Part 2" (I wasn't aware of Part 1, but apparently there was one) includes a wide variety of works from around 1500 to the present, all taking animals as their subject.

The show is small--occupying a single room--but there is some good work here. I particularly enjoyed Whales Stranded at Ter Hyde (1577), an engraving of beached sperm whales by Flemish artist Johannes Wierix, apparently an account of an actual beaching incident; a hand-colored etching of a hedgehog by Irish artist Peter Mazell (after Peter Pailou) from a 1766 Thomas Pennant publication The British Zoology; and a Barn Owl print by Robert Havell (after Audubon; detail shown here). I didn't exactly understand the relationship between the Havell print and the well known Audubon prints from his The Birds of America (perhaps Havell printed his own edition copying some of the Audubon works?), but a striking image. Also of interest were a number of Japanese prints showing famous kabuki actors of the day depicted as fish or other animals, and I enjoyed seeing Beth Van Hoesen's droopy-eared rabbit, a very familiar image as my father had a reproduction of it, but I had never seen an actual print before. Well worth a quick look. The show runs through October 13.

Art I'm Looking At: Richard Diebenkorn at the De Young Museum in San Francisco (July 17, 2013)

After seeing the "Impressionists on the Water" show at the Legion of Honor, I went to see the Diebenkorn show now on at the DeYoung Museum--"Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years" (1953-1966).

Diebenkorn has long been among my favorite abstract painters for reasons I can't really articulate. There's just something about his work that resonates with me. Despite that, I realize I knew very little about his life or about the long arc of his career. The show at the De Young, which focuses on Diebenkorn's years working in Berkeley (from 1953 to 1966) helped to educate me a little. For example, I was almost completely unaware of the figurative work he did during the middle of the period covered here. Judging from the paintings in the show, Diebenkorn focused briefly on figurative subjects mostly between about 1956 and 1958. These works are sandwiched between earlier, purely abstract works characterized by flat patches of color (often in pinks, ochre, and other fleshy tones) and later abstract work with a greater emphasis on line. It's the earlier abstract work (roughly between 1953 to 1955) that I enjoy most. It was a real pleasure to stand in a large room surrounded by about 15 large works from the early period. Berkeley No. 3 (1953, below) is typical.

Line is not absent as an element in these earlier paintings and some of them contain abstracted letters or appear to contain fragments of text, but the emphasis is on color, and most of the colored areas in the works are loosely defined, with blurry or ragged edges. Diebenkorn is said to have been strongly influenced by the Abstract Impressionists at this stage (especially by Willem de Koonig), and I've read comments suggesting he's often considered an Abstract Expressionist himself, but these paintings seem too quiet, too contemplative to be called Abstract Expressionist. They have none of the anger or nervousness I associate with that movement. There is no deliberate, explosive splattering of paint here, no frantic, nervous brushwork. Diebenkorn instead seems to have left us with records of inner conversations about color and form. I'm not the first to note that many of the works look like landscapes. There is very often a suggested horizon line. Although these may not have been intended as actual horizons, they serve to give the paintings a solidity despite the open washes of color. There is something very reminiscent of Cezanne in these paintings. Others in the show that incorporate decorative motifs clearly show an interest in Matisse. There are even a couple of large cut-out collages in the show that borrow technique as well as style from Matisse.

The figurative paintings seem less successful to me. It may simply be a matter of taste, but they don't speak to me the way the abstract paintings do. That said, it was interesting to see Diebenkorn's foray into an area of painting that was quite unfashionable at the time--a time when American abstraction was at the center of the Western art world. Perhaps it was conscious rebellion. Perhaps it felt too easy to paint the abstractions. I don't mean to suggest that abstraction is in any way easier than figurative art. In fact, I believe quite the contrary. The figurative artist at least has his subject in front of him as a point of reference. Painting in the abstract requires the subject itself to be conjured up out of thin air--although much that passes for abstract art is, in fact, referential. I mean simply that  I think artists sometimes become suspicious of their own motives and the value of their work when they produce a great deal quickly, and Diebenkorn was certainly prolific during his early years in Berkeley. Perhaps he felt the need to step away from what he was doing so successfully at the time. It was during his first couple of years in Berkeley that he appears to have quite suddenly attracted a great deal of attention from the media. Coffee (1959) is typical of the figurative paintings. It's among those I like best, but the figurative work seems somehow less authentic, less the result of committed interest, the color less inspired--certainly less sensual. Still, it was very useful to see the many works from this period in the show.    

After the flirtation with making large figurative paintings, the return to abstraction is marked by a somewhat more rigid, geometrical quality. Line becomes a much more central element. The paintings are almost cartographic. They look like aerial photographs of agricultural land broken up by the occasional line of trees along a river. They are less fluid than the earlier work. The last third of the show is mostly paintings in this more linear style, but interspersed throughout the show are figure drawings that Diebenkorn continued to make regardless of where his painting was going. Eventually the emphasis on line blossomed into the even more linear, straight-edged paintings with Ocean Park titles such as the one pictured here, which is in the De Young's permanent collection--Ocean Park 119 (1979).

I've never before seen so many of Diebenkorn's works collected together. It's not often that I immediately want to go back again to see a show I've just walked through, but I hope to visit the Diebenkorn show once more before it leaves the DeYoung. Well worth a visit--or two. There is much to see here. The show runs through September 29.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Art I'm Looking At: Impressionists on the Water at the Legion of Honor (July 17, 2013)

A small but worthwhile show of mostly Impressionist works is now underway at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. "Impressionists on the Water" looks at boats and boating in the works of the Impressionists, some of whom were enthusiastic boaters. One, the ever-interesting Gustave Caillebotte, I was surprised to learn, even designed yachts--apparently a couple dozen of them. Among the highlights of the show are a hull model carved by Caillebotte himself, a beautifully built wooden kayak-like boat, and the equally exquisite scull displayed at the entrance to the show (above). These little boats are art in themselves.

The show begins with a few examples of "traditional French maritime painting" before moving on to a body of Impressionist works interspersed with others probably not properly given that label, but the works are united by boating and waterways as a theme. Annoyingly, photography was allowed only in the entrance foyer, which makes it impossible to illustrate much here, but among the most interesting works were a pair of albumen silver prints (1856 and 1857) of boats by Gustave Le Gray from the collection of the Getty Museum; The Village of Gloton (1857) by Charles-Francois Daubigny; Storm Over Antwerp (1872) by Eugene Boudin with a wonderful glowering cloud and red pennants stretched and fluttering in the wind; an 1874 oil sketch of Monet's studio boat (apparently a number of artists had small studios built onto boats so that the could work directly on the water); View of the Right Bank of the Seine (1880), by Jean-Francois Raffaelli, showing an industrial landscape along the river; prints from the Rutgers University collection by Henri Riviere, including one from a very Japanese-influenced series of 26 views of the Eiffel Tower; a Signac view of the lighthouse (now a church) at the port of Colliure; and a rather surreal-looking Edoard Vuillard painting of a man in a rowboat, known as The Boatman or The Oarsman (1897), striking for the row of orange-yellow poplars and their reflections in the background, rather photographic cropping, and the way the line of the horizon is made to almost pierce the rower's face. Several early paintings in the show by Monet were interesting as examples of his work before he had settled into a mature style. Worth a visit. The show runs through October 13.

 
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