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

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. I don't much care for the allegories, for example, especially those 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 seen at one time), I noticed diffuse bands of color serve as the compositional armature of many of his works--although 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 apparent incompleteness 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 collection of 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 work process was interactive, restless, and experimental--involving interaction 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 process 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. 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.

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