Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Plein air painters of chicago 2006

I guess I'm fan of plein air painting -- with its sense of space -- and place -- and passing moment -- needing to be completed in just the time it takes for the sun to move accross the sky.

And I especially like the ones done in winter -- as I imagine the blue fingers of the painter standing in the snow (just as I enjoy reading stories of arctic exploration -- while comfortably seated in a warm library)

I've severely cropped many of the following pictures for two reasons: first -- because I want to show detail, but can't download large files onto blogger -- second --because in many cases, the detail is what I like the most.

These two are by Scott Tallman -- the leader of the group -- and I think you can see why. In one -- I really feel the cold wind coming off that lake -- and in the other -- these are the streets of eternal Chicago -- where so many of us (including myself) have arrived with only a suitcase.

This was done by my friend, the lawman, Stuart Fullerton -- who applies his strict sense of order to the chaotic mess of urban life (especially chaotic after heavy snows). The subject of this painting is "Felicitous Opportunity" -- which is exactly what an empty (and snow cleared) parking space is in the city. (but the title is "Milwaukee Avenue")

The above two are by Ted Leeming -- and I think I'm becoming a fan of his slurpy-but organized style of painting space -- and space is the subject of these paintings -- not "New Year's Day 2006" or "Cougle Poultry, Fulton Market". I just love how his loose but carefully considered strokes carry me deep into the picture plane -- and aestheticize what would usually be experienced as urban dreariness.

I'm also a fan of Marci Oleszkiewicz -- a young painter who first arrived at the Palette and Chisel as the winner of my first-and-last drawing competition for high school students. She is so gifted with that mysterious sense of putting things together in attractive ways -- and though I cropped the above painting to enjoy its up-close details --- of all the paintings here shown, her paintings most command attention accross a room.

Here's one whose shallow stage did not allow for cropping -- and it feels Latin, doesn't it ? -- just like the visuality of Latin television stations stands out as different from all the others -- maybe it's the love for a kind of monumentality and warm color. (the artist is Pablo De Leon, the title is "After Mass")

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Field Day -- Sulka masks

The model canceled last Saturday, so Buono and I went to the Field Museum of Natural History -- hoping to get into the last days of the Pompeii exhibit. But it was a crowded madhouse -- so we were left to wander at will through those enormous galleries of dinosaur bones, stuffed animals, and cultural artifacts (I prefer the later)

We wandered into the New Guinea rooms -- and, boy , did we have fun! For Buono, the jungle fighter, the photographs provided another Vietnam flashback of strange flora and fauna -- and for me, I guess I fell in love with this goofy head-gear of the Sulka people. Apparently Marshall Field was the first American mega-millionaire to collect artifacts from this area (1910) so he got the good stuff -- from the last generation to carry on the tradition. These objects were intended to be temporary -- as indeed they were -- so this little collection is all that's left.

These objects feel playful and goofy -- but they also feel (at least to me) like an attempt to be comfortable: to have everything porportional and in its proper place. And they feel like adult love songs -- sweet, vulnerable, passionate, possessed.

In contrast -- I quickly pulled the above image off a site of local artists. What a difference ! How to describe that difference ? Maybe -- just to call it an attempt to be uncomfortable -- i.e. to be a contemporary artist. Or maybe it's the difference between a healthy young Sulka man ("look what I've got, baby") -- and an angry, contemporary American woman ("just try it, buddy")

Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Four Scholars of Mount Shang

Ma Yuan, 1190-1225 Southern Song Dynasty (section shown above is the left half of the scroll)

This site is dedicated to those four Taoist luminaries of the early Han Dyanasty: Dongyuan, Luli, Qi Liji, and Xiahuang -- also known as the Four Scholars of Mount Shang.

I first met them about 40 years ago in Cincinnati --- where my father repeatedly pointed out the well-deserved reputation of this famous painting -- stamped with the colophon of the great Qianlong emperor, and kept in the Forbidden City until it was stolen during the civil wars of the 20th century. It ended up in the collection of one of the many dealers in Chinese antiquities whose careers ended when the Red Army sealed off the borders. His friendship with the young director of Cincinnati Art Museum, Philip Adams, gave that museum the opportunity to make this important acquisition ( my father being privy to all this since Adams had hired - and eventually had fired - him as sculpture instructor at the Art Academy that was then a division of the art museum.)

Oriental arts occupy a dark, distant wing of the Cincinnati Art Museum --- and I was only too happy to share in its lonely, arcane secrets - and identify with those four ancient sages who were too good for the sex/power/money hungry world of corrupt men -- so they retreated to remote Mount Shang where they ate purple mushrooms and played board games to pass the time (just like me and my friends playing "Risk" on the floor of Mark Mehas' bedroom)

That's the Taoist myth -- and as a Thursday night Taoist, I subscribe whole-heartedly.

But -- as Paul Harvey would say -- there's another side to this story -- because these four erudite scholars were also mentioned by the first-and-greatest Chinese historian, Ssuma Chien, who was born no more than a hundred years later. The Roman empire had it's great historian - Livy -- and everyone knows that he was a shill --- sucking up to his patron, Augustus Caesar. But the integrity of Ssuma Chien is beyond question --- since he angered the emperor so badly, that he was forced to suffer the ultimate indignity: castration -- and the moment he lost his manhood, he gained forever the respect of his readers for generations to come.

According to Ssuma Chien, the four scholars did indeed retreat to Mount Shang in disgust over the venial consolidation of power by the administration of the first Han emperor.

But when it came time for the emperor to designate his successor, his first wife, the legendary evil Empress Li, was desparate to advance the fortunes of her son because he was a gentle soul -- but a knucklehead. Well -- maybe not that bad -- but he definately lacked the extraordinary talent that the job of emperor requires -- and even though he was the first -- Chinese custom allows succession to follow ability -- and the emperor already had selected the ablest of his sons (the one he thought most resembled himself) from another of his many wives and imperial concubines.

Going to the most loyal and astute of the emperor's advisors, the Empress asked how she might advance her son's career ---- and the only hope that he could offer was: get the four scholars of Mount Shang to live in the prince's palace. That would elevate his standing in court -- and move him to the center of attention. The Empress then asked how these four worthies could be persuaded to come down off the mountain -- and the advivor's reply was simple: offer them money. The Empress replied that everyone knew that the four scholars -- like all Taoist adepts -- eschewed money --- and considered it useless. But the advisor -- proving the depth of his wisdom -- suggested that the only reason the scholars were still alone on that cold mountain was that nobody had yet offered them ENOUGH money -- and being in a position to do so -- the Empress got the scholars to move into her son's palace --- the balance of power shifted in her favor -- her son was named Emperor designate -- succeeded to the throne -- his half-brothers were all destroyed -- and eventually the Empress ruled by herself for the next decade.

So there you have it -- both legend and history have lived side-by-side for 2000 years -- and why not ? The Four Scholars are still admirable -- because even if they did sell out -- it was only when someone was willing and able to meet their price -- otherwise they were quite content to play chess all day and eat purple mushrooms.

And so am I.

Jade Four Sages Mountain boulder
31.5 inches

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Eldon Danhausen

Just got a call from Anna Koh(one of his successful former students) that Eldon Danhausen had died. He taught figure sculpture for many years at the Art Institute -and it's been 30 years since I saw him, but I'll never forget his kindness. He let me into his class (as a non-paying student) back when I first came to Chicago years ago and could barely afford to live, much less hire my own models.

Regarding sculpture -- our tastes were very different -- but I still remember his admonition to clear the modeling stand of tools and clay before stepping back to look at a piece (since the wandering eye automatically measures all the things it sees against each other)

Above is a picture of his garden -- his pride and joy -- and so far, anyway, his claim to local fame. It was amazing how he made such a small space feel so spacious and beautiful.

Egide Rombaux and the merry Belgians

Something about Flemish art -- going back 500 years --- maybe because they have the best beer in the world -- having a loose, thick, jovial sensuality -- that transcends all the intervening styles and conceits of European painting and sculpture. And for some reason -- there seems to be, per capita, more sculptors in Belgium than anywhere else in the world (except maybe Italy). They can even claim Rodin as a countryman -- because that's where he went to begin his career -- after being rejected by the Ecole Des Beaux Arts. With a little more promotion - Rombaux could be Rodin -- he was just as as fluid and articulate

This figure is so goofy -- it dangerously walks the edge that separates sculpture from cartoon -- but unlike all the cartoonish dreck that's made today, it doesn't fall over it. The title is "Vogelverschrikker" -- or "scarey man" - or "scarecrow"

And here is his more famous countryman, Rik Wouters, who was both an amazing sculptor AND an amazing painter as a bright, colorful post-Impressionist / Fauvist.
He died far too young.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Eyes of the Prophet

My favorite European sculpture in the A.I.C. has always been this fragment from Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. It was knocked off the facade back in the 1790's by ramapaging sans coulottes -- and who can blame them for wanting to keep the eyes of God from looking at the brave new secular world they were trying to build ? But the power of this abused fragment is so great, it could not be kept from public display -- and here it is, 200 years later still passing judgement on the frivolities of modern life.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

"empty the closet" sale

It was "empty the closet sale" at the art club today -- and there was a queue of bargain hunters for the two hours after it opened. Much had sold by the time I got there --- but I'm doubting they took anything I would miss.

Precise drawing of volume is what distinguishes post-Renaissance painting from everything else that's ever been done --- and if this painting is such an attempt -- it fails -- but it succeeds in evoking the memory of April (the young woman, not the month) who was a very popular model here for several years before she finally moved to the Hollywood with her new, movie-industry boyfriend. This portrait shows her determination to make something of herself -- which is usually well hidden by her extraordinarily sweet demeanor. She looks like a martyr/saint as painted by Giotto, doesn't she ? Maybe the one whom some oriental king had tied to a team of horses. ( He was trying to drag her off to a brothel -- but, of course, he failed.)

Diane Rath painted two quick studies of artists in the club's studio-- with a saccharine, down-home, comfy, looseness. The cutest one sold while I was there -- but the other stayed on the wall -- because the subject, Dominic Vignola (another one of our lifer-artist-teachers) resisted sentimentality -- a resistance that I found appealing.

This one is by young Scott Talman (again) --- and I can't help but connect this urbane sophisticate with my dearly missed, Manhattan grandmother - who posed for a painting demonstration 50 years ago by the New York painter, Mark Toby. ( and I'm guessing that this painting is also a demo. As I look at it, I can feel the people looking over my shoulder)

Monday, March 13, 2006

Betty Branch in Sculpture Review

I admit to a love/hate relationship with "Sculpture Review" throughout my life. There is plenty of reason to love and appreciate it. All during the post-war, post-art collapse of Western visual culture, Sculpture Review refused to move past 1950 -- and God bless them for it.(nothing similar has ever existed for the traditional styles of painting). But there was also plenty of reason to be dissappointed: Sculpture Review, the house-organ for the National Sculpture Society, represented the the politically conservative wing of American culture. It was academic in the ancient Egyptian sense: i.e. a preference for decorum over decoration -- and the sculpture they showed was usually just plain dull. But every once in a while -- they struck gold -- and eventually I coudn't resist any more, and subscribed for the first time in the mid nineties. But then, as fate would have it, their old-guard retired, and their new guard declared themselves an avant garde. They started showing things that were not only dull, but also meaningless. I.e. -- they had joined hands with with the new Academia (40 years too late) - and in despair, I cancelled my subscription. It was just too painful to wait 6 months for each new issue -- only to find most of it to be a slap in the face.

But still -- they remain the only art publication in America (if not the world) that occasionally has something to offer -- and I was very excited to discover the above picture in the Autumn, 2005 edition.

The sculptor is one Betty Branch of Roanoke, Virginia -- and I know nothing more about her, except that she must either be a luddite (anti-technology) or old and childless -- since neither she nor her children have made a website for her.

One thing that S.R. has always excelled at is sculpture photography -- and they certainly did a job for the above statue, entitled "Small Goddess".

Judging from the title, I suppose the piece is palm-size -- like the Venus of Wallendorf -- which it recalls by its profound celebration of the full-size female body -- a body proper to an earth goddess -- and worthy of worship.But beyond her prehistoric sister -- this goddess is stately, composed -- i.e. civilized -- and not 'small' at all.

I wish I could see more of Betty Branch's work. If she lived in Japan, she would be called a 'cultural treasure'

Sunday, March 05, 2006

corners of Renoir

One of my 40-year favorites at the A.I.C. is Renoir's "On the Terrace" of 1881" -- that adorable woman in the red hat with the cute kid never fails to send me into ecstasy -- and today was no exception -- except that this time, instead of stepping back to take-it-all-in, I stepped forward to dive into the corners -- which was an equally rewarding trip.

It was this upper-left corner that first got me -- the colorful dipping and jumping through space -- the feel of thick paint or thin -- just where it needs to be one way or the other. The happy sense of eternal youth on an eternal Saturday afternoon in Spring. This is how it looks to be happy.

This section reminded me of the Chinese bamboo painting noted back in November (which is , BTW, equally great, but now off to storage for another 10 years) It's just a nice trip to follow a paint-filled brush as it cuts through, measures, and composes space in one bliss-ful movement. (I'm ignoring, this time, the explosion of color among the flowers on the hat -- it's too exciting for words)

Finally, we've got the up-front left corner --- where R. has given us the joy of colors that are intense but controlled -- and the joy of string (though not quite as exhuberent as the string of Vermeer). And look around the edges of that sleeve !--where it's sharp and where it's loose -- and how it works with the balls of yarn.

Renoir is so mellow ! -- he saunters, casually through the space of his painting -- fit for the lines: ".. the wandering orange and curious peach into my hands themselvs do reach"

Maybe someday I'll write about the young woman and child -- but for today, I'm just sticking to the corners.